Factory Theater's Born Ready Credit: Michael Courier

Born Ready Who’d expect the trash-championing Factory Theater to mount an unabashedly sentimental comedy with legit dance numbers, heart-on-the-sleeve romance, and only a couple veiled vagina jokes? Stacie Barra’s charming, well-crafted homage to 1950s backstage intrigue films (think a kinder, gentler All About Eve) focuses on former child film star Marion Kroft’s struggle to restart her alcohol-steeped career in television variety shows. With the unlikely assistance of enthusiastic chorus girl Harriet, whose Iowa naivete may mask questionable motives, Kroft finds legit stardom looming. Like most of the cast, Eleanor Katz as Kroft and Clara Byczkowski as Harriet cleverly lampoon midcentury cinematic acting tropes without compromising the script’s sincere emotions. While director Wm. Bullion occasionally struggles to find adequately snappy pacing, his two-hour production is graceful and endearing. —Justin Hayford

Penny Slusher and Francis Guinan in Northlight Theatre’s By the WaterCredit: Michael Brosilow

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

Pilar Esperanza Castillo and Victoria Maria del Rio in Goodman Theatre’s Destiny of DesireCredit: Liz Lauren

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

Pride Films and Plays’ For the Love of (or, The Roller Derby Play)Credit: Paul Goyette

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

Scott Shimizu and Jennifer Cheung in Griffin Theatre Company’s In to AmericaCredit: Michael Brosilow

In to America The Griffin Theatre’s theatrical documentary gives voice—or rather, many voices—to the migrant experience in America. In a style recalling the work of filmmaker Ken Burns, playwright William Massolia has stitched together selections from letters, diaries, biographies, and oral histories to chronicle the experiences of people who came to this continent over the past 400 years: colonists seeking a fresh start in a new world, slaves brutally brought here in chains, refugees fleeing religious persecution and war. The monologues also chronicle the movement of people across the nation—the westward expansion of white settlers into land taken from native inhabitants by war or trickery, the Great Migration of southern blacks to the urban north in the 1910s. These are stories of hardship and heartbreak, but also of the thrill of discovery and, for some, the exaltation of freedom from oppression. Under Dorothy Milne’s direction, each of the excellent 13 actors plays multiple roles, representing an astonishing range of ethnic backgrounds with emotional authenticity and pinpoint-precise accents. —Albert Williams

Red Tape Theatre and Walkabout Theater Company’s Mother of SmokeCredit: Austin D. Oie

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?
—Dan Jakes

Danielle Thorsen and Renee Lockett in Dandelion Theatre’s Ohio State MurdersCredit: Les Rorick

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, at the CornservatoryCredit: Jerry A. Schulman

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

Zach ZimmermanCredit: Fausto Fernos

The Twink on the Fire Escape: A Walking Tour Storyteller Zach Zimmerman wrote this walking tour/comedy set as a love letter to Boystown, his home during his formative years as a newly out twentysomething. Under the gaze of passersby and onlookers in alleys and in bars, he escorts a handful-size audience from the corner of Clark and Belmont to other Lakeview destinations that played a key role in a raucous date night, plying them along the way with Ann Sather cinnamon rolls, pickle-back shots, and conversation about the parameters of what qualifies a “twunk.” It’s a heartfelt, authentically Chicago stand-up comedy achievement as brave and bizarre as anything by Maria Bamford or Billy Eichner. When Zimmerman moves to New York soon, he’ll be among world-class comics who bring innovation to the form. He should feel right at home. —Dan Jakes