Something Rotten, at the Oriental Theatre Credit: Jeremy Daniel

As You Like It My favorite Shakespeare comedies always have a touch of the melancholy in them. You need both the bitter and the sweet to raise the stakes and deepen the poetry. Some of the performers in Skyler Schrempp’s brash, uneven production for First Folio get this, most notably Kevin McKillip (superb as that most likable depressive, Jacques). McKillip isn’t afraid to show us there are tears behind laughter. Others seem utterly unaware there are dark undercurrents in the play, or that the Bard’s lines can have second and third meanings; too many are just bellowed, most of the comedy lost amid the histrionics. All of these missed opportunities contribute to the show’s lackluster ending—amusing, just not moving.
—Jack Helbig

Grippo Stage Company's <i>The God of Isaac</i>
Grippo Stage Company’s The God of IsaacCredit: Evan Hanover

The God of Isaac In 1977 neo-Nazi leader Frank Collin generated headlines, a legal battle, and tremendous anguish by threatening to march on the Chicago suburb of Skokie, then home to a large contingent of Holocaust survivors. James Sherman made the incident the basis for this comedy, about a Skokie-bred newspaper reporter who rediscovers his Jewish identity thanks to what turned out to be Collin’s bluff. Sherman also starred in the original 1985 production, directed by Dennis Začek. Now the Grippo Stage Company is presenting a revival with Začek back in charge and the playwright’s own son, T. Isaac Sherman, in the title role (Isaac, not God). It’s a sweetly sentimental gesture, sure, but the play is still awful—telling what it could be showing, building to foregone conclusions, retailing hoary stereotypes as nostalgia, and—perhaps worst of all in terms of holding an audience’s interest—failing to take anything resembling a risk. —Tony Adler

Bruised Orange Theater's <i>I Saw You</i>
Bruised Orange Theater’s I Saw YouCredit: Brandi Ediss

[Recommended]I Saw You For a decade, Bruised Orange Theater has combed personal ads, OkCupid, Craigslist, and miscellaneous XXX-rated listings for juicy posts, then inhabited the characters they imagined behind them. And after a decade, they still manage to squeeze material out of what is now beyond low-hanging fruit. Online dating in 2007 was seen as a last resort, a way to find love in all the wrong places. But today the stigma has dissipated, so these online profiles seeking companionship or hookups have taken a cue from Alanis Morissette and become ironic. Also another cue and have become curiously genuine (nothing in “Ironic” is just that). I saw one of Ann Sonneville’s characters soothingly caressing a bruised apple saying, “What have they done to you?”—obviously the poster’s flopped attempt at a not-taking-this-seriously joke. Later, though, Clint Sheffer became a man who simply wants to watch women take shits and, if they’d like, pleasure themselves. (Who are we to judge?) Laughter erupts all the same for each dramatic reading, demonstrating that, written with irony or not, the words themselves are secondary to the committed performances of the actors, who dutifully treat the various solicitations and pleadings as honesty incarnate. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m headed to the ladies’ restroom.
—Steve Heisler

Steep Theatre's <i>Lela & Co.</i>
Steep Theatre’s Lela & Co.Credit: Gregg Gilman

Lela & Co. The title of this 2015 drama, a bitter pill from British newcomer Cordelia Lynn, refers to the covert business name of a brothel inside an unspecified war zone. Lela (Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel), who is 15 during the play and whom Lynn has based on a real person, was trapped there for over a year as an imprisoned child prostitute by her rapacious husband (Chris Chmelik). Gonzalez-Cadel has the presence and raw energy to pull off this grueling performance, which is nearly an evening-length monologue. Chmelik, who appears in passing as a host of brutal men from Lela’s earlier life in addition to the husband, is at his magnificent best as a kind but conflicted soldier who befriends Lela but shies away from helping her. Less of a story than a call to action and though impossible to love, Lela isn’t easily forgotten. —Max Maller

Kokandy Productions' <i>Little Fish</i>
Kokandy Productions’ Little FishCredit: Michael Brosilow

[Recommended]Little Fish This 2003 off-Broadway musical by composer-librettist Michael John LaChiusa (Hello Again, The Wild Party) is a complex work on a simple theme: learning to trust your imperfect self and to appreciate your friends in a stressful, competitive world. The 90-minute one-act concerns Charlotte, a New York writer in her early 30s, whose decision to quit smoking prompts her to confront—and share with the audience—the anxieties and insecurities she realizes she’s been suppressing with nicotine. In lesser hands this premise could result in a whiny Facebook-style rant. But LaChiusa’s inventive, bebop-flavored score and an expertly performed, imaginatively staged production keep the show from turning into a preachy pity party. As Charlotte, Chicago newcomer Nicole Laurenzi captures her character’s vulnerability, intelligence, humor, and grit, charting Charlotte’s emotional arc empathetically and authentically with the support of a superb eight-person ensemble playing multiple roles. The skillfulness of every aspect of this Kokandy Productions Chicago premiere—directed by Allison Hendrix, with choreography by Kasey Alfonso and musical direction by Kory Danielson—make this show a standout. —Albert Williams

<i>Loose Knit</i> at Public House Theatre
Loose Knit at Public House TheatreCredit: Sasha Hatfield

Loose Knit Somewhere between the convent and the sanatorium, in the days before Sex and the City and the pussy hat made salacious gossip and handcrafted knitwear trendy, lies the all-girl knitting group Theresa Rebeck portrays in Loose Knit. This small society of hysterics contains sisters, spinsters, sociopaths, and psychologists (well, one), all confined to the repetitive labor of knit and purl as they nurse their rage against the patriarchy. Two men penetrate the hive—ineffectual adulterer Bob and rich, arrogant Miles—naturally objects of both desire and loathing. The play’s best moments show structural flaws unraveling, well done by an ensemble that agrees upon a tone of would-be Stepford wives let loose in a world rife with the false allure of dating services and respectable careers. Its own structural weakness is the contrived tokenism with which viewers are presumably meant to identify. —Irene Hsiao

Eclipse Theatre's <i>Megastasis</i>
Eclipse Theatre’s MegastasisCredit: Scott Dray

[Recommended]Megastasis On his last full day in office, former president Barack Obama granted at least 330 commutations to nonviolent drug offenders. Whether that act is related to playwright Kia Corthron’s superb recounting of Tray (Anthony Conway), a young black teen who winds up with an extended prison sentence for pocketing a few joints, is beside the point. From Corthron’s perspective, Tray could very well be any one of those 330 cases (or for that matter, thousands of others), strangled by the criminal justice system and helpless in the aftermath. As becomes clear, it’s one thing to go to prison; it’s another kind of hell entirely to carry the label of a convicted felon. This roughly two-hour world premiere, directed by Aaron Todd Douglas, features outstanding performances by the entire cast; between the writing and the acting, it’s a must-see. —Matt de la Peña

<i>My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy</i>, at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts
My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy, at the North Shore Center for the Performing ArtsCredit: Michael Appleton

My Son the Waiter: A Jewish Tragedy Brad Zimmerman stands before us a grumpy man. He has every reason to be upset. Just look at the world. All these newfangled contraptions, no decency anywhere, his beloved father dead, his impossible mother still alive. Success didn’t come easily; Brad was a waiter who waited and waited. But after nearly 30 years serving veal piccata to the ungrateful, he’s finally made good, with a one-man, one-act, one-note kvetchorama that’ll enable audiences, at long last, to picture what it would be like if George Carlin had been born Jewish and less intelligent. Zimmerman’s got jokes so old they were rejected from the Talmud, and he delivers them with unbearable slowness. His restaurant material is funny, but the show’s unscripted banter is pure Vegas camp, and its nostalgia for simpler times with Amy Saperstein and her bra is just plain unsettling. —Max Maller

American Theater Company Youth Ensemble's <i>The Project(s)</i>
American Theater Company Youth Ensemble’s The Project(s)Credit: Dusty Sheldon

[Recommended]The Project(s) I didn’t see the late PJ Paparelli’s full-fledged 2015 production of this documentary play culled from oral histories of former residents of since-demolished CHA projects, but if this abridged ATC Youth Ensemble version bears any resemblance to it, I hope it’s remounted soon. Navigating in and around an imposing wooden-crate-like model of an apartment building—all exposed two-by-fours, chain-link fencing, and glaring electric lights—the talented high-schoolers’ voices crisscross into a polyphony of positive and negative anecdotes of lives in Chicago public housing. Though it’s at times jarring to hear teenagers delivering bits of old people’s memories, they add to the poignancy of the piece as an elegy for communities that have now disappeared, never to return. Aside from the large, wobbly, rotating structure at center stage, the only other significant stage decor is a collection of cardboard moving boxes with their owners’ names scrawled on the sides, containing links to a past they alternately mourn and celebrate. Abridged by Jess McCleod and Sarah Slight. Directed by Monty Cole. —Dmitry Samarov

<i>Something Rotten</i>
Something RottenCredit: Jeremy Daniel

[Recommended]Something Rotten Sure, it’s an English major’s paradise, filled with wordplay and Elizabethan references. And yes, your enjoyment will definitely be enhanced by an encyclopedic knowledge of musical theater. But even cultural illiterates can love this touring production of a 2015 Broadway hit. The puns are mostly dirty, after all, the dancing omelets unforgettable, and a sharp Equity cast puts the whole thing over with an energy approaching joy. Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell’s book follows the tribulations of the playwriting Bottom brothers, Nigel and Nick, as they vie for success in a theater scene dominated by rock-star glamorous Will Shakespeare. When Nick Bottom (first quiz question: Where’ve you heard that name before?) decides to even the odds by hiring a soothsayer, high jinks—honest-to-God delightful high jinks—ensue.
—Tony Adler