Watching Artistic Director Robert Falls’ production of Henrik Ibsen’s play AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE is an eerily prescient experience. Though Ibsen wrote ENEMY in 1882, much of the dialogue (adapted by Falls from a translation by Eleanor Marx-Aveling) feels like it is purely 2018 parlance. And, of course, the issue at the play’s heart (really, the only issue in the piece) is a bitter battle between Dr. Thomas Stockmann, who discovers the town’s water is poisonous, and his brother Mayor Peter Stockmann, who wishes to hide that truth at all costs. ENEMY’s script is undeniably pointed—among others, the phrase “fake facts” is used. Yet that seems to be precisely the argument that Falls is making: this is an on the nose production for an equally pointed moment in time.
Yesterday American Theater Company announced that it was shutting its doors after 33 years. Under the direction of late Artistic Director PJ Paparelli, American Theater Company made its name as one of the most groundbreaking and well-regard storefront theaters in Chicago. Among other productions, ATC staged the world premieres of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize winner DISGRACED and Stephen Karam’s THE HUMANS.In ATC’s most recent era, Artistic Director Will Davis staged innovative pieces with a clear and unique vision.I have many fond memories of seeing productions at ATC, and below are some of my favorites. Farewell, American Theater Company. Chicago will miss you dearly.
Under the taut direction of David Schwimmer, Kevin Douglas’s new comedy PLANTATION! succeeds in making audiences both laugh out loud and cringe. In PLANTATION!, Douglas explores one wealthy white woman’s attempt to make reparations for the benefits her family reaped from slavery. Douglas does so by posing the question: Does making amends actually work? And for whom does making amends actually benefit? The twist in PLANTATION!, however, is that these serious questions are explored almost entirely through the lens of broad, dramatic, zinger-filled satire. The all-female cast succeeds in landing each and every joke in this production, which brings the broadly comic nature of Douglas’s writing to the forefront.
With her Pulitzer Prize finalist THE WOLVES, young playwright Sarah DeLappe has beautifully, movingly, and realistically captured the tenuousness that comes with being a teenage girl navigating the thorny terrain of high school. DeLappe has captured so precisely the agony and nuances of high school female friendship. In this 90-minute play about an indoor high school girls’ soccer team, DeLappe presents the achingly real challenges of life as a teenage girl in suburban America. While the nine members of the eponymous Wolves are fierce soccer players on the field, these three-dimensional characters have much more to contend with once they step off.
Based on the title alone, Antoinette Nwandu’s “BREACH: a manifesto on race in america through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate” does not sound like a comedy. And yet in BREACH, Nwandu has written a laugh-out-loud satirical piece that also has a real beating heart in its exploration of race and identity in modern-day America. Nwandu’s characters are intentionally broadly drawn and the play has many outsized comedic moments, but BREACH also has humanity running through it.
Andrew Lloyd Webber diehards rejoice: LOVE NEVER DIES, the sequel to that opulent music theater classic THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, has arrived in Chicago. Every single element of this production is overblown and visually stimulating. Webber’s score is big, dramatic, and lush. And while the score has the kind of beauty and magnificence expected from Webber, book writer Ben Elton’s storyline is crammed full of superfluous plotlines and Glenn Slater’s lyrics are mostly full of musical theater clichés. That said, I was highly entertained throughout the entire evening. This is escapist musical theater fun at its finest.
Porchlight Artistic Director’s intimate staging of Sondheim’s 1981 musical MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG vividly brings to life this piece that chronicles the lives of three close friends as they attempt to gain professional success as artist. While composer Frank Shepard strikes it big as a Hollywood film composer and producer, he leaves his closest friends—lyricist and playwright Charley Kringas and writer Mary Flynn—in the dust. Despite its sunny title, MERRILY is a rather cynical musical about friendship and the revelation that it’s quite lonely at the top. The twist—and one of the main reasons why MERRILY is rarely produced and challenging to stage—is that the musical takes place in reverse chronological order. We see these three “Old Friends” move from jaded success stories back to idealistic hopefuls just starting their careers and forging their tight-knit friendships. MERRILY makes a great deal of sense right now because we are living in mighty cynical times—and watching these central characters contend with the demands of Hollywood has an added sting in this moment.
Court Theatre Artistic Director Charles Newell lends a deft hand to this stunning, newly searing production of Arthur Miller’s ALL MY SONS. Though Miller’s classic play takes place in 1946, the all-star ensemble makes the plight of the crumbling Keller family feel raw and altogether present. From the moment “thunder” comes shattering down on John Culbert’s set as the play begins (lights by Keith Parham and sound by Andre Pluess), ALL MY SONS spirals towards an inevitable tragic end. While this foreboding scene alludes to the darkness to come, Newell’s staging still has a lovely progression in which the tragic moments amount to a larger, all-encompassing gloom.
Eric John Meyer’s world premiere play THE ANTELOPE PARTY opens on a meeting in an apartment setting notable for its vast and bright collection of MY LITTLE PONY memorabilia (kudos to set designer Joe Schermoly and properties designer Jesse Gaffney for this delightful visual). In this moment, we meet the members of the Rust Belt Brony Meet Up group. The bronies (sometimes referred to as Pegasisters when they’re female-identifying) are adult fans of the children’s show MY LITTLE PONY. The members of the Rust Belt group, in particular, identify with the show’s messages of magic and friendship and find solace among their brony counterparts.
Aziza Barnes’s BLKS is often funny, often vulgar, and sometimes heartbreaking. Now in a world premiere staging at Steppenwolf, BLKS chronicles 24 hours in the lives of three young black women in their early 20s living in New York City. Barnes’s playwriting is achingly real and naturalistic, while also showcasing the playwright’s poetic chops. In Octavia (Nora Carroll), Imani (Celeste Cooper), and June (Leea Ayers), Barnes has given us three unique and beautifully written characters navigating a tumultuous moment in their young lives.