Cor Theatre's Christina, the Girl King Credit: Matthew Gregory Hollis
Host Felonius Munk of Afro-Futurism
Host Felonius Munk of Afro-FuturismCredit: Clayton Hauck

[Recommended] Afro-Futurism The seven members of Afro-Futurism may perform at Second City, but they don’t deal in sketch revues. In fact, they’re less a company than a collection of black comics—performing solo stand-up routines, for the most part, punctuated with rap segments fronted by Marcel “Mr. Greenweedz” Wilks. There were a couple misfirings on the night I attended, as when an overly zealous Shantira Jackson tried to make a political point by getting the audience to yell out “No!” when it was clear we wanted to say “Yes!” But the lion’s share of the show—Felonious Munk’s sly banter, Sonia Denis’s dizzy (but not ditsy) persona, Martin Morrow’s tales of being too clean-cut for his own good, and the alarming confessions marking Dave Helem as perhaps the worst high school teacher in the history of education—was truthful and lots of fun. —Tony Adler

About Face Theatre's <i>After All the Terrible Things I Do</i>
About Face Theatre’s After All the Terrible Things I DoCredit: Michael Brosilow

After All the Terrible Things I Do Like a lot of other recent plays, A. Rey Pamatmat’s 90-minute two-hander walks a line between dramatic storytelling and the social justice message the playwright is aching to get across. Unlike a good many of those other plays, this one usually maintains its balance. Pamatmat’s old-school devices—a careful doling out of information, a red herring or two—offset the sense that he’s out to lecture us on the subject of homophobic bullying, while improving our chances of taking an interest in the characters despite their occasional schematism. It also helps that Andrew Volkoff’s staging for About Face Theatre offers dynamic performances by Colin Sphar as a young, gay writer with a big secret and Lisa Tejero as an aging bookseller with one of her own. —Tony Adler

The Bachelors Playwright Caroline V. McGraw starts with three interesting, believable characters—flawed, mismatched roommates who, in their early 30s, are belatedly facing the transition to adulthood. Then she tangles them in a story so full of improbabilities that we soon lose faith in her having any idea what she’s doing. At one of the lowest points in this Cole Theatre production, we find out that one of the three has been keeping a gagged naked woman in his room (the script is vague about whether or not this is against her will). But after dropping this bombshell, McGraw awkwardly changes the subject, turning to lower-stakes conflicts among the trio. Following the lead of this spotty material, the performances too are spasmodic, though Shane Kenyon is, relatively speaking, likable as the most grown-up of the three. This is a very long 75-minute play. —Jack Helbig

Tosin Morohunfola and Greg Vinkler in Northlight's <i>Butler</i>
Tosin Morohunfola and Greg Vinkler in Northlight’s ButlerCredit: Michael Brosilow

[Recommended] Butler In this witty, tautly written play author Richard Strand takes a single moment—1861, one month into the Civil War, when runaway slaves were first categorized as “contraband” and given de facto asylum by the Union Army—and turns it into a fascinating exploration of flawed men flailing in the crucible of history. Under the direction of Stuart Carden, the four-person cast work at the top of their game—Greg Vinkler, in particular, turns in a subtle, nuanced performance as Major General Benjamin Butler, the cranky commanding officer who refuses to return three fugitive slaves to the Confederacy. He’s well matched by Tosin Morohunfola as the wily, desperate runaway Shepard Mallory. —Jack Helbig

Toya Turner and Laura Resinger
Toya Turner and Laura ResingerCredit: Matthew Gregory Hollis

[Recommended] Christina, the Girl King Given the divergent contemporary interpretations of 17th-century Swedish queen Christina’s life and reign, one can’t criticize Canadian playwright Michel Marc Bouchard for muddying her history (she did summon Descartes to her court, for example, but she didn’t supply him cadavers for scientific investigation). Fortunately, Bouchard’s bold, intricate speculation creates spirited collisions between faith and reason, art and science, governance and warmongering, modernity and antiquity, and most centrally, desire and duty. While Bouchard ultimately reduces Christina’s perplexing abdication to a need to live openly as a lesbian, Cor Theatre’s nimble cast, led by laser-focused Toya Turner as Christina, imbue their characters with ample psychological complexity. Director Tosha Fowler turns the script’s many artful incongruities into two-plus hours of buoyant indeterminacy. —Justin Hayford

The Chicago Mammals' <i>Clay Continent</i>
The Chicago Mammals’ Clay ContinentCredit: Bob Fisher

Clay Continent The Chicago Mammals describe this basement revival as an “aural pageant of diabolical villainy,” and it’s indeed creepy—a relentless, unvarying, exhausting sort of creepy. Adapter-director Bob Fisher has combined Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (the source of the title) with snippets from Dostoyevsky and Poe to create an at-times inscrutable pastiche: Henry Jekyll is a nebbishy goober, Edward Hyde a wheezy street urchin/Goth out to bag and slam cats. The sound design is key, but the combination of the miked performers’ lines with sound distortions gets stretched to its bitter end, so even at 45-minutes the show’s interminable. Add the frequent use of audience members as props, and the whole thing suddenly feels less like an experiment and more like a punishment for English students who didn’t do the reading. —Dan Jakes

TUTA's <i>The Edge of Our Bodies</i>
TUTA’s The Edge of Our BodiesCredit: Anthony LaPenna

The Edge of Our Bodies The taste for “ironic” art that winkingly/mockingly adopts the form and content of other works or genres has become widespread. Take Adam Rapp’s The Edge of Our Bodies at TUTA (the Utopian Theatre Asylum). The roughly 75-minute one-act is a lengthy “dear diary” monologue by Bernie, a Lolita-like 16-year-old girl (Carolyn Molloy). Bernie addresses us in the coat and plaid green miniskirt of her boarding school. She explains that she is pregnant and, bouncing off the walls, narrates her trip to New York to give her boyfriend the news and a subsequent pickup involving a much older man at a bar. Everything about this, including its tone, is meant to feel vaguely repulsive. But all the intended irony in the world will not save Edge from being the very thing that it hopes to demean and satirize: goopy, melodramatic kitsch about an ultrasexualized teenager. —Max Maller

Trap Door Theatre's <i>How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients</i>
Trap Door Theatre’s How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental PatientsCredit: Bodan Nastase

[Recommended] How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients It’s 1953, and a young Soviet writer, summoned to cure the mental patients at Moscow’s Central Hospital by delivering the titular history lesson, offers two thoughts on utopia. First, it’s “when you’re in deep shit, and you want to get out.” Second, it “begins in the mouth and ends in the stars.” These contrasting sentiments encapsulate Romanian playwright Matei Visniec’s theatrical world: vulgar yet poetic, cynical yet aspirational, eidetic yet irresolute. They also sum up the last 22 years of Trap Door shows. No wonder this production, the company’s third Visniec offering performed by mostly Trap Door regulars, fires on all cylinders for 75 engrossing minutes. Director Zoltán Balázs’s angular, stylized staging is hilarious, perplexing, and harrowing—often all at the same time. —Justin Hayford

Lifeline Theatre's <i>Lester's Dreadful Sweaters</i>
Lifeline Theatre’s Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters

[Recommended] Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters Fastidious, punctual Lester (Sam Button-Harrison) constantly makes lists classifying things—annoying sounds, sticky substances. It’s hard for him to play with others. Things start to change when Cousin Clara comes to town after her cottage has been consumed by a crocodile (there’s a lot of alliteration in this production aimed at younger children). Clara (Elizabeth Levy) is charming, but spends her time knitting sweaters—all for Lester—each more dreadful than the last. Finally he’s forced to tell Clara what he really thinks of her gifts. Along the way he learns to “embrace the unexpected” and even manages to make a friend. It’s a silly sweet, story, with much of the pleasure coming from adapter/costume designer Aly Renee Amidei’s hilarious, truly dreadful sweaters. —Suzanne Scanlon

Adapt Theatre's <i>Pride and Prejudice</i>
Adapt Theatre’s Pride and PrejudiceCredit: James Murphy

Pride and Prejudice Adapt Theatre Productions’ new version of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel begins with a present-day high school girl griping about having to read Austen’s book—the whole thing—for her freshman English class. But as the teenager begins to read, the story comes to life in her bedroom, with her family and friends—and finally the girl herself—morphing into the enduringly popular tale’s memorable, sometimes eccentric characters. This play-within-a-play approach allows the audience to enjoy the timeless aspects of the story through a 21st-century lens. This engaging (though overlong) low-budget production is adapted by Lane Flores and directed by Amanda Lautermilch. Aja Wiltshire, who plays Austen’s heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, has also designed costumes that cleverly meld period and contemporary styles. —Albert Williams

Theo Ubique's <i>Rent</i>
Theo Ubique’s Rent

[Recommended] Rent As a venue for Jonathan Larson’s landmark musical, the Theo Ubique storefront has its problems. Seated in bleachers at one end of a long, narrow stage, right next to the (very sharp) band, I found it hard to hear whenever performers just halfway across the room turned their faces from me. This is that rare instance where miking in a small space would be beneficial. Then there’s the problem of a secondary performance area located behind those bleachers. On the other hand, the intimacy of the place seems appropriate for a show about Reagan-era opt-outs making art and love in a gentrifying, AIDs-devastated lower Manhattan: Overcrowding is part of la vie boheme. The cast is strong, with that just-graduated feel. And the material? All it took was the first few chords of “Seasons of Love” to make the woman one seat away from me break down crying. —Tony Adler

The House Theatre of Chicago's <i>United Flight 232</i>
The House Theatre of Chicago’s United Flight 232Credit: Michael Brosilow

[Recommended] United Flight 232 Back in 2012, I saw a review by a certain Tribune critic headlined “Here’s why there aren’t more plays about air disasters.” Well, here’s how to produce a phenomenal play about an air disaster. Vanessa Stalling adapts and directs Laurence Gonzales’s nonfiction account of the 1989 crash landing of United Airlines Flight 232 that claimed 111 of the 296 lives onboard. A collaborative cast of nine retells, minute by minute, everything that went wrong, and more importantly what went right: a terrified but dedicated crew acting instinctively, and passengers getting each others’ backs. It’s an exquisitely acted and designed piece (a sound-dampening scrim creates an authentic cabin environment) from top to bottom, and a stunning House Theatre debut for actor Echaka Agba. Documentary theater doesn’t get much better than this. —Dan Jakes

Brian Quijada's <i>Where Did We Sit on the Bus?</i>
Brian Quijada’s Where Did We Sit on the Bus?Credit: MaisonetPhotography

[Recommended] Where Did We Sit on the Bus? Area native Brian Quijada is a first-generation American who’s Latino, multilingual, an artist, and a college grad, all of which sticks with you through this coming-of-age saga, which centers on his upbringing as the son of immigrant parents growing up in upscale, mostly white Highland Park. Mining memories from early childhood to present-day Chicago, Quijada uses this autobiographical one-man show to grapple with life, liberty, and the paradox of the American dream. In the vein of John Leguizamo’s Ghetto Klown, the 90-minute performance, directed by Chay Yew, is as funny as it is poignant: expertly crafted, deftly poetic, and unabashedly authentic. You’ll laugh, cry, cheer—your only regret will be that you didn’t get to do it longer.
—Matt de la Peña