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
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
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
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
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.
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 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