BoHo Theatre's Marie Christine Credit: Katie Stanley

The Basement Company Adam Harrell’s dark comedy is luxuriantly derivative, pulling from precedents as seemingly diverse (but basically similar) as Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, Stephen King’s Misery, and the Saw movie franchise. But a game of name-that-allusion is the only fun it offers—especially in Madison Smith’s flat-footed staging for Death & Pretzels. Basement posits a frustrated, nebbishy playwright named Howard who kidnaps three actors, imprisons them in his basement, and forces them to rehearse and perform his stupid little play. Harrell’s script makes all the least interesting choices, and Smith’s production fails to capitalize on the tiny opportunities it offers. And sloppy? Howard may be a fool, but it’s important that we view him as a genuine threat. That impression is hard to maintain when, at one point, his security arrangements consist of bungee cords tied to a folding table. —Tony Adler

Shakespeare All-Stars’ The Comedy of ErrorsCredit: Dominick Maino

The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare All-Stars’ production of the Bard’s classic comedy draws inspiration from “another fast-paced, heightened world,” cartoons, according to director JT Nagle. The plot is summarized in the program in three comic strip panels: two sets of identical twins are separated at birth; one set goes looking for the other set; everybody mixes them up, and high jinks ensue. With the use of goofy sound effects and larger-than-life vocals and physicality, the cast enhance the 16th-century text’s humor and accessibility. As Dromio of Syracuse, Polley Cooney exudes a Charlie Brown aesthetic, while as Adriana, Arin Mulvaney recalls another sort of caricature—one of Bravo’s Real Housewives. With such perfectly slapstick source material, the production could explore the depths of live animation even further, embracing all of the senses.
—Marissa Oberlander

TimeLine Theatre’s In the Next Room, or The Vibrator PlayCredit: Lara Goetsch

In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play In typical fashion, playwright Sarah Ruhl concocts a precious diorama (here the 1880s drawing room of serious-minded Dr. Givings, expert in female hysteria) and populates it with gossamer geegaw characters (here excruciatingly repressed Victorians for whom a peck on the cheek is the height of indecency). Imagine the high jinks when Givings, in historically accurate fashion, starts shoving newfangled electric vibrators up his patients’ skirts to produce therapeutic convulsions. As farce, it might work beautifully, as director Mechelle Moe’s astutely starched cast demonstrate when given the chance. But also in typical fashion, Ruhl waxes pop-philosophical—about art, love, sex, and female self-empowerment—from amid the whimsy, making for ample cheap sentiment. At two and a half hours, TimeLine’s handsomely designed production long overstays its welcome. —Justin Hayford

In Sarah’s Shadow: The Eleonora Duse Story, at Prop ThtrCredit: Matthew Gregory Hollis

In Sarah’s Shadow: The Eleonora Duse Story Portraying a human life in the span of an hour is inevitably a challenge, and director-playwright Olivia Lilley’s In Sarah’s Shadow: The Eleonora Duse Story does not rise to the occasion. Duse, an Italian actress whose unadorned sincerity drew praise from George Bernard Shaw and whose affairs included actors, playwrights, poets, and the dancer Isadora Duncan, is hardly a dull subject. However, adulation alone does not suffice for artistry. Here, in place of biographical events, are dances verging on vaudevillian pantomime, set to music that can only be described as deeply irritating, while episodes in Duse’s life, whether tragic or triumphal, are reduced to cartoonish dialogues. The play hints at Duse’s potentially fascinating female relationships with rival actress Sarah Bernhardt and her alleged lover Duncan but misses the opportunity to pursue them with depth or substance. —Irene Hsiao

Katherine Bourné and Kyrie Courter in Marie ChristineCredit: Katie Stanley

Marie Christine Set along the Louisiana bayou at the close of the 19th century, Michael John LaChiusa’s 1999 musical reworks Greek myth into horrific tragedy, imbued with race and class tensions, against a creole backdrop. Euripides’s Medea, dark-skinned granddaughter of a sun god, heiress to black magic and kindred bloodshed, is here transformed into Marie Christine (Kyrie Courter), a mulatto sorceress whose indiscreet affair with Dante, a white sailor (Ken Singleton), disgraces her before cruel patriarchal society. LaChiusa’s score is spooky and angular, but the singing in this staging from Boho Theatre is uneven—not everyone in Lilli-Anne Brown’s cast proves up to the task. That said, those who do—especially Curtis Bannister, Nicole Michelle, and the always excellent Pavi Proczko—infuse the witchy atmosphere of the play with all the voodoo of which Marie stands accused. —Max Maller

1980 (or Why I’m Voting for John Anderson)Credit: Courtesy Jackalope Theatre

1980 (or Why I’m Voting for John Anderson) In 1980 John Anderson was a U.S. congressman from north central Illinois, mounting a pro-feminist, anti-trickle-down independent campaign for the presidency against Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. His story should carry loads of resonance after Sanders/Clinton/Trump. But playwright Patricia Cotter ignores all the pesky issues and echoes it raises. Hell, she pretty much ignores the race itself. Instead, she uses Anderson’s bid as the occasion for a coming-of-age comedy set at a campaign office and chock-full of sitcom-esque contrivances, including a rich-bitch conniver and a staff romance that seemingly happens only because the format demands it. Still, if 1980 is a disappointment, it’s at least an amusing one thanks to Kaiser Ahmed’s assured direction and engaging cast. Hillary Horvath, in particular, manifests more than the requisite charm as Kathleen—i.e., she who comes of age. —Tony Adler

The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves Adapted from a 1974 children’s book by Illinois poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks by her daughter, Nora Brooks Blakely, this sweet, graceful musical (lyrics by Blakely and Valerie King) tells the story of a status-hungry tiger thirsty for respect (ably played by Izaiah Harris), desperate to outshine the current king of the jungle, a hilariously flashy but shallow lion (played with flair by Marc Rogers), even if it means suppressing his true self. The moral of this cautionary fable bears repeating—to thine own self be true—but the charm of this staging from ETA Creative Arts is in the telling. Aaron Mitchell Reese and Kemati J. Porter direct with a light touch, fashioning a winning production, choreographed by Destiny Casson and packed with strong triple threats, that doesn’t have to work too hard to win us over. —Jack Helbig

Upstairs: The MusicalCredit: Courtesy Pride Films and Plays

Upstairs: The Musical Like a lot of LGBTQ-themed theatre, Wayne Self’s fictionalized account of the 1973 arson attack that killed 32 people at New Orleans gay bar the UpStairs Lounge operates from a place of cautionary nostalgia. A loose-knit family of hustlers, drag queens, and guys looking for a sense of community have their lives upended when a jilted lover takes indiscriminate revenge. Honoring queer trailblazers and the subculture they pioneered while celebrating the social progress that threatens to make them obsolete is a fine line to walk, and this Pride production codirected by Eric Coleman and Gary Trick navigates it to occasionally stirring effect. But too much of what works is dampened by what doesn’t—like the vocals, consistently off-key, a plodding musical score, and a supremely silly device involving the apparition of a sanctimonious uncle who, for some reason, sounds like Fred Schneider of the B-52s. —Dan Jakes

Theatre Y’s YermaCredit: Devron Enarson

Yerma On one level, director Max Truax’s brutalization of Federico García Lorca’s 1934 poetic drama is illuminating. Truax sets the action in a dark, dirt-covered nowhereland, where dirty, slip-wearing women and dirty, shirtless men move, sing, and converse in stark, stylized fashion, often as though communicating across miles of emptiness. The approach highlights the title character’s traumatic isolation, cursed as she is with a barren womb when all she desires is to bear children. But on a more fundamental level, the conceit is obfuscating. As in much of Lorca’s work, social context is key, and the external forces that should imprison Yerma—orthodox Catholicism, rigid gender roles, mythic superstition—are barely evident in this Theatre Y staging, leaving a cast of 14 to wander and wallow through nearly two hours of undifferentiated lamentations. —Justin Hayford