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Little Shop of Horrors, Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf, and ten more new stage shows

A monstrous revival and a collaboration between Writers Theatre and Second City are among this week's theater and performance best bets.

American Beauty Shop, at Chicago Dramatists - LIAM FITZGERALD
  • Liam Fitzgerald
  • American Beauty Shop, at Chicago Dramatists

American Beauty Shop Dana Lynn Formby's new play is less a drama than a linked series of dramatic tics. The tale of Sue, a Colorado hairdresser facing various challenges as she struggles back from the 2008 economic collapse, it offers a checklist of conventional tropes, including a big-m Metaphor, a Spunky Ethnic Sidekick, a Quirky Old Lady, a Ticket Outta This One-Horse Town scenario, and lots of clunky foreshadowing. Sue's psychology is telegraphed--and then named outright for good measure--as is that of her alcoholic younger sister, Doll. And then there's stuff that just seems peculiar, like: What's with the fantasy sequences, dropped belatedly into an otherwise realistic play? I saw a preview performance at the invitation of the company; as things stood then, Megan Shuchman's staging was somehow unfocused and schematic at the same time. —Tony Adler

Laurel Krabacher bares all at CIC Theater.
  • Laurel Krabacher bares all at CIC Theater.

And Now You Know Everything About Laurel Krabacher Attending this one-woman show truly is signing up to learn everything about comedian Laurel Krabacher, starting with the bits you're least likely to want to know about. Monologues about stray hairs and her boyfriend's noxious farts play better to those who know Krabacher already—including the BF himself, here doing double duty as light and sound operator. Krabacher's loose storytelling style, frequently sidetracked by lip-sync interludes, is more effective when she digs deep—material about her gay father's coming out, her teen brother's aspiring to be a rapper, and her own coming to terms with a tough decision from her past is quirky and compelling. The best theater in the room opening night, though, was provided by a woman I suspect was her mother, who quietly sobbed and nodded her head in affirmation when Krabacher affirmed that she's making it despite it all. —Dan Jakes

Death of a Streetcar Named Virginian Woolf, Writers Theatre and Second City's parody of American theater classics - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • Death of a Streetcar Named Virginian Woolf, Writers Theatre and Second City's parody of American theater classics

[Recommended] Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf: A Parody Now I know why I've spent night after night going to show after show. It was all prep for this Writers Theater-Second City coproduction, playing hilariously with a fistful of 20th-century stage classics. Actually, you don't need to be a critic to enjoy Tim Sniffen's script, Stuart Carden and Michael Halberstam's direction, and their cast of exceptional pros. A high school unit on American theater will do. We're in New Orleans, at Stanley and Stella's house, right off the Desire line. The Stage Manager from Our Town shepherds us along as Blanche DuBois gets acquainted with Willy Loman and George and Martha before ordering pizza from Godot's. The great and pleasant surprise here is that Sniffen doesn't go (only) for fish-in-a-barrel jokes. He builds on wide knowledge, a sophisticated sense of the ridiculous, and a nose for the grand obsessions of American drama. —Tony Adler

Double Text at Public House Theatre - OLIVIA BAGAN
  • Olivia Bagan
  • Double Text at Public House Theatre

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. —Dan Jakes

KoolAid Mix, a 90s sitcom parody from 99 Problemz
  • KoolAid Mix, a 90s sitcom parody from 99 Problemz

KoolAid Mix This improvised 90s comedy from 99 Problemz puts everything from Friends to Fresh Prince to Spike Lee joints into the blender. Like all classic sitcoms, it follows the misadventures of wacky characters, in this case employees of Bob's Video Mart in 1999 Plainview, Illinois. The theme was "film noir" on the night I attended, and the combination of two audience suggestions resulted in "She Walked in a Lonely Cheese Grater" as the episode title. While film noir mixed with the 90s' signature "learning a lesson" led to some continuity challenges, performances from Hannah Starr as the town's wealthy, attention-starved socialite and Second City faculty member Joe Janes (the evening's celebrity guest) as her vengeful husband added hilarious, 1940s flair. The Spotty Truth opened.
—Marissa Oberlander

Jonathan Berry directs ABT's revival of the 1982 musical. - JOHNNY KNIGHT
  • Johnny Knight
  • Jonathan Berry directs ABT's revival of the 1982 musical.

[Recommended] Little Shop of Horrors Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's 1982 musical is so cleverly, efficiently, and tunefully written that a quarter of it can get glossed over—as it does in this American Blues Theater revival—and you've still got a good show. Director Jonathan Berry unwisely transplants an early 60s Skid Row, where lifelong schmuck Seymour finds fame, fortune and ultimate ruin nursing a bloodthirsty, soul-singing alien plant, to the late 60s, making the show's sly Kennedy-era naiveté feel incongruous. And despite some missing essentials (Mr. Mushnik, who's mistreated Seymour since boyhood, is never mean), Austin Cook's nearly faultless musical direction more than compensates. So does Dara Cameron's effortlessly heartbreaking performance as Seymour's love interest, Audrey. Her singularly poignant rendition of "Somewhere That's Green" is one for the ages. —Justin Hayford

Hauser and Melcher's The News Is Now, at iO Theater
  • Hauser and Melcher's The News Is Now, at iO Theater

The News Is Now Public access TV receives a confusing send-up in The News Is Now, presented by comedy duo Cody Melcher and Chris Hauser. Hauser plays the oversincere host of a public news hour, with Melcher as reporter, pinkish foil, and interviewer. The two perform a range of parodic sketches with ill-advised puppet-show interludes; at one point Melcher breaks in to deliver a frighteningly awkward "I've wasted my life in show business" speech. It's all funny enough, but we want to know which of the many late entrances, long silences, blown cues, prop malfunctions, and lighting mishaps are real and which are parodic. My guess is that many of the flubs are genuine—so many that the show becomes highly embarrassing to watch. —Max Maller

Strawdog Theatre's Once in a Lifetime - TOM MCGRATH
  • Tom McGrath
  • Strawdog Theatre's Once in a Lifetime

Once in a Lifetime George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's insubstantial 1930 Hollywood satire gets an unsettled treatment in Strawdog's Theatre's final production in its 26-year Lakeview home. Director Damon Kiely styles the opening scene perfectly, as two-bit vaudevillians May, Jerry, and George ditch their act and head to Hollywood, convinced they'll cash in on the new talkies craze. Guided by Kat McDonnell's period-perfect precision as May, the trio are endearing, pathetic, and stylishly convincing. But the slew of Hollywood types—know-nothing producers, know-less starlets, embittered writers, self-important critics—who overpopulate the remaining three acts are played mostly to frenetic excess. It's ridiculous, energetic, and at times effective, but it's rarely true. The group performances of contemporary pop songs (Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus) during excessively long scene changes add little beyond extra running time. —Justin Hayford

Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble's A Piece of My Heart - ALI ZAYED
  • Ali Zayed
  • Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble's A Piece of My Heart

A Piece of My Heart Based on oral histories compiled by Keith Walker, Shirley Lauro's 1991 play tells the stories of six women who served in Vietnam as nurses, a USO entertainer, and an intelligence specialist in the Women's Army Corps. Arriving in southeast Asia when the war is at its bloodiest and most quagmirish, the women survive the chaos of the combat zone, only to return home feeling damaged and out of place. Victoria Alvarez-Chacon's staging for Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble is brisk and compassionate, much like the nurses it depicts. But Lauro's cautiously respectful, group-therapy approach seems to belong to a time when the psychic wounds of Vietnam were still relatively fresh. More than 40 years after the end of the conflict, we're ready for a little nuance. —Zac Thompson

Reality Ever After, at Under the Gun - REBECCA GROSSMAN
  • Rebecca Grossman
  • Reality Ever After, at Under the Gun

Reality Ever After Under the Gun Theater's improv setup gives Disney characters the Bravo reality-show treatment—or at least half the ensemble does. With the straightforward audience suggestion "political campaign," it wasn't clear what the rest were going for opening night. Real Housewives parody jokes (Cinderella owns LA's Pump restaurant) and princess and villain references are enough for each character to come up with individual riffs. But when a through line is never established, rake-effect jokes offer diminishing returns. And while the company makes it clear that the show is intended for adults, there's something to be said for reading the room--with a young child in the front row, the Big Bad Wolf's harping about being horny was more than a little cringe worthy. —Dan Jakes

Seedfolks, Chicago Children's Theatre at Ruth Page Center for the Arts
  • Seedfolks, Chicago Children's Theatre at Ruth Page Center for the Arts

[Recommended] Seedfolks Paul Fleischman's celebrated 1997 children's novel is narrated by more than a dozen people living in a Cleveland tenement on Gibb Street; the story at the center begins with a young Asian girl who decides to clear a plot and plant seeds in a vacant lot nearby. Before long, other neighbors follow suit, planting their own seeds, and the lot becomes a reminder of hope, nature, and renewal in a divisive, dangerous space, the neighborhood a microcosm of urban America. It's a compelling tale, but the real accomplishment here is Sonja Parks's singular portrayal of 14 different characters who vary by age and ethnicity; she's supported in this Anna Deavere Smith turn by projected videos that keep us aware of shifting seasons and perspectives. —Suzanne Scanlon

Chicago Slam Works' This Great Nation, Much Enduring - TRICIA SCULLY
  • Tricia Scully
  • Chicago Slam Works' This Great Nation, Much Enduring

This Great Nation, Much Enduring A long-shot presidential candidate blunders through his home state's primary in this political satire from Chicago Slam Works. In poetic monologues, we also hear from voters, veterans, and volunteers, who convey the angry mood of the electorate, though it's not always clear why they're angry. The written-by-committee script is supposed to be about 2016, but it often feels more like 2008, focusing on the country's military misadventures instead of the economic uncertainty that has fueled recent populist movements on both the left and the right. A cast of motormouths—including a tightly wound Felix Mayes as the candidate and Teagan Walsh-Davis as his charismatically amoral chief adviser—turn J.W. Basilo's fleet staging into a showcase for vigorous acting and vocal dexterity. —Zac Thompson


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