Jaimelyn Gray and Kate Harris in Bluebird Arts' The Beauty Queen of Leenane Credit: David Markowski

[Recommended] The Beauty Queen of Leenane Maureen (Jaimelyn Gray) is a middle-aged woman who lives with her senile elderly mother, Mag (Kate Harris), in a small Irish village. At her breaking point, Maureen has one last chance to be happy, but Mag is determined to stop it. The amazing thing about Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s 1996 black comedy, here directed by Luda Lopatina Solomon for Bluebird Arts, is how it lulls you into a false sense of security—one minute you’re laughing, the next you’re cringing, as moments of tenderness are quickly outdone by grisly betrayals. The script is a wonderful balance of contrasts, and this cast knows how to interpret them, particularly Gray and Harris, who bring out McDonagh’s hardened themes, the most poignant of which is captivity. —Matt de la Peña

Brian Peterlin, Tim Soszko, and Brian Posen
Brian Peterlin, Tim Soszko, and Brian PosenCredit: Michael Courier Photography

The Best of Bri-Ko They may skip the azure greasepaint, oil-drum tom-toms, and Twinkies, but physical comedy trio Bri-Ko (Brian Posen, Brian Peterlin, and Tim Soszko) still have a lot in common with Blue Man Group. Both keep clear of spoken words. Both cultivate oddball, puppyish personas. Both work to a beat, whether they generate it themselves or, like Bri-Ko, cop it off Carmina Burana. And both are very, very big on making messes. In fact, Bri-Ko would do well to adopt the Blue Man policy of handing out ponchos to audience members: one bit in this 60-minute collection involves a chef whose cuisine gets delivered to the customer via water balloon. Other pieces take familiar comic tropes—changing a lightbulb, provoking a prissy colleague—and give them a fresh spin. The show is usually funny, always sweetly subversive. —Tony Adler

Philip Earl Johnson in American Blues Theater's <i>The Columnist</i>
Philip Earl Johnson in American Blues Theater’s The ColumnistCredit: Johnny Knight

[Recommended] The Columnist In his well-built and weighty if occasionally ossified 2012 drama, playwright David Auburn crafts a compelling portrayal of renowned syndicated columnist Joe Alsop. An erudite political junkie (“Politics is life!” he insists) who craves access to and influence over the Washington elite, he yearns for exuberant conservatism, mistakes his opinions for edicts, and buries himself in work to avoid the messiness of human connection. But only after intermission does Auburn progress from mounting a robust documentary to crafting a play with pressing stakes—for the increasingly dogmatic Alsop, his ineffectual but devoted brother Stewart, and his heartbreakingly unnecessary wife, Susan. Under Keira Fromm’s meticulous yet elastic direction, this ultimately exhilarating American Blues production is an astute cautionary tale about how hubris, ideology, and loyalty obscure vision. The cast, led by a gripping Philip Earl Johnson, are precise, impassioned, and deeply affecting. —Justin Hayford

Irvine Welsh and Don De Grazia's pop-rock opera <i>Creatives</i>
Irvine Welsh and Don De Grazia’s pop-rock opera CreativesCredit: Courtesy Chicago Theatre Workshop

[Recommended] Creatives There’s a lot going right in Irvine Welsh and Don De Grazia’s strange new multiheaded beast of a pop-rock opera. A commercially successful Adam Levine type returns to his Chicago college alma mater to host a songwriting competition for a group of students, each with their own neuroses and narratives. Composer and lyricist Laurence Mark Wythe adds original songs to an eclectic roster of classic and modern pop hits, and there’s a unique joy in hearing works by bands often relegated to dressing-room Muzak (Simple Minds, Happy Mondays) reinterpreted as musical theater. Chicago Theatre Workshop’s slick, handsome production, directed by Tom Mullen, makes a case for its own idiosyncrasies, but even a cast this strong has trouble justifying the production’s late zig in a direction it absolutely need not go. —Dan Jakes

Alexandra Bennett, Sarah C. Lo, and Debra Rodkin in AstonRep's <i>Eleemosynary</i>
Alexandra Bennett, Sarah C. Lo, and Debra Rodkin in AstonRep’s EleemosynaryCredit: Emily Schwartz

[Recommended] Eleemosynary Lee Blessing balances heart and mind in his 1985 one-act character study of three talented but eccentric women: a visionary grandmother, her distant workaholic daughter, and her high-achieving but emotionally wounded granddaughter. In less than 90 minutes, we get to know and care about these three, their strengths and foibles, their mutual influences on one another, their stories and why they matter. Blessing’s words are brought to life in AstonRep Theatre Company’s remarkable production, codirected by Jeremiah Barr and Derek Bertelsen and performed by strong actors Debra Rodkin, Alexandra Bennett, and Sarah C. Lo, each of whom infuses her work with lots of warmth and wit, moving us while reminding us constantly of life’s many slings and arrows. —Jack Helbig

Lyric Opera's <i>Eugene Onegin</i>
Lyric Opera’s Eugene OneginCredit: Robert Kusel

[Recommended] Eugene Onegin This stunning production of Tchaikovsky’s late 19th-century operatic take on Pushkin’s early 19th-century novel in verse (originally designed by Michael Levine and directed by Robert Carsen for the Metropolitan Opera) is a piece of minimalist magic that uses light, color, and a nearly bare stage to create an environment that’s the visual embodiment of a lushly lyrical score. Lyric Opera has cast Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień as the icy title character (he sang it here nine years ago), and soprano Ana María Martínez as the literary, lovestruck young heroine, Tatiana—whom Onegin only wants when he can’t have her. It’s a role debut for Martínez, but she’s a natural for the part. The surprises are golden-voiced mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova as Tatiana’s sister, Olga, and tenor Charles Castronovo, who runs away with the show as Olga’s fiery doomed suitor Lensky; also, a standout lone aria from bass Dmitry Belosselskiy as Tatiana’s blissfully ignorant husband, Prince Gremin. The story turns on life-blighting social conventions from arranged marriages to pistol duels—exactly like the one that killed Pushkin himself, and not so different from the revenge shootings that bloody the streets of Chicago today. Alejo Perez conducts the Lyric Opera orchestra and chorus; in Russian with English subtitles. —Deanna Isaacs

Collaboraction's <i>Gender Breakdown</i>
Collaboraction’s Gender BreakdownCredit: Anna Sodziak

[Recommended] Gender Breakdown After the Profiles Theatre abuse scandal and the creation of Not in Our House comes playwright Dani Bryant’s ensemble-devised primer on gender disparity in Chicago theater. With a script assembled from interviews with more than 200 local theater makers as well as personal stories from the ten performers, these presentational 70 minutes cover a litany of deeply entrenched systemic biases: hypersexualization of certain female types, exoticization of women of color, pervasive unwillingness to see women as legitimate protagonists, near total erasure of non-cis nonmales. Insightful and provocative, although occasionally repetitive (and largely blind to class issues), Gender Breakdown is more a compelling expression of outrage and solidarity than a nuanced examination of complicated issues. Director Erica Vannon’s grounded cast speak with such candor they never seem to be acting at all. —Justin Hayford

Forum Productions' <i>Jesus the Jew as Told by His Brother James</i>
Forum Productions’ Jesus the Jew as Told by His Brother JamesCredit: Emily Schwartz

Jesus the Jew as Told by His Brother James Forum Productions’ one-man show is a tedious deep dive into what we’re told is “another side” of Jesus—provided by his brother James (Steven Strafford) as the latter faces imminent execution. Penned by William Spatz, the meandering piece comes off as preachy propaganda, though it’s not clear on whose behalf, as James tears down Paul the Apostle for bastardizing the teachings of Jesus. His brother never intended to stray from Judaism and its tenets, says James, driving this point home with stories of his flock of “Jewish Christians” and shameless interludes of Jewish prayer and ritual. A modern, parallel story line concerning a professor whose doctor brother was killed in Syria punctuates the show infrequently and with little effect. —Marissa Oberlander

The Cuckoo's Theater Project's <i>Language of Angels</i>, at Redtwist Theatre
The Cuckoo’s Theater Project’s Language of Angels, at Redtwist TheatreCredit: Jillian Leff

Language of Angels Like many classic ghost stories with circuitous story lines, there’s no shortage of characters in playwright Naomi Iizuka’s eerie tale of loss and regret. Everyone has a connection to a missing girl named Celie (Jenna Liddle), who haunts the people who knew her best. Invariably, these former friends suffer debilitating denial, insanity, or premature death—one domino after the next, as you might expect. Though it stumbles out of the gate, this production from the Cuckoo’s Theater Project in collaboration with Redtwist Theatre can be delightfully suspenseful. Moody lighting plays up the huddling-around-the-campfire-feel, which is an asset here. A live music component tends to be disagreeable, but the show’s somewhat redeemed by standout acting and direction, the latter by Marc James, who deserves credit for deftly navigating a cozy space. —Matt de la Peña

Piccolo Theatre's <i>Private Eyes</i>
Piccolo Theatre’s Private EyesCredit: Robert Erving Potter III

Private Eyes Steven Dietz’s self-consciously postmodern 1996 comedy, here revived by Piccolo Theatre under the direction of Michael D. Graham, never reaches the levels of madness to which it aspires. The premise—a play about an illicit love affair that flowers during rehearsals for a play about an illicit love affair that flowers during rehearsals—is fun, but the resulting work is belabored and leaden. One problem is that Dietz tells his tale too slowly; another is that most of the plot twists are predictable. But a bigger problem still is simply that his writing lacks heart: Dietz treats his characters as mere pawns in a theatrical game, leaving his actors little to do except speak their lines and avoid stumbling over the furniture. As the three points of the love triangle, Megan DeLay, Kurt Preopper, and Edward Fraim strive mightily to add warmth to this cold work, but the results are lukewarm at best. —Jack Helbig

Zach Livingston and Arti Ishak in Circle Theatre's <i>Venus in Fur</i>
Zach Livingston and Arti Ishak in Circle Theatre’s Venus in FurCredit: Cody Jolly

Venus in Fur David Ives spins the seminal novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (of “masochism” infamy) into this comedic contemporary two-hander. An actress crashes the office of a playwright-director in a desperate bid to play Wanda von Dunajew, Venus in Fur‘s begrudging dominatrix, in his upcoming world-premiere adaptation. Mirroring and commenting on the book’s shifting power dynamic, the playwright-director slowly discovers that the mysterious performer’s relationship to the text may be deeper than he can handle. Jean Genet this isn’t; Ives’s script, academic and borderline smug, gets a fair amount of mileage out of its light comedy, but its broader prodding into Sacher-Masoch’s themes grows repetitive just halfway through. Still, Charlotte Drover’s well-designed, playfully blocked production for Circle Theatre provides ample opportunity for Arti Ishak as Wanda to set the roof ablaze with a rapturous performance. —Dan Jakes