Sydney Charles and Julian Parker in Prowess Credit: Joel Maisonet

Adverses Chicago novelist, poet and playwright Rey Andújar is equal parts philosopher, aesthete, and insurrectionist—all put to expert use in this savvy, ceaselessly inventive reworking of Euripides’s Electra. This time queen Clitemnestra is a power-hungry, pseudo-feminist nymphomaniac, while princess Electra is a wannabe Marxist revolutionary. Andújar’s stage world is impishly nonsensical (murdered King Agamemnon’s coffin has air holes cut in it), yet the malignant passions that consume everyone—jealousy, ambition, lust, revenge—are unsettlingly true to life. He combines Lorca’s erotic lyricism with Brecht’s politically engaged cynicism to create something urgent, idiosyncratic, and wholly contemporary. Directors Sándor Menéndez and Oswaldo Calderón stage the tragedy with perfect authority, assisted by a nimble, exacting cast who exploit every pulse in Andújarj’s intoxicating rhythms. It’s masterful. —Justin Hayford

Haven Theatre’s The DistanceCredit: Austin D. Oie

The Distance In this searing transcontinental domestic drama by Deborah Bruce, Bea, the mother of two young boys, leaves her husband and family behind in Australia and, for reasons unknown, flies to her sister’s home in England, where she blocks their attempts to communicate with her. There, along with the audience, Bea’s extended family and friends struggle to reconcile their empathy for her, an autonomous adult pursuing her own dreams, with their horror and resentment over the heartbreak she’s caused. “This is cruel, you know,” the abandoned father tells Bea (brilliantly played by Abigail Boucher) over Skype. It is, and Haven Theatre’s remarkable production, directed by Elly Green, shows the unforgiving ripple effect of that cruelty on everyone involved. —Dan Jakes

Phaedra Released

Medea and Phaedra Released As the nights get warmer, it’s once more time to roll out the blankets for some outdoor theater. Poetry Is artistic director Robert Eric Shoemaker has crafted a new adaptation of the Phaedra legend in which the abandoned queen—here named Luce (Tara Bouldrey)—falls in love with her stepson, the acquiescent Max (Emil Sueck). Max is simultaneously embroiled with his foster sister, Adriana, played delightfully by Kellen Robinson. As the city rebels against the royal family, intrigue mounts inside the doomed castle. Shoemaker retains the tangledness of the original story and skillfully alloys it with youthful touches of his own–like a talking mouse (Rebecca Whittenhall). Phaedra, Released is presented alongside a hectic Medea by Catherine Theis, where Medea (Robinson) and her boorish unnamed husband (Sueck) try, and fail, to escape the demons in their relationship over a weekend vacation.
—Max Maller

Zach Zimmerman’s Spell, part of Mic CheckCredit: William Panek

Mic Check: A Solo Variety Show/Spell: An Interactive Solo Show Two actors and a lot of characters fill this part-scripted, part-improvised double bill of solo shows at iO. Cat McDonnell’s, performed at an “open mike,” switches between satirical bits (my favorite is her precocious, aggressively political grade-school-age stand-up comic) and straight original songs, accompanying herself on harmonica and guitar. Both sets showcase confident and unique comedic points of view, but it was Spell, a beautifully bizarre set by Zach Zimmerman, that completely won me over. Alt club comedy is a lab for risk-taking, and the risks here—a mini room escape, casting audience members in extended bits, disappearing for stretches at a time—pay off almost as hilariously when they don’t play out as expected as when they do. —Dan Jakes

Interrobang Theatre’s The North PoolCredit: Emily Schwartz

The North Pool Khadim is a Syrian-born Muslim teenager attending a public high school somewhere in the US. Dr. Danielson is the school’s vice principal—and very possibly a sleaze. On the final day before spring break Danielson finds a minor reason to hold Khadim for detention, then uses the time (and the solitude, everyone else having cleared out) to pursue more dangerous matters. Well-wrought and judicious, Rajiv Joseph’s 2013 two-hander is a whodunit with a heart, exploiting our preconceived notions about people like Khadim and Danielson both to heighten its mystery and deliver its moral. James Yost’s 80-minute staging for Interrobang Theatre is competent but a little crabbed in that it gets us compellingly to the point yet fails to take full advantage of the psychic and physical violence inherent in the situation. Set designer Greg Pinsoneault does a great job of reproducing the classic school administrator’s office.
—Tony Adler

Old Hobbits Die HardCredit: Jessica Rae Olsen

Old Hobbits Die Hard Fan fiction only works if everyone is in on the joke. Bear that in mind if you decide to see New Millennium Theatre Company’s parody mashup Old Hobbits Die Hard—and know that you’re seeing Die Hard for dedicated fans of the Ring trilogy, not The Hobbit for action-film fans. Fueled by a shared passion for Middle Earth, the cast is the lifeblood of this production, versatile in dialects, stage combat techniques, and Elvish alike. Costumes by Amber Kessler Freer pay great attention to detail, while director Adam Rosowicz’s use of space is clever. The video elements are a nice touch too, but the script, by Alex B. Reynolds, is simultaneously erratic and predictable. If you’re just a casual fan of Tolkien’s work, or have seen the films maybe once, you’ll probably be left wondering, “What the hell is going on, and why are we celebrating Christmas in June?” —A.J. Sørensen

Julian Parker, Sydney Charles, Andrew Goetten, and Donovan Diaz in ProwessCredit: Joel Maisonet

Prowess I’ve got to admit I was worried. It was barely two months ago that A Red Orchid Theatre premiered Ike Holter’s extraordinary Sender, and now another new Holter script would be getting its premiere, this one at Jackalope Theatre. The law of averages suggested that, for all his talent, Holter was unlikely to connect so well again so soon. But I was so happily wrong. Prowess is just as stunningly good as Sender, though different in tone. The story follows a familiar comic-book trope: Drawn together by their pain, four outcasts turn themselves into ninja vigilantes and kick Chicago gangbanger ass. The results, however, suggest anything but feel-good underdogism. Prowess falters at the end, when it comes time to pitch the moral(s) of the story. Yet even then we’ve got Holter’s uncanny language, bypassing even conventional distinctions among characters to turn Prowess into something more like a harsh, funny, wised-up, yearning, breakneck utterance than a play. Sinewed with strong performances, Marti Lyons’s staging sprints right along with it.
—Tony Adler

Rent, at the Metropolis Performing Arts CenterCredit: Liz Lach

Rent Despite its Tony and Pulitzer Awards and long-running afterlife post-Broadway, Jonathan Larson’s 1996 rock musical is not a perfect show. Nor is Lauren Rawitz’s current revival. Actors must be at the top of their game to keep from getting bogged down in Larson’s often flat book, and while this young ensemble has lots of energy and spirit, they’re not all quite there. The same for goes for the weaker songs in Larson’s demanding, but inconsistent score—sometimes this production soars (as in the full ensemble’s “Seasons of Love”), and sometimes it just lies flat on the floor. The show does feature some fine performances, most notably Will Wilhem’s star turn as the sweet, sassy cross-dressing Angel and Derrick Mitchell’s morally ambivalent landlord. —Jack Helbig

Irish Theatre of Chicago’s SpinningCredit: Emily Schwartz

Spinning Deirdre Kinahan’s 2014 play opens with a moment only found in fiction. Proprietor Susan steps out onto the deck of her seaside cafe just as ex-convict Conor, responsible for the death of Susan’s teenage daughter four years ago on this very spot, arrives. She’s impossibly bitter. He’s suicidal. So by the laws of contemporary playwriting they’ll have to find some sort of redemption in each other. Kinahan’s deeply felt if dutifully drawn story is full of none-too-surprising reveals, but it’s all made palatable by director Joanie Schultz’s meticulous staging for Irish Theatre of Chicago. She steers her four-person cast through 65 minutes of splintered flashbacks with unwavering pose and emotional commitment. It’s an engaging evening, even if it never stops feeling overly engineered. —Justin Hayford

Ben Larrison’s Very Much Forever, at the AnnoyanceCredit: Loren Egeland

Very Much Forever From a progressive pickup artist to an alien who enjoys intercourse with humans, the solo sketch show Very Much Forever offers more hits than misses. Scenes move rapidly from one wayward character to the next, assisted by the wisely included stagehand Stevie Shale, who doubles as a suicidal deer. Writer and performer Ben Larrison, known for his CTA Red Line PSAs featuring fake facts about squirrels (Project #SquirrelTruth), introduces us to a range of characters, including the perpetually cuckolded and the downright naughty. It’s dirty and offbeat, but that’s the Annoyance brand: dark and absurd, laughing through a wicked grin with a mad scientist’s look in the eye. Mick Napier directs. —A.J. Sørensen v