"Ripper the Musical" **1/2

Ambience is a tricky thing to conjure at a place like the Annoyance Theatre, where the stage remains a blank slate to accommodate all the different comedy shows scheduled for any given week. That means you never see productions really delving into creative set design; everything has to be easily removable and temporary. Also, sets cost money.

These limitations are just part of the deal when directors work in this space, and frustratingly few have landed on a unique or creative work-around. Brendan Dowling, director of "Ripper the Musical," does land on one briefly, if only for a single scene.

Envisioned by writers Jen Spyra and Boaz Reisman as a Sherlock Holmes murder mystery involving Jack the Ripper (though Arthur Conan Doyle never actually wrote a Ripper mystery, it's not uncommon to see the two linked), the show is an exercise in Victorian-era silliness. Some of it feels cranked out and not terribly witty — notably some clunky attempts to derive humor from an anti-Semitic housemaid. Kellen Alexander's Sherlock is somewhat ill-defined as a character, as well, but the show takes a decent path to parody, embracing the genre while also sending it up, particularly a scene midway through that takes place in a stagecoach.

Seemingly lit by just two lanterns placed on either side of the carriage driver, the missing mood in this production snaps into place. The darkness and ensuing zaniness of the scene — which involves a turbaned clairvoyant (Neal Dandade) predicting all kinds of madness to Holmes and Watson — moves the plot forward in some clever ways.

The score is pretty good, and Reismann and Spyra have somehow managed to write a kicky song about abortions, of all things. Alex Moffat gives the sharpest performance as Watson, funny and believable as a three-dimensional character who seems to be wandering through the cartoony parameters of the show.

Through Nov. 30 at the Annoyance Theatre, 4830 N. Broadway; tickets are $20 at 773-561-4665 or theannoyance.com

"Through the Middle Ground" *

To quote the artist Rob Pruitt on "Work of Art" on Bravo TV: "It's not a bad story to tell, it's just bad storytelling."

That critique came to mind during the two hour-plus running time of "Through the Middle Ground," Louis Cancelmi's drama in a production at the Side Project about a returning Iraq War veteran struggling to adjust to life stateside.

Jon Penick plays the unnamed soldier, a riddle of a character who barely says a word, and neither Penick nor director Adam Webster have figured him out. So much is internalized with this guy: How does one dramatize that for the stage? Why would this man's girlfriend, whom he nearly smothers to death (fine work from Tamara Todres), be so blase about the violence? These are questions unanswered as the production crawls, scored to some of the mopiest music imaginable.

Through Dec. 18 at the Side Project, 1439 W. Jarvis Ave.; tickets are $20 at 773-973-2150 or thesideproject.net

nmetz@tribune.com

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