Grounded, Dogs of Rwanda, and a dozen more new theater reviews | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

Grounded, Dogs of Rwanda, and a dozen more new theater reviews 

Two solo performances are among this week's best bets.

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Amber Kelly in Grounded

Amber Kelly in Grounded

Travis Taylor

Allá en San Fernando Collectivo El Pozo presents Allá en San Fernando as a commemoration of 72 would-be immigrants murdered on August 24, 2010, victims of corruption and bloodlust along the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Raúl Doronte's play (which is performed in Spanish with English supertitles) begins on a desert plain, with two snickering assassins, a knife, and three helpless women—Judith (Leslie Magdalena Holguín), Salomé (José Rochel), and María (Carolina Escrich). As they mutter prayers under their breath, the women are summarily executed—and I don't know how to describe what comes next except as a highly redemptive clown journey through the afterlife. It is so weird, and so weirdly beautiful, to hear these dead souls gossip and tap dance; Holguín is delightful as a kind of ringleader. The play allows itself such winning levity in its second act that the mournful aspects—the solemnity, the candles—start to feel overceremonious and dull. —Max Maller

click to enlarge Stage Left Theatre's The Bottle Tree - IAN MCLAREN
  • Stage Left Theatre's The Bottle Tree
  • Ian McLaren

The Bottle Tree Beth Kander's new drama centers on and takes an empathetic look at Alley (Kathryn Acosta), the younger sister of a notorious school shooter, as she tries to move on at a new school, then ten years later, when she's still trying to come to terms with his actions. Amy Szerlong's Stage Left Theatre production slowly creates a convincing and rich character portrait. Too much, though, gets lost behind its central poetic visual metaphor, and flashback scenes can't overcome the stagnating effect of therapist couch back-and-forths. —Dan Jakes

click to enlarge Right Brain Project's The Dancing Plague - JOSEPH RAMSKI
  • Right Brain Project's The Dancing Plague
  • Joseph Ramski

The Dancing Plague The Right Brain Project's new ensemble piece examines the outbreak of involuntary dancing that struck Strasbourg, Alsace, in 1518. Over the course of a month, some 400 people danced without stopping, many dying of heart attack or exhaustion. It all ended as quickly and mysteriously as it began. Playwright Joseph Ramski focuses on tensions between medical and religious authorities as they attempt to diagnose and cure the plague, as well as the way civic and church leaders shore up their power by exploiting the townspeople's fear. It might be resonant, topical stuff were it not for Ramski's overly digressive structure, which obscures much of the fundamental storytelling. And director Nathan Robbel packs so many people into a tiny space his stage images are often hopelessly cluttered. —Justin Hayford

click to enlarge Third Eye Theatre Ensemble's Dark Sisters - CLINT FUNK
  • Third Eye Theatre Ensemble's Dark Sisters
  • Clint Funk

Dark Sisters Composer Nico Muhly's inspiration for this opera was a 2008 raid on a Texas compound of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, in which the government, concerned about early forced marriages and polygamy, removed the sect's children. It's powerful material, developed by librettist Stephen Karam into a feminist drama that focuses on the lives of five wives of a single husband/prophet. But it was written for seven voices (six of them female) and a 13-piece orchestra. In this production, by Third Eye Theatre Ensemble, a rotating cast is accompanied only by music director Jason Carlson on keyboard. He does a valiant job, and on the night I saw it the show featured piercing dramatic performances, but we're left wondering what the score should really sound like. —Deanna Isaacs

click to enlarge Sean Christopher Lewis's Dogs of Rwanda, at 16th Street Theater - ANTHONY AICARDI
  • Sean Christopher Lewis's Dogs of Rwanda, at 16th Street Theater
  • Anthony Aicardi

[Recommended] Dogs of Rwanda Written and performed by Sean Christopher Lewis, this powerful world-premiere production skillfully balances two stories, one public (the 1994 Rwandan genocide), the other personal (an account of two young American missionaries caught up in the upheaval, told by one of the survivors), without getting bogged down in lots of reportage or distorting the facts for the sake of a ripping yarn. Instead, Lewis delivers the gripping tale of a callow, lovesick young man who only went to Africa to be with his crush and got much, much more than he bargained for.
—Jack Helbig

click to enlarge Grounded - TRAVIS TAYLOR
  • Grounded
  • Travis Taylor

[Recommended] Grounded George Brant's 2012 one-hander about an air force pilot grounded by pregnancy, then transferred to drone duty takes a well-worn topic, the psychic damage wrought by military conflict, and finds something new to say by focusing on the ways battle has changed since the advent of remote-control air strikes. In particular, Brant explores the alienation of fighting a war as if it were a video game and the strain of living a life that consists of 12 hours of stalking and killing followed by 12 hours of domesticity—as Brant's protagonist, the Pilot, puts it: "It would be a different book, The Odyssey, if Odysseus came home every day." Director Lexi Saunders has fashioned a spartan production that depends entirely on the show's lone actor, Amber Kelly, to engage and unnerve us, something she does with remarkable power and grace. Through it all Kelly keeps us in her crosshairs, and in the process she, and Brant, open up our eyes to the fresh hell that is postmodern warfare. —Jack Helbig

click to enlarge Polarity Ensemble Theatre's Leavings - JACKIE JASPERSON
  • Polarity Ensemble Theatre's Leavings
  • Jackie Jasperson

Leavings Gail Parrish's new drama has exciting potential, but this world premiere by Polarity Ensemble Theatre reveals a sprawling, sometimes confusing script in serious need of restructuring and compression. It's the story of a 111-year-old African-American woman in Chicago whose singular mission is to heal the ancient wounds the legacy of slavery has left on her family—including the conservative white Mississippi governor with whom she shares some ancestors and her troubled young great-nephew, who refuses to accept that he is the father of a black baby with "white eyes." The play mixes history, genetics, and even supernatural elements as it jumps back and forth between past and present to chronicle a painful history that all Americans share. This is a promising work on an important subject, and director Ashley Honore Roberson's well-acted production is worth seeing, but Parrish needs to heighten the suspense inherent in the tale's premise. —Albert Williams

click to enlarge Cock and Bull Theatre's Lecherous Honey - REBECCA MEMOLI
  • Cock and Bull Theatre's Lecherous Honey
  • Rebecca Memoli

Lecherous Honey This promenade-style production from Cock and Bull Theatre is presented as an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, but what it really does is strip all the nuance from Ibsen's plot and do the play as if it were a dime-store historical romance set somewhere in Norway, near a fjord. Helene Alving, the widow of a ship's captain, has pressured her son, Oswald, into coming home from his artist's life in Paris, ignorant of the fact that Oswald has inherited syphilis from his dead father, who caught it in the course of an affair with the maid. Oswald now falls in love with the daughter of that same maid, his half-sister, even as syphilis eats through his bones. In Ibsen, you get Helene's unbearable disdain for her husband's wrongdoing, mixed with simultaneous love and contempt for their son, mixed with Oswald's illness and mounting dread. In Lecherous Honey, you get mother and son dry-humping on the couch. —Max Maller

click to enlarge Theatre Y's Macbeth - DEVRON ENARSON
  • Theatre Y's Macbeth
  • Devron Enarson

Macbeth As a veteran of Ariane Mnouchkine's legendary Théâtre du Soleil, French actor/director Georges Bigot can claim impressive avant-garde bona fides. The mere fact that Chicago's Theatre Y was able to collaborate with him in developing this idiosyncratic Macbeth is impressive. But the onstage result is an exasperating grind. The piece starts out interestingly, with the witches ("When shall we three meet again?") presented as hippie chicks, alternating between sweet nothings and vicious roars while backed by a 1950s pop hit, the Diamonds' "Little Darlin'." Their scenes remain creative respites throughout. But virtually everything else here is built around an elementary opposition—false facade vs. savage reality—that first grows tedious and then, given the technical shortcomings of some of the players, ludicrous. It's telling that in Bigot's hands Shakespeare's briefest tragedy comes in at three hours. —Tony Adler

click to enlarge Runaways Lab Theatre's Mary Shelley Sees the Future - BETH ROONEY
  • Runaways Lab Theatre's Mary Shelley Sees the Future
  • Beth Rooney

Mary Shelley Sees the Future Most people would agree that Frankenstein author Mary Shelley was ahead of her time. Playwright Olivia Lilley and Runaways Lab Theatre make it literal in Mary Shelley Sees the Future. Through some inexplicable force, a despondent Shelley swaps bodies with an aspiring young 21st-century writer named Mya, who, upon recognizing the switch, is eager to tout her feminist principles to those living in the 19th century. Meanwhile, Shelley is getting a taste of what it's like in present-day Logan Square: sex, pot, yoga, coffeehouses. Lilley's instincts are good up to a point. She gets enticingly close to making a bold statement about sexuality and gender equality, but its impact is diminished by too many subplots that don't come together. —Matt de la Peña

click to enlarge Rasaka Theatre Company and Vitalist Theatre's Multitudes - SCOTT DRAY
  • Rasaka Theatre Company and Vitalist Theatre's Multitudes
  • Scott Dray

Multitudes British actor John Hollingworth bit off a lot when he decided to write a full-length play—his first—about racial and religious tensions in Bradford, a large English city with a significant south Asian population. Turns out to have been more than he could chew. Multitudes tells a complicated story complicatedly while at the same time oversimplifying it: the various narrative lines step all over one another even as pat characters (white fears are represented, for instance, by a racist, alcoholic dolt) undermine any real interest. There's no relief to be found in Liz Carlin Metz's production, a collaboration between Rasaka and Vitalist theater companies. The show lacks momentum, location changes are insufficiently delineated, and double or triple casting creates confusion. At times I found myself wondering whom I was watching and why. —Tony Adler

click to enlarge Saturn Returns, at the NeoFuturarium - GRACE PISULA
  • Saturn Returns, at the NeoFuturarium
  • Grace Pisula

Saturn Returns As any astrology neophyte knows, each time Saturn returns to the orbital position it occupied the day you were born (approximately every 29 years), your life falls apart, and if you embrace the upheaval, you may emerge a new, more resilient person. In her new confessional disquisition about love, loss, loneliness, Tif Henderson explains the Saturn return as though it were obscure esoterica (ditto the concepts of determinism and free will). Henderson and her wholly likable cast of four playfully and poetically excavate the chaos in their lives, as well as their efforts to find belief systems to keep them anchored. It's consistently entertaining and intermittently insightful, but its tangential structure, with new performance conventions arising every few minutes, renders it largely incoherent. —Justin Hayford

click to enlarge Thumbelina - COURTESY LIFELINE THEATRE
  • Thumbelina
  • Courtesy Lifeline Theatre

Thumbelina I saw Thumbelina the day after the Cubs won the pennant, so it would have been very hard to kill my good mood. And Lifeline Theatre's dance- and puppet-enhanced retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's story of the adventures of the tiny girl who came from a flower did not. The cast turned in winning performances, especially Brandi Lee as Thumbelina. It was unclear how much of the show's message, about finding your tribe and your place in the world, registered with its young audience; it seems like the sort of lesson that would resonate more with teenagers. Still, the kids seemed to enjoy it, and parents will probably appreciate the multiethnic cast and gender-neutral language. —Aimee Levitt

click to enlarge Factory Theater's Zombie Broads - MICHAEL COURIER
  • Factory Theater's Zombie Broads
  • Michael Courier

Zombie Broads Even the most committed BYOB imbibing can't salvage this Halloween horror comedy, which lightly sends up all things slasher and undead. In Corrbette Pasko and Sara Sevigny's loose script, a survivalist family balances domestic life and doomsday training, while a wino scientist stumbles upon a corpse-reviving concoction in the process of inventing an anti-aging cream. The Factory Theater has never been bashful about going hard with its humor before, so it's curious that this katana-wielding comedy—one that includes a splatter zone—plays it so safe. Director Janice L. Blixt employs a few clever and laugh-inducing bunraku puppetry images (albeit too often repeated); the rest of the two hours shows how difficult it is in 2016 to come up with new zombie jokes. —Dan Jakes

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Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
The Better Half Steppenwolf Theatre, 1700 Theatre
November 08
Performing Arts
Spirits to Enforce Berry Memorial United Methodist Church
November 08

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