Chicago’s theater season “starts” in the fall, if you pay attention to most of the schedules put out by theaters, but in truth, it runs all year-round without much of a pause. However you look at the calendar, Chicago has a bounty of good to great plays this fall.
Director Mary Zimmerman’s latest adaptation of a Greek mythology (following such marvelous productions as “Metamorphoses” and “The Odyssey”) is another wonder to behold. Watching a Zimmerman production is like seeing a bunch of talented actors and designers truly at play — playing with all of the toys at their disposal. There’s an infectious sense of fun about the stagecraft of Zimmerman and her collaborators. It’s amazing to watch how the seemingly simple stage is used to achieve different settings during the course of the show, and Michael Montenegro’s puppets are an especially fascinating addition.
Of course, this is the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Like some of Zimmerman’s earlier plays, it injects modern vernacular and humor into an ancient story. At times, the changes in tone can be a little jarring, but once you accept the self-reflexive nature of the play, the tale unfolds with ease. A few of the performances were top-notch, including Glenn Fleshler as Hercules, Atley Loughridge as Medea and Mariann Mayberry as Athena.
The last part of the story, more famously told in “Medea,” is summarized fairly abruptly. As a result, the motivations of Jason (Ryan Artzburger) get a little bit lost in Act 2. But then comes a closing scene involving the constellations that was almost breathtaking in its beauty. “Argonautika” continues through Dec. 23. See www.lookingglasstheatre.org. MY RATING: 3.5 out of 5.
This is one stark “Hamlet.” The set is basically a big, black slab of a floor. The backdrop is sometimes just a black wall, sometimes a big mirror. Lots of fog wafts down. All of the actors are dressed either in white or black — until the acting troupe within the story shows up. They’re clad first in grad overcoats, and then they perform all in red. In this almost existential setting, Ben Carlson gives a powerful performance as the famous Danish prince, particularly in the way he brings out the humor — the sardonic, bitter humor — in so many of Hamlet’s lines. Also noteworthy: Mike Nussbaum as Polonius, and Lindsay Gould, who really plays up Ophelia’s nutso scene. “Hamlet,” directed by Terry Hands, director emeritus of the Royal Shakespeare Company, continues through Nov. 18. See www.chicagoshakes.com. MY RATING: 4 out of 5.
The Goodman Theatre’s production of “King Lear,” directed by Robert Falls and starring Stacey Keach, has closed, but it’s worth mentioning again. This show really polarized critics and audiences. I’ve heard as many people say they loved it as I’ve heard people saying they reviled it. I count myself in the first camp. Yes, it was nasty, modernized, sexualized and Balkanized (literally). No, this isn’t the “definitive” version of “King Lear” you’ll ever see. It’s just one interpretation — and a damn interesting one. And it was exciting to see something this provocative on the stage at one of Chicago’s most prominent theaters. MY RATING: 4 out of 5.
ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST
Lllian Hellman’s “Another Part of the Forest” was the prequel to her best-known play “Little Foxes.” This production by Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe is filled with nearly perfect acting performances, including superb turns by some local regulars, Joel Hatch and Penny Slusher. It’s the drama of a dysfunctional Southern family in the late 1800s, with every dysfunction malfunctioning more as the play goes on. It’s a story that gradually builds in power. Even the characters who behave immorally have their reasons and a certain amount of symptahy. Now, if only some theater group were performing “Little Foxes” — that would be a great double bill. “Another Part of the Forest” continues through Nov. 26. See www.writerstheatre.org. MY RATING: 3.5 out of 5.
Victory Gardens Theatre has a glorious new home — inside a classic old theater, the Biograph. The last time I was in the place was to see “Pulp Fiction” on the big screen. Of course, it looks entirely different after all of the renovations. It’s an almost luxurious place to see a play, with comfy seats and great sight lines. And Charles Smith’s “Denmark” is an excellent show to break the place in. The play has nothing to do with the nation of Denmark, but rather is named for a freed slave in pre-Civil War South Carolina named Denmark Vesey. This is a drama that presents historical data and ethical dilemmas in way that’s both very natural and very clear — it never feels like a history lesson or an ethics lecture, but it gets across its points with just as much clarity. Anthony Fleming III brings a great deal of intelligence as well as emotion to his role as the title character. And there are quite a few other actors who shine in “Denmark” as well, with special kudos to A.C. Smith as Reverand Brown. “Denmark” continues through Nov. 12. See www.victorygardens.org. MY RATING: 3.5 out of 5.
Of all the plays I’ve seen this fall, the most memorable — and the most powerful — is Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman,” directed by Amy Morton at Steppenwolf Theatre. The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones has an advantage over me, in that he saw “The Pillowman” in its earlier New York production. And he says that one was even more terrifying and disturbing. It’s hard for me to imagine it being much more upsetting than it already is without becoming too much to stomach.
But it’s not just an unsettling story about people committing unspeakable acts (people torturing children, murdering your parents, murdering children, police torturing people during interrogations) — it’s also a deep examination of the creative process. The channeling of violence into creativity is a key theme, and despite everything, there is a slight glimmer of humanity in all of this, even as the play takes us to bleak places. The cast is fabulous, including Jim True-Frost (who’s also so good on HBO’s “The Wire”) and Michael Shannon (who gave one of the best performances I’ve seen this year, in the earlier play “Grace” at Northlight, and then turned up in a so-so role in Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center”).
“The Pillowman” continues through Nov. 12. See www.steppenwolf.org. MY RATING: 5 out of 5.
INHERIT THE WIND
Northlight Theatre’s production of “Inherit the Wind” is a mixed success. The scenes that set up the story — and the ones that end it — are stilted, an awkward mix of old-fashioned script writing and contemporary stage tricks that make it all seem rather artificial. But the courtroom scenes are really compelling, with two rousing performances: Tony Mockus as Matthew Harrison Brady, a character modeled after William Jennings Bryan, and Scott Jaeck as Henry Drummond, the surrogate for Clarence Darrow. Watching these two guys go at it in the courtroom battle over evolution and creationism is a hoot. But with this play being a fictionalized version of the Scopes Monkey Trial, it just whets the appetite for a more authentic telling of the true story. “Inherit the Wind” continues through Nov. 12. See www.northlight.org. MY RATING: 3 out of 5.
Something odd happens early on in this new play by Noah Hindle at the Goodman Theatre. The main character, a widow having trouble getting on with her life, is talking with her late husband’s soul, who is right there in the room with her, played by an actor. Just a figment of her imagination? Well, no, not exactly, because then it turns out that other people can see and hear this “soul” as well. And so “Vigils” takes place in a sort of metaphysical universe, not quite real. It alternates between comedy and some fairly serious topics with surprising grace. Certain memories play out repeatedly, with video projection providing the sort of special effects this play would probably not receive in a typical small production. Not all of it works, but overall, it’s a worthwhile and intriguing play. “Vigils” continues through Nov. 12. See www.goodmantheatre.org. MY RATING: 3 out of 5.
ENDGAME and PANTOMIME
A couple of plays that just closed still deserve some belated praise. Curious Theatre Branch’s performance of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” part of the Rhinoceros Theatre Festival at Prop Thtr, captured the absurdity of the strange world that Beckett created in that script, making it all seem like an alternate world that operates by its own set of rules. And Pegasus Players’ production of Derek Walcott’s “Pantomime” was a low-key but engaging dialogue about race. ENDGAME RATING: 3 out of 5. PANTOMIME RATING: 3 out of 5.