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Here we are, avant le déluge.
After a relatively quiet summer theatrically, the 2019–2020 season is here, and September has no chill. Depending on how you count, there are around 50 shows opening in Chicago and the suburbs between this Sunday and September 30.
One of the things I hear most often from readers is that it feels impossible to keep tabs on everything that’s playing around town. I hear it from my friends who are eager to be adventurous theatergoers but have no idea where to start. I heard it from the attendees at a Fall Theater Preview program I presented at a North Shore library earlier this month. There aren’t a lot of great tools online to find a show without knowing what you’re looking for. And if you wait for reviews to come out, in this short-run city, the show may only have a week or two left to go.
(I seem to remember there used to be a magazine you could subscribe to—it came out every week, and it had listings of nearly every show playing that you could skim at a glance. Sounds like a dream…)
So, in the interest of providing a broad—but curated—overview, I offer you this chronological list of 18 shows opening in September that I think have strong promise. Let me know if you find it helpful!
Glenn Obrero in a promotional image for The Great Leap at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Photograph: Juli Del Prete
The Great Leap
Encompassing both sports and geopolitics, Lauren Yee’s play takes off from the notion of Chinese and American basketball teams meeting in Beijing for a “friendship” matchup in 1989—coinciding with the Tiananmen Square protests. And Manford Lum (Glenn Obrero), one of the American players, has more than hoops on his mind. Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Sept 5–Oct 20. $20–$99.
Loy Webb’s followup to her 2018 breakout hit The Light follows a college football player determined to escape comparisons to his talented older brother. Wardell Julius Clark directs the world premiere, with Charles Andrew Gardner, Marcus D. Moore and Anna Dauzvardis making up the cast. 16th Street Theater, Sept 5–Oct 12. $22–$30.
Midsummer (A Play with Songs)
Patrick Mulvey and Chaon Cross, who recently had strange adventures in Mexico in Court Theatre’s adaptation of The Adventures of Augie March, reteam for this rom-com with music. Penned by the Scottish playwright David Greig (The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart) and songwriter Gordon McIntyre, Midsummer tells the story of a one-night stand that turns into one wild weekend of… wait for it… strange adventures. Greenhouse Theater Center, Sept 5–Oct 6. $20–$25.
Deirdre O’Connell in Dana H. at Center Theatre Group. Photograph: Craig Schwartz
Playwright Lucas Hnath (A Doll’s House, Part 2; Hillary and Clinton) gets personal with this new work about his mother’s kidnapping by an ex-con patient she treated as a psych-ward chaplain. Steve Cosson of the NYC docutheater troupe The Civilians interviewed Dana about the ordeal; Hnath massaged the audio recordings of the interviews into a narrative, and actor Deirdre O’Connell lip-syncs to the result. Les Waters’s staging is a co-production with L.A.’s Center Theatre Group, where it played earlier this year to rave reviews. Goodman Theatre, Sept 6–Oct 6. $15–$50.
Tiny Beautiful Things
Long before Reese Witherspoon played her in the movie of her life, Wild author Cheryl Strayed won plenty of fans as the anonymous author of “Dear Sugar,” an advice column on the literary website The Rumpus. The success of Wild led to Strayed’s columns being collected in book form, under the title Tiny Beautiful Things; erstwhile Chicagoan Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) in turn adapted parts of that book for this play, which has received strong notices in productions around the country. Janet Ulrich Brooks is “Sugar” in VG’s Chicago premiere. Victory Gardens Theater, Sept 6–Oct 13. $31–$65.
Janet Ulrich Brooks in a promotional image for Tiny Beautiful Things at Victory Gardens Theater. Photograph: Todd Rosenthal
The Band's Visit
“There was a dynamic that we kind of fumbled onto that seemed to work for The Band’s Visit,” the director (and Chicago native) David Cromer told me in an interview last spring, as he was completing casting for the musical’s upcoming tour. “We wanted people to kind of lean forward into it, hoping to kind of overhear the show. The characters had to be really, truly unaware that they were being observed.” So, I asked, are there adjustments that need to be made to the modest, quiet show that won 10 Tony Awards, including best musical and best director, when sending it out to 2,000-seat houses like the Cadillac Palace? “Yes,” Cromer deadpanned. “And I’m going to learn what those are.” Cadillac Palace Theatre, Sept 10–22. $39–$106.
In plays like Blood and Gifts and The Overwhelming, J.T. Rogers takes on hugely complex real-life events of global import. In that sense, Oslo is par for the course. The winner of the 2017 Tony Award for Best Play, Rogers’s play concerns the 1993 peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, brokered in part by the Norwegian diplomats through whose eyes we view the proceedings. Nick Bowling directs TimeLine’s Chicago premiere, staged offsite at the Broadway Playhouse. TimeLine Theatre Company at Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, Sept 10–Oct 20. $30–$75.
King Hedley II
It’s Ron OJ Parson helming the last of the 10 plays in August Wilson’s Century Cycle that he has yet to direct. That should be all you need to know. Okay, fine: Kelvin Roston Jr. plays the title role in the 1980s-set entry. Court Theatre, Sept 12–Oct 13. $37.50–$74.
TayLar and Kelvin Roston Jr. in a promotional image for King Hedley II at Court Theatre. Photograph: Joe Mazza / Brave Lux
Love and Information
Trap Door tackles Caryl Churchill’s 2012 exploration, in 57 scenes and more than 100 characters (played here by just nine actors), of finding human connection in an always-on, interconnected world. Trap Door Theater, Sept 12–Oct 19. $20–$25.
Mother of the Maid
What’s it like to be the mother of Joan of Arc? Jane Anderson’s drama takes a parental perspective on the future Saint Joan, with the great Kate Fry playing mom to the martyr. BJ Jones’s cast also includes Kaream Bandealy, Ricardo Gutierrez, and Grace Smith as Joan. Northlight Theatre, Sept 12–Oct 20. $30–$89.
The Color Purple
Lili-Anne Brown helms a new production of the 2005 musical based on Alice Walker’s beloved novel. True, it was just last summer that Chicago saw a touring production (based on John Doyle’s acclaimed Broadway revival) hit the Auditorium Theatre. But what Brown has that the tour didn’t is an absolute dream team of Chicago-based talent, both onstage (like Sydney Charles as Shug Avery, Nicole Michelle Haskins as Sofia, Gilbert Domally as Harpo) and behind the scenes (such as choreographer Breon Arzell, music director Jermaine Hill and scenic designer Arnel Sancianco). Drury Lane Theatre, Sept 13–Nov 3. $55–$70.
Kate Fry and Grace Smith in a promotional image for Mother of the Maid at Northlight Theatre. Photograph: Greg Inda
Michael John LaChiusa’s 1993 chamber musical, inspired by Arthur Schnitzler’s risqué 19th-century drama La Ronde, follows a daisy chain of love affairs set across the entirety of the 20th century. Brenda Didier directs a powerhouse cast that includes Neala Barron, Royen Kent, Molly LeCaptain and Marco Tzunux, among others. Theo Ubique Cabaret Theater, Sept 13–Nov 3. $25–$59.
The Storefront Project
This collaboration between the Museum of Contemporary Art and Prop Thtr sees six directors—Sydney Chatman, Dado, Coya Paz, Denise Yvette Serna, Lucky Stiff, and the team of Mikael Burke and April Cleveland—devising performance projects based on non-theatrical texts to be performed in spaces throughout both venues. MCA associate curator of performance Tara Aisha Willis and Prop Thtr artistic director Olivia Lilley frame it as a celebration of Chicago theater’s love of found spaces. MCA Chicago and Prop Thtr, Sept 14–21. $15.
Every Brilliant Thing
A solo play with some assistance from the audience, this work by Duncan MacMillan is told from the perspective of the now-grown child of a mother with suicidal tendencies. After the mother’s first attempt, when the narrator was 7 years old, they began keeping a list of all of the many sources of pleasure in the world—the reasons to stick around. Rebecca Spence performs the play’s Chicago premiere, which christens the new third-floor space at Windy City Playhouse’s South Loop satellite theater. Windy City Playhouse South, Sept 18–Dec 8. $55–$75.
The third edition of this annual Latino theater festival features nearly a dozen productions, staged by local companies like Teatro Vista, Aguijón Theater and Repertorio Latino, as well as visiting theaters from the U.S., Mexico and Chile. Various locations, Sept 19–Oct 27. $20–$45.
Sarah Price in a promotional image for X at Sideshow Theatre Company. Photograph: Michael Tutino
The English playwright Alistair McDowall’s work is sort of like if Simon Stephens were a sci-fi/fantasy nerd. His Brilliant Adventures, which Steep Theatre staged in what was McDowall’s first U.S. production in 2015, dropped a working time machine built out of cardboard into a council-flats drama. His deeply unsettling Pomona, currently playing at Steep through September 14, infuses a street-level mystery with D&D-style role-playing games and Lovecraftian imagery. I can’t wait to see what Sideshow, a company that knows its own way around the weird, does with his X, a thriller set on a research outpost on Pluto. Sideshow Theatre Company at Victory Gardens Theater, Sept 22–Oct 27. $20–$30.
A Doll's House
Playwright Sandra Delgado (La Havana Madrid) and Writers Theatre artistic director Michael Halberstam adapt Ibsen’s door-slamming classic into a sharply focused one-act, helmed by director Lavina Jadhwani. The cast includes Cher Álvarez as Nora and Yousof Sultani as her husband, Torvald. Writers Theatre, Sept 25–Dec 15. $35–$80.
I could hardly predict what to expect from this devised piece from the adventurous Walkabout Theater Company, which sounds like a surrealist spin on the living-room couch drama in which “the family’s reality is stretched across decades of myth and misadventures.” Catch it free at one of four Chicago parks between September 10 and 21 as part of the Nights Out in the Parks program, or see it indoors at Victory Gardens. Walkabout Theater Company at Victory Gardens Theater, Sept 25–Oct 13. $15–$25.
A few closing links, for those who’ve read this far:
Patrick Byrnes in Casa Valentina. Photograph: Cody Jolly Photography
At the Sun-Times this week, I reviewed the Chicago premiere of Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina at Pride Films & Plays. You can read it here.