Our ten best bets for fall theater 

Trainspotting: the play, 44 plays for 44 presidents, and more

Trainspotting

Trainspotting

Sweet Bird of Youth

The Artistic Home mounted a beautiful production of Sweet Bird of Youth just two years ago. But as Obie Award-winning director David Cromer notes, "Great art is different every time." An idiosyncratic risk taker with a knack for revealing new facets of well-known scripts, Cromer is making his directorial debut at the Goodman Theatre this fall with that same Sweet Bird—Tennessee Williams's 1959 drama about an over-the-hill actress shacked up with an aging gigolo in a Palm Beach hotel. It will star Oscar-nominated actress Diane Lane and TV heartthrob (and onetime Evanstonian) Finn Wittrock.

"Williams was always writing," says Cromer, a native Chicagoan whose local credits include Our Town for the Hypocrites, A Streetcar Named Desire at Writers' Theatre, and, most recently, Rent at American Theater Company. "He wrote all day every day. It was a need, an addiction, a hunger—and that hunger to keep going runs through this elusive, ever-changing play."

Though Sweet Bird can come off as melodrama, Cromer intends to reveal it as a poetic reflection on the ephemerality of youth, beauty, and love, mined from Williams's own emotional problems and substance dependency. "Sometimes when you watch a play about people in hotel rooms drinking and doing drugs, it's about, 'Look how pathetic they are,'" says Cromer. "I want to go the other way—not distance the audience, but draw them into the characters' experience. Kind of Stockholm syndrome them." Albert Williams 9/14-10/25: Wed-Sun and Tue 10/16, check with theater for showtimes, Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $27-$88.

Metamorphoses

Not that it happens very often, but just let someone mention Ovid's Metamorphoses to me and two great artworks come immediately to mind. The first is Gian Lorenzo Bernini's sculpture Apollo and Daphne, showing the precise moment at which the smitten sun god has caught up with the latest object of his affections only to find her turning into a tree. And the second? Mary Zimmerman's stage adaptation of several stories from the 2,000-year-old collection, as performed by Lookingglass Theatre in 1998.

Specifically, I think of the big pool of water that dominated the set. Actors waded through that pool, floated across it on an inflatable raft, soaked laundry and frisked in it, emerged from and disappeared into its depths. More important, they became marvelous characters. Midas, whose touch turns his daughter to gold. Orpheus and Eurydice, who nearly conquer death. Alcyone and Ceyx, who actually do conquer death, transformed into birds. The water somehow made all of it possible.

Zimmerman's show went to Broadway in 2002 and won her a whole slew of awards, including a Tony for best direction. To commemorate the tenth anniversary of that triumph, she and Lookingglass are reviving Metamorphoses. Should go swimmingly. Tony Adler 9/19-11/18: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 7:30 PM, check with theater for exceptions, Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan, 312-337-0665, lookingglasstheatre.org, $28-$70.

Don't Give That Beast a Name

"The way we approach faith can be at times fun and at times horrifying," says playwright Randall Colburn, discussing Don't Give That Beast a Name, his current collaboration with Mammals artistic director Bob Fisher. (Reader contributor Zac Thompson called their last one, Dream Journal of Dr. Jekyll, "inventively grotesque.") The new play centers on Frank and Marie, folk musicians in a small Appalachian town, who fall in love at first sight. Trouble is, he's a snake-handling fundamentalist while she prefers more liberal expressions of religious devotion. Their different methods of praying pull them apart.

Religion has been a theme of Colburn's writing since college, when he fell in love with a preacher's daughter and Jesus at the same time. Although he no longer identifies as born again, he says he tries to depict the search for faith in a way that isn't judgmental. With Beast he means to question the reality of love at first sight—whether it's love of another person or of God. Julia Thiel 9/22-11/3: Fri-Sat 8 PM, no Friday shows 9/28-10/12. Zoo Studios, 4001 N. Ravenswood, 866-593-4614, chicagomammals.com, $20.

Woyzeck on the Highveld

The Handspring Puppet Company's most famous creations are entrancing equines made of steel, leather, and aircraft cables. Those Tony-winning contraptions will gallop into the Cadillac Palace Theatre in December, when War Horse arrives. But an older drama by the South African company hits Chicago first. Woyzeck on the Highveld shifts Georg Büchner's classic play from 1830s Germany to 1950s Johannesburg; the title character is no longer a German soldier but a black migrant worker, who suffers through dehumanizing indignities, including sexual humiliation and quack medical experiments.

One of South Africa's best-known artists, William Kentridge, directed and designed the original production in 1992, just after the collapse of apartheid, supplying a landscape of animated drawings before which Handspring's carved-wood, bunraku-style puppets acted out the tale of woe.

The company plans to retire the show after this tour, which includes a stop at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where it'll dovetail with "MCA DNA: William Kentridge" (9/22-3/17), an exhibit of Kettridge's films and palimpsest-like drawings. When Woyzeck on the Highveld first played Chicago in 1994, the Reader's Albert Williams called it "grim stuff—stark, moody, and quietly relentless—that demands and rewards close attention." Robert Loerzel 9/27-9/30: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, 312-397-4010, mcachicago.org, $10-$35.

44 Plays for 44 Presidents

Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller are great, but presidential politics are America's best theater—a fact the Neo-Futurists recognized when they staged 43 Plays for 43 Presidents back in 2002. Giving our nation's commanders in chief a short play apiece, 43 supplied a wry, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind-style look at the goonishness, violence, and ego that have accompanied the office. It also brought more people to the Neo-Futurarium than any prior full-length show, and the playwrights say Jimmy Carter once guffawed at the Reagan bit.

Like other great plays, election season gets restaged on a regular basis. So the company is doing an update, appended for President number 44 after his neatly absurd first term. Between Obamacare, Osama bin Laden, and old boy Joe Biden, there's a lot of ground to cover. Asher Klein 10/4-11/10: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland, 773-275-5255, neofutrusts.org, $10-$20.

Black Watch

War being hell, it may seem perverse to want to revisit one, but this show actually makes me look forward to experiencing the inferno a second time. Chicago Shakespeare Theater brought the National Theatre of Scotland to town last year to perform Gregory Burke's based-on-awful-fact look at what happened to a fabled Scottish regiment—the Black Watch—during a 2004 deployment to Iraq's "Triangle of Death." Appropriately staged at the Broadway Armory, it appropriately blew the roof off the place. Now the production is being brought back to do it again.

Under John Tiffany's direction the nearly two-hour piece is as delicate as it is crude, humorous as it is horrific, with an intense ensemble feel that speaks powerfully to the responsibility the men of the Black Watch assumed for one another. Music and movement help to heighten that intensity as the narrative cuts back and forth among postwar reminiscences, battlefield traumas (as well as bouts of boredom), and antic interpolations that provide historical context. As I said in my review the first time around, It's a "tour de force about a tour of duty."

In a separate engagement (9/26-10/14) and apparently very different vein, the NTS is also mounting The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, which is said to to be a "romp" involving "wild karaoke." Tony Adler 10/10-10/21: Tue-Wed and Fri 8 PM, Thu 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway, 312-595-5600, chicagoshakes.com, $38-$52.

Trainspotting

What's next? A Trainspotting app? Irvine Welsh's gritty tale of heroin addicts in 1980s Edinburgh started out as a novel in 1993 and was quickly turned into a movie directed by Danny Boyle (definitely its best-known iteration) and a play written by Harry Gibson. Now Chicago-based director Tom Mullen, whose credits run from off-Loop to Barnum and Bailey, has "readapted" Gibson's script for the "American landscape," keeping the same characters but moving them to the outskirts of Kansas City, Missouri.

That may sound like a dumbing down—a story set in the UK shouldn't be so awfully difficult to grasp—but not having to listen to American actors attempt prole-Scottish accents is a definite plus in my book. The play includes new material by Welsh, who now divides his time between Chicago and Miami. And incidentally, he has found yet another way to wring some mileage out of Trainspotting: a prequel titled Skagboys is due to be released September 17. Julia Thiel 10/12-12/2: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 7 and 9:30 PM, Sun 5 PM, Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150, theaterwit.org, $32.

Unspeakable

There are a couple things practically everybody knows about Richard Pryor. One: in 1967, when he was on the Bill Cosby track, prepping to be America's next favorite really nice black guy, Pryor had an epiphany during a performance, left his Las Vegas audience in the lurch, and fled to Berkeley, where he reinvented himself as the no-holds-barred storyteller and shaman who became one of our greatest comics. Two: at the height of his Hollywood success, he turned himself into a human torch while freebasing and ran through the streets on fire. Unspeakable by Rod Gailes and James Murray Jackson Jr. focuses mostly on a chunk of Pryor's messy life that would just about fit between those events.

The cast includes Isaiah Washington of Grey's Anatomy fame, but the real draw may be coauthor Jackson as Pryor—a role that landed him an Outstanding Lead Actor award when an early version of the show ran in the 2005 New York International Fringe Festival. The best of Pryor's concert work was sheer genius; it'd be a thrill to see it live again. Deanna Isaacs Update 9/13, 11:25 AM: The Royal George Theater announced today that Unspeakable has been postponed until spring. 10/16-11/25: Tue-Thu 7:30 PM, Friday 8 PM, Sat 5 and 8 PM, Sun 3 and 7 PM, Royal George Theatre Center, 1641 N. Halsted, 312-988-9000, ticketmaster.com, $49.50-$62.50.

The Book Thief

I was around 14 years old when I read Markus Zusak's teen novel The Book Thief, and it reduced me to a complete, sobbing wreck. The same thing happened to Hallie Gordon, who's directing a new stage adaptation of the book for Steppenwolf for Young Adults. "I don't think I ever cried so hard," she told me. "I was a mess, I couldn't even read it in public."

I wanted to say, I know, right?

The book concerns a young German girl, the titular thief, whose family hides a Jew in their house during World War II. The narrator is Death (yes, that Death), and even though he tells you in advance who won't survive the war, it's still a complete punch in the gut when it happens. This production is linked with One Book, One Chicago, which made The Book Thief its fall selection, and Now Is the Time, an initiative that aims to inspire youth to stand up against violence and intolerance in their communities. The adapters certainly chose a powerful story to capture those themes. Sharon Lurye 10/20-11/4: Sat 3 and 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, no 7:30 PM show on 10/20, Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org, $20, two-for-one on Sundays.

Hellcab

I don't which I found more attractive about Will Kern's dark comedy when I first saw it in December 1992—the utter simplicity of its premise (an evening in the life of a Chicago cabdriver as revealed in a series of slice-of-life vignettes) or its unadorned honesty. Though it was never billed as autobiography, the piece felt like nonfiction, as if the play had been cobbled together from transcripts of actual conversations. Kern later told me he wrote Hellcab during odd free moments in his cab-driving day.

The simplicity and the honesty are entwined, of course, and account for Hellcab's longevity as a late-night cult favorite, the original Famous Door production having run for over nine years. A show packed with fascinating oddballs and compelling, character-based comedy is just plain going to appeal to audiences. And by the way, a show that requires a simple set like the one Hellcab used (the front and seats of a cab on a movable flat) is going to appeal to producers.

If the Famous Door folks hadn't closed their doors in 2005 they might be celebrating Hellcab's 20th anniversary with a revival. Instead, that honor has gone to Profiles Theatre—which is fitting, since Profiles owes its own 24-year longevity to graceful simplicity, from-the-gut honesty, and a gift for turning out strong productions on a shoestring. Jack Helbig 11/9-12/23: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 5 and 8 PM, Sun 7 PM, no 5 PM show Sat 11/10, the Main Stage, 4139 N. Broadway, 773-549-1815, profilestheatre.org, $15-$40.

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Agenda Teaser

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Three Days of Rain Heartland Studio Theatre
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May 06

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