Pushing boundaries, good taste and tiny budgets to their breaking point is the very definition of Chicago's fringe theater scene.
But, most important, you can always count on honest performances, often delivered in spaces the size of your living room. This is Chicago-style intimacy, bub. (Not to mention affordable.)
The winter theater season is among the busiest in town, and with that in mind we've narrowed down a selection of notable openings in early 2013 that caught our eye.
"Stadium Devildare" (Jan. 17 to Feb. 24 at Red Tape Theatre in St. Peter's Episcopal Church, 621 W. Belmont Ave.; redtapetheatre.org): Spoofing competitive reality shows and America's military endeavors in equal measure, this futuristic satire features a group of contestants fighting to win a suit of armor called Guts 'N Glory, which is apparently the key to defeating our nation's greatest enemy: G*dzilla X. LA Weekly calls the play an "ungodly anime-style love child of 'Finnegans Wake' and 'American Gladiators.'"
I'm looking forward to what Red Tape does with this one; the Lakeview-based company has an impressive track record of reconfiguring its church gymnasium space to suit the needs of its productions.
"There Is a Happiness That Morning Is" (Jan. 31 to March 10 by Theater Oobleck at the Victory Gardens Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.; theateroobleck.com): For most of the past decade, Mickle Maher has been sending the tropes of the debate, the panel discussion and the lecture through the looking glass, but in 2011 the Theater Oobleck stalwart devised one of the most emotionally stirring works in the company's distinguished history.
Two William Blake scholars — and lovers — deliver two very different looks at innocence and experience, heartbreak and mortality. This encore production features the stunning original cast of Colm O'Reilly, Diana Slickman and Kirk Anderson.
— Kerry Reid
"Successors" (Jan. 26 to March 2 at the Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave.; signalensemble.com): I was a big fan of "Aces," the mellow humanistic comedy about Reno, Nev., casino workers from Chicago playwright Jon Steinhagen and produced by Signal Ensemble in 2011. The company and scribe team up again, this time with an eye on local politics. A third-generation mayor decides to pack it in but refuses to endorse any of his power-hungry children hoping to fill his shoes in the coming election.
"The tar and feathers fly as the family tries to find a way to stay in power — and united," per the company's description.
"American Wee-Pie" (Jan. 10 to Feb. 16 by the Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, 5775 N. Ridge Ave.; rivendelltheatre.org): Rivendell reunites playwright Lisa Dillman and director Megan Carney, who previously collaborated on 2009's "The Walls."
In this new piece, first commissioned by the Goodman Theatre, Dillman draws a portrait of a middle-aged editor in career crisis returning home for his mother's funeral. Rivendell's comfortable new digs in Edgewater offer a suitably intimate setting for what they do best — humane stories about the quiet cataclysms in ordinary lives.
"Allotment Annie" (Jan. 3 to Feb. 3 by InFusion Theatre Company at the Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway; infusiontheatre.com): A story of wartime sex and betrayal, and it's not the David Petraeus debacle. Set stateside in 1944 (gin rickeys, swing dancing!), a war-profiteering scheme set in motion by a slick Air Force pilot, a sex-crazed paratrooper and a couple of lady bartenders turns rancid in this world premiere from playwright Mark Mason and InFusion Theatre.
Feb. 6 by Dog & Pony Theatre Company in the Flatiron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave.; dogandponychicago.org): History as vaudeville and the history of vaudeville collide in Aaron Weismann's new show. Ben Franklin (who once printed currency with the phrase "to counterfeit is death") is the main attraction in this song-and-dance spectacular (with dollops of magic and feats of strength by Franklin himself) examining the morally murky world of financial fakery and its role in American enterprise.