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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.