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The Gift Theatre's Ten 2016, Dear James Franco, and eight more new theater reviews

Improv is alive and well in Chicago.

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[Recommended] The Best of Times vs. The Worst of Times As you file in off Halsted, through the noisy main floor of the Haymarket Pub and Brewery, you see a quote by Brecht printed on the wall: “A theater without beer is just a museum.” This is the principle that governs the little performance space on the other side of the black felt curtain, home to Drinking and Writing Theater, which continues its “vs.” series with The Best of Times vs. The Worst of Times. The laid-back atmosphere of the room gives the fun, hip cast an ideal atmosphere for their zany original pieces. A randomly selected judge announces a “winner” in the end. Some of the segments were a little art-schooly, but there were plenty of belly laughs to be had, as well as some poignant moments. Best enjoyed with a beer, which you may order before the show. —Max Maller

Clusterfuck
  • Clusterfuck

Clusterfuck This “$2 nightcap” of improv and sketch comedy at the Annoyance Theatre starts at midnight, but the laid-back vibe and punchy performers might have you think it’s closer to last call. The casual, late-night anything-goes atmosphere provides a great sandbox for a rotating cast of special guests to try out new material and get weird; on the night I attended, a stand-up voiced a nihilistic baby doll decrying New Year’s resolutions Andy Rooney-style, then guzzling toilet cleaner. That quirkiness didn’t carry through improv sets by Destiny’s Grandchild and Unicorn, where benign audience suggestions like “harmonica holder” and stories about actuaries yielded a lot of talking past one another. Even the blackouts seemed a bit confused. —Dan Jakes

[Recommended] Dear James Franco Each time I catch an Under the Gun show, the improvisers are sharper, clearer, and more imaginative. And without sharp, clear imaginations, the conceptually challenging Dear James Franco would likely land with a thud. Each week the host reads aloud a published letter of sorts (on the night I attended, it was a memoir entry from a young writer musing on her World War II veteran father’s courage under fire). A few of the nine-person ensemble write down phrases from the story, each of which becomes the title for an improvised scene. And while those scenes wander gloriously far afield, they often ingeniously subverted the original text. The scene titled “Bravery” featured a father explaining to his five children all the cowardly lies he’d ever told. —Justin Hayford

Faceshow As if there weren’t enough to be anxious about on social media, upon request pH Comedy Theater will cull your Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles (thank goodness they leave you alone on Tinder) for bits of inspiration to perform “you” going about your day. It’s a clever premise executed with a proportionate ratio of lighthearted roasting to good-natured absurdity. Here pH’s ensemble has a patience and a knack for floating unusual scene starters around until a joke presents itself organically; a dependance on the rake effect, though, had some cast members visibly wanting others to put it back in the shed. —Dan Jakes

Host Antoine McKay of the Annoyance's Generals - JERRY A. SCHULMAN
  • Jerry A. Schulman
  • Host Antoine McKay of the Annoyance's Generals

[Recommended] Generals Hosted by Antoine McKay and Christy Bonstell, this one-hour set is a uniquely theatrical Annoyance production featuring improv inspired by special guest stage actors. Three-time Jeff Award winner Aaron Todd Douglas (Congo Square Theatre Company, Goodman Theatre) kicked things off with an Othello monologue on the night I attended, which “’twas passing strange” and cleverly turned on its head in McKay and Bonstell’s successive bits as a dimwitted monk and progressive nun. The duo’s most interesting talent, made clear after Douglas’s second monologue, from August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, is their ability to blend comedy and drama on the fly. One minute a doomed southern couple mourns their relationship that never was; the next, a seedy man in tight pants places a blackjack bet with Pringles. —Marissa Oberlander

Gotta Dance - MATTHEW MURPHY
  • Matthew Murphy
  • Gotta Dance

Gotta Dance Do we really need another show about scrappy underdogs confounding popular stereotypes and their own self-doubt to achieve . . . well, whatever it is they’re supposed to achieve? Sure we do, as long as there’s something worthwhile in the telling. Gotta Dance doesn’t qualify. Stopping in Chicago on its way to a Broadway run, the new musical based on a 2008 film documentary follows a bunch of senior citizens as they train to become a hip-hop dance squad, supplying half-time entertainment for a pro basketball team. Matthew Sklar’s tunes are generic, as are Nell Benjamin’s lyrics. Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin’s book is a skeleton hung with trite backstories. And why doesn’t anybody say the obvious: That the squad is just a novelty designed to amuse fans with the spectacle of cute oldsters acting silly? Maybe because Gotta Dance is precisely the same thing. —Tony Adler

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[Recommended] Porn Minus Porn Unlike most shows on Under the Gun’s improv-heavy calendar, this one is fully scripted. Each week a cast of ten or so offer readings of two episodes from Cinemax’s soft-core series Life on Top, transcribed in stilted, preposterous glory by show creator Ben Bowman, who also acts as host. The dialogue is by turns mundane and overwrought (“I would drag my dick ten miles over hot asphalt to sniff the tire of the garbage truck that took away her panties”), the story lines impenetrable, and the sex—well, who knows? Whenever sex begins, the performers shake hands and an audience member releases a balloon. It’s joyous trash, and since the actors read the scripts cold, the hour feels as spontaneous as the best improv. —Justin Hayford

Smut! The Improvised Romantic Book Club Cheap paperback romance novels serve as inspiration in this fitfully funny comedy show from Corn Productions. First, a cast member delivers a discursive multimedia book report on that week’s selection; then the other players improvise scenes based on what they’ve heard. At the show I saw, the book report was by far the more engaging portion. Adam Schwartz’s playful takedown of an erotic thriller called Falling Hard: Bad Boys Undercover highlighted author HelenKay Dimon’s execrable prose (the hero’s love interest is described, unforgettably, as “a brunette of the shockingly hot variety”) and went off on entertaining tangents having to do with the innate sexiness of spies and a grade-school production of Godspell. The improv, on the other hand, quickly devolved to inside jokes and adolescent sniggering at sex. —Zac Thompson

Ten 2016
  • Ten 2016

[Recommended] Ten 2016 The Gift Theatre’s annual evening of short works features ten original playlets, plus offerings from the troupe’s improv team, live-lit series, and youth ensemble. This year’s participating playwrights include Tracy Letts, Will Eno, and Ike Holter. There’s no overarching theme to the show, but energy, intelligence, and wry compassion for human failings, anxieties, and heartaches are constants throughout. Throw in an exquisite sense of the ridiculous and you’ve got the mood of my favorite piece, Eno’s Furcher vs. the Dark. Set at a tennis match, it ends with the protagonist—an apprehensive pregnant woman—leading the other spectators, players, and us in chanting “We’re afraid!” over and over, until it becomes a kind of secular prayer. Talk about capturing the tenor of the times. —Zac Thompson

Tribulation: The Musical - OOPEY MASON
  • Oopey Mason
  • Tribulation: The Musical

Tribulation: The Musical As it’s applied in Molly Miller and Brad Kemp’s musical comedy, tribulation is a term out of Christian eschatology, denoting a period after the Rapture but before the Second Coming when all hell is expected to break loose on earth. I mean literal Four Horsemen shit: famine, war, pestilence, and death. For the purposes of this review, though, I’m going to use the word more generally to refer to suffering—as in, “Around 85 percent of this show about office workers caught in the Tribulation was a tribulation to me.” The blessedly entertaining 15 percent comes in the second act, when our heroine, Genevieve, enrolls in a graduate poetry program; we get a great satirical song about the current collegiate notion of the “life of the mind” and a hilariously original Jesus. For the rest, at least the cast of this show at iO's Mission Theater give it their all. —Tony Adler

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