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Steppenwolf's Constellations and Voice Lessons, and 13 more new stage shows

An endless meet-cute and an off-key farce are among this week's notable plays.

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[Recommended] Caught Christopher Chen's tantalizing hoax begins with a "preshow" exhibit of works by Chinese dissident artist Lin Bo (Ben Chang). He says a few words about his recent imprisonment, then is suddenly a character in a scene set in the offices of the New Yorker after an American academic has questioned the veracity of an interview he gave the magazine about his imprisonment. When "the play" ends, a real cast member conducts a "talkback" with ersatz playwright Wang Min (Helen Young), who spouts ingenious and impenetrable theories about cultural appropriation. Finally, the actors who played Wang Min and Lin Bo hang out discussing their performances. In moments it's grad-school precious, but mostly it's a provocative look at the mutability and exploitability of "truth." Seth Bockley's Sideshow Theatre production is as smart as Chen's script.
—Justin Hayford

Cocksucker, at the Annoyance - JOSH BECKMAN
  • Josh Beckman
  • Cocksucker, at the Annoyance

Cocksucker Jeff Blim's off-color musical comedy loosely parodies Richard Kelly's 2009 thriller The Box, only instead of killing strangers in exchange for supernatural good fortune, the characters here need to . . . well, you know. Two liberal straight guys, played by Blim and Jon Matteson, get a visit from a mysterious guest out to prove that "everyone has a price" (though for some in the audience, we're told, it's much lower than for others). What starts out as a fairly benign gay-panic joke evolves into remarkably straight-faced Annoyance-level absurdity as the bros grapple with hyperbolic sexual identity crises. Both Blim's tunes and the vocal abilities of the cast are hit-and-miss, but Eric Schinzer's wry Frank Langella send-up had me giggling in the back of the house just about every second he's onstage. —Dan Jakes

Jon Michael Hill and Jessie Fisher in Steppenwolf's Constellations - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • Jon Michael Hill and Jessie Fisher in Steppenwolf's Constellations

Constellations Cribbing string theory and pulp sci-fi, British playwright Nick Payne posits a world where every choice you make or fail to make generates an alternate you in an alternate universe. Thus he presents sequential iterations of lovers Marianne (a quantum cosmologist) and Roland (a beekeeper), all played by Jessie Fisher and Jon Michael Hill, enacting multiple, slightly altered relationship moments. Roland proposes five times, for example, and gets a definitive yes only once. For those inclined to moon over life's what-ifs, Payne's unchallenging observations—e.g., bad timing, bad moods, and terminal illnesses can screw up relationships—may hold allure. But by design, nothing of consequence can happen, and the characters can't develop beyond momentary possibilities. It's a 70-minute acting exercise. Still, Jessie Fisher's astute, hair-trigger performance as Marianne is a marvel. Jonathan Berry directed; the bare-bones set is by Joe Schermoly. —Justin Hayford

Brenann Stacker and Devon Nimerfroh in Slimtack Theatre's Cowboy Mouth - SERGIO TORRES
  • Sergio Torres
  • Brenann Stacker and Devon Nimerfroh in Slimtack Theatre's Cowboy Mouth

Cowboy Mouth Across from the Red Line's Lawrence platform is a small apartment, just above Demera Ethiopian Restaurant. There's no name on the buzzer, no sign on the door. But on the second floor, Slimtack Theatre Company invites you to be a voyeur for an hour, inside not only a Chicago apartment but the minds of Sam Shepard and Patti Smith, through their 1971 fever dream Cowboy Mouth. Poetic and loud, leaving plenty of unanswered questions, this experience is just as intense and uncomfortable as you'd expect, with two damaged musicians fighting over love and art in an effort to give birth to a new religion. It's chaotic, unhinged, and volatile—but that's the underbelly of drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll. And if you can't bear the fear and loathing, don't take this ride.
—A.J. Sørensen

Walkabout Theater Company's The Cure, at the Chicago Cultural Center - MATTHEW GREGORY HOLLIS
  • Matthew Gregory Hollis
  • Walkabout Theater Company's The Cure, at the Chicago Cultural Center

[Recommended] The Cure A dreamlike, ensemble-devised dance-theater piece about sickness and healing in an age of industrialized medicine, The Cure features only minimal dialogue by Emma Stanton but conjures a powerful atmosphere through movement, choral harmony, and costumes. Most of the hour is spent in the Chicago Cultural Center's lavishly ornamented Sidney R. Yates Gallery, as a limber and emotive cast of Walkabout Theater Company members wheel wooden gurneys across the echoing floor, twirl vials of colorful serum, and parody various doctor-patient interactions; performer Nigel Brown even presents a TED talk. In one memorable sequence, ensemble member Dana Murphy lies flat on a gurney as four castmates whip a bed sheet into the air above her, then tightly down over her body, then up again. For cryptic acts like these to feel as moving as they do takes some magic, and The Cure provides just the rare sort that will do the trick. —Max Maller

Organic Theater Company's The Good Doctor, at the Greenhouse - MATTHEW YEE
  • Matthew Yee
  • Organic Theater Company's The Good Doctor, at the Greenhouse

[Recommended] The Good Doctor Presented in repertory with Vladimir Zaytsev's Out of the Blue, this 1973 Neil Simon homage presents a handful of stories by Anton Chekhov with Simon's signature light comedy. Josh Anderson's production for Organic Theater Company capitalizes on Simon's levity while an ensemble of versatile performers brings authenticity to his richer characters, and over the course of nine vignettes, histrionic goofiness gives way to tender revelations and moments of Chekhovian insight. In "The Governess," Sara Copeland is precise and transfixing as a servant struggling to remain composed while getting screwed over by her bourgeois employer; Jim Heatherly is at once heartwarmingly and heartbreakingly pathetic throughout. —Dan Jakes

Cuckoo's Theater Project's The Green Bird, at Collaboraction - SUSAN PIRIL
  • Susan Piril
  • Cuckoo's Theater Project's The Green Bird, at Collaboraction

The Green Bird Directed by Donald Kolakowski, this Cuckoo's Theater Project production of Carlo Gozzi's commedia dell'arte fairy tale The Green Bird (a sequel to the better-known The Love of Three Oranges) is, at times, very rough. Parts drag, and there are too many chase scenes, which just don't work in an intimate space. More important, we don't know how seriously we're to take Gozzi's allegory of a royal family torn apart by magic; at times it's as though adapter Hillary DePiano actively dislikes the original. But there are also flashes of brilliance: Amber Lee Olivier's masks are wonderful, Kegan Witzki is winning as the show's sardonic narrator, and at times the show is laugh-out-loud funny. —Jack Helbig

Light Opera Works' My Fair Lady, at Cahn Auditorium - JOSHUA LOTT
  • Joshua Lott
  • Light Opera Works' My Fair Lady, at Cahn Auditorium

My Fair Lady This Light Opera Works show features two actors reprising their roles from the company's 2009 production of Lerner and Loewe's classic musical, based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. I didn't see that one, but it's clear why they were invited back: Nick Sandys as the upper-class linguist Henry Higgins and Cary Lovett as Alfred P. Doolittle, the unapologetic exemplar of the "undeserving poor," turn in delicious performances as flawed males on opposite ends of the social hierarchy. Elizabeth Telford is feisty and fine as Eliza, Doolittle's daughter and the subject of Higgins's diction experiment, conducted to win a wager. It's choreographed within an inch of its life, but the generally excellent cast handles that and Cahn Auditorium's distorting amplification with aplomb. The musical's controversial conclusion, which runs contrary to Shaw's antiromantic intention, is treated with a nice dollop of ambiguity: Eliza returns to Henry but, behind the facade of his dominance, you can bet that she'll be in charge. Roger Bingaman conducts the 28-piece orchestra; Rudy Hogenmiller directs. —Deanna Isaacs

Lifeline Theatre's Northanger Abbey - SUZANNE PLUNKETT
  • Suzanne Plunkett
  • Lifeline Theatre's Northanger Abbey

[Recommended] Northanger Abbey This musical stage version of Jane Austen's first novel (which was written circa 1798 but not published till after her death in 1817) is an engaging piece of theatrical storytelling, with a captivating lead performance by soprano Stephanie Stockstill. She plays Catherine, the naive teenage daughter of a country parson. Invited to the spooky ancient abbey home of a young clergyman she's falling in love with, she dreams of becoming the heroine of a romantic thriller like the Gothic novels she adores reading--but instead awakens to the more mysterious complexities of real life. Playwright Robert Kauzlaric and songwriter George Howe effectively convey Austen's wry humor and observant insights into human behavior (though the first act could use some pruning), and Howe's appropriately Mozartean score is played impeccably by a classical piano trio. —Albert Williams

Organic Theater Company's Out of the Blue - JOHN JENNINGS
  • John Jennings
  • Organic Theater Company's Out of the Blue

Out of the Blue The story surrounding Vladimir Zaytsev's drama is more interesting than the thing itself. Staged in Moscow last year, Zaytsev's by-the-numbers sexual coming-of-age story was a head-on challenge to Vladimir Putin's repressive 2013 antigay "propaganda" law. Alexander Gelman and Organic Theater Company present it in repertory with Neil Simon's Chekhov tribute, The Good Doctor, but free of dialect and detached from its cultural context, it loses its punch. There's a lot of truth and compassion in Will Burdin's performance as a teenager navigating the complications of gay life (girlfriend "beards," zealot grandparents, shallow hookups); still, the script is such an overlong and dramaturgically clumsy affair that the most devastating moments become the most tedious. —Dan Jakes

The Program, at iO - COURTESY JAMIE BREW
  • Courtesy Jamie Brew
  • The Program, at iO

[Recommended] The Program Created by Jamie Brew, head writer for the Onion's viral-content parody website Clickhole, this may be the first computer-generated comedy show on the scene. Brew's computer program, called "Philip" but inspired by 2001's HAL, is similar to a phone's predictive text function, except it draws from more specific sources. Satire is strong in bits culled from Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown, the lines of which sound surprisingly plausible for the off-the-cuff chef. "It's delicious to be a poet of life," says Bourdain, played by an appropriately puffed-up Sameena Mustafa. Other sketches, mixing nonsense with the wackily profound, are based on everything from Romeo and Juliet to The X-Files. While most are short enough to maintain the language's novelty, a deeper dive into Philip's background and relationship to his creator could help add comedic variety. —Marissa Oberlander

Filament Theatre's Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of Portage Park - CHRISTIAN LIBONATI
  • Christian Libonati
  • Filament Theatre's Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of Portage Park

[Recommended] Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of Portage Park Observation, knowledge, and deduction are the skills employed by Sherlock Holmes in this promenade-style production for which audience members choose to walk or bike. Thanks to a "duplication machine," the investigation is led by three Holmeses and three Watsons, each leading a small group through the Portage Park neighborhood—from City News Cafe to Sears to Dickinson Park, among other local spots. At each location, the groups encountered suspicious characters to interview and search for clues before returning to Filament Theatre for some final evidence and a surprising conclusion. It's one of the most interactive shows I've seen in a long time; the kids in our group were wholly engaged, and I learned a lot about the charming, oft-overlooked northwest-side neighborhood. Encyclopedia Brown fans will be especially enthralled, but there's enough funny business from the large cast to keep everyone happy. —Suzanne Scanlon

Steppenwolf's Voice Lessons, in the new 1700 Theatre - ED KRIEGER
  • Ed Krieger
  • Steppenwolf's Voice Lessons, in the new 1700 Theatre

Voice Lessons Scholars are now certain that Mr. Kurtz was referring to this imbecilic little comedy by Justin Tanner when he croaked out "The horror! The horror!" and died. Starting with an Alzheimer's joke and running downhill from there ("retard" quip, fat lady sight gag, bizarre reference to smelly Latinos), Tanner gives us Ginny, a trailer-trash Florence Foster Jenkins whose experience in community theater has convinced her that she's got star potential. She hires vocal coach Nate to take her there, but he's stymied by her utter talentlessness, unnerving stupidity, and refusal to take instruction. We're supposed to find this amusing--and even, in the end, goofily romantic. But neither the script nor the lead performances by Laurie Metcalf and French Stewart yield a single moment's fun, much less honesty. The old critique of Steppenwolf was that its actor-centered ensemble valued fat parts over quality scripts; brought to the company as a vehicle for Metcalf, this 55-minute . . . 
thing . . . gives the old critique scary new life. —Tony Adler

First Floor Theater's World Builders, at Collaboraction - EVAN BARR
  • Evan Barr
  • First Floor Theater's World Builders, at Collaboraction

[Recommended] World Builders Would you give up everything for love? If you ask Whitney and Max, the anxious couple of playwright Johnna Adams's World Builders, the answer is neither simple nor straightforward. Both suffer from a disease called schizoid personality disorder, a condition that makes their imaginary worlds as real as the world revealed by the drug they're forced to swallow. After a chance encounter during a clinical trial, the couple establish a budding relationship that's put to the test when they're forced to choose between the meds and their mental worlds. Directed by Jesse Roth, this First Floor Theater production features snappy dialogue and fearless performances by Carmen Molina and Andrew Cutler as two people coming to terms with who they are and how they choose to live, in realms both real and imagined. —Matt de la Peña

American Theater Company's Xanadu - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • American Theater Company's Xanadu

[Recommended] Xanadu A tribute to American Theater Company's late artistic director, PJ Papparelli, this energetic revival of the 2007 Broadway musical based on the campy 1980 flop Xanadu (Papparelli's favorite movie) mines all that's great about the material—the eccentric story, the silly pop hits, the myriad opportunities for late-disco-era nostalgia—while avoiding most of the pitfalls of the belabored book. Director Lili-Anne Brown packs the production with brilliant quadruple threats (They sing! They dance! They act! They roller boogie!), but Landree Fleming kills and kills as Clio (played by Olivia Newton-John in the movie), a demigoddess come to earth to inspire a dopey Venice Beach artist/hunk (well portrayed by Jim DeSelm). And Arnel Sancianco's transformation of the American Theater Company space into a roller disco is sheer genius. —Jack Helbig  v

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