Fall Theater Preview: It’s a Virtual World With Plenty of Creativity on Display

It’s fall and the time when Chicago theaters begin their new seasons. That’s the “old normal,” however, and nothing is normal these days. But although we can’t gather in small storefronts or large auditoriums to be enraptured by a theatrical performance, we can view some intriguing theatrical productions that will be streaming and presented outdoors in the next few weeks and months. Some are new productions and some are retooled classics. Here are some recommendations for performances by Chicago companies; watch for a second set of recs next week. These theater companies are all creating these productions with special safety precautions for cast and crew during the Covid-19 pandemic. E. Faye Butler. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Goodman  Theatre’s Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak On It, in Chicago Parks

Goodman Theatre is collaborating with the Chicago Park District in presenting Cheryl West’s new theater piece, Fannie Lou Hamer, Speak on It, featuring Chicago actor E. Faye Butler as Hamer, one of the most powerful voices in the civil rights and voting rights movement. The 40-minute abridged version of the play is being presented free in nine Chicago parks over the next few weeks. Henry Godinez directs the world-premiere production, which includes spirituals “I Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “I’m on My Way to Freedom.” Admission is free and you will be seated in the viewing area at each park on a first-come basis beginning one hour before the performance time. Social distancing and masks are required. More info here. The full version of the play will be part of Goodman’s 2021 season. Performance Information
  • Thursday, September 17, at 6pm: Hamilton Park (Englewood) 513 W. 72nd St.
  • Friday, September 18, at 6pm: Robert Abbott Park (West Chesterfield) 49 E. 95th St.
  • Saturday, September 19, at 3pm: DuSable Museum of African American History, George Washington Park (Washington/Woodlawn) 740 E. 56th Place
  • Thursday, September 24, at 6pm: Willye B. White Park (Rogers Park) 1610 Howard St.
  • Friday, September 25, at 6pm: Indian Boundary Park (West Ridge) 2500 W. Lunt Ave.
  • Saturday, September 26, at 3pm: Portage Park (Portage Park) 4100 N. Long Ave.
  • Thursday, October 1, at 6pm: Austin Town Hall (Austin) 5610 W. Lake St.
  • Friday, October 2, at 6pm: Homan Square (North Lawndale) 3559 W. Arthington St.
  • Saturday, October 3, at 3pm: Samuel Ellis Park (Bronzeville/Douglas) 3520 S. Cottage Grove Ave.

Theatre Y’s We're Gonna Die by Young Jean Lee, premiering September 18

Young Jean Lee’s stage play/indie rock concert is being reinterpreted by Theatre Y as a film for our virtual world. In the play, which was a critic’s pick for the New York Times in 2011, a female singer tells stories of the awfulness of life alternating with songs like “Lullaby for the Miserable” and “Horrible Things.” A team of 12 artists rehearsed, composed, designed, recorded, shot, edited and produced this film remotely, with each artist navigating how to work from their home. The film includes fresh versions of the show’s songs by composer Kyle Gregory Price, orchestrated for a contemporary chamber ensemble that includes pedal steel guitar and harpsichord. Hector Alvarez directs the film, featuring Emily Bragg. You can view We’re Gonna Die free (as part of the Free Theatre movement) Friday-Sunday at 7pm through October 4. RSVP here. For more info, email or call  773-908-2248.  

Otherworld Theatre Company’s Merchant of Sesame Street, premiering September 19

Otherworld Theatre Company (Chicago’s science fiction and fantasy theater) and the Stupid Shakespeare Company (a Shakespeare parody troupe) will present Merchant of Sesame Street, a free virtual parody of The Merchant of Veniceand “Sesame Street.” The play will premiere on Otherworld’s YouTube page on Saturday, September 19, and will continue to stream free after that. Register for tickets here https://www.eventbrite.com or by subscribing to Otherworld's YouTube page here https://www.youtube.com. Otherworld describes the production: “Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice gets a spectacularly goofy and educational twist. When Ernenzo makes his intentions to marry a human girl, Bertsanio finds himself in search of a new best friend and roommate. In an effort to help, Elmonio visits the long tormented Osclar the Grouch to make a dangerous deal: a pound of his felt in exchange for 3000 ducks!” It’s directed by Joshua Messick and recommended for 10 years and older because of complex language and some implied adult humor. Running time is about 2.5 hours.  

The Neo-Futurists' 45 Plays for America’s First Ladies, premiering October 8

The First Ladies production is a chronological series of 1- to 5-minute plays over 90 minutes in a variety of shapes, tones and theatrical conventions, in traditional Neo-Futurist style. It’s a companion piece to the Neo-Futurists’ 43 Plays for 43 Presidents (from 2004 and 2012). The production features ensemble members from the Chicago, New York and San Francisco Neo-Futurists under the direction of Denise Yvette Serna, and is written by Neo-Futurists alumni Andy Bayiates, Bilal Dardai, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Sharon Greene and Chloe Johnston. “45 Plays takes a box cutter and a stylus to U.S. history, exuding strength and sensitivity, questioning complicity, and inserting our contemporary bodies and voices directly into a history that trivializes the experiences of women,” says Director Serna. Rather than presenting a biographical story, the project uses the “honorary” office of First Lady as a lens to examine the roles that women and other marginalized individuals have played in our history. For more information and to purchase tickets starting at $15, visit neofuturists.org. Live-streamed performances with an audience participation component will run October 8, 9 and 11, with a full digital recording available through November 2.  

Theatre in the Dark’s Audio Drama, A War of the Worlds, premiering October 15

The original audio drama is an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Corey Bradberry, who co-authored this new adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel with company co-founder Mack Gordon, is directing. The audio drama will be performed live online six times per week from October 15 to November 21. The new script is titled A War of the Worlds. It follows the contours of Wells’ story of a Martian invasion, but moves the action from 1890s England to present day Illinois, with settings in Chicago and other parts of the state. Bradberry will direct a cast that will perform live from three cities. The Chicago-based actors are Mack Gordon (H.G. Wells), Alex Morales (Dennis) and Lauren Ezzo (swing). Performing from New Orleans are Elizabeth McCoy (Isabel Wells) and Robinson J. Cyprian (swing). Ming Hudson, broadcasting live from Vancouver, Canada, will play Shelly. Gordon, who is from Vancouver, has worked with Hudson many times, and Bradberry has worked with McCoy and Cyprian when all were students at the University of Southern Mississippi. Bradberry says, “It’s fun to have this opportunity to work again with these artists that we wouldn’t have had if not for COVID social distancing.” The two-year-old Theatre in the Dark, dedicated to making theater exclusively through sound, will use the human voice, music, and sound effects in the tradition of the radio dramas of the 1920s through the 1950s to create a suspenseful take on the Wells story. The audio drama will be performed Tuesdays–Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm October 15 thru November 21. Tickets are pay-what-you-can ($20-$25 suggested donation) and are on sale now at www.theatreinthedark.com.
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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.