Prelude to the Apocalypse
La MaMa

Prelude to the Apocalypse is an hour-long solo show written and performed by Blake Sugarman and presented by La MaMa.

Mr. Sugarman talks to us about the environmental crisis, and for the first half-hour or so, he remains seated behind a desk, speaking—and this is ill-advised—into a microphone. An hourglass sits on the desk, and its live image is projected on the back wall. There’s a large, handsome pile of trash bags upstage as well.

Steve Capra
Isaac Babel and the Black Sea
Lab Theater

Acting schools are one of the last places in L.A. where one can see large-scale original productions. Basic economics and recent Actors Equity contract requirements dictate that state of affairs, resulting in a profusion of one- and two-person shows being mounted here (except in those small theaters which have gone non-union).

Thus it was good to see thirteen actors listed in the program of Isaac Babel and the Black Sea, which is now in a world-premiere run at Stella Adler Lab Theater. Sometimes one yearns to see full-blown paintings, not just intimate portraits.

Willard Manus
Glass Menagerie, The
freeFall Theater - Mainstage

How can a production present a classic play in a new light? The Glass Menagerie at freeFall Theater may show how. Here, Tom Wingfield recalls the action of the plot via his memory but by performing magic. Director Eric Davis seems to think that because author Tennessee Williams was gay, Tom is too. So he wanted to escape his repressive mother and environment but also to seek lovers at sea. Shall we test?

Marie J. Kilker
Two-Fisted Love
Odyssey Theater

“To see what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”

Dorothy Parker’s telling line came back to me as I sat through Two Fisted Love, David Sessions’s dark drama, now in a world-premiere run at the Odyssey and directed by Jules Aaron.

Willard Manus
Cyrano
Jarvis Square

What you need to know about Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac is that there are these two guys—one is a smart, talented, sensitive, athletic rock star, but ugly (or thinks he is), and the other is a hunky airhead—who are both in love with the same girl. Since the brainy guy wants the girl to be happy, he helps the dummy woo her (not being too bright, herself, she falls for it).

Mary Shen Barnidge
Skeleton Crew
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts

This grubby industrial break room, with its cold fluorescent-tubing lights and peeling walls, is beginning to look disturbingly familiar to Chicago playgoers, given the recent proliferation of plays depicting gritty low-level working conditions. If this is unsettling, maybe it's because, as union steward Faye reminds us, "Any moment, any one of us can become The Other"—transformed from the person handing panhandlers spare change out the car window on the exit ramp to the one holding the sign.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Water by the Spoonful
Mark Taper Forum

There are enough demons in Water by the Spoonful to fill the realms of Pluto.

Willard Manus
Shakespeare's Greatest Hits
Florida Studio Theater - Court Cabaret

A projection for a long run is a good thing, because in its first week, an already revised Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits does not seem to be in final form yet. Its title may be misleading: There are only three lyrics written by William Shakespeare. And they are superior to enough of the others in later music presented here to make one wish Shakespearean plays had been culled for more.

Marie J. Kilker
Rhinoceros
Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts - Mertz Theater

I've long wanted to see Ionesco’s Rhinoceros produced in English. After attending Asolo Rep’s production directed by Frank Galati, I’m still waiting. I should have been warned. Galati had said in a local interview that he, with permission of Ionesco’s estate, was turning three acts into two. That’s changed more than one French play since the ‘50s.

Marie J. Kilker
Ironbound
Gil Cates Theater

The drama sizzles and crackles in Ironbound, Martyna Majok’s powerful play now on tap at the Geffen, directed by Tyna Rafaeli. Majok, daughter of a Polish-born working-class woman, grew up in an industrial corner of New Jersey whose factories and mills once supported large numbers of immigrants. Now, in this post-industrial age, the factories and mills have been abandoned— the people who worked in them as well. Against that bleak, grim backdrop—symbolized by Tim Mackabee’s looming factory wall—Ironbound tells its pungent, black-humored tale.

Willard Manus
Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue
Kirk Douglas Theater

Center Theater Group has mounted Quiara Alegria Hudes’s 2007 play Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, at the Kirk Douglas as a way of introducing L.A. to her trilogy of related plays, one of which, Water by the Spoonful,” won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. (Spoonful will open in a week’s time at Mark Taper Forum, followed by The Happiest Song Plays Last at Los Angeles Theater Center).

Willard Manus
Nice Girl
Raven Theater

A woman 38 years old in 1984—when this play purports to be set—would have been born in 1946 and graduated from high school circa 1964. Since we are told that she was her family's second child, her now-"nearly 70" mother would likely have married during the mid-1940s. This hypothetical timeline is important because Melissa Ross has a penchant for infusing her rom-com sensibilities with a hazy ambience suggesting narratives of far earlier vintage.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Or Current Resident
Theater for the New City

Naturalism isn’t my favorite style, but with theaters trying to outdo each other to be avant-garde, it’s refreshing to find a conventional, naturalistic production of a new script. I speak of Squeaky Bicycle Productions’ production of Or Current Resident, by Joan Bigwood, presented at The Theater for the New City. It’s squarely in the tradition of the American drama’s theme of family. From Eugene O’Neill through Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, to Sam Shepard, American playwrights have been obsessed with family.

Steve Capra
Blind Date
Goodman Theater

For as long as historical dramas have been written, their authors have struggled with the task of conveying the context of the events depicted to audiences who may be too young to remember them, too old to remember them accurately, or weren't paying attention while they transpired—all within the increasingly abbreviated performance time dictated by the fashion of the day.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Equivocation
Next Act Theater

Milwaukee’s Next Act Theater reveals the many sides of William Shakespeare in Equivocation by playwright Bill Cain. The play is set in 1606 London, where Shakespeare has been summoned to write a commission for the king. Then things get complicated – far too complicated, if Shakespeare is to be believed.

Anne Siegel
Gruesome Playground Injuries
Underground Collaborative

Milwaukee’s newest theater company, The Constructivists, chose to open its doors with a play by one of the nation’s newer playwrights, Rajiv Joseph. Although better-known for his Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo, which played on Broadway, Joseph also wrote Gruesome Playground Injuries. It is this play that The Constructivists selected to perform in the intimate, black box theater called the Underground Collective. The drama, which had its Off-Broadway debut in 2011, seems fitting for Milwaukee’s new theater company that is determined to break the mold of mainstream theater.

Anne Siegel
Delta in the Sky with Diamonds or Maybe Not
Theater 54 - Shetler Studios

A play by June Daniel White called Delta in the Sky with Diamonds or Maybe Not is playing at Theater 54 at Shetler Studios, produced Off-off-Broadway by Boogla Nights Productions. It concerns a woman, Delta, recently deceased, who meets God and finds that for some inexplicable reason he has a plan to use her to save the world. It seems that she must get Lyle, a living former rock star, and Hollywood, a living waitress, together as partners. The future of the world depends on it. It’s not clear why this should be the case.

Steve Capra
Hinter
Steep Theater Company

Calamity West's Hinter begins with the last of five murders, walks us through the police investigation and then flashes back to acquaint us with the events leading up to the crime itself.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Black Pearl Sings!
Stackner Cabaret

Black Pearl Sings! is based on a remarkable true story. Playwright Frank Higgins was inspired by the real-life relationship between legendary singer/guitarist Huddie William Ledbetter (better known as Lead Belly) and Harvard folk musicologist John Lomax, who helped petition for Ledbetter's release from prison. However, in the playwright’s version, both the musicologist and singer are female. Higgins attempts to broaden the focus to encompass women’s issues in the early 1930s.

Anne Siegel
Native Gardens
Florida Studio Theater - Gompertz

On one side of the stage is the Butleys’ bright D.C. patio furnished for dining, looking in on a tastefully appointed home, and surrounded by a small white cement arc walling in a feast of colorful flowers. On the other side, a mess of a closed off threshold and dead foliage in beds of throw-away ornaments clutter under an imposing oak tree with overhanging brown leaves. This set reveals the action: a clash.

Marie J. Kilker
Balls
59E59 Theaters

As a modest player myself, and a frequent fan of the major tennis championships, I’ve been currently suffering my annual frustration at the elusive, wee-hours-of-the-morning, live telecasts of the Australian Open matches now underway in the distant time zone of “The Land Down Under.”

David Dow Bentley
Traitor
A Red Orchid Theater

You see, there's this play about a doctor who discovers pollutants in his home town's main tourist attraction, but his brother's the mayor—yes, it's that one!

Mary Shen Barnidge
Good Fight, The
Edgewater Presbyterian Church

When even African-American essayist Booker T. Washington declared European women—in particular, those of England's urban centers—to be exploited under the law to a degree exceeding the men of his own country, who could dispute the need for their immediate enfranchisement?

Mary Shen Barnidge
Spark
Flat Irons Building

When a play's synopsis begins, "Well, there's these three sisters," we immediately think of Chekhov, but the women of the Glimord clan are a long way from the bored, pampered, upper-class Misses Prozorov.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Freud's Last Session
Odyssey Theater

Leading debunker of God meets famed Christian thinker in Freud’s Last Session, Mark St. Germain’s intellectual drama now on the smallest of the Odyssey’s three stages in West Los Angeles. The two-character play, first produced by the Barrington Stage Company, imagines a meeting in 1939 between Sigmund Freud (Martin Rayner) and C.S. Lewis (Martyn Stanbridge). Freud was living in London after having fled the Nazis; Lewis was a Cambridge don (and the author of numerous books on theology and mythology, including “The Chronicles of Narnia.”)

January 2018
Russian Transport
Studio Theater

In the thick of a Wisconsin winter comes a surprising play that literally “transports” the audience to a modest Brooklyn flat, inhabited by an immigrant family. The foursome consists of two Russian parents and two teens. They are reaching for – but failing to achieve – the American Dream. The husband’s car company is failing, and the older teen is forced to turn over his earnings to pay the rent.

Anne Siegel
Romantics Anonymous
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

None could be sweeter of all the musicals I’ve seen in the last few decades than Romantics Anonymous or the chocolate I got to eat as the show began. Heroine Angelique was making her spectacular batch of candy. Too bad hero Jean-Rene’s candy from his failing Chocolate Factory isn’t selling like special limited chocolates from Mercier’s provincial shop.

Marie J. Kilker
Comedy About a Bank Robbery, The
Criterion

Many audience members and London critics liked this both-literally-and-figuratively-slapstick farce better than I did. The premise and action of The Comedy About a Bank Robbery are funny, true. But if you know anything about the real America shown in cops-and-robbers movies, this take-off on the same is not only silly but jejune. I had a hard time getting past the Minneapolis manager of the bank-to-be-hit who speaks with a Deep Southern accent.

Marie J. Kilker
Unexploded Ordnances
La MaMa

The set for Unexploded Ordnances (produced by Split Britches at La MaMa) consists of seven tables arranged in a circle and three large video screens on the back wall. Several minutes into the show, one of the two actresses, Lois Weaver (who also directs), asks who in the audience was alive during World War II. The ten individuals who respond spend the rest of the show sitting at the tables with her as a sort of Council of Elders. It’s really cool.

Steve Capra
How to Use a Knife
Florida Studio Theater - Bowne's Lab

In his New York restaurant catering to business lunchers, self aggrandizing Michael is giving a second chance to George, a chef who was his boss and teacher. George will once again helm a kitchen, though at night when menu and clientele are very limited. A recovering alcoholic and druggie, George has charge of two Hispanic line cooks, a waiter, and a dishwashing mopper. How will he and those under him fare?

Marie J. Kilker
Morning After Grace
Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts - Mertz Theater

A third Asolo Rep entry into a program of “Staging Our World” reflects the predominant senior population of Sarasota. It does so as if a TV sitcom. With fine stage performers under Peter Amster’s famed direction of comedy, it almost manages to hold interest beyond usual television time. Initial male nudity grabs attention but promises more than what comes forth clothed in cliches and mild jokes.

Marie J. Kilker
Undesirable Elements
New Victory Theater

There are seven performers in Ping Chong and Company’s play Undesirable Elements: Generation NYZ. They talk about their actual lives (what’s happened in the past) in the present tense, and what they talk about is the substance of growing up disadvantaged in New York City.

Steve Capra
Panorama
La MaMa

In Panorama (presented by La MaMa) characters morph into one another in defiance of actuality or stage convention. The show begins with 17 video clips of actors introducing themselves, and as the play proceeds, we meet seven of them on stage. That upstage video projection is always active, and sometimes it’s the actor on stage whose image is projected—they're always being videoed onstage, and sometimes they take video selfies. They’re always talking directly to us, usually one at a time.

Steve Capra
Brouhaha
Theater for the New City

What would we do without smart clown shows? “Smart clown show” describes Happenstance Theater’s show Brouhaha, appearing Off-off-Broadway at The Theater for the New City. The loose premise is that the six characters expect the world to end imminently (the script doesn’t explain why, and we don’t care). There are a couple of off-stage sort-of explosions that throw them on the floor, and then this brief exchange:
“Was that it?”
“Apparently not.”

Steve Capra
Small Mouth Sounds
The Broad Stage

Much of Small Mouth Sounds resembles a silent movie with its six characters communicating without dialogue by making exaggerated gestures and faces for nearly two hours (with no title cards to aid comprehension). The dumb show in Bess Wohl’s new play, a recent off-Broadway hit, takes place in a wellness center whose unseen leader preaches silence as a therapeutic cure for psychological stress and pain. The leader, voiced by Orville Mendoza, is a kind of New Age guru, uttering advice and instruction in a cloyingly sweet tone meant to soothe and inspire.

Willard Manus
For the Loyal
The Athenaeum

Exhortations to be "loyal, brave and true" are commonplace in songs designed to rally the troops—military, religious or athletic—but what happens when the actions spurred by these values come into conflict? This is the query posed in this Chicago premiere play by the prolific Lee Blessing.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Flamingo and Decatur
Theater Wit

Audiences whose notions of Las Vegas are restricted to tourist brochures may encounter difficulty accepting the concept of gambling as a career choice.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Manor, The
Greystone Mansion

It has taken me sixteen years to catch up with The Manor, the fictionalized story of the rise and fall of the Doheny family. Edward Doheny, patriarch of the family, made a fortune in the oil business during the 1920s, much of which he spent on Greystone Mansion, a mammoth hilltop house in then-rural Beverly Hills. The Manor takes place in that very structure; and to reach it one must motor up Doheny Drive and enter what is now a city park.

Willard Manus
Mountaintop, The
West Coast Black Theater Troupe

If The Mountaintop comes over better than its rather sketchy text deserves, it’s because its production director, like Chuck Smith at WBTT, unveils subtext. That makes possible deeper-than-surface portrayals by its two actors as its realism acquires now-fashionable magic. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. thus becomes a normal human being as well as a charismatic icon.

Marie J. Kilker
Animal Farm
Milwaukee Repertory Theater - Quadracci Powerhouse

George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” is among the most famous political novels of all time, and Ian Wooldridge’s adaptation is a masterful work that smartly takes the book’s themes from page to stage. In the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s intriguing production, a cast of eight actors portray the entire community of Animal Farm – the animals as well as the hated, alcoholic owner, Farmer Jones, as well as various other humans.

Anne Siegel

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