No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks Credit: Courtesy Manual Cinema

The Belle of Amherst Here’s the problem: the intense inner life suggested by Emily Dickinson’s poems makes her an intriguing subject for theatrical exploration, yet her nearly complete lack of an outer life renders her hard to dramatize. In this 1976 solo piece, here revived by Court Theatre, playwright William Luce tried to turn the problem itself into a source of momentum. We first meet Dickinson near the end of her 55 years, living in almost complete seclusion—but cheerful, even perky about it. She bakes, cultivates eccentricity, savors words, and utters stirring transcendentalist notions. The rest of the two hours is designed to keep us engaged by exposing the suffering beneath her bonhomie. Accordingly, Kate Fry’s Emily is charming at the start, lacerating at the end. But neither she nor director Sean Graney can move us reliably through the long middle. The poet’s duality is most dynamically expressed, it turns out, by Arnel Sancianco’s set: a pristine bedroom surrounded by a ruined house. —Tony Adler

Eclipse Theatre’s Breath, BoomCredit: Scott Dray

Breath, Boom Grimly authentic performances fuel Eclipse Theatre’s potent production of Kia Corthron’s bleak, sometimes brutal Breath, Boom. Written in an expressionist idiom that juxtaposes terse, fragmented dialogue with ecstatic monologues, the drama focuses on Prix, a black girl from a Bronx public housing project. Corthron chronicles her protagonist’s life from 1986, when she’s the ruthless and feared teenage leader of an all-female gang, to 2000, when she’s a 30-year-old ex-con, working as cook on the 5 AM shift at a Burger King and augmenting her minimum-wage income by peddling drugs and food stamps. Raped when she was five by her mother’s boyfriend—whose spirit continues to haunt Prix even after his death—Prix is a victim turned victimizer, whose anger and pain at her emotional core are in constant conflict with the intelligence and fleeting joy she reveals as she describes her dream of creating the ultimate rainbow fireworks display. As Prix, Eclipse ensemble member BrittnneyLove Smith is like a clenched fist primed to explode into violent force. The equally excellent supporting cast under Mignon McPherson Stewart’s direction includes Elana Elyce as Prix’s mother, aching for a reconnection with the estranged daughter she’s hurt. —Albert Williams

Auguijón Theater’s Death and the Maiden (La Muerta y la Doncella)Credit: Elio Leturia

Death and the Maiden (La Muerte y la Doncella) Late at night, Gerardo gets a flat, and jovial Dr. Miranda stops to assist. Gerardo invites him home, where his wife Paulina quickly becomes convinced the doctor oversaw her torture as a political prisoner years ago, although she never saw his face. Thus Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman launches his taut, harrowing, and intermittently contrived psychological thriller, with Paulina taking Miranda captive to try him for his crimes. Director Sándor Menéndez’s cast of Auguijón Theater regulars navigate Dorfman’s minefield with fiery precision, building exquisite tension that’s marred only occasionally by jarring lighting shifts. While the English supertitles fell out of sync several times on opening night, you don’t need to know Spanish to appreciate the captivating nuance in Marcela Muñoz’s force-of-nature performance as Paulina. —Justin Hayford

No Blue MemoriesCredit: Courtesy Manual Cinema

No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks The Poetry Foundation presents Eve L. Ewing and Nate Marshall’s collaborative ode to the life of Chicago’s preeminent poet. A multimedia production that mixes Manual Cinema’s unique shadow puppetry with poetic recitations, storytelling, and original music composed by Jamila and Ayanna Woods, this is a tough show to describe but a very easy one to love. The show lets the audience behind the curtain to observe the magic as it’s being conjured, enriching this portrait of the multifaceted Brooks: by allowing the puppeteers’, musicians’, and actors’ labors to be visible, it simultaneously demonstrates how a work of art is made while paying tribute to the woman who inspired the artists’ labors. By the end it becomes a portrait of Chicago as much as one of Gwendolyn Brooks. Not to be missed; admission is first come, first served. —Dmitry Samarov

House Theatre of Chicago’s The NutcrackerCredit: Michael Brosilow

The Nutcracker The House Theatre’s annual adaptation of the E.T.A. Hoffmann classic presents a “ballet-free” alternative to other Nutcrackers around town. With pointe shoes aside, it’s chock-full of drama and surprisingly dark, tracking Clara and her parents’ grieving process following the death of her brother Fritz, a soldier. Haley Seda shines as Clara, exploring and inhabiting a complicated range of emotions, from abject sadness to imaginative delight when her toys come to life to save Christmas. Under Chris Matthews’s direction, the lighthearted moments are equally compelling and heartwarming, including a Christmas cookie mess in the kitchen and the toys’ first experience of snow. And the fun isn’t just for the kids, with Uncle Drosselmeyer playing the pivotal role in ensuring Clara’s magical fantasy (or is it reality?) reaches its climactic moments with the evil Rat King. —Marissa Oberlander

Pegasus Theatre’s Shakin’ the Mess Outta HIstoryCredit: Emily Schwartz

Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery Dramatically, there’s not much to Shay Youngblood’s 1988 play. Twentysomething Daughter spends two hours remembering wise, loving, and harrowing stories told to her by the half-dozen black women who raised her in a small southern town in the 1960s, stories reenacted by those very women. But with such carefully observed, artfully orchestrated tales of survival in Jim Crow America, Youngblood needs no dramatics to make things compelling—just an ensemble of actors who can sing and speak the truth. Director Ilesa Duncan assembles exactly the right cast for this thrilling Pegasus Theatre production (a revival of her 1998 Chicago premiere) and steers them through sagas both horrifying and heartwarming without a false moment. If it weren’t for the slapdash set, it would be a masterpiece. —Justin Hayford

About Face Theatre’s Significant OtherCredit: Michael Brosilow

Significant Other In this 2015 play, first produced off-Broadway and here revived by About Face Theatre, playwright Joshua Harmon gives us a fascinating, complex comic hero, Jordan, a guy who at times comes off like a standard-issued lovable nebbish but at other times is so willfully blind and self-absorbed we want to give him a pinch. That Alex Weisman is able to play all sides of Jordan, the comic and the tragic, as he slowly, painfully, but finally grows up, speaks volumes about his skills as an actor, and about the solidity of the cast director Keira Fromm has surrounded him with—there’s not a misstep or misplayed moment in the whole glorious production. Amanda Drinkall, in particular, kills us softly as the BFF who finds she must break free from the intensely needy Jordan to live her own life. —Jack Helbig

‘Twas the Night Before ChristmasCredit: Emerald City Theatre

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas Truth be told, caffeinated and focused at 10 AM as I was, I’m not sure I followed all the twists and turns in this 45-minute North Pole adventure from Emerald City Theatre, which features Jewish elves, mischievous mice, and villainous, rapier-wielding capitalist knights, with a couple of hip-hop numbers for good measure. But the youngest kids in attendance didn’t seem to mind the abstruse plotting; rather, they were captivated by the cartoonish, friendly-faced, very watchable group of heroes (Kirra Silver, Alejandro Tey, Nora Lisa Ulrey) bumbling their way through Santa’s workshop. Glimmers of holiday magic shine through the farce, directed by Jacqueline Stone, but parents should take note that the material skews toward the low side of the recommended age range of three to 13. —Dan Jakes

‘Twas the Night Before ChristmasCredit: Emerald City Theatre

Youth Group: A Skit Comedy Show Jonny Nelson draws on his own experience growing up in an evangelical community to inform this late-night satirical two-man sketch and improv set at iO’s cozy Chris Farley Cabaret. Directed by Jess Mitolo, Nelson and Eli Weatherby lampoon the innocuous-seeming candy trail laid down by cheerful youth pastors that leads to a rapturous, fear-inducing worldview. In impersonating a couple of overzealous young ministers, the duo here fall back on what NPR’s Stephen Thompson calls “loud grotesques,” delivering broad jokes and mookish, physical types. When things quiet down, though, the pair can get rivetingly weird, as they do in a short sketch about a kid hypnotized into a trance by his devilish TV set. —Dan Jakes