By the Water Sharyn Rothstein’s 2014 play turns Tolstoy on his head: it’s unhappy families who are all alike, at least when their unhappiness is pressed into a made-for-TV-style drama where everything—tax fraud, marital problems, Hurricane Sandy—is a plot device in service of a painfully predictable story. But it may not be all Rothstein’s fault. The pace of this Northlight production, directed by Cody Estle, feels slow, and even the cast of A-list actors, led by Chicago theater stalwarts Francis Guinan and Penny Slusher, seem off their game. It’s hard not to wonder whether this paint-by-numbers script, with its many unsurprising last-act revelations, just benumbed them. —Jack Helbig
Destiny of Desire To introduce Karen Zacarias’s self-described “unapologetic telenovela,” director José Luis Valenzuela’s 11-person cast clump center stage and proclaim, “We are here to change the social order. Deal with it!” But for the ensuring two and a half hours they do little but lampoon the planet’s most popular genre of televised entertainment as cartoonishly bad melodrama fit for ridicule. The occasional direct-address moments when actors step up to a microphone and cite statistics—about things like workplace sexual harassment, Latino buying power, and U.S. incarceration rates—mostly demonstrate how insubstantial everything else is in this Goodman Theatre production. The game cast clearly enjoy the unrelenting foolishness, including their swooning dance moves as they move scenery about, but Valenzeula encourages such broad, obvious overacting that precious little feels true. Change the social order indeed. —Justin Hayford
For the Love of (or, the Roller Derby Play) The Brooklyn Scallywags are the most feared of all women’s roller derby squads in the tristate area. These ladies dominate, and “rambunctious” doesn’t begin to describe them when they’re off the track; if the word “rambunctious” showed up at one of their parties, they’d beat its ass and make it do shots. The team has a new recruit, Joy (Alex Dauphin), whose relationship with her partner, the out-of-work Michelle, is threatened once “Joy Ride,” as she’s known to her derby friends, develops eyes for a teammate, the powerhouse jammer Lizzie Lightning (Erica Hernandez). Kenzie Seibert’s authentic concern and hurt as Michelle give this Pride Films and Plays production a groundedness sometimes lacking in playwright Gina Femia’s more rah-rah team scenes. Rachel Edwards Harvith directed. —Max Maller
Mother of Smoke The screams. My God, the screams. This multidisciplinary collaboration between Red Tape Theatre and Walkabout Theater pulverizes together The Cherry Orchard, The Trojan Women, Charles Mee excerpts, original monologues about gentrification and Englewood, movement pieces, and an endless playlist of moody music, all to tell a story about crumbling institutions (I think). The result is a dreamlike, thoroughly inexplicable wash of noise. Is it intended as absurdist comedy or heady performance art or something else entirely? Whatever the case, actors belt at the top of their lungs, speak over dialogue, and at multiple points throat-croak into a microphone for extended periods to produce a grating, godawful sound that merits review by The Hague. If this is the result, what on earth was the experiment?
Ohio State Murders In Adrienne Kennedy’s 1992 exploration of memory, reading, and racial hatred, successful author Suzanne Alexander (Renee Lockett) returns to her alma mater and in a play-length lecture reveals the backstory behind her career as a novelist: the unpunished Jim Crow-era slaying of her twin daughters by a white man. Between Suzanne’s lecture, flashbacks to her younger self (Danielle Thorsen) in her blissfully bookish college days, and the ill-fated seductions of a young white professor (Tim Moan), nearly all that happens onstage is the physical act of reading, which makes for a kind of inertia. That plus the long stretches of dense, self-consciously “literary” direct address sap this Dandelion Theatre production of drama, though the unfairness depicted still stirs. —Max Maller
Our Christian Nation In an America run by the extreme religious right a young family is forced to go on the run after the husband loses his job, their saga eventually exposing the lizard people who are actually in control of the country. There are a few laughs early in this comedy written by Joe Janes and directed for the Cornservatory by Andrea J. Dymond, but most have to do with the repeated appearances of an actor in an inflatable T. rex costume. And at nearly two and a half hours, this play is a sprawling and unfocussed slog: its simplistic pitting of Christianity as unalloyed evil against homosexual love as unambiguous good doesn’t work as either satire or polemic, and by taking on half a dozen current political issues all at once, it succeeds at rendering none of them with any conviction and leaves the audience both exhausted and confused. —Dmitry Samarov