The House Theatre of Chicago's The Last Defender Credit: Johnny Knight

The Drawer Boy The three-person cast of this Redtwist production spend two hours swimming upstream. They’ve all delivered convincing performances with the company before, so the problem likely lies in Michael Healey’s belabored script. It starts implausibly: a young actor wandering the Canadian countryside asks a pair of random, reclusive fiftysomething farmers if he can live with them for a while because he’s, um, writing a play about farmers, and they let him right in. Then it grows increasingly contrived. Healey takes too long to invent something that matters (the kid’s inability to write anything good doesn’t, although it eats up lots of stage time), then overreaches with an overcooked dark-secret twist. Director Scott Weinstein’s overly emphatic production often plays to the script’s weaknesses. —Justin Hayford

Halcyon Theatre’s Estrella Cruz [The Junkyard Queen]Credit: Tom McGrath

Estrella Cruz Halcyon Theatre spent the last five years rehearsing in the old top-floor gymnasium at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church. Now they’ve transformed it into their permanent theater, and it’s a quaint yet spacious marvel. Unfortunately they’re christening it with Charise Castro Smith’s confounding, insubstantial 2011 play about a young Cuban-American woman who believes she’s from France, somehow becomes famous making commercials, and is then carried to hell by her invisible friend Bette Davis, who also works as a BBC reporter. Smith lines up scattershot quirky oddities for 80 minutes without establishing a coherent stage world where such peculiarities might convey meaning. It’s all tangent with no center. Director Tony Adams’s moody, visually satisfying production features some engaging performances but could benefit from more varied pacing. —Justin Hayford

High Fidelity (The Musical)Credit: Laura Leigh Smith

High Fidelity (The Musical) Based on the novel by Nick Hornby that launched John Cusack’s second act as a vinyl-loving antihero, the 2006 Broadway show High Fidelity: The Musical has found its true home in River West’s Refuge Records. The pop-up setting, bedecked with treasure-filled record crates, brings Championship Vinyl to life, and the cast of young, fiery talent lifts Tom Kitt’s score and Amanda Green’s lyrics to new levels of rock (David Lindsay-Abaire wrote the book). As lovesick narcissist Rob, Max DeTogne adorably waxes philosophic about the art of the perfect mixtape and his “Desert Island Top 5 Break-Ups” list. Rob might be miserable because he listens to pop music, but listening to him and the ever-optimistic “musical moron twins” Barry (Nick Druzbanski) and Dick (Stephen Garrett) makes you want to raise your lighter for these lovable underdogs. —Marissa Oberlander

The Last Defender In hindsight, room-escape puzzles are such perfect combinations of storytelling, stagecraft, and giddy theater-school camaraderie that’s it’s astonishing one of Chicago’s immersive-design-focused companies like House Theatre hadn’t created one sooner. Nathan Allen’s highly ambitious 90-minute experience puts four groups of four jumpsuit-donned players together to prevent catastrophe in a scenario inspired by retro video games: Cold War Mutually Assured Destruction. Sander Weisz’s elaborate puzzles are so fun and challenging that it’s easy to overlook just how impressive the coordinated arcade consoles, projection screens, periscope viewers, dot matrix printers, fog machines, and live-action Spaceteam walls really are. It’s a logistical and technical achievement that will undoubtedly satisfy even the pickiest problem-solving nerd—here’s hoping these become a trend. —Dan Jakes

The Man Who Murdered Sherlock HolmesCredit: Brett Beiner

The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes More than a century before Making a Murderer, Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle undertook his own criminal-justice crusade on behalf of George Edalji, a half-Indian solicitor convicted on weak evidence of mutilating livestock in his Staffordshire village. In this new musical by John Reeger, Julie Shannon, and Michael Mahler, Doyle investigates the case with the assistance of Holmes, who has managed to escape the bounds of fiction and is pissed off about Doyle’s recent effort to kill him off. The show entertains as a buddy comedy and a whodunnit, thanks largely to the top-flight cast assembled by director Warner Crocker. But since Edalji remains a cipher in Reeger’s book, the important and still resonant issue of racial prejudice is merely glanced at. —Zac Thompson

Northlight Theatre’s Mothers and SonsCredit: Michael Brosilow

Mothers and Sons This stunning production is at once an AIDS epitaph and a deeply unsettling commentary on family life. Two levels of tragedy foreground the play. There is the personal tragedy of Andre’s death, which stole him away from his lover, Cal (Jeff Parker), and mother, Katherine (Cindy Gold). But there is also the communal tragedy of the AIDS crisis itself—“our very own plague,” as Cal says. The play, written by Terrence McNally, is a little too aware of itself as a memorial; its resonance is much more powerful on the concrete family level. It shows that even after 20 years, pain and denial can remain—there can be no forgiveness, no change. Parker is heartbreaking and Gold, who is just outstanding, universalizes the play beautifully. I can only speak for the sons in the audience, but for us, that is all our mothers up there. —Max Maller

Filament Theatre’s Pinocchio: A Folk Musical

Pinocchio: A Folk Musical This musical adaptation of the Carlo Collodi classic starts poorly. Exposition gets swallowed up in a song that seems too wordy and abstract for the target audience of small children. The magical block of wood from which old Gepetto carves Pinocchio is represented by a violin, creating further confusion. And Pinocchio himself begins life by laughing and crying unrestrainedly. A four-year-old might be excused for thinking s/he’s seeing a play about a bipolar fiddle. But things improve over the course of the show’s 60 minutes. Adapter/composer Tyler Beattie, director Scott Ferguson, and a musically talented cast lavish sweet-humored charm on Collodi’s tale of a puppet (or, more accurately, a piece of pure id) who becomes real by learning the importance of service, study, and work. Before long, the only significant problem is the unwieldy wig Roberto Jonson has to wear as Pinocchio.
—Tony Adler

Gale LaJoye’s SnowflakeCredit: Gale LaJoye

Snowflake Oscar Wilde’s line “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” came to mind watching Gale LaJoye’s touring one-man show, now in its 25th year, about a homeless man named Snowflake. It’s performed wordlessly against the backdrop of a billboard projecting fantasies of family and home as pictured in midcentury advertising; LaJoye is an expert clown a la Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Snowflake’s loneliness is lessened when he discovers a discarded puppet, sad and forgotten as he is, who he sets out to make smile by magically transforming trash into a pair of skis, a tennis racket, a saw, a suitcase. The simple message: maybe we are all in the gutter—looking at life insurance ads—and maybe loneliness is unavoidable, but we still have the ability to dream, to play, to make each other smile. —Suzanne Scanlon

MPAACT’s UpstateCredit: Reginald Lawrence

Upstate A compelling and expressive performance by Juwan Lockett anchors this new drama by Aaron Todd Douglas, adapted from Kalisha Buckhanon’s 2005 novel. Lockett plays Antonio, a 17-year-old from Harlem, who pleads guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the slaying of his abusive father rather than take his chances at trial. Set in the 1990s, the play, like the novel, chronicles the relationship between Antonio and his girlfriend (Asia Martin) through the letters they exchange while he’s in prison upstate, reflecting the couple’s struggle to stay emotionally true to each other while pursuing the separate paths life has set them on. Directed by Carla Stillwell for the Ma’at Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatre (MPAACT), the play tells its story intensely but unsensationally. —Albert Williams

Yasmina’s Necklace, from 16th Street TheatreCredit: Anthony Aicardi

Yasmina’s Necklace Director Ann Filmer does everything right in his world premiere production of Rohina Malik’s gracefully written romantic comedy, about two Muslim families and their awkward attempts to bring together their two misfit adult children. The casting is perfect: Susaan Jamshidi just shines as Yasmina, a troubled, talented artist haunted by her past life in Iraq and Syria. She is well matched well with Michael Perez, her reluctant suitor, a man still recovering from a bad divorce. One minute Malik invites us to laugh at her character’s foibles, the next she wants us to be moved by their personal tragedies; Filmer deftly balances the light and the dark. The result is a thoroughly satisfying family drama. —Jack Helbig