Ten Plays to Watch in Chicago this Fall

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The biggest laugh I had over the weekend (more so than the bellyaching guffaws I tried hard to suppress while watching pseudo-hipsters pretend to look impressed by some atrocious art during the West Loop gallery openings last Friday, but that’s a topic for another blog post) was over New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood’s almost sheepish admission – in print, for everyone to read -that New York theater, specifically Broadway, should be considered the east side of Chicago, given the number of Chicago-originating productions and artists currently on stage in New York.  Thank you, Mr. Isherwood, but our fair city already has an east side, so we don’t really need to annex New York City.  It was still pretty hilarious, though, to finally see the snobbish, self-promoting, out-of-touch Times theater section admit what many of us passionate theater aficionados have known for a while now – that the vital center of American theater has already migrated from the Big Apple to the City of Broad Shoulders.  So while one-step-behind New Yorkers will be drooling over chi-town exports Superior Donuts, A Steady Rain, and David Cromer (making his Broadway directing debut with revivals of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, running in repertory) this fall, theater-forward Chicago audiences will be immersing ourselves in some of the best theater this side of the Atlantic.  I’ve compiled below my annual list of the ten must-see theatrical events in Chicago this fall, most of them world premieres, never been seen anywhere; hopefully I’ll bump into many of you in some of them.  You never know, but that obscure, low-key, storefront production you paid twenty bucks for may be next year’s frenzy-inducing hot ticket in New York (exhibit A:  A Steady Rain). 

The reviews are already in for Red Orchid Theatre‘s Mistakes Were Made (running through October 18), and they’re pretty much raves.  This new work from Craig Wright is an almost-one man show about a stressed-out theater producer trying to pull off his latest production.  The man is played by Academy Award-nominee Michael Shannon, who out-acted both Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road, returning to his theatrical roots at the highly-regarded Red Orchid, where he is a founding ensemble member.  This play gives the theater a pretty significant boost since it’s Mike’s first appearance on stage after his newly-minted Hollywood celebrity status.  I already have my ticket for this Thursday and will post my impressions soon.

I was pretty harsh on American Theater Company during the whole ensemble walkout brouhaha earlier this year, but ultimately, the theater needs to be judged on its work, so I’ll be back this fall to see the premiere of Yeast Nation (the Triumph of Life), the latest (possibly New York-bound?) work from the creators of Urinetown, former Neo-Futurists Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, onstage from September 17-October 18.  This could possibly be quite a night – who wouldn’t want to see a musical about yeasts (yep, yeasts) living a million years ago in a dictator-led society under the sea who only eat salt and are all called Jan? 

The only person who could out-top the Neo-Futurists is possibly The Hypocrites and its Artistic Director Sean Graney.  Both will be at the MCA Stage for the first time this fall with a new version of Frankenstein, which will be staged promenade style (the audience will all be on stage with the actors) from October 21-November 1.  I attended the MCA Stage season launch, and Graney’s film clip had him talking about his range of influences for this play – Macbeth, John Ford westerns, Prometheus Bound, Christopher Marlowe, Oppenheimer, etc.  This could possibly be one of the most exciting, innovative productions this year, so get your tickets early!

Graney will make Frankenstein scary-chic but Nicole Brooks will be making Racine’s Phedre badass-chic.  Brooks will be playing the title role in her world-premiere adaptation of the Racine and Euripides classic about a power-hungry, lustful queen who falls for her stepson, now re-set in a futuristic, superpower Haiti,  Fedra:  Queen of Haiti, which is Lookingglass Theatre‘s season opener, set to run from September 30-November 15.  Helen Mirren’s National Theater production will be in Washington DC and New York this fall (but not Chicago! boo!) but who cares?  Brooks can take on Mirren in a lucha libre fight anytime and win hands down!

Speaking of wrestling, Victory Gardens Theatre, after it’s triumphant staging of Blackbird during the summer, opens its season with two world premieres from it’s Ignition series, a playwriting development program for playwrights of color.  I’ve been lukewarm on Victory Gardens over the years, but I think these play selections are ballsy, visionary, and  absolutely essential to the evolution of Chicago as a theater center.  The wrestling play, which also throws in hiphop, terrorism, and refrigerator crisps into a volatile mix, is Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, which will run on the main stage from September 25-November 1.  The more intimate Studio Theater, on the other hand, will host the quieter Year Zero, about a teenage Cambodian American struggling with cultural identity, from Michael Golamco (already in previews and running through October 18).

One of the most exciting, most promising storefront theaters in the city, The Strange Tree Group, is again staging another original work from their resident playwright, one of Chicago’s on-the-cusp-of-great-renown writers, the very original, very creative Emily Schwartz.  Hey! Mr. Spaceman! is being billed as “A Trapeze-Infused-1950′s-Robot-Monster-Movie-Rock-Musical of Epic Proportions!” Wow!  It’s going to run at the Building Stage, which is supposedly being transformed into a drive-in movie theater, from October 8-October 31.

It’s not going to be all world premieres in the city this fall (although there’s nothing wrong with that). One of the city’s hottest young ensembles, Steep Theatre, will be staging Blackbird writer David Harrower’s earlier work, Kill the Old, Torture their Young, about a documentary filmmaker who goes back to his hometown to chronicle the lives of its citizens.  With a title like that and knowing Harrower wrote it, I’m in! It runs from October 1-November 7.

Chicago Shakespeare‘s season feels quite familiar (another Richard III?  another The Taming of the Shrew? another season that will drive new audiences away in droves?) but it’s World Stage series continues to bring the world’s best theater to Chicagoans.  From October 28-November 1. Ireland’s acclaimed Druid Theatre Company will be making it’s Chicago debut with Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce, which mixes crossdressing, fraternal violence, and consumption of Harp beer in an edgy night of theater that was a big hit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a couple of years back.  I would have wanted to see DruidSynge, the theater’s much-raved about staging of all of John Millington Synge’s plays which it has toured the world with, but I think The Walworth Farce would be a good introduction to this world-class ensemble.

Speaking of world-class ensembles, Steppenwolf Theatre‘s second play for their season devoted to the power of belief is going to be quite the firestarter:  Tony nominee Amy Morton will direct Tracy Letts in his first stage appearance after his boatload of awards for writing August:  Osage County, in a revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo, beginning December 3.  With the acclaim that Letts has received for his playwriting, I think people have forgotten how good an actor he is as well.  I suspect this American Buffalo, which will also star ensemble member Francis Guinan and the terrific young actor Patrick Andrews, will be quite the breathtaking showcase for Messr. Letts’ acting chops.

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