Our ten best bets for fall theater | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

Our ten best bets for fall theater 

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

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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.


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.


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.


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

Galleries & Museums
Deborah Baker: 6B Firecat Projects
November 17
Performing Arts
Twelfth Night Lincoln Park Conservatory
November 30

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