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Stage Door Jonny's Guide to Great Theater
by Jonathan Abarbanel

This article shared 3733 times since Wed Sep 22, 2004
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Pictured Hughie, Goodman Theatre, Oct. 5-Nov. 11, with Brian Dennehy. The Dresser, Steppenwolf, through Nov. 11, with John Mahoney and Tracy Letts (standing). Claudia Allen's Hanging Fire at Victory Gardens. David Hyde Pierce (John Mahoney's Frasier co-star) in Monty Python's Spamalot. And Diva Diaries with Billings and West.

In the next 12 months, the Chicago area's 200 theaters will produce some 800 shows, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. That's more theater than even Stage Door Jonny can see. Fortunately, Jonny has theatrical second sight; unerring instincts as to what one should see and what one—to put it politely—might choose to skip. If YOU want to know what to see this year, stick with Stage Door Jonny.

Rather than simply declare the Top 10 or 12 pick hits, Jonny this year is dividing his recommendations into categories: (1) wonderful acting, (2) fascinating plays, (3) musical treats, (4) shows of GLBT interest, and (5) sui generis. Here, then, are Stage Door Jonny's picks in each category.

Wonderful Acting

Alright, children, we're not talking about your behavior in bed last night. We're talking about world-class actors likely to give performances that light up the stage with honesty and passion. You might want to try these on for size.

The Dresser, Steppenwolf, through Nov. 11. John Mahoney isn't afraid to play unpleasant, thorny people. In Ronald Harwood's contemporary tour de force, Mahoney plays an aging, egocentric, insecure and envious English actor who makes life hell for his gentle dressing room assistant, played by Tracy Letts, himself no slouch of an actor.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?, Court Theatre, through Oct. 24. Court's 50th anniversary season opens with this demanding Edward Albee classic. Battling George and Martha are award-winning veterans Kevin Gudahl and Barbara E. Robertson, with Lance Stuart Baker and Whitney Sneed as Nick and Honey. All four should be riveting.

Hughie, Goodman Theatre, Oct. 5-Nov. 11. Big, burly Brian Dennehy brings surprising vulnerability and nuance to every performance, especially when directed by chum Robert Falls. Eugene O'Neill's long one-act, Hughie, should be a tour de force and a study in acting integrity.

Underneath the Lintel, Noble Fool Theatre at Pheasant Run, Jan. 12-March 2. Intense, penetrating, quirky Larry Neumann, Jr. stars in a witty, engaging one-person literary detective story about an obscure librarian and the legend of the Wandering Jew. Neumann's an inspired choice for this off-beat Chicago premiere.

Lost Land, Steppenwolf, April 10-June 5. Two words: MALKOVICH LIVE! One of the most charismatic actors of his generation, John Malkovich returns to his home ensemble in a world premiere by Stephen Jeffreys about personal choices and geo-politics.

Fascinating Plays

Theater begins with words on a page, and the following recommendations are some of the very best words. The acting may be wonderful, too. Indeed, it SHOULD be if these lively and thoughtful plays are to take on the proper life.

Finishing the Picture, Goodman Theatre, through Oct. 31. A world premiere by America's greatest living playwright, Arthur Miller, now 89. Good, bad or indifferent it will be deeply intelligent and an event. All-star cast with Scott Glenn, Stacy Keach, Stephen Lang, Linda Lavin, Matthew Modine and Harris Yulin among others.

Arcadia, Remy Bumppo Theatre, Nov. 24-Jan.2. Tom Stoppard's astounding exploration of history and chaos theory sets one act in modern times and one circa 1820 as it explores scientific precocity and rakish Lord Byron. High wit, high theatricality for a gifted ensemble, which the Remy Bumppo crowd is.

This Happy Breed, TimeLine Theatre, Nov. 3-Dec. 19. This rarely-seen drama of British family life between the world wars is by gay theatrical master Noel Coward, although not here in gay mode. The focus on serious issues rather than on pleasant wit offers a chance to see how Coward stands up as a dramatist.

Martin Furey's Shot, TimeLine, May 7-June 19. If you're a photo-journalist, is truth absolute? Or is truth only what the lens captures? TimeLine ends its season with a thoughtful world premiere by local actor Maureen Gallagher; a dark character study of a driven, haunted, prize-wining photographer.

Musical Treats

The musical theater queens among you—and you know who you are—will wonder why Jonny makes a distinction between 'musical' and 'gay.' Well, Jonny does.

George Gershwin Alone, Royal George Theatre, Sept. 27-Oct. 24. Actor-writer-concert pianist Hershey Felder impersonates the legendary composer and brilliant pianist who died at 39. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to the darkly handsome Gershwin, Felder plays the same challenging piano arrangements Gershwin himself used.

Jane Eyre, Circle Theatre, Nov. 5-Dec. 19. Brit director John Caird's musical version of the 19th Century romantic novel was a failure on Broadway; but Circle Theatre in Forest Park has a reputation for turning Broadway sow's ears into suburban silk purses.

Black Nativity, Congo Square at Goodman Theatre, Dec. 3-Jan. 2. The most ambitious production yet for red-hot Congo Square Theatre offers a gospel music version Jesus' birth, penned by the great (and gay) Langston Hughes. This long-overdue Chicago premiere should be a holiday highlight.

Monty Python's Spamalot, Ford Center/Oriental, Dec. 21-Jan. 16. And now for something completely different. Really. Except that it's not. A Broadway-bound musical lovingly ripped off from the Monty Python and the Holy Grail movie. Mike Nichols directs Tim Currie, David Hyde Pierce and Hank Azaria.

First Lady Suite, Bailiwick Repertory, April 26-May 29. Exceptional theatrical composer (and gay artist) Michael John LaChiusa never writes mainstream, commercial fair. This regional premiere is four short operas about Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Lady Bird Johnson and Eleanor Roosevelt (and her probable lover Lorena Hickok).

Thou Shalt Not, Circle Theatre, May 27-July 10. Even a jazzy score by sexy Harry Connick, Jr. couldn't win Broadway praise for this updated version of Balzac's Therese Raquin (stultified woman despises husband, takes younger lover, shames herself, kills herself). But Circle often removes New York tarnish.

GLBT Interest

Plays and musicals celebrating LGBT themes, or by notable LGBT artists. If you don't understand this category, Jonny respectfully suggests you pick up some OTHER free newspaper next week.

The Importance of Being Earnest, Court Theatre, Nov. 18-Dec. 26. 'Dying is easy, comedy is difficult' a great actor said on his deathbed. Period comedy-of-manners is especially difficult, but oh-so-satisfying when done right. Director Charles Newell and ensemble tackle Oscar Wilde's nearly perfect play.

Hanging Fire, Victory Gardens Theater, Nov. 5-Dec. 19. World premiere by Claudia Allen at her home theater. The small-town, Fourth of July setting, two aging sisters in conflict, the strong theme that life ain't over all suggest a characteristic warm, domestic drama from Jonny's favorite lesbian playwright.

Diva Diaries, Lakeshore Theatre, through Jan. 2. If this show ain't gay then Jonny's a rat's ass. Alexandra Billings, Berwick Haynes and Honey West star as drag queens looking back on their younger selves. A be-feathered, be-spangled show featuring songs of the '70s, '80s and '90s. If it isn't raucous, shoot me.

I Am My Own Wife, Goodman Theatre, Jan. 8-Feb. 13. Developed in part by About Face Theatre, this prize-winning show returns with original star Jefferson Mays playing 40 characters in the amazing, true story of an East German cross-dresser who survived Nazis, Commies and Broadway success.

The Finn Festival, Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago, March 19-May 26. Concluding its 10th anniversary season, Porchlight presents four musicals in rotating rep by witty, out composer William Finn. Among the four are the specifically gay-themed Falsettos and its companion work, In Trousers. Porchlight always does good work.

Take Me Out, About Face at Steppenwolf, from March 25. Richard Greenberg's Tony Award-winner about homosexuality and the Major Leagues is a brilliant appreciation of baseball and daring socio-political comedy. Not to be missed, especially with its infamous locker room shower scene. About Face bows to sexploitation at last!

Sui Generis

For those of you who do not speak Latin, sui generis is a phrase meaning one of a kind, unique, singular. In the words of the old nursery rhyme, 'The cheese stands alone, the cheese stands alone.' The following theater productions stand alone.

500 Clown Frankenstein, Loop Theatre, Oct. 15-Nov. 13. This physical comedy trio has been performing 500 Clown Macbeth for five years and has worked on their next show almost as long. It's inspired by the great Mary Shelley horror romance about stitch neck and his creator. Expect sparks and danger.

Silk, Goodman Theatre, April 23-May 29. With her fine sensibilities about classical cultures, Chicago resident genius Mary Zimmerman has a way with stories about the East. Expect a lavish and sensuous spectacle as she adapts and directs an exotic tale about France, Japan and the silkworm trade.

The Kentucky Cycle, Infamous Commonwealth Theatre, May/June, dates and location TBA. A new, young troupe with large ambitions tackles Robert Schenken's enormous, epic two-part play about 200 years of family history in Eastern Kentucky. Pioneers, Indians, Civil War, racism, miscegenation, feud, love, greed ... in other words, America.

Jonny wishes you all Happy Theater-Going. And remember, please, open your candy now, turn off your cell phones and switch your pagers to vibrate or your vibrators to page.

This article shared 3733 times since Wed Sep 22, 2004
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