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.