After what I thought was a dismaying year in 2013, Chicago theater bounced back with impressive aplomb this year. There were a lot of world premieres (some much readier for primetime than others), fresh voices and story-telling, searing examinations of America and the world, lots and lots and LOTS of Sondheim, a 12-hour adaptation of all 32 existing Greek tragedies, and exemplary work from a host of renowned artists, from celebrated actors such as Michael Cera and Sandra Oh to award-winning directors like Joe Mantello and Chicago’s pride, incoming Steppenwolf Artistic Director Anna Shapiro to exciting, ascendant playwrights like Marcus Gardley and Lisa L’Amour and exciting, established playwrights like Rebecca Gilman and Bruce Norris. Then of course there was The Evil Dead: The Musical. Chicago theater in 2014 had something for every theatergoer out there, from discerning to indifferent and back. Here then is the eight edition of my best theater productions of the year.
- The Humans (American Theater Company) – Stephen Karam’s world premiere play was a complex, honest, tough meditation on the state of the American family in the second decade of the 21st century and its grasping, frustrated pursuit of its elusive dreams. Artistic Director PJ Papparelli confidently staged the play in real time, and a mesmerizing ensemble cast inhabited their roles, some of the most nuanced characters I’ve seen in a new play in a long time, like comfortable old sweaters with broken hearts pinned to their sleeves. The Humans is great, contemporary drama, sure to shake New York City to its core when it premieres off-Broadway next year. Read my original post.
- All Our Tragic (The Hypocrites) – Since I’m a Board Member of The Hypocrites, I couldn’t write about its gravity-stopping, cojones-exploding 12-hour Greek tragedy. And I was just aching to do so. Adapted and directed by Founding Artistic Director Sean Graney from the 32 surviving plays churned out by Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides, this was theater as spectacle, as artistic monument, as communal binge-watching. Graney and his heroic 23 member ensemble cast, 14 of whom played multiple roles, demonstrated why these ancient stories still resonated: war was always the easiest course of action for prideful leaders, we never learn from our mistakes, and we always think we’re better and prettier than the gal in the other salon chair (hey Helen!).
- Mud Blue Sky (A Red Orchid Theatre) – Marisa Wegrzyn’s pungent yet melancholy play about flight attendants stuck in a O’Hare airport motel room and their teenage drug dealer was one of the funniest and also one of the saddest shows I saw this year, achingly painting the vulnerable lives of those dependent on an airline industry always on the verge of financial decline. And it also had three of the best performances seen onstage in Chicago this year – A Red Orchid Theatre ensemble members Kirsten Fitzgerald, Mierka Gieten, and especially Natalie West, played the flight attendants with not only sharp, world-weary wit but also unstinting, at times brutally realistic, honesty. Read my original post.
- Native Son (Court Theatre) – I saw Native Son on its closing weekend so I was unable to post a blog review. But I was absolutely blown away by Nambi E. Kelly’s world premiere adaptation of Richard Wright’s landmark 1940 novel about race. Every production element was perfectly realized: from Seret Scott’s impressionistic, near-cinematic staging to Marc Stubblefield’s subtly suffocating lighting to the commanding, muscular performances of Jerod Haynes as Bigger Thomas, accused of killing a white woman, and Eric Lynch as The Black Rat, Bigger’s alter-ego/psyche/conscience. But the star of the play was Kelly’s imaginative adaptation of Wright’s still-potent work, hauntingly poetic yet unflinchingly cutting.
- Tristan and Yseult (Kneehigh at Chicago Shakespeare Theater) – The UK’s Kneehigh, arguably one of the few theater companies in the world that makes theater geeks swoon, finally arrived in Chicago after playing cities less theater-mad than us (uh-huh, San Francisco) over the past several years. And they brought with them their gorgeous, exhilarating adaptation of the Cornish legend Tristan and Yseult, packed with all sorts of theatrical goodies, from live music to acrobatics to endearing romance to lively cross-dressing. But the show was always about why we fell in love with the theater in the first place: clear, engaging, emotional storytelling. Read my original post.
- Hair (American Theater Company) – ATC was this year’s Chicago theater MVP since prior to The Humans it staged a bold, jaw-dropping re-envisioning of Hair in collaboration with co-creator James Rado. This wasn’t your grandma’s hippy-dippy “Age of Aquarius”; this was rough, ragged, grimy, scared, a show that captured the aimless, sometimes terrified idealism of Vietnam War-shadowed 1960s. Keith Pitt’s superb set design was truly eye-popping, and was a perfect space for a sensational ensemble of some of Chicago’s best musical theater actors to cavort in. And on the night I went, I also had the pleasure of seeing original Broadway cast member and musical theater great Ben Vereen give this talented, peerless crew an enthusiastic standing ovation. Read my original post.
- Luna Gale (Goodman Theatre) – I always admired Rebecca Gilman plays more than I loved them. But with this world premiere Goodman production, I was riveted. In a well-constructed drama of a social worker’s battle to get a baby girl away from her meth-addicted teenage parents, Gilman raised provocative questions both personal (how should we define good parenting?) to the political (who truly benefited from the American system of social services?). Her fine, astute writing was complemented by Artistic Director Robert Falls’ effortlessly naturalistic direction and a brilliant ensemble, anchored by Mary Beth Fisher’s feisty, flawed, uncompromising social worker. Read my original post.
- Exit Strategy (Jackalope Theater Company) – Jackalope advanced to the head of the pack of the city’s young storefront theaters with its world premiere of Ike Holter’s searing play about a Chicago school on the verge of being closed by the city and the efforts of a group of passionate teachers and a student to reverse the decision. Holter’s writing was truly stunning – compassionate and clear-eyed, but also ferocious and devastating, tackling the complicated issues around school closings, one of the most emotional topics Chicagoans had grappled with in the past couple of years. And his fiery words were brought to vivid life by an extraordinary ensemble, with Patrick Whalen’s awkward assistant principal, Paloma Nozicka’s tough, gutter-mouthed teacher, and especially HB Ward’s defeated veteran teacher all memorable. Read my original post.
- Titanic (Griffin Theatre) – Chicago had many superb musical productions this year (something that’s a fairly recent development in a city whose theatrical legacy was built by the tears and sweat plays of Williams and Mamet) and Griffin’s scaled-down, minimalist production of Maury Yeston’s Broadway behemoth Titanic, the North American premiere of a version originally seen in the UK a couple of years ago, was one of the richest and most satisfying. Director Scott Weinstein sagely focused on the story-telling, and these beautifully-etched portraits were brought to life by the glorious singing and nuanced acting of a marvelous cast. Read my original post.
- Brigadoon (Goodman Theatre) – Although I’m always grateful for all the new work and dazzling re-imaginings I see as an avid Chicago theatergoer, sometimes, I just want to enjoy a great production of an old classic, straight up, no twist. And the Goodman’s Brigadoon, under the masterful direction of Rachel Rockwell delivered in a massive, soaring way. Yes, the plot, despite some tinkering with the approval of the Lerner estate from Brian Hill, was still corny and old-fashioned, not to mention quite unbelievable. But Rockwell, with the capable help of musical director Roberta Duchak, the irreplaceable set designer Kevin Depinet, orchestrator Josh Clayton, and an exuberant, literally pitch-perfect cast anchored by dazzling Chicago musical talents like Jenny Sophia and Jordan Brown, staged one of the most enjoyable shows of the year. Of course that genius Lerner and Loewe score helped. Read my original post.
The next 5:
- Stupid Fucking Bird (Sideshow Theatre Company)
- Our Class (Remy Bumppo). Read my original post.
- Gypsy (Chicago Shakespeare Theater). Read my original post.
- Cock (Profiles Theatre). Read my original post.
- Water by the Spoonful (Court Theatre).
- Side Show (Kennedy Center, prior to Broadway transfer). Read my original post.
- Into the Woods (Fiasco Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse, prior to Off-Broadway and New York City premiere).
Tags: A Red Orchid Theatre, American Theater Company, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Court Theatre, Fiasco Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Griffin Theatre, Jackalope Theatre Company, Kennedy Center, Kneehigh, La Jolla Playhouse, Profiles Theatre, Remy Bumppo, Sideshow Theatre Company, The Hypocrites