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Eight hot Chicago plays you should have seen come round again in Theater on the Lake fest

Submitted by on Jun 10, 2013 – 9:35 pm

Preview: The Chicago Park District’s summer reprise series brings hand-picked productions back for another bow in five-day runs starting June 12.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Theater director Halena Kays is exaggerating only slightly when she refers to the million plays you’d have to see if you hoped to catch every show in a Chicago season. That’s the beauty of Theater on the Lake, the summer reprise of eight top productions that opens June 12 with original casts reassembled. It’s a bonus round for theater-goers who simply ran out of nights.

The second chances begin with The New Colony production of Evan Linder’s “The Bear Suit of Happiness” (June 12-16), about a gay American soldier stationed on a remote Pacific island in World War II who’s assigned to create a show for the troops, keeping in mind that it needs to be simple, have music and include a drag bit.

Fast-forward, make a radical turn and you come to the festival’s second show, Idris Goodwin’s “Blackademics,” from MPAACT – the easier version of Maat Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre. This comedy (June 19-23) zooms in on two African-American scholars celebrating black history month at a bistro, where their excursions into political, academic and pop cultural issues lead to the big question of what it means to be black in contemporary America.

Theater on the Lake: The Chicago Summer Theater Festival, as it’s officially known, has been around for six decades, though its present format – eight shows, each running for five performances Wednesday through Sunday – is more recent. And this is just the second year the plays have been selected by two Chicago theater professionals whose charge is to get out there and see as many shows as possible.

“We saw a million plays,” says Halena Kays, the artistic director of Hypocrites Theatre, who shared the daunting task with director Joanie Schultz, artistic associate at Steep Theatre and Victory Gardens. “We tried to see a lot of new companies and shows that sounded like they would do well in the festival setting – smaller casts, relatively simple productions. Then we compared notes.”

It’s a one-year gig for Kays and Schultz. For the 2013-14 season, a different pair of experts will survey the theaterscape.

“We wanted the festival to represent a cross-section of Chicago theater in all its variety,” says Schultz. “I saw a ton of plays, many by companies I’d never seen before. I picked the plays that stuck with me, that kept me thinking about them weeks or months later.

“Halena and I have different aesthetics. That’s a cool factor. But we also tried not to overlap too much – though we agreed immediately on ‘Blackademics.’ It’s so fascinating. I can’t wait to see it again. We picked some wildly different things. Jackalope Theatre is a really interesting new company of young and enthusiastic people, and their show ‘Long Way Go Down’ is so good.”

Kays summed up their eventual linep as “the season Joanie and I would most want to see. In Chicago, you can’t see everything even when it’s your job. Theater on the Lake gives everyone another opportunity to see all these little gems that popped up.”

Here are the remaining plays:

  •  “Lula del Ray,” based on the original text by Brendan Hill, June 26-30. (Manual Cinema) — This feature-length shadow play is performed with overhead projectors, shadow puppets, actors in silhouette, live music and almost entirely without dialogue.  When Lula, a lonely adolescent girl, discovers a soulful country music duo on the radio, she leaves home and enters a world of danger and deception to find them.
  • “There Is a Happiness That Morning Is,” by Mickle Maher, July 10-14. (Theatre Oobleck) — A comedy in rhymed verse, the play unfolds through two lectures on the poetry of William Blake: one given by a middle-aged, barely published poet of scant scholarship, and the other by his lover, a reputable Ph.D.  Having just engaged in a highly inappropriate public display of affection, the two undergraduate lecturers must now either apologize for their behavior, or justify it if they want to keep their jobs.
  • “That’s Weird, Grandma,” by student authors, adapted by the ensemble, July 17-21. (Barrel of Monkeys) — Barrel of Monkeys is an ensemble of actors/educators who hold creative writing workshops with Chicago Public Schools students and perform these imaginative, smart and funny stories.
  • “The Quality of Life,” by Jane Anderson, July 24-28.  (The Den Theatre) — Conservative and liberal worlds collide in this compassionate and humorous drama that confronts the human challenge of losing a loved one. After the death of their daughter, a church-going couple visit left-wing cousins who continue to celebrate life despite hard times.  But sympathy turns to rage when religious and moral values about life and death are put to the ultimate test.
  • “Long Way Go Down,” by Zayd Dohrn, July 31-Aug. 4. (Jackalope Theatre) — An imaginary line at the edge of America fosters a perilous story of trust between two truckers and two Mexican immigrants smuggled into Arizona.  In a business this dangerous, someone has to pay up.  Fast-paced and sharp-tongued, this play is a poignant reminder that life requires large sacrifices for large changes.
  • “The Chi-Town Clown Revue, Featuring Honeybuns,” Aug. 7-11. (Chicago Physical Theatre) — conceived by Dean Evans. This special edition of Chi-Town Clown Revue’s visceral and hilarious theatrical event features Honeybuns, a gigantic creature billed as “the World’s Greatest Mime.” It’s a highly physical, interactive piece of performance art that has elements of mime, improv, and electro-shock treatment with physical comedians and circus clowns.
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