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Play Reviews for Theater Lovers

By Ann Boland March 06, 2024 Lifestyle

Is it me or is it the productions? Two out of the eight plays presented here are old – and those are the ones that resonated with me. Granted, staying power says a lot about a play, a book, a movie. And the themes of these two plays, Greek tragedy and assassination, are timeless. Only one play on this list was a waste of time and money for me. Such is the nature of toad kissing.

In two weeks, I’m diving in again with a new production by Mary Zimmerman at Goodman Theatre, The Matchbox Magic Flute at a matinee. That evening it’s a new production at Steppenwolf entitled Purpose, a Black family saga. So, it’s pucker-up time again.

Sanctuary City, Produced by Steppenwolf Theatre, Written by Martyna Majok

A play about friendship and love, immigration and naturalization, and consequences. Two illegal immigrants, dreamers and friends, a young man and a young woman, both from families where there is violence that the injured cannot report because they are illegal. When the home living conditions become too bad, they move in together for safety and companionship. Both work under the radar until, through a twist of fate, the young woman is naturalized and wins a scholarship to study at a prestigious university away from their home.

To protect her friend from the authorities, the two marry, too young to consider the long-term consequences. This first part of the play is a series of monologues rather than a dialogue. I felt it unhinged until I synched with the rhythm. The play goes through their years together and apart until at last he introduces his gay lover into the triangle.

Here, the play becomes more traditional, with a stage set and traditional dialogue. Now it’s a love triangle, but the boy and girl were never in love. She just made an enormous sacrifice for her friend that now seems unappreciated. Consider wisely, my friends, before making large decisions…

Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, a Theatrical Adaptation of Jim Henson’s Television Special

This seemed to have it all: puppets, people, jug band music, Christmas theme – Emmet Otter, here I come! The otters may have enthralled children, but for adults, it was a crashing bore. The play entertained some attendees familiar with the TV original, but I didn’t even know it existed. I would say, skip this one if it comes to your local theater next Christmas.

Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol, A Manual Cinema Production, Adapted from the novel by Charles Dickens, Devised by Manual Cinema, Additional Writing by Nate Marshall

Then you have Manual Cinema’s Christmas Carol based on the novel by Charles Dickens. Adapted loosely because it’s the story of a newly deceased man who annually presents a Christmas Carol puppet show for his family. Now his resentful wife is attempting to carry on the tradition for people she does not like, to honor her husband’s memory.

Manual Cinema presents puppet theater on a grand scale, mostly with shadow images of all sizes. Their cache shows how they make the sausage. Besides the puppet show, you see how all the puppeteers work, using multiple overhead projectors (remember those?), the image of the actual puppet stage of the actual show while you also see the puppeteers handling the puppets that are projected. As usual, it’s a delight. Follow Manual Cinema to see when they are coming to your area. It’s not-miss entertainment. And their website is a delight.

Highway Patrol starring Dana Delany and based on Ms. Delany’s digital archives

Ms. Delany plays herself, working a grueling schedule on a television show that leaves little time for personal life. She isolates her digital life because it’s so easy for stalkers to find their way into emails, Twitter, etc. But Cam, a 13-year-old boy with a critical medical condition, appears on her Twitter feed one day and sucks Delany into the vortex of his life.

The staging is excellent because this relationship is based on the written word. Tweets and DMs flow upward on a large screen occupying half of the stage. Sometimes the flow stops, and the characters speak the messages between Delany and Cam – and sometimes between Delany and Gram, Cam’s apparent guardian. Of course, no good comes from this, but it makes good theater and Ms. Delany is a delight. Recommended.

The Writer by Ella Hickson, directed by Georgette Verdin produced by Steep Theatre

Women like this play; men hate it. The play is a screed against misogyny and patriarchy in the theater. It’s a man’s world on the stage, especially in writing and directing. In this play, within a play, within a play, Hickson rails – likely with good reason – against the control that men exercise. But this is a slap in the face rather than a thoughtful rationale.

The writing is excellent; the actors were spellbinding; the plot was not so much. Whenever a contemporary play writer or author bring in extraneous lesbian sex, I cringe. And here it did nothing but dampen the ardor of the argument against men. I doubt this play would hang together if produced by a lesser company than Steep. I recommend it with reservations.

The Nacirema Society written by Pearl Cleage, directed by Lili-Anne Brown produced by Goodman Theatre

This play cried to be directed as a comedy. Unfortunately, the only character allowed to go for a laugh was the maid, who had no lines.

The great E. Faye Butler played the matriarch of an upper-class Black family in the south. They live in a city with a tradition of Black cotillions for debutants, just as the whites have their Mardi Gras and other cotillions. This is so wide open for mining the humor, but I fear everyone involved felt this would be disrespectful. So, you end up with a rather dull play.

Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl directed by Braden Abraham produced by Writers Theater

Based on the Greek tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice, Ruhl took the story into her hands 20 years ago, and it is as fresh today under Abraham’s direction. This play is like watching your fondest dream, with a sad plot (remember Eurydice is dead), a dashing hero who woos Eurydice back with music, a wacky father, and a proper villain.

The set almost makes the production – a steep slope separating earth from hell. Human stones who line the river Styx, sunning themselves in lawn chairs are the Greek chorus. I inwardly gasped each time a performer walked up or down the slope. It was that steep. Ruhl has won Pulitzer Prizes for her playwriting – but don’t overlook this gem from her early career.

Assassins, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman produced by Theo, formerly Theo Ubique (I’m glad they abbreviated their name. No one could pronounce Ubique.)

Second time I’ve seen Assassins, and I loved it just as much. Certainly not one of Sondheim’s greatest, but it is Sondheim and therefore more than worthy. The subject is the men and women who assassinated U.S. presidents, or attempted assassination. And there are lots of guns used on stage.

Theo is in a new theater – a large square multi-purpose room that is configured as needed. For Assassins, the audience sat on three sides, so wherever you sat, the action was directly in front.

There are nine assassinations, so lots of meaty short stories. And the assassins interact, teasing and ridiculing each other. I highly recommend it, but not if you don’t like guns pointing at the audience.

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Patsy Trench

Interesting to read about theatre in another country and city. I live in London and I’ve heard of great stuff coming from Chicago, and especially Steppenwolf. Thanks for posting. And I LOVE Assassins. It’s my favourite Sondheim by a mile, though I believe it didn’t go down too well in the States, not originally at least.

The Author

Ann Boland is committed to Chicago theater, opera, and arts. Involved as a theatre-goer since the early 80s, she’s witnessed firsthand the rise of Chicago's theater scene, its exceptional local talent, and the vigor of each new generation. To support her good and bad habits, Ann handles public relations for authors and the arts.

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