This 60-minute, late-night magic show is exactly what it should be: funny, lively, intimate, and utterly baffling. House Theatre of Chicago member Dennis Watkins blends quick-witted improv and physical comedy with freewheeling patter as he performs classic illusions. Though his sleight-of-hand is impossibly subtle, it was the mind reading tricks that seemed to have drawn several inquisitive skeptics back for another look on the night I attended. A curio-shop intimacy and cash bar encourage audience participation, and Watkins, with his Eagle Scout looks, clearly takes a mischievous pleasure in the unexpected. Just let your cell phone go off during the show and see what kind of fun he has. --Keith Griffith $75http://thehousetheatre.com
Seven strapping men in swashbuckler shirts improvise a two-act Shakespearean play based on a title suggested by the audience. At the show I saw, "The Taming of the Jew" inspired the Bard's usual themes (religion, family, betrayal) and plot devices (murders, disguises, fortunes gained/lost) as well as an uncomfortably funny circumcision. Director-performer Blaine Swen, a veteran of long-form Shakespearean improv who swears they don't conspire during the intermission, has assembled a vigorous ensemble of actors and proven improvisers. Their experience doing Shakespeare flowers in the language: they relish iambic dialogue, execute perfectly timed asides, occasionally utter rhyming couplets (some hilariously forced: "Let us be quick-sa, and get to the bar mitzvah!"), and drop parodic phrases ("scurvenous knave," "midfortnight report") and well-placed anachronisms (the bar mitzvah had a DJ). Even the ending echoed the real plays: story lines resolved tidily—and uproariously. —Ryan Hubbard $14http://www.improvisedshakespeare.com/
Baby Wants Candy—a tight troupe now famous for its improvised musicals—began in 1997 as one of the dozens of ImprovOlympic teams formed every year. Somehow they've avoided the usual dissolution of such groups. More impressive, they've never experienced the artistic conservatism that paralyzes improvisers eager to "do it right"—and reap the reward, presumably, of a career in NYC or LA. Instead the troupe has become the very model of smart, physical, quick-thinking, and just plain silly long-form improvisers; they still play well together and manage to entertain. Inspired by the improbable suggestion "So this is it" at the show I saw, nine actors (backed by the five-member Yes Band) improvised a complicated, hilarious, tongue-in-cheek tale of three partnerships on the rocks--two marriages and a professional relationship--and the narrator who helps bring the couples back together. —Jack Helbig $15
If pimpin' ain't easy, pimprovising must be even harder. But the five members of Pimprov project a scary ease as they dress and cavort like "Super Freak"-era Rick James (only with more accessories) and smoothly assimilate audience suggestions into thug-themed short-form games. The group stays heavily engaged with the crowd throughout this high-energy show, bringing people on stage and carrying on multiple side conversations during and between bits. What I enjoyed most were their hilarious, spontaneous dancing (from tap to b-boying) and varied characters. These are no one-trick pimps: at the show I saw they shrewdly played everything from north side trixies to blue-collar Chicagoans. —Ryan Hubbard $15
Burlesque by Vaudezilla Productions.
The tone and pace are just right in this late-night burlesque show. Doubling as affable emcee Max Flattery, director Chris Biddle keeps the evening fresh with a rotating line-up of erotic dancers, campy acts, and nerdy comedians. Striptease routines satisfy a wide range of PG-13 fetishes, sometimes in unconventional ways. Teddy Bare's absinthe fairy number, for instance, incorporates modern dance elements not typically associated with the bump-and-grind. The result is an eclectic blend of steam, smart humor, and shtick. If Biddle and company can maintain momentum, Kiss Kiss Cabaret has what it takes to become a cheeky Chicago staple. --Dan Jakes $15 online in advance, $20 at the door
The supper-club floor shows in vintage movies always look like such elegant fun, with Adolphe Menjou sitting ringside in his tux while spunky chorines tap and a smiling tenor croons. I've wondered why something like that couldn't happen now. The people behind Untitled obviously wondered the same thing, and have revived the concept in Bally Hoo. Still, the night I saw this 90-minute, "1930s-style" production, it was more a promising work in progress than a fantasy come true. Richard Strimner had the right voice, style, and application of pomade for his role as emcee; the seven-piece band was clean if not hot; and the four-member chorus line hit their stride doing a cute number about exercise. But the details were often off. Anachronistic belly-dance and musical-saw acts wrecked the mood. The contemporary look of the musicians created dissonance. And while she had some alluring moves, stripper Lady Jack was occasionally betrayed by her costuming. I hope Untitled tightens things up, because this could be delightful. Reader food critic Mike Sula has commented on the dining experience. —Tony Adler $25, food and drink not included, reservations required
Where's the sleaze? Sure, cast members strip in this Geek Girls Burlesque parody of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but they're so good-humored, goofy, and, yes, geeky, about it that it doesn't always register as sexy, let alone dirty. There's little to make a man want to slip in unnoticed and scrunch down low in his seat. Still, fun compensates for the lack of depravity. Though the stripping routines can get repetitive (turn away, unbuckle bra, turn back with breasts coyly covered), they're always energetic—even dancerly. All of the leads have great stage presence and some acting chops. And "Sadie Hotkins" is an unmitigated knockout as Indiana Jones. Which is a problem, when you think about it. As much as I appreciated Hotkins's looks, I couldn't help but notice that she occupies the top rung of an anatomical hierarchy where traditional beauty equals virtue. And on the bottom rung? Well, the comic villain is played by a fat girl. —Tony Adler $35