Politics or escapism? Theater can easily indulge in both, sometimes separately, sometimes in tandem. And while this presidential election season might well be billed as the longest running (and most distasteful) show on Earth, Chicago’s “legit” theaters are offering a slew of alternatives to serve either as welcome complements or antidotes this fall.
To be sure, the monumental (and not quite non-partisan) elephant in the room is “Hamilton,” the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical that begins previews at the PrivateBank Theatre on Sept. 27, and will very likely hold down the fort there for a year or more. (Your near futile ticket quest can begin at www.BroadwayInChicago.org.) The show’s arrival here could not be more ideally timed. And while much more will be written about that show in the weeks to come, for now it’s enough to note that it deals with the nature of leadership and vision and political personality (circa 1776 by way of 2016 sensibilities) and it reminds us that the Founding Fathers of this country possessed both genius and serious flaws.
For more hot politics consider:
• “Julius Caesar,” Sept. 7 – Oct. 16 at Writers Theatre; www.writerstheater.org, which conjures political turmoil in ancient Rome.
• “Tug of War: Civil Strife,” Sept. 15 – Oct. 9 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater; www.chicagoshakes.com, the second installment of the company’s saga of history plays, including “Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3” and “Richard III,” which will continue to reflect on the endlessly bloody pursuit for the English throne.
• “The City of Conversation,” Sept. 15 – Oct. 23 at Northlight Theatre; www.northlight.org, which flashes forward to 1979 and the inner sanctums of Washington, D.C., where Ronald Reagan will soon replace Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office.
And because all politics are “local” (as well as intensely personal), there will be plays about sexual politics, as in:
• “Man in the Ring,” Sept. 15-Oct. 16 at Court Theatre; www.courttheatre.org, Michael Cristofer’s world premiere drama about what drove world champion boxer Emile Griffith to lash out to tragic effect.
• “The Last Wife,” Sept. 29 – Dec. 18 at TimeLine Theatre; www.timelinetheatre.com, a contemporary riff on powerful women as seen through the filter of King Henry VIII’s formidable sixth wife, Katherine Parr.
• “You on the Moors Now,” Sept. 9 – Oct. 30 at The Hypocrites; www.the-hypocrites.com, a mash-up of 19th century literary heroines who run off after receiving marriage proposals.
• “I Am My Own Wife,” Nov. 4 – Dec. 10 at About Face Theatre; www.aboutfacetheatre.com, a re-imagining of Doug Wright’s Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning one-person play based on the true story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a man who, against all odds, hid from the Nazi and Communist regimes in East Berlin while dressed as a woman.
And there will be plays about racial and artistic politics, as in:
• “Red Velvet,” Sept. 28 – Nov. 27 at Raven Theatre; www.raventheatre.com, about the moment in 1833 when, despite an unwritten rule against black actors performing on London’s stages, Edmund Kean fell ill and a young African-American actor was called in to take over the role of “Othello.”
• “The Black Slot,” now through Oct. 2 at Aston Rep; www.astonrep.com, a new play about hypocrisy in contemporary American theater, as the work of a hot new African-American writer is pitted against an August Wilson classic.
• “In the Heights,” Sept. 9 – Oct. 16 at Porchlight Music Theatre; www.porchlightmusictheatre.org, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Broadway hit, about a first-generation immigrant family and their neighbors in northern Manhattan’s Dominican neighborhood.
• “Winterset,” Nov. 19 – Dec. 23 at Griffin Theatre; www.griffintheatre.com, the 1935 Maxwell Anderson verse play inspired by the famous Sacco-Vanzetti case.
And of course there is good old-fashioned family politics, as in:
• “Visiting Edna,” Sept. 15 – Nov. 6 at Steppenwolf Theatre; www.steppenwolftheatre.org, the world premiere tale of a David Rabe play in which an ailing mother and her son attempt to connect.
• “Parachute Men,” Sept. 10 – Oct 16 at Teatro Vista; www.teatrovista.org, about the upended pecking order among a trio of brothers.
• “True West,” Sept. 8 – Oct. 22 at Shattered Globe; www.sgtheatre.org, Sam Shepard’s classic tale of two competitive and increasingly savage brothers.
• “Life Sucks,” Sept. 9 – Nov. 6 at Lookingglass Theatre; www.lookingglasstheatre.org, Aaron Posner’s contemporary riff on Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” and all its fraught relationship issues.
• “Hand to God,” Sept. 16-Oct. 16 at Victory Gardens Theatre; www.victorygardenstheatre.org, in which, in perhaps the most hilarious and dangerous of all plot lines, a teenager and his wildly irreverent alter ego (in the form of a sock puppet) let it rip.
Finally, for pure cathartic entertainment there is:
• “Wonderful Town,” Sept. 10 – Oct. 16 at the Goodman Theatre; www.goodmantheatre.org, the 1953 musical with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, about two sisters from Ohio and their adventures in love and work as they find their way in New York.
• “Fly By Night,” Sept. 23 – Nov. 6 at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre; http://www.theo-u.com, the Chicago premiere of the off-Broadway musical about a love triangle between a young sandwich maker and two sisters recently relocated from South Dakota to New York.
• “Mamma Mia!” at the Paramount Theatre; www.paramountaurora.com, which uses ABBA songs to tell of a bride-to-be in search of the father she never knew.
• “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” at Drury Lane Oakbrook; www.drurylaneoakbrook.com, the musical revue that showcases 39 of the hit rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm-and-blues hits of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.