Maggie’s Picks: Top 5 Shows of 2016

This has been a banner year for the amount of thought-provoking and ground breaking shows I have been ridiculously inspired by. I am so excited about the shows and theater companies that have seen Chicago’s struggle with making room for roles for people of color onstage and off. (A recent survey* of 71 Chicago theater companies in 2016 found over 60% of those surveyed had not showcased the work of a single director of color, and 47% had chosen seasons featuring only white playwrights. I sought out shows that embraced their role in bringing everyone’s stories to life, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender or ability, and thanks to Theatre By Numbers (who’s assignments I will miss like the dickens), I got to see a good number of gems by die roll!

#1

Show: “East Texas Hot Links”

Company: Writers Theatre

Venue: Writers Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Open, festering brutality, administered close enough to implicate us all. 

RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

In this story of a quiet night gone irreversibly wrong, actors Tyla Abercrumbie and Kelvin Roston, Jr. ratchet up Charlesetta and Roy’s sexually tense arguments, you don’t expect the come-ons might be the only thing to bring you solace when their world is rocked. When Luce Metrius puffs up his chest as Delmus, annoying his elders with promises to leave them all in the dust, you don’t anticipate that you might rally instantly to him when he becomes a target of violence. You might feel kinship, like I did, with Namir Smallwood as XL, the odd man out, who can’t seem to control his provoking nature. And you might regret that impulse with every fiber of your being when you see exactly what XL is capable of. The heart of East Texas Hot Links lies with the unassuming Alfred H. Wilson as Columbus; in a way, the story centers on how far his forgiving nature will stretch before it snaps. There is something truly affecting to be shown that you don’t exist apart from an active racist brutality that still thrives in the open. Hate is easy to compartmentalize when acts of violence and racism are distant blips on a social landscape far from you. But East Texas Hot Links brings the blood of black men and women close enough to stain your dress shoes, and dares you to look away.

#2

Show: “The Promise of a Rose Garden”

Company: Babes With Blades Theatre Company

Venue: City Lit Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Female, armed and dangerous: drop and give them 20, maggots.

RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

“Rose Garden” is visceral, hard-hitting, and it arrives on the Chicago theater scene like water to quench an unfortunate drought of substantive roles of women and actors of color. It’s an astoundingly timely choice, and as Elyse Dawson’s directing debut, it’s the knock out of the park that many directors work their entire careers to achieve. The cast is astoundingly sure-footed, brutish and graceful, with stand outs Arti Ishak as Lieutenant Sharif, who is so still and unfazed that her brief flashes of anger are potent and chilling, and Maureen Yasko as Captain Rockford. You can’t take your eyes away from Rockford as she descends into devastation; bounding nervously away from everyone who seeks to aid her, and recoiling at the deep wounds she inflicts.What threatens this unit isn’t a distant enemy, but the very real haunt of disgrace. Unlike the men who try and fail this Infantry Officer course, or the men who rebound easily from mistakes made in uniform, these women face daunting, near insurmountable pressure. There is no room for error, but those that occur linger to haunt the next round of female recruits or stand to jeopardize their very inclusion.

#3

Show: “Matchmaker”

Company: Goodman Theatre

Venue: Goodman Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: So much whimsey, it hardly needs ‘Dollys’ cloying musical numbers. 

RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

The “Matchmaker” ensemble is nothing short of incredible. They finesse themselves into larger-than-life ridiculousness sometimes with little more than throwing on a gaudy purple cape or by stealing a jar of pickles. Allan Gilmore storms in and goes toe-to-toe with everyone he meets as Vandergelder; his bluster is delightful to watch. Likewise, Kristine Nielsen is so unrelentingly winning as Dolly, I found myself wracked with want of a fairy godmother to pluck me from normalcy and place me in an adventure. Another ingenious turn comes from Anita Hollander, who plays a multitude of roles (an elderly Gertrude, a pianist, Flora Van Huysen’s cook); Ms. Hollander, an amputee, is easily one of the most mobile entities next to Behzad Dabu’s table-hopping young Barnaby. This and more makes “The Matchmaker” the ultimate arena to play with audience expectation. Proceeding with abandon (and with author’s blessing), director Henry Wishcamper delivers what we’ve all been waiting for: actors of color in substantial roles, not to mention representation for non-cisgender and differently abled performers.

#4

Show: “The Importance of Being Earnest”

Company: Dead Writers Theatre Collective

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Let’s get farcical. Farcical. I wanna hear some bawdy talk.

RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

The verbal acrobatics are wrangled astoundingly well by a cast of hams who are at home fitting their dialog though crummy mouthfuls of cucumber sandwiches. Sean Magill and Jack Dryden make mincemeat of each other as John and Algernon, with Dryden channeling Oscar Wilde magnificently. Enter Megan Delay and Maeghan Looney as Gwendolen and Cecily, and you will wonder how you’ve gotten this far without seeing such skillful comediennes decimate each other and the men who love them. But all of them scatter rightfully for Mary Anne Bowman as Lady Bracknell. The play revels gleefully in the subversion found in the secret lives of the words Oscar Wilde used: ‘Earnest’ and ‘Bunbury’ could also be used to identify as gay among the 19th century underground. Another layer of humor just for those in the know at the expense of those who were not. That this was Wilde’s final play before he was imprisoned should say a lot about the danger he courted by putting those words in the open.

#5

Show: “Richard III”

Company: The Gift Theatre

Venue: Steppenwolf’s Merle Reskin Garage Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: This Richard is out for every scrap owed to him. 

RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

Director Jessica Thebus and the unnerving Michael Patrick Thornton as Richard stage a minimal, modern-flavored production that invites you to draw current political and social parallels. In an unnerving way, it plays on the impulses of an impatient and well-meaning audience. In moments that go on just a little too long, and are punctuated only by rustling and shifting, an unconscious thought creeps over the faces of able-bodied audience members: Will Richard make it to his feet? Will we be able to catch him if he falls? Hardly necessary. The ever-dignified Richard rarely lets his compatriots see him in need, and he is outfitted for his coronation with the fine technology from The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, keeping him at eye-level. Range of moment and slowness of time play an interesting part of The Gift’s production; when Richard begins, he effectively stops time with every ‘aside’ to the audience, and drives circles around his abled-bodied adversaries. However, when he transitions to the crown and walks upright with mechanical assistance, cracks in his facade begin to form. His plots against his adversaries are less effective, and his command of time fades as he inches closer to a wartime present.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Broken Record: A Contemporary Musical” (Stage 773 Theatre), “Rolling” (Jackalope Theatre), “[Trans]formation” (Nothing Without a Company & The Living Canvas) and “Wonderful Town” (Goodman Theatre).

*Circulated by director Lavina Jadhwani.

Chris’s Picks: Top 5 Shows of 2016

Every year is unique when you work in the theatre world.  For me, 2016 was a bittersweet year.  I saw fewer shows in the past 365 days than I have in any year since 2011.  I was only in the audience for 50 performances this year.  That’s down from 3 times that last year.  However, that was the result of working on more shows myself, and that’s a good thing.  My own theatre company is one of the many that closed up shop this year.  So, it’s on to new things with the new year.  But first, let’s take time to reflect, and celebrate the five best shows that I saw in 2016!

#1

Show: “Byhalia, Mississippi”

Company: The New Colony and Definition Theatre

Venue: The Den Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: How, when, and why do you choose to forgive someone?

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

My first top-rated show of 2016 never fell out of the top spot.  No matter what other crap went down in 2016, the year started out really strong and with a lot of promise.  I don’t have much new to say about this piece that I didn’t already say in my original review, so I’ll just quote a bit of that piece here: “Back when I was in grad school for playwriting, one of my professors maintained that no matter what else was true about your script, none of it mattered without the characters.  Well drawn characters can tell just about any story and make it moving.  Addressing issues makes something a platform, creating characters makes it a play.  Linder would have aced that professor’s class.  His characters are real people.  They have real problems.  They have real feelings.  They speak in very real cadences that bring the viewer into the world of the play.  This is a really well-crafted work.”  With this play, The New Colony and Definition Theatre tackled many of the issues that came to the fore in the political landscape of our presidential election.  He wrote a play about working class whites, upwardly mobile blacks, the tensions between races and classes, and how all societally held beliefs and attitudes are built and defined (and hopefully changed) at a personal level.  When we eventually look back on the career of Evan Linder, this play will be studied as his masterwork.

#2

Show: [Trans]formation”

Company: Nothing Without a Company & The Living Canvas

Venue: Collaboraction Studio

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Gender is not defined by genitalia despite actors being naked.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

I can safely say that not enough people saw this show.  Even had they sold out every night, that statement would still be true.  Nothing Without a Company and The Living Canvas put six completely naked transgendered and/or non-binary actors on stage and through powerfully emotional monologues, thoughtful songs, and intellectually challenging concept pieces, they led the audience to more or less ignore the genitalia bared in front of them.  The characters, the tales, the vibrantly colored projections all came together to create an evening of perception-altering art that changed those who saw it.  I came away enriched, informed, entertained, and fundamentally changed.  I can pin-point about five plays in my life that have shaken-up what I consider theatre to be.  Director Gaby Labotka has grabbed hold of my preconceptions and given them a good rattling.

#3

Show: “The Misanthrope”

Company: Piccolo Theatre

Venue: Piccolo Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A Moliere translation for a new generation. This play matters.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

If one had to pick a French playwright to be declared that language’s equivalent to Shakespeare, one would have to say Moliere.  And yet, in translation, his pieces often feel dated and less universal than the works of the Bard.  So, I was pleasantly surprised by Piccolo’s new translation of “The Misanthrope”.  This was an artfully executed piece that was updated to a modern setting.  The manners of the French court were swapped out for the proclivities of modern show business.  But, the essence of what was being said remained the same.  The script even remained in verse.  It was perfect for this time and place.  We all identified with the characters in a way that just isn’t possible to do when seeing an older translation still set in the 1600s.  One of my first professional jobs 20 years ago was on a production of “The Misanthrope”.  It wasn’t until Piccolo’s production of Martin Crimp’s literal and cultural translation that I truly felt I understood the work at its more basic level.  Ben Muller’s portrayal of Alceste was dynamic and director Michael D. Graham’s overall approach to the work focused on every single detail.  Each movement, each light or sound cue, every item placed on the set was important.  One strategically placed bowl of Skittles still makes me want to go to the lobby to buy a box right now.

#4

Show: “The Drawer Boy”

Company: Redtwist Theatre

Venue: Redtwist Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: We each live in a myth of memory.  But whose?

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

I’m pretty sure I could watch Adam Bitterman and Brian Parry act together all year long and be happy.  To see those two bring to life the older gentleman farmers in “The Drawer Boy” was a special treat.  Now, this play isn’t new, and it is a solid part of the contemporary canon, but I’d never seen the play prior to this production.  It is a touching piece that delves into the issues of creating memories, about what is truth, and what damage we do to ourselves and others.  It pack an emotional wallop.  But, it clearly only rises to the level of brilliant when treated appropriately.  Redtwist could not have treated this script better.  The play wasn’t something to be viewed, but experienced.  The total incorporation of all the design elements and a clear directorial vision brought everything together in a way that immersed the audience in a theatrical event, not a play.  There is no way I could have spent an hour and a half on a Canadian farm a year prior to my birth, but earlier this year I did just that.  I’m glad that I did.

#5

Show: “Naperville”

Company: Theater Wit

Venue: Theater Wit

TEN WORD SUMMARY: If Hell is other people, then so might be Heaven.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

I spent my formative years in an exceptionally affluent suburb of the Twin Cities.  Naperville (the city) has much in common with my childhood stomping grounds.  So it was that I attended this show expecting something that lampooned the nonsense of a society that places far too much value upon material wealth and the attitudes of entitlement that accompany evident affluenza.  Mat Smart’s script is one part character study, one part slice-of-life comedy, mixed with a dash of philosophic nostalgia.  That’s a recipe that results in a play that touches on the pride of those who come from a certain place, but also the doubt that comes from feeling out of place in one’s own community.  At its core, the play doesn’t make fun of anyone.  The humor comes from the very real situations and the human need for identity and companionship in both good times and bad.  Joe Schermoly’s set still amazes me in its complexity, utility, and beauty: not something I’d expect to say about what is really a realistic interior.  With this work, Abby Pierce reinforced her place at the top of my list of my favorite actors in town.  She didn’t carry this show, because she didn’t have to.  The whole cast was stellar.  But, she did bring unexpected depth to a character that had to be done just right in order to make this play work.  All in all, this play was far better and far more than I was expecting.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Good Person of Szechwan” (COR Theatre); “Rent” (Theo Ubique Productions); “Firebringer” (StarKid Productions); “Dream Girls” (Porchlight Music Theatre); and “The Lion in Winter” (Promethean Theatre Ensemble).

Sarah’s Picks: Top 5 Shows of 2016

I feel darn lucky to have joined the Theatre By Numbers team in 2016. Courtesy of fortuitous die rolls, I have experienced incredible evenings of theatre, something all the more impressive when you consider I only began writing for the site last spring. It’s been a fantastic year for Chicago theatre, from the storefront scene to the regional giants, and I am happy to report my top five productions from the season. Some I reviewed for Theatre By Numbers, and some I sought out on my own, but I think they speak to the variety and vibrancy that lives in the Chicago scene right now.

#1

Show: “The Christians”

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre

Venue: Steppenwolf Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Memorable performances and design provide an astounding production about belief.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

I just reviewed this production, but “The Christians” deserves to have its praises sung twice. Lucas Hnath’s warm and sincere script wrestles with the complexities of faith in a way that’s rarely seen in the theatre. Director Todd K. Freeman urges his actors to embrace their characters’ metaphysical concerns, without pushing the performers into caricature or airy-fairy frustration. The matters of life and death are real here, and so of course, they are also wrapped up in the worship service that serves as the framework for the dramatic action. I gave shout-outs to the design team and lead actors in my review, but I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to name-check the mesmerizing music team onstage: Jaret Landon, Leonard Madox, Jr., Charlie Strater, Faith Howard, Yando Lopez, Jazelle Morriss, and Mary-Margaret Roberts. They invite us into the world of this play with power and sincerity, and they both alarmed and charmed audiences the night I attended.

#2

Show: “good friday”

Company: Oracle Productions

Venue: Oracle Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Searing portrait of whether or not violence is the answer.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

Let us raise a glass to the dearly departed Oracle Production, whose dedication to public access in art has forever changed the face of Chicago’s storefront scene. It is a shame that 2016 was the company’s last season, especially given that they had just moved into a new space. But what an astounding play to end with in Kristiana Rae Colón’s “good friday.” This production about a school shooting confronted the audience with up-to-the-minute issues at every unexpected turn: campus rape, the shooting and abuse of men and women of color by police, economic injustice, the at-moments absurd use of social media, and the short memories we all share when it comes to atrocities. The ensemble of women onstage did the best work of any group of actors in the city this year, and the fact that each performance ended with their embrace — rather than a curtain call — speaks to the community-minded work Oracle has always built. The talkbacks after the show were essential, and the thoughts left behind on Post-Its made for powerful reading in the lobby. An unforgettable experience.

#3

Show: “180 Degree Rule”

Company: Babes With Blades

Venue: City Lit Theater

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A love story to film and women, and their romances.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

The entertaining mystery at the heart of “180 Degree Rule” was actually a love story, It involved two women, but not the two women you initially thought. Written by the late, great M.E.H. Lewis and Barbara Lhota, this Babes With Blades production teased the audience with heart, humor, and a “Citizen Kane” structure that kept one guessing. Along the way, the viewer was treated to lessons in cinematography and Hollywood censorship, and one hell of a fantasia about Nazis potentially invading the American film industry. Director Rachel Edwards Harvith excelled at navigating the flashback structure, and Amy E. Harmon and Lisa Herceg pulled you into their past romance with playfulness and passion. As is expected from Babes With Blades, the violence work was top-notch, but the moment that’s stuck with me many months later is the play’s final image: a projection of M.E.H. Lewis smiling out at the audience. How fitting that a love story ended with a tribute to the beloved playwright.

#4

Show: “The Secretaries”

Company: About Face Theatre

Venue: Stage 773

TEN WORD SUMMARY: I can never unsee what happened between Dawn and Susan.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

I stand by my ten word summary. I still think about the horrific stage moment that Dawn and Susan shared in “The Secretaries,” even though I saw the play all the way last May. The Five Lesbian Brothers don’t mess around when it comes to gore, on and off the boards. And their campy satire about secretaries from a saw mill murdering their way through lumberjacks indulges all of humanity’s worst impulses with an infectious, unforgettable glee. About Face generated a lurid, hysterical fever dream of a production with this script, and while the comedic timing was off from time to time — likely because of the play’s design demands — its biting satire sunk in its teeth all the same. Sometimes literally. Kelli Simpkins ruled her scenes as butch executive secretary Susan, contorting her body to slope around the set, rather than walk. Her demented devotion to cleanliness, appearance, and sisterhood birthed some of the most ludicrous, predatory, and thought-provoking moments in the play.

#5

Show: “The Seagull”

Company: The Artistic Home

Venue: The Artistic Home

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Intimate venue and strong ensemble work generate a haunting revival.

RATING: d20 — “One Of The Best”

Gauzy but not flimsy, The Artistic Home’s “Seagull” displayed how well Chekhov works when his humor and his anguish intertwine. Never has the opening exchange about mourning for one’s life been delivered with more Daria-like disdain, courtesy of Laura Lapidus. Never have I seen a Nina quite as angry as Brooklyn Hébert’s. And never have I felt so sad about the poisonous relationship between Arkadina (Kathy Scambiatterra) and her son Treplev (Julian Hester), fellow artists who will never understand one another. I always roll my eyes at Trigorin, but Scot West made me like him for once. This meditation on shattered dreams benefited from The Artistic Home’s intimate space, and the broken down barn set design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec framed the action with an eye towards country winters.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Limiting my list to five productions was difficult, as there was so much good theatre in the city this year. Here are my honorable mentions: “Fun Home” (Broadway In Chicago); “The Hairy Ape” (Oracle Productions); “Julius Caesar” (Writers Theatre); “King Charles III” (Chicago Shakespeare Theater); and “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” (Promethean Theatre Ensemble).

Chris’s Picks: Top 5 Shows of 2015

top-5As we reach the end of another year, it is time to look back and dub 5 shows the “best” of the year.  As you know, we have two reviewers here, so both of us put forth our lists.  Maggie’s list of five was published yesterday.  Mine follows below.  First, a word on the shows and on reviewing in general.  One of the best things about Chicago is the massive amount of theatre that occurs here every year.  Nobody can see all of the plays that are put up.  It’s completely impossible.  That being said, I personally saw 97 plays this year.  That is a lot of theatrical intake. And yet, as you compare my list with those of others in the city, you’ll notice our lists varying wildly.  It’s because we didn’t see the same set of plays.  It’s that simple.  My ranking of the top five shows that I saw cannot include the shows I did not see.  Makes sense, right?  Similarly, the list that Chris Jones put out last week in the Tribune could not include shows he did not see.  Here’s where I point out the beauty of our random dice chart method of play selection.  We get to discover the greatness that resides in some of the smaller shows that don’t garner much attention from the bigger press outlets.  Sometimes there are wonderful talents, scripts, and productions just waiting for bigger audiences.  And oft times they deserve more attention than they are getting.  It is a real treat to be allowed to shine light on those productions throughout the year.  So… with no further ado, here’s my list of the top five shows that I saw this year:

#1
Show:
Music Hall
Company: TUTA Theatre Chicago
Venue: The Den Theatre
TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Subtle, moving meditation on the vulnerability of the performing life.
RATINGd20 – “One of the Best”

Two of us here reviewed this play.  Jackie reviewed it for our site, and I reviewed it for Newcity Magazine. And we both dubbed it a work of brilliant theatre.  In my opinion, this show represents what theatre ought to be.  It was inherently theatrical.  It could not be replicated on film or television.  It was an experience and played with convention and reality.  It was a wonderful exploration of the performer’s life and struggle. Jeffrey Binder’s character, The Artiste, is an amazing character study.  This show speaks to anyone who has ever fondly reminisced about the fine and pleasant misery of trying to attain their dreams prior to giving up and giving in. TUTA provides a style of theatre whose aesthetic is in short supply in Chicago.  I admire what they do, and how well they do it.  We were lucky to have this show here before it went to New York.  I just wish that it could have played here longer.  I would have liked to go through the experience a second time.

#2
Show: La Bête
Company: Trap Door Theatre
Venue: Trap Door Theatre
TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Kevin Cox is a whirlwind of talent. A wild ride.
RATINGd20 – “One of the Best”

No other show this year featured one actor as well as “La Bête” featured Kevin Cox.  Even one-man shows don’t elevate a single actor as well as this show does.  And, while Cox did carry the show upon his very capable shoulders, every member of the cast provided the foundation upon which he could build his performance.  Written in the style of Moliere, and featuring a storyline that could come directly from the pen of the French master, David Hirson’s script was deftly handled by director Kay Martinovich’s ensemble.  It is true that for one 35-minute segment of the play, no one but Cox spoke a word.  Yet, the beauty of his performances was accentuated by the reactions of the others around him.  Of particular note were Anne Sonneville, Jesse Dornan, and Meghan Lewis, though there was not a single weak link in this cast.  Good people and an equally stellar commitment to production values made this something special, indeed.

#3
Show: Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys
Company: Raven Theatre
Venue: East Stage of the Raven Theatre Complex
TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Beautiful, disturbing, funny, and moving.  This show is beyond good.
RATINGd20 – “One of the Best”

A show can lift you up to emotional highs, or it can confront you with uncomfortable truths.  Really, it can do both at the same time.  Shows that do just that are few and far between, but when one comes around, it can rock your world.  Michael Menendian’s production of Mark Stein’s script filled every moment of the performance with energy and pathos.  The audience was never allowed to relax.  The material was continually engaging, and the actors were consistently “on”.  In confronting the horrible acts of our country’s collective past, the play raises issues that are confronting us today, and everyone in the audience is aware of this truth.  I don’t actually have words for the emotional and intellectual ride this play took me on.  I am still vividly thinking about it many months later.  A play like this becomes a part of you.  That’s a huge accomplishment.  I came away from the show altered, changed, and (I think) improved.

#4
Show: [Title of Show]
Company: Brown Paper Box Co.
Venue: Rivendell Theatre
TEN WORD SUMMARY:  I bought the album immediately after the show. Perfect musical.
RATINGd20 – “One of the Best”

One’s enjoyment of this play may very well be directly tied to one’s own involvement in theatre, but I suspect it holds its own with non-theatre folks, too. It has been called “meta-” by a number of other reviewers.  I prefer to call it self-aware.  It is the story of a musical being put together from its initial spark to opening night and beyond.  It is specifically the story of the show you’re actually watching, and the journey that the writers took in getting it there.  The songs are catchy, and unlike so many musicals these days, it doesn’t try to be sound like “Rent”.  The script is clever and touching.  I saw the show during the summer.  My daughter went with me.  She’s 16.  And, she loved it.  I often take her to shows with me, and seldom do they resonate with her at such a high level.  I can safely say that this show had multi-generational appeal.  I always love a good underdog story, and this production delivered on many levels.

#5
Show: With Love and a Major Organ
Company: Strawdog Theatre
Venue: Strawdog Theatre’s Hugen Hall
TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Train love. Quirky and weird in the best possible way.
RATINGd20 – “One of the Best”

I just realized that in a city known for harboring a nest of gritty realism, there isn’t a single play on this list that travels down the path of Steppenwolf-like productions.  “With Love and A Major Organ” may come closest, though. While Ashley Ann Woods’ scenic work was fragmentary by design, and Julia Lederer’s script is episodic and a bit random, the play could still be lumped into the magical realism genre.  I think it is the magical part of this play that makes it shine more brightly than many others.  The major accomplishment of this production is to accurately and imaginatively capture the feelings of falling in love.  It is disorienting, funny, exhilarating, frustrating, and beautiful.  Actress Abby Pierce plays a part that drags us all along the emotional gamut with her.  Normally, it is an insult to say that someone has no heart.  Pierce makes us feel very deeply for someone who has nothing inside anymore.

 

So there’s my list.  Just like others, I do have a couple of honorable mentions to throw into the mix.  These two plays were on this list off-and-on throughout my decision making.  So, kudos to “Animals Commit Suicide” (First Floor Theater) and “Miss Buncle’s Book” (Lifeline Theatre).  They were also stellar plays.

 

Maggie’s Picks- Top 5 Shows of 2015

top-5Maggie’s Top 5 Shows of 2015

I can’t believe some of the good fortune I’ve had, both with Theater By Numbers assignments and in the quality of shows I’ve seen as a patron of the arts. 2015 was the year of challenging theater and impressive undertakings with even more impressive results. If you had told me I was in for a year of plays that offered candid glimpses into sexual abuse, the lives of desperate, poor New Orleanians, or the world before standardized sign language, I’d have called you a liar!

Here are my Top 5 Picks:

 

Show: R+J: The Vineyard

Company: Oracle Productions & Red Theater

Venue: Oracle Theater

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The language of Shakespeare without having to hear a thing.

RATING: d12= “Heckuva Good Show”

Red Theater’s re-telling of “Romeo and Juliet” set in a largely deaf community in late 19th century Martha’s Vineyard features both deaf and hearing actors, super titles for some more intricate exchanges, and interpreters as needed for audience members. The concept that creators Aaron Sawyer and Janette Bauer have concocted involves more than just comprehension; they want to immerse every person in the history, culture and stigmas of deafness. Deafness factors into the atmospheric and musical soundscape, designed to give us the feel of sonic distortions that many deaf individuals experience, adding an additional disorienting layer to confusion and anxiety. Characters, stomp, bang and clang more often than shouting; the experience was eye-opening to anyone, myself included, who have never contemplated the view point of the deaf theatergoer.

 

Show: Sucker Punch

Company: Victory Gardens Theater

Venue: The Zacek McVay Theater

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Feel the punches, drip sweat; you’re almost in the ring.

RATING: d20= “One of the Best”

“Sucker Punch” does a tremendous job at making boxing action realistic and gut wrenching. It is a perfectly encapsulated coming-of-age story that is keenly aware that though events take place in nostalgic London of the 1980’s, the racial tension that inspired riots then is just as potent today. We follow Leon (Maurice Demus), who’s natural ability takes him from his neighborhood to international notoriety. There’s an overwhelming intimacy and exhilaration in the way we experience Leon’s matches in this production. The ring is the only place where he fears no repercussions. But outside, he keeps bumping into the invisible boundaries that his friends, mentors and primarily white institutions have set for him and other young black men. It’s there he’s increasingly outmatched.

 

Show: The Grown-Up

Company: Shattered Globe Theatre

Venue: Theatre Wit

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Magic emulates real life in this fairy tale for adults.

RATING: d12= “Heckuva Good Show”

“The Grown-Up” is a magical, multi-headed creature, recognizable to anyone that has ever built turrets out of couch cushions or decided that their orange shag carpeting was actually deadly lava. It is a gorgeous fairy tale built out of nothing, instilling you with equal parts childlike wonder and ache of any adult caught up in the memory of a place that is forever out of your grasp. It’s a joy to watch such an effective ensemble, doing such heavy lifting, and becoming the elements that add dimension to each lightly sketched world they inhabit. Each performer is a flash of color emerging when light bounces in prisms from our hero’s crystal doorknob, and we’re distracted enough with their wit and revelry to forget what lies behind the next door. Director Krissy Vanderwarker gives the story the spotlight, and wisely scrubs away anything unnecessary.

 

Show: REALLY, REALLY

Company: Interrobang Theatre Project

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre

TEN WORD SUMMARY: I’m with Liz Lemon; always be mistrustful of today’s youths.

RATING: d10= “Worth Going To”

Paul Downs Colaizzo’s “REALLY, REALLY” drops us smack dab into a communal hangover courtesy of the wildest party on campus. There’s enough camouflage to trick you into thinking you’re about to set foot into a frivolous collegiate social sphere, and the deepest concerns of these co-eds is sussing out who made the biggest, drunkest fool of themselves and who hooked up with the sketchiest character. But, Animal House, this is not. When very serious allegations of rape enter the fray, we exactly what shallow stuff these students are made of, and what an insignificant thing truth and honesty can become when your future is threatened. The show punches the wind out of the myth of a carefree and well-adjusted college student. No one escapes this play without being morally compromised. One of the hardest shows I’ve ever had to watch and recover from; and I mean that in the best way.

 

Show: Airline Highway

Company: Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Venue: Steppenwolf Theatre Company

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Last day in the life of a crumbling motel queen.

RATING: d20= “One of the Best”

Lisa D’Amour’s “Airline Highway” is a sometimes warm, sometimes biting tribute to the sparkle and decline of a once proud motor court now all but abandoned by all but the most desperate for four walls and a roof.  We’re invited to join the parking lot social circle, breathe deep the cigarette haze and drink in dawn soundtrack of rumbling vending machine and muffled radio at the Hummingbird Motel.  The ensemble is an incredible force. They are bombastic, deeply flawed and thrilling to watch as each stumbles further from the ideal self they’ve expended such effort to project. As the keg runs dry, each of them faces the harsh light of their true nature; some are wizened, and others run from the unkind mirror. The production is astoundingly lifelike, and it’s almost spell-breaking to see actors taking their bows.

 

HONORABLE MENTION:Ibsen’s Ghosts”, Adaptation by Greg Allen for Mary Arrchie Theatre. (Be sure to catch a show with Mary Arrchie before their doors close for good!)

 

Maggie’s Picks – Top 5 of 2014

top-5Here are Maggie’s top picks of 2014:

#1
Show:
Monstrous Regiment
Company: Lifeline Theatre
Venue: Lifeline Theatre
TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Nobody left on the disk but us ladies and monsters.
RATING:  d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

A troupe of strange new recruits are all that is left of fictional Borogravia’s thinning ranks after generations of war, in this Discworld adaptation. But the ladies-er, uh, lads make quick of enemy soldiers; there’s fearless leader Polly/Oliver, (Sarah Price), Maladict (Michaela Petro), a tee-totaling vampire, not to mention loyal trolls, Igors and no shortage of orphans. They’re plucky, resourceful, and they tromp their country’s archaic views on women and war into the dust. This play is hilarious, high energy and heartfelt- the sort of show you always hope is waiting for you on the other side of the curtain.

#2
Show: The Arsonists
Company: Strawdog Theatre Company
Venue: Strawdog Theatre
TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Ruthless fire starters can’t bring one man up to code.
RATING:  d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

In this satire, flawed protagonist Biedermann (Robert Kauzlaric) is determined to outwit dangerous arsonists on his own; intent on returning to his simple life and making the firebugs someone else’s problem. But he simply isn’t willing to lose face to his sedated wife (Sarah Goeden), a chorus of firefighters, or the dim-witted/mastermind arsonist Schmitz (Scott Danielson). He traps himself in his pride and failed efforts to manipulate a bad situation in his favor. As Biedermann finds his options narrowing in the face of impending fiery doom, the stage closes in on him, a tangle of scaffolding, fuse wire and fire hose.

#3
Show: Ain’t Misbehavin’
Company: Porchlight Music Theatre
Venue: Stage 773
TEN WORD SUMMARY:  A whole world of stories hidden in old time music.
RATING:  d12- “Heckuva Good Show”

It’s a unique pleasure to watch this cast of five incredible singers (Robin Da Silva, Lisa Wasp, Sharriese Hamilton, Lorenzo Rush Jr. and Donterrio Johnson) careen from number to number, not just singing and dancing but deciding their relationships in the blink of an eye. Austin Cook pounds away on the piano as the whole joint threatens to shake to the ground under the power of the troupe’s exuberance. But it’s a handful of surprisingly introspective and haunting renditions of well-known Waller tunes that make this revue so much more than an exercise in pastiche. Directors Brenda Didier & Janet Landon have ensured that this is an Ain’t Misbehavin’ the like of which has never been seen.

#4
Show: Venus in Fur
Company: Goodman Theatre
Venue: Goodman Theatre
TEN WORD SUMMARY:  An actor and director spar for all man and womankind.
RATING:  d10- “Worth Going To”

Rufus Collins and Amanda Drinkall are Thomas and Vanda, seemingly mild-mannered (sort of pretentious) writer-director and the actress who has stormed in literally, dead-set on auditioning for the title role in his masochistic Venus in Furs adaptation. What starts as a simple read-through between strangers slowly escalates into sly plays for power and dominance and the unraveling of text and psyches; and it’s a thrill to watch as the two dissolve into sweaty madness. The night’s not over until intellectual posturing, source material and Thomas and Vanda’s mutual assumptions have all been cast to the wind.

#5
Show: Santaland Diaries
Company: Theatre Wit
Venue: Theatre Wit
TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Torture, abuse, and insanity, all in the name of Santa.
RATING:  d12 “Heckuva Good Show”

Actor Mitchell Fain is a masterful emcee, putting a bead on his captive audience as he pauses boastfully to land laser-accurate zingers or winces at the unfortunate window he has opened into his own embarrassment. Fain has swallowed his pride for a paycheck, and is hired, trained and outfitted to appear as ‘Crumpet’, an elf herding families through the screaming, vomit, profanities, racism, lies, alcohol and menstrual blood saturated Macy’s decadent Santaland forest.

Chris’s Picks – Top 5 Shows of 2014

top-5Chris’s Top 5 Shows of 2014

Over the last 12 months I saw a total of 62 plays. I am happy to report that only two of them received my lowest rating. And the overwhelming majority of them received one of my three top ratings (which Theatre in Chicago translated into either being “Recommended” or “Highly Recommended”). It was a good year full of good theatre.

Here are my Top 5 shows:

  1. Show: Exit Strategy
    Company:Jackalope Theatre Company
    Venue: Broadway Armory Theater
    TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Doomed to fail, unlikely allies fight against a school closure.
    RATING:  d20 = “One Of The Best”
    This visceral play by Ike Holter delivered a visceral kick in the gut. It displayed emotional muscle and tight writing. The dialogue was brought to life by an amazing ensemble cast, and the play’s subject hit home with almost every single person in the audience. Our education contributed heavily to the people we’ve become. It’s at our core as individuals. More often than not, we forget how fundamentally important it is to us, to the people who make it happen, and to the kids who are experiencing it right now. Man! This was one Hell of a reminder. Down and dirty and in your face. Passionate and compassionate. All sides were good guys, and all sides were bad guys. I left this show saying “Wow!”  That is still the impression it leaves with me.
  2. Show: Songs from an Unmade Bed
    Company: Pride Films & Plays
    Venue: Apollo Studio Theater
    TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Songs of sex and love hit all the right notes!
    RATING:  d20 = “One Of The Best”
    It’s been many months since I saw this play, but the songs are still stuck in my head. I’m humming “The Man in the Starched White Shirt” as I write this. There was something brilliant in taking a song cycle that is usually done as a one-man show and making it a complete play by breaking the songs out to two singers who interact with each other and tell a story. Kevin Webb and Jordan Phelps are phenomenal singers and acted through their pieces more strongly than most actors can with just straight lines. I saw them each in other shows this year, too, but together they made a musical I wish I could go back and see again.
  3. Show: The Downpour
    Company: Route 66 Theatre Company
    Venue: Greenhouse Theater Center
    TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Marriage and motherhood are endangered by repeat of ugly past.
    RATING:  d20 = “One Of The Best”
    Straight-up realism will almost never sing to me. I go to the theatre to experience something theatrical. But, Caitlin Parrish wrote a script that takes on a condition that is difficult to talk about in even its simplest form: mental illness.  And she takes it up a few levels of intensity by looking at how mental illness of a parent affects young children, and also what happens when that mental illness is passed on to the next generation.  The small ensemble sucked me in and made me care about characters who could have been in a TV drama, but were live on stage and holding out their lives for my scrutiny while punching me in the gut with a fist of truth.
  4. Show: Monstrous Regiment
    Company: Lifeline Theatre
    Venue: Lifeline Theatre
    TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Terry Pratchett’s feminist satire on war has bite … with fangs.
    RATING:  d20 = “One Of The Best”
    Most people would contend that Science Fiction and Fantasy are better suited for the big screen than the stage, due to the need for special effects. Lifeline, however, demonstrated that sometimes the opposite is true. This story about a female regiment of soldiers all pretending to be men, made amazing use of mostly simple theatrical conventions to create a world unlike any other. The Discworld novels are full of fantastical stories, and this one truly shines on the stage.
  5. Show: Our Class
    Company: Remy Bumppo
    Venue: Greenhouse Theater Center
    TEN WORD SUMMARY:  People can do horrible things.  Polish classmates experience the worst.
    RATING:  d20 = “One Of The Best”
    Our Class (Remy Bumppo) – I’m not sure how often one can leave a play about the Holocaust with a spring in their step, but I did after this show. This tale of Polish neighbors who did horrible things to each other throughout their lives demonstrated all the horrible sides of human nature, and I mean All of them. And yet, it also showed the resiliency with which people can make it through all of the worst things in life. That very human element that makes us so much less than we could be if we were to be our best selves is what makes this play resonate at a higher level than many other plays about the suffering of the 20th century. Eloquent writing and exquisite direction made for a terrific play: a play that I felt good about, despite feeling terrible about what it addressed.

 

Jackie’s Picks – Top 5 Shows of 2014

top-5One of the perks of reviewing is the opportunity to see all of the great theatre going on in our fair city. I had a heck of a time choosing, but here are my top 5 favorite shows of 2014:

Show: Burning Bluebeard
Company: The Ruffians
Venue: Theater Wit
TEN WORD SUMMARY:  A memory love-song brought to life by incredible performances.
RATING:  d20 = “One Of The Best”

Six performers gather in the ruins of the Iroquois to attempt to finally complete their Christmas pantomime Mr. Bluebeard. Their one goal is to reach the happy ending they had hoped to give their audience, but that was cut short by disaster. The actors approach their task with overwhelming joy  – they’re so in love with their audience, so excited to share their play that they burst into dance. Burning Bluebeard engages not only your eyes and ears, but your heart and your mind. It’s equal parts whimsy and heartbreak, and the fact that, in the end, it’s a Chicago story is icing on the cake. It’s a not-Christmas Christmas play, and a wonderful foil to conventional holiday-themed shows: at its heart, it espouses the spirit of giving and love that Christmas is supposed to evoke.  Go. Be moved.

 

Show: Bethany
Company: The Gift Theatre Company
VenueThe Gift Theatre
TEN WORD SUMMARY: When life throws wrenches into your plans, will you persevere?
RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

Bethany is an unsettling play. While the script has a few hiccups in story logic, the tremendous acting of this ensemble completely obscures any weaknesses. I’ve rarely seen such a well-cast show. And Hillary Clemens’ deft subtlety brings layers to a character that could devolve into a Lifetime Movie farce in clumsy hands. Instead, it’s easy to empathize with Crystal and her challenges. The terrifying aspect of Bethany is seeing someone who has skills, talent, and drive trapped by circumstances beyond her control and having to figure out a way through fear to the other side. Clemens’ Crystal is so wonderfully transparent. The actor holds nothing back; there is absolutely no separation from the character. No matter the decisions Crystal makes, the audience understands the price those decisions demand. It’s a trait shared by all of the cast – the complete incorporation of their characters. Let me tell you – it’s a beautiful thing to experience.

 

Show: Danny Casolaro Died For You
Company: TimeLine Theatre Company
Venue: TimeLine Theatre
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Get the story out before it kills you, Danny Casolaro.
RATING: d20- “One of the Best”

Danny Casolaro is based on the real-life events that led up to the death of journalist Danny Casolaro in 1991. Kyle Hartley is amazing as Danny Casolaro, bringing to life a man whose dogged pursuit of the story to unveil the truth ultimately killed him. It’s more than just a political thriller, though. It’s also a story of family. Demetrios Troy plays Tommy Vacarro, Danny’s cousin and the narrative center of the play. The play itself is Tommy reviewing the past and showing us what happened – some things he was present for, some events Danny relayed to him. The cousins were hoping to break the story via a major news outlet and capitalize on it further as a movie. The chemistry between Hartley and Demetrios is perfect: they’re family, and they go to the mat for each other. The rest of the cast is equally strong, and skillfully created a world in which no truths are easily defined, and what you know might just kill you.

 

Show: Holmes and Watson
Company: CityLit Theater Company
Venue: CityLit Theater
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Versatile acting shines in a nimble, fast-paced adaptation. Elementary!
RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

Holmes and Watson brings us back from the highly entertaining but bastardized screen versions of the characters to the literary wellspring. The play is comprised of two of the most famous of the Holmes short fictions: “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Final Problem”. What’s so lovely about this piece is its simplicity: three actors, two stories, wonderful chemistry. James Sparling presents us with a most excellent hybrid Holmes – he’s both alive with curiosity and relishes discovery, but is far from a knowitall. It doesn’t hurt that he has a fantastic Watson (Adam Bitterman) to play against. Watson is our narrator, and in so doing also becomes other characters in the play– all impeccably distinct, one from another. Director and adaptor Terry McCabe has chosen both the source material and his actors well, and crafted a fast-moving narrative spun out as a twisting psychological drama.

 

Show: Jane Eyre
Company: Lifeline Theatre
Venue: Lifeline Theatre Mainstage
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Your past informs your present and you control your future.
RATING: d12 – “Heckuva Good Show”

What’s extraordinary about Jane Eyre is not the romance, but the journey of Jane as she fights the expectations of society to live on her own terms. Jane collects ghosts that influence her every movement, and in this version the ghosts are embodied by actors who follow Jane and challenge her every decision with repetitive phrases calculated to incur crippling self-doubt. John Henry Roberts is outstanding as Mr. Rochester. From the moment he tumbles onstage, he owns the boiling passion of a man living in a torment of his own making. He throws so much of himself out to Jane that it seems inevitable that she should fall for him. Supporting the very good acting is a fascinating treat of a set – bare brick walls are exposed between floor-to-ceiling posts set along the side walls and across the back that can be angled an lowered to give the impression of many different structures. Props to Jana Anderson’s costuming, which marries period shapes with a distinctly steampunk gypsy flavour.  And Christopher Kriz’s sound design is just cool. The modernist take on design helped to illuminate the timelessness of the ideas in the story: self-determination, making peace with your past, and allowing change in your life. It is a beautifully spooky piece of theatre.

Happy Holidays to everyone, and here’s to a brilliant 2015!