Theater 2014-15: Strawdog doubles down, adds full-scale series to complement main-stage fare
First in a series of season previews: Max Frisch’s “The Arsonists” opens the main-stage series Aug. 25; company’s four productions in its Hugen Hall cabaret space, upgraded to qualify for Jeff Awards.
By Lawrence B. Johnson and Nancy Malitz (Sambla OY)
Strawdog Theatre seriously ramps it up this season, with eight productions that will meet the criteria for Jeff Award consideration – double the number of qualifying shows last year. For the first time, all four plays offered in Hugen Hall, the company’s intimate bar venue, will meet Jeff production standards. “It is really ambitious,” says Strawdog artistic director Hank Boland with a mix of pride and apprehension.
Under the thematic banner “Deniable Truths/Undeniable Lies,” Strawdog’s 27th main-stage season includes both a world premiere, John Henry Roberts’ “The Sweeter Option,” a psychological thriller about embezzlement gone awry, and a U.S. premiere, Rob Drummond’s “Quiz Show,” in which the fun turns dark as the questions grow strange. The main-stage series opens Aug. 25 with Max Frisch’s “The Arsonists,” a political farce about two men who are burning their way through a city.
Another world premiere kicks off the Hugen Hall lineup: “Fail/Safe,” an adaptation of the 1962 cold-war novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler about a systems snafu that threatens to set off World War III. The book was turned into a popular 1964 film and a 2000 made-for-TV movie of the same title.
“In six different months, we have a least one opening night,” says Boland. “That’s daunting. But it’s also very exciting. I think our support base is ready for this. More than 6,300 people came to see at least one show at Stawdog last season. We’re not looking for the same person to come back eight times, though that would be awesome. But we have a loyal audience, and this season has something for everybody.”
The 2014-15 season in brief:
- “The Arsonists” by Max Frisch, adapted by Alistair Beaton (main stage Aug. 25-Sept. 27): Fires are breaking out all over the city, and to make matters worse for Biedermann, one of the town’s leading businessmen, two needy strangers have talked their way into his home. The evidence is piling up that these are the very arsonists that have brought the city to its knees. Can Biedermann use reason and philanthropy to sway the pair from their fiery path? “This was a great opportunity to see in sort of a light way how things can go from bad to worse for a character who just can’t see the truth,” says Hank Boland. “It’s a funny play about some really serious stuff.”
- “Great Expectations,” adapted by Gale Childs Daly from the novel by Charles Dickens (main stage Nov. 10-Dec. 20): Reprised from Strawdog’s 2013 production, it’s Dickens’ classic tale of Pip, an orphan plucked from poverty and thrust into the upper class, his benefactor’s identity and motives hidden. As Pip tries to find love and a living in his radically changed circumstances, he untangles a fascinating web of secret identities and hidden pasts. “We’re going back to it because it’s a beautiful show,” says Boland. “Characters doing some despicable things speaks to our own values and connections to home and community. Six actors play 40 characters, which means you must have a highly accomplished ensemble to do this. But it isn’t zany, it isn’t farce.”
- “The Sweeter Option” by John Henry Roberts (world premiere, main stage Feb. 23-March 28, 2015): This new play, set in 1971 Chicagoland by Strawdog ensemble member John Henry Roberts, follows a low-rent investigator named Tucker as he tracks a stolen rent-a-car and stumbles neck-deep into an embezzlement scheme gone sour. There’s enough cash up for grabs to finance a whole new life, but the only way to it is through Irene Pike, a suburban housewife who is clearly more than she lets on. “It’s the flip side of ‘Great Expectations,’ says Boland, ‘about a guy who’s down on his luck and who’s made some bad choices. It’s a very stylized noir play, really sexy, really smart.”
- “Quiz Show” by Rob Drummond (U.S. premiere, main stage May 11-June 13, 2015): In British playwright Rob Drummond’s wry and dark drama, audiences join everyone’s favorite quizmaster Daniel Caplin, on the set of “False!,” the popular game show where gifted contestants must catch the lies to win the ultimate prize — the chance to find out what’s behind the Door of Truth. Sandra is ready to take down the defending champion, but as the questions become increasingly strange, those within the game start to sense the rules are changing. “For the first third of this 90-minute play, the audience is audience of a quiz show like ‘Jeopard,’” says Boland. “But then you begin to sense something is wrong, that reality is in question. It’s pretty stunning stuff.”
Hugen Hall series:
- “Fail/Safe,” adapted by Anderson Lawfer and Nikki Klix from the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler (world premiere, Sept. 15-Oct. 14): In this political thriller from the cold war era, a system failure threatens to trigger World War III. As time runs out, the president of the United States and his advisers scramble to find a strategy that will save the planet from total annihilation.
- “Desperate Dolls” by Darren Callahan (Nov. 24-Dec. 23): It’s Hollywood, 1968, and three beautiful women are in big trouble. Sunny Jack Fennigan has the best intentions: to make female-led independent features that turn a quick buck at the box office. A powerful agent known only as Captain has a proposition that may be the answer to all his hopes. His three best prospects are ripe for stardom. But a dark trip through seedy motels and murder scenes threatens to turn their dreams into the kind of nightmare where one doesn’t wake up.
- “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” adapted by Anne Sonneville and Clint Scheffer from the novel by Jules Verne (March 9-April 7, 2015): Professor Aronnax, his assistant Conseil and the harpooner Ned Land join the enigmatic and dangerous Capt. Nemo for an epic journey aboard the Nautilus. On this unprecedented tour of the seven seas, the three heroes face harrowing challenges and wrestle with the dark shapes that lurk in the depths of men’s souls.
- “The Pied Piper,” a legend adapted by the Forks and Hope Ensemble (June 1-30, 2015): In another round of family fare, following their presentations of Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” and Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories,” the Forks and Hope Ensemble returns to Strawdog with this ancient story of the piper who lured the rats away from a town by playing on his enchanted pipe – only to use the same spell on the village children when the townsfolk refused to pay him for his service.
Founded in 1988, Strawdog Theatre Company is located at 3829 N. Broadway in the heart of Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. The company’s mission is to develop new works and reimagine the classics, while melding music with theater, asking provocative questions and delivering the unexpected. The neighborhood has limited paid parking and is readily accessible by public transportation (via the Red Line Sheridan stop, plus 36-Broadway, 80-Irving Park, and 151-Sheridan buses). Tickets are available at 773.528.9696 or www.strawdog.org.
- Official website for Strawdog Theatre: Strawdog.org
- Review of ‘Charles Ives Take Me Home’ at Strawdog: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Role Playing: Dave Belden, actor and violinist, as John Starr in ‘Charles Ives’: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ at Strawdog: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
- Review of ‘The Petrified Forest’ at Strawdog: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
Tags: 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, Anderson Lawfler, Charles Dickens, Darren Callahan, Eugene Burdick, Fail/Safe, Forks and Hope Ensemble, Gale Childs Daly, Great Expectations, Hank Boland, Harvey Wheeler, John Henry Roberts, Jules Verne, Max Frisch, Nikki Klix, Pied Piper, Quiz Show, Rob Drummond, Strawdog Theatre, The Arsonists, The Sweeter Option