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Staging a cultural comeback

Jewish theater makes a resurgence in Chicago 

Bad Jews image
Irene Sofia Lucio, Maggie Erwin, and Alex Mandell in Bad Jews.

The new play Bad Jews asks the question- what if the "four sons" (or daughters) from the Haggadah were real, and really all in the same family? The play takes place at the funeral of their grandfather as they vie for a treasured heirloom. Its New York run was hailed by Charles Isherwood of The New York Times as "the best comedy of the season."  The play's Chicago debut will run from April 24 to June 7, and it will close the 2014-15 season of Theater Wit.

But it will open a new series of plays that will take Jewish themes into many mainstream Chicago theaters as part of ShPIeL-Performing Identity Theatre project's community engagement. "We've worked with Silk Road Rising, Lookingglass, Victory Gardens, Writers, and Northlight," said David Chack, ShPIel's artistic director.

Recent Jewish plays on mainline Chicago stages have included The Last Act of Lilka Kadisson at Lookingglass and Russian Transport at Steppenwolf Theatre. But the 2015 season has a wealth of such offerings.

There will be Holocaust-related plays around Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)- April 16 this year- including Bent, about the Nazi persecution of both gays and Jews-and a new production of The Diary of Anne Frank, directed by Kimberly Senior, playing through July 15 at Writer's Theatre.

In May, the Skokie Theatre will present Cities of Light, which recreates a pre-World War II Yiddish cabaret. 

Chack, a professor at The Theatre School at DePaul University, is a major force for Jewish culture. Aside from his work for ShPIeL, he is the artistic director of the Chicago Jewish Film Festival by JCC, and- on the national level- president of the Association for Jewish Theatre.

A play-reading series is also being presented by Continuum Theatre, recipient of a grant from JUF's Breakthrough Fund. The Chicago Jewish Play Reading Festival will present eight staged readings, which began last winter. March saw readings of The Last Schwartz  at JCC Skokie and Estelle Singerman at Temple Sholom in Lakeview. Still up are Paris Time on April 12 at Congregation Solel in Highland Park and Oh God! on April 26 at Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville. 

The Lyric Opera recently finished its acclaimed production of Holocaust opera The Passenger, and will soon work on The Property, a klezmer opera. Done in collaboration with the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band, it tells of Holocaust survivors returning to Europe to regain an item taken by the Nazis. 

One theme that runs through many modern Jewish productions is encounters with other minorities as well as authorities. How fitting, then, that they be presented both in Jewish venues-and everywhere else. 

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