Phrenzy, pH Productions, at Wing & Groove Theatre. This competitive improv show from new performance ensemble pH whittles down contestants in the reality-TV style that's conquered the world. For the first five rounds, elimination is governed by the host, whose arbitrary rules are concealed from the cast but not the audience; after that things get more democratic--the players fall prey to audience whim. Throw in random "refereeing" (the host can make anybody sit out for just about anything, from dropping the ball to beating a dead horse to breathing the wrong way) and you've got a recipe for the most athletic idiocy you'll find on a late-night stage in Chicago.
Some of the early-round rules were well conceived the night I attended, eliminating performers for employing classic crutches: variation-on-a-theme accents, playing children, stalling for time. Some of the freelance reffing was even better, punishing players for portrayals too hackneyed, heady, or close to home; host Kristine Kitts was given--and deserved--a big round of applause. The second half was less, well, fair; on the other hand, watching selfless-in-theory improv get ground down to its egomaniacal core is always a hoot.
None of this would work without a practiced, talented troupe--the gimmickry's actually a serious drag on momentum, requiring about twice the energy of your average show. Fortunately this fresh-faced, giddy bunch delivers the goods. Nothing revolutionary, just a lot of whip-smart, hopped-up old school fun.