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The Scottsboro Boys, The Ghoul Exhibition, and nine more new theater reviews

A powerful Chicago premiere from Porchlight and a searing solo show on gun violence are among this week's best bets.

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The Arrow Cleans House The latest iteration of the Neo-Futurists' absurdist storytelling series (devised by Kurt Chiang and Lily Mooney) is an "ode to misery and disillusionment" covering both pervasive downers like the election and more niche yet no less polarizing topics like genome editing. Under Chiang's direction, the cast of five attempts to read original essays to the audience in the face of egregious interruptions from each other—everything from pseudointellectual lines of questioning about whether characters are "good guys" or "bad guys" to physical horseplay to water that's spilled and sprayed. Essays and play interludes evolve from week to week, but these spontaneous complications, or "arrows," are the primary form of improvisation. A surprisingly high-concept exercise, this Arrow feels like an unpolished look behind the curtain at performers workshopping their most outlandish concepts. —Marissa Oberlander

Red Theater's Beowulf: An Epic Quest of Music, Monsters, and Mead - M. FREER PHOTOS
  • M. Freer Photos
  • Red Theater's Beowulf: An Epic Quest of Music, Monsters, and Mead

Beowulf: An Epic Quest of Music, Monsters, and Mead Aaron Sawyer wrote and directed this two-person musical adaptation of the old English epic poem, presented here by Red Theater Chicago, but he can't decide whether he wants to retell the ripping yarn, deconstruct it, or just poke fun at it for its ancient sexism and silly notions of heroism. The result is a noisy, messy, endlessly unfocused production, overstuffed with songs (by Pavi Proczko and Brindin Sawyer, with additional material from Brenda Scott Wlazlo) and unsuccessful in pulling the audience into the story or providing a coherent analysis. Proczko and Wlazlo are occasionally entertaining as, respectively, Beowulf and Grendel's mother, but in the end, I suspect the only people who fully understand what's going on onstage are the people involved in the show's creation. —Jack Helbig

Ekaterina Gubanova in Lyric Opera's Carmen - TODD ROSENBERG
  • Todd Rosenberg
  • Ekaterina Gubanova in Lyric Opera's Carmen

Carmen Every featured role in this big, new-to-Chicago production of Bizet's gypsy classic at Lyric Opera is masterfully sung, the chorus is in fine form, the orchestra is terrific, and the original spoken dialogue has been restored, providing a surprisingly fresh touch. Close your eyes, and it sounds great. Open them, and you'll see that at the most compelling moments of the story, the focus shifts from the central characters to as many as a dozen dancers enacting a parallel performance. Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova as Carmen (nearly erased in all-black garb) and tenor Joseph Calleja as her obsessed lover, Jose, aren't able to generate much chemistry amid this distracting staging by director Rob Ashford, but they're scheduled to be replaced midrun. Soprano Eleonora Buratto, who brings a gorgeous voice and winning performance to the part of the "good girl," Micaela, stays on. —Deanna Isaacs

New American Folk Theatre's Deep in the Heart of Tuna - THEODORE A. THOMAS
  • Theodore A. Thomas
  • New American Folk Theatre's Deep in the Heart of Tuna

Deep in the Heart of Tuna This New American Folk Theatre production compiles scenes from the first two (Greater Tuna and A Tuna Christmas) of the four plays written by Ed Howard, Joe Sears, and Jaston Williams about the fictional town of Tuna, Texas. Yet what's commendable about the series—such as its gentle humor and amusing quick changes (each of the two actors plays multiple characters)—fails to overcome its lamentable qualities, like predictable jokes and a dependence on well-worn good-old-boy stereotypes. Comedic virtuosos might make this material sing—Sears and Williams toured for 30 years playing these characters, until Sears retired in 2012—but the two actors director Derek Van Barham recruited, Anthony Whitaker and Grant Drager, are merely pretty good, better at making these cartoon characters sympathetic and likable than at making them funny. The result is an evening that feels at once too short and too long, full of wry smiles but few belly laughs. —Jack Helbig

Héctor Álvarez's The Ghoul Exhibition, at Rhinofest - DEVRON ENARSON
  • Devron Enarson
  • Héctor Álvarez's The Ghoul Exhibition, at Rhinofest

[Recommended] The Ghoul Exhibition Writer and performer Héctor Álvarez addresses the destructive force of gun violence in this deeply affecting solo show, directed by Theatre Y's Melissa Lorraine for the 2017 Rhinofest. For Álvarez, guns have a sort of poetic imbalance—they are an incredibly efficient invention but more often than not inspire helpless, even desperate behavior. Five different scenes use a combination of original and preexisting texts to illustrate the point. Some of them are mildly humorous; others truly audacious, most memorably when Álvarez adopts the persona of a twisted Latino lawyer defending (or abusing?) a white cop. Come ready to contribute: audience participation is a big part of the show's effectiveness. —Matt de la Peña

Runaways Lab Theatre's Goddamn Geniuses: Legacy of Brilliance - MATTHEW GREGORY HOLLIS
  • Matthew Gregory Hollis
  • Runaways Lab Theatre's Goddamn Geniuses: Legacy of Brilliance

Goddamn Geniuses: Legacy of Brilliance Brussels, 1927: Five physicists are having cocktails after hours at the prestigious Solvay scientific conference. Niels Bohr is present, hyping probability. Erwin Schrödinger does his cat-in-the-box trick. And Einstein, well, he's Einstein. Suddenly the party gets crashed, excellent-adventure-style, by Nick, a visitor from the future who totes his own bong and brings bad news: "hell spirits" called Goobies are coming to kill the physicists, maybe because science is wrecking religion—I'm not sure. Anyway, plenty of ninja-like havoc ensues. Both the cocktail talk and the havoc go on too long, and lots of it is inscrutable. But stupid/smart surprises keep coming while the cast of this Runaways Lab Theatre premiere (written and directed by Gannon Reedy from a story by Nathaniel Shane) maintain a gonzo energy. These folks don't take bows when their 70 minutes are up. They dance. —Tony Adler

Eclectic Full Contact Theatre's The History Boys - IAN SMITH AND KATIE HUNTER
  • Ian Smith and Katie Hunter
  • Eclectic Full Contact Theatre's The History Boys

The History Boys For Eclectic Full Contact Theatre's revival of Alan Bennett's Hollywood-friendly 2004 drama about the fight for the minds and souls of incorrigible British schoolboys, set designer Laura Carney makes an astute decision: She places the classroom onstage and the administrative offices in distant nooks amid the audience. The layout amplifies one of the play's central tensions—the wide gulf between public lessons and private politics. But little else in director Katherine Siegel's staging brings much clarity to these excessively animated, dramatically scattershot three hours. The show continually charges forward without establishing a credible stage world with recognizable stakes. The boys are being aggressively prepped for entrance exams to Cambridge and Oxford, yet their studies never seem consequential. Even the looming career collapse of Hector, the incurably, heroically nonconformist literature teacher, seems more entertaining than tragic. —Justin Hayford

I Left My Heart: A Salute to the Music of Tony Bennett, at the Mercury Theater - BRETT BEINER
  • Brett Beiner
  • I Left My Heart: A Salute to the Music of Tony Bennett, at the Mercury Theater

I Left My Heart: A Salute to the Music of Tony Bennett Despite the subtitle of this 80-minute jazz cabaret, it's got almost nothing to do with Tony Bennett. Amid scattered, insupportable hyperbole (Bennett's penchant for singing "Fly Me to the Moon" off-mike in his concerts "proves" he's "one of the world’s greatest singers"), cocreators David Grapes and Todd Olson include scant, perfunctory biographical information about the singer. The 34 standards, strung together concert style, never illustrate Bennett’s life, style, or cultural contributions. The show is ultimately an evening of songs recorded by any number of crooners during the last 70 years. Director Kevin Bellie rearranges his three singers—Jim DeSelm, Robert Hunt, and Evan Tyrone Martin—and their microphone stands every few minutes, but struggles to elicit much that's personal from their technically admirable singing. —Justin Hayford

The Actors Gymnasium's Quest - COLE SIMON
  • Cole Simon
  • The Actors Gymnasium's Quest

[Recommended] Quest The Actors Gymnasium's latest spectacle was created and directed by 500 Clown cofounder Leslie Buxbaum Danzig, who channels her circus-storytelling aesthetic into "The Three Questions," a short story by Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy's parable concerns a king who wants answers to three questions: How to do the right thing? Who are the most important people? And when is the right time? However vague these questions might first appear, they lead our protagonist on an inspired journey—the king eventually consults a wise hermit, who guides him to answers. AG tells the story through physical language, including aerial arts, hat juggling (a standout act by Amanda Crockett), and acrobatics, alongside an original music score by Kevin O'Donnell. —Suzanne Scanlon

Porchlight's The Scottsboro Boys - KELSEY JORISSEN
  • Kelsey Jorissen
  • Porchlight's The Scottsboro Boys

[Recommended] The Scottsboro Boys This dark, powerful concept musical marks the final collaboration between composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb—the brilliant team who created Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman—prior to Ebb's 2004 death. With a book by David Thompson, it recounts a notorious true case of racist injustice—the railroading of nine black teenagers on false charges of raping two white women in 1930s Alabama—in the style of a 19th-century minstrel show, using the hallmark techniques of that form (including blackface, drag, ragtime "coon songs," and a cakewalk dance) to bring a Brechtian distance to the story. Porchlight Music Theatre's Chicago premiere features a superb ensemble under the direction of Samuel G. Roberson Jr., with period-style choreography by Florence Walker-Harris and Breon Arzell and first-rate musical direction by Doug Peck. —Albert Williams

BoHo Theatre's Urinetown - KATIE LONG
  • Katie Long
  • BoHo Theatre's Urinetown

Urinetown BoHo Theatre delivers this Broadway smash, a musical about what would happen if peeing were privatized, with all its scatological splendor. The powers that be in Urinetown have taken control of all urinals in the public weal, charging admission for emission in order to squeeze the city's sooty poor of all they're worth. Despite its incessant, hip self-mockery, this is a big old-fashioned musical, and it's got showstoppers to prove it (Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis's score won a Tony). Choreographer Aubrey Adams's group dance numbers steal the show, except that a ton of mugging from the ensemble earns cheap laughs at the expense of some crucial moments in the narrative. Ariana Burks as poor Little Sally, tugging on the policeman's sleeve with a mutilated teddy bear under one arm, has wonderful timing and a fine voice. —Max Maller

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