Dubliner Mark O'Rowe has been grouped with the likes of Sarah Kane, Martin McDonagh, and—oddly enough—Chicago's own Tracy Letts as part of the In-yer-face theater movement that flourished in the UK during the 1990s. This is entirely appropriate. In-yer-face plays were famous for their psychological cruelty, aesthetic repulsiveness, black humor, and physical violence—and so are O'Rowe's. His 1999 Howie the Rookie turns on a case of scabies; the premiere production of another script, Crestfall, drew controversy for an abortive bout of oral sex between a prostitute and a dog. ("The play is a massacre, basically; there is just so much violence against the women in it," O'Rowe told Fiachra Gibbons of the Guardian. "But I had people coming up to me saying they didn't like the way the dog was treated. I thought, 'What? It's cruel that he didn't get his blow job?'")
But O'Rowe is also known to be a writer who, as New York Times critic Jason Zinoman put it, "loves words almost as much as he does dirty jokes and bloody faces." That logophilia is on superb display in Terminus, a set of three interlocking monologues, done in rhymed couplets, whose dramatis personae include a singing serial killer and a demon lover made of worms. The thing is full of excruciating darkness and punkish, cunning verse.
A young company called Interrobang Theatre Project is attempting Terminus under the direction of its founder, Jeffry Stanton. That's awfully nervy, considering the degree of difficulty involved. Still, if O'Rowe's play gets the performance it deserves—well, then, we'll have something. —Tony Adler
Previews 9/12-9/15. Through 10/6: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, 773-935-6875, interrobangtheatreproject.org, $25.
Old Jews Telling Jokes
It doesn't get more straightforward than this: if you want old people, Jews, and jokes, that's what you'll get. But the anticipation for Old Jews Telling Jokes is more than just a craving for boilerplate borscht belt. Cowriters Daniel Okrent and Peter Gethers are already media lions: the former was the first public editor for the New York Times, the latter described by Vanity Fair as "the biggest name in publishing you've never heard of"—he was president of Random House Studio, edited everyone from Jimmy Carter to Harry Belafonte, and authored the Norton the cat trilogy. Their production is inspired by a website of the same name, which hosts videos of . . . well, you can probably guess. Okrent and Gethers decided that onstage, rather than tell a bunch of jokes sequentially, they'd turn each into a small play featuring the same set of five actors, with bits paying tribute to the history of the medium and some of the biggest names in Jewish comedy. The revue had a successful off-Broadway run and comes to the Royal George with a cast featuring Second City and SNL alum Tim Kazurinsky. The only downside: if my parents go, they will probably repeat all the jokes back to me for the next year or so. —Tal Rosenberg
9/24-1/26: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 5 and 8 PM, Sun 2 and 5 PM, Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted, 312-988-9000, oldjewstellingjokesonstage.com, $49-$59.
The North China Lover
It'll be interesting to see what adapter-director Heidi Stillman can do with Marguerite Duras's autobiographical story of sexual awakening, rampant passion, and pedophilia (with a dash of incest), in which everything but the sex takes place offstage. The setting, not coincidentally, is Indochina, around 1930. The protagonist is a 14-year-old French girl whose stranded, opium-addled family has been impoverished and debased by the corrupt colonial system that brought them there; her lover is a wealthy, soon-to-be-married 27-year-old Chinese playboy. Duras, who wrestled with similar themes in her screenplay for Hiroshima, Mon Amour, wrote this story first as a novel, The Lover, and reworked it in The North China Lover as an impressionistic series of scenes for an ostensible film. Even for Stillman, who's recently done some of the most creative theater in town, bringing it to the stage will be a challenge. Rae Gray plays the young girl and Tony winner Deanna Dunagan is the older Duras, in whose memory it all unfolds. —Deanna Isaacs
Previews 9/25-10/4. Through 11/10: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 7:30 PM, Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan, 312-337-0665, lookingglasstheatre.org, $36-$70.
The Sovereign Statement
Born in Pakistan and raised in Downers Grove, Neo-Futurists artistic director Bilal Dardai has long been fascinated by nationality and identity. His interest finally coalesced into a theater piece after Dardai learned about the eccentric Evergreen Park author James T. Mangan, who registered the Nation of Celestial Space—encompassing all of outer space—in 1949, with the Cook County recorder. For years Mangan and his followers did everything they could to will their concept, nicknamed Celestia, into being: designing a flag, issuing currency, and sending letters of complaint to the U.S. and the USSR for impinging on their territory. With The Sovereign Statement, Dardai delivers a political thriller that explores what happens when a small group of people decide to create their own micronation. In trademark Neo fashion, though, Dardai veers outside traditional theater boundaries to borrow elements from Dungeons & Dragons, online role-playing games, and interactive metafiction, staging the piece across several rooms. He'll also immerse the audience in the experience, making them voting citizens in the new country and allowing them to make decisions at key plot points—a trick many larger sovereign nations have yet to master. —Jack Helbig
Previews 10/17-10/19. Through 11/23: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland, 773-275-5255, neofuturists.org, $20, Thursdays are pay what you can.
Bring Me the Head of James Franco, That I May Prepare a Savory Goulash in the Narrow and Misshapen Pot of His Skull
James Franco the Actor was enjoying a nice career playing slackers and stoners, sometimes dabbling in more substantive roles, and even garnering an Academy Award nomination for his part in 127 Hours. Then in 2006, he enrolled at UCLA as an English major, and James Franco the Artist was born. Soon Franco was writing, painting, directing, and guest lecturing his way into position as a premier modern Renaissance man. Debate over the legitimacy of this newfound status erupted. Was he a real working artist, or just a dilettante whose fame had afforded him otherwise unimaginable opportunities?
Chicago writer and performer Ian Belknap aims to debunk the myth—to slay the Franco monster—with his latest solo show. Belknap is the founder and "overlord" of Write Club, Chicago's preeminent competitive reading series; he's performed his work at countless live-lit events, in addition to staging solo shows for Rhinofest. The show won't be some MST3K-esque mocking of the Franco oeuvre, though. Belknap says Bring Me . . . is not about "about unreasoning hatred," but rather "casting a cold eye on the cultural flotsam we are encouraged to consume" and convincing ourselves to "train our gaze elsewhere." Is James Franco for real? At the very least, he'll have the opportunity to suffer for his art come October. —Danette Chavez
Opens Sat 10/19, 7:30 PM. 10/24-11/16: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee, 773-609-2336, brownpapertickets.com, $15-$25.
Fanny's First Play
In staging Anton in Show Business this season, 20% Theatre Company takes a stab at an old mystery: Who is Jane Martin? An acclaimed playwright whose career spans decades, Martin is the Salinger of the theater world—nobody's seen her. In fact, anybody's best guess is that she's a pseudonym for Jon Jory, longtime head of the Actors Theatre of Louisville and a frequent director of Martin's plays.
20%'s stake is this: The feminist company (whose name derives from a 2002 study that found only 20 percent of working theater artists were women) is devoting its 11th season to the theme of "The Male Feminist," staging plays written by men that feature interesting women—plays that might pass the Bechdel test, in other words. Anton in Show Business, which perhaps 20% has decided to credit to Jory after all, is slated for spring; the season opens with George Bernard Shaw's 1911 Fanny's First Play, a metatheatrical exercise in which an aspiring playwright's father finances the production of her (rather Shaw-esque, as it happens) first script, all the way down to paying critics—the objects of the play's satire—for their approval. Fanny itself premiered under anonymous authorship; only later was that mystery solved. —Sam Worley
10/31-11/24, Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble, Heartland Cafe, 7016 N. Glenwood, twentypercentchicago.com, $20.
In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge gets only three visitors, and they provide their own transportation in the form of magic flying—well, karma waves or something. The hapless, nameless taxi driver in Hellcab has to contend with no less than 33 strangers demanding rides to every godforsaken corner of Chicago, and the only magic available to him is the internal combustion engine in his beat-up cab. Still, Will Kern's black-comic chronicle of a Christmas Eve spent with creeps, jerks, drunks, fops, accordionists, and wounded souls manages to find moments of grace. Epiphany, even.
A genuine off-Loop phenomenon, the original Famous Door Theatre Company production of Hellcab lasted a decade, from 1992 to 2002, and spawned a movie (Chicago Cab) featuring a full-out glut of Chicago-bred actors, including Laurie Metcalf, John Cusack, Harry Lennix, Gillian Anderson, Michael Shannon, Tracy Letts, and on and on. Last year Profiles Theatre mounted a 20th-anniversary revival that must've done good business, because they're bringing it back for another holiday-season run this year.
The Famous Door version had a few actors playing multiple roles; perhaps inspired by the film version, director Darrell Cox flooded his 2012 Profiles staging with a cast of nearly three dozen, simultaneously heightening the show's festivity and the driver's oppression. Cox plans to do the same this time, the main difference being that the passengers won't have the marvelously hangdog Konstantin Khrustov to kick around anymore. He's being replaced as the driver by another actor, unnamed as I write this. I'll miss Khrustov, but Hellcab hasn't held on all these years by depending on a single performance. —Tony Adler
Previews 11/8-11/13. Through 1/12: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 5 and 8 PM, Sun 7 PM, Profiles Theatre, Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway, 773-549-1815, profilestheatre.org, $35-$40.
Stuff like dialogue, actors, direction, design, and catharsis aside, the most exciting thing about any given theater production is its evanescence—the knowledge that what we're watching will last just a moment and then disappear. Of course, that's the most painful thing about it, too. Where do you go to see the Lord Chamberlain's Men performing Hamlet? The world premiere of Oedipus Rex? The advent of video only aggravates the problem, inasmuch as it can't really reproduce a theatrical experience. It merely gives you a more specific sense of what you missed by not being in the room when the real thing happened.
Without doubt, Court Theatre's 2011 staging of An Iliad was one of the best shows I've ever been in a room with. Directed by Charles Newell and developed collaboratively by Denis O'Hare, Lisa Peterson, and Homer, it offered the climactic events of the Trojan War in a savvy, strenuous 90-minute monologue delivered by a character called the Poet, who looked as if he might've stepped out from under the tree in Waiting for Godot. Timothy Edward Kane's performance was a tour de force.
But then An Iliad disappeared, as all live productions must. Court's season went on and—except for a Jeff Award for Kane—that was that.
Only it turns out that that isn't that after all. In a rare instance of reverse evanescence, the piece will be revived at Court this fall, with Kane again playing the Poet. I hope to be in the room for it. —Tony Adler
Previews 11/13-11/5. Through 12/8, Tue-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 2:30 PM, Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, 773-753-4472, courttheatre.org, sold out.