Caitlin Aase, Deborah Craft, and Liz Dillard in The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) Credit: Albert Trefts III

Buzzed Broadway The best improvisers keep it simple and make it look easy. The folks behind Buzzed Broadway try too hard and make improv look impossible. It’s challenging enough to create a fully improvised parody of a Broadway musical, but this Laugh Out Loud show junks it up with an additional gimmick, a drinking game that invites audience members to lift a glass every time a performer says a particular line or does a particular dance move. I suppose it could still work if the performers seemed knowledgeable enough about musical theater to mock it (they don’t), or even if the audience got into the drinking game (it didn’t, at least not on the night I attended). Instead, this was 45 minutes of bad theater periodically interrupted by awful off-the-cuff singing and clumsy dancing not even beer goggles could make look good. —Jack Helbig

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) Evanston’s plucky little Piccolo Theatre puts a fresh spin on this popular 1987 comedy show, in which three actors race through the Shakespearean canon, parodying the classic plays while reminding us that the Bard of Avon was first and foremost a man of the theater whose mission was to entertain. Written (and originally performed) by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield—aka the Reduced Shakespeare Company—this 90-minute romp is here enacted by three young women in street clothes, who playfully switch characters with the aid of an array of costume accessories, cheap wigs, goofy accents, and silly props as they race through comically condensed renditions of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, et al. The production—performed with minimal lighting in the second-floor multipurpose room of an Evanston church, Piccolo’s temporary home—has a charmingly handmade and in-your-face quality. Under Nicole Keating’s direction, the talented cast—Caitlin Aase, Deborah Craft, and Liz Dillard—bring a breathless, improvisational feel to the performance, aided by selective use of audience involvement and a slew of updated jokes.
—Albert Williams

Under the Gun Theater’s Deleted ScenesCredit: Ben Bowman

Deleted Scenes To create its “pop culture comedies,” Under the Gun Theater has a habit of taking ingeniously banal concepts and producing disarmingly intelligent improv. The concept this time: show a clip from a bad movie, identify an incidental character in the scene, then improvise the life story that led to this character’s insignificant moment. Thus the unaccountably unemotional girlfriend of a passing murder victim in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka begins life as a preschooler so “strongly annoying” her mother won’t stay home to care for her. Then she’s tutored by a cowboy, who may be a hallucination, in the art of killing cows with her bare hands. And so on. In typical fashion, the improvisers rarely shy from bold, incongruous choices, yet somehow make most everything fall into place. —Justin Hayford

HipFlask Productions’ Great Works of FictionCredit: William French

Great Works of Fiction HipFlask Productions’ debut show is a collection of sketches based on the books of Horace Delancey III, self-described as “perhaps the world’s most eclectic writer.” What follows is a series of riffs on Clue, House of Cards, Hamilton, and a half dozen other cultural touchstones. A babysitting scene that’s part Get Out, part Exorcist comes closest to hitting the mark but never quite fulfills its premise enough to make you forget its sources. If the notion of a sequel to Moby-Dick called Maybe Dick makes you laugh, then this is the show for you. But most of the bits jump off from plays, movies, and TV shows, which undercuts the entire premise of a show based on the work of a writer. —Dmitry Samarov

Pearle Bramlett, Nicole Armold, and Casey Lyons in the Mercury Theater’s Mary PoppinsCredit: Brett Beiner

Mary Poppins Here’s a version of Mary Poppins that will frustrate both purist fans of the stories by P.L.Travers and those of us for whom the glorious 1964 Disney film was a defining experience. The show, cocreated by Cameron Mcintosh (the man who brought us Cats) and revived by the Mercury Theater Chicago, combines elements and characters from both the books and the movie (which Travers famously did not like) to create an awkward, overly long hybrid filled with both the wonderful old tunes by the Sherman brothers and less wonderful new ones by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe. The needlessly complicated story Julian Fellowes cobbled together runs out of gas halfway through the second act. Led by Nicole Armold’s likable Mary, director L. Walter Stearns’s fine A-list cast carries on bravely, but in the end the whole spectacle leaves us wanting less.
—Jack Helbig

Cavalia’s OdysseoCredit: Andrew Miller

Odysseo Hokey on a grand scale, silly at the very highest level of technical sophistication, Cavalia’s latest multimedia horse opera might charm even a bitter old man like me if it didn’t consume so much of its two-and-a-half-hour running time in repetitive gambits. The trick riding is sharp, the dressage skilled, and the sight of galloping horses can be exhilarating . . . once or twice. But familiarity breeds tedium, even if you flood the stage and gallop (again) through standing water. Maybe that’s why some of the best work here highlights people rather than horses. Aerial lyra and silks acts are strikingly choreographed, and a Guinean tumbling team stole the show I saw, despite attempts to spin its members as quaint tribal types. Cavalia’s use of the Guineans underscores a glaring racial divide in Odysseo: all the riders are white. Odd that a company that culls talent from ten nations (and touts the diversity of its four-legged artists) couldn’t find a performance-quality black equestrian anywhere. —Tony Adler

Caroline Nash, Kyle Encinas, and Ashley Geron in WeAreProductions’ Smokey & the Bandit: The MusicalCredit: Jeremy Kanne

Smokey & the Bandit: The Musical A rowdy little clunker from WeAreProductions, complete with live band, this is an homage to the beloved 1977 chase movie, in which a truckload of smuggled Coors beer, with escort from Burt Reynolds in a black Trans-Am, makes its high-flying way from Texarkana to Atlanta, journeying, as Roger Ebert sublimely put it, “into one of those benighted states where Coors is not sold.” Timmy Hart Barron plays the good ol’ boy Bandit here, Ali Delianides stands in for Sally Field, and Mark Hespen lends his fine, thundering voice to the role of Sheriff Justice. Together, they pilot cardboard cars, bark into disconnected CB radios, and guzzle down truck-stop fare from slight hostesses in huge beehive wigs. Striving for So Bad It’s Good points, Smokey succeeds in being almost as fun as it is ridiculous. —Max Maller

Winter Sherrod and Jackie Seijo in the Cuckoo Theater Project’s Stop KissCredit: Sussie Piril

Stop Kiss You get the sense that something’s missing in the Cuckoo’s Theater Project’s rendition of Diana Son’s nonlinear drama about two women whose initially platonic, eventually romantic relationship gets upended after a violent attack. First produced in 1998, the work presumably carried more weight back in the days before Obergefell. In 2017, watching two ostensibly straight women, Callie and Sara (Jackie Seijo and Winter Sherrod), come to grips with their sexuality doesn’t hold much drama. And filled with chirpy dialogue, the script frequently feels dated, as when a detective badgers Callie into divulging the nature of her relationship with Sara, or when a witness talks up gay life in relatively narrow terms. Director Angela Forshee and cast do their best; perhaps what’s missing is the historical context. —Matt de la Peña

The Woman in Black Into designer John Wilson’s extraordinary immersive set—the Den’s tiny black box transformed into a jewel-box Victorian theater fallen into grotesque desuetude—Wildclaw Theatre inserts a rather ordinary ghost story. Based on Susan Hill’s 1983 faux-gothic novel, the story follows Mr. Kipps, a British solicitor hired to sort out the estate of a deceased recluse who lived in an eccentric house surrounded by gloomy marshes and possibly inhabited by a vengeful ghost. Steven Mallatratt’s 1987 stage adaptation (the second-longest-running play in West End history) frontloads the tale with heavy metatheatrical clutter, so it’s hardly surprising director Elly Green’s measured production doesn’t start gathering steam until the midway point. But once it does, her theatrical restraint starts paying off. Who knew a simple scrim could be put to such creepy effect? —Justin Hayford