Once Upon a Mattress is a 1959 musical comedy that presents a goofy reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Princess and the Pea.” It tells the love story between the adorably awkward (and misleadingly named) Prince Dauntless and the bombastic Princess Winnifred (or Fred to her friends), buoyed by a supporting cast of royals, nobles, and courtiers embroiled in various scandals, japes, and shenanigans. Being a comedy from the 50’s that covers topics of love and marriage, it’s no surprise that Once Upon a Mattress leans heavily on some outdated and reductive gender roles for its laughs. The smart way around this, which director Landree Fleming has employed to hilarious effect, is to lampoon and subvert those roles at every turn — primarily by showcasing a cast that is visibly and joyfully trans, non-binary, and queer.
Ever since the smash hit true crime podcast Serial aired in 2014 and catapulted the medium into the national spotlight, many audio storytellers have taken that formula — that is, a plucky reporter from out of town comes in to try and solve a highly personal mystery — and tried to fictionalize it with, in my opinion, limited success. Podcasts like TANIS, The Message, and Limetown tend to run up against the issue that the truly appealing thing about Serial was how off-the-cuff it felt, consisting as it did of Sarah Koenig talking to real people about real things. The obviously staged feeling of most fiction podcasts works against that tone a great deal. So how do you create a story that works in this formula?
Well, if you are triple-threat playwright, lead actor, and co-director Gabriel Ruiz in The Fifth World at Teatro Vista, the answer seems to be that you lean as hard away from realism as possible, embracing the limitless possibilities of audio to create something otherworldly, strange, and transcendent.
Helmed by Director Kristina McCloskey and Associate Director Stephanie Mattos, Midsommer Flight’s Twelfth Night transforms the four lush showrooms of the Lincoln Park Conservatory into the land of Illyria, a world populated by guitar-strumming jesters, sword fighting pirates, foiled lovers, and capering drunks. This queer-af adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies invites the audience to sing along to sea shanties, share asides with actors, and walk from room to room to explore as many as three simultaneously occurring plots.
A typical summary of Twelfth Night might go something like this: Viola, shipwrecked noblewoman, disguises herself as a man after being stranded in Illyria and separated from her identical twin Sebastian. However, the plot each audience member experiences will vary wildly depending on which of the simultaneously occurring scenes they end up watching. As director McCloskey says, “Audiences can enjoy the wide range of experiences as the characters would live them, meaning they will only have the perspectives of the characters they are following. Plots, secrets, and surprises will run amok — until the final scene when all is revealed and resolved.” I, for one, spent most of my time following the booze-soaked revels of side-character Sir Toby Belch (Grant Brown) and his clueless sidekick Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Lexy Hope Weixel).
The New Coordinates, after a year of examining their internal practices and changing their previous name, brings to life Omer Abbas Salem’s Love in the Town of Jonestown, directed by Sophiyaa Nayar, as their first production since 2019. Salem is one of Chicago and American theatre’s rising voices if this past year is proof of anything. His play, The Secretaries, was workshopped earlier this year at Goodman Theatre’s Future Labs and will see its world premiere next spring with First Floor Theatre. His play Mosque4mosque saw a developmental production with Steppenwolf Theatre’s SCOUT department in March of this year. To list all his playwriting accomplishments in the last two years would run longer than the Bible! I mention this because The New Coordinates was smart to commission Salem right when his star is about to reach even higher- especially after listeners listen to this well-paced and devastatingly developed fictional recount of the events of Jonestown.
Porchlight Music Theatre kicks off its 27th season with what it calls a “a country fried phenomenon,” and I can assure you it is precisely that. Set in a North Carolina diner/filling station somewhere off the highway, Pump Boys and Dinettes provides a scintillating peek into the lives and relationships of the guys and gals of the Double Cupp Diner.
Featuring a creative team that consists of core members of Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theatre, this production is a love letter to hometown hospitality and nostalgia. Daryl D. Brooks’ direction is straightforward and concert driven, and works in smooth cohesion with the distinctive and stellar music direction by Robert Reddrick. The choreography by Rueben D Echoles gives the musical numbers an easygoing feel, and never distracts from the vocal prowess of the ensemble. The production stays devotedly true to its backroad roots, shying away from the modern audience’s expectations at every turn. While the book does very little to build the world of the play or illuminate its characters, the score distracts from the musical’s more shallow notes and eventually builds to a very heartfelt goodbye.
I first saw Fannie during its tour of Chicago city parks in the fall of 2020. Since that abridged version, the play has gone on to be enjoyed by audiences in Seattle, Washington D.C, Sarasota, Florida and Ashland, Oregon. Written by Cheryl L West, this one-woman play with music exalts the life and workings of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer.
Hamer was central to the founding of both the National Women’s Political Caucus and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which fought for the political advancement of both women and people of color respectively. She then later launched the Freedom Farm Cooperative, which sought to buy land for black people to collectively farm and sustain black life in Mississippi. A survivor of police brutality, misogyny, voter suppression, and a forced hysterectomy, Hamer is a symbol of perseverance and non-violent resistance.
Directed by Kathy Scambiatterra, the Artistic Home’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice marks the end of the actor-centered company’s pandemic hiatus. Ruhl’s script breaks from most tellings of the classic Greek myth of Orpheus by adopting the perspective of Eurydice as it explores themes of grief, memory, and eternity. While the Artistic Home’s production captures the visual wonder and lyricism of Ruhl’s script, some elements of the production rob Euryidce’s choices of their stakes, making the show feel more like a string of impressionistic vignettes than a climactic narrative driven by an empowered heroine.
On the night of her wedding, Eurydice falls to her untimely death. As her husband Orpheus desperately searches for a way to resurrect his bride, in the Underworld, Eurydice reunites with her late father and struggles to piece together the details of her life. Karla Corona plays Eurydice with an exuberance that could read as childlike were it not tempered by her frankness, and the probing, inquisitive gaze of an old-soul. Corona’s Eurydice finds her perfect match in Javier Carmona’s Father, a tender and slow-spoken man full of understated humor. The two have remarkable stage chemistry: Corona’s Eurydice always full of questions or candid observations and Carmona’s Father ready to listen attentively and weigh in with a thoughtful opinion. Enhanced by Scambiatterra’s directorial choice to emphasize moments of humor and joy, the tenderness and delight in the scenes between the father and the daughter make for some of the most moving moments of the play.
My Name Is Inanna bends time and space, following a young woman’s journey as an artist and activist through the Iranian revolution, and exploring myths of the goddess she was named after. Red Tape Theatre’s exciting new production speaks to our new hybrid reality with both in person and virtual performances.
A mix of history, song, and personal narrative, Ezzat Ghoushegir’s poetic script flows effortlessly between genres, and moves at an excitingly unpredictable pace. Ghoushegir portrays a brutal honesty around the human cost of a political uprising, without at all pandering to orientalist “trauma porn” tropes that have historically dominated stories of the SWANA (Southwest Asian, North African) region. We don’t only watch Inanna struggle: we see her find joy, love and heartbreak, we see her feel sexy, empowered, goofy, enraged, we see her win and lose, be frivolous and wise — and in that messy complexity, we see her expand what people believe a Persian woman is capable of. The deep and profound cultural competency is evident on all fronts, from the writing to the direction to the casting, a refreshing change in a theatre scene that’s historically quick to produce SWANA stories without SWANA bodies in the room.
I arrived at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre about an hour before curtain for Songs For A New World.. I expected to grab my playbill and head to a local shop for a bite to eat before the play. Instead, I was seated at a round table and given a menu. The last time I had been to a live theatre show was February 2020. I let the nostalgia take hold and let myself bask in the quaintness of storefront theatre. I found myself content and satisfied that Songs for a New World, directed by Fred Anzevino, was my first show back.
Featuring a stripped back set (James Kolditz) with only a huge moon to background the performances, Anzevino’s production is an unembellished and sincere approach to a musical that could easily veer into the overwrought. By focusing on the actors’ chemistry and performances, Anzevino allows for the lyrics and music to take the foreground. The musical lacks a singular plot and neat-and-tidy character development. Instead, each number works as a stand-alone vignette. What ties the numbers together are that each character sings about moments in their lives that have shaped or affected them in significant ways. Whether on the cusp of a happy moment, or on the brink of a devastating tragedy, each number feels like an invitation. “The River Won’t Flow,” by Man 1 (Eustace J. Williams) and Man 2 (Matthew Hunter), reminded me of the moments in my life where I felt like nothing I did would change my bad outcomes, and “I’d Give It All For You,” sung by Man 2 & Woman 1 (Nora Navarro) reminded me of the loves in my life I could never turn my back on. In the last few months, I’ve only been able to think of all that I’ve lost. This production was an aesthetic prompting of all the life that has been lived and that will be lived in all the futures. Life has been more than this pandemic, and will be more than this pandemic.
An audience that has been stuck inside our homes for the past year is no stranger to the rewatch. There’s something comforting about revisiting a favorite show, especially when you’ve exhausted anything new that Netflix has to offer. After Disney+ fixed their terrible aspect ratio problem, that show for me was The Simpsons. There are some episodes that I know by heart, and others that I was thrilled to rediscover. There is something about a global collapse that just makes you want to curl up on the couch with your favorite four-fingered family. Theatre Wit takes this desire out of your living room and onto the stage with a colorful revival of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play by Anne Washburn.
Something seismic has happened and the power is gone. Without electricity, modern society crumbles. Survivors who have lost everything work together to salvage the only pieces of their world that remain, the episodes of The Simpsons that they kinda remember. Playwright Anne Washburn, with music by Michael Friedman, explores how stories and pop culture may evolve when society starts over. Washburn roots the script in what is arguably one of the greatest Simpsons episodes of all time: “Cape Fear.” What begins as a few strangers around a fire exchanging punchlines becomes a traveling theatre troupe, which in turn becomes an epic operetta.