Three haunting shows

 

Several stage productions gladden the December holiday season and there are romantic comedies perfect for February. But when it comes to October, there’s usually a dearth of plays that chill the soul. Not so, this October with three classics to see.

The 'Man-Beast' at First Folio Theatre fits the haunting season. Photo complements of First Folio.
The ‘Man-Beast’ at First Folio Theatre fits the haunting season. Photo from First Folio.

‘The Crucible’

Steppenwolf Theatre Company is doing Arthur Miller’s 1953 scary in a what-can-happen way when seemingly  normal neighbors believe the stories behind the Salem Witch Trials. The play is part of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults series but it really is a play for all generations. Running for only eight public performances from Oct. 4 through Oct. 21, 2017, it’s a chilling reminder of how fake news can spread as if true and the harm it can do. For tickets ($20 general and $15 students) visit Steppenwolf or call (312) 335-1650. Steppenwolf Theatre Company is at 1650 N. Halsted St. Chicago.

‘The Man-Beast’

First Folio Theatre at the possibly haunted Mayslake Peabody Estate, is doing the world premiere of Joseph Zettelmaier’s ‘The Man-Beast.’ Based on a French legendary werewolf, it’s the third play in his triology of ‘The Gravedigger’ and ‘Dr. Seward’s Dracula.’  The play runs from Oct. 7 through Nov. 5, 2017. Get tickets if you dare see it at First Folio or by calling (630) 986-8067.  Located in a Du Page County forest preserve, First Folio is at  31st St. and Rt. 83 in Oak Brook.

‘GHOSTS & zombies’

Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” a drams that starts out innocently enough with a woman opening an orphanage as a tribute to her dead husband, becomes a dark comedy in the hands of writer Gustav Tegby. Translated by Chad Eric Bergman, the play takes a strange turn when the woman’s estate hosts ghosts and the un-dead. The play is presented by Akvavit Theatre at the Strawdog Theatre Company now through Oct. 29, 2017. For tickets go to Chicago Nordic. Strawdog Theatre Company is at 1802 W. Berenice, Chicago.

 

At Steppenwolf: Love and grief confronted through a Rembrandt painting

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It is always a treat to see longtime Steppenwolf actors John Mahoney or Francis Guinan in a play. In ‘The Rembrandt,’  now in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, audiences get both outstanding actors.

Karen Rodriguz (Madeline), l, Francis Guinan (Henry) c, and Ty Olwin (Dodger, r, stare at a Rembrandt oil painting hanging in a museum in 'The rembrandt' at Wteppenwolf. Michael Brosilow photo
Karen Rodriguz (Madeline), l, Francis Guinan (Henry) c, and Ty Olwin (Dodger), r, stare at a Rembrandt painting hanging in a museum in ‘The Rembrandt’ at Steppenwolf Theatre. Michael Brosilow photos

Written by playwright/actor Jessica Dickey, the premise  seems to be that art in a museum may affect viewers whether they are guards or visitors, not just differently, but also on a more sublime level.

Guinan as Henry, a museum guard whose duties include looking for any problem nicks, can imagine the paintings coming alive at night. He thinks their artists may even converse with each other.

Gabriel Ruiz as gun-carrying security guard Jonny, is Simon’s friend but he sees his job as protecting the paintings.

The two approaches clash when Henry is encouraged to touch the Rembrandt by both a new, rule-defying, apprentice/guard, Dodger, played by Ty Olwin, and by copyist Madeline, portrayed with humor by Karen Rodriguez.

That happens even though Madeline earlier discouraged such an idea when proposed by Dodger because fingers contain harmful substances.

After discussing elements of the painting the three of them do touch it. The next scene is in Rembrandt’s house. It’s as if touching the painting  opened a portal to its historic past.

A note about historic accuracy: 17th century Dutch Master Rembrandt van Rijn did favor the black and muted colors except for his famed luminescent whitish tones as mentioned in the play. But unlike the reference to blue, he did use blue shades though primarily in his biblical and mythological subjects.

Francis Guinan (Rembrandt) works on a painting for an Italian art patron while Ty Olwin (Titus) looks on.
Francis Guinan (Rembrandt) works on a painting for an Italian art patron while Ty Olwin (Titus) looks on.

And yes, in spite of the nice commissions given to this master painter, he did over spend so ended up in debt as referred to in the play.

The portal idea continues when Olwin, now Rembrandt’s son, Titus, touches a bust of Homer that supposedly was in the painting and in Rembrandt’s home.

The next scene is a soliloquy by Mahoney as Homer expounding on the merits of poetry.

The final scene is at Henry’s home where he is disconsolate with grief and guilt as he sits at the sick bed of his longtime partner, Simon (Mahoney) who is dying with stage four cancer.

That scene clarifies the play’s underlying themes of grief, death and love.

Madeline had taken the art course that brought her to the museum because the grandmother who cared for her had become ill and recently died.

She felt love, grief and also guilt that she thought death was OK because her grandmother had deteriorated so much.

Henry who dearly loved Simon, experienced remorse for not being a more considerate partner when Simon was healthy.

John Mahoney (Simon) l, and Francis Guinan (Henry) in 'The Rembrandt' at Steppenwolf.
John Mahoney (Simon) l, and Francis Guinan (Henry) in ‘The Rembrandt’ at Steppenwolf.

In the Rembrandt home scene, Rodriguez who is now Rembrandt’s lover, Henny, demonstrates her love and Titus expresses love for his father while remonstrating against his spending excesses.

Well directed by Hallie Gordon with excellent set design by Regina Garcia and fine costume design by Jenny Mannis, the play raises interesting ideas to ponder about art and personal relationships.

‘The Rembrandt’ is at Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, through Nov. 5, 2017. Francis Guinan is Henry and Rembrandt through Oct. 22. The role will be then be taken on by Joe Dempsey through the last performance. For tickets and other information call (312) 335-1650 and visit Steppenwolf.

 

 

Absurd dark ‘Hir’ comedy is highly relevant

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Amy Morton (Paige) describes the alphabet of gender designations as Francis Guinan (Arnold) holds up the blackboard sign in 'Hir' by taylor Mac at steppenwolf. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Amy Morton (Paige) describes the alphabet of gender designations as Francis Guinan (Arnold) holds up the blackboard sign in ‘Hir’ by Taylor Mac at Steppenwolf. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Not Him, not Her but ‘Hir.’ The title sums up the gender neutral and cross gender designations of the thought processes, actions and reactions in the Taylor Mac play now at Steppenwolf Theatre.

Paige, the mom, perfectly portrayed by Amy Morton as a woman finally liberated from a tyrannical husband and household drudgery, says “I don’t do laundry anymore.” She adds, “We don’t do order.” Paige encourages her daughter to take testosterone shots.

The daughter, Max/Maxine, finely articulated by Em Grosland, well explains the world as seen by Mac, a highly honored playwright who has adopted the gender title of “judy” (yes, lowercase) to describe himself.

Then there is Arnold, Paige’s husband well interpreted by Francis Guinan who, before he had a stroke, expressed his extreme dissatisfaction with a changing, more culturally accepting society by beating up everyone in his family including the dog. Paige is feeding him estrogen hormones and puts him in a dress and wig to emasculate him.

Em Grosland (Max), Amy Morton (Paige), Ty Olwin (Isaac) and Francis Guinan (Arnold) in 'Hir' at Steppenwolf. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Em Grosland (Max), Amy Morton (Paige), Ty Olwin (Isaac) and Francis Guinan (Arnold) in ‘Hir’ at Steppenwolf. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Complicating the scenario is Isaac, the “prodigal” son portrayed by Ty Olwin, a dishonorably discharged marine. He comes home from Afghanistan to find a messy house and a disabled father who is more like a clown than the fierce neighborhood nemesis he had been.

The initial shock of seeing ‘Hir’s’ messy set that opens Act 1 role forward on the stage with a grotesquely made-up, seated clown-like figure, becomes more understandable when Paige declares she is now free to work outside the home and does so and later, when Isaac reminds his dad that he used to beat up the family.

Coming to Chicago shortly after the Pride Parade and court rulings on gender neutral bathrooms, the play is a relevant look at some of the changes taking place while also delving into the anger displayed from some segments of the old guard who still believe in cultural, religious and sexual discrimination.

Directed with great insight by Hallie Gordon, ‘Hir’ is a well-thought-out absurd dark comedy by Mac, a multi-talented New York playwright, actor, director, producer, performance artists who has received, among other honors, the Kennedy Prize, the Helen Merrill Playwriting Award, a NY Drama Critics Award and two Obies.

DETAILS: ‘Hir’ is at Steppenwolf, 1650 N. Halsted St, Chicago, through Aug. 20, 2017. For tickets and other information call (312) 335-1650 and visit Steppenwolf.

Familiar Chicago figure Laurie Metcalf wins Best Actress Tony

When the list of nominees for 2017 Best Leading Actress in a Play were read at the Tony Awards Sunday, June 11, Laurie Metcalf’s name would have sounded familiar to many Chicago theater-goers.

Steppenwolf ensemble member Laurie Metcalf in "Glass Menagerie" Steppenwolf photo
Steppenwolf ensemble member Laurie Metcalf in “Glass Menagerie” Steppenwolf photo

They also could have predicted she would win even though the field was extraordinary. The other nominees were  Cate Blanchett, “The Present,” Jennifer Ehle, “Oslo,” Sally Field, “The Glass Menagerie” and Laura Linney for “The Little Foxes.”

Metcalf was nominated for her outstanding performance in Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” a sequel to the Ibsen’s classic directed by Sam Gold.

But  Chicagoans who have been following Metcalf’s career with Steppenwolf Theatre likely know she was an original  ensemble member of the world-renown company.

They may remember that she was in the company’s critically acclaimed “Balm in Gilead” production in 1984 that won her the 1984 Obie for Best Actress.

However, even though she has been in more than 40 Steppenwolf productions, Metcalf is not just a familiar Chicago figure.

She received Tony nominations for “Misery, “November” and “The Other Place” and starred in the Steppenwolf production of “Domesticated” at the Lincoln Center Theater in 2014.

Her name would also have been familiar to TV and film watchers. Among other shows, Metcalf was in “Rosanne,” “Desperate Housewives,” 3rd Rock From the Sun,” “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Toy Story” and “JFK.”

“We are incredibly proud of fellow ensemble member Laurie Metcalf on her much deserved Tony win.,” said Steppenwolf Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro. “She’s helped define the reputation and style that Steppenwolf is known for through her iconic performances and has become a legend in American Theatre.”

Shapiro added, “ She is riveting in every role she takes on, and it is such a pleasure to be able to celebrate her work with this Tony,”

For more about Steppenwolf, visit steppenwolf.org

 

Letts offers a vista of middle age

 

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Viewer alert! If you’re a white, 50s-something male you might empathize with Wheeler in ‘Linda Vista,’ playwright/actor Tracy Letts’ latest  play with a middle-aged white, male protagonist. Otherwise you might wonder why this guy doesn’t move on.

Sally Murphy (Margaret) and Tim Hopper ( Paul) set Cora vander Broek (Jules) up with Ian Barford (Wheeler) at a Karaoke bar. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Sally Murphy (Margaret) and Tim Hopper ( Paul) set Cora Vander Broek (Jules) up with Ian Barford (Wheeler) at a Karaoke bar. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Unlike Arthur Przybyszewski, the 50s-something proprietor of an Uptown  Chicago donuts shop in Letts’ “Superior Donuts,” Wheeler isn’t quietly fading away.

Instead his favorite word is “f…” as he loudly rails against the current US political scene, his almost ex wife, life in Southern California, his tendency to be in humiliating situations, his lack of ability, poor personality and karaoke.

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‘Straight White Men’ offers a different view of family interaction

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In spite of the title ‘Straight White Men,’ Young Jean Lee’s play now on stage at Steppenwolf, there is more than one theme presented to the audience.

Ed (Alan Wilder) Jake (Madison Dirks), Drew (Ryan Hallahan) and Matt (Brian Slaten) in "Straight White Men" at Steppenworlf. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Ed (Alan Wilder) Jake (Madison Dirks), Drew (Ryan Hallahan) and Matt (Brian Slaten) in “Straight White Men” at Steppenworlf. Photo by Michael Brosilow

First, there is the question of what makes people uncomfortable. Before the play starts, audiences are subjected to exceedingly loud music with lyrics some might find objectionable.

However Elliott Jenetopuloes who is working on a platform for non straight white artists, and Wil Wilhelm  who has acted at Northlight and other Chicago theatres, sashay through the aisles handing out earplugs if requested.

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Midwest and World premieres in early 2017

UPCOMING SHOWS

When those New Year resolutions include taking advantage of the Chicago area’s superb theater scene, consider getting tickets to a show that is a World or Chicago Premiere.

Theatre Wit gives a clever behind-the-curtain glimpse of a play rehearsal. Theatre Wit Photo
Theatre Wit gives a clever behind-the-curtain glimpse of a play rehearsal. Theatre Wit Photo

The productions listed here are at six venues that typically do at least one new production a year and often host productions by other theater companies.

Thus they can have more than one show scheduled each month. So, while checking out the suggestions here also look at the venue’s season.

Theater seasons don’t usually coincide with a calendar year. The premieres mentioned here open by the end of March 2017.

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‘Visiting Edna’ delves into adult son to parent relationship as death looms

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The power of ‘Visiting Edna,” Tony Award-winning playwright David Rabe’s play premiering at Steppenwolf Theatre, is the utter normalcy of the conversations that take place when a married son visits his terminally ill mother.

Debra Monk (Edna) and Ian Barford (Andrew) in 'Visiting Edna' at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Debra Monk (Edna) and Ian Barford (Andrew) in ‘Visiting Edna’ at Steppenwolf Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Rabe’s brilliance, projected in the superb acting of Debra Monk as Edna and Ian Barford as son Andrew, is that the drama is subtle enough to apply to almost any family and be understood and appreciated by any audience.

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Theater: Fall shows to put on the calendar

'Wonderful Life ' revival comes to Goodman Theatre this fall
‘Wonderful Town ‘ revival comes to Goodman Theatre this fall

With more than 200 theater companies in Metropolitan Chicago there’s no lack of choices in all price ranges, genres and locations. Here is a small sampling of a half-dozen shows that will be in area theaters this fall. Of course you know that ‘Hamilton,’ the mega Tony-Award winning rap musical, opens Sept. 27. But it’s an open run so you might want to check availability later in the year or 2017.

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