I’ve been enjoying writing capsule theater reviews for the Reader the last couple months. Chicago is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to plays of all stripes. Here are some recent ones:
Blood at the Root
Dominique Morrisseau’s play inspired by the Jena Six case, in which six black teenagers were initially charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate after nooses were hung from a tree on campus in their small, mostly white Louisiana town, is given a furious and urgent staging by the Yard and Jackalope Theatre Company. From the moment the audience enters through a metal detector to take their seats before the classroom/football field/school hallway set, the tension is palpable, and it doesn’t let up until the show’s end. The cast, composed entirely of current and recent high-schoolers, talk, sing, rap, and dance their message with a passion impossible to ignore. Blood at the Root vividly illustrates the near impossibility of getting through one’s teenage years—fraught in the best-case scenario—unscathed when also having to tackle larger societal problems. It’s a necessary and evocative production all-around.
Our Christian Nation
In an America run by the extreme religious right a young family is forced to go on the run after the husband loses his job, their saga eventually exposing the lizard people who are actually in control of the country. There are a few laughs early in this comedy written by Joe Janes and directed by Andrea J. Dymond, but most have to do with the repeated appearances of an actor in an inflatable T. rex costume. And at nearly two and a half hours, this play is a sprawling and unfocused slog. Its simplistic pitting of Christianity as unalloyed evil against homosexual love as unambiguous good doesn’t work as either satire or polemic, and by taking on half a dozen current political issues all at once, it succeeds at rendering none of them with any conviction and leaves the audience both exhausted and confused.
What if your congressional representative was literally an agent of Satan? Would it surprise anyone at this point? Such is the premise of the New Colony’s world-premiere production of Connor McNamara’s political comedy/thriller. The set, split between the devil-worshipping senator’s country home and the Washington office of his Bible-thumping rival, is presided over by a sinister portrait of Teddy Roosevelt. This parody of our political system sadly doesn’t seem very farfetched, and the dark humor is bolstered by the cast’s not playing it for laughs. One wishes the play would pause once in a while to take a breath, but it’s hard to argue with much of what it’s saying. Kristina Valada-Viers directs.
Great Works of Fiction
HipFlask Production’s debut show is a collection of sketches based on the books of Horace Delancey III, self-described as “perhaps the world’s most eclectic writer.” What follows is a series of riffs on Clue, House of Cards, Hamilton, and a half dozen other cultural touchstones. A babysitting scene that’s part Get Out, part Exorcist comes closest to hitting the mark but never quite fulfills its premise enough to make you forget its sources. If the notion of a sequel to Moby-Dick called Maybe Dick makes you laugh, then this is the show for you. Most of the bits jump off from plays, movies, and TV shows, which undercuts the entire premise of a show based on the work of a writer.
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.
My Brother’s Keeper: The Nicholas Brothers Story
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.
The Firebirds Take the Field
After 25 years away, neurosurgeon returns to her crumbling, post-industrial home town when 18 girls, most cheerleaders, all come down with the same mysterious ailment. This world premiere production of Lynn Rosen’s play works both as biting critique of the way women are treated in American society and as an insightful rumination on the ways unfulfilled hopes and desires can haunt or even poison the rest of one’s life. Though based on an actual case in upstate New York, this story works much better as a metaphorical tale than a medical mystery. The emotions ring true even when the science seems iffy. Directed by Jessica Fisch.