The most moving moments in Lookingglass Theatre's The Great Fire belong to Mr. and Mrs. O'Leary, the Irish immigrants falsely accused of causing the blaze. Watching them cringe in front of some sort of government investigative panel you get a sense of how marginalized and terrified even these English-speaking immigrants were. If the rest of the show had that level of emotional engagement or social commentary, it would be a knock-out; instead, it's a pleasant tour through familiar territory, an in-joke for Chicagoans. Its acrobatics never reach to any impressive height, nor does its story-telling. But Cheryl Lynn Bruce's turn as Alderman Hildreth, who thought to stop the fire by using gunpowder to blow up some of the buildings still standing, is equal parts hilarious and true and should be required viewing for anyone who thinks the Chicago City Council is fit to govern. Through November 20 at the Waterworks; tickets $42-$60.
Meanwhile, The Artistic Home's A Touch of the Poet shows an Irish family from half a century earlier, struggling against being marginalized by accepting the claims of its paterfamilias to being a great gentleman and a brave soldier, though to all outward appearances he's just a tavern-keeper with a slavey wife and a pretty daughter. I saw this show some years ago with Brian Dennehy directed by Robert Falls and hated it with a passion surpassing all things because the central character, Con Melody, was so over-the-top in his delusions and hatefulness. Kathy Scambiaterra's production demonstrates that it's not the character at all: under her direction Frank Nall makes one hairpin turn after another in portraying Con's quest to escape himself. His splendid performance is complemented by that of Sally Eames, if anything stronger and subtler as the wife who knows Con for what he is and loves him nonetheless. Their performances carry the entire play, and remind us that Eugene O'Neill did, on occasion, provide a happy ending. Through November 6 at Stage 773 on Belmont; tickets $28-$32 with student and senior discounts available.
And for something completely different, head to the Dance Center of Columbia College tonight, tomorrow or Saturday for Dancing Henry Five, a dance version of Shakespeare's play choreographed by David Gordon.
A couple of big-ticket shows this weekend, both featuring world-premiere commissions, may be worth shelling out for. The Joffrey performs its first evening-length commission in 60 years, a remix of Don Quixote by former Bolshoi dancer Yuri Possokhov, who both riffs on the Petipa version and brings his own contemporary sensibility to the dancing. True to Cervantes’ 400-year-old story, Possokhov focuses on Don Q himself—and comic relief Sancho Panza. Animated projections help bring this 19th-century ballet into the 21st century.
Twyla Tharp hasn’t created a new piece for Hubbard Street in 15 years—but she makes up for lost time in the formally and musically intricate Scarlatti, a piece for 12. Those familiar with her work in the 1978 film Hair or the 2010 Sinatra jukebox musical Come Fly Awaywon’t be surprised by her gift for communicating character too.
It’s Alive…! at Defibrillator Gallery’s three-week series, the ALive Installation Project. A wall has been built down the middle of the space, and a dancer on one side and performance artist on the other perform simultaneously for three hours. (No worries: you can drop in.) The opening show features Michelle Kranicke of Zephyr Dance and Korean artist Gim Gwang Cheol, performing a project similar to one in Montreal that included “creating crossfire with red string” and reading a dictionary.
I'm mainly beholden to the Brits for my choices this week, which could not represent greater artistic and intellectual extremes.
Mary Poppins is back in town, and if that's not reason for rejoicing I don't know what is. Beloved by some and sentimental hogwash to others, this dazzling Broadway version of the popular Disney film adaptation of the old P. L. Travers children's book is perfect for children of all ages, as advertisements like to proclaim. The familiar songs all are there and the spectacular dance numbers are even more spectacular when performed live, onstage with a few eye-popping surprises. This is a great first Broadway show for kids. Mary Poppins is at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through Nov. 6.
On the other hand, you'd best keep the kiddies away from Cloud 9 at the Gift Theatre in Jefferson Park, unless they are extremely advanced. This 1979 play by Brit author Caryl Churchill uses cross-dressing and other meta-theatrical devices to target racism, sexism and gender identity in 19th Century British Colonial Africa and London today. Nothing sacred in this highly theatrical work of magic realism, which is quite a different sort of play for the Gift Theatre. FYI: the extremely intimated Gift storefront playhouse will put the action, some of it sexual, very much in your face. Cloud 9 runs through Dec. 4.
Also: a fine organization, Chicago Cabaret Professionals, holds its annual fundraiser concert at Park West this Sunday (Oct. 16) at 7PM. You and the Night and the Music will feature a dazzling line-up of Chicago's top cabaret musical talents, with special honors bestowed upon Ann Hampton Calloway, Jimmy Damon and former Chicago Cultural Commish Lois Weisberg. Tickets begin at $27.