We asked our editors and writers to pick some of their favorites of the year. The result is this mosaic of arts and culture, which most likely does not include many of the items you’ll see on other best-of-2017 lists.
Best Chance the Rapper Surprise Appearance: The Cool Kids set at North Coast Music Festival
Surprise Chance the Rapper appearances in his hometown aren’t incredibly rare, but there was something special about his down to earth stop at The Cool Kids’ North Coast Music Festival set. What could have easily been a “steal the spotlight” situation was actually a particularly collaborative and reverent moment. Chance was visibly excited to be on stage with his mentors for the first time, sharing stories about the importance of Sir Michael Rocks and Chuck Inglish to his musical career with the crowd in between inspired performances. He stayed on after his medley (“No Problem,” “All Night” and “I’m the One”) to back up The Cool Kids for the rest of the set, making the insanely packed Coast Stage area go wild.
Best New Venue: House of Vans
House of Vans Chicago came into existence with little warning and took no time in establishing itself as a must-visit venue. The majority of their events are free and they consistently put on excellent shows from their grand opening show (featuring Future Islands, Digable Planets, and Noname) to its spectacular summer series full of local favorites (including the like of The Cool Kids, The Lawrence Arms, and the reunited Cap’n Jazz). And let’s not forget they hosted the final Chicago show of the late and undeniably great Charles Bradley, a concert that elevated the Screaming Eagle’s already legendary status. The venue is currently closed for renovations, so hopefully they get those done soon and reopen this phenomenal space for another great year!
Classical music: Sonorous Earth and Beethoven’s Ninth
Sonorous Earth. World premiere of August Read Thomas’ percussion concerto Sonorous Earth, Chicago Philharmonic, Scott Speck conductor, Third Coast Percussion, at the Harris Theater, on Sunday, November 12.
Initially inspired by Resounding Earth, a percussion quartet that features 300 bells and pieces of metal assembled from around the world, Sonorous Earth took it one level higher. The additional tonal colors of an orchestra allowed Augusta Read Thomas to create a work of enormous tension, vision and passion.
Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Carlos Kalmar conducting, on Saturday, August 19.
This is not an everyday piece of music, and this was not a perfect performance. (It was generally good, but the baritone soloist in the finale had too much vibrato.) I just needed a catharsis of some kind to deal with the awful crap going on in our society, and boy, did I get it! Nothing lifts spirits better than a decent performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and it did the trick on this August evening in Grant Park.
Bettina Pousttchi, Suspended Mies, The Arts Club of Chicago.
Berlin, Germany-based artist Bettina Pousttchi’s large-scale hanging photographic installations at the Arts Club–one of the Seagram Building and one of Mansion House Square, representations of the built and unbuilt legacies of Mies van der Rohe, respectively–consumed the gallery space whole, but so carefully, in a way so flawlessly integrated with the club’s architecture, they nearly disappeared. Perfection.
Paul Gauguin, Artist as Alchemist, The Art Institute of Chicago
This unprecedented retrospective of the seminal painter’s work delved into the depths of his life in Tahiti. The transcendental nature of the works on view was enhanced by beautifully engaged exhibition design. A fine, complete view of an artist engaged with the primitive, but forever ahead of his time.
Takashi Murakami, The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, Museum of Contemporary Art
Yes, everyone loved Murakami for his playful style, the cartoonish Mr. DOB, and Kanye Bear, but there’s a dark and exciting undercurrent in his other work, such as 100 Arhats and Nuclear Power Picture, and in his musings on high and low art. This large exhibit was a smash hit for the MCA.
John Vinci: Life and Landmarks, Northwestern University Press
A long-awaited and beautifully executed monograph of the life and work of one of the foremost architects of our time, this volume gives equal attention to Vinci’s humble beginnings in an Italian neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side, student days at the Illinois Institute of Technology, role in the nascent preservation movement, and practice in historic restoration, exhibition design, and modern architecture.
Also see The Best Books We’ve Read In 2017 by three more Third Coast Review writers.
Adana Kebap. This delicious Mediterranean dish from Turquoise Café in Roscoe Village combines hand-chopped seasoned lamb shoulder with red bell pepper and crushed peppers. The perfectly tender meat is nestled in warm flat bread and served with rice pilaf and yogurt sauce. Enjoy with their tangy Turkish feta salad – a blend of romaine lettuce, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, feta cheese, black olives and vinaigrette dressing for an amazing dinner!
— Cynthia Kallile
Guillermo del Toro. The best thing I saw all year was the Guillermo del Toro exhibit at Minneapolis Institute of Art. It’s a walk through an artist’s mind, macabre as it is endearing, interesting as it is diverse. I was fascinated with absolutely every object and story within the exhibit. Epic.
The Harvard Balloon Festival. I’d never gotten the chance to attend the International Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque when I lived in New Mexico and now I know why so many flock to it. Evening glows are magical, and being amongst all the colorful, silent balloons was truly enchanting.
The Playtest Party at the Logan Theatre was the best local community video game event we attended, and a great representation of Chicago’s game culture. Enthusiastic players came together with passionate, friendly developers and everyone had a great time. The Logan Theatre knows how to throw a great party.
Gimme Danger: Story of the Stooges
Writer/director Jim Jarmusch chronicles the protopunk pioneers with clips and interviews to “penetrate the tangled web of their career” in the energetic, quirky, irreverent doc. Born and raised in a trailer park (and inspired by Soupy Sales to create narratives in 25 words or less), Iggy Pop (the blue-eyed, animated muscle née James Newell Osterberg, Jr.) assembled his Ann Arbor band into the Stooges to crowd surf and lead the counterculture with an amalgam of aggressive, yet free-form, rock.
“The Stooges reinvented music as we know it,” says an interviewee, and the film acknowledges their deep influence on fashion, fine art and film too.
My list of best films of 2017 would certainly include The Shape of Water, Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. But this isn’t my best-of list. This is a film I loved even though it has flaws, such as a casual, rambling approach to its topic.
California Typewriter, directed by Doug Nichol, is a valentine to the old-fashioned typewriter through a series of stories and interviews with writers, musicians and artists who use and love their typewriters. The interviews are woven around the story of a Berkeley typewriter repair shop, the eponymous California Typewriter, and the devoted owner and genius repair guy who work hard to keep the business, as well as the typewriters, going. It’s inspiring to hear writers like David McCullough and Sam Shepard talk about their typewriters and to hear musician John Mayer talk about why he’d rather write lyrics on his typewriter than on a computer. Tom Hanks shows us his collection of 250 typewriters. You can hear songs by the Boston Typewriter Orchestra and watch an artist create sculptures from typewriter parts.
— Nancy Bishop
Best plays of the year
Beyond Caring, at Lookingglass Theatre, dove deeply into the lives of those working temporary cleaning jobs. Devised and directed by Alexander Zeldin, this was a harrowing production, acted with ferocity by a committed ensemble who created a radically empathetic experience.
I can’t choose one; I could barely narrow it down to five. Of the 80 plays that I reviewed in 2017, these are most memorable. The first four are local productions, while the Goodman production was dropped here intact after a New York run.
Lela & Co. at Steep Theatre. A stirring story of what happens to women in wartime, creatively staged and powerfully acted.
Machinal at Greenhouse Theater Center. An expressionistic drama by a female playwright (written in the 1920s), and a strong feminist story.
At the Table by Broken Nose Theatre at the Den Theatre. At the Table begins like an updated Big Chill, but breaks open in act two to demand who gets to sit at that table.
Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Trap Door Theatre. My favorite Bertolt Brecht play got a rousing production and creative staging. And all the characters wore red noses. Trap Door satirized the rise of a fascist dictator in the 1930s….and perhaps today.
A View from the Bridge at Goodman Theatre. This inventive staging by Belgian director Ivo van Hove changes the look but makes Arthur Miller’s language more visceral than ever in this story of Italian immigrants trying to make it in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the 1940s.
Best storefront theater
Trap Door Theatre, with A Red Orchid Theatre, Steep Theatre and Gift Theatre close behind. Trap Door, as I said in a recent review, now in its 24th season, consistently creates startling theater, which is exciting, sometimes bizarre, but never boring. They specialize in avant-garde, expressionistic plays, mostly by eastern European playwrights. The tiny theater, at the end of a gangway behind a restaurant on Cortland, is well worth your attention.
— Nancy Bishop
Most underrated theater company
Remy Bumppo Theatre Company produces intelligent, thought-provoking, beautifully acted and staged theater. The artistic director, Nick Sandys, has a fine literary sense, which shows in the choice of work. Their productions of Born Yesterday and The Skin of Our Teeth almost made it to my best-plays list. Although Remy Bumppo gets very favorable reviews, it doesn’t often make it into “most frequently mentioned” medium-sized companies, where it belongs—along with Raven, Strawdog, Timeline, Court and American Blues.
Most under-appreciated actor
Allen Gilmore in Waiting for Godot, Man in the Ring and many more plays at Court Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare and Congo Square Theatre. Gilmore is a classically trained actor whose elegance, fluid movement and acting chops make him a pleasure to see in any role. If Chicago had a theater hall of fame, Gilmore should be the first actor honored.
Essential venues for itinerant theater companies (and audiences)
Theater Wit, Stage 773, the Den Theatre, and the Athenaeum Theatre offer multiple spaces for theater companies. They also have audience amenities like bars and cozy spaces for hanging out before and after the play. Having its own space is a huge financial commitment for a small theater company, so these venues are invaluable because they enable small companies to offer great theater. I’d include the Greenhouse Theater Center in that list, but the development uproar in that neighborhood is going to result in more crowds, worse parking, few real restaurants (plenty of bars!) and no convenient CTA. .
Twyla Tharp at the MCA. Iconoclastic choreographer Twyla Tharp delivered a sermon for the church of movement at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The pixie with a pixie cut has been a dance innovator for over five decades, often collaborating on stage with musicians and music (although her early work was set to silence), on Broadway with David Byrne and “The Catherine Wheel,” as well as with Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out,” Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” and Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly Away.” She reminds us that dance is a simple process: “You just need an empty space,” she said, “to document your time on this earth.”