Fun Home, Betrayal, Graeme of Thrones, and 12 more new theater reviews 

The Broadway musical based on Alison Bechdel's graphic novel and a Pinter classic are among this week's best bets.

click to enlarge Fun Home

Fun Home

Joan Marcus

click to enlarge CHICAGO CHILDREN'S THEATRE
  • Chicago Children's Theatre

[Recommended] Another Snowy Day With Beatrix Potter and Friends With Another Snowy Day, Will Bishop and Chicago Children's Theatre have crafted a winter puppet show extravaganza that's dazzling, brisk at under an hour, and sweet as can be. It's based on three of Beatrix Potter's animal stories, handsomely woven together by three actors who can do it all: They animate Peter Rabbit and his companions (one a ginormous fish) with beauty and dexterity. And they provide musical accompaniment on many instruments and sing in harmony. With their help, the beloved stories are brought to life with such joy that the finely realized puppets (designed by Grace Needlman) genuinely seem to laugh, cry, and speak. This is excellent children's theater. If you have babies, take them—they'll love it. If you are a baby, I'm very impressed with your reading skills and you should go: you'll love it. If you don't have babies, go make some! They'll love it! —Max Maller

click to enlarge Betrayal, at Raven Theatre - DEAN LA PRAIRIE
  • Betrayal, at Raven Theatre
  • Dean La Prairie

Betrayal Director Lauren Shouse's well-paced, astutely observed staging of Harold Pinter's 1978 semi-autobiographical play makes manifest just how inconsequential the work is, at least in comparison to Pinter's other dramas. Unspooling backward in time over nine years, it focuses on a trio of tortured cultural elites betraying one another in various ways. Emma (Abigail Boucher) has an affair with Jerry (Sam Guinan-Nyhart), best friend of her husband, Robert (Keith Neagle)—meaning Emma betrays her husband, Jerry betrays his wife and his best friend, and Emma betrays Jerry by confessing the affair to her husband behind Jerry's back. Shouse's cast has a solid grasp on Pinter's sublimated drama, with everything played excruciatingly close to the vest. Although there's little at stake beyond some terribly hurt feelings, fine performances make for a compelling, convincing 75 minutes. —Justin Hayford

click to enlarge Waltzing Mechanics' Cosmic Events Are Upon Us - TYLER CORE
  • Waltzing Mechanics' Cosmic Events Are Upon Us
  • Tyler Core

Cosmic Events Are Upon Us The challenge of adapting the fall of the Romanovs, Russia's last Tsarist family, is apparently getting out from under Anastasia. References to the 1997 animated movie are made throughout this Waltzing Mechanics production, and the specter it's haunted by is Disneyfication. Playwright-director Keely Leonard aims for empathetic engagement with Tsar Nicholas II and his family on the eve of the country's transition from monarchy to communism, and the result is that we're in the moral world of a kiddie film, where a tender embrace among oppressors will erase all wrongs and Stalin is played by an evil hand puppet. That said, it's a fun show, and free vodka shots in the lobby don't hurt the experience. —Max Maller

click to enlarge Chicago Opera Theater's The Fairy Queen - LIZ LAUREN
  • Chicago Opera Theater's The Fairy Queen
  • Liz Lauren

The Fairy Queen The newly restored Studebaker Theater is the plush setting for Chicago Opera Theater's new version of Henry Purcell's 17th century semi-opera (think musical theater), itself an adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Written by COT general director Andreas Mitisek and California-based satirical troupe Culture Clash, it's set in contemporary Las Vegas, where Ron (aka Oberon, king of the fairies), and Tanya (aka Titania, his wife), are staging a celebration at Club FQ, owned by the pink-haired, troublemaking Puck. There's a spat, a misapplied love potion, and a resulting bunch of very bawdy mayhem. Dialogue could be sharper, direction a tad less frenetic, but Purcell's score is played on period instruments by the fine Haymarket Opera Orchestra, and the cast is terrific—especially Marc Molomot as the stressed, hilarious Puck and Kimberly E. Jones as Tanya, with a royal treasure of a voice. It's about as much fun as you can have with the Baroque. —Deanna Isaacs

click to enlarge Circle Theatre's First Lady Suite
  • Circle Theatre's First Lady Suite

[Recommended] First Lady Suite Composer-librettist Michael John LaChiusa's artful chamber opera probes the privileges and pressures of being a presidential wife in a trio of inventive vignettes. One episode focuses on Jackie Kennedy from the perspective of her disgruntled, overworked secretary as the women wait aboard Air Force One before arriving in Dallas on a fateful November day in 1963; another finds inebriated Mamie Eisenhower fantasizing about a trip with black opera singer Marian Anderson to rouse Ike to action in the Arkansas school integration crisis; the third imaginatively explores the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and lesbian journalist Lorena Hickock, whose passionate devotion to Eleanor is only ambiguously reciprocated. LaChiusa's complex, challenging score is well delivered by a very fine ensemble under the guidance of director Nicholas Reinhart and musical director Nick Graffagna in this adventurous Circle Theatre production. —Albert Williams

click to enlarge Fun Home - JOAN MARCUS
  • Fun Home
  • Joan Marcus

[Recommended] Fun Home "I was Spartan to my father's Athenian, modern to his Victorian, butch to his nelly, utilitarian to his aesthete," writes Alison Bechdel in her best-selling graphic memoir Fun Home. By her freshman year in college she was also an out lesbian to his tortured, suicidal closet case. Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori's 2013 musical adaptation is worthy of Bechdel's deeply felt, subtly thought, funny, elegiac book. In dialogue as well as in songs that often take the form of a kind of tuneful recitative, Kron and Tesori lay out the intricate relationship that led her to self-knowledge and her father, Bruce, to self-destruction. This 100-minute Equity touring production too. Despite the occasional confusions of David Zinn's set design, Sam Gold's staging combines wit with great emotional clarity. Robert Petkoff reveals a truly dangerous Bruce. And Abby Corrigan stands out as one of three actors portraying Alison at different ages—especially when, having discovered sex, she sings, "I'm changing my major to Joan." —Tony Adler

click to enlarge Graeme of Thrones - PAUL WILKINSON
  • Graeme of Thrones
  • Paul Wilkinson

[Recommended] Graeme of Thrones Straight from London's West End, this Game of Thrones parody uses a low-budget production to deliver high-quality humor for both aficionados of the HBO show and uninitiated viewers like me. The Graeme of the title, played by a bumbling and endearing Ali Brice, is looking to impress his audience of high-powered investors (Andrew Lloyd Webber himself is rumored to be in attendance) with a taste of his stage re-creation of Thrones. In partnership with former classmate Bryony, played by a fearless and committed Libby Northedge, and friend Paul, played by a versatile and goofy Michael Condron, Graeme spoofs the Seven Kingdoms with seemingly unimpressive props stretched wildly past their potential. Northedge's "high art" scenes, including some inspired physical work with ham and confetti, are especially memorable. —Marissa Oberlander

click to enlarge Krampus! - GHOSTLIGHT ENSEMBLE
  • Krampus!
  • Ghostlight Ensemble

[Recommended] Krampus! It's about time someone put a little demonic possession into the Christmas season. Playwrights Jaclyn Jensen and Mike Wozniak of Ghostlight Ensemble strand the preternaturally midwestern Murray family, spearheaded by manically cheery matriarch Anne, in a secluded backwoods cabin where their Christmas plans are disrupted by a massive blizzard and a legendary evil spirit named Krampus, renowned in German folklore as Saint Nicholas's enforcer and punisher of naughty children. Krampus possesses Anne so tenaciously that two priests attempting exorcism end up as splattered innards all over Mr. Murray's Christmas sweater. The script's ham-fisted shlock fits nicely into the Underground Wonder Bar's sepulchral basement bar, and the gleefully uneven cast make no effort to conceal just how hokey and untenable the entire affair is. It's refreshingly awful. —Justin Hayford

click to enlarge The Little Flower of East Orange - SCOTT DRAY
  • The Little Flower of East Orange
  • Scott Dray

The Little Flower of East Orange Eclipse Theatre Company closes out its Stephen Adly Guirgis season with this 2008 gut punch about a dysfunctional family on the brink of absolute hell. A narcissistic, newly sober screw-up recalls, Glass Menagerie style, his personal failings expressing and receiving compassion from his sister and ailing mother during key days in a Bronx hospital room. Guirgis isn't the first playwright to take special pleasure in turning the thumbscrews on his characters and audience, or the first to wade into shame and borderline misanthropy; not unlike Conor McPherson, though, he does so for the higher purpose of illuminating grace where it matters most. Steve Scott's exceptionally cast production makes stellar use of Strawdog ensemble member John Henry Roberts as the narrator coming to terms with his choices. —Dan Jakes

click to enlarge Theater Unspeakable's Moon Shoot: A Race to Space - BEN GONZALES
  • Theater Unspeakable's Moon Shoot: A Race to Space
  • Ben Gonzales

[Recommended] Moon Shot: A Race to Space Theater Unspeakable's latest project tells the story of the 1969 Apollo 11 lunar landing through a nonlinear narrative that moves back and forth in time, from Neil Armstrong's boyhood play to the end of his marriage to his monumental step on the moon's surface. Mark Frost and his troupe have developed a singular style that places seven actors on a 21-foot platform, where the story is told through an immersive, mutable physical language, bodies morphing and shifting elegantly and collectively, offering moments with historical figures like John F. Kennedy, Russian astronaut Yuri Gargarin, and German rocket builder Wernher von Braun. There's an impressive emphasis on the women who were trained to go to space but denied the opportunity, as well as on the many female mathematicians behind the scenes at NASA who were crucial to making this happen. A Chicago Children's Theatre production, the show's aimed at kids ten and over. —Suzanne Scanlon

click to enlarge Murder on Mount Olympus, at Public House Theatre - BYRON HATFIELD
  • Murder on Mount Olympus, at Public House Theatre
  • Byron Hatfield

Murder on Mount Olympus When we first encounter some leather-bound tome containing the collected works of Plautus, we might treat it with a quiet reverence—only to open it and find a page full of fart jokes. A live performance, hiccuping and heckling audience and all, is all the more true to the spirit and letter of the text. (Farts, in the round!) So should one want to put on an ancient play authentically, there might be no better place than the Public House Theatre, where for good measure it'll also be accompanied by the continuous hum of rowdy chortles from the long-running drinking show, Bye Bye Liver, playing next door. In Byron Hatfield's whodunnit, a group of deities find themselves trapped in a room somewhere in Mount Olympus, Illinois. Warily, they accept the butler's refreshments of chocolates and lukewarm whiskey. They wise up when the specter of death himself suddenly keels over. No one is safe—not the affable pup-headed Aztec god Xolotl or even Zeus himself. Sure, the play's a little messy. But it captures the weird, chaotic spirit of classical comedy. —Isabel Ochoa Gold

click to enlarge Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Out of This World - JEFF KAVANAUGH
  • Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Out of This World
  • Jeff Kavanaugh

[Recommended] Out of This World A gaping hole was left in the Greatest Show on Earth when after years of criticism from animal rights advocates the elephants were retired last spring. But it's a hole the folks of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, stealing a page from Cirque du Soleil, have filled with a diverting narrative in which the ringmaster and his sidekick go on a quest to save the circus stars from the evil intergalactic Queen Tatiana. As in Cirque shows, the plot, however loose, gives sharpness and coherence to what might otherwise be a fragmented revue-style show. This edition has three additional strengths: a terrific pace (not a single act drags), terrific musical accompaniment (no dependence on circus cliches or overplayed top 40), and costumes that are pure eye candy. —Jack Helbig

click to enlarge Pegasus Theatre's Rutherford's Travels - JOE MAZZA
  • Pegasus Theatre's Rutherford's Travels
  • Joe Mazza

Rutherford's Travels Adapted from Charles Johnson's National Book Award-winning novel Middle Passage, by Ilesa Duncan (who also directs) and David Barr III, Rutherford's Travels follows the picaresque adventures of a freedman named Rutherford Calhoun (ably played by Breon Arzell) who, while trying to make his fortune in antebellum New Orleans, unwittingly stows away on a slave ship bound for Africa. Johnson's tale echoes Poe, Melville, Conrad, and a host of others, but what makes his work extraordinary is how well he balances the protagonist's personal journey with a searing indictment of the peculiar institution and the slave trade. Likewise, in translating the story from page to stage for Pegasus Theatre, Duncan and Barr succeed in giving us a ripping yarn that makes us feel—and reflect. —Jack Helbig

click to enlarge Artemisia's Shrewish - BEN GONZALES
  • Artemisia's Shrewish
  • Ben Gonzales

Shrewish The Taming of the Shrew is, notoriously, one of Shakespeare's more problematic plays in that it appears to advocate domestic abuse as a way of getting women to shut up and obey their master-husbands. In Barbara Zahora's original adaptation for Artemisia Theatre, a group of Weird Sisters transforms a boorish man into the shrewish Kate to show him what it's like to have his words and wishes ignored in the hopes that once he is restored to himself, he will teach other men what he has learned. It's an interesting premise and the performances are engaging, but the execution is muddled. At the end, our dude says he will try to listen better. Do or do not, motherfucker. There is no try. —Aimee Levitt

click to enlarge Singin' in the Rain, at the Marriott Lincolnwood - JUSTIN BARBIN
  • Singin' in the Rain, at the Marriott Lincolnwood
  • Justin Barbin

Singin' in the Rain Tammy Mader has choreographed some sweet bits for this version of the 1983 stage musical based on the celebrated movie. The sequence set to "Gotta Dance" is a particularly big, bright deal, and the tapping overall is sharp. As good as Mader, director William Brown, and the cast are, though, they haven't solved an essential problem: the original—an MGM-produced tale of silent screen stars dealing with the advent of talkies—remains unforgettable. The 1952 celluloid performances by Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds haunt each scene and song here. In fact, Brown and Mader abet the haunting (what choice do they have?) by duplicating the film's classic moments, from the upset sofa in "Good Morning" to, of course, the deluge in the title number. You leave the theater humming the tunes, sure enough, but also wondering why you didn't simply stream the movie. —Tony Adler

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Agenda Teaser

Galleries & Museums
Moholy-Nagy: Future Present Art Institute of Chicago
October 02
Galleries & Museums
Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera Northwestern University Block Museum of Art
September 17

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