Court Theatre's adaptation of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is a scathing portrait of racism built around the observation that the central character is invisible because the people he deals with can see only his color. But its scope goes beyond race to the existential question of whether anyone ever sees anyone except through the observer's own needs and concerns. Thus all the characters are invisible to one another despite the hundreds of lightbulbs over the stage.
In his stunning lighting design John Culbert has captured the work’s central metaphor-- that of the character vainly fighting the darkness while buried underground like Dostoevsky's narrator–- as well as its central irony. Director Christopher McElroen and Invisible Man Teagle F. Bougere, both making their Chicago debuts, along with adapter Oren Jacoby, deserve great credit for bringing to life this ferociously current version of a 60-year-old masterwork. And the supporting cast, including A.C. Smith as Mr. Bledsoe and Lance Stuart Baker as a representative of the Brotherhood, a thinly-veiled portrait of the Communist Party, is pretty much flawless. Through February 19 in Hyde Park; tickets $10-$45.
The Girl in the Yellow Dress at Next Theatre also touches on issues of race and invisibility, albeit only en route to portraying a couple unable to connect through a thicket of their own illusions and the other’s preconceptions. Director Joanie Schultz captures every rhythm of Craig Higginson’s taut dialogue in this U.S. premiere, and Carrie A. Coon and Austin Talley are impeccable as the ill-fated pair. Through February 26 in Evanston; tickets $25-$40 with student discounts available.
To complete the race/invisibility trifecta there’s Home/Land at the Albany Park Theater Project. The piece was devised by the teenage company about the impact of immigration policy on the diverse families in their neighborhood, those from Eastern Europe and the Philippines as well as those from the Middle East and Mexico.
Though the piece overstays its welcome at nearly 2 hours with no intermission, its take on this urgent topic is clever as well as thoughtful. I especially liked the game show Who wants to be an American? Through February 25 (with extensions likely) at the company’s home at Eugene Field Park, 5100 North Ridgeway; tickets $6 to $22.
BONEdanse’s This Is a Damage Manual takes its title from the supergroup made up of '80s punk icons—and the advice it contains from '50s-era instruction manuals and self-help records. It’s a good bet that any actual instruction delivered by this satirical dark comedy will be oblique. Atalee Judy’s choreography relies on DIY fix-it books, safety operation guides, and her own dance notes from 1994. Also on the bill: The Woman Who Had It All, a solo by Jyl (“Jyldo”) Fehrenkamp. Thursdays through Sundays at Theater Wit through February 12.
And, in the category of things that are not as they seem: This Is Not a Dance Concert, by Carrie Hanson of the Seldoms. A very funny metatheatrical piece, with texts culled from Yelp and other online sources, it’s one night only at the Harris. Audiences at each of the three separate shows are divided into four groups, then guided around the theater, including backstage, for site-specific performances. Saturday at 7, 8:15, and 9:30 PM.
Meida McNeal remounts her Sweet Goddess Project, investigating the role women play in the house scene, at Northwestern University. I saw it last fall, and it’s not only great fun but puts house, a home for outsiders, in context.
I have only one choice this week because my pick actually is three-three-three shows in one (to paraphrase an ancient TV commercial for a patent medicine). My endorsement goes to the Steppenwolf Garage Rep at the Merle Reskin Garage Theatre.
Each year, Steppenwolf invites three smaller and younger Off-Loop theater troupes to stage a wintertime rotating repertory of new productions in its Garage space. Typically, the troupes have production values and techniques radically different from the realism for which the Steppenwolf Ensemble is famous. Thus, the Garage Rep has hosted wildly imaginative works featuring puppets, robots, other-worldly oddities and who-knows-what-all. It’s precisely what a troupe of Steppenwolf’s size, stature and resources should be doing to support theater arts and crafts here in Chicago.