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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).