Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage
Venice Theater - Stage II

It’s a tribute to the dedication to text of director, cast, and tech crew that Venice Theater’s production of Jane Martin’s silly play isn’t vacated by audiences at intermission. In Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage, guns don’t flame and nothing’s sage. It’s an overdone attempt to satirize pop Westerns, gory horror films, and the broad, barely believable characters who populate them. But it becomes itself a satirical target.

Marie J. Kilker
M. Butterfly
Cort Theater

At Broadway's Cort Theater, David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, an ambitious Tony-winner for Best Play in 1988, dramatizes life and the world by focusing on the conflicts of men versus women and the cultures of East versus West. Now in revival, text tweaks by Hwang and director Julie Taymor's unique theatricality have shifted the ambiance of the play.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Portuguese Kid, The
Manhattan Theater Club - Stage 1

Gather a cast of first-class actors, add some laughs, some romance and chances are, you have a pretty good play. Not a great play, not flawless, not wall-to-wall hilarious, but enough to send out the audience with a smile.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
M. Butterfly
Cort Theater

M. Butterfly is a chemistry lesson. There isn’t any between French diplomat Rene Gallimard (Clive Owen) and Chinese Opera Star Song Liling (Jin Ha). And without it, the show just doesn’t work. Each performer involved is fine on his own; but look too closely, and it becomes obvious that Owen is too much the roughneck fellow off the docks to be sympathetic, and Ha is just plain too masculine. Though slight of stature, Ha has a strong face, projects little feminine charm, and walks like a guy. The fact that we first see him in male attire doesn’t help.

Michall Jeffers
Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts - Cook Theater

Staged on a three-quarter round space, the drama of the flawed King of Thebes has the FSU/Asolo Conservatory’s second-year class going mod with the greatest ancient Greek tragedy. The up-to-date wording of the translation and movie-like gates of Thebes’ palace attempt to claim the audience’s attention and make members an extension of the people of the place. It seems to work for some, but for others, it may seem like an old Dionysian Festival offering that’s required attendance.

Marie J. Kilker
Red Dress, The
Odyssey Theater

Playwright Tania Wisbar tells a personal story in The Red Dress, a play set in Germany circa 1924-1936. A visiting production at the Odyssey, the drama deals with her parents, who, as she discovered late in life, were forced into divorcing by the Nazis for ideological reasons.

Willard Manus
Imbible, The
New World Stages

How drunk to you have to get to enjoy The Imbible? Judging by the boisterous giggles coming from one particular corner of the room, whose denizens likely downed a few before even setting foot in New World Stages’s bar-cum-theater space, the answer is probably a boatload. For the rest of us, the promise of three watered-down (or, in one case, ginger-aled-down) beverages included in the ticket price of this lecture-with-music in no way compensates for the show’s amateurish and wildly unentertaining content.

David Lefkowitz
This One's for the Girls
St. Luke's Theater

Towards the end of This One’s For The Girls, Janet (Jana Robbins) gets a phone call from Jason, a guy she’s been crushing on. She hasn’t heard from him in a very long time, and when he asks to see her again, a woman in the audience yelled “Go for it, honey!” There was much laughter, and some applause. When Janet turns down his invitation with “I don’t think so,” the applause is thunderous. That audience dichotomy is a pretty good indicator of the feelings evoked by this little musical.

Michall Jeffers
This One's for the Girls
St. Luke's Theater

What songs make up the soundtrack of your life? Do the hits of the last century reflect the moods of the times and attitude towards women? That was the question writer Dorothy Marcic sought to answer in her book “Respect,” the basis for the new Off-Broadway show This One’s For The Girls. Marcic examined the Top 40 songs sung by women, determining that the music showed the change of women’s attitudes from co-dependency to independent.

Elyse Trevers
In the Heights
West Coast Black Theater Troupe

Westcoast Black Theater Troupe delves for the first time into the Afro-Carribean genre for a musical drama that hones in on a particular neighborhood in New York.  But its story is universal: group trying to keep identifying with its roots but aspiring to reach success in a new milieu and with a bigger multi-ethnic, multi-colored population.

Marie J. Kilker
Bright Star
Ahmanson Theater

On a night loud with fiddles and banjos, the bluegrass musical Bright Star dosey-doed its way into the Ahmanson Theater, charming the audience with its folksy good spirits.

First workshopped in New York in 2013, then premiered a year later at the Old Globe in San Diego, Bright Star made it to Broadway in 2016 for a brief run. Now a nifty road company is performing the Steve Martin/Edie Brickell show, with excellent results.

Willard Manus
Sex with Strangers
Studio Theater

There’s more than a few hilarious one-liners in Laura Eason’s timely play, Sex with Strangers However, like the soufflé it becomes, the play takes time to warm up. When it does, however, the heat is turned up to just the right temperature in this production by Milwaukee’s Renaissance Theaterworks. One could hardly imagine a better selection for this 25-year-old company, founded by a group of women and friends who wanted to see more women represented on both sides of the curtain.

Anne Siegel
Agitators, The
Geva Theater - Wilson Mainstage

In the 53 years since I began teaching in the Rochester, New York area I’ve seen a number of developing plays, books, TV studies, and whatnot about two local historic pioneers in American civil rights, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass; this is the best dramatic treatment thus far to deal with their achievements and close relationship.

Herbert M. Simpson
Feathers of Fire
Bram Goldsmith Theater

A worldwide hit, Feather of Fire, has made its first appearance at The Wallis in a 70-minute show that dazzles from beginning to end.

Conceived, designed and directed by the Iranian-born Hamid Rahmanian (a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow), Feathers of Fire uses shadow play, computer technology, and film techniques to animate sections of a thousand-year-old Persian text, “Shahnameh, The Epic of the Persian Kings.”

Willard Manus
Turn Me Loose
Lovelace Studio Theater

The Lovelace Studio Theater (at the Wallis) serves as a 1961 Playboy Club where the comic Dick Gregory is making one of his appearances. The actor Joe Morton channels Gregory in Turn Me Loose, a solo play which serves as a tribute to the famed performer and activist, who died only a few months ago.

Like Lenny Bruce (“the white Dick Gregory,” is one of Morton’s lines), Gregory came to prominence in the 1960s and 70s, thanks to his blunt, unvarnished takes on sex, profanity and authority.

Willard Manus
Underneath the Lintel
Geffen Playhouse - Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater

Arye Gross delivers a memorable performance in Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel, a solo drama now in production at the Geffen Playhouse, directed by Steven Robman. The play, which was first done Off-Broadway in 2001, calls for Gross to command the stage while impersonating a Dutch librarian who puts his safe, mundane life behind him when he sets off a personal odyssey to solve a mystery triggered by the sudden return of a long-overdue book.

Willard Manus
Evening at the Talk House, An
A Red Orchid Theater

It's been said that the most ruthless murderers are doctors-gone-bad, since "they have the knowledge and they have the nerve." Wallace Shawn presents us with another occupation endowing its representatives with an abundance of nerve, needing only the knowledge to apply it. They're not who you think they are, either.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Two Mile Hollow
The Den

Arnel Sancianco's scenic depiction of the summer home once owned by now-deceased Hollywood mogul Derek Donnelly boasts a beachfront porch in its foreground and a large dining table farther upstage. Here, the surviving Donnellys—widow Blythe, stepdaughter Mary, sons Joshua and Christopher (the latter accompanied by "personal assistant" Charlotte, whose surname we never learn)—have gathered, following the sale of the property, to pack their belongings and discuss the terms of the late patriarch's will.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Honeymooners, The
Paper Mill Playhouse

For those who were weaned on Jackie Gleason’s sitcom, “The Honeymooners,” there’s cause to rejoice. There’s a new musical based upon the 1950’s classic characters, directed by award-winning John Rando (Urinetown, On The Town), premiering at The Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey.

Elyse Trevers
Treasurer, The
Playwrights Horizons - Peter Jay Sharp Theater

According to Sartre’s No Exit, “Hell is other people.” If this is true, can we create our own hell by not loving those we are supposed to love?

As The Treasurer begins, it’s 7am in Denver. The Son (Peter Friedman) addresses the audience directly. He tells us he’s riding on his bike, that he was originally from Albany but moved to Colorado at his first opportunity, and “Somewhere in the future, I will be in hell,” because of his lack of affection for his mother (Deanna Dunagan).

Michall Jeffers
Picasso, A
Promenade Playhouse

Jeffrey Hatcher’s A Picasso has been previously performed by the Promenade Playhouse, first by an English-language theater company in Provence, then at the Playhouse in 2013. Next came a production (in 2015) in Paris, which was well received by both critics and public. Now “the show that never dies” has returned to Santa Monica in a production starring Natalia Lazarus (who also directed) and the French actor Charles Fathy. These bi-lingual actors did two performances in French, but have switched to English for the remainder of the run.

Willard Manus
Time and the Conways
American Airlines Theater

As the old therapy saying goes, if it ain’t one thing, it’s your mother. Time and the Conways is about a well-to-do family Yorkshire family in the years bridging the two World Wars. 1919 is full of fun and silliness, a seemingly endless round of charades. In 1937, things are desperate. At the center of it all is mum, played to the hilt by the mesmerizing Elizabeth McGovern, of “Downton Abbey” fame. Only an actress of her caliber can make Mrs. Conway palatable.

Michall Jeffers
All the Great Books (Abridged)
Tenth Street Theater

Milwaukee’s In Tandem Theatre creates a sequel of sorts to its 2008 hit comedy, All the Great Books (Abridged). The paper-thin plot rests on the fact that many high school seniors (represented by the audience) have flunked Western Literature and need to retake the exam. According to the gym coach, the English teacher died during a stampede at a book signing. Inexplicably, it falls to the coach, a drama teacher and student aide to give the audience a crash course on the 89 great books of Western literature.

Anne Siegel
Choir Boy
Raven Theater

There are probably hundreds of private schools throughout our nation where young men complete their educations with no life-altering incident, but you won't find them in fiction. The premise of culturally unruly and hormone-racked adolescents confined within a unigender environment charged with indoctrinating them in the virtues (or pragmatics, anyway) of ethical discipline presents dramatic potential too irresistible to ignore.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Making of a Modern Folk Hero, The
Chicago Dramatists

You wonder how cults are born, swelling from small enclaves to encompass tribal sects worldwide. In The Making of a Modern Folk Hero, Martin Zimmerman offers a cautionary fable of a massive messianic movement whose origins lie in an actor of pudgy physique and modest talents, a cheap Halloween mask-and-cape costume and a populace desperate for a prophet to lead them out of their oppression.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Desperate Measures
York Theater

With a dash of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, the York Theater Company opens its 2017-2018 season with delicious dish of mercy and virtue spiced with Old West country-western-folk music. A spirited musical, it is not called “Desperate Measures” for nothing.

Lyricist Peter Kellogg’s slick book features rhyming couplets and a score of 18 catchy tunes by David Friedman (Scandalous) matched to Kellogg's (Anna Karenina) lyrics.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Tiny Beautiful Things
Public Theater - Newman Theater

Today, when confusion, fear and pessimism intrude daily into our lives, the profound humanity of Tiny Beautiful Things moves beyond the natural catastrophes and possible terrors of tomorrow. What it offers is permission to be “happy and sad and angry and grateful and accepting and appalled and every other possible emotion, all smashed together and amplified.”

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Red Sand
Santa Monica Playhouse

Red Sand, a recital by Serena Dolinsky and her small physical-theater company, was produced by Chris DeCarlo and Evelyn Rudie, co-artistic directors of the Santa Monica Playhouse, one of the country’s most respected intimate theatrical centers. Since 1973, the Playhouse has been honored with over 250 awards and has presented 600 classic, contemporary and original productions. The educational wing of the Playhouse has also thrived over the years, touching the lives of nearly a million theatre students through its on-site and public-school classes.

Willard Manus
Mack the Knife
Florida Studio Theater - Court Cabaret

There’s an amazing amount of variety in exploration at Florida Studio Theater’s Court Cabaret of the music of Bobby Darin, who became a major star at 25 and died at 37. This holds true also of the performances by two energetic guys telling Darin’s story and singing songs he wrote and others he was famous for stamping with his style.

Marie J. Kilker
Captain Greedy's Carnival
The Actors' Gang Theater

Captain Greedy’s Carnival is an agit-prop musical, a full-out assault on savage capitalism (which is how the French describe our economic system). Now in a world premiere at Actors’ Gang, the musical uses a carnival sideshow as its m.o., replete with barkers, animal acts, games of chance, puppets and freak shows. A 17-person cast brings the satirical proceedings to life, belting out 23 songs by Jack Pinter and Roger Eno, a couple of Brits who gleefully take the mickey out of free enterprise.

Willard Manus
Marcus Center for the Performing Arts

More than 20 years ago, Rent opened Off-Broadway, and forever changed the direction of American musical theater. The show was created over a span of many years by Jonathan Larson, who worked as a waiter to pay the bills during its creation. Larson died on the night before Rent’s first Off-Broadway preview.

Anne Siegel
Taming of the Shrew, The
Navy Pier

Yes, it's Shakespeare and, yes, its text includes the male-female repartee we find so sexy, but there's no disguising a plot that revolves around a bunch of men bullying a lone woman. That's not the way we do things nowadays, so how do you make this repugnant behavior funny in 2017?

Mary Shen Barnidge
Legend of Georgia McBride, The
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts

There was a time once, when men who did drag were regarded as specialty performers, a cult fraternity schooled in arcane skills forbidden to ordinary actors. Times have changed, of course, and now it is not only commonplace to see drag divas out of uniform (so to speak), but also for their craft to be embraced by all males pursuing a career in the theater. Playwright Matthew Lopez now takes another stiletto-heeled step toward the demystification of drag in a comedy proposing an all-American het boy who becomes a better man after donning lipstick and wig.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Silent Sky
Next Act Theater

Audiences don’t need a degree in astronomy to get the full impact of a turn-of-the-century woman who virtually changed the way we look at the universe. Milwaukee’s Next Act Theater offers a near-perfect production of Silent Sky by Lauren Gunderson.

Anne Siegel
Breathing Hole, The
Stratford Festival - Studio Theater

I doubt that this ultimately moving and enlightening new play will continue to be shaped, trimmed, and revised after the long, elaborate development it has received before Stratford’s brilliant world premiere. But that’s a sad conclusion, because it’s still too long and diffuse and uneven, yet promises to be an important original Canadian contribution to world drama. Hardly anyone leaves a performance of Stratford’s The Breathing Hole unaffected.

Herbert M. Simpson
Head of Passes
Mark Taper Forum

Lawdy, lawdy what a bad play. Head of Passes (the awful title should have been a warning of things to come) is a retelling of the Book of Job set in a Black household where “the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico.” There Shelah (the valiant Phylicia Rashad) rules over a family beset by enough problems to fill a chapter in the Old Testament. For starters, Shelah is ill (you know she isn’t long for this world when she gives her first wheezing cough).

Willard Manus
Small Things
Boulevard Theater

One of the rare delights of Milwaukee’s fall theater season is the scope of its productions. One finds locally staged, extravagant musical productions with full orchestras and large casts, as well as chamber pieces such as Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor’s new play, Small Things. Its US premiere is being produced by Milwaukee’s Boulevard Theater in its temporary home, a church located on the outskirts of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus.

Anne Siegel
Julius Caesar
Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts - Cook Theater

Publicity has it that “Julius Caesar endures as a provocative examination of personal responsibility against the backdrop of great political consequences.” That may be true of Shakespeare’s play, but Tyler Dobrowsky’s adaptation for FSU/Asolo Conservatory’s touring production is mainly a story of a murder to gain the kind of power sought on Wall Street in the 1980s.

Marie J. Kilker
Who and the What, The
Milwaukee Repertory Theater - Stiemke Studio

In the pivotal opening scene of Ayad Akhtar’s The Who and the What, two grown sisters are calmly chatting in a kitchen. The audience can tell that these Pakistani-Americans are thoroughly Americanized, from how they dress to how they talk (in slang). At one point the sisters agree that their loving, ultra-conservative father can be difficult to live with, tied as he is to Muslim traditions.

Anne Siegel
Guys and Dolls
Milwaukee Repertory Theater - Quadracci Powerhouse

One of the most cherished musicals in the American theater canon, Guys and Dolls, is currently being revived at Milwaukee Repertory Theater. It would be difficult to rise above the high standard set by last season’s musical, Man of La Mancha and, frankly, this year’s show doesn’t come up to the bar.

Anne Siegel