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WINTER THEATER SPECIAL Winter classics "true and reimagined"
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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The classics—usually meaning plays by dead playwrights which have withstood the test of time—sometimes can be "reimagined" ( to use an au courant term ) and reinvigorated, or simply redone and redundant.

People should be leery of radical revisions, deconstructions and updates of great works unless you've seen the works in their original forms. Only then can they understand the degree of "reimagining," and judge for themselves. Does the reinvention do justice to the original? Or is it dumbed down at the expense of a playwright who cannot object?

Several such productions are included below, in part because this dreary winter offers few truly legitimate examples of "the classics." The hero of early 2018 is Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian father of modern drama ( 1828-1906 ), whose moral dramas of the 1870s ( also called "problem plays" ) are experiencing a Renaissance. Ibsen's moral authority is impeccable, in clear contrast to today's political and social order, which may be why his plays remain popular.

Plays are listed chronologically by production dates ( beginning with previews ).

Jitney—Congo Square at The Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport, running through Feb. 11. The eighth play in August Wilson's brilliant Century Cycle of 10 works, Jitney is one of his more hopeful works. It's set in Pittsburgh's Hill District ghetto in the 1970s when gentrification was just getting underway, and concerns jitney taxi drivers, a wealthy undertaker and assorted other characters of the 'hood. As always, Wilson's dialogue, story-telling, humor and depth of characterization are exquisite. Esteemed veteran actor and director Cheryl Lynn Bruce is at the helm. Info/tickets:; 773-935-6875.

All My Sons—Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., running through Feb. 11. Arthur Miller's early drama ( before Death of a Salesman ) very well could be an Ibsen problem play. It concerns Joe Keller, a highly respected manufacturer who grew rich on a WWII contract. But at what cost? His partner and best friend? His wife and son? His own soul? When the shit hits the fan and cover-ups are revealed, what will be the outcome? Court Theatre artistic director Charles Newell guides a superb cast: John Judd, Kate Collins and Timothy Edward Kane as the Kellers. Info/tickets:; 773-753-4472. NOTE: see listing directly following.

Pillars of the Community—Strawdog Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave., Jan. 19-March 3. Here it is: one of Ibsen's actual moral dramas, written in 1877 and certainly the inspiration for All My Sons. The world and family of an upstanding citizen are thrown into turmoil with the return of a long-absent brother, triggering revelations of financial and sexual misbehavior. What will the community do? What will people say? Alas, this production isn't a straight-forward translation of Ibsen's original; it's billed as "a new version by Samuel Adamson" and it's anyone's guess what that means. Elly Green is the director. Info/tickets:; 773-644-1380.

Merrily We Roll Along—Porchlight Music Theatre at the Ruth Page Center, 1016 N. Dearborn, Jan. 26-March 11. Borderline classic. Not the original 1934 play by Kaufman and Hart but the musical by George Furth and Stephen Sondheim. Reimagined numerous times since its failed 1981 Broadway debut, it's a too-true-to-be-good story of friendships sacrificed for career. As in the Kaufman and Hart play, it concerns three middle-aged show biz legends and is told backwards from their cynical present to their idealistic starting point. Sondheim's score is bloody brilliant if typically cool. "Good Thing Going," "Old Friends" and "Not a Day Goes By" are the best-known numbers. Porchlight now is in new, larger quarters at the Ruth Page Center. Info/tickets:; 773-777-9884.

Jeeves in Bloom—ShawChicago ( sic ) at the Ruth Page Theater, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Feb. 3-26. The iconic humorist P. G. Wodehouse didn't write his Jeeves stories as plays, but many have been adapted over the years with great success, and ShawChicago is a master of the material. This one finds British Upper Class Twit Bertie Wooster caught between a diamond heist and a marriage scheme, from both of which his resourceful and unflappable manservant, Jeeves, must extract him. Adapted by Margaret Rather. Info/tickets:; 312-587-7390.

Anna Karenina—Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave., Feb. 16-April 8. A world-premiere adaptation of the passionate and tragic 1870s novel by Leo Tolstoy, about a woman caught between love and responsibility, between scandal and respectability. There have been many previous adaptations for diverse media, but Lifeline is rather reliable for the quality of its versions which not only adhere to the originals but also manage to include more story and details than other adaptations. Jessica Wright Buha is the adapter and Amanda Link the director. Info/tickets:;773-761-4477

Schiller's Mary Stuart—Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Navy Pier, Feb. 21-March 15. The 1800 original five-act verse drama by Friedrich Schiller ( 1759-1805 ) is regarded as one of the great plays of Western literature. This is "a new eclectic adaptation" by Brit author Peter Oswald, produced to much acclaim in the United Kingdom, Canada and the USA. But is it still a verse drama? What does "eclectic" mean? Why does it need to be eclectic? Since it's about English history ( Mary of Scots vs. Queen Elizabeth I ), has Oswald made it British in idiom and diminished Schiller's voice? Chicagoans are not familiar with the original ( staged here professionally only once in my years as a reviewer ), so why not just DO the original in a great translation and forget about "adapting" it? The director is Jenn Thompson. Info/tickets:; 312-595-5600.

The Picture of Dorian Gray—City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., March 2-April 15. People always think this classic novella by Oscar Wilde is about sex ( gay or otherwise ) rather than its true subjects, moral and spiritual decay. It's been adapted for stage, screen and dance numerous times and twisted into all sorts of shapes. This new adaptation continues the long history of distortion, removing it from Victorian Era London to 1970s New York City and tying it, somehow, to wanton sexuality linked to crack cocaine use and the onset of AIDS. I'm really leery of this one. City Lit does not usually take such extreme liberties with the material it adapts. Info/tickets:; 773-293-3682.

Cyrano—BoHo Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, March 3-April 15. BoHo takes a break from its usual musical fare to stage Edmund Rostand's 1897 neo-classical verse drama, Cyrano de Bergerac, adapted by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner from Hollinger's translation. They mostly drop the verse in favor of prose, and have reduced the cast to nine, but stay true to the play's 17th Century French setting and love triangle between beautiful Roxane, handsome but tongue-tied Christian and dashing-but-homely poet-swordsman Cyrano—he of the enormous nose. Steve O'Connell directs. Maybe. Info/tickets:; 773-791-2393.

An Enemy of the People—Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., March 10-April 15. Another Ibsen masterwork that remains as powerful and pertinent as ever, certain to shine under artistic director Robert Falls. In a prosperous spa town, the medical officer discovers the famous healing waters are being poisonously polluted by up-river industries. Does he blow the whistle or keep mum? Can he shut down the factories? What will happen to the town economy? Complication: the mayor and the medical official are brothers. Which one truly is the enemy of the people? Info/tickets:; 312-443-3800 .

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