Maggie’s Picks: Top 5 Shows of 2018

It has been an unmatched pleasure to watch storefront theaters and burgeoning companies take on complicated art and unpack some weighty topics in 2018. We are seeing the beginning of a theatre landscape that reflects Chicago’s diverse population and myriad of cultural touchstones struggling for years to get a place at the theatrical table. Here are just a few productions and companies that are broadening our artistic pallets. Don’t be afraid to sink your teeth in!


Show: “Tilikum”

Company: Sideshow Theatre

Venue:  Victory Gardens Theater (2433 N Lincoln Ave.)

DICE RATING: d20 –– One of the Best

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Wait a minute- this isn’t strictly about whales, is it?

Kristiana Rae Colón’s deeply affecting story of marine life in captivity highlights the ways we are disregarding, in real time, the humanity of people who are unlike us. Gregory Geffard’s Tilikum is supposed to be a captured orca whale, but it’s no mistake that he is also a black man in a hoodie. In a very profound way, “Tilikum” is not about sea life; it’s about mass incarceration, the effects of trauma and enslavement on humans, and the injustices being dealt to incarcerated men, women and children of color as we speak. Gregory Geffard is fantastic as Tilikum, holding depths of sadness, anger and joy in a world that only understands his obedience and punishes disobedience. “Tilikum” is brazen, funny and spirit-lifting above all else. It’s one of the most revelatory concepts onstage in 2018.


Show: “Merchant on Venice”

Company: Rasaka Theatre & Vitalist Theatre

Venue:  Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave.)

DICE RATING: d20 — One of the Best

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A revelatory & relevant take on an ancient cultural rift.

Shishir Kurup’s modern-ish take on “Merchant of Venice” has something to teach us about fear, violence and stereotyping; it has something to teach us about politics, sex and prevalent hate in our 2018 American lexicon, and while it harkens back to Shakespeare, it has something to teach us about the Bard’s limitations and the pedestal we reserve for them. The original text is abandoned for the author’s own verse, bursting at the seams with metaphors for these characters’ cultural and sexual frustrations that cite modern tech, pharmaceuticals, and even some Queen lyrics. Anish Jethmalani lays an embattled heart right on the table as Sharuk, who accepts no pity or solace and gives none either. Madrid St. Angelo is a sardonic and morose Devender, who is plagued with the sadness of knowing the man he loves can never be his. It’s hilarious, inviting, tense, and understandably angry.


Show: “Radio Culture”

Company: TUTA Theatre

Venue: TUTA Theatre ( 4670 N. Manor Ave.)

DICE RATING: d20 –– One of the Bests

TEN WORD SUMMARY: The artistic equivalent to spending time in your own company.

The human consciousness goes under a microscope (and over a loudspeaker) in Maxim Dosko’s exploration of one Belorussian construction foreman’s inner monologue, translated by Natalia Fedorova and Amber Robinson. Volodya’s thoughts are so specific that they become universal, and so trivial, they encompass whole lives. He fixates so hard on keeping his life pristine, that it gives way to an unspoken concern that his thirty-some years of work have been a waste. Kevin V. Smith is still and calm as Volodya, levying such precise judgments on his workers, family and himself, you can’t help but wonder what he must think of you. That’s the thing: Volodya may be terribly alone, but so are all of us, and it’s a distinct, bonding experience to hear an internal voice that is not your own.


Show: “The Light”

Company: The New Colony

Venue:  The Den (1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.)

DICE RATING: d20 — One of the Best

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Baring your whole soul for the privilege of being heard.

In watching Loy A. Webb’s “The Light” I found myself seething with the most potent anger I’ve ever felt in a theater seat. Director Toma Langston takes the premise of a benign argument between a newly engaged couple, and explodes it brutally into a testament of just how powerful a woman’s word must be before it is accepted as fact, and embraced without question. How powerful? The answer isn’t fair, but judging by the sobs and tear-stained faces of nearly every female patron, the truth of it resonated.  A woman’s claim must be airtight, plausible, beyond reproach, and is only as valid as she is perceived as “good.” Tiffany Oglesby and Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr. crackle with intensity as Genesis and Rashad, two ordinary Chicagoans who have let down their guard for each other, and must deal with the breaking of their unspoken boundaries.


Show: “HeLa”

Company: Sideshow Theatre

Venue:  Greenhouse Theater Center (2257 N Lincoln Ave.)

DICE RATING: d20 — One of the Best

TEN WORD SUMMARY: What happens when Black Girl Magic meets Black Girl Science.

“HeLa” is as messy, complicated and emotionally gripping as the real account of the life (and afterlife) of Henrietta Lacks on which it was based. Director Jonathan L. Green has crafted a truly wonderful stage experience, and honors author J. Nicole Brooks’ complex tale, jumping between eras, dimensions and realities. The production is an amazing showcase for Deanna Reed-Foster as Jata, a lonely imaginary spacewoman, or maybe the form that sentient multiplying HeLa cells blasted to space have opted to take. The heart of “HeLa” rests with Nicole Michelle Haskins, brilliant and blistering as Auntie Bird. Her vulnerability and vitality in every facet really hammers home how little of their lives these women were allotted. We see the richness of these women’s lives juxtaposed the changing worth they’re assigned by the medical and scientific fields they encroach on. It’s lasting, effective and one-of-a-kind.