Duck and Cover Classroom I can’t vouch for Escape Artistry’s trumpeted dedication to “equality, environment, and education,” but I can attest to the aesthetic and cryptological rigor of this tantalizing, exasperating, and ingenious escape-room game. After a cheeky introductory video instructing us newly deputized agents in the nuances of time travel (here walking down a hallway), we’re locked in a drearily appointed 1950s schoolroom and given 60 minutes to decipher combinations to multiple locks in hopes of finding some missing uranium. I couldn’t track the backstory—something about two missing agents and the world’s first nuclear chain reaction—but lead designer Melissa Schlesinger’s stocked the room with mind-addling puzzles that delighted and ultimately baffled me (luckily I was trapped with smart people). Stick with it: the payoff is worth it. —Justin Hayford
The LivingRoom: You Are . . . The idea behind this show is cool: an evening of original solo pieces, performed by the people who created them, with movement and original music (by an invited sound designer, Jeffrey Levin). The execution still needs work. Preshow, in the lobby, singer Van Ferdinand did a good job setting the right tone, playing guitar and talking to the gathering crowd, but once we moved into Stage 773’s cabaret space the show lost energy. The solo pieces themselves are messy and unfocused; they feel more like quick sketches than finished work. Jorge Silva’s fascinating autobiographical piece, based on interviews he conducted with former friends from his southwest-side elementary school, feels the most complete, though that may be because Silva has such a strong, likable stage presence. —Jack Helbig
Love Stories The premise of Love Stories is simple but wonderful: a few new true-blue anecdotes of amour are told straight up, then pondered, distorted, embellished, and exorcised through the confabulations of the Under the Gun ensemble. The result is wit, wisdom, and gut-splitting fun. It is also thoroughly logical: improvisation is promiscuous—it always says yes. Love stories broaden the options to yes, no, maybe so, maybe later, maybe never, rainbows. Essayists and therapists, poets and egotists, madmen and dreamers come together in this antic playpen of lacerating lust and insufferable sentiment. Plus there’s a bar in the theater. Cheers.
Madagascar Chicago Shakespeare Theater favorite Rachel Rockwell directs and choreographs this 70-minute adaptation of DreamWorks’ animated film, with book by Kevin Del Aguila and music and lyrics by George Noriega and Joel Someillan. It’s a zany, more kid-friendly riff on The Lion King following the adventures of Alex the Lion (Jordan Brown) Marty the Zebra (Gilbert Domally), Gloria the Hippo (Lisa Estridge), and Melman the Giraffe (Stephen Schellhardt) once they break out of New York’s Central Park Zoo and find themselves marooned on the island of Madagascar. The potent mix of danceable pop tunes (“Move It” brought all to their feet when I attended), lessons on friendship, and sly humor for the adults (mainly from the mischievous penguins) translates well in Chicago Shakes’s polished production. —Marissa Oberlander
Murder the Hypotenuse: An Improvised Soap Opera What you get with this Under the Gun show is a mildly amusing spoof of corny tropes from the soap opera universe. In two acts’ worth of incoherent plots on themes suggested by the audience, many of the conventions of daytime TV drama get referenced here, from the sudden reappearance of a long-lost family member to the casual deletion of one side of a love triangle—the so-called “murder of the hypotenuse.” Some of the gags were good enough, but tellingly, the show’s funniest bits came when the “soaps” cut away to hilarious “commercials.” —Max Maller
The Seven Sisters Comedy Variety Hour The eponymous seven sisters perform in front, run through the audience, and construct a set of vertical rectangular boxes, to be turned and aligned for location changes. All the room’s a stage, and these women utilize every element of the theater to play into audiences’ mild attention deficit disorder and lack of neck flexibility—there’s even some playful tap dancing. The performers’ adroit use of space directly transfers to a series of sketches utilizing words, sounds, movement, and pace to tell stories both goofy and rousing. A woman falling frantically head over heels for each of her Bumble dates is tempered by her scene partner’s calming logic—until the piano player confesses his love for her, cranking things back up. A bit about a mother worried her daughter is out too late twists its characters so mom’s a mime and girl’s a clown, the pace slowing or accelerating depending on who’s “talking.” The crowning scene, when all seven gather onstage, raising the battle cry “I am an Amazon queen, a warrior goddess,” packs a final wallop into this multifaceted view of sisterhood. —Steve Heisler
Shockheaded Peter Published in 1845, Heinrich Hoffmann’s alleged children’s book, Der Struwwelpeter, takes a Grand Guignol approach to moral instruction, offering verse narratives of bad behavior elaborately punished. Little Harriet is reduced to ashes after playing with matches, thumb-sucking Conrad suffers a double thumb-ectomy, and so on. This 1998 musical adaptation by many hands only makes things worse for Hoffmann’s miscreants: where the original text leaves at least a few of them sadder but wiser, they all get turned into worm food here, the better to amuse us callous sophisticates. The strategy backfires, though, by creating an ultimately tedious rhythm of horror, and Ed Rutherford’s 70-minute staging for Black Button Eyes fails to break that rhythm despite some strong performances and visual creativity. In the end, Rutherford’s production works better as a showcase than a black comedy, especially when it comes to cast members Caitlin Jackson, Genevieve Lerner, Pavi Proczko, and Anthony Whitaker. —Tony Adler
Top-Notch Tuesdays Chicago Improv Den’s Top-Notch Tuesdays is damn near foolproof. First, it’s got a built-in audience: with a rotating lineup of three improv teams each night (students, graduates, and “celebrated veterans”), two-thirds of the evening’s performers make up an enthusiastic crowd for the third on stage. Second, there’s a bar (the theater has more cup holders than seats). Third and most importantly, the talent is exceptional. On the night I attended, student team Earl Grey and graduate team Stacks showed equal facility generating crafty, elusive, peculiar ensemble scenes (a personal favorite: six people trying to determine how “realistic” Candy Crush is). And veteran duo Cherry Street (Lawrence Collerd and Laurel Krabacher) turned an intentionally dead-end tale of unimaginative surfer dudes into a poignant examination of bro loyalty.
26.2 The second iteration of this late-night offering at Pride Arts Center shows builds upon the comedic strengths of its first round earlier this summer. Inspired by a randomly assigned letter, for which cast members and a roster of guest writers from the theater, sketch, and improv communities devise a one- or two-minute song, poem, story, dramatic fragment, or absurdist something or other to be performed by an ensemble of seven. For better and worse, the 60-minute showcase, directed by Allison Heinz, has all the scrappiness and spontaneous energy of an undergraduate 24-hour play festival—along with some of the cringe-inducing “How did this make it to final production?” misfires. Still, it’s a welcome sandbox for creatives, and a congregating event for up-and-coming artists. —Dan Jakes