About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble's Ad Hoc [Home] Credit: Emily Schwartz

Ad Hoc [Home] Thirteen members of the About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble, aged 14-24, present an hour-long theatrical collage of autobiographical reflections about growing up queer. Developed by the ensemble members themselves through improvisation and writing workshops, the devised performance piece employs monologues, scenes, and choral speaking passages addressing the challenges and triumphs of being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and genderqueer. Some of the coming-out/coming-of-age stories have a familiar ring—parents who tell their kids that their discomfort with gender norms is “just a phase,” for example. Other pieces are stark reminders of the uniquely tumultuous times this generation of youth lives in, such as Da Shona Johnson’s powerful, rapid-fire soliloquy referencing the mass murder in Orlando and the campaigns by state legislators to exploit “bathroom bills” for political purposes. There is humor here too, and a tenderness rooted equally in strength and vulnerability. The cast—who set a standard for diversity in terms of race, gender, and physical type that professional stages would do well to emulate—are poised but not “polished”; their unaffected honesty is engaging, illuminating, and inspiring. —Albert Williams

Arc Theatre’s As You Like ItCredit: Amanda de la Guardia

As You Like It Usually local theater companies, from the most acclaimed to the least recognized, approach Shakespeare’s plays as though they’re towering mountains to be climbed, resulting in lots of actors straining against every natural impulse, not to mention common sense, to manufacture something of extrahuman scale. Arc Theatre takes the opposite approach in this refreshingly life-size production. On a slab of dull concrete in a dinky Evanston park, director Mark Boergers’s endearing cast dispense with all pretense of grandeur—a wise move when you’re easily upstaged by a nearby swing set full of kids—and play Shakespeare’s scenes for their simple comedic truth. Rarer still, they make perfect sense of everything they’re saying. Even the kids on the swings came by to watch for a while. —Justin Hayford

First Floor Theater’s Awake, now playing as part of Theater on the LakeCredit: Jerry A. Schulman

The Awake Playwright Ken Urban’s The Awake is a cutthroat psychological thriller that crams an action-movie’s worth of torture cells, helicopter rescues, and tearful hospital scenes into a play less than two hours long. How does it manage to muster such excitement, and how does First Floor Theater pull it off on a shoestring budget? By having the actors narrate everything that happens to them rather than trying to show it happening. Granted, this solution put a third of the audience to sleep—theater, especially small theater, is a “show don’t tell” kind of art form. But while talk is cheap, pyrotechnics are expensive. By far the best scenes come in the show’s last half hour, when people—exciting, living people—start to emerge from their intricate webs of association and actually do something, even if it’s just talking to each other. —Max Maller

Max McLean in C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant ConvertCredit: Jeremy Daniel

C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert Playwright, actor, and codirector Max McLean’s one-hander about the amiable, mildly witty English writer C. S. Lewis looks wonderful. The set, replete with rich hardwoods, perfectly creates the feel of a fussy Oxford don’s office. And McLean’s costume (scarf, coat, tweed jacket, vest, tie, slightly rumpled trousers) screams tweedy, hobbitlike, and emotionally cold. But there’s little drama in this drama. McLean underplays the major crises in Lewis’s life, most notably his battlefield traumas in WW I, while repeating Wikipedia style the key facts of the writer’s biography. Even Lewis’s conversion from atheism to Christianity lacks fire. True, this choice to some extent reflects Lewis’s own wry, understated account of his religious beliefs. Still, passion smolders behind Lewis’s diffidence—a passion wholly missing here. —Jack Helbig

The Dead Boy Scout Musical It’s hard to imagine an institution more ripe for parody than the Boy Scouts. Think of the oaths, the uniforms, the homosocial bonding, the snacks! The Dead Boy Scout Musical at the Annoyance tells the story of a trip to New Mexico’s Philmont Scout Ranch gone horribly wrong. Easy target notwithstanding, it’s a genuinely hilarious spoof, and the level of detail is astonishing—there are things in the script that I suspect only an Eagle Scout would know, and sure enough, the writing and direction are credited to recipients of that illustrious honor. With a few exceptions (notably Bruce Phillips), these guys can’t really sing, but that almost makes the production better. This is the third show I’ve seen at Annoyance this year, and the comedy theater has yet to disappoint. —Max Maller

Desert Cool, at iOCredit: Michael Kelly

Desert Cool “Yeah, I’m a detective,” drawls our hero, Mick Delahunt of the LAPD, on his way to alienating yet another potential girlfriend. He’s also a probable alcoholic with a pronounced animus for actors and a crying need for psychotherapy. But Delahunt knows when something stinks. So he deputizes a young film nerd and a fucked-up movie star and goes looking for a killer. Starring its coauthors (Mark Denny as Delahunt, John O’Toole as the star, and an engagingly quirky Caleb Fullen as the nerd) this goof on Hollywood noir is casual as hell yet far from dumb. The writers cleverly work their conceit, neither pushing it too hard nor turning it—as most of their peers might—into an armature for dick jokes. The result is a breezy, funny, likably absurd 60 minutes. —Tony Adler

Raven Theatre’s Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro BoysCredit: Dean La Prairie

Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys After six years in prison on false charges of raping two white women in 1931, four of the Scottsboro Boys briefly joined the vaudeville circuit, reenacting scenes from the trial that destroyed their lives. A savvy playwright might find emotional and psychological complexity in this turn of events. Mark Stein, in his hypersatirical, surface-skipping overview of the four Scottsboro trials and their aftermath, gives the episode barely a passing mention. Instead he paints the patently racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic trials in broad, semicomic strokes to show how patently racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic they were. All the heightened buffoonery and ironic song-and-dance numbers, alternately inspired and perfunctory in this Raven Theatre production, can’t make these two exhaustingly ardent acts accomplish much beyond restating the obvious. —Justin Hayford

Rivendell Theatre’s Now. Here. This.Credit: Zach Dries

Now. Here. This. A trip to a natural history museum is more like a trip down memory lane in Now. Here. This., a slapdash musical by Jeff Bowen that received its debut at NYC’s Vineyard Theatre in 2012, billed as a journey exploring life’s big questions. It’s about four young friends trying to reconcile themselves to the present by sifting through past ordeals. Unfortunately, too many of these have a tendency to come across as trivial and one-dimensional: dealing with high school cliques, living up to the family name, and the death of an older relative, to name a few. Energetic performances by the cast members help to redeem this show from Brown Paper Box Co., but one wonders what might have been if life’s so-called big questions weren’t so darn small. —Matt de la Peña

Cameron Pfiffner in The PortraitCredit: Johnny Knight

The Portrait Gustav Klimt, the revered and reviled Austrian Secessionist, welcomes a wealthy bride-to-be into his studio, where she’s auditioning him for her marriage portrait. She’s invisible, as per the dreadful convention of so many one-person shows, so Klimt, played by jovial, inquisitive Cameron Pfiffner, talks to the air for 80 minutes about anything that passes through his mind: he believes in free love, he thinks critics don’t understand his work, he likes Jews, he has many cats. Occasionally the lights get moody, he faces a different direction, and he starts reciting letters about a failing love affair. Nothing comes to much of a head, and while Pfiffner is an engaging performer, playwright-director Susan Padveen rarely moves his monologue beyond the grandly bland.
—Justin Hayford

Show & Tell Second City, iO, Annoyance—Chicago’s improv institutions are schools as well as theaters. But so far as I know, nobody has combined the two functions in a single entertainment until now. This series allows improvisers to, as the tagline goes, show you what they do and tell you how they do it. My experience will probably differ from yours. For one thing, the ensemble I saw comprised performers from various teams, so they weren’t necessarily used to playing with one another; future installments will feature established teams. And the audience I sat with included lots of improv students, whose questions skewed the conversation toward technicalese; that may change as more civilians take part. What will likely remain the same is a format where players perform scenes, from duets to long-form Harolds, following each with a Q and A. If you’re as lucky as I was, you’ll see energetic, creative bits and learn something too. —Tony Adler

Thom Pain (Based on NothingCredit: Peter Thompson

Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) Jake Baker plays a remorseful, socially inept man named Thom Pain in this Pulitzer-nominated 2004 solo show by Will Eno, presented by Dear Stone Theater Company. Unresolved issues from childhood and the lingering effects of a bad breakup have left Pain incapable of meeting life’s challenges; his sole worldly possession is a dictionary. Baker’s performance is fluent, even charming, but the play itself is so painfully awkward that it ends up feeling akin to a hostage situation. Like lots of lonely people who suddenly obtain a captive audience, Pain doesn’t know how to stop talking once he starts—his sentences run away from him, and any jokes he attempts dwindle away before their punch lines. Thom Pain may pretend to be about the fundamental emptiness of life, but it’s really a play about feeling alone and needing to talk. And talk. And talk. —Max Maller v