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Brontë, Desert Cool, and ten more theatrical shows to see now

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Ask Your Doctor: A Pharmaceutical Musical It took eight people to write book, lyrics, and music for this Annoyance musical? Maybe too much input diluted the output. The premise is golden: pharmaceutical giant Mendacium pedals a designer pill with such restorative powers that people who take it need only two hours of sleep per night. Supermodel drug reps, tyrannized by glammed-out sibling managers Gabriel and Gabrielle, devolve into amoral profit machines until conscience-stricken ingenue saleswoman Morgan sabotages everything. But the ragged, underdeveloped opening number sets the low standard for the ensuing two acts, turning a potent setup into a diffuse narrative peppered with melodically tenuous songs. As an addict sales rep Lily, Eleni Sauvageu delivers the evening’s most grounded, emotionally interesting performance. It’s a shame her character barely matters. —Justin Hayford

Zack Mast and Molly Miller in Ask Your Doctor: A Pharmaceutical Musical
  • Zack Mast and Molly Miller in Ask Your Doctor: A Pharmaceutical Musical

Baby Wine Annoyance Theatre's weekly LGBTQ spotlight series invites queer improvisers, storytellers, stand-ups, and drag performers to get irreverent however they see fit during an easygoing late-night set. On the evening I attended, it wasn't for lack of time that the show's namesake improv team had to be bumped—with the exception of Matt Hope's delightfully unsettling Stone Cold Jane Austen, each of the openers seemed to be stammering and killing time to no fruitful end. It's a pity too; I've seen emcee Chris Kervick perform elsewhere, and more of his interjections and games would have been a good palate cleanser for "professional gay" Chicagoan Scott Duff's gross Ricky Martin fellatio-fantasy bit, still for some reason in circulation. An advanced look at the guest list is recommended. —Dan Jakes

Vicki Quade with bingo prizes
  • Vicki Quade with bingo prizes

[Recommended] Bible Bingo: An Act of Charity in Two Acts Vicki Quade's Nuns4Fun empire is nothing if not holy impressive. Since the inception of Late Night Catechism in 1993, it's raised $3 million-plus for retiring nuns. But that doesn't mean that Mrs. Mary Margaret O’Brien—the former nun played by a witty Kathleen Puls Andrade on the night I attended—will be thanking you. Church bingo fund-raiser Mrs. O’Brien is full of salty-nun severity and some refreshing snark, welcoming audience-member squirms elicited by talk of religion on date night. As one-half of the token Jewish couple and unlikely winner of the first round of bingo, I got more attention and Catholic prizes than I'd prayed for—and promptly traded my Bible eraser for another winner’s mini Torah. (Don’t tell Mrs. O’Brien!)
—Marissa Oberlander

Eleanor Katz, Janeane Bowlware, and Anne Korajczyk in Brontë
  • Eleanor Katz, Janeane Bowlware, and Anne Korajczyk in Brontë

[Recommended] Brontë British playwright Polly Teale's 2005 play about the Brontë sisters dramatizes lives that held little drama—and yet left such a mark. Patrick Brontë (John Arthur Lewis), an Irish clergyman, raised his children to know the value of literature. Despite this, the sisters question the value of art, asking, Why do we write? This is answered variously: Literature is a way to live the lives they weren’t allowed; Charlotte (Eleanor Katz) later insists that her writing was meant not to make life better, but to make it bearable. And there was much to bear: an alcoholic brother, the early loss of their mother and sisters, the sexist world of publishing. Rendered beautifully here is the way the worlds within the books (Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights) were as real to the sisters as anything else. And despite the multiple story lines and characters, the production is wisely simple, and the actors (however distracting the often inconsistent accents) are strong in their portrayal of this extraordinary family. —Suzanne Scanlon

  • AP Photo/Charles Sykes
  • The culprits

The Day That Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Nearly Killed Me: My Rally to Restore Sanity Well, "nearly killed me" is an exaggeration. At no point during Angie McMahon's 40-minute comic monologue does it look like she's about to bite the dust. But the fact that McMahon frames her saga in life-or-death terms tells you something about how she found herself, almost single-handedly, organizing a Chicago satellite of Jon Stewart's 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity. This is a tale of pure, uncut enthusiasm running up against the realities of city permits, porta-potties, potty mouths, and 5,000 Jon Stewart fans with minds of their own. McMahon should provide more context; as things stand, it's simply a given that we (a) know all about the rally and (b) share her zeal for it. She should also remember to project past the first row. Her energy is fun to behold, though. In her manic phase, she reminds me of Snoopy doing his victory-is-mine dance. —Tony Adler

Desert Cool
  • Desert Cool

[Recommended] Desert Cool "Yeah, I'm a detective," drawls our hero, Mick Delahunt of the LAPD, on his way to alienating yet another potential girlfriend. He's also a probable alcoholic with a pronounced animus for actors and a crying need for psychotherapy. But Delahunt knows when something stinks. So he deputizes a young film nerd and a fucked-up movie star and goes looking for a killer. Starring its coauthors (Mark Denny as Delahunt, John O'Toole as the star, and an engagingly quirky Caleb Fullen as the nerd) this goof on Hollywood noir is casual as hell yet far from dumb. The writers cleverly work their conceit, neither pushing it too hard nor turning it—as most of their peers might—into an armature for dick jokes. The result is a breezy, funny, likably absurd 60 minutes. —Tony Adler

Maeve Devitt and Lauren Nitto in Double Text
  • Maeve Devitt and Lauren Nitto in Double Text

Double Text If the Reddit community crowdsourced dialogue for a play, it might sound something like the "friend-zone" and "Instagram-stalking" commentary in this sexless sex comedy by Olivia Bagan about a budding couple overanalyzing each other's text messages. After a single date, Philip and Emma retreat to their respective homes and hornball confidantes for a postgame breakdown. The lecture-style soliloquies (a cliche-filled guide to drink choices is presented without irony) and close readings that follow feel ripped out of the public domain—and from the flip-phone age, oddly enough. Otherwise charming young performers inexplicably snake through the house and use the audience as props, as if to make up for or distract from the lacking material. It doesn't. —Dan Jakes

For Real, America? Sketch comedians Sarah Dell'Amico and Rashida Olayiwola try to satirize contemporary racial and economic politics in this hour-long review. That's a commendable goal, but too often their satire swings from empty hyperbole ("Being locked up in jail is the same as being free in America") to self-evident disquisition (a black woman explaining the injurious meanings in her white neighbor's Confederate flag) to entertaining irrelevance (a cooking show designed specifically for people suffering from schizophrenia). Dell'Amico and Olayiwola are engaging performers, and their solo pieces are skillfully executed; Dell'Amico's turn as a desperately needy woman ruining a first date is stunning. But they have such different styles—Dell'Amico is all neurotic edginess, Olayiwola all grounded exasperation—that they're perpetually out of sync when performing together. —Justin Hayford

The cast of The Miracle Walker: A Tale of Two Bushes
  • The cast of The Miracle Walker: A Tale of Two Bushes

The Miracle Walker: A Tale of Two Bushes Jeb Bush's presidential aspirations keep getting blocked by clowns—first his brother, George W., and now Donald Trump. Anyhow, that's the premise of this new satire by Justin Hamby and Dylan Schaefer, who depict the sibling rivalry of straight-arrow Jeb and dimwitted Dubya as a cross between the Cain and Abel story and The Odd Couple. The show's greatest asset is Hamby's hilarious and spot-on impression of the former president, but there's some strong work from the supporting cast, too, particularly David Schwartzbaum as a grotesque Dick Cheney and Jenna Steege as a preening Trump. The only problem (and I think the voters of Iowa would agree with me here) is that we tend to lose interest whenever the focus shifts to Jeb. —Zac Thompson

Ten Dollar House
  • Ten Dollar House

Ten Dollar House Down-low star-crossed lovers are a perennial theme at Pride Films & Plays, and this nonfiction 1930s historical drama by Rick Kinnebrew and Martha Meyer is no different. Risking ill repute and financial ruin, a London transplant saves an ancestral rock cottage in a dying Wisconsin town from bank demolition with a $10 payment. In Michael D. Graham's production, the investment and renovation is presented as an excuse for Bob Neal to woo Edgar Hellum, a fellow artist and handyman hiding his own taboo proclivities. The source material is a genuinely inspiring story about gay trailblazers opting to create a refined paradise where they damn well pleased, even if the show itself gets caught in the perfunctory trappings of biographical storytelling. —Dan Jakes

The Year of the Rooster - AUSTIN D. OIE
  • Austin D. Oie
  • The Year of the Rooster

[Recommended] The Year of the Rooster Gil Pepper, the hapless hero of this excellent comedy by Eric Dufault, knows he's a loser. But he hasn't been given many chances to win, living with his mother in near penury and working a fast-food job where he's taunted by his supervisor. His big shot at success is his rooster, Odysseus Rex (played with a strangely affecting mix of aggression and vulnerability by Jeff Kurysz), whose kill-everything philosophy makes him a natural in the brutal world of cockfighting. In Red Theater's visceral production, director Carrie Lee Patterson and a fully committed cast capture the comic ferocity of the script as well as the desperate violence of the fights (choreographed by Will Bennett). As Gil, Gage Wallace manages to seem sweet and dangerous at the same time. —Zac Thompson

Winning young playwrights Myka Buck, Brian Hayes, and Keauna Pierce
  • Winning young playwrights Myka Buck, Brian Hayes, and Keauna Pierce

[Recommended] Young Playwrights Festival Each of the three plays that make up the 2015 edition of Pegasus Theatre Chicago's annual festival of works by local high school students—Myka Buck's Our Little Secret, Brian Hayes's The Adventures of Ferb, and Keauna Pierce's A Cup of Souls & One Grim Reaper, Please—contains moments of grace and inspiration that show why it was chosen from the 500-plus entries that flood this competition every year. Buck has a strong ear for dialogue, Hayes for high school social politics, and Pierce successfully turns an amusing comic premise (the Grim Reaper stops taking human souls) into a meditation on metaphysics and the afterlife. None of them indulges in the earnest, undramatic didacticism that sinks many young playwrights; all three are directed and performed by local professionals. —Jack Helbig


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