The Invention of Morel, Monster, and 13 more new stage shows | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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The Invention of Morel, Monster, and 13 more new stage shows

A world-premiere opera by Stewart Copeland and a Steppenwolf for Young Adults production are among this week's best bets.

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[Recommended] At the Table If there's one thing that's rarely in short supply at storefront theater, it's new plays that follow the Big Chill template: classmates and old buds reunite in adulthood for drinks, memories, arguments, and unexpected self-examination. Michael Perlman's 2015 script, about friends who surrender their smartphones at the door of a vacation home during two separate weekends, largely follows that tried-and-true format. But Broken Nose Theatre's version, retooled by Perlman and director Spenser Davis, reflects changes in casual conversations since the 2016 presidential race and election. The result is subtle and brilliant: over weed and whiskey, Robert Altman-style conversations about social issues, relationships, politics, and adulthood collide in unforeseen ways, working wonders out of what's often a stale formula. —Dan Jakes

The Artistic Home's By the Bog of Cats - JOE MAZZA
  • Joe Mazza
  • The Artistic Home's By the Bog of Cats

[Recommended] By the Bog of Cats According to the show's press materials, director John Mossman calls this play "Greek tragedy on an Irish Bog." Marina Carr's script follows the worst day in the life of antihero Hester Swane (Kristin Collins), the Bog of Cats' resident "tinker," an alcoholic, and unfit mother to her seven-year-old Josie (Elise Wolf). Josie's father, Carthage (Tim Musachio), is about to marry a much younger woman and take his daughter with him, and Hester is being evicted from her home. Catastrophic events follow, but there's also dark humor and old-timey wisdom, courtesy of ghosts and the bog's resident seer, Catwoman (Caroline Dodge Latta). The show possesses an otherworldly atmosphere of magical realism; as Josie, Wolf brings much-needed cheerfulness to the tragedy and beautifully sings its folksy soundtrack. —Marissa Oberlander

Quest Theatre Ensemble's The Fantasticks - BRAXTON BLACK
  • Braxton Black
  • Quest Theatre Ensemble's The Fantasticks

The Fantasticks Quest Theatre Ensemble's imaginative, energetic rendition of Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's classic 1960 musical emphasizes broad comedy and audience interaction. Director Kent Joseph's staging thus avoids the cloying sentimentality that can undermine this tale of a young couple who find true love only after their romantic illusions have been shattered by hard experience. But the production also fails to convey this delicate work's wry undertones of melancholy and irony. And Jones and Schmidt's brilliant, musically diverse score deserves better than keyboardist Sara Cate Langham's heavy-handed and often sloppy musical direction. Still, the show is a lot of fun (especially in the first act) and, given Quest's free-admission policy, decent entertainment. —Albert Williams

Andrew Wilkowske in Chicago Opera Theater's The Invention of Morel - LIZ LAUREN
  • Liz Lauren
  • Andrew Wilkowske in Chicago Opera Theater's The Invention of Morel

[Recommended] The Invention of Morel This 90-minute fever-dream opera, composed by rock drummer Stewart Copeland (of the Police), with a libretto by Copeland and Jonathan Moore (who's also directing), is having its world-premiere run at Chicago Opera Theater, which commissioned it. Based on a 1940 science fiction novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, it's the story of a fugitive hiding on a remote island that turns out to be occupied by a mysterious group of tourists (including a beautiful woman with whom he falls desperately in love). Intensely psychological, philosophical, interior, and circular, it's hard stuff to stage, but the first-person narrator of the novel has been cleverly split into two lead parts (performed to perfection by could-be-twins Andrew Wilkowske and Lee Gregory). The tight-yet-right set includes the best use of video I've seen, and the instrumental music, played by Fulcrum Point New Music Project under the baton of COT general director Andreas Mitisek, is rich, driven, and more than dramatic enough to compensate for a mostly declamatory (though occasionally haunting) vocal score. —Deanna Isaacs

Chicago Shakespeare Company's Love's Labors Lost - LIZ LAUREN
  • Liz Lauren
  • Chicago Shakespeare Company's Love's Labors Lost

[Recommended] Love's Labor's Lost Shakespeare's jest fests can get annoying, what with everybody competing so hard to win points for repartee—and this early romantic comedy is as jest-festy as they get. But it's also remarkable for the ways in which it refuses to act like a conventional rom-com. When the King of Navarre's courtiers let infatuation get ahead of honor, love neither conquers nor forgives all. Marti Maraden's gorgeous, compassionate staging brings out these off-tones, highlighting not only the nobles' hypocrisy but their offhand cruelty. There's a deep resonance in the moment when an old pedant, teased like the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream, tells his supposed betters, "This is not generous, not gentle, not humble." Maraden's cast works gracefully under the tree-limbed canopy of Kevin Depinet's equally graceful set, with Allen Gilmore making himself especially vivid as a fantastical Spaniard. —Tony Adler

Shakespeare All-Stars Theatre Company's Macbeth - JESSICA WOODBURN
  • Jessica Woodburn
  • Shakespeare All-Stars Theatre Company's Macbeth

Macbeth Shakespeare's tragedy comes to Portage Park for this All-Stars Theatre Company production. Director Ellen Cribbs's staging stresses macabre elements of the work at the expense of almost everything else about it. True, witches are what many people associate with the story, but their function is all the more spooky because it's ancillary; they haunt the margins of the play, not its center. Yet here, Erika Lebby, Maggie Miller, and Arin Mulvaney dominate the confused Macbeth, played by Chris Lysy not as a king of "vaulting ambition which o'erleaps itself" but rather as a submissive pawn in an unmotivated, supernatural game. That said, what Merrick Robison does with the Porter at hell's gate is oddly hilarious, and Clark Bender is excellent as Banquo. —Max Maller

Amadeo Fusca in Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus—Live! - COURTESY BROADWAY IN CHICAGO
  • Courtesy Broadway in Chicago
  • Amadeo Fusca in Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus—Live!

Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus—Live! I trust I am not spoiling anything by sharing that Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus—Live! is exactly what you would expect it to be: a two-hour one-man show full of stereotype-heavy ruminations on the differences between men and women, with a little pop psychology courtesy of videos of John Gray, author of the 1992 best seller. I found it slightly misogynistic and extremely heteronormative myself, but that was likely because our guide through Gray's theories, Amadeo Fusca, is a straight man with all the prejudices you might expect. (And also, everyone knows feminists are buzzkills.) Fusca is an energetic and agile performer, though, and he works hard to sell jokes that were ancient 50 years ago. The audience seemed to appreciate him, and that's something, right? —Aimee Levitt

Steppenwolf for Young Adults' Monster - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • Steppenwolf for Young Adults' Monster

[Recommended] Monster Aaron Carter adapts Walter Dean Myers's 1999 novel about a black 16-year-old aspiring filmmaker facing a life sentence for his alleged participation in a robbery gone awry. Hallie Gordon's Steppenwolf for Young Adults production, kinetic and exacting, is the stinging agitprop indictment of the juvenile criminal justice system one would anticipate out of a show about prison in 2017. Less expected—but just as relevant and important—is the way Gordon's visually rich staging examines the complicated, creative, sometimes delusional relationship artists have with their own reality. As the young man on trial, Daniel Kyri gives a raw, unsparing performance that doesn't leave his character, however sympathetic, off the hook; instead, he raises hard questions about culpability and identity that have no easy answers. —Dan Jakes

Black Ensemble's My Brother's Keeper: The Story of the Nicholas Brothers - KEVIN TANAKA
  • Kevin Tanaka
  • Black Ensemble's My Brother's Keeper: The Story of the Nicholas Brothers

My Brother's Keeper: The Story of the Nicholas Brothers Rueben D. Echoles directs, choreographs, and costars in this world-premiere production of his own play. Echoles gives himself and his cast a tall order: not only do they try to tap dance at the level of the Nicholas brothers (the greatest innovators and practitioners of the form), they also perform original songs alongside all-time classics written by the likes of Cab Calloway and Johnny Mercer. The show moves briskly for 40 minutes, reaching its emotional peak with the funeral of the boys' beloved father, Ulysses, but never quite regains its footing thereafter. Echoles brings joy and athleticism to his portrayal of the cocky younger brother, Harold, and Shari Addison (as the boys' mother) and Vincent Jordan (as Calloway) stand out for their powerful singing, but other players can't quite match that charisma or talent. Still, it's hard not to root for Echoles and company as they labor to pay tribute to their heroes. —Dmitry Samarov

Accomplice Theatre's Nameless Mountains - KIRA CAHILL
  • Kira Cahill
  • Accomplice Theatre's Nameless Mountains

Nameless Mountains This Accomplice Theatre production is a story of boredom, misery, and bad weather set at a Podunk brothel in Canada during the gold rush. The girls are tired of the blizzard; upstairs, Ginny (Megan Donahue) diddles the night away in bed with playmate Emmeline (Courtney Abbott). Suddenly, Ginny's husband Charles (Jake Kaufman), thought to have been shot dead, rumbles in, dusts off his boots, and asks his stunned wife to please come home . . . now! She's gotta cleave to him, he says, 'cause that's what wives are for: cleaving. Trouble is, Ginny's been cleaving to every gold-digging john in the Klondike—and to Emmeline, too. Doesn't matter, he says: you're my wife, you do what I say! And so on. Their fighting is monotonous and takes up almost half the play, which despite some wonderfully blase acting (Laura Coleman, Chelsea David) is dull and sentimental. —Max Maller

Chicago Slam Works' Nevermind, It's Nothing - JOSEPH RAMSKI
  • Joseph Ramski
  • Chicago Slam Works' Nevermind, It's Nothing

[Recommended] Nevermind, It's Nothing This Chicago Slam Works amalgamation of slam poetry and sketch comedy explores love, relationships, and sex in the digital age. Directed by J.W. Basilo, the 80-minute performance's most straightforward story line concerns a married lesbian couple, Bee (Teagan Walsh-Davis) and Alex (Kyla Norton), who are throwing a party to celebrate their upcoming divorce. Between bits of Lucille Ball-style physical-comedy theatrics, the six-person cast delivers poetry both pleasurable and perverse, covering topics from coming out to prostitution to the cliche of the circumcised penis (described with the aid of an appropriately cliche bongo drum). Head writer Shelley Elaine Geiszler leads the talented cast—her pieces on pornography and a relationship that blossomed from a kinky Craigslist ad are both funny and melancholy, sometimes in the same sentence. —Marissa Oberlander

First Floor Theater's Peerless - IAN MCLAREN
  • Ian McLaren
  • First Floor Theater's Peerless

[Recommended] Peerless First Floor Theater director Hutch Pimentel craftily combines absurdity, menace, and fervor in Jiehae Park's bracing 2015 one-act about M and L, stone-faced teenage Asian-American twins who'll stop at nothing to get into an esteemed college. As the sisters scheme to eliminate D, a selfless, self-loathing fellow student who's secured the one "ethnic" early admission spot (he's one-sixteenth Native American), Pimentel's fleet, unflappable cast render Park's staccato dialogue simultaneously ridiculous and chilling. Played out on William Boles and Arnel Sancianco's creepily spartan set (part locker room, part dance club, part surgical theater), the action proceeds with nightmarish inevitability and cartoonish glee. While Park's plotting falters in the climax, Pimentel never lets the tension sag—he even mines multiple Macbeth allusions without forcing his hand. —Justin Hayford

The Gift Theatre's Unseen - CLAIRE DEMOS
  • Claire Demos
  • The Gift Theatre's Unseen

Unseen Playwright Mona Mansour's ambition exceeds her craft in this promising but unsatisfying world-premiere one-act. Set mostly in Istanbul just before the 2016 failed coup, the story focuses on increasingly traumatized war-zone photographer Mia, her wise and patient girlfriend Derya, and her moneyed, semi-blinkered mother Jane. Mansour never shies from big issues, whether personal (addiction, PTSD), professional (journalistic ethics in the face of human suffering), or political (Americans' inbred penchant for isolationism). But she tends to compartmentalize the issues, often making her plotting feel contrived in service of illustration and edification. Still, she places nuanced characters in compelling situations, which gives director Maureen Payne-Hahner and her impassioned cast ample opportunities to transform stilted dialogue into deeply affecting scenes. Alexandra Main's performance as the perpetually hamstrung Jane is meticulous and heartbreaking. —Justin Hayford

Tympanic Theatre Company's Waiting for Godot - SERGIO SOLTERO
  • Sergio Soltero
  • Tympanic Theatre Company's Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot Samuel Beckett was notoriously averse to high-concept reinterpretations of his plays. No postnuclear Endgames or subway Waiting for Godots for him. This Tympanic Theatre Godot demonstrates the wisdom of that position. Director Aaron Mays has taken Beckett's cosmically weary mortals, Vladimir and Estragon, and reimagined them as "travelers of Latin American ancestry . . . stranded at the border." The upside is that Mays doesn't do much to follow through on his conceit. The downside: The little he does deflates and confuses the nearly three-hour show, stunting its resonances. Anachronisms such as a cell phone and a campaign sticker don't help. Meanwhile, his Vladimir (Christopher Acevedo) and Estragon (Felipe Carrasco), though game, never penetrate the suffering, comic hearts of their characters. They're too glib, too clean, too healthy, too young. Christian Castro is entertaining as wealthy Pozzo but lacks a necessary sense of threat. —Tony Adler

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