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Fall Theatre Preview: 10 Best Shows in Chicago in 2011

THE ANTICIPATION INDEX: Ten shows to buy tickets to now, starting with the most eagerly awaited

Illustration by James Taylor

 

1. CLYBOURNE PARK
9/8–11/6 at Steppenwolf Theatre
Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer winner is set at 406 Clybourne Street, the same house that figured so crucially in Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun. Norris takes the ultra-intriguing track of depicting a Chicago neighborhood in two eras: before Hansberry’s groundbreaking black family moves in and then decades after they’ve moved on. With Steppenwolf ensemble member Amy Morton staging Norris’s gasp-inducing dialogue and a varsity cast that includes Karen Aldridge, we predict this Chicago premiere will resonate long after the curtain drops on the shattering final scene. 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org

2. FOLLIES
10/4–11/6 at the Chicago Shakespeare Courtyard Theater
It’s been forever (well, 13 years) since Stephen Sondheim’s bitter-sweet-bitter musical about retired showgirls graced a local stage (and it was in Oakbrook Terrace). This demanding, too-rarely-produced gem is packed with Sondheim’s gorgeously wrenching songs (“Losing My Mind,” “Could I Leave You?,” “I’m Still Here”) wrapped around a book by James Goldman that spotlights the clash between youthful passions and adult compromises. There will be no compromise in quality—not if director Gary Griffin brings the same intensity and beauty he has brought to previous Sondheim endeavors (Sunday in the Park with George, Passion). If you see one musical a season, this is The One. 312-595-5600, chicagoshakes.com

3. SOPHOCLES: SEVEN SICKNESSES
9/6–10/23 by The Hypocrites at the Chopin
Exit, accompanied by herd of slaughtered sheep. And so goes Sean Graney, who has vacated his post as artistic director of the innovative company he founded in 1997. His swan song is his own adaptation of all seven of Sophocles’s tragedies, a five-hour epic in which various dramatis personae are clubbed, burned alive, buried alive, and stabbed in the eyes with dress pins. (The sheep get it when they’re mistaken for a band of marauding Argivian warriors.) Whether it works or flops, this event is a prime example of Graney’s audaciousness at its unfettered best. 773-989-7352, the-hypocrites.com

4. BECKY SHAW
9/23–11/6 at A Red Orchid
Given A Red Orchid’s history of portraying humans at their comic worst, we have high hopes for this take on Gina Gionfriddo’s switchblade-sharp 2008 comedy, which places protagonist Becky Shaw in the calculating footsteps of Becky Sharp, the antiheroine of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Mierka Girten stars in this tale of surviving bad dates, multiple sclerosis, and other maladies of both mind and body. As anyone who saw Girten’s autobiographical With or Without Wings—wherein she takes a gimlet-eyed, laugh-lest-you-cry view of her own struggle with MS—can attest, Becky Shaw is bound to be anything but sentimental. 312-943-8722, aredorchidtheatre.org

5. WAITING FOR LEFTY
9/2–10/2 by American Blues Theater at Victory Gardens
Nothing defines Chicago theatre more emphatically than one of those supersize ensemble shows in which every last player creates an indelible character. This fall, the unofficial award for Most Ridiculously Talented Group tentatively goes to the ridiculously deep 15-person corps in Clifford Odets’s rabble-rousing 1935 drama, a cast that includes longtime American Blues stalwarts Cheryl Graeff, John Mohrlein, Suzanne Petri, and Gwendolyn Whiteside. 773-871-3000, americanbluestheater.com

6. SPUNK
9/8–10/9 at Court Theatre
As Bess in last season’s Porgy and Bess, Alexis J. Rogers wrapped the audience in arias that were both soaring and earthy. In Spunk, That Voice returns as the blues-infused narrator linking three of Zora Neale Hurston’s short stories. George C. Wolfe’s 1990 adaptation of Hurston’s work is rich with the rhythmic dialects of the Deep South and the strutting urban slang of the Harlem Renaissance. When Rogers’s character riffs into stories of washerwomen and hustlers, husbands and wives, we’ll be listening. 773-753-4472, courttheatre.org

7. ELIZABETH REX
11/29–1/22 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Other than a short christening scene in Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth doesn’t get much face time in Shakespeare’s works. Which is a shame because the iconic monarch’s dramatic potential is endlessly fascinating. Arguably the next best thing to a Shakespeare-penned script is Timothy Findley’s 2000 play about Elizabethan-era illicit assignations, courtly theatricals, and imminent beheadings. As the magnificent and complex queen, Stratford vet Diane D’Aquila reprises the role she originated. 312-595-5600, chicagoshakes.com

8. SNAPSHOTS
9/16–10/23 at Northlight Theatre
You’ll find plenty of Stephen Schwartz’s (Wicked) popular hits in this musical examination of love, sex, marriage, and other points on the relationship trajectory. But how often do audiences get to hear tunes from The Magic Show or Reluctant Pilgrim? Almost never. Using nearly two dozen songs from his extensive 40-year catalog, Schwartz has created a new show about a 30-year marriage on the rocks. Northlight’s cast is also a dazzler, featuring the soulful clarion pipes of Susie McMonagle (Billy Elliot) and the Schwartz specialist Gene Weygandt, who’s now on his third consecutive show by the composer. 847-673-6300, northlight.org

9. THE UGLY ONE
10/8–11/20 by Sideshow Theatre at Oracle Theater
Imagine the freak-show addictiveness of the plastic-surgery-themed TV drama Nip/ Tuck merged with the existential and intellectual heft of Kafka. Such is the world of Marius von Mayenburg’s 2007 satire The Ugly One, which raises questions about our attitudes toward skin-deep appearances. But there’s more here than the prurient thrill that comes from gaping at tabloid pictorials of Knifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Director Seth Bockley is known for cutting-edge aesthetics, which means The Ugly One is apt to cast a brainy look at a superficial world. 773-809-4782, sideshowtheatre.org

10. ELLING
9/24–10/30 at Redtwist Theatre
Imagine The Odd Couple’s Felix and Oscar, only more profoundly disturbed. Such is the metaphor-rich premise of playwright Simon Bent’s 2007 buddy story on an angle. As recently released psychiatric patients attempting to navigate normalcy, Andrew Jessop (who recently tore up the stage in Redtwist’s Bug) and Jeff-winner Peter Oyloe (Equus) will mine their collective experience staging mental illness to reach the play’s combustible climax. 773-728-7529, redtwist.org

 

Illustrations: James Taylor

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