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!