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American Hwangap, Matt Damon Improv, and 12 more stage and comedy shows to see now

A Korean-American family drama and an all-female Annoyance troupe are among this week's best bets.

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American Hwangap The Korean tradition of celebrating hwangap, a 60th birthday, provides an opportunity to reflect on one's legacy and appreciate the blessings of a life long-lived; it's also a recipe for a postmidlife crisis. For Min Suk Chun, a Korean immigrant who abandoned his wife and three children to move back to South Korea from Texas, the milestone is decidedly the latter. With the permission of his estranged wife, Chun returns to the States for a reunion, albeit an icy one. Lloyd Suh's heartfelt domestic drama is a touching, challenging work that makes an earnest case for giving second chances where second chances are absolutely not deserved. Helen Young's Halcyon Theatre staging, a coproduction with A-Squared Theatre, doesn't quite reach the emotional depths Suh's text suggest, but it's a thoughtful, uplifting 90 minutes. —Dan Jakes

Alicia Watley and Jelani Smith of ETA's By the Apricot Trees - COURTESY ETA CREATIVE ARTS
  • Courtesy ETA Creative Arts
  • Alicia Watley and Jelani Smith of ETA's By the Apricot Trees

[Recommended] By the Apricot Trees Set in a prison cell in South Africa in the mid-70s, Ntsako Mkhabela's two-hander is a bleak and claustrophobic work. Based on her mother's experiences in solitary confinement (her punishment for participating in the 1976 Soweto uprising), this searing drama tells the story of a woman pushed to the brink of insanity by isolation. Still, she finds comfort and a degree of redemption in long rambling conversations with an imaginary companion, an idealized version of her younger self. This isn't a play for those seeking entertainment; it's made of sterner stuff. Mkhabela's words hit hard, and Kemati Janice Porter, who codirected along with Mkhabela, uses them well in this powerfully staged production. Darryl Goodman's simple but inspired sound and lighting design go a long way toward creating the look and feel of dark, dank cell. Alicia Watley and Jelani Smith are riveting as, respectively, the prisoner and the companion she hallucinates. —Jack Helbig

Baby Crow Productions' Enter Your Sleep - SARA MITCHELL
  • Sara Mitchell
  • Baby Crow Productions' Enter Your Sleep

[Recommended] Enter Your Sleep You want to talk about great work in little rooms? The initial offering from Baby Crow Productions, new arrivals from New York, takes place in director Margaret Grace Hee's Uptown apartment. But this production has a depth and magic that bely its minimalism, as Norma Chacon and Anthony Venturini summon each other's ghosts in the amorphous atmosphere of a play-length dream. It's a piece that rewards imaginative engagement—the word "suicide" is never used, the details of Venturini's death are never elaborated, and rather than making things vague, playwright Christina Quintana's sleight of hand enables a range of transformations and substitutions to be worked upon the bare facts of life in a manner akin to dreams. Chacon is extraordinarily nimble, with impressive range, but Venturini works at the sacred nexus of clown and shaman—his storytelling, varied and impossibly moving, sounds all the notes. —Max Maller

Babes With Blades' Henry V - JOHNNY KNIGHT
  • Johnny Knight
  • Babes With Blades' Henry V

[Recommended] Henry V The all-female Babes With Blades Theatre Company delivers a smart, stirring rendition of Shakespeare's historical drama about England's Henry V, the 15th-century warrior king with a commoner's touch, and his conquest of France during the Hundred Years' War. Hayley Rice's bare-bones, low-budget, high-energy staging (with fight choreography by Kim Fukawa) captures the juxtaposition of rousing action, rough comedy, and poetic philosophizing that characterizes this great play, which celebrates military valor while mourning the human cost of war. Diana Coates is a charismatic, commanding Henry, ably supported by a ten-woman ensemble in multiple roles (their lightning-fast costume changes are as impressive as their wordplay and swordplay). Alison Vodnoy Wolf, a Chicago theater newcomer recently arrived from Cincinnati, is especially charming as Henry's French bride, Catherine of Valois, in the comic bilingual courtship scene that climaxes the play.
—Albert Williams

The Infinite Wrench - COURTESY THE NEO-FUTURISTS
  • Courtesy the Neo-Futurists
  • The Infinite Wrench

[Recommended] The Infinite Wrench Greg Allen gave and Greg Allen took away. On December 31, 2016, the Neo-Futurists founder made good on his promise to kill off the company's signature cult show, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, ending an unprecedented run of 28 years. The current generation of ensemble members weren't happy. Now they've pretty much reconstituted TMLMTBGB in everything but name, running on the same schedule at the same venue with the same exuberance. Though their new baby is superficially different from the original (where before the plays were numbered, for instance, now they're color coded), it retains the identical goal of offering 30 original short plays in 60 minutes. The performance I saw lapsed occasionally into reductive political posturing, having more to do with tribal affirmation than revelation. But it also had its share of wit, insight, emotional frankness, and dancerly physicality.
—Tony Adler

Matt Damon Improv, at the Annoyance - JULIE MERICA PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Julie Merica Photography
  • Matt Damon Improv, at the Annoyance

[Recommended] Matt Damon Improv A troupe as well as a title, Matt Damon Improv comprises self-described women of color who perform their weekly sets with a guest white person, called a "Matt Damon" if male and a "Lena Dunham" if female. The price of participation for the Damon/Dunhams is that they may only repeat what the regular cast members have already said, which supposedly forces them to "really listen." The conceit looks gimmicky on paper—a case of shtick masquerading as liberation. But thanks to the formidable chops of some MDIers (particularly Yazmin Ramos, Allison Reese, and Angela Oliver) and the generous rapport of the whole, improvisations quickly bypass political symbolism for truthful play—full of wit, humor, humanity, and a strong sense of the absurd. The 60-minute show also features solo comics such as Adrienne Brown, who rather decorously kicked ass the night I attended. —Tony Adler

Pinching and Screaming, at the Annoyance - JASON ELEWSKI
  • Jason Elewski
  • Pinching and Screaming, at the Annoyance

Pinching and Screaming Siblings Annie and Drew used to be top-notch team mascots, whipping up the fans as Surf (Annie in a lobster costume) and Turf (Drew as a gopher with a top hat). Then came the terrible Airzooka accident. Now Annie serves lattes while Drew sits at home, picking out tunes on a guitar that apparently doubles as a bong. Their world gets turned upside down yet again, though, when Annie meets Vincent Xavier (google the name), a "legendary" mascot trainer who thinks she can go all the way to the nationals. Parodying the Karate Kid/overcome-your-demons trope while adding goofs of its own, this Schmoon show is good-natured and amusing if overlong by about 15 of its 55 minutes. It's also a nice showcase for some endearing cast members: Ryan Morrill, Miles Potter, and particularly Jordan Mullins, sneak-up-on-you funny as Annie. —Tony Adler

Rhinoceros, at the Public House Theatre - JEROME MANANSALA
  • Jerome Manansala
  • Rhinoceros, at the Public House Theatre

Rhinoceros The urge to conform, to stampede in array with the rest of the grunting, thick-skinned majority, is still a political reality, and to the extent that it is—and to the extent that public life continues to be a parody of itself—Eugène Ionesco's great antifascist comedy will keep its tang forever. That said, while its presentation here at Public House Theatre doesn't lack charm, it's a sloppy outing overall: the light makes everyone's hair look purple, and Derek Prouse's translation hasn't aged any better than the play's hideous wardrobe of shiny vests. Alexander Baggett is witty and appropriately meek as Berenger, the dissipated holdout/principled outcast whose vanity (and vanity is all he has) won't let him join the herd. —Max Maller

Writers Theatre's The Scene - LIZ LAUREN
  • Liz Lauren
  • Writers Theatre's The Scene

The Scene Theresa Rebeck's prerecession dark comedy follows a truly miserable bunch: Charlie is a fortysomething nonacting actor who lives off his wife's income; Stella is a show runner who hates her fat studio audience; Clea is a home-wrecking social climber; Lewis wants sex no matter the consequences. Kimberly Senior's head-scratching, weirdly austere production overshoots its satirical aim and lands into territory that's flat-out misanthropic. Its treatment of the young socialite at the center, in particular, feels like the sort of grotesque caricature favored by Million Dollar Extreme, not Writers Theatre. At every high-rise industry party, there will always be a sloppy drunk on a balcony pontificating about the wretched state of everything and the slightly better if still wretched days of yore. Senior's production makes little case for why we should hang around to listen. —Dan Jakes

Agency Theater Collective's Skin for Skin - BILL RICHERT
  • Bill Richert
  • Agency Theater Collective's Skin for Skin

Skin for Skin This Agency Theater Collective world premiere, directed by Michael Menendian and penned by clinical psychologist Paul Pasulka, follows the unraveling world of an Iraqi-American contractor suspected of aiding al-Qaeda. Meant as a modern-day incarnation of the biblical Job, Ayyub (Steve Silver) becomes a victim of fear, paranoia, and blatant racism at the hands of the U.S. military, exposed to disturbing "enhanced interrogation" methods that grow increasingly violent under the supervision of Sergeant Lindsey (Hannah Tarr) and Private Michaels (David Goodloe). As two flawed people following orders, Lindsey and Michaels illustrate the complicated, often disastrous consequences when personal and political grievances collide in a conflict zone. But too enmeshed in biblical quotes and a cliched backstory, Ayyub is a less than fully realized and sympathetic character. —Marissa Oberlander

Sean Masterson of Timeless Magic - TITI AYANGADE
  • Titi Ayangade
  • Sean Masterson of Timeless Magic

Timeless Magic The palace intrigue behind Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition is alive and well in this tidy 60-minute act from magician Sean Masterson. The narrative revolves around a cryptic coin dating back to the World's Fair, acquired by Masterson when he was a boy. A mystery needs solving, of course, and he duly enlists the audience—mostly children—to trace the coin's origins and the magician who may have been its source. Masterson's delivery has a tendency to be tame; one gets the impression he'd have a stronger repertoire were the crowd a little older. Regardless, the most enjoyable and dependable aspect of this show is the way it functions as a historical anthology, highlighting the performers and the tricks, however crude, that informed much of magic's golden era. —Matt de la Peña

Valid Historia, at Under the Gun Theater - JOEL MYNSBERGE
  • Joel Mynsberge
  • Valid Historia, at Under the Gun Theater

Valid Historia The concept: After a brief set by an opening act, a "herstorian" takes the stage to present an even briefer talk, sketching out the life of some significant woman (Zelda Fitzgerald on the night I attended). Then the members of all-female-identifying troupe Valid Hysteria perform a long-form improvisation based on the talk. I anticipated an earnest, lives-of-the-feminist-saints sort of show, but Valid Hysteria turns out to be more interested in laughs than hagiography, and what they came up with applied less to Zelda than to the generic components of her life (southern wealth, alcoholism, madness, etc). What I didn't anticipate was VH's failure to achieve the essential goal (and pleasure) of long-form improv, which is to build a coherent theatrical event using spontaneously created characters and plotlines. Despite some interesting ideas, the 45 minutes went nowhere. —Tony Adler

Lifeline Theatre's A Wrinkle in Time - JACKIE JASPERSON
  • Jackie Jasperson
  • Lifeline Theatre's A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time This is the third time Lifeline Theatre has revived James Sie's 1990 adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's 1963 kids' book, and it isn't hard to see why. L'Engle's quirky characters are well drawn, and the story she tells, about a pair of plucky children who literally cross the universe (via said wrinkle) to save their father—and the world—remains a ripping yarn. In this version, directed by Elise Kauzlaric, the small stage is packed with strong performances (Naima Hebrall Kidjo is a standout as Red Eyes, the queen-bee villain of the tale) and lots of magical, mystical spectacle (Alan Donahue and Andrew Hildner share scene design credits). The production is at times sluggish and the action sometimes unclear (I suspect those more familiar with the novel will find the narrative less confusing). Still, the show, which has appeal for both adults and children, is more fun than not. —Jack Helbig

Chicago Children's Theatre's The Year I Didn't Go to School: A Homemade Circus - CHARLES OSGOOD PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Charles Osgood Photography
  • Chicago Children's Theatre's The Year I Didn't Go to School: A Homemade Circus

[Recommended] The Year I Didn't Go to School: A Homemade Circus Based on the picture book by illustrator Giselle Potter, this enchanting premiere from Chicago Children's Theatre, adapted by Lookingglass ensemble members Heidi Stillman and Caroline Macon, appeals well beyond its target demographic. The story follows a young family of performers as they journey to Italy for a year of adventure, most of which involves traveling from city to city in their converted truck. In typical CCT fashion, the drama is decidedly tame, but the story unfolds with mature wit, and Samantha Jenkins and Audrey Edwards impress as siblings Giselle and Chloe. Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi of the Actors Gymnasium mounts fresh aerial stunts, adding a nice circuslike dimension to a production that's as wonderfully playful as its title suggests. —Matt de la Peña

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