Lydia Berger Gray in Oak Park Festival Theater's The Amish Project Credit: Melanie Keller

[Recommended]The Amish Project The story behind Jessica Dickey’s somewhat fictionalized account (names changed, a few details altered) is horrific: a troubled middle-aged armed man invades a one-room Amish school with a vague plan to molest young girls and ends up shooting eight of them, killing five, before killing himself. But Dickey is after more than shock theater. Her solo show is a riveting meditation on evil, recovery, and the myriad paradoxes of the human psyche. Lydia Berger Gray, directed by Melanie Keller, portrays everyone in the story with remarkable range and power—the shooter, his victims, and the many poor wretches who had to carry on their lives afterward (including his emotionally wrecked widow). —Jack Helbig

<i>The Best Western This Side of the Mississippi</i>, at Public House Theatre
The Best Western This Side of the Mississippi, at Public House TheatreCredit: Matthew Mahaffey

[Recommended]The Best Western This Side of Mississippi Public House’s production of this pint-size western (it’s just an hour long) written by Travis Marsala and Adrienne Teeley blends parody and politics. Set in the town of Goldandsilverton, whose copper mines are at risk of takeover by the infamous Kid the Kid (John Wilson), the story follows bumbling hero and town sheriff Tex McDreamy (Jesse Kendall) and his band of sidekicks as they scramble to save the day. The town’s water supply is in jeopardy, as is the life of local cabaret star, Clammy Jane (Stephanie Murphy). Kendall is a fun, dopey version of Parks and Recreation‘s Ron Swanson, deftly overdoing his John Wayne facial expressions and one-liners to loads of laughs. Patrick Hall is a strong foil as old-timer Deadwood, the town drunk and a con gone straight. —Marissa Oberlander

<i>The Cubs Show: Next Year Is Here . . . But Last Year</i>, at Public House Theatre
The Cubs Show: Next Year Is Here . . . But Last Year, at Public House TheatreCredit: Byron Hatfield

The Cubs Show: Next Year Is Here . . . But Last Year Last season, for six glorious days, Chicagoans basked in celebrating the passing of one milestone during a blissfully ignorant interval before the shit hit the fan in November. With a little bit of hindsight, a comedy troupe at Wrigleyville’s Public House Theatre takes a look back at what the Cubs’ World Series victory meant for the city from locals’ perspectives. Most bits fall along perfunctory lines even for a low-key late-night sketch show: Theo Epstein brings his stats prowess into the bedroom; Budweiser and Old Style reps duke it out. As emcee Harry Caray, though, Dave Karasik engages in creative, funny crowd work, and a modified “Superbowl Shuffle” ventures into some welcomely unexpected territory. —Dan Jakes

Midsommer Flight's traveling outdoor <i>Hamlet</i>, this weekend at Touhy Park
Midsommer Flight’s traveling outdoor Hamlet, this weekend at Touhy ParkCredit: Zack Whittington

[Recommended]Hamlet Given the structural, linguistic, and psychological complexity of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s curious so many companies stage them each summer in neighborhood parks, where myriad distractions and unamplified performers easily render the proceedings opaque. Midsommer Flight director Beth Wolf’s sledgehammer approach to staging this particularly intricate play outdoors is, in a sense, apt, with front-and-center actors throwing everything into high relief, often declaiming their lines as though their only motivation is to be heard. It makes for an admirably clear production (aided by cutting the play to 100 minutes) that tends to exhibit only two energies: antic and fraught. In the end, the show has little to say beyond “This is most of what happens in Hamlet.” But it’s still a heck of a good story. —Justin Hayford

<i>Hitch*Cocktails</i>, at the Annoyance
Hitch*Cocktails, at the AnnoyanceCredit: Anthony Yoon

[Recommended]Hitch*Cocktails You know how the old Hollywood thrillers would get mangled to death in the cutting room? Scenes transposed, whole plots rendered incoherent, unresolved loose threads everywhere? It was an era of many classics, but please explain to me what happens in The Lady From Shanghai. In this drunken two-act, now in its third year at the Annoyance, the same effect is brought about organically, by design, as eight actors with an onstage wet bar (they have to drink whenever a scene partner says so) get gradually more and more sloshed, lose track of the Hitchcock-style suspense story they’ve been improvising, and make hay with whatever plot points they’ve been thrown, preshow, by a randomly selected audience member. It’s good, wholesome, liver-debilitating fun. And Jason Stockdale makes a sensationally sleazy ringleader. —Max Maller

Open Door Repertory Company's <i>It Don't Just . . . Shake Off</i>
Open Door Repertory Company’s It Don’t Just . . . Shake OffCredit: Josh Prisching

It Don’t Just . . . Shake Off Chicago was hot in the 1920s. That’s one of the takeaways from this sometimes sizzling, sometimes just messy musical biography of Chicago bluesmen Tampa Red and Georgia Tom. Another takeaway is that the line between the sacred and the profane can be razor-thin: one minute Georgia Tom and Tampa Red record a hit song, “It’s Tight Like That,” so raunchy it hardly qualifies as double entendre, the next Tom, writing under his real name, Thomas Dorsey, pens one of seminal gospel tunes, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” (Dorsey is often called the father of Chicago gospel.) It’s hard not to wish playwright and director McKinley Johnson had written a clearer story, but there’s nothing wrong with his song choices or his powerful three-person cast. Fania Bourn, in particular, proves herself to be quite the chameleon, able to impersonate famous blue musicians like Ma Rainey and still reach the heavens with her strong gospel voice. —Jack Helbig

Pride Films & Plays' <i>The Nance</i>
Pride Films & Plays’ The NanceCredit: Paul Goyette

The Nance Douglas Carter Beane’s 2013 play is a tribute to burlesque, an exploration of gay life in 1930s New York, and a portrait of a man living at the intersection of both of the above. In this Pride Films & Plays production directed by John Nasca, the tribute is fun and the exploration informative, but the portrait is nowhere near as compelling as it might be. Chauncey Miles is the “nance”—a comic whose onstage specialty is prancing caricatures of effeminate men. The script goes to considerable lengths to suggest that everything Chauncey does—including his acts of heroism—is animated by profound self-loathing. There’s potential for something powerful in that (reminiscent of what Bill Murray achieved as Tommy Crickshaw, the ventriloquist in the 1999 movie Cradle Will Rock). Though Vince Kracht ingratiates himself as Chauncey, he never lays the character bare. The result is stretches of tepid drama relieved now and then by cool vintage shtick. —Tony Adler

Pride Films & Plays' <i>Pride Ever After</i>
Pride Films & Plays’ Pride Ever AfterCredit: Paul Goyette

Pride Ever After In Carly Crawford’s buzzword-saturated queerification of traditional fairy tales, presented through Pride Arts Center’s Theatre for Young Audiences, Rapunzel “doesn’t identify with either end of the gender spectrum.” Hir rigidly heteronormative parents lock their recalcitrant child in a tower, but one indignant fit later they relent and pledge to enlighten themselves gender spectrum-wise. The story’s blunted simplicity pervades the 45-minute show, with moral instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation trumping narrative ingenuity and character shading. If you or your kids’ politics lean progressive, you’ll likely find the lessons unimpeachable if reductive. Director Amber Snyder’s gung-ho cast are fun, but their broad, wide-eyed exuberance seems fit for an audience of five-year-olds—a curious choice considering their Goldilocks drinks “bisexual broth” and wraps herself in a “pansexual blanket.” —Justin Hayford