The Catastrophist, written by Lauren M. Gunderson, is a filmed one-man play about the playwright’s husband Nathan (William DeMeritt). Gunderson’s non-fiction drama introduces us to this epidemiologist who has devoted his entire life to the study of pandemics, also known as the massive cultural event we’re all currently stuck inside. One might then expect The Catastrophist to be a play about science — but it ends up being a play about death, and grief, and how to live with the inherent unpredictability of the world even as you strive to predict it.
Stick Fly at Writers Theatre, directed by Ron OJ Parson and written by Lydia R. Diamond, is set around two affluent Black siblings who bring their partners, one black and one white, to their family cottage on Martha’s Vineyard. It is at Vineyard where they are forced to confront their realities, family secrets, and class prejudices.
The trek to Glencoe in the cold might seem daunting, but the show itself is too thoughtful and poignant to miss. It doesn’t beg to be included in the theatre landscape; it carves its own way.
Lipstick Lobotomy, written by Krista Knight and directed by Kate Hendrickson, takes place in a women’s sanitarium in the early 1940’s, conveyed here by a delightfully unsettling green-and-white color palette across the production that evokes the eerie sanitized atmosphere of a hospital. We meet our main character, Ginny (Ann Sonnevile), as she arrives at the hospital straight off the heels of separating from her husband. Ginny immediately meets and befriends fellow patient Rosemary Kennedy (played with a lovable charm by Abby Blankenship, and who is, yes, of those Kennedys). Rosemary struggles with her own mental disability, and against her family’s desire to make her undergo a lobotomy, while Ginny undergoes the opposite struggle. She wants to get a lobotomy in order to stave off her lifelong depression, but her family is understandably horrified at the prospect.
Labyrinth, Beth Steel’s blistering critique of corporate greed and American international relations, finds a fitting home for its U.S. Premiere with Broken Nose Theatre, a pay-what-you-can theatre company founded on the principle of economic accessibility. It is hard to say exactly what Labyrinth is—and not in a pejorative way. Loosely following events surrounding the Latin American debt crisis, the script, which begins conventionally enough, accelerates, growing in absurdity and darkness until it devolves into what resembles the fever dream of an over-exhausted worker. This production asks audiences to consider the human cost of economic tinkering, the hegemonic power of the American financial system, the difference between a scam and a hedged investment, and the divide between the so called first and third worlds. Under the skillful and energetic direction of Spencer Davis, Broken Nose Theatre successfully brings this sweeping-yet-psychological, brooding-yet-punchy, absurdly-funny-yet-tragic story to life.
It’s a new decade in Chicago and Ibsen is in the air.
Raven Theatre’s A Doll’s House is the first of three Ibsen plays opening within the next month. Strawdog’s stormy Hedda Gabler will follow shortly on Raven’s heels, and Court’s The Lady From the Sea will bring up the rear with the most ethereal of the Norwegian playwright’s femme-centric family dramas. It must be something in the water.
A long century and a half has passed since A Doll’s House first scandalized European audiences with the “door slam heard around the world.” However, Raven Theatre’s production still manages to feel relevant and timely. Although director Lauren Shouse retains the 19th century setting of Nora’s tale, Shouse re-envisions the meaning of Ibsen’s revolutionary, feminist masterwork for the audience of today. Although her reinterpretation does sacrifice some nuances of Ibsen’s play for the sake of its concept, it remains a promising example of how a classic can be reimagined for contemporary audiences.
Roan @ the Gates is a patriotic love story of two righteous women who are torn between their relationship and their principles. Roan (Brenda Barrie), an NSA analyst, puts everything on the line when she leaks government documents to an international reporter. Roan flees to Russia, and her wife Nat (Jasmine Bracey) is left blindsided and an ocean away. The Chicago premiere of Christina Telesca Gormans’ cyberfiction is much closer to reality than one might hope. In 75 minutes, director Lexi Saunders documents a deteriorating marriage with stunning design and intimate performances. As the conflict builds and communication breaks away, however, the narrative falls into a loop where the same argument is played out again and again.
When I stepped into How To Defend Yourself, Lilliana Padilla’s brilliant new play making its Chicago premier at Victory Gardens Theater, I thought I knew where this story would end before it had even begun. In the wake of their friend’s sexual assault, a few college students, all from different social groups, gather to hold a self-defense workshop. Naturally, I assumed, the girls would learn to respect each other for their differences and become friends, the workshop would help them to feel empowered in their bodies, and we would walk away feeling that the unifying force of our girl power is enough to take on the dark underbelly of the patriarchy. Of course, that’s never how it feels in real life. And this play, directed with care and consciousness by Marti Lyons, honors a truth far more painful and real. How To Defend Yourself is a dismantling of the stories that women tell to each other and to ourselves about how to safely walk through the world.
How can a play feel both dated and relevant? Stereotypical yet viscerally authentic? Generic yet highly specific?
Coming off the heels of its 50th year anniversary revival run on Broadway, Boys in the Band, directed by Carl Menninger, is currently playing at Windy City Playhouse in an immersive theatre style. It is considered one of the first mainstream plays to depict gay men in earnest, without resorting to tokenization or jokes. The plot centers around five gay friends who throw a birthday party for their acerbic friend, Harold (Sam Bell Gurwitz), at Michael’s (Jackson Evans) apartment. Coupling Harold’s late arrival is an unsuspected visit by Michael’s college friend, Alan (Christian Edwin Cook), who does not know Michael is gay. As the night unravels, the friends gradually get more drunk and let their insecurities loose. Though the language is notably dated — like the use of “homosexual” instead of “gay” and several racialized comments — the feelings of ostracization and self-loathing from not being validated is a timeless sentiment. The play is timeless; the production feels dated, getting trapped in the time period and inhibiting the story’s ability to radiate its more universal themes.
Roe at The Goodman Theatre, written by Lisa Loomer and directed by Vanessa Stalling, begins in the past, from the first court case of Roe v. Wade in 1970, and continues well on into the 2000s. The story itself brings in lots of quotes, monologues, facts, and information to give the audience, along with telling a segmented narrative from Norma, the woman behind Roe. This is a lot of information for any audience to take in under two hours, especially given that the show jumps in time. While there is a lot of talking to the audience in the show, we never really learn anything new about the case or who Norma really is. The show isn’t so much about Roe as it is about glimpses of ideas without a solid foundation.
If/Then, written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey and directed by Elyse Dolan, is a musical about a city planner named Elizabeth (Amanda Giles) who has just moved to New York after a difficult divorce. In the show’s first moments, she meets some friends in Central Park and is soon presented with a choice: does she go with her friend Lucas (Parker Guidry) to a protest, or does she go with her other friend Kate (Bridget Adams-King) to an outdoor concert in Brooklyn? The following scenes alternate between the two universes created by this seemingly insignificant choice. The Elizabeth who goes with Lucas acquires the nickname of Beth, and soon lands a dream job designing parks in the city. The Elizabeth who goes with Kate soon acquires glasses, and is nicknamed Liz. She does not get her dream job, but eventually pursues a relationship with ex-soldier Josh (Michael Peters), with all the ups and downs that entails.
The ensemble work is incredibly strong; choreographer Katie Capp has created a fast-moving New York City, with all its frantic terror and vibrance, using only the bodies onstage. Music direction (Rachel Hoovler) contributes to the worldbuilding by constructing complex harmonies sung by the ensemble that paint the noise of the city; the singing from the entire cast is excellent. The set, from designer Jeremy Hollis, is mostly brick walls and doorways at odd angles, flexibly portraying a wide variety of locations while also contributing to the general NYC funk. I adore this minimalist approach to musical storytelling; it was thoroughly effective in Brown Paper Box Co’s previous show Little Women last year, and is just as well done here. The small band and barebones design accentuate that this is a show with a very small scope; not about revolutions or worlds, but the inner lives of everyday people.