This isn’t a “best theater of the year” list. As we’ve noted about past lists, we don’t see everything. Most of our writers are freelancers, all with other gigs, and it’s hard for us to cover the hundreds of theater productions in this great theater city. Chicago has about 250 theater companies, from large and midsize Equity houses, to tiny storefronts. Many of them perform at the multistage venues that are so vital to itinerant companies. We’re grateful for the Athenaeum, the Greenhouse, Theater Wit, Stage 773 as well as for the companies they host.
We cover some of the large Equity theaters and review some touring Broadway shows, but our hearts belong to the quirky, small and sometimes crazy genius productions at storefront theaters that are trying to make a go of it. Our theater reviewers picked their favorites among the shows they saw this year, and this is the result, in alphabetical order. Special mentions are listed at the end. And you can scroll through our Stages pages to see what we’ve said about Chicago theater for the last four years.
Our Favorite Plays
Ada and the Engine at the Artistic Home is a magical play about poetry and technology, tinged with tragedy. Ada Byron Lovelace was the daughter of the famous poet, Lord Byron; she was a bold personality, a mathematical genius, and was considered to be the first computer programmer. In many ways, Ada was a woman of our time, stuck in her own time nearly 200 years ago. Lauren Gunderson’s play, beautifully directed by Monica Payne, is an imaginative story of 19th century industrial history staged with a 21st century attitude. —Nancy Bishop
All Quiet on the Western Front by Red Tape Theatre retells Erich Maria Remarque’s horrific story of German soldiers in WW1. Adapted and directed by Matt Foss, the production was stunningly choreographed with an inventive scenic design and powerful performances by a diverse cast. All Quiet on the Western Front took my breath away and reminded me how important it is to remember the horrors of war. Produced with the Greenhouse Theater Center.
Don Giovanni at Lyric Opera of Chicago, the opera premiered by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1787, has taken on new social relevance 230 years later. The recently increased awareness about and condemnation of sexual abuse, spurred by the #MeToo movement, made this production about a serial sex abuser more thought-provoking than ever. The cast, from top to bottom, was remarkable and memorable. The vocalists are world-class. And given the bold characterizations and wrenching emotions of this piece, the acting was a match for the singing. One of the best operas I’ve ever seen for acting, voice and stagecraft.
Dutch Masters by Jackalope Theatre Company is a taut two-hander written by Greg Keller. Musing on class and race, Keller explores the very different childhoods of two young men who are linked by circumstance and history. And the idea of appropriation is cleverly given literal context as the story unfolds–-the two men face the fact that the question of “who owns what” can’t be considered until we stare the ugly truth in the face: that the question was once, not too long ago, “who owns who.” Directed by Julius Wardell Clark and staged at the Broadway Armory.
Evil Dead the Musical by Black Button Eyes Productions. This rendition of Evil Dead the Musical, directed by Ed Rutherford, perfectly balances the over-the-top goofiness, goriness, and absurdity that the series is known for, with some amazing musical and dance performances along the way. As the headline says, there are buckets of blood, as expected in an Evil Dead production, so be sure you don’t sit in the splatter zone. This is a blood, vulgarity and fun-filled romp that will appeal to fans of B horror movies.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at Porchlight Music Theatre. Gentleman’s Guide, like many of Porchlight’s marquee presentations, started as a big-budget Broadway affair, staged in a large theater with extensive props, full orchestra, etc. Here directed (and choreographed) by Stephen Schellhardt, the production team makes quite a bit out of much less wiggle-room in Porchlight’s relatively small house. It’s another winning production from one of the most reliably entertaining companies in Chicago’s theatrical landscape.
Little Shop of Horrors at Mercury Theater. Little Shop of Horrors may seem like a goofy, kind of gory musical about a man-eating plant, but it tells the story of a man so determined to live a better life, he doesn’t realize the things he’ll have to do, and sacrifice, to get there. Little Shop of Horrors is full of iconic musical numbers, like “Skid Row” and of course, “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space,” but iconic music is nothing if it isn’t performed well. This entire cast has some serious vocal chops. The cast and director do an amazing job bringing Little Shop Of Horrors to life, and if you go, I guarantee you’ll have a good time.
Ma Rainey’s Black, Bottom at Writers Theatre. While most of playwright August Wilson’s 10-play saga is set in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood where the playwright lived for the first 30+ years of his life, this is the exception. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the blues-infused second installment (and first to be produced on Broadway) takes place in a Chicago recording studio. It is a beautifully written and deeply moving portrayal of music, ambition, and suffering in the 1920s. Director Ron OJ Parson manages to strike a chord between maintaining reverence to the late great playwright’s historic text, while breathing new life into the play’s lingering and renewed indictments.
Twelfth Night by Midsommer Flight is a Shakespearean comedy staged during the holiday season in a garden: the Show House Room at the Lincoln Park Conservatory. This deliciously funny and charming production of Viola and her twin brother Sebastian, genderswitching, mistaken identity and crossed garters (you remember Malvolio, right?) is performed among greenery and sparkling holiday lights. Five musician actors perform original music (folk songs and madrigals) before and during the performance. Simply sublime.
West Side Story at Lyric Opera of Chicago. More than 30 cast members make their Lyric debuts in this production; all of this new blood, from insanely talented actors in the lead roles to choreography that both honors and modernizes the iconic original, conspires to present a fresh, youthful and essential version of a classic. With its book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins, this tragic Romeo and Juliet story set in New York’s Puerto Rican community in mid-century is as relevant today as it was 60 years ago.
Wolf Play at Gift Theatre. This magical play actually features a wolf, both boy and puppet, played enchantingly by Dan Lin. He opens the play by telling us he is not an actor human and continues with a poetic description of what and where we are. Wolf Play is a sad story about an 8-year-old adopted Korean boy, whose adoptive parents decide they can’t care for him any more. Throughout the play, the boy/puppet Jeenu tells us about wolves and how they live as he and his second family adjust. Hansol Jung’s beautiful script and Jess McLeod’s direction make this play a satisfying and moving experience. We describe Stephanie Diaz’s puppetry design and construction in an interview with her at the end of the review.
An African Music Trilogy. Karin McKie notes the sweetness of the African music trifecta that blossomed in Chicago this year. It was kinda cool to have three productions that featured African music and performers. Karin particularly liked Lindiwe at Steppenwolf Theatre, featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo from South Africa, and A Man of Good Hope at Chicago Shakespeare, an African musical memoir by the Isango Ensemble of South Africa, which includes stops in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Zambia. The third production, which Karin considered less successful theatrically, was Djembe!,a U.S. premiere at the Apollo Theatre, “a Disney-like journey through the history of the West African drum.”
Deserving Special Mention
Burning Bluebeard by the Ruffians and Porchlight Music Theatre, a Chicago history and theater tradition featuring songs, tears and clowning
Cambodian Rock Band at Victory Gardens Theater, Lauren Yee’s award-winning story of the Cambodian genocide, set in 1975 and today.
The Drag Seed by Hell in a Handbag Productions, an unauthorized parody of the 1956 horror film, The Bad Seed.
Ms Blakk for President at Steppenwolf Theatre, a raucous political story set in Chicago that honors the life of queer activist Terence Alan Smith and his drag queen alter ego Joan Jett Blakk.
Noises Off at Windy City Playhouse, a madcap mess of a show within a show.
Oslo by Timeline Theatre, perfectly acted, is the story of how the Oslo Peace Accords came about.
Spamalot at Mercury Theater, the Monty Pythonesque play where the cast has as much fun as the audience
Waiting for Godot, the Beckett play in a Dennis Zacek production featuring stellar Chicago actors