The Don't-Miss List: Gilbert & Sullivan, fairy tales and Depression theater

March 8, 2012

Strawdog's The Petrified Forest is an old-fashioned show in the best sense of the term, developing its conflicts and characters leisurely so that by the time things come to a head, the audience is deeply invested. But it's also the kind of show most likely to be overlooked in the crush of Chicago theater: vintage (rather than bran-spanking-world-premiere-new), with a name that sounds familiar mostly to people who've seen the movie adaptation and may therefore feel they've been there and done that.

But they haven't, because in Shade Murray's textured production this semi-naturalistic tale of dreams crushed by the Great Depression feels utterly, almost dauntingly, fresh. We may not be trapped in a desert-side greasy spoon in the middle of nowhere, but all of us know what it's like to hope for something better and fear we'll never find it. Though the movie made a star of Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee, the gangster whose takeover of the place brings its frustrations to a boil, here the focus is on Bette Davis and Leslie Howard, which is to say Caroline Neff and Paul Fagen--two impractical dreamers who fall in star-crossed love over the course of two acts. It's a rich, dense, filling evening in the theater--a meat pie instead of the 90-minute-no-intermission petit-fours we've been getting lately.  Settle into your seat and enjoy. The show runs through March 31 at Strawdog in Lakeview; tickets are $28, but only $15 for students and seniors.

On Wednesday the 14th, the protean Neff will appear at Steep Theatre in a staged reading of Blindsided, a new work by Simon Stephens. Stephens, the author of Steep's award-winning Harper Regan as well as of Griffin's hit Punk Rock, is in town for a couple of days. He'll be in the audience on Wednesday, but on Monday (the 12th) he'll be on the Steep stage reading his own monologue Sea Wall, and then engaging in a post-show conversation with the Tribune's Chris Jones. Get tickets for both shows for $30 on the company's Website.  

Stephens will also attend Sunday afternoon's final performance of Punk Rock at Griffin and then hang around to chat with the audience.  Tickets are $40 and available at the Theatre Wit Website. 

Jonathan Abarbanel:

The Gondoliers was the last successful collaboration between William S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, and, while it’s part of the standard G&S repertory, it’s less frequently produced than such ever-popular works as HMS Pinafore or The Mikado, which is too bad because its plot is just as silly and its score equally luscious. See for yourself this weekend only as the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company, in association with the University of Chicago Chamber Orchestra, presents The Gondoliers at Mandel Hall. The production opens the 52nd season of the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company.

Two shows opening this weekend have something in common: They are fairytales. In the West Loop, the Building Stage (which conveniently has free parking) offers a take on Hansel und Gretel as adapted by artistic director Blake Montgomery, who draws on both the Brothers Grimm and the Humperdinck opera. Hansel und Gretel runs through April 22. Up north in Andersonville, the Neo-Futurists founder Greg Allen combines genres with The Strange and Terrible Tale of Pinocchio (the wooden boy) as told by Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wretched Creature, an adult (emphasized) retelling that includes much of the violence which is removed for “family-friendly” versions. Pinocchio/Frankenstein continues through April 14 at the Neo-Futurarium. Both Montgomery and Allen enjoy their meta-theatrics, so expect puppets, masks, miniatures, exaggerations, music and similar grotesqueries.