Halloween is coming, and the question is, What will Chicago theaters wear to the party? Mostly zombie costumes, from the looks of it. Early critical returns have brain eaters outdistancing neck biters as the undead of choice in 2013—though there are also those who've decided to go with classics like Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the famously sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania. Here are short reviews of seven holiday shows. Check back for more over the next couple weeks. —Tony Adler
Hammer If Stephen Gawrit's new musical terrifies, it's unfortunately not in the way he'd like it to. Visually powerful, but in every other way a mess, this "perverted mythology" takes place in the Catholic-flavored mental purgatory of a man wracked with guilt over past misdeeds. Gawrit, who also directs, is too busy engaging his themes to engage his audience, and the resulting experience of this Right Brain Project production is purgatorial indeed. A couple of the songs, cowritten by Gawrit and Trevor Watkin, are catchy enough. But they, along with the "extreme violence and nudity" that the press release overpromises, aren't enough to bring salvation to this troubled piece of work. —Keith Griffith Through 11/9: Thu-Sat 8 PM; also Mon 10/21 and 11/4, 8 PM, RBP Rorschach, 4001 N. Ravenswood, 773-750-2033, therbp.org, $15-$20.
Ladies' Fright Night Till Halloween, the ladies of Improvised Jane Austen are seasoning their cauldron with a new ingredient: spookiness. Though vampires and zombies are scheduled to creep into the act—on 10/19 and 10/26, respectively—the theme was gentler on the night I attended. "Gothic novel" was perhaps easy pickings, the narrative borrowed from Austen's gothic parody Northanger Abbey. Mary (in the role of Northanger protagonist Catherine Morland) visits her cousin's manor, learns his mother died there, and suspects foul play. In an inspired move, the same actress played both the mother's ghost and the mother's murderer, a sinister gentleman obsessed with knives. Although the cast regrettably exchanged Austen's Victorian diction for verbal hooey (rendering rabbits as "hippity-hoppities," and worse), I admired their restraint in not having the mother stab Mary in the end. —Jena Cutie Through 10/26: Sat 10 PM, Bughouse Theater, 2054 W. Irving Park, improvisedjaneausten.com, $10.
Musical of the Living Dead Like the zombies who populate it, this musical spoof of the George Romero horror classic is asking for a hatchet. Through two-plus hours of frenetic foolishness and scattershot scatology, cocreators Marc Lewallen and Brad Younts never offer a clear target for their satire. Sometimes it's the creaky contrivances of Romero's film, or the hokeyness of musical theater, or the ill-informed assumptions of workaday racists, or gay men's love of belting divas. Many isolated bits are ingenious; in "Ruinin' My Life," four love-starved women realize their inattentive men may as well be zombies. And the cast of this Cowardly Scarecrow Theatre Company production is mostly top-shelf. But the unfocused plot, stalled by ineffective musical numbers, prevents the good bits from gaining much momentum. —Justin Hayford Through 11/17: Thu 8 PM, Fri-Sat 8 and 11 PM, Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, 773-327-5252, musicalofthelivingdead.com, $25.
The Rocky Horror Show Before it was a picture show—and required midnight feature programming, especially around this time of year—Rocky Horror was a stage musical. The cast of pH Comedy Theater's new production have clearly seen the movie many times, and they don't take many liberties with the now classic interpretations of the characters. But that doesn't mean they fail to do justice to the singing, dancing, fishnets, and high camp. Jake Farrington as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Brett Mannes as Brad Majors (asshole!), and Tristan Tanner as Janet Weiss (slut!) are especially good. Audience participation is, of course, encouraged; if you're a Rocky Horror virgin, follow Trixie the usherette, who stands just offstage leading the heckling. There's also plenty of alcohol. As director Amy Couey notes, that always helps. —Aimee Levitt Through 11/16: Fri 9:30 PM, pH Comedy Theater, 1515 W. Berwyn, whatisph.com, $15-$20.
Strokes Before the Coming of Midnight and Dead. Drunk. Girls. Oof. You expect the low-rent, the half baked, the ham-handed, the silly, the sloppy, the gross, the crude, not to say the stupid from any given Halloween production. It's part of the anarchic spirit of the holiday. But you kind of hope the engaging, or even just the competent, will also find a way into the mix. Boy, is that ever not the case with this double bill from the Arts Before Entertainment Collective. The one and only canny bit of stagecraft in the whole 60-minute show is the anonymous director's decision to pass straight from the first play to the second without a break, making it difficult for an unhappy audience member to exit gracefully. Strokes is garbled, insipid, and dungeon-dark; Dead, more of the same, but with a useful moral—never accept cunnilingus from a zombie—and marginally better lighting. —Tony Adler Through 10/31: Thu 7:30 PM, Gorilla Tango Bucktown, 1919 N. Milwaukee, 773-598-4549, gorillatango.com, $28-$24.
They Saved Hitler's Brain and Put It in Walt Disney Billy Bermingham's latest play proves the truth of the old William Blake dictum "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." This wild, campy comedy is certainly excessive, packed with crazy plot twists, insane characters, vulgar language, cartoonish but graphic sex, and all manner of bodily substances (including, but not limited to, blood, urine, sperm, and human excrement). The story, involving Hitler's inner circle, a handful of Disney characters, and several members of the Bush administration, is breathtaking in its wide-ranging craziness. The ironic thing is that Bermingham's vulgarity, reminiscent at times of both Lenny Bruce and the National Lampoon in its prime, also seems to give him artistic space for pointed satire and some very brilliant comic moments. Not for the squeamish. —Jack Helbig Through 12/7: Fri-Sat 9 PM, Charnel House, 3421 W. Fullerton, 773-871-9046, brownpapertickets.com/event/461947, $12. 17+
Zombie Prom Set in the 50s at Enrico Fermi High, this "girl loves ghoul" rock 'n' roll musical follows one high school romance to the nuclear-waste dump and back—and everyone knows zombies are the new vampires. With campy flair, catchy harmonies, and a surprisingly relevant lesson about love and its many forms, John Dempsey's book and lyrics are great Halloween fun. Director and choreographer Corey L. Mills is top-notch in drag as principal Delilah Strict, whose "rules, regulations, and respect" are the law of the land until bad boy Jonny Warner comes back a teenage nuclear zombie. Mills is especially electric trading barbs with Patrick Matthew Perry's Eddie Flagrante, a reporter with a nose for scandal. —Marissa Oberlander Fri 10/25, 10:30 PM, and Thu 10/31, 8 PM, Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse, 773-381-4554, maynestage.com, $20-$30.