theater

Tania Richard (left) as Headmistress Francis and Lanise Antoine Shelley as Eloise Amponsah in “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.” 

Theaters all over town are grappling with how to keep their artists and audiences engaged amid the uncertainties of the Covid-19 pandemic.

One of the latest ways is to announce a season of plays without giving any specific dates or even the order in which they'll appear. The lineup often combines live productions with virtual programming, either live-streamed or prerecorded, and “members" -- the new synonym for “subscribers" -- can choose among several flexible ticket packages.

Exciting as it may be when we're desperate to get back to the theater, this model is fraught with difficulties. “The major challenge is the lack of ability to plan,” explained Adam Belcuore, Goodman Theatre's managing producer. “Everything we do is built on a schedule, a season, the idea of working on a deadline. If we don't have that, we have to consider every decision and discuss a variety of contingencies.”

He added that once the all-clear is given, theaters still will be dependent on the actors' availability, though it's easier to cast shows and finalize contracts closer to the start of rehearsals than it is to choose the plays and directors, which typically is done a year or more in advance.

Two downtown theaters have come up with ambitious schedules—without dates. There are bound to be changes, so be sure to consult the web sites to keep up.

GOODMAN THEATRE, 312.443.3800, www.GoodmanTheatre.org.

A five-play Membership package starts at $100.

Goodman Theatre's 2021 season includes four world premieres, three postponed Chicago premieres, and the revival of a classic originally staged in 1993. All are intended to be live, but based on the rules when theaters reopen, some may be shown virtually, too. There's online educational programming through the end 2020, and Belcuore said the theater is investigating pulling plays from the archives to present digitally.

Although the order of the live productions remains undecided, Belcuore said the goal is to start with the Chicago premiere Jocelyn Bioh's “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play,” directed by Lili-Anne Brown, which was slated to open shortly after the theaters went dark. The nasty-teen comedy about girls at an exclusive Ghana boarding school competing in a beauty pageant subsequently was streamed by more than 4,000 people in more than 25 countries, and Goodman hopes to reassemble the cast for the run in the Albert Theatre.

“American Mariachi” by José Cruz González, a co-production with Dallas Theater Center directed by Henry Godinez, was almost underway in Texas when the pandemic struck. The heartwarming comedy about an all-female mariachi band in the 1970s won't be remounted there for logistical reasons, but the Chicago premiere in the Albert Theatre is expected to feature the same actors plus local mariachi band Sones de Mexico, according to Belcuore.

The third Chicago premiere, in the Owen Theatre, is the Goodman debut of pianist, actor, and playwright Hershey Felder with “A Paris Love Story,” his homage to the life and music of Impressionist composer Claude Debussy. Among his favorite compositions: “La Mer,” “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune,” and the haunting “Clair de lune.”

Also in the Owen, the new production of “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci,” adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman, may be especially exciting to those of us who saw the original in 1993. The show combines text from the artist and scientist's notebooks and treatises with incredibly imaginative staging to bring to life his ideas on topics ranging from mathematics, anatomy, and engineering to philosophy, love, and the human spirit.

Godinez also has been tapped to direct one of the world premieres: Cheryl L. West's “Fannie” in the Owen. Commissioned by Goodman and Seattle Repertory Theatre, and initially presented as part of Goodman's 2019 New Stages Festival, the rallying cry to action inspired by the life of civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer showcases marvelous actor and singer E. Faye Butler in the title role.

A 40-minute abridged version of the piece called Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It!  runs September 17 – October 3 at nine Chicago parks including, on Sept. 19, 3 p.m.,at Washington Park's DuSable Museum of African American History. Admission is free; and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis beginning one hour prior to the performance.

Social distancing and masks are required.You can also tune in for an online conversation with the artists about producing this socially distanced show outdoors—and how Fannie Lou Hamer’s story inspires communities today—on the Goodman’s new virtual discussion series, Live @ Five, this Friday, September 11 at 5pm; visit GoodmanTheatre.org/LiveAtFive.

The other world premiere in the Owen is Christina Anderson's “the ripple, the wave that carried me home,” a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The play about justice, legacy, memory, and forgiveness focuses on a woman coming to terms with her past and parents who were prominent activists fighting for the integration of public swimming pools in 1960s Kansas.

In the Albert Theatre, the world premiere of Doug Wright's “Good Night, Oscar,” directed Leigh Silverman, stars Sean Hayes at his witty best as Oscar Levant, the character actor, pianist, and wise-cracking humorist famous for one liners like “There’s a fine line between genius and insanity; I have erased this line.” He proves it by baring his soul live on national TV one night in 1958 on Jack Paar's talk show, where he's a favorite guest.

Postponed due to Covid-19, the final world premiere is the pre-Broadway tryout of “The Outsiders,” based on the novel by S.E. Hinton and Francis Ford Coppola’s film, with a book by Adam Rapp, music and lyrics by Jamestown Revival (Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance) and Justin Levine, choreography by Lorin Latarro, and direction by Liesl Tommy. Set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1967, the show re-imagines the coming-of-age story about a band of greasers fighting for survival and purpose as a musical.

No decision has been made yet on how—or whether—to go ahead with the traditional holiday production of “A Christmas Carol,” but an announcement is expected this month.

CHICAGO SHAKESPEARE THEATER, 312.595.5600, www.chicagoshakes.com

Flexible ticket packages. New this year, the Subscriber Bard Card retains the value of purchased tickets, allowing season ticket holders to use it however they would like on future productions.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater has put together a diverse, very flexible lineup that combines live and virtual shows. Although dates will be announced on what a press release calls a “rolling basis,” digital programming starts this month, and in-person performances currently are slated to begin in early 2021.

One of the most interesting projects brings together two solo pieces from Tim Crouch's “I, Shakepeare” series, and audiences can opt to see them in a reduced-capacity space at the theater or to stream them live from home. They haven't been cast yet, but Definiion Theatre's founding artistic director Tyrone Phillips directs the North American premiere of “I, Cinna (the poet)” in which the minor poet killed off by an angry mob in “Julius Caesar” tries to write a poem on a new subject with the audience's help. Prolific director Marti Lyons takes on “I, Banquo,” a re-examination of “Macbeth” through the eyes of the title character's betrayed best bud, who contemplates how he might have responded to the Weird Sisters' prophesies had he been in his friend's position.

When conditions permit, CST returns to its roots as a repertory company with a pairing of “Measure for Measure” and “Twelfth Night” performed in The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare by the same ensemble of actors. The very busy Godinez adapts and directs “Measure for Measure,” a striking exploration of sexual politics and social justice, and CST artistic director Barbara Gaines adapts and directs “Twelfth Night.”

The other Shakespeare play on the bill is “As You Like It,” which was postponed from the 2019/2020 season and concludes this one. Citadel Theatre's artistic director Daryl Cloran adapts and directs the lively production set in the 1960s and infused with close to 20 Beatles hits performed live, among them “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Let It Be,” and “Here Comes the Sun.”

Two very different musicals round out the live offerings. Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori and director, playwright, and librettist Tazewell Thompson joined forces to create “Blue,” a painfully timely opera about a Black police officer and his wife confronting the killing of their son at the hands of the police. Awarded “Best New Opera” by the Music Critics Association of North America, it's being presented in collaboration with Lyric Opera of Chicago.

On a lighter note, the world premiere of Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair's “It Came from Outer Space,” commissioned and developed by CST and directed by Laura Braza, spins Ray Bradbury's flying saucer tale and the cult classic 1950s sci-fi film into a clever musical about society’s fear of outsiders and embracing the wonder of what lies just beyond the stars.

CST's fall digital programming kicks off Sept. 22-26 with a live-streamed WorldStage event direct

from the U.K.’s Bristol Old Vic: Wise Children's “Romantics Anonymous,” a musical comedy about two socially awkward chocolate makers breaking the mold and finding the courage to be happy. Written and directed by Emma Rice, with lyrics by Christopher Dimond and music by Michael Kooman, it premiered at Shakespeare's Globe in London in 2017 and was hailed as a multi-faceted “gem.”

For the holidays, CST streams its 75-minute 2018 production of “Peter Pan – A Musical Adventure,” directed and choreographed by Amber Mak. Based on J.M. Barrie's tale about the boy who wouldn’t grow up, the musical has a score by George Stiles and lyrics by Anthony Drewe, the duo behind the hit “ Mary Poppins.”

Fall also brings a new four-part monthly digital series, “Everybody’s Shakespeare,” hosted by artistic director Barbara Gaines. The program offers in-depth conversations with artists and experts interwoven with extended performance footage of highlights from the company’s 35-year history.

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