Review: “18 Months After November” (Contraband Theatre)

E.K. Doolin/Photo: Dustin Hageland.

In a time of uncertainty, theatre artists have spent the past several months creating work that speaks to our times, simply through the format with which the theatre is delivered. Ingenuity has led us to telling stories in unforeseen circumstances, stories about immediate issues, such as fascism, connection, and sorrow.

Director and playwright Jacob Juntunen has brought all these subjects to the forefront in Contraband Theatre’s virtual production of “18 Months After November.” Presented online in a series of scenes made up of scattered Facetime calls and urgent conference call negotiations, the world of the production is not so far from our own. America is divided along political lines, as in our reality; only here, Juntunen has taken the recent fascist turns within our Congress and presidency, and spun them to terrifying conclusions. Thus, eighteen months after the presidential election, California has seceded from the Union, and liberal Emma (E.K. Doolin) is struggling to survive in Missouri, plotting with loved ones Anne (Stephanie Stroud) and Jen (Deanna Lee) to escape to California.

But driving across country now means facing blocks at various borders, fending off unwanted advances from those she stays with (Jennifer Remke and Minoru Jackson), or battling a bureaucrat (Peter Moore) who demands she give up her most vital supplies before crossing into into his territory. Academics and those in the LGBTQIA community are primary targets, but anyone is suspicious, even old friends you think you can trust.

A clever shift in the final minutes of the play completes the chilling warning of Juntunen’s script, and the intelligence of the recorded calls brings a full urgency to each step on Emma’s journey. Doolin carries her increasing fear and paranoia in steely reserve, and Moore can always be counted on to bring an untenable bargain out in his favor.

Editor Dustin Hageland creates a startling pace, cutting from scene to scene with precision, and letting the final moment land with clarity and crushing finality. Juntunen smartly suggests the space these characters inhabit off-line with a wide swat of backgrounds introducing the audience to an American on the verge of an apocalypse.

Theatre is always meant to speak to our current moment, and the warning of “18 Months After November” is meant for audiences now, if they will only listen, and choose a different path moving forward.

“18 Months After November” can be found for viewing here:

DICE RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The chilling aftermath of an election brings truth and clarity.

On a personal note, Sarah and Jacob Juntunen were colleagues at Ohio University, and are friends.

Sarah’s Wish for The New Year

What do I wish for 2021?

After the return to safety and health for the public, I wish a return to the theatre, to watch artists make magic by creating stories before our very eyes.

But there’s something I wish for even more. Theatre artists have been patient during the pandemic, as everyone pressed pause for the public good.

So what I wish for theatre practitioners is the coming year is that organizations and companies have their back by thinking about their good. Every artist I know has learned what it is to live their lives in completely different ways. They are now able to make dinner at a leisurely pace, rather than rushing to rehearsal. They know what it is to think about things larger than art. And they have learned how to tell stories over Zoom and radio and through archival work. And it’s time that the flexibility and sacrifices they’ve made are rewarded.

We need to respect theatre practitioners’ health and time. We have had time in the last year to agonize over the hectic schedules we usually put on our artists, and to reflect on how little equity we see on our stages, and on the whole, we must admit that we pay creators almost nothing for their efforts.
It’s a New Year. There’s still time. Organizations and companies can create practices of equity and pay artists a livable wage. The time is now, while we have it. Let’s make a new way in a new year. That is my wish for 2021.

Maggie’s End of 2020 Reflections

Recovery is coming in 2021. Will critics be able to restrain themselves? Or will we just fawn all over everybody?

As I casually leafed through the Bloomberg, boning up on airline regulators’ concerns over pilots ill-prepared to resume flying, I had a nagging feeling; what if my critiquing skills are totally shot, now? What happens if Chicago performers return triumphantly to the stage, but I am unable to levy fair criticism, or use MLA formatting? What if I submit a review that is rife with spelling errors, and they all make it to print? 

Even if a critic were to hone their craft over months of quarantine, generating review after unread review of, I don’t know, their third re-watch of “Tiger King,” are they truly prepared? Would they be able to divorce themselves from their unchecked enthusiasm just to have Joe Exotic crooning at them about the glory of tigers and Carole Baskin’s missing husband? It will take practice and patience for critics to exercise required nonchalance. 

My renewed appreciation of the life and health of the artists who will be the first to take their bows is what haunts me the most. I will probably break into sobs, excitable squeals, and will definitely give an “Ooooooh” and giggle at the first stage kiss I see. I am coming to terms with the fact that I will rave and gush. I will hand out stars and single-word quote lines like “Breathtaking!” or “Astounding!” to folks who may be rusty at best. I may give you the most favorable review of your career, and for this, I must ask that you bear with me and my half-baked assessments. We’re all doing the best we can with our meager tools.

Review: “Burning Bluebeard” (The Ruffians & Porchlight Music Theatre)

Jay Torrence, Anthony Courser, Pamela Chermansky, Leah Urzendowski, Ryan Walters, and Crosby Sandoval/Photo by: Michael Courier.

When I was a teenager, I told people I wanted to be an artist because that meant I would never hurt anyone, never take anything from others not willingly offered, never harm strangers physically or emotionally. Years after earning my theatre degree and making a career as a playwright, I now know that art can impact and even hurt people in ways I never imagined as a young fan of the musicals my high school performed.

In the Chicago classic “Burning Bluebeard,” the actors retell and re-live the destruction of the 1903 Iroquois Theater. All they wanted to do, they tell their contemporary audience, is create moonlight. They wanted to bring magic to their early twentieth century audience just after Christmas. But it was their lighting scheme that set the curtains and the building alight. And it was an actor who advised audience members — mostly women and children — to stay in their seats and remain calm, rather than find a safe exit. It was an actor who forced open the backstage door that created a backdraft and consumed the audience.

What is the value of art in a moment of destruction? The Ruffians production, last year produced by Porchlight Music Theatre, asks this annually around late December, just as the original 1903 actors of “Mr. Bluebeard” presented their Christmas pantomime for an eager audience of families. This year, “Burning Bluebeard” is presented as an archival performance from the 2019 edition of the play, and it is an enlightening experience to watch this play, even from afar, in 2020. 

The theaters are closed, stage manager Robert Murray (“Burning Bluebeard” playwright Jay Torrence) informs us after the lights rise. This comes by order of the mayor, because theaters across Chicago are deemed unsafe for groups to gather in. Already, goosebumps dotted my skin, as I recognized a parallel to our pandemic lives. But the show must go on, his fellow company members insist: Fancy Clown (Pamela Chermansky), a lover of melodrama and drawn-out emotional moments; Henry Gilfoil (Anthony Courser), who insists that his Mr. Bluebeard has psychology, and cannot just be a villain; Eddie Foy (Ryan Walters), a comedian who brought his young son to the day’s performance; and Nellie Reed (Leah Urzendowski), the aerialist ballerina, who drops crimson petals on the upper balcony during a regular, uninterrupted performance. They are aided in their recreation of events by the Faerie Queen (Crosby Sandoval), and they hope this time around, they will create moonlight and keep the audience safe.

As developed by the original company years ago, and directed by Halena Kays, this group of actors embraces the presentational aspects of early twentieth century performance by clowning with each other and the audience. Each character is introduced in bold strokes, one lighting a lighter to the fright of others; another spurting blood and strangling themselves to death in dark humor that comforts the viewer. By the time events turn serious, the audience is as off-kilter as the original audience might have been; when matters become life and death, not magic and the mundane, there is nothing anyone can do to change them.

Associate sound designer Robert Hornbostel supports these tonal shifts with well-timed shifts into Amy Winehouse, and even utilizing an eerie take on Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Lighting designer Maggie Fullilove-Nugent creates lanterns and a hanging bunch of Edison light bulbs that become menacing rather than magical by play’s end. And the choreography by Leah Urzendowski and Ariel Etana Trifuno turns from playful dance numbers to the creation of a burning audience of flailing arms and stomping feet.

By the end of “Burning Bluebeard,” you learn what made this theatrical event unforgettable. It wasn’t moonlight. It was the safety violations the actors could not anticipate, and though they feel responsible for what happened to their audience, they deserve to have their stories remembered, as they were not the ones who locked doors and gates; they were not the ones who built the building or oversold the show and crowded the aisles. In fact, their experience led to the creation of rules we still follow, to ensure safety in all theatre spaces. And the horror they witnessed also led to the creation of the crash bar on emergency doors in public places. They wanted to create something magical, but they became the harbingers of something much more important. Their tragedy is that they could not possibly save everyone, something that is true of artists in 2020, too. But like our current moment, they can still reach out with the resources they have, and tell stories that matter.

DICE RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A moment in theatre history brought to life shows us now.

Show: “Burning Bluebeard”

Company: The Ruffians & Porchlight Music Theatre

Venue: Ruth E. Page Center for the Arts (1016 N Dearborn St)

We Must Do Better

The culmination of a long-overdue social upheaval, the pandemic shuttering of the arts, and the labored reluctance of our leaders to change have highlighted what simple, actionable work could be happening right now, if we all got behind it. It’s not too much to ask to make room at our artistic tables, board rooms, and technical booth for BIPOC artists to lead, but it does mean taking a hard look at the state of your artistic team. 

We asked team members if we see enough equity in the Theatre By Numbers creative circle, and the frank answer is no: we need BIPOC voices and leaders in our corner, and we need to foster a publication that makes racial equity a priority both in what we publish and who we hire. One way we hope to embody this? By ditching our randomization, and “loading our dice” to ensure we’re only reviewing theater by companies committed to honoring Black voices onstage and backstage. We won’t consider shows featuring majority white casts, or shows from companies with majority white artistic teams. We’re here to keep up the hard work and uncomfortable conversations that spur more thoughtful art. 

We would like to host your voice on the Theatre By Numbers site. If you would like to see and review Chicago/Chicagoland theatre once it returns, with total control of what you want to write and how you want to write, please send a writing sample to As we currently generate no revenue, pay is only in free theatre tickets, but if you would like the platform for your voice, we would welcome you and provide as many writing assignments as you choose to take.

If you are a theatre-maker or company whose work you think we should see, please contact Sarah at We roll the dice to create equality, but now we must load the dice to generate true equity. Please get in touch, and we will make sure you will be placed on the schedule.

Additionally, the Theatre By Numbers team will be making donations of $50 each to Brave Space Alliance and GoodKids Mad City. If you would like to join in on donations, look at the following links:

We must do better and we will do better.

-Sarah & Maggie

Bottom 5 of 2019 (Or, Here’s How We Can Do Better in the New Year)

Every piece of theatre is perfect for a particular audience member, no matter what critics may say. This is one reason we at Theatre By Numbers usually hesitate to “punch down” when it comes to productions we may or may not have cared for. There’s a difference when you’ve found a piece of theater to be not to your liking, and when you’ve found a production to be a danger, or harmful to performers and audiences alike. Maggie has chosen to highlight productions she views to be harmful in nature, and one production she can still highly recommend … to the right audience member.  Sarah has chosen one production that caused harm, and one production that did not quite live up to its themes.

Maggie’s Picks:

Show: “Ruse of Medusa”

Company: Facility Theatre

Venue:  Chopin Theatre (1543 W Division St)

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Looking for sensical theater? You’ve come to the wrong place.

Do you like orchestras of men in jade monkey masks clanging on old rotary phones? Indistinct wailing poetry from barons in powdered wigs (sometimes directed only at you)? Or being taken into the tendrils of some monstrous jellyfish that is also a bandstand & unicycle circuit? Then my friend, strap on a mandatory bower hat, because “Ruse of Medusa” was the most rousingly successful nonsense I could possibly recommend. Director Dado trafficked in weird asymmetrical patterns and off-putting detachment, and inserted every tactic you could employ to annoy an audience; our unwilling participation, a distinct lack of rules and walls, and an ending so abrupt, it felt like a trick. It was perfectly absurd. 

Show: “Horse Girls”

Company: Exit 63 Theatre

Venue:  The Greenhouse Theatre (2257 N Lincoln Ave)

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A show so troubled, it was cancelled before it ran. 

In the days leading up to the opening of “Horse Girls” the all-female cast went public with the struggles they endured while rehearsing with director Connor Baty. The cast made the Chicago theatre community aware of their attempts to amicably work out their grievances with Baty in spite of his noted dismissal of their concerns, name calling, and incidences of racism and sexism. Instead of moving forward and making the behavioral changes his cast called for, Baty cancelled the production, shuttered Exit 63, and has not commented publicly on the incident to this date. It’s a testament on how hard it can be to be frank, honest and genuine in your commitment to making a safe theatre space and still go unheard for far too long. 

Show: “Proxy”

Company: Underscore Theatre

Venue:  The Understudy (4609 N Clark St)

TEN WORD SUMMARY: An ethical dilemma distracts from okay writing and stellar performers.   

There’s nothing illegal about taking inspiration from a topical real news story, scrubbing that story of all names, locations and other identifying information, and writing a musical on the subject. However, I’d argue that not every story should be artistic fodder without permission.“Proxy” is based on a real 2014 “Slenderman” stabbing incident, and posits what could have happened to fictional people who suffered a similar fate. While watching, it occurred to me that there may be real survivors of a similar horror, unaware that their experiences were being dramatized. People under the age of 18 who may value their privacy, not notable public figures. The thought of real people not having knowledge or a say in this musical left me feeling implicated. I am still regretful of any enjoyment I got from potentially unconsenting sources. 

Sarah’s Picks

Show: “Utility”

Company: Interrobang Theatre Project

Venue: Rivendell Theatre (5779 N Ridge Ave)

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The intense realism of poverty takes its time and toll.

“Utility” made great points about the grinding nature of poverty, how it invades even what should be joyful celebrations, such as a child’s birthday party. But playwright Emily Schwend does her theme a disservice in showcasing one woman boxed in without choices. Her protagonist does little onstage, and so an uneasy creep of condescension creeps into the drama, as if allowing the character to make even an unsuccessful choice would spoil the hammering message that poverty and bureaucracy do not allow one to accomplish anything.

Show: “Peter and the Starcatcher”

Company: Citadel Theatre

Venue: 300 S Waukegan Rd, Lake Forest

The cast of “Peter and the Starcatcher” left their production after physical safety and emotional well-being were sacrificed in the name of expediency and gaslighting. The group published a letter on Rescripted, which you should absolutely go and read if you have not had the chance yet. The cast created a set of guidelines to follow through on making the theatre community better moving forward, and this determination and collaboration is what we should most take forward with us into 2020.

Review: “Proxy ” (Underscore Theatre Company)

Review: “Proxy ” (Underscore Theatre Company)

Kyle Kite, Tessa Dettman, Carisa Gonzalez, Michael Mejia, and Jenny Rudnick/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Underscore Theatre’s newest non-equity world premiere musical “Proxy” by Alexander Sage Oyen (music and lyrics), Austin Regan (book) and Rachel Franco (book and lyrics) has gone to great lengths to obscure its source material. You won’t find reference to the true story that inspired it mentioned anywhere, and all names and details have been changed just enough to let audiences enjoy the salacious fiction for a time. There’s a bloody murder attempt, a culprit in the throes of mental illness, and the longstanding hurt of the survivors. It all makes for thrilling drama. 

Unfortunately, I lost my taste for it the moment it occurred to me that there may be real survivors of a similar horror, unaware that their experiences were being dramatized. People under the age of 18 who may value their privacy, not notable public figures. While “Proxy” takes care to remove itself from the 2014 Wisconsin “Slenderman” stabbing that inspired it, the thought of real people not having knowledge or a say in this musical left me feeling implicated. I am immediately regretful of any enjoyment I got from potentially unconsenting sources. 

I understand not everyone may feel the same, but given that the musical itself values journalistic honesty, it’s odd that the creative team affords their fictional victims more say than the actual victims in how their stories are told. In “Proxy,” Vanessa (Carisa Gonzalez) is a digital media journalist whose publication is going under. To save her job and her boss Doug (Michael Mejia), Vanessa volunteers her own click-bait story of being stabbed multiple times at age twelve by her best friend, Ronnie (Tessa Dettman). Ronnie claimed that she only hurt her friend to appease the faceless gentleman that appears only to her and become his proxy. Vanessa decides to return to her hometown and confront Ronnie in disguise as another reporter to give herself distance, but reopening old wounds with Ronnie, her mother (Jenny Rudnick) and brother Sean (Jonas Davidow) solidify just how lost Vanessa is in her life’s impossible narrative. 

Carisa Gonzalez and Tessa Dettman/Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Director Stephanie Rohr and music director T.J. Anderson keep the action moving at tight clip, and make the most of a very intimate stage and minimal score. As Vanessa and Ronnie, Carisa Gonzalez and Tessa Dettman are vocal powerhouses, with perfect soaring clarity and fantastic emotional depth. They portray two women that are not always likable or sympathetic, but can still ensure we are hanging on their every word. 

The “Proxy” score struggles to meet the performing team halfway. The songs carry so much plot and extemporaneous detail that it can be a struggle to find the hook or a definitive style. The wordiness of each number also obscures different character voices, or the discovery/changes they want to convey. Repetition and reprises may not be every songwriter’s favorite tools, but they’re effective where they appear in “Proxy.” One particular number that works well to offset the heavy subject matter is Sean’s comedy song of self discovery, “To Find Who I Am,” where he imagines all the amazing places he’d like to visit and smoke weed. 

I’d hesitate to recommend “Proxy” without an assurance from the authors, or from Underscore, that the minors whose stories have inspired this musical have given their blessing for this project to explore a dark time in their lives. Without some proof of due diligence, this production is asking audiences to ignore the real individuals who potentially had no say (or knowledge) in how this story was crafted. If I were the inspiration for a musical, I’d want to know. 

DICE RATING: d6 — “Has Some Merit”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: An ethical dilemma distracts from fine writing and stellar performers.   

Show: “Proxy”

Company: Underscore Theatre Company

Venue: The Understudy (4609 N Clark St)

Review: “Sugar in Our Wounds ” (First Floor Theater)

Review: “Sugar in Our Wounds ” (First Floor Theater)

Renee Lockett and Michael Turrentine/Photo: Gracie Meier.

Simple. Beautiful. Haunting. This is exactly what author Donja R. Love’s Chicago premiere production of “Sugar in Our Wounds” is in the hands of director Mikael Burke. The harrowing and uplifting tale comes to life under an intimate, cobbled tree canopy that breathes life, joy, and a heartbeat into a landscape of constant degradation. “Sugar is Our Wounds” is not an easy story, but it’s an important and affecting story that should be required viewing for all Chicago theater-goers. 

While the Civil War rages, and political dispatches reach them in dribs and drabs, a makeshift family of slaves on a plantation in the deep South welcomes a new member, Henry (Londen Shannon). They have all lost their people to death and disappearance and cling to each other; Aunt Mama (Renee Lockett) is an all-encompassing mother and healer, Mattie (Ashley Crowe) is tortured and scarred daily by the plantation owners who share her blood, and James (Michael Turrentine) keeps his ability to read a secret, among other things. Their lives are all entwined with an ominous tree that has a bloody history as a slave hanging site, and a supernatural draw for James and Henry, inviting them to discover the love they could share. Of course, nothing stays simple in this fraught, transactional atmosphere, where a same-sex relationship makes James and Henry easier targets for white violence than just their blackness would.

Michael Turrentine, Londen Shannon, Ashley Crowe, and Renee Lockett/Photo: Gracie Meier.

What happens onstage is nothing short of a profound experience, with each character exchange broken down to be equally minimal and meaningful. As Aunt Mama, Renee Lockett lavishes knowledge and gifts on each of her younger charges, and takes up the weight of their losses and her own. Ashley Crowe retreats into herself so fully as Mattie, it’s as if she’s willing herself to become invisible each time the sadistic Miss Isabel (Grainne Ortlieb) gets within striking distance. Apart from his relationship with James, Londen Shannon’s Henry wearily fends off everyone else in their attempts to commodify him for his body. As James, Michael Turrentine floats on air in a way his close counterparts cannot. This is due to the special, dreamlike relationship he maintains with the large tree that seems to live, breathe and impart its’ secrets only to him. 

The tree itself is a gorgeous amalgamation character brought to life by scene designer Joy Ahn, sound designer Sam Clapp, and lighting designer Eric Watkins. Its voices, pulsing lights, and descending woven plank arms make it an interactive supporting player. Director Mikael Burke has amassed a brilliant ensemble, and whittled each moment down to angry and poetic normalcy. It’s an opportunity for all Chicago theater-goers to face historic cruelty at its most disturbing, and not flinch. “Sugar in Our Wounds” is not an easy play to watch, but there is such a reward in the way it values queerness and blackness that history has callously dismissed. 

DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A tree is one slave’s portent of love and death.

Show: “Sugar in Our Wounds”

Company: First Floor Theater

Venue: The Den Theatre (1331 N Milwaukee Ave.)

Review: “Best for Winter, being a short Shakespeare adapted from The Winter’s Tale and other works” (Idle Muse Theatre Company)

Review: “Best for Winter, being a short Shakespeare adapted from The Winter’s Tale and other works” (Idle Muse Theatre Company)

Elizabeth MacDougald and Brian Bengtson/Photo: Steven Townshend.

“A sad tale’s best for winter,” one performer tells another at the start of Idle Muse’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s most improbable play, “The Winter’s Tale.” The above line is repeated later in “Best for Winter, being a short Shakespeare adapted from The Winter’s Tale and other works” and its certainty evokes morning frost and endless grey skies. Early April in Chicago often features days below thirty, so the audience is perhaps primed for the woe ready to befall these Jacobean characters. But there’s a trick to this story of betrayal, murder, and grief. Not only does a bear save a child’s life, but circumstances turn bright after an impossible rebirth. The play may be improbable, the acting and directing suggests, but that does not make its grief pointless.

Leontes (Brian Bengtson) becomes a tyrant king in the production’s opening moments. Concerned about his wife Hermione’s (Mara Kovacevic) friendship with neighboring ruler Polixenes (Eric Schnitger), he first orders adviser Camilla (Laura Jones Macknin) to poison his imagined rival, and then imprisons his bride once Polixenes flees to his native Bohemia. No one will confirm what Leontes believes to be true, and the innocent Hermione dies after giving birth to Perdita (Kristen Alesia), who escapes death only due to interruption by bear, and grows up in exile as a shepherdess in Polixenes’ kingdom. She and Bohemia’s prince Florizel (Brian Healy) fall in love, and then things get really weird.

Director and adaptor Evan Jackson never downplays or seeks to course-correct the odd coincidences and magical moments of “A Winter’s Tale,” and his production is the better for it. Shakespeare is never insincere, and to laugh at his shortcuts and fantastical leap into miracles is to misunderstand the story being told. “A Winter’s Tale” begins as a tragedy, and ends with the cost of said drama lightened, but not fully lifted. Jackson creates a barebones production, with help from Laura J. Wiley’s evocative lights and projections, while focusing heavily on the script’s heightened language. Also, Wiley’s bear puppet is a lot of menacing fun; it caused several children to jump from their seats and roar at intermission on the night I attended.

Bengtson is terrifying in his certainty, awoken by so very little. Elizabeth McDougald as the magician Paulina hammers home the injustices created by the king’s jealousy, and Kovacevic embraces Hermione’s vulnerability as strength. In this era of tough conversations and expanded awareness, many companies are programming “Measure for Measure.” But perhaps we should all take a second look at “A Winter’s Tale.” In a world where women are wronged and disbelieved, even magic cannot completely set things right. Time is still lost, relationships torn apart, and the cost almost always falls on those who have less power. If you want a sad tale before spring sets in, check out Idle Muse’s unflinching production of this late-stage romance.

DICE RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The impossible is given its due in an elegant production.

Show: “Best for Winter, being a short Shakespeare adapted from The Winter’s Tale and other works”

Company: Idle Muse Theatre Company

Venue: The Edge Theater Off-Broadway (1133 W Catalpa Ave)

Bottom 5 of 2018 (Or, Here’s How We Can Do Better in the New Year)

2018 was a strong year for Chicago theatre, but there is always room for improvement. As our society struggles with issues of equity and supremacy, so too does our art. Maggie and I have compiled a list of less than progressive theatre experiences we have had this year, and we share them with you in the interest of what to watch out for, and what must continually be called out and changed in 2019. In no particular order:

“Little Shop of Horrors” & “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at Drury Lane

Drury Lane Theatre has had a year of clinging to safety nets to accommodate a largely older, white subscriber base. Chicago audiences are clamoring for theaters to cast more actors of color in highly visible roles, and produce more work from authors and directors of color. But with recent productions of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Little Shop of Horrors”, Drury lane has opted to do neither. Roles in each production that are typically handed to white actors were doled out to white actors yet again as Drury Lane continued the tradition of relegating performers of color to playing largely silent household staff (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) and a Supremes-style Greek chorus (“Little Shop”). Here’s your 2019, tailor-made ice bucket challenge, Drury Lane: Cast your next traditionally white main character with an actor of color. Repeat as often as possible. -Maggie Wagner

“Tootsie” at Broadway in Chicago

“Tootsie” is going to make money and win mystifying praise, no matter what Theatre By Numbers says. But that doesn’t mean the Broadway-bound production doesn’t deserve a callout. Never has a production had less of a reason to exist, so much so that its writers and actors spent promotional interviews with the Trib and the Sun-Times doling out justifications for a 2018 take on the 1982 film comedy. The Broadway in Chicago production was dismissive of gender dynamics, negligent in analyzing power between men and women, and completely ignorant of how the production might be perceived by the trans community. Men in dresses aren’t funny, and we’d wager they’ve never been funny. David Yazbek’s score was unmemorable, and book writer Robert Horn sacrificed insight for lampshaded #MeToo references. -Sarah Bowden

“Miss Saigon” at Broadway in Chicago

Another outdated production in Broadway in Chicago’s season. This musical has a storied history of whitewashing and tragic character stereotyping. If you’re looking at the horrors of the Vietnam War from the perspective of a Vietnamese woman, perhaps it’s less than ideal to funnel the tragedy of the musical’s narrative through a white man’s experiences. The unending popularity of “Miss Saigon” could demonstrate that audiences are hungry for a wider array of stories on our stages. But when we are fed the same points of view and diminishing character actions over and over, we fail to recognize what is actively diverse, and how we can better serve those whose voices we want to uplift. -Sarah Bowden

“New Worlds: Bill Murray, Jan Vogler and Friends” at The Chicago Theatre

Bill Murray proves to an audience of beaming superfans that he has no idea what goes into curating an evening of music and selections read from a slate of his favorite literary heavyweights. Seriously, what would prompt Murray to read passages from Hemingway and Twain that feature prominent misogyny and racial slurs? Laziness? Bad shrimp? We may never know the inner workings of this self-proclaimed folk hero’s mind, but what is clear is that “New Worlds” suffers from a lack of outside perspective. It’s easy to read a loaded piece of literature when you’re a wealthy, white, beloved character actor, and there are very few pieces of literature that would ever have the power to make you feel unwelcome in a space. So, he proceeds to make us all unwelcome; he reads choice selections from Hemingway that reduce women to breast size, and the most offensively broad, imbecilic interpretations of Black characters from “Huckleberry Finn.” Murray asks us to find poignance buried somewhere in his mountain of white male gaze. The most that I, and my fellow patrons who left long before the show was over, could muster was: LOL NO. -Maggie Wagner

The 2018 Jeff Awards at Drury Lane Theatre

The Joseph Jefferson Awards are glittery, local accolades, and most Chicago theaters and performers indulge their older, white member base as they vie to be the most “Jeff Recommended”. As more artists and playhouses are questioning the value of being picked as a favorite of this stodgy institution, The Jeff Awards tried to revamp their image by recruiting younger members, members of color, and rejecting traditionally gendered award categories like ‘best actor’ & ‘best actress’ in favor of having male, female, or non-binary actors compete directly. These are all commendable steps, but change to committee demographics is markedly slow. Even removing gender from their actor categories, just resulted in more men than women or non-binary performers being honored in 2018. With change coming at a glacial pace, the Jeff Awards hardly paint a complete picture of exemplary theater in Chicago. -Maggie Wagner

Our object at Theatre By Numbers is always to promote quality theater and help these institutions and performers weed out their complacency. We want to see these companies keep working beyond snarky, embattled responses and enact real change. You only move forward if you’re willing to work, and embrace the idea that there isn’t an ‘enough’ you can target when working to end racism and sexism in art. It’s hard work, and it never stops.