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.


Exit Strategy

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

Jackalope Theatre Company at Broadway Armory Park. By Ike Holter. Directed by Gus Menary. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 45mins; no intermission. Theater review by Kris Vire A fiery new work by a Chicago playwright, set in a teachers’ area of a beleaguered Chicago public high school and concerning itself with the systemic limitations those teachers face in serving their students, has opened on a North Side stage. For the second time in a month. It speaks to our city’s collective civic anxiety about the problems facing Chicago Public Schools at this cultural moment that two plays fitting that description should hit in such quick succession: First Joe Zarrow’s excellent Principal Principle (a co-production of Stage Left Theatre and Theatre Seven that closes this weekend, but may will return later this year), and now Ike Holter’s equally passionate Exit Strategy at the young, ascendant Jackalope Theatre Company.Where Principal faces disparate frustrations over educational resources and the merits (or lack thereof) of standardization, Exit Strategy takes on the related concern of school closures. Holter’s piece focuses on a fictional CPS high school in a neighborhood where, as one teacher puts it, “there’s two gangs and a crepe place on the same street.” The play opens on the school’s stammeringly ineffective young assistant principal, Ricky (Patrick Whalen), informing a bullshit-resistant veteran teacher, Pam (Barbara Figgins), that the coming school year will be this s

  1. Broadway Armory Park 5917 N Broadway, at Thorndale Ave
  2. Fri May 9 - Fri Aug 29
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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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Build-A-Tale

  • Price band: 1/4

Thorpedo Productions comes to the Gorilla Tango Theater in Bucktown every last Saturday of the moth to put on a family-friendly improv show. Afterward, the crew offers kids the opportunity to join the cast onstage for improv games. 

  1. Gorilla Tango Theatre Chicago 1919 N Milwaukee Ave, at Western Ave
  2. Sat Jun 28 - Sat Aug 30
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Impress These Apes

  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

The comedy competition series, in which comics perform weekly challenges to be judged by a panel of superintelligent simians from the future, returns for its eighth season.

  1. The ComedySportz Theatre 929 W Belmont Ave, at Wilton St
  2. Mon Jul 7 - Mon Sep 1
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Hellish Half-Light: Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett

  • Rated as: 3/5
  • Price band: 1/4

Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co. at Angel Island. By Samuel Beckett. Directed by Jennifer Markowitz. With Molly Fisher, Rudy Galvan, Lauren Guglielmello, Adam Soule, Stephen Walker, Kathrynne Wolf. Running time: 1hr 25mins; no intermission. Theater review by Dan Jakes In 20th-century avant-garde playwright Samuel Beckett's world, just about everything is dusty and broken, and the purpose of life—an oxymoron around these parts—is itself a deadpan joke. In fact, if you take a close look, no matter how bleak the subject matter, deep deep down, there's a wicked sense of humor inherent in his existential plays, and it accompanies the wicked sense he had toward just about everything. Some of that is on display in Jennifer Markowitz's admirable staging of six of the Irish author's short plays for Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co., including Rough for Theatre I & II, Come & Go, and What Where, performed in the round on a dilapidated, rubbish strewn set by six actors who weave in and out of each short. They include Stephen Walker, a booming-voiced actor who's a natural fit for the layered, heightened comedy the works call for and a highlight of the collection. In Rough for Theatre II, Walker sits opposite Adam Soule as a pair of bureaucrats scouring over a soon-to-be suicide victim's life files (a rare find in Beckett's universe; no one seems to look after anyone) for any bit of hope. Jaded and dismissive, the younger counterpart arrogantly rattles off the reasons why allowing the jumper to defenest

  1. Angel Island 735 W Sheridan Rd, between Broadway and Pine Grove Ave
  2. Tue Jul 22 - Sat Aug 30
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Take the Cake

  • Rated as: 2/5
  • Price band: 1/4

The Factory Theater at Prop Thtr. By Stacie Barra. Directed by Timothy C. Amos. With Laura McKenzie, Barra, Corrbette Pasko, Cheryl Roy, Anthony Tournis. Running time: 1hr 25mins; no intermission. Theater review by Dan Jakes CBS and Chuck Lorre's gentle-humor empire notwithstanding, multi-camera sitcoms have largely gone the way of movie review shows and The Weather Channel: once ubiquitous television staples that became outmoded with audiences consuming media in different, increasingly sophisticated ways. The one place they seem to be riding it out the best, oddly, is the stage—if the frequency of ’80s– and ’90s-style prime-time sitcom parodies were a usable indication of what was actually on TV, you'd think laugh tracks still punctuated every punchline. Not unlike infomercials and buzz-in game shows in sketch comedy, they're on the way to becoming comments on a form that exists little elsewhere than its own parody.In Stacie Barra's one-act girlfriend comedy—which, to be fair, is less a straight spoof than a perhaps influenced-to-a-fault sendup—the bid for relevance is "Bridesmaids meets Breaking Bad." Caroline (Laura McKenzie), a recently laid-off corporate-minded mother, struggles to make ends meet while raising her daughter amongst a competitive and judgmental community of parents. With the help of her velour-tracksuit–and–Bluetooth-wearing megamom friend Holly (Barra)—she has a blog!—and confidante Margo (Corrbette Pasko), Caroline sets out to make things work.A sinist

  1. Prop Thtr 3502–4 N Elston Ave, at Troy St
  2. Fri Jul 25 - Sat Sep 6
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Miles Away

  • Price band: 1/4

Christine Whitley's drama follows a pair of pool hustlers living on the road. Scott Weinstein directs the Chicago premiere.

  1. the side project 1439 W Jarvis Ave, between Greenview Ave and Sheridan Rd
  2. Mon Aug 4 - Sun Aug 31
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Coraline

  • Rated as: 3/5
  • Price band: 1/4

Black Button Eyes Productions at City Lit Theater. By Stephin Merritt and David Greenspan. Directed by Edward Rutherford. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins; no intermission. Theater review by Kris Vire Neil Gaiman’s 2002 novella for young readers falls square in the subgenre of be-careful-what-you-wish-fulfillment. Young self-dubbed explorer Coraline is bored to tears in her family’s new home, a large old house that’s been chopped into flats. There are quirky adult neighbors—a squabbling pair of retired actresses on one side, an odd trainer of circus mice upstairs—but no one her own age around, and Coraline feels both hemmed in and neglected by her workaholic parents. Her wished-for attention comes when the ominously bricked-up door to the empty flat is suddenly unbricked. On the other side, Coraline finds an eerie mirror image of her own home, complete with a smothering Other Mother and Other Father. But when things get too creepy—and Coraline discovers the souls of Other Mother’s long-previous adopted children, still trapped in this invented world—it’s up to Coraline and the local cat, who can move between worlds, to “be wise, be brave, be tricky,” and escape.This 2009 sort-of-musical adaptation, by musician Stephin Merritt (of the Magnetic Fields and many other monikers) and playwright David Greenspan, has its moments of inventive charm, much of which comes from Merritt’s plinky, plaintive score. The music, which mostly comes in wispy snippets rather than full

  1. City Lit Theatre 1020 W Bryn Mawr Ave, at Kenmore Ave
  2. Fri Aug 8 - Sat Sep 6
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Painting Molly: Two One-Act Plays

  • Rated as: 3/5
  • Price band: 1/4

Found Objects Theatre Group at Prop Thtr. The Art of Painting by Mark Chrisler. Directed by Tim Racine. With Chrisler. Notes to Molly by Chris Bower. Directed by Kevlyn Hayes. With Andrew Schoen, Becca Gerroll. Running time: 1hr 45mins; one intermission. Theater review by Dan Jakes It's no secret to art historians that even the most acclaimed paintings can be eclipsed by the story of their creation. That's arguably the case with The Art of Painting, Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer's masterpiece depicting an unnamed painter at work with his historical muse. But who is doing the painting? An abstract figure signifying all artists? Vermeer himself? Or Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, whom the artist modeled himself after figuratively and, in some cases, literally? In a solo piece written and performed by Mark Chrisler that share's the painting's name, theories about the work are explored in the style of a college lecture. What interests the disheveled professor the most has little to do with the work's acclaimed composition or creation, but instead the hysteria surrounding its subsequent imitations by master forger Hans Von Meegren. What follows a brief biography about the two artists is a sordid and complicated tale of Nazi theft, parental disappointment, and the head-scratching economic logic of the art collector world. Originally presented at the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival, there's some enigmatic characterization of the professor—he may or may not have killed

  1. Charnel House 3421 W Fullerton Ave, between Bernard St and Kimball Ave
  2. Fri Aug 8 - Sun Aug 31
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Medea

  • Price band: 1/4

Dream Theatre Company artistic director Jeremy Menekseoglu reimagines Euripedes' tragic tale of unconscious uncoupling. It's the company's first production in its new Lincoln Square home.

  1. Dream Laboratory 5026 N Lincoln Ave, at Winnemac Ave
  2. Fri Aug 8 - Sun Sep 14
More info

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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10-4: The Truck Stop Plays

  • Rated as: 2/5
  • Price band: 1/4

CIC. By Anthony Ellison, Tyler JC Whidden, Neal Adelman and Ryan Patrick Dolan. Directed by Karisa Bruin, Mary Rose O'Connor, Jeri Frederickson and Ashley Neal. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 5mins; no intermission. Theater review by Dan Jakes At the top of the show opening night, producer Ryan Patrick Dolan, an MFA student at Ohio University, gave a short, humble announcement to preface the evening: He and some of his peers were looking for a casual opportunity to try out and present some new work over the summer. Because they all happened to be men, he thought, why not hand over the new short works to female directors to help balance perspectives out? It's an admirable consideration, even if the collection itself is a bit of a hodgepodge. The resulting four shows, all set in various small-town highway rest stops, vary from sketch comedy to stabs at hard drama with varying levels of follow-through.The most promising work comes from Dolan himself. Burger King, directed by Ashley Neal, follows a white middle-class hit woman (Sarah-Jayne Ashenhurst) and her in-car meeting with an upper-class client (Elizabeth Birnkrant) determined to off her wealthy husband. Appearances prove to be deceiving, and roles flip-flop during some clever wordplay and question-and-answer sessions. While sticking to its heart as a dark comedy, Dolan's piece concisely touches on gender roles, privilege, double standards and ethics without crossing the line into didacticism. Neal Adelman's 1100 C

  1. Chemically Imbalanced Theater 1420 W Irving Park Rd, between Southport and Janssen Aves
  2. Fri Aug 8 - Sat Aug 30
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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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Some Men

  • Price band: 1/4

Pride Films & Plays mounts the Chicago premiere of Terrence McNally's 2007 collection of sketches skipping jauntily across eight decades of gay male archetypes.

  1. Rivendell Theatre 5779 N Ridge Ave, between Edgewater and Ardmore Aves
  2. Thu Aug 14 - Sun Sep 14
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The War Zone is My Bed

  • Rated as: 2/5
  • Price band: 1/4
  • Free

Halcyon Theatre. By Yasmine Beverly Rana. Directed by Dani Snyder-Young. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 45mins; one intermission. Theater review by Dan Jakes The Bosnian War sets the backdrop for romance between Peter, an acclaimed conflict reporter, and Dahlia, one of his Sarajevan interview subjects, in Yasmine Beverly Rana's 2007 drama. And I really do mean backdrop: In 1994, holed up in a battle-torn hotel room the night before Peter's return to the United States, neither nearby mortar explosions nor journalistic ethics nor the general libido-killer that is mass slaughter are enough to distract the clandestine lovers from squabbling over their the ins-and-outs of their relationship triangle. Peter has a wife back home, he argues, and Dahlia is destined for bigger things, like carrying on his truth-telling mission after he's left.For a play that presumably seeks to highlight the emotional manipulation of international conflict experience, there's not much context outside of the bedroom to hang on to. In Dani Snyder-Young's production for Halcyon Theatre, that narrow and limiting framing device works better once Peter (Brendan Murphy) is out of the picture, and when Dahlia (Laura Stephenson) moves on to 2001 Kabul to collect stories from locals. One of her subjects, a prostitute named Leila (Rasika Ranganathan), describes an affair she's having with an extremist member of the Taliban religious police (Sameehan Patel). In flowery speeches delivered by Leila while bl

  1. Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church 3253 W Wilson Ave, at Spaulding Ave
  2. Thu Aug 14 - Sun Sep 7
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Home of the Gentry

  • Price band: 1/4

On the Spot Theatre Company's Mike Brayndick adapts Ivan Turgenev's 1859 romantic novel of doomed love.

  1. Greenhouse Theater Center 2257 N Lincoln Ave, between Webster and Belden Aves
  2. Thu Aug 14 - Sun Aug 31
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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

  • Price band: 1/4

The newly established Equity company Cole Theatre presents its inaugural production, helmed by Shade Murray. Six people find themselves caught between despair and joy, facing personal tragedy and struggle in a London flat in Mike Leigh's 1979 work.

  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 Yellow Wallpaper

  • Price band: 1/4

Theatrical experimenters The Mill return after a four-year hiatus with this adaptation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1892 short story, about a bedridden woman who begins to hallucinate others trapped in the "sickly sulphur tint" of her bedroom walls.

  1. Chopin Theatre 1543 W Division St, at Milwaukee Ave
  2. Fri Aug 22 - Sun Sep 14
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Frog Eyes + P.S I Love You

  • Price band: 1/4
  1. Schubas 3159 N Southport Ave, at Belmont Ave
  2. Wed Aug 27
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Cirque Shanghai: Warriors

  • Price band: 1/4
  • Critics choice

Impressive acrobatics paired with kung fu make an exciting and daring show. Vibrant costumes and traditional martial-arts moves make this show perfect for your inner Jackie Chan. Shows happen regularly Wednesdays at 2, 6 and 8pm; Thursdays at 2 and 8pm; Fridays at 2, 7 and 9pm; Saturdays at 2, 6; and 8pm and Sundays at 2 and 4pm.

  1. Navy Pier 600 E Grand Ave, at Streeter Dr
  2. Thu Aug 28 - Sun Aug 31
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Chicago Fringe Festival

  • Price band: 1/4

The fifth annual Chicago Fringe Festival features 48 different performing groups (several of whom seem to have managed permanent status in the fest's lottery-based selection system). Performances take place in five venues in the Jefferson Park neighborhood, with Fischman's Liquors serving as "Fringe Central," a.k.a. the main box office and hangout space for performers and audience members alike.

  1. Fischman Liquors and Tavern 4780 N Milwaukee Ave
  2. Thu Aug 28 - Sun Sep 7
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Vanishing Acts: Trees Under Threat Exhibit

  • Price band: 1/4

The outdoor exhibit sheds light on endangered trees and what can be done to save them. Daily in July and August from 7am to sunset at the Conifer collection. 

  1. Morton Arboretum 4100 Illinois Rte 53
  2. Thu Aug 28 - Sun Aug 31
More info
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