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The Book of Mormon, RejecTED Talks, Man of LaMancha, and five more new stage shows

It's the season of musical theater and comedy in Chicago.


Apples to Improv You’ve got to hand it to this Under the Gun troupe for opening its family-friendly improv show on a holiday weekend—perhaps unsurprisingly, our audience was only slightly larger than the entire cast of five. The somewhat casual production is loosely inspired by the card game Apples to Apples Junior; familiarity with it might help but isn't required as dealt cards offer subjects, topics, and themes to inspire the team-based competition. I admired the spontaneous quirkiness—the memory of grandma shaking a turkey neck at Thanksgiving, a baseball sketch done entirely in gestures. The kids in the audience loved being a part of the silliness; still, the format could use some tightening before it's ready for prime time. —Suzanne Scanlon

They're back! - JOAN MARCUS
  • Joan Marcus
  • They're back!

[Recommended] The Book of Mormon Written by South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (along with Robert Lopez, who went on to co-compose tunes for Disney's Frozen), this musical satire about Mormon missionaries was the Hamilton of 2011, inspiring frenzied adulation and overheated ticket sales. I was skeptical until Chicago got a road-show version in 2013; then it seemed to me "as entertaining—and, strangely, uplifting—a piece of work as anything in recent American theater." Now the road has brought it back again. The shock of a production number about Joseph Smith fucking babies isn't quite so giddy as before, while the leads offer even less nuance (as the overconfident Elder Price, Ryan Bondy channels Jim Carrey, and Cody Jamison Strand's geeky Elder Cunningham puts me in mind of a four-year-old Lou Costello). But the show is still a hilarious, surprisingly compassionate whap in the face. —Tony Adler

Fight Quest, at ComedySportz - TIFFANY KEANE
  • Tiffany Keane
  • Fight Quest, at ComedySportz

[Recommended] Fight Quest, Module One: The Bandits of Hollow Hill A barbarian (Justin Verstraete), a monk (Brendan Stallings), a rogue assassin (Grace Gimpel), and a ranger (Moira Begale) with a wolf (Kai Young) walk into a room. It's not a joke, it's Fight Quest, a family-friendly comedy created by Otherworld Theatre. One lucky audience member gets to choose a champion, then determine his or her fate through games, wit, and a bit of chance, all guided by the devilishly charming Game Master. Scripted by Bennett Bottero and directed by Moira Begale, the show changes with every decision the audience participant makes, but always delivers onstage combat, weaponry, and laughs, no matter what adventure the audience is taken on. Bring the kids, or get your role-play gaming buddies together. —A.J. Sørensen

Dead Writers Theatre Collective's The Importance of Being Earnest, at the Athenaeum - EMMA MEYER
  • Emma Meyer
  • Dead Writers Theatre Collective's The Importance of Being Earnest, at the Athenaeum

The Importance of Being Earnest Producers of Oscar Wilde's classic comedy of manners have a tendency to let character take a backseat to the playwright’s superhuman back-and-forth. This three-hour, two-intermission staging by Dead Writers Theatre Collective is no exception, although Jack Dryden's unabashedly fabulous Algernon fares better than usual. An ambiguously gay duo (less ambiguous here, by design) "Bunbury" their way through the English countryside and get caught up in a mess of lies and high-society expectations. In a play that skewers indulgence, director Jim Schneider's ensemble occasionally heighten Wilde's comedy in all the wrong ways, but the delicate, cupcake-like design, fashioned after a Victorian toy theater, is a delight throughout. —Dan Jakes

Man of LaMancha, at the Marriott - LIZ LAUREN
  • Liz Lauren
  • Man of LaMancha, at the Marriott

[Recommended] Man of La Mancha If ever a revival truly revived anything, this is it. Premiering on Broadway in 1965, the musical by Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh, and Joe Darion became too big a hit for its own good, sliding past the iconic right into the cliched. Its signature tune in particular, "The Impossible Dream," devolved into a byword for mawkish sentiment as it got done and done everywhere from high-school auditoriums to piano bars. But Nick Bowling's production for Marriott Theatre reminds us, vividly, of a crucial fact: that the actual setting for the song is a miserable holding cell, where Miguel de Cervantes sits among murderers and thieves while awaiting trial before the Inquisition. Accomplished with fluorescent tube lights, prison tattoos, harsh buzzers, and ugly fight choreography, Bowling's emphatic deromanticizing yields a show that resembles Marat/Sade more than Camelot. A formidable cast led by Nathaniel Stampley, Richard Ruiz, and the marvelous Danni Smith yields intensity. —Tony Adler

Muse of Fire's Midsummer Night's Dream, at Ingraham Park - JEMMA LEVY
  • Jemma Levy
  • Muse of Fire's Midsummer Night's Dream, at Ingraham Park

[Recommended] A Midsummer Night's Dream A fully convincing production of Shakespeare's convoluted tale of young lovers and roving actors bewitched by a bevy of forest fairies requires the creation of a convincingly magical world. Muse of Fire's 90-minute version, performed in an open corner lot behind the Evanston Civic Center, can't muster much magic, making the fairy world and its chicanery as unaccountable as the pair of stepladders that constitute the set. And the double and triple casting makes mayhem of the overpopulated final scene. But while the supernatural elements fizzle, the human realm—most especially the austere Athenian court—is rendered with satisfying clarity in this free show, a particularly impressive feat considering the ensemble works without a director. Best of all, the quartet of flummoxed lovers are deft physical comedians. —Justin Hayford

  • Courtesy the Artist
  • RejectTED Talks

[Recommended] RejectTED Talks Add another to the list of Under the Gun's simple, ingenious improv experiments. Five authoritative "presenters" must deliver TED Talks using PowerPoint slides they've never seen. On opening night, the hapless would-be experts found themselves hashing through slide decks—replete with nonsensical charts and graphs—with titles like "Entry Into Intrigue," "Love at First Swipe," and my personal favorite, "Closing the Loop: A Map for the Unmappable." The boldest of the bunch began their talks in earnest before turning to their first slide. Thus guileless Alex LeBaron (who also directs) had to turn his introductory remarks about running a bad Renaissance Faire into a talk called "Lessons Learned During My Year of Getting Punched in the Face 1,000 Times." And goddamn it, he did. —Justin Hayford

Abby McEnany’s Work in Progress, at iO Theater
  • Abby McEnany’s Work in Progress, at iO Theater

[Recommended] Work in Progress This one-woman show feels like a voyeuristic trip into longtime Chicago improviser Abby McEnany's mile-a-minute brain. The self-labeled queer dyke, a doyenne among millennials on the scene, performs a series of highly personal vignettes on topics ranging from gender identity to OCD to General Hospital. While she asks that "what happens here stays here," I can share that her obnoxiously cheerful personality, palpable nervous energy, and sharp wit in the face of heartbreaking intolerance make for an unforgettable hour. References to Ferron and Luke and Laura might be lost on the younger set, but McEnany's story of surviving and thriving through improv, a community that "embraces failure," transcends generation, gender, or sexual orientation. She puts it best—labels are bullshit. —Marissa Oberlander

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