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Hot new drama for the cold season
WINTER THEATER SPECIAL
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2013-01-16

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In Chicago some 40-50 theater productions open each month, about half of which are completely new to local audiences, either world premieres or regional/Chicago premieres. This truly is unique—the willingness of audiences to go with the flow and sample the unknown. I've interviewed top management at theaters large and small across the country (in the course of 20 years of part-time work for the National Endowment for the Arts) and I can't tell you how often an artistic director has said to me, "We can't do more than one new play a year. Our audiences don't want to see anything they haven't heard about." Meanwhile, here in Chicago we have theaters that do nothing but new work and flourish because of it.

What follows is a small sampling of the many world and regional premieres in Chicago-area theaters over the next three months, arranged in chronological order by opening dates. Several already are running.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, through March 3. It's the regional premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis' salty-tongued and streetwise romantic triangle (set in New York's Spanish Harlem) concerning two men and a woman who can't quite express what is in their hearts, and who can't quite figure out how to be decent human beings.

American Wee-Pie, Rivendell Theatre Company, through Feb. 16. it's a world premiere described as "a heartbreaking new comedy" by Chicago-based playwright Lisa Dillman, about a middle-age book editor whose life is altered when he returns to his small home town for a funeral. It features a strong cast and director (Megan Carney), most of them Rivendell ensemble members or associates. Rivendell is a troupe dedicated to theater which explores a woman's perspective.

Flare Path, Griffin Theatre Company at Theater Wit, through Feb. 24. Neither a new play nor even a recent one, Flare Path dates from World War II and yet is being seen in Chicago for the first time. It's by Terence Rattigan (The Winslow Boy, Separate Tables, French without Tears), the stylish and deeply closeted British playwright who turned much of his personal life into heterosexual tales, including this examination of wartime love.

Other Desert Cities, the Goodman Theatre, through Feb. 17. The regional premiere of the latest play by gay writer Jon Robin Baitz, whose TV work includes The West Wing and Brothers and Sisters, and who is author of plays such as The Film Society, Three Hotels and The Substance of Fire. This 2011 work concerns a mature California family with Hollywood connections (not unlike Baitz's actual upbringing) who clash over politics and an about-to-be-published old family secret. Director Henry Wishcamper has gathered together some of Chicago's best veteran actors for this one.

Successors, Signal Ensemble Theatre, Jan. 24-March 3. Ya write about what ya know, so it's not surprising to find actor/playwright/composer Jon Steinhagen penning a world-premiere comedy about a city where political office has been passed along from father to son/daughter and to grandkids for three generations. Hey, he says it's a fable. Yeah, right.

Leaves, Trees, Forest, IMPAACT at the Greenhouse Theatre Center, Jan. 27-March 3 (previews from Jan. 18). It's a world premiere by New York-based actor/author Paul Notice about the inspiration of the 2008 election on young African-America university graduate, and what he finds when his ambitions and ideals meet the real world.

Southbridge, Chicago Dramatists, Feb. 1-March 13 (previews from Jan. 24). Chicago Dramatists, which does nothing but world premieres by its ensemble of authors, presents a new work by Reginald Edmund. Set in Athens, Ohio, in 1881, and based on a true story, it concerns the murder of a white woman and the demand for the lynching of a young Black man. Of course, there's more to it than that. Artistic director Russ Tutterow stages the play.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Lookingglass Theatre Company, Feb. 9-March 17 (previews from Jan. 30). Regional premiere of an attention-grabbing work by Rajiv Joseph which looks at the Iraq War through the eyes of tiger, and a dead tiger at that, and an angry tiger, too. On Broadway, the title role was played by none other than Robin Williams. Reportedly, the play is one of the most imaginative looks at the practical, ethical and moral absurdities of our Iraqi involvement.

Counterfeiters, Dog & Pony Theatre Company at the Pentagon Theatre in Flatiron Arts Building, Feb. 16-March 16. We pretty much need to let this world premiere by Aaron Weissman speak for itself. The company describes it as "A vaudeville spectacular starring the morally just but dastardly counterfeiters, with amazing feats of strength performed by Benjamin Franklin himself! Magic, song and dance numbers and madcap buffoonery! Birth and death. Life and liberty. All in the pursuit of the American Dream." FYI: Ben Franklin is on the $100 bill.

Everything is Illuminated, Next Theatre Company, Feb. 26-March 31 (previews from Feb. 21). A U.S. premiere of a play by Simon Block, adapted from a novel by Jonathan Safron Foers, it concerns a young man searching for an old woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. The young man is guided only by a yellowing photograph, a dog and a dubious translator.

Gjenganger, Akvavit Theatre at the Storefront Theater, Feb. 28-March 24. The still-new Akvavit Theatre (in its second year) is dedicated to bringing contemporary Scandinavian drama to Chicago audiences (none of that old-hat Ibsen or Strindberg stuff). In this case, Akvavit offers world-premiere English translations of three plays by Norwegian author Jon Fosse, who is among Europe's most-produced living playwrights. The translator is Kyle Korynta.

Brewed, The Ruckus and Tympanic Theatre Company at Theater Wit, March 4-24. Two off-of-Loop troupes join forces for this world premiere by Chicagoan Scott Barsotti. The play concerns seven contemporary sisters—Nannette, Babette, Juliette, Roxette, etc.—who must perpetually stir a pot, but now are facing cracks in their sense of duty. What is their secret and what is their obligation? Double-double-toil-and-trouble...


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