The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Falling, and eight more stage shows to see now | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Falling, and eight more stage shows to see now

Bertolt Brecht's satire set in 1930s gangland Chicago and the local premiere of an off-Broadway hit are among this week's best bets.

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Electra Garrigó When Virgilio Piñera's brazen, bewildering adaptation of Sophocles's tragedy premiered in Havana in 1948, the literary establishment responded with contempt and disgust—and Cuban modernism was born. Restaged in 1958, its focus on princess Electra's struggles against her unreasonable tyrant father, Agamemnon, bolstered pro-Castro sentiments (ironically, Castro would later jail Piñera for being queer). While Piñera fell into obscurity by the end of his life, director Kathi Kaity resurrects this seminal work in a Right Brain Project production that may provoke its own share of contempt. Kaity wisely does nothing to smooth over the script's disjointed expressionism, putting a premium on physical and vocal stridency (Piñera aimed to provoke bourgeois audiences). But the show's boldness often compromises fundamental comprehensibility, obscuring key relationships among characters. Still, it's refreshing to see an almost entirely Latinx cast tackle this demanding work. —Justin Hayford

Justin Tsatsa and Amy Johnson in Interrobang Theatre Project’s Falling - EMILY SCHWARTZ
  • Emily Schwartz
  • Justin Tsatsa and Amy Johnson in Interrobang Theatre Project’s Falling

[Recommended] Falling Saint Louis playwright Deanna Jent's 2012 off-Broadway hit is a compelling study of a family on the brink of falling apart. The mother, Tami (the superb Amy Johnson), is determined to raise her severely autistic son Josh (Justin Tsatsa) rather than place him in a group home even though the burly 18-year-old's behavior is becoming increasingly violent and unmanageable. The turbulent situation is threatening to destroy Tami's marriage to her resolutely patient husband, Bill (Nick Freed), and to force the couple's 16-year-old daughter Lisa (Tristin Hall) to leave home and move in with Bill's zealously Christian mother (Heidi Katz). Sensitively directed by James Yost, this Interrobang Theatre Project Chicago premiere is an emotional roller coaster, played with impressive emotional authenticity. —Albert Williams

Taylor R. Craft in Nothing Without a Company's The Kid Thing - CHRISTOPHER SEMEL
  • Christopher Semel
  • Taylor R. Craft in Nothing Without a Company's The Kid Thing

The Kid Thing Structurally, Sarah Gubbins's play is a conventional tale of love and betrayal. That it doesn't feel conventional is a function of who's doing the loving and betraying: a pair of lesbian couples living middle-class lives on Chicago's north side. Margot and Nate are having a baby thanks to sperm-donating pal Jacob; Leigh and Darcy are thinking of borrowing Jacob for same. Their struggles over imminent parenthood get at the psychic and social consequences of sexual difference. Or at least they did when The Kid Thing premiered at Chicago Dramatists in 2011. Jake Fruend's current staging for Nothing Without a Company is too reductive to get at much of anything. Certain passages suggest sitcom tropes, certain performances stick tenaciously to a single note. Shalyn Welch is so insistently arch as Darcy, for instance, that she ends up undermining the logic of scenes. —Tony Adler

Molly Hernandez and William Roberts in Theo Ubique's The Most Happy Fella - ADAM VENESS
  • Adam Veness
  • Molly Hernandez and William Roberts in Theo Ubique's The Most Happy Fella

[Recommended] The Most Happy Fella New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson said of the 1956 production of this musical by Frank Loesser (based on Sidney Howard's 1924 play They Knew What They Wanted) that it was "about as close to opera as the rules of Broadway permit." Indeed, the triangle at the heart of the story—foolish older rancher marries vivacious younger woman who in turn is sexually attracted to a feckless but virile hired hand—is pure opera, and most of Loesser's tunes approach bel canto. But the show's pasted-on "happy" ending is less La Scala than Great White Way. That said, Theo Ubique's staging in an intimate cabaret space brings out the best in Loesser's finely shaded character development, an effect heightened by director Fred Anzevino's preference for fine actors, like Molly Hernandez, who communicate volumes with a tiny movement of the hand or a slight twitch of the mouth. And when Loesser's show transitions from dialogue to song, watch out! His full-throttle operatic score, sung by a strong-lunged, open-throated cast, blasts like heavy metal turned to 11. —Jack Helbig

Organic Theater's Phantom Pain - JOHN LEE JENNINGS
  • John Lee Jennings
  • Organic Theater's Phantom Pain

[Recommended] Phantom Pain William Faulkner's line "The past is never dead. It's not even past" could be the tagline for Barbara Lhota's wise, witty play about three childhood friends, now in early middle age, suddenly confronted by ghosts of the past, specifically the traumas associated with decaying race relations in Detroit in the 70s. Lhota, a subtle but effective storyteller, pulls the audience in before we can resist, then keeps us absorbed in her narrative. Her characters are free of cliche—no wonder the actors in this world-premiere Organic Theater production, directed by Laura Sturm, seem to be having a blast. Their passion and energy provide the extra fuel that makes this quiet, intensely introspective tale so compelling. —Jack Helbig

Otherworld Theatre's A Princess of Mars - COURTESY INDIE GRANT PRODUCTIONS
  • Courtesy Indie Grant Productions
  • Otherworld Theatre's A Princess of Mars

A Princess of Mars Can't say I liked anything about A Princess of Mars, Otherworld Theatre's adaptation of the 1917 novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I'm not much of a sci-fi/fantasy person, though, so the trouble may be with my receiver and not the play's transmitter. Then again, I can't think of any less obviously theatrical scenario than beaming a hee-haw Confederate Army deserter onto the surface of Mars, where he must aid Dejah Thoris and the Tharks in their war with Zodanga. I wanted to believe in the aliens, I really did, but the oinking, growling, torture-loving Tharks were more dork than orc in their wrinkly warthog masks and pleather tunics. John Carter (Elliott Sowards), the earthling hero from Virginia, has the occasional splurt of countrified poignancy to his credit, but for me this play was sheer agony. —Max Maller

Trap Door Theatre's Resistible Rise - BEATA PILCH
  • Beata Pilch
  • Trap Door Theatre's Resistible Rise

[Recommended] The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui Bertolt Brecht set this bludgeoning satire of government corruption in a comic-book 30s gangland Chicago, but wrote it in 1941 to protest Hitler's rise in his native Germany. Given the recent fascistic turn on these shores, this material wouldn't lack resonance even in less capable hands, but Victor Quezada-Perez directs the hell out of it: he's able to find subtlety and nuance even where Brecht's words lack either. And this Trap Door production is visually and aurally stunning, with a large cast—most playing multiple roles, all in pancake makeup and clown noses—that's uniformly excellent. Each is constantly sniffing loudly through those red snouts as if to drive home the all-encompassing stench of their fictive Chicago. They're only able to breathe easily through their own nostrils after being gunned down, as if freed from a lifetime of holding their noses to get through the days. —Dmitry Samarov

Leslie Hull, Ann Marie Lewis, and Lydia Hiller in Idle Muse Theatre's The Scullery Maid - STEVEN TOWNSHEND
  • Steven Townshend
  • Leslie Hull, Ann Marie Lewis, and Lydia Hiller in Idle Muse Theatre's The Scullery Maid

The Scullery Maid Cooks and kings meet face-to-face in this English Gothic fantasy play from Idle Muse, written by Joseph Zettelmaier. As it opens, maidservants prepare a dessert of marchpane for Edward III (Dave Skvarla). This may not sound like the stuff of riveting theater—most of the first act is about making a cake that ultimately gets knocked onto the floor—but "kitchen humor" had a rich tradition in medieval drama; the boisterousness of cooks and lowly servants was thought to be an ideal foil for the lofty pinings of nobility. Miriam (a beautiful Lydia Hiller) is a Jewish scullery maid with a secret vendetta against the venturesome king. The confrontation between the two, who have more in common than either supposes, cuts across class boundaries, but has about all the excitement of watching water boil. —Max Maller

Julian Larach, Johnathan Nieves, and Jaslene Gonzalez in Raven Theatre's Sycamore - DEAN LA PRAIRIE
  • Dean La Prairie
  • Julian Larach, Johnathan Nieves, and Jaslene Gonzalez in Raven Theatre's Sycamore

Sycamore It's hard to fathom why Raven Theatre, with a three-decade history of picking strong material, would premiere a work that might earn a B minus in freshman playwriting class. Brooklyn-based scribe Sarah Sander tells the expedient tale of middle-American teen siblings Celia and Henry—one recently suicidal, one recently oversexed, both fixedly territorial—who vie for the romantic attentions of mysterious pot-smoking boy-next-door John. Sander wants to reveal profound sexual and emotional angst just beneath the placid surface of suburban life (everyone's desperate to "escape"), but her unlikely dialogue, shortcut-heavy plotting, and manufactured resolution make most of the 70 minutes ring false. If director Devon de Mayo can't even get convincing performances out of respected veterans Robyn Coffin and Tom Hickey as the siblings' distraught parents, the fault lies with the material. —Justin Hayford

Sideshow Theatre Company's Truth and Reconciliation - JONATHAN L. GREEN
  • Jonathan L. Green
  • Sideshow Theatre Company's Truth and Reconciliation

[Recommended] Truth and Reconciliation British playwright Debbie Tucker Green turns catharsis on its head with this collection of brief scenes set in bare rooms across Europe and Africa. The people in those rooms are perpetrators, victims, and relatives of victims of such horrors as the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, Northern Ireland's troubles, and South African apartheid, meeting ostensibly to confront the crimes that connect them. The circumstances are odd in that participants encounter one another without mediators; the content is mostly trivial, hung up on questions of who will sit where, if they agree to sit at all; and Green's pseudo-Mametian use of repetition and interjection gets annoying quickly, creating more chaos than clarity. But that's the point: Discussion is useless. Only the guilty and the dead know the truth. Under Jonathan L. Green's direction, this 60-minute Sideshow Theatre production concedes nothing to comfort. —Tony Adler

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