Becky Shaw, Fun Home, and nine more notable new stage shows | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Becky Shaw, Fun Home, and nine more notable new stage shows

A black comedy at Windy City Playhouse and a black musical at Victory Gardens are among this week's best bets.

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Becky Shaw A 35-year-old temp worker with a history of cutting herself, Becky Shaw can boast an above-average fuckedupedness quotient, but then so can everyone else in Gina Gionfriddo's 2009 play. Max, for instance, presents as an acerbic, hyperrational banker when he's really a hot mess inside. His pseudo stepsister, Suzanna, can't take responsibility for herself. Suzanna's new husband, Andrew, is a sucker for a lady in distress. Only Suzanna's mom, Suzanne, has come to terms with life—if merely by recognizing that, while money can't buy love, it can at least secure a warm body at night. You can sense the savagery implicit in the situation when Becky gets dropped into this group via a blind date. Yet, fresh off directing the silly jukebox musical Rock of Ages, Scott Weinstein seems to opt for Restoration over black comedy, pushing a highly competent cast toward meaninglessly mannered caricature. —Tony Adler

Hell in a Handbag's Bewildered - RICK AGUILAR
  • Rick Aguilar
  • Hell in a Handbag's Bewildered

Bewildered Hell In a Handbag's musical parody of the classic sitcom Bewitched begins with an ingenious premise: nosy, incidental next-door neighbor Gladys Kravitz, perpetually dismissed as crazy (being the only mortal who sees the supernatural truth in the Stephens household), announces she's finally being taken seriously as the star of her own show. What's more, it's a high-stakes musical, as she'll be dead in 12 hours. But in short order, book writer Ron Weaver loses track of his best idea, drifting through numerous campy digressions—some clever, some dutiful—to arrive at an overworked climax. The show is packed with strong performers, and Aaron Benham's Hamlischesque tunes are sound, but director Brigitte Ditmars's cluttered staging often prevents even the best songs from turning into effective numbers. —Justin Hayford

Victory Gardens' Fun Home - LIZ LAUREN
  • Liz Lauren
  • Victory Gardens' Fun Home

[Recommended] Fun Home After incarnations on Broadway and in a touring production that stopped here last year, the musical based on Alison Bechdel's autobiographical graphic novel gets a locally sourced staging under the expert direction of Gary Griffin. Chances are you know the gist: a cartoonist named Alison looks back on her life from childhood to college—years when she vaguely (and then suddenly) realized she was gay while her closeted dad, Bruce, found it less and less possible to square his own sexuality with his life. Lisa Kron's language and Jeanine Tesori's music make this confluence of destinies at once awful and expansive, as it should be. The show's multiple Alisons (Danni Smith as the grown one, Hannah Starr as the Oberlin student, and Stella Rose Hoyt and Sage Elliott Harper alternating as the child) are engaging, and Rob Lindley is effective if sometimes too obvious as he moves Bruce from petulance to tragedy. But the real coming out, oddly enough, belongs the seemingly peripheral mom, Helen. In a single song, McKinley Carter establishes Helen's suffering and forbearance beyond all doubt. —Tony Adler

Akvavit Theatre's Ghosts & Zombies - KARL CLIFTON-SODERSTROM
  • Karl Clifton-Soderstrom
  • Akvavit Theatre's Ghosts & Zombies

Ghosts & Zombies Ibsen's dour, portentous 1881 drama Ghosts tackles oppressive conservative morality, serial marital infidelity, venereal disease, mercy killing, and incest. As Swedish contemporary playwright-adapter Gustav Tegby shows, it doesn't take much to turn the whole thing into melodramatic gothic horror, just a slathering of irony and a few undead. It's an elemental transformation, but it's never clear why Tegby bothered—or why Akvavit Theatre imagines the play is worth their considerable talent—as it offers little insight into the work, Ibsen's world, or our own. Under Breahan Pautsch's equivocal direction, the production vacillates between earnestness and lampoonery without adequately investing in either, resulting in an evening that chases its tail for nearly three hours. As usual, Akvavit's cast and design team are top-notch. —Justin Hayford

Eclectic Full Contact Theatre's Last Days of Judas Isacariot - KATIE HUNTER
  • Katie Hunter
  • Eclectic Full Contact Theatre's Last Days of Judas Isacariot

The Last Days of Judas Iscariot Eclectic Full Contact Theatre presents Stephen Adly Guirgis's play, which imagines Judas Iscariot's trial in purgatory as a Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure-style parade of celebrity historical witnesses testifying to Christ's betrayer's guilt and innocence. The clash of dialects and styles of speech is jarring, and this mishmash of comedy and drama rarely rings true. Amber Sallis (as a street Saint Monica) and Michael Woods (as a lounge-lizard Satan) have standout moments, but for the most part one is reminded that whatever the road to hell is paved with, it's still the road to hell. David Belew directed. —Dmitry Samarov

[Recommended] Monster Club In 1816, Mary Shelley, daughter of feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, was the sole woman among a band of writers who retreated to Geneva to summer by the lake. It was "the year without a summer," a chill, dark season that caused crop failure worldwide, the result of volcanic activity in the Dutch East Indies. In the cool confines of Lord Byron's villa, inventing ghost stories with her poet peers, Shelley began the story about the reanimation of the flesh that would become the gothic novel Frankenstein. Two centuries later, Monster Club pays tribute to female power and fascination with unusual forms as we enter the imaginative world of another Mary Shelley, a fifth-grader in detention, who discovers the subtle and magnificent interior life of other girls who have passed through the same confines, leaving behind diaries of desire, ambition, and tragedy. —Irene Hsiao

Corn Productions' The Rocky Horror Balboa Show - MICHELLE LEATHERBY
  • Michelle Leatherby
  • Corn Productions' The Rocky Horror Balboa Show

The Rocky Balboa Picture Show The crowd at the Cornservatory are no amateurs when it comes to BYOBing, and God bless 'em for it—drinks of choice on opening night ranged from six-packs to hard liquor out of a mason jar. But not even the most liberal state of inebriation could make the groaners in this ensemble-written musical mashup of Rocky IV and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, directed by Allison Reinke, less hokey and obvious. Plenty of great comedy has been inspired by inane pun-centered concepts, but the jokes here—which include an impromptu number by Meat Loaf when someone orders meat loaf (get it? Do you get it?)—are incredibly broad and delivered with so much forced mugging I'm just relieved no one popped a blood vessel. —Dan Jakes

Tony n' Tina's Wedding - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the artist
  • Tony n' Tina's Wedding

[Recommended] Tony n' Tina's Wedding Tony and Tina are gonna have a big blowout wedding and we're all invited! That's the premise here. It's an immersive show, which means it begins in a real-life Lutheran church in Lakeview and has a second act that is indeed a real reception, with catering, dancing, and booze. Things even get sloppy halfway through the party, black rivers of mascara streaming down the bride's flushed cheeks, the groom and his boys dancing shirtless on the bandstand—just like a real wedding! And you know what? When you add up audience participation, some clever improvisation, and full-on commitment to the illusion from a wry and rambunctious cast, it makes for a pretty damn exciting night of theater. A long-standing Chicago tradition, the show was revived in 2016 after a seven-year hiatus, and makes its return directed by Paul Stroili. —Max Maller

Three Crows Theatre's The Trojan Women - KATHERINE SIEGEL
  • Katherine Siegel
  • Three Crows Theatre's The Trojan Women

[Recommended] The Trojan Women Euripides's tragedy—first produced in 415 BC—is a bleakly powerful meditation on war and hubris. Set in Troy the day after the city has been sacked by the Greeks after a ten-year siege, it focuses on the widowed Trojan queen Hecuba and her family as they wait to learn whether their fates will be slavery or death. Among the few remaining survivors are Hecuba's daughter Cassandra—the mad prophet whose accurate predictions no one will believe—and Andromache, widow of Hector, desperate to protect her young son from being slaughtered in order to keep him from becoming a rallying point for a counterinsurgency. As these women remind us, there are no "winners" in war: Troy has been destroyed, but the victorious Greeks will meet catastrophes galore en route home. Euripides was cautioning his fellow Athenians against their arrogant pride (his play was produced the same year the Athenian navy was destroyed during an attempted invasion of Sicily), and Jean-Paul Sartre's 1967 adaptation—written in response to France's futile attempt to thwart Algerian independence and America's disastrous involvement in Vietnam—carries a chilling warning that still resonates today. This intimate, bare-bones, "pay-what-you-can" production by Three Crows is marred by an inconsistent level of acting. But two standout performances—by Judith Laughlin as Hecuba and Selena Lopez as Andromache—and the bitterly brilliant Euripides-Sartre text (in Ronald Duncan's English translation) make it worth seeing. —Albert Williams

Worst of All/Peor de Todas at the National Mexican Museum of Art - COURTESY WATER PEOPLE THEATER
  • Courtesy Water People Theater
  • Worst of All/Peor de Todas at the National Mexican Museum of Art

The Worst of All/La Peor de Todas Venezuelan writer Iraida Tapia's stage biography of the 17th-century scholar and poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, being produced here by New York-based Water People Theater at the National Museum of Mexican Art as part of the first Chicago International Latino Theater Festival, is very much a play about language. This is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness: it is all talk and very little action. The play is at times visually arresting, thanks to Raquel Rios's costumes and Juan Jose Martín's quirky scenic designs, but it's also essentially static, staged by Martín as a series of tableaux that emphasize Tapia's (and Sor Juana's) words. Still, the show features some strong acting. Rebeca Alemán, in particular, reveals the pathos in Sor Juana's life without making her story sentimental. The play is performed in Spanish with English supertitles. —Jack Helbig

youre_a_good_man_mary_shelley-2.jpg

You're a Good Man, Mary Shelley There are certain names it's exciting to see on a comedy cast list because they guarantee a certain baseline of quality no matter the overall success of the project. Comedian Mark Walsh, whose stage presence is a giggle-inducing mix of silly and smart, is one of those names. This ambitious, unusual one-act play, written by Walsh and Maureen Monahan, reimagines the famed, real-life Villa Diodati horror-writing contest that launched Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein and The Vampyre by John William Polidori. There are some laugh-out-loud good recurring gags, but the frequent earnest soliloquies detailing historical tidbits add a lot of speed bumps to the overall pacing. —Dan Jakes

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