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The Bardy Bunch, The Last Wife, A Walk in the Woods, and ten more new stage shows

A mashup of Shakespeare with The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch is one of this week's high- (or maybe lowlights).

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The Bardy Bunch Set in 1974, Stephen Garvey's musical parody almost literally mashes up the Brady bunch and the Partridge family, locking them into mortal scenarios out of Shakespeare. Keith P. and Marcia B. have gone all Romeo and Juliet even as Laurie P. and Greg B. are backing into romance a la Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado. Mike and Carol B. are advancing their careers using the Macbeth method. while Danny P. has Hamlet-like notions about his stepdad. And so on and on, packing in the references, from Antony and Cleopatra Halloween costumes to Titus Andronicus meat pies. Inasmuch as the show is all premise, it takes some ingenuity to keep things going. Mostly, they go. I can see cutting 20 minutes and tightening some of Jay Stern's staging, but there's a lot of groany fun here, especially if you're well versed in the original sitcoms. Music director/arranger Logan Medland gets surprisingly fine results from Brady and Partridge hits. Who knew "I Woke Up in Love This Morning" would sound so good as a ballad? —Tony Adler

Steep Theatre's Bobbie Clearly - GREGG GILMAN
  • Gregg Gilman
  • Steep Theatre's Bobbie Clearly

Bobbie Clearly What were the odds that two Chicago theater companies would begin their fall seasons with dark-comic critiques of Christianity involving therapeutic hand puppets? First Victory Gardens opened Robert Askins's Hand to God, in which a Texas teen's Muppet-esque manikin takes on a demonic life of its own; now Steep presents Alex Lubischer's new play about a small-town Nebraska boy, home again after serving time for the murder of one of his high school classmates, whose various bids for acceptance include ventriloquism. Both shows are designed to expose the hypocrisies of piety by jamming the ridiculous up against the dead serious. But only Hand to God succeeds. Rather than generate energy from incongruity, Bobbie Clearly director Josh Sobel lets it drain away. In his uncertain staging, the title character and his neighbors come off as (mostly oafish) rhetorical mechanisms. —Tony Adler

Fantasy Island for Dummies - COURTESY TRAP DOOR THEATRE
  • Courtesy Trap Door Theatre
  • Fantasy Island for Dummies

Fantasy Island for Dummies For her new music-theater piece, iconoclastic playwright Ruth Margraff begins with a story line from a 1980 episode of Fantasy Island in which Annette Funicello plays a ventriloquist with a domineering dummy, then interpolates hymns to the highly sexual Babylonian goddess Inanna and sections from 50-year-old home-ec magazine Party Perfect. The piece spends 70 minutes investigating the problematization of female desire in a male-dominated society, but the results of the investigation are far from clear—Margraff's intentionally fractured narrative lacks structural cohesion, and too often significance is imposed on the material rather than allowed to emerge organically. Director Kate Hendrickson packs it all into an uncharacteristically fussy production. It's the rare Trap Door show that can't manage its own ambiguity. —Justin Hayford

Dandelion Theatre's Fish Eye, at the Frontier - AUSTIN D. OIE
  • Austin D. Oie
  • Dandelion Theatre's Fish Eye, at the Frontier

Fish Eye Lucas Kavner’s one-act dramedy highlights the pitfalls of twentysomething relationships, particularly the inability to connect with others when you’re not exactly sure who you are or what you want. The play revolves around the one-bedroom apartment of couple Max (Cory Hardin) and Anna (Katherine Lamb), and their sexually confusing opposite-gender friendships with Avery (Morgan Crouch) and Jay (Stephen Rowland). While there are some cute, human touches before the downward spiral begins—like Max’s reference to Anna’s winter parka as her “magical abstinence jacket”—Max and Anna could use more in-sync, lovey-dovey moments to make what comes next hurt more realistically. Hardin and Lamb convey awkward tension well, though, with best friends Crouch and Rowland appropriately skeptical that this could have ever been forever. —Marissa Oberlander

Theo Ubique's Fly by Night, at the No Exit Cafe - ADAM VENESS
  • Adam Veness
  • Theo Ubique's Fly by Night, at the No Exit Cafe

Fly by Night Nobody pulls off vocal harmonies quite like Theo Ubique. Partly, that's because few other companies utilize cozy spaces like the No Exit Cafe with as much blocking and acoustic aptitude. In this revival of a 2015 off-Broadway "darkly comic rock fable" by Will Connolly, Michael Mitnick, and Kim Rosenstock, director Fred Anzevino and music director Jeremy Ramey achieve many of the surround-sound, spine-tingling moments the ensemble is known for. Whether or not the indie-pop show—set during the 1965 New York blackout—has legs of its own is a different question. A guitar-strumming dreamer played by James Romney finds himself in a love triangle with an actress and her sister, Meredith Kochan and Kyrie Anderson, respectively. The central problem is an uneasy schlockiness to the score that just doesn't jibe with themes intended to be weighty. —Dan Jakes

Hillary: The Musical!, at Prop Thtr - JEFFREY BIVENS
  • Jeffrey Bivens
  • Hillary: The Musical!, at Prop Thtr

[Recommended] Hillary! The Musical Actress KellyAnn Corcoran assembled a half-dozen fringe scribes from veterans like Greg Allen and Jenny Magnus to relative newcomers like Jennifer Moniz and asked them to "write the Hillary they imagined." The resulting 65 minutes of songs, scenes, and monologues is less an exposé of Mrs. Clinton's character than a skewering of the systems that sustain her—or anyone in high political office. While the show gets off to a shaky start with a couple overly cautious musical numbers, once Hillary's confronted by an egomaniacal, indecipherable Donald Trump (a doofy, menacing Mark Chrisler), the show takes off. By the final section, in which Hillary finally speaks her unfiltered mind about the horrors of America's global interventionism, you may be ready to leave the planet for good. —Justin Hayford

Den Theatre's How We Got On - AUSTIN D. OIE
  • Austin D. Oie
  • Den Theatre's How We Got On

How We Got On What we're gonna do right here is go back, way back, back in time to August 1988. Five years after Wild Style took hip-hop from the Bronx to the big screen, Fab 5 Freddy and Yo! MTV Raps said "here's a little story that must be told," this time for TV audiences. The message came through to the bedrooms of suburbia, far from the jungle that made Grandmaster Flash wonder how he kept from going under. Idris Goodwin's How We Got On, set in just such a dull midwestern nowhere place called the Hill, tells the story of the hip-hop generation from an out-of-the-way perspective. It remembers the regionalism that would necessitate trips (pilgrimages!) to New York City just to hear the beats, loops, and rhymes of rap. That three decades later rap could inspire salubrious theatrical entertainment seems almost as strange today as it would've back in '88. —Max Maller

Black Ensemble Theater's I Am Who I Am: The Teddy Prendergrass Story - DANNY NICHOLAS
  • Danny Nicholas
  • Black Ensemble Theater's I Am Who I Am: The Teddy Prendergrass Story

I Am Who I Am: The Story of Teddy Pendergrass Black Ensemble Theater continues its 40th-anniversary season with a fourth musical biopic, this time centered on R&B legend Teddy Pendergrass. A 15-person cast and a seven-person band run down nearly two-dozen hits from its titular star, here played by Rashawn Thompson and Deverin Deonte at different musical and personal phases of his life. Deep cuts by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and tributes from Teddy 25—a 2007 fund-raiser and salute to the performer a quarter century after his spinal-cord injury—round things out. The ensemble is the true star here, especially company regulars like Jessica Seals, Kyle Smith, and Rueben Echoles. —Dan Jakes

TimeLine Theatre's The Last Wife - LARA GOETSCH
  • Lara Goetsch
  • TimeLine Theatre's The Last Wife

[Recommended] The Last Wife The title of Kate Hennig's 2015 play refers to Catherine Parr, who managed not only to survive her marriage to England's King Henry VIII but to make her influence felt in important ways. Among other things, she got Henry to issue the decree that ended up legitimizing the reign of Elizabeth I. Naturally, Hennig treats Parr as a proto-feminist heroine, connecting her to our times and struggles by surrounding her, Henry, and the rest of the cast with all the appurtenances of modernity. This isn't dull hagiography, though. Hennig also imagines a smart, funny screwball-style relationship between Parr and Henry, with a grim frisson: one lover can have the other executed at any moment. Steve Pickering is the perfect charming thug as Henry, while AnJi White pushes Parr to white-knuckle levels of nerve, always arrogant, always overreaching.
—Tony Adler

City Lit's Psmith, Journalist - TOM MCGRATH
  • Tom McGrath
  • City Lit's Psmith, Journalist

The People's History of the United States Quest Theatre Ensemble, which takes pride in "making theatre accessible to everyone" with free performances, offers an updated version of its 2008 populist pageant. Alternately celebratory and satirical, idealistic and ironic, the show juxtaposes the noble rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama with musical vignettes dramatizing the darker realities of American history: Native American genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, the Cold War "Red Scare," the atomic bomb, etc. Well performed by a large multiracial cast, the production has an engaging homemade feel thanks to its use of oversize papier-mache puppets and masks. But writer-director Andrew Park's insistent focus on America's shortcomings make the rousing finale—a choral anthem calling on the nation to end gun violence and racial animus—feel more than a little naive. —Albert Williams

City Lit's Psmith, Journalist - TOM MCGRATH
  • Tom McGrath
  • City Lit's Psmith, Journalist

[Recommended] Psmith, Journalist P.G. Wodehouse's 1909 tale about an elegant young Englishman's adventures in the rough-and-tumble world of New York journalism and politics is entertainingly brought to the stage by writer-director Terry McCabe. While on vacation in the States, Cambridge University student Rupert Psmith takes charge of a sleepy newsweekly and reboots it as a crusading reform paper dedicated to exposing a corrupt slumlord running for alderman. The lightweight story's chief appeal is Psmith himself, a plucky, monocled dandy with a comically elaborate rhetorical style and unruffled optimism—even when faced with gun-toting gangsters hired by Psmith's antagonist. —Albert Williams

Hell in a Handbag's Skooby Don't, at Mary's Attic Theatre - RICK AGUILAR
  • Rick Aguilar
  • Hell in a Handbag's Skooby Don't, at Mary's Attic Theatre

Skooby Don't Zoinks! This play is, like, totally strange. Hell in a Handbag's totally, 100 percent noncopyright-infringing Halloween spectacle turns the animated detective gang into an identity-politics extravaganza, with Scoob—oops "Skoob"—the erstwhile Shaggy (now "Skaggy"), the reliably cis "Daffy," gay "Fredd," and the perhaps asexual "Velva" visiting a secluded inn to track down a monster. (Spoiler alert: there is much talk of dog sex.)
—Max Maller

Interrobang Theatre Project's Still, at the Athenaeum - EMILY SCHWARTZ
  • Emily Schwartz
  • Interrobang Theatre Project's Still, at the Athenaeum

Still Jen Silverman’s 2013 play concerns the emotional impact of a stillbirth on the mother, her midwife, and her dead child (who literally haunts the action). The show, which won the Yale Drama Series Award, raises some interesting issues about mourning and loss, but as a dramatic work—at least the way it's been being done here. This Interrobang production features a strong non-Equity ensemble under the direction of Georgette Verdin, but it's not very interesting: Silverman’s characters talk, move around the stage, and strike poses, but they don't change, develop, or reveal anything about themselves or the world around them. Which is a shame, because there are flashes when we see what superb work her cast is capable of. Matthew Nerber, for example, is quite winning as the perky ghost, eager to learn about a world he’s no longer part of. —Jack Helbig

Spartan Theatre Company's A Walk in the Woods, at the Den - AMANDA DE LA GUARDIA/CITADEL PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Amanda de la Guardia/Citadel Photography
  • Spartan Theatre Company's A Walk in the Woods, at the Den

[Recommended] A Walk in the Woods Though the Soviet Union is no longer with us, Lee Blessing’s witty 1988 play about the relationship that develops between an American and Soviet arms negotiator remains as relevant and entertaining as ever. In large part this is because Blessing writes with such a deft hand; his dialogue rings true, and his characters are utterly believable. But director Patrick Belics and his terrific two-person cast, Sara Pavlak McGuire and Vincent P. Mahler, also deserve praise for this well-paced, finely acted, utterly fascinating Spartan Theatre Company production. Mahler in particular perfectly captures the Russian soul—that contradictory mixture of idealism and cynicism that makes them seem at once lightly comic and deadly earnest. —Jack Helbig

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