Cheap things to do in Chicago

What to do in Chicago when you're broke.

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Got limited funds but unlimited energy? Join the club. From comedy nights to museum exhibitions, here's everything going on in Chicago that won't require a payday loan.


Messing With A Friend

  • Price band: 1/4

Each week, legendary improviser Susan Messing and a different friend segue from scene to scene, creating characters and situations along the way that are weird, wild and wonderful.

  1. Annoyance Theatre 851 W Belmont Ave
  2. Thu May 29 - Thu Aug 20
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TNT

  • Price band: 1/4

The name of this long-running weekly improv show stands for "Tuesday Night Thing," but the explosive abbreviation can be appropriate.

  1. Annoyance Theatre 851 W Belmont Ave
  2. Tue Jun 3 - Tue Sep 16
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Challenger

  • Price band: 1/4

iO presents the long-running definition of late night comedy on their stage, full of big laughs and high energy.

  1. iO Harold Cabaret 1501 N Kingsbury St
  2. Fri Jun 13 - Fri Oct 3
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Infiltration

  • Price band: 1/4

Salonathon curators Jane Beachy, Joseph R. Varisco and Malic White worm their way into the Neo-Futurarium for this series before Friday night performances of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.

  1. Neo-Futurarium 5153 N Ashland Ave, between Winona St and Foster Ave
  2. Fri Aug 8 - Fri Sep 26
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Witch Slap!

  • Price band: 1/4

Witches join together to overthrow a colonial witch hunt but end up with their brooms at each other's throats in Jeff Goode's new comedy, the winner of Babes With Blades' "Joining Sword & Pen" playwriting competition.

  1. Raven Theatre 6157 N Clark St, between Hood and Granville Aves
  2. Sat Aug 9 - Sat Sep 20
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Stupid Fucking Bird

  • Rated as: 5/5
  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

Sideshow Theatre Company at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater. By Aaron Posner. Directed by Jonathan L. Green. With Katy Carolina Collins, Matt Fletcher, Nina O'Keefe, Cody Proctor, Stacy Stoltz, Nate Whelden, Norm Woodel. Running time: 2hrs 10mins; one intermission. Theater review by Kris Vire Con (Nate Whelden), the frustrated young playwright at the center of Aaron Posner's cheeky update of Chekhov's The Seagull, is like his Russian counterpart obsessed with pushing theater into "new forms." Unlike in any translation of Chekhov I've read, however, Con's conciliative pal Dev (Matt Fletcher) asks him, "Like this? This play we're in right now. Is this the kind of new work you mean? New forms?" To which Con replies, "No no no. Fuck no! Better than THIS!" Posner's take, if not a "new form," is a bracingly fresh take on Chekhov's "comedy" in which everyone ends up dead, crazy or at the very least compromised. Yes, all of his characters are aware they're in a play; they frequently pause the action to address us directly, in speech and in song. But (and this is crucial) they're not aware they are characters in a play; even when Con breaks in mid-sentence to accuse an audience member of checking his playbill to see if Whelden has any bigger credits on his résumé, it's really not a wink-and-nudge ironic hedge. These are real, full people who just happen to acknowledge that their emotionally messy lives happen to exist within the confines of a theater piece. To be sure, it's a dev

  1. Victory Gardens Biograph Theater 2433 N Lincoln Ave, between Fullerton Ave and Montana St
  2. Sat Aug 16 - Sun Sep 21
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Ecstasy

  • Rated as: 3/5
  • Price band: 1/4

Cole Theatre at A Red Orchid Theatre. By Mike Leigh. Directed by Shade Murray. With Maura Kidwell, Michaela Petro, Layne Manzer, Boyd Harris, Joel Reitsma, Lauren Pizzi. Running time: 2hrs 25mins; one intermission. Theater review by Kris Vire Mike Leigh’s 1979 drama makes an interesting and ambitious inaugural outing for Cole Theatre, a new Equity company launched by Boyd Harris and Layne Manzer, who also make up one third of the production’s cast. Like Leigh’s films, this piece about a collection of working-class Londoners struggling through the Winter of Discontent was created by the writer-director through extensive improvisation with his ensemble. That process lends itself to a finished script full of rambling, wayward exchanges that can feel a bit foreign in the mouths of this talented cast, even as they find their characters’ emotional cores.The play takes place in the kind of shabby apartment the British tend to term a “grotty bedsit”—a single small room with a kitchenette and a space heater where the electric meter is coin-operated and the shared bathroom is outside and down the hall. It belongs to Jean (Maura Kidwell), a smart, pretty girl who’s drained by what she sees as the pointlessness of her life. The lights come up on her in a moment of post-coital non-bliss with Roy (Joel Reitsma), the married lover who treats her like dirt. (Leigh’s title, you quickly realize, is rather ironic.) The brief first act establishes this toxic relationship and indicates it’s th

  1. A Red Orchid Theatre 1531 N Wells St, between Schiller St and North Ave
  2. Thu Aug 21 - Sun Sep 28
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The Whaleship Essex

  • Rated as: 3/5
  • Price band: 1/4

Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit. By Joe Forbrich. Directed by Lou Contey. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 20mins; one intermission. Theater review by Dan Jakes Never underestimate an economy's power to sway a man's moral judgement, be him a modern day energy CEO or a 19th-century New England Quaker. There's an awful lot of that transpiring onboard the final voyage of the titular Essex, whose ill-fated 1819 journey is recreated and examined in Joe Forbrich's historical drama and animated with gusto in Lou Contey's Shattered Globe Theatre production, but not always in the way you'd think. As the ship's company store purser (Alif Muhammad) puts it to a young, bravado-filled seaman (Drew Schad) early in the three-year whaling expedition, even if everything goes as planned, inflated living expenses and uneven shares all but guarantee everyone but the higher-ups will wind up in the red. Compared to the rousing 15-men shanties sung on the desk (impressive in scale and function in Theater Wit's space thanks to a seamless marriage of Ann Davis's set and Michael Stanfill's projection design) or harpooning excursions in hunting boats, it's a short and underplayed scene, but a massively disconcerting omen. After all, when your industry is already known for lashings, epic battles against nature and profit-by-bloodletting, who are you to trust when things go south and your best interests aren't at heart from the powers that be?Both captain and crew are forced to answer that

  1. Theater Wit 1229 W Belmont Ave, between Racine and Lakewood Aves
  2. Thu Aug 28 - Sat Oct 11
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The Last Cadillac

  • Price band: 1/4

A young man named Isaac breaks into an auto shop one night and finds himself at the beginning of a journey that puts him in contact with exiled African gods in Reginald Edmund's new play, produced appropriately enough by the company American Demigods. Samuel G. Roberson Jr. directs.

  1. Athenaeum Theatre 2936 N Southport Ave, at Oakdale Ave
  2. Fri Aug 29 - Sun Sep 21
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The Coward

  • Rated as: 2/5
  • Price band: 1/4

Stage Left Theatre at Theater Wit. By Nick Jones. Directed by Vance Smith. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.Theater review by Kris VireNick Jones’s 2010 fops-and-robbers comedy is of a dual (and duel) nature. Broadly, this piece about an 18th-century London dandy who, pressured by his macho dad to get with the dueling times already, hires an amoral rascal to take his pistol and his place, aspires to imitate the comedies of manners of Sheridan and Goldsmith, but also to poke at those manners from a sardonic, anachronistic remove. Jones is moderately successful at both aims.Lucidus Culling (Brian Plocharcyzk) is uninterested in the prevailing mores of his fellow noblemen; he’d rather chase butterflies and have pie picnics with his equally fey friends (Ian Daniel McLaren and Spenser Davis). But an attempt to curry favor with his father (Stephen Walker) by finally challenging another man to a duel—an act his two (dearly departed) brothers didn’t shy away from—backfires; Lucidus has the bright idea to hire an imposter (Steve Schine), which backfires worse. Soon the fake Lucidus is throwing down gauntlets and mowing down innocents all over town.It’s a fairly clever setup, and Jones’s script is riddled with amusingly out-of-place one-liners (as when Lucidus’s dad spits disgustedly, “Your veins are filled with little girl baby urine!”) and some adroit ideas, such as the running joke that the letters of courtship between Lucidus and the comely Isabelle Dupree (

  1. Theater Wit 1229 W Belmont Ave, between Racine and Lakewood Aves
  2. Sat Aug 30 - Sun Oct 5
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Genesis

  • Rated as: 2/5
  • Price band: 1/4

Definition Theatre Company at the Den Theatre. By Mercedes White. Directed by Alana Arenas. With White, Kelson Michael McAuliffe, Julian Parker, Tyrone Phillips, Tiffany Addison, Kiandra Layne. Running time: 2hrs 10mins; one intermission. Theater review by Kevin Thomas In Chicago, 1918, Walter (Tyrone Phillips) and Lena (Mercedes White, also the playwright) have migrated from the South to pursue a better life, and their efforts are paying off—Walter takes pride in his job building railroads, and Lena is pregnant with their first child. With good friends nearby, a promotion up for grabs and a baby on the way, the pair seem poised to achieve the American Dream—if nothing goes wrong.As a self-styled prequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the ambitions and style of Genesis loom before the curtain rises: the history of the African-American family, dreams and prosperity in a hostile country, race and racism and love. In 1959 it was groundbreaking; now it’s well-trodden ground. From the opening heady speeches and big dreams of its characters, it's clear Definition Theatre sets its sights on creating an encompassing, spiritual work.White's dialogue is snappy, often comical, and well delivered. The play has worthy comments on systematic oppression, soulful monologues, and some particularly insightful moments when an Irish immigrant is brought into the fold. Yet it begins to struggle against the reality that we’ve heard all this before. And therein lies the big issue:

  1. The Den Theatre 1333 N Milwaukee Ave, at Paulina St
  2. Tue Sep 2 - Sun Sep 28
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Mnemonic

  • Price band: 1/4

Red Tape Theatre presents a new production of the British theater company Complicite's 1999 work that weaves multiple, fragmented stories into a meditation on memory.

  1. Storefront Theater, Gallery 37 Center for the Arts 66 E Randolph St, at Garland Ct
  2. Tue Sep 2 - Sun Oct 5
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Miracles in the Fall

  • Rated as: 3/5
  • Price band: 1/4

Polarity Ensemble Theatre at Greenhouse Theater Center. By Chuck O'Connor. Directed by Richard Shavzin. With Laura Berner Taylor, Fred Wellisch, Mickey O'Sullivan, Rian Jairell. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission. Theater review by Dan Jakes Chuck O'Connor's new drama about a torn Catholic family struggling to make amends takes a page from the familiar Eugene O'Neill playbook of dysfunction and disillusionment around the dinner table. You've got your hardened Irish blue-collar father, long given up on forgiving his late wife for an unnamed sin; your prodigal son, fallen from grace and trying to turn back the clock and win dad's acceptance; and most aptly, a liquor cabinet full of whiskey to drown a generation's worth of sorrows and secrets before setting them all aflame. It's not exactly subtle, and neither is Richard Shavzin's production for Polarity Ensemble Theatre. Set in 1968 Detroit, the plot mainly centers on Sister Clare Connelly (Laura Berner Taylor), a nun who, like her father (Fred Wellisch), takes comfort in the church's deeply rooted traditions even as she fails to articulate why. As her father says, "We're Catholics! We don't understand God, we obey God." It's a mentality shared by the parish's head priest, but not Father Lentine (Rian Jairell), a post–Vatican II–style minister who fills in indefinitely while the monsignor is away. He's young, full of colloquialisms and jokes, and applies a Jesuit sense of mercy and progressiveness to the parish, which becom

  1. Greenhouse Theater Center 2257 N Lincoln Ave, between Webster and Belden Aves
  2. Wed Sep 3 - Sun Oct 5
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Endgame

  • Rated as: 3/5
  • Price band: 1/4

The Right Brain Project. By Samuel Beckett. Directed by Aaron Snook. With Bries Vannon, Vincent L. Lonergan, Lena Bloom, Ralph Knowlson. Running time: 2hrs; no intermission. Theater review by Kevin Thomas The Right Brain Project has done two great things with absurdism: made it immediate, and made it focused.The audience is ushered into a solitary room by Clov (Bries Vannon), a gaunt young man summoned to witness his patriarch die. Only Hamm (Vincent L. Lonergan) did not die—remaining on the cusp of life as years turn into centuries and the outside world ceased to exist. Chalkboard walls contain a lifetime of scribbles and hints of when things still changed. The invalid Hamm is bound to his leather chair in the center of the room, from which he directs Clov through the pointless routines of their day. But Clov believes “it must be nearly finished,” and has set chairs around the perimeter for us to see the end.As there’s no house light to dim, the audience is illuminated the same as the cast: I was surprised how wonderfully exposed the set is. It’s the difference between watching the room and being in the room, right there with Clov and Hamm, often inches away from key props. All of Beckett’s details and stage directions—the clomping step of Clov’s boots, repeated gestures, small but significant objects—gain massive impact when they’re claustrophobically close. Absurdism’s, well, absurdity can make it difficult to enter the world of the play—not so here.The production keeps

  1. Right Brain Project Rorschach 4001 N Ravenswood Ave, At Irving Park Rd
  2. Thu Sep 4 - Sat Oct 4
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Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra: Undone

  • Price band: 1/4

Skyline StageWorks makes its debut as Patricia Henritze and Shawna Tucker pare down Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra into a lively, streamlined four-actor adaptation. John Arthur Lewis directs.

  1. the side project 1439 W Jarvis Ave, between Greenview Ave and Sheridan Rd
  2. Fri Sep 5 - Sun Oct 5
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Don't Pass Go

  • Price band: 1/4

Monopoly is a classic board game that everyone knows, so why not base a musical around it? Come to the show and roll the dice to determine which version will be in focus: poverty-stricken Baltic Avenue or millionaire mansions on Park Place? Anything is up for grabs.

  1. pH Comedy Theater 1515 W Berywn Ave, at Clark St
  2. Sat Sep 6 - Sat Nov 8
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The Midnight City

  • Rated as: 4/5
  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

Firecat Projects at the Steppenwolf Garage. By Tony Fitzpatrick with Stan Klein. Directed by Ann Filmer. With Fitzpatrick, Klein, Anna Fermin, John Rice. Running time: 1hr 45mins; one intermission. Theater review by Megan Powell “I’d rather have a memory than a dream,” goes the classic Sarah Vaughan track that’s sung near the end of The Midnight City, but this theater piece suggests that Chicago artist/raconteur/provocateur Tony Fitzpatrick would rather have both. The Lombard-born, longtime Ukrainian Village resident and internationally-known visual artist (and writer, actor, radio personality) is moving to New Orleans, where he wants to just “draw birds and be warm.” Despite that post–polar vortex declaration (and that he’s “done with dibs”), Fitzpatrick’s laments, rants and memories about a changing city, “a city that people made,” he declares his fierce love of Chicago still flourishes. Fitzpatrick’s longtime sidekick Stan Klein, who’s billed as a “smart traveler in the world of the arts,” thinks Tony should stay put. In steamy New Orleans, Klein tells him, “all your paper’s gonna curl.” Stein’s not just Fitzpatrick’s onstage foil, he’s his business partner in Firecat Projects, their Bucktown-based art project, and collaborator in this, their fourth stage show. It’s a fitting coda to follow the trilogy of pieces also staged at Steppenwolf and created with the same collaborators. As before, Midnight City takes the shape of a 90 or so minute, multi-arts storytelling night

  1. Steppenwolf Garage 1624 N Halsted St, between North Ave and Willow St
  2. Sat Sep 6 - Sun Oct 19
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Season on the Line

  • Price band: 1/4

Writer Shawn Pfautch pulls out his finest slings and arrows for the House Theatre's new backstage meta-adaptation, in which the fictional Bad Settlement Theatre Company struggles to mount the perfect stage adaptation of Moby-Dick—which becomes an Ahab-like artistic director's own white whale. Jess McLeod directs.

  1. Chopin Theatre 1543 W Division St, at Milwaukee Ave
  2. Fri Sep 12 - Sun Oct 26
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Improvisation Dramatique

  • Price band: 1/4

Improv doesn't always have to mean funny. Chicago Improv Productions presents a weekly showcase of dramatic improvisation.

  1. MCL Chicago 3110 N Sheffield Ave, between Belmont Ave and Barry St
  2. Mon Sep 15
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"Unbound: Contemporary Art After Frida Kahlo"

  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

The extent of Frida Kahlo's influence in the art world, apart from her signature unibrow, is widely known. Her graphic self-portraits portray her psychological and physical self, usually accompanied by lots of blood and body parts. The MCA is honoring her memory by displaying several works inspired by Kahlo's style of rebellion and cultural reflection through four main themes: the performance of gender, issues of national indentity, the political body, and the absent or traumatized body.

  1. Museum of Contemporary Art 220 E Chicago Ave, at Mies van der Rohe Way
  2. Tue Sep 16 - Sun Oct 5
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"Simon Starling: Metamorphology"

  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

Simon Starling emerged from the Galsgow art scene in the early 1990s, creating memorable films, photographs and installations that repurpose existing materials to impart new stories and insights. "Metamorphology" is the first large-scale survey of Starling's work to be hosted by a major American museum. The exhibition will include complex multimedia installations, photographs and some of the artist's recent film work.

  1. Museum of Contemporary Art 220 E Chicago Ave, at Mies van der Rohe Way
  2. Tue Sep 16 - Sun Nov 2
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"Earthly Delights"

  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

As modern art continues to embrace minimalism, the MCA presents an exhibition of work from its permanent collection that explores the inherent pleasure and aesthetic beauty of art. Collecting paintings, sculptures, and installations by eight artists, "Earthly Delights" includes pieces that use decoration and design to confront social issues like gender and racial politics. The exhibit includes work by Swiss Balthus, Lynda Benglis, Carol Bove, Nick Cave, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Michaelangelo Pistoletto, Lari Pittman, and Yinka Shonibare.

  1. Museum of Contemporary Art 220 E Chicago Ave, at Mies van der Rohe Way
  2. Tue Sep 16 - Sun Nov 30
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"Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938"

  • Rated as: 3/5
  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

When I walk through an exhibit devoted to one artist, I wonder, would that artist have enjoyed the presentation? As I ambled through the Art Institute’s somber and dark Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938, with its paintings set on charcoal walls beneath pools of yellow light, I guessed that Rembrandt would have gotten off on it, but not Magritte.  When one thinks of Rene Magritte, images of blue skies and green apples likely come to mind. The surrealist's work was crisp and clean—only the scenes presented were painfully bizarre. These iconic Magritte paintings are mostly his later works, and you’ll only find them on magnets and plates in the gift shop. The Art Institute's showcase of his formative years is akin to being trapped under a bowler hat (which of course are for sale as well), and while there’s little to critique in terms of Magritte’s work itself, there are two questions to answer when you're seeing a show of works by an artist of this caliber: 1. Does the show tell us anything new about Magritte’s work? Yes, particularly if all you know are those apple images. And 2. Is it an enjoyable show to go see? It is not, due to a bevy of strange curatorial choices at the Art Institute. The 100+ work show, which first ran at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Menil Collection in Houston, focuses on the dozen years in which Magritte began to explore the themes and aesthetics that would define his career. The show moves chronologically, and the Belgia

  1. Art Institute of Chicago 111 S Michigan Ave, at Adams St
  2. Tue Sep 16 - Mon Oct 13
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Potential Boyfriends

  • Price band: 1/4

In the style of Pistol Party or Entertaining Julia, comedy troupe Potential Boyfriends weave improv and sketch into a night of lowbrow dicking around while inviting emerging stand-ups and improv troupes to share the stage. For a Tuesday night, it's hopping.

  1. MCL Chicago 3110 N Sheffield Ave, between Belmont Ave and Barry St
  2. Tue Sep 16 - Tue Sep 30
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