Arnie the Doughnut, Tangles and Plaques, and 11 more new stage shows to see | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

Arnie the Doughnut, Tangles and Plaques, and 11 more new stage shows to see 

A delightful kids' show and a Neo-Futurist's look at dementia are among this week's best bets.

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click to enlarge Lifeline Theatre's Arnie the Doughnut

Lifeline Theatre's Arnie the Doughnut

Suzanne Plunkett

[Recommended] Arnie the Doughnut Can a rainbow-sprinkled doughnut and a rules-loving man find happiness together without one eating the other or without both running afoul of the overzealous condo board president? These are the central questions of Frances Limoncelli's adaptation of Laurie Keller's children's book, and while some of the solutions defy basic logic, who really cares? Doughnuts make everything better! Lifeline's current production is a delight, from George Howe's songs to Rachel Sypniewski's doughnut costumes, and especially Juanita Andersen's performance as the evil condo board president and the French Cruller.
—Aimee Levitt

click to enlarge Black Ensemble Theater's The Black Renaissance (A Musical Resistance Against Racism) - MICHAEL COURIER
  • Black Ensemble Theater's The Black Renaissance (A Musical Resistance Against Racism)
  • Michael Courier

[Recommended] The Black Renaissance This pageantlike "musical resistance against racism," written and directed by Jackie Taylor for her Black Ensemble Theater, features original songs as well as spoken testimony describing the long, wearying history of institutionalized racism in America, from colonial days to the present. The narrative describes a repeated pattern of progress and backlash—for example, post-Civil War Reconstruction followed by a wave of Ku Klux Klan lynchings, or the two-term presidency of Barack Obama followed by the election of Donald Trump. A major theme of Taylor's script is the dehumanizing impact—on people of every race—of systemic racism in America over the centuries, the poison that has turned the American "melting pot" into a witches' brew of conflict and chaos. The show is packed with rousing musical numbers in gospel, R&B, rap, and reggae idioms, powerfully sung by a first-rate cast backed by a dynamic offstage band under drummer Robert Reddrick's direction. —Albert Williams

click to enlarge Underscore Theatre Company's Carrie 2: The Rage - EVAN HANOVER
  • Underscore Theatre Company's Carrie 2: The Rage
  • Evan Hanover

Carrie 2: The Rage You can learn stuff from Underscore Theatre Company's "unauthorized musical parody." Like, did you know that there was a Broadway musical based on Carrie, the 1976 horror movie about a teenage girl with a bad case of telekinetic anger? Yes. It ran for five performances in 1988. And did you further know that somebody made a movie sequel to Carrie called The Rage: Carrie 2, about another teen girl named Rachel who—what were the chances?—lives in the same town and has the same problem? Writer/composer Preston Max Allen takes the sequel as his starting point, going to some trouble to build a conceit that will bring us up to speed on its insipidity. The effort doesn't really work, but no matter: once things get going, his songs and a solid cast make for rude fun. Choreographer Maggie Robinson supplies a surprisingly lovely flashback. And, under codirectors Rachel Elise Johnson and Isaac Loomer, the final number neatly satirizes Spring Awakening. —Tony Adler

The Danztheatre Playwright Festival Chicago Danztheatre tries to sell its new playwright festival as a first for Chicago, attempting to inflate the importance of a standard series of new works combining dance and theater. The first three of the nine pieces are borderline incomprehensible, their scripts seemingly intentionally obscure, and the stilted choreography fails to illuminate the dramatic action. A glimmer of hope appears with Getting Old Sucks, the only piece devised and choreographed by its performers: here there's intention behind the movement, and the physical activity ties into the longing for youth explored in the script. But the festival misses an opportunity to go out on a high note, ending with a slight scene about dancing Mennonites rather than with Nelia Miller's Cetalogy, a poetic, high-energy solo performance about an encounter between Moby-Dick and the biblical whale that swallowed Jonah. —Oliver Sava

click to enlarge Pivot Arts' Don't Look Back/Must Look Back - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Pivot Arts' Don't Look Back/Must Look Back
  • Michael Brosilow

Don't Look Back/Must Look Back Last year, Albany Park Theater Project used the shuttered Ellen Gates Starr High School building to incredible effect for the site-specific drama Learning Curve. For this 75-minute promenade experience by Tanya Palmer about immigration, the grown-ups at Pivot Arts operate out of a similar playbook in and around the Chinese Mutual Aid Association office in Uptown. But the long, artsy movement and dance interludes don't educate as well here—cursory overviews of realities like ESL classes and resettlement financing give way to abstruse and scattershot fragments. An indicative moment: audiences are asked to sit on the floor in a room and reflect on context-free statistics projected on the wall, then handed a snack of rambutan. Rather than tapping into Uptown's rich history, Devon de Mayo's production mostly exploits it as set dressing. —Dan Jakes

click to enlarge Pride Films & Plays' His Greatness - PAUL GOYETTE
  • Pride Films & Plays' His Greatness
  • Paul Goyette

[Recommended] His Greatness No doubt about it, Tennessee Williams got messier with age. When I attempted to interview him (in 1982, a year before his death) he drank his lunch, wouldn't stop ranting about another critic who'd done him dirt, and unilaterally declared our conversation over, storming off in his enormous fur coat. His Greatness is set around the time of that fiasco. Playwright Daniel MacIvor focuses on Williams's brief sojourn in Vancouver, where his drug-and-liquor-stoked exploits apparently became part of local lore. In this fictionalized account, an artist very (very!) like Williams hits highs and lows while his long-suffering assistant and an ambitious young hustler vie for his affections. The scenario is as familiar as it is pathetic, but MacIvor and director David Zak invest this Pride Films and Play's production with an elegiac quality right out of The Glass Menagerie, without sacrificing the situation's delicious vulgarity. Danne W. Taylor is perfect—addled and sly, sad and sybaritic—as the pseudo Williams. —Tony Adler

The Last Days of the Commune - COURTESY PROP THTR
  • The Last Days of the Commune
  • Courtesy Prop Thtr

The Last Days of the Commune Prop Thtr presents a multimedia take on Bertolt Brecht's last, unfinished play. In the waning days of the Paris workers' uprising of 1871, everyday people struggle unsuccessfully to form a new kind of society before being mowed down by the novel technology of the rapid-fire mitrailleuse. Similarly, the play throws songs, video, and various forms of speechifying at the audience, trying in vain to tell this story of grand failure. The music—composed and directed by Kyle Ann Greer, playing keyboards near stage left—rarely blends with the dialogue and the amplified instruments often drown out the unamplified singing, while the video segments are unnecessary and often inaudible. The busy shuttling of 23-member cast on- and offstage contributes to a cacophonous and inchoate production that leaves the audience bludgeoned and bloodied on the barricades much like those poor Communards. Stefan Brün directed. —Dmitry Samarov

click to enlarge Refuge Theatre Project's Lysistrata Jones - ZEKE DOLEZALEK
  • Refuge Theatre Project's Lysistrata Jones
  • Zeke Dolezalek

[Recommended] Lysistrata Jones Refuge Theatre Project's fun follow-up to its acclaimed production of High Fidelity: The Musical takes the well-told story of Lysistrata back to school in a musical comedy with book by Douglas Carter Beane and score by Lewis Flinn. Set at Athens University, the story follows the school's perennially losing basketball team and cheerleader Lysistrata Jones's (Mary-Margaret Roberts) master plan to have the athletes' girlfriends stop "giving it up" until they get a win. Under Justin Brill's direction, the sexual premise surprisingly pivots into a story about finding love in unexpected places and being yourself, with lush, catchy harmonies and high-energy dance numbers choreographed by Shanna VanDerwerker. The book has glimpses of sharp humor, but could use work on some of its easy stereotypes and metaexplanations of its ancient source material.
—Marissa Oberlander

Mr. Lee's Night of Horror Like most horror movies, Mr. Lee is a show about sounds—and the absence thereof. Building suspense are the pauses after the sound of a creaky floorboard, an unidentifiable scream, or, in this case, a sudden rendition of Limp Bizkit's "Nookie," performed by two actors rushing the stage as a third actor eats a sandwich. In fact, Mr. Lee leans too heavily on silence—the line "What was that?" might as well be the subtitle. Whether characters are sitting in a car waiting to validate an urban legend about a goat-faced woman or making themselves at home in a dilapidated old house, they react to creepy noises by saying, and doing, nothing. Well, they do occasionally talk, but it's slight variations on the tagline: "What the fuck was that shit? Jesus fucking Christ!" Despite its roots in bloodcurdling horror, this show makes barely a peep. —Steve Heisler

click to enlarge The Gift Theatre's A Swell in the Ground - CLAIRE DEMOS
  • The Gift Theatre's A Swell in the Ground
  • Claire Demos

A Swell in the Ground When your romantic partner doesn't listen, or says insensitive things, or pays an old flame a visit, or cheats on you, or breaks up with you, you feel shitty, especially if your career sucks and/or your parents die. That's about all there is to Janine Nabers's world premiere navel-gazer, in which four college friends pair up, split up, recombine, and feel shitty across 17 years. Like many young contemporary playwrights, Nabers seems convinced her job begins and ends with letting characters stew, fret, seethe, and occasionally wax quirkily poetic, as though the expression of reasonably injured feelings is compelling drama. The talents of director Chika Ike's admirably thoughtful cast make these 105 minutes more compelling than they ought to be. —Justin Hayford

click to enlarge The Neo-Futurists' Tangles & Plaques - JOE MAZZA
  • The Neo-Futurists' Tangles & Plaques
  • Joe Mazza

[Recommended] Tangles & Plaques This remarkable play by Neo-Futurist Kirsten Riiber asks how it feels to remember nothing. To lose, first, the reality at hand—where your comb is, what day it is, who let you into the room. Then the big stuff. Hitchhiking in the south of France that summer with a girl in a yellow jumpsuit. Weddings, birthdays. The nostalgias: famous movie lines, "three easy payments of $19.95," first kisses. Finally, like the flicker of a dying match in a dark theater, everything goes. What happens to the memories? What will happen to us without them? Inspired in part by Riiber's work as an assistant in a retirement community, the piece challenges its audiences to experience the decline into oblivion as sufferers of dementia themselves experience it. The result is a funny, scary, and ultimately transformative journey. Jen Ellison directs. —Max Maller

click to enlarge Third Eye Productions' With Blood, With Ink - CLINT FUNK
  • Third Eye Productions' With Blood, With Ink
  • Clint Funk

[Recommended] With Blood, With Ink Seventeenth-century poet and scholar Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a seminal figure in Mexican literature, among other things, had the misfortune to live in a time when women were to be silent and submissive. This chamber opera about her life and death—written in 1993 by Daniel Crozier (music) and Peter M. Krask's (libretto) when they were doctoral candidates at Johns Hopkins's Peabody Conservatory and revived here by the Third Eye Theatre Ensemble—communicates well the tension between her cramped, constricted life and her expansive, creative soul, a tension heightened by the contrast between the simple, spartan staging in Prop Thtr's smallish performing space and the soaring notes director Rose Freeman's full-throated ensemble lets fly. —Jack Helbig

click to enlarge Zombie Bathhouse: A Rock Musical - COURTESY CAMPSONGS PRODUCTIONS
  • Zombie Bathhouse: A Rock Musical
  • Courtesy Campsongs Productions

Zombie Bathhouse: A Rock Musical Given the precedents in theater for bawdy LGBTQ comedy and undead-themed Halloween send-ups, it's astonishing that combining the two could result in a concoction as jaw-dropping as this two-hour-plus rock musical from Campsong Productions. A self-pitying gay DJ with an ostentatiously proud mother fends off the towel-wearing undead after regulars in an occult group cause a zombie outbreak at a Steamworks-like sauna. That setup (book by Brian Kirst) is workable fodder for good jokes, but Dan Foss's production features strangely earnest ballads and weird sung-spoken raps between overlong bits of exposition. Scott Free's music and lyrics win a special award for strange bedmates with a pro-gay, pro-Second Amendment tune featuring the refrain "I love my son / I love my gun." —Dan Jakes

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