The Passage Theatre’s production of Preston Choi’s HAPPY BIRTHDAY MARS ROVER simultaneously centers on the immensity of the universe and the intimate, everyday moments that make up our human lives. Choi’s play, presented as 43 distinct but related vignettes, reflects the human desire to search for familiarity and meaning in all that we come across. As embodied by the play’s title, that includes the human need to explore and find answers to the unknown: Is there life on Mars? And what is the meaning of our existence here on Earth relative to the rest of the universe?
With direction by Michael Weber, Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s SUNSET BOULEVARD provides one wild ride of a musical evening. The musical’s storyline itself vacillates between the predictable and the shockingly dark and twisted. It chronicles the story of former silent movie star Norma Desmond as she descends further and further into madness. Based upon the film of the same name, Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s book paints a portrait of Norma as she continues to lose her grasp on reality (which was not all that firm to begin with) and as she plots an unrealistic comeback into the Hollywood spotlight. Hollis Resnik conveys all of Norma’s mania and desperation in a star-worthy performance. Though Norma has long faded from the limelight by the time audiences meet her in SUNSET BOULEVARD, Resnik commands the stage with ease.
The first Steppenwolf for Young Adults production of the season marks the return of Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s THE BROTHERS SIZE to the theater’s stage. McCraney wrote the play in 2007 and it had its Steppenwolf debut in 2010. In this new production with direction from Monty Cole, the piece’s exploration of brotherhood and the ties that bind remains no less relevant.
Isango Ensemble’s A MAN OF GOOD HOPE, now at Chicago Shakespeare Theater for a limited engagement as part of the theater’s WorldStage programming, pays homage to human resilience. Directed by Mark Dornford-May, the production incorporates the South African Isango Ensemble’s signature use of music and dance to tell the story of young Somali refugee Asad Abdullahi. After witnessing the death of his mother at the hands of the Somali militia, Asad travels across the continent in the hopes that he will survive and make a better life for himself. The play’s title comes from Jonny Steinberg’s book of the same name, but it is particularly poignant to watch the story unfold onstage.
Theresa Rebeck’s BERNHARDT/HAMLET, now in its Chicago debut at the Goodman with direction from Donna Feore, is a comedic takedown of gender politics in the theater—and, as an extension, in society at large. Set in 1899, the play is Rebeck’s fictional reimagining of famed French actor Sarah Bernhardt’s experience portraying one of the most canonical roles in the theater: Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Rebeck’s play is often amusing, and her script is full of witty dialogue and one-offs. While the play’s themes surrounding gender roles and how so often women in power are questioned are undoubtedly timely, some of the ways in which those themes manifest in BERNHARDT/HAMLET are rather too pointed.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s North American premiere of THE KING’S SPEECH is a wholly delightful theatrical affair, rife with British charm. While the Holocaust and World War II certainly loom as reluctant monarch Prince Albert, Duke of York (aka “Bertie”) ascends the throne after his older brother David voluntarily abdicates so he can marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, David Seidler’s play itself maintains a cheerful tone. The play focuses on Bertie’s journey to find his voice, both by committing himself to his service as the newly minted king of England but also as he works to overcome his stuttering with the help of eccentric speech therapist Lionel Logue. Seidler’s script suggests, of course, that Bertie wants to do this work so he can become an authoritative and effective leader worthy of England’s citizens.
In this season premiere production of TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, Victory Gardens Theater is dishing out advice with a spoonful of Sugar. Quite literally, the writer Cheryl Strayed (perhaps best known as the author of the memoir WILD) served as an advice columnist using the pen name Sugar for a column she wrote for the online publication THE RUMPUS between 2010-2012. Here, Nia Vardalos translates Strayed’s book of letters into a stage play. The script invites Sugar (Janet Ulrich Brooks) and three Letter Writers (Jessica Dean Turner, August Foreman, and Eric Slater,) all to share the same physical space. Director Vanessa Stalling’s staging often places Sugar centerstage, underscoring the fact that the common thread among the characters is that they have all come to her seeking advice. Courtney O’Neill’s charming and serene modern coffee shop set features a rich teal blue color scheme (one will note that even the props themselves are shades of teal), and costume designer Theresa Ham has the cast dressed in a palette of orange and deep blue. The production’s carefully cultivated color palette not only lends the set design a sense of calm—even though the material of the letters Sugar receives is often anything but—and also conveys that all of the letter writers (and Sugar herself) are united by a common humanity and the answers they seek.
The phrase “stranger than fiction” has never seemed more apropos than when it comes to the incredibly real, fascinating, and horrifying story in DANA H., Lucas Hnath’s play now making its Chicago debut at Goodman Theatre. The play, adapted from a series of interviews between Hnath’s mother Dana Higginbotham and theater artist Steve Cosson, allows Dana to tell her wild story in her own words. It is rare to come across a theatrical experience that is genuinely one-of-a-kind, but DANA H. lives up to that description.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s season opening production of Lauren Yee’s THE GREAT LEAP combines the energy of the final moments of a major sporting event alongside moments of great intimacy and intensity for which the company is largely known. Set designer Justin Humphries has transformed the Upstairs Theatre into a small-scale basketball court, while Keith Parham’s lighting and Pornchanok Kanchanabanca’s clever sound cues (pay close attention to the intermission playlist, as it’s particularly inspired) mimic the spectacle you’d see at a sports stadium. The design is exceedingly clever, and while it doesn’t quite reach the immensity of a Bulls game at the United Center, the production on the whole is a unique theatrical experience.
THE BAND’S VISIT feels like an homage to the fleeting nature of live theater itself: a moment in time in which performers and audience are brought together to share a collective experience, all-encompassing yet passing swiftly and never to be created again. So too goes the narrative of the two characters at the center of this 2018 Tony Award-winning musical, Tewliq, the Egyptian conductor of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, and Dina, an Israeli woman living in the small town of Bet Hatikva. When Tewliq and his fellow band members accidentally make their way to Bet Hatikva, instead of the city Petah Tikva in which they have a concert engagement, the cast of characters come together by pure happenstance. The magnetic and mysterious connection that Tewliq and Dina share in the one night in which their lives overlap is similarly ethereal.