20 Must-See Moments in Chicago Theatre 2019
2019 gave us so much to see this year in Chicago theatre. It was a blessing to have seen so much and in sitting down to compile this list of highlights, it was hard to narrow down. While best and worst lists are aplenty, these are the productions that surprised and impressed us the most. They felt successful in terms of overall experience, each providing something remarkable in either challenging form, concept, or production. With so much work happening in this city, we wanted to fill in the gaps of recognizing works that were understated, yet making significant strides in our field.*
*Note: These performances are listed in chronological order of attendance.
1. I Know My Own Heart at Pride Films and Plays
Emma Donoghue's play presented a tender, deep exploration of three 19th century women falling in and out of love with one infatuating figure, Anne Lister. Directed by Elizabeth Swanson, the chemistry between Vahishta Vafadari, Lauren Grace Thompson, Eleanor Katz, and Jessie Ellingsen was incredibly satisfying; wrapped up in their collective loving, passionate energy. Vafadari proves masterful as the womanizing, charismatic Lister and if you didn't fall in love with her from this performance, you had a heart of stone. Oozing with juicy love affairs and packed with emotional gravitas, it made for an intimate evening.
2. Red Rex at Steep Theatre
Ike Holter is a brilliant playwright where each new play is worth seeing. While treated to Lottery Day at Goodman later this year, Red Rex stuck with me as a favorite of his nine play Rightlynd saga. Directed by Jonathan Berry, the play within the play conceit tensed as Red Rex commented not only on issues in the theatre industry, but specifically pointed the finger at Chicago's theatre makers. It was full of local inside jokes and even its title pointed attention to how many theatres in Chicago include the word red (seriously, think about it). Being so pivotal in this community, Holter identified its faults with ease and presented ideas of how we can remedy its issues of racism, sexism, and gentrification in that the show doesn't always need to go on.
3. The Total Bent at Haven Theatre and About Face Theatre
The Total Bent was a co-production that left me absolutely floored. The sheer amount of talent was overwhelming in Stew and Heidi Rodewald's swanky score and starry ensemble. Gilbert Domally and Robert Cornelius made for an exemplary yet troubled, father and son dynamic that ended on a note of hope. Michael Turrentine, who provided a glorious leading turn in First Floor Theater's Sugar in Our Wounds later this year, and Breon Arzell hilariously stole the spotlight. Arzell's choreography dazzled, keeping up the pace of this ninety minute musical. Rejoice for the one act musical! Lilli-Anne Brown guided a show that beautifully blended the conflicts of hypocrisy in religion, race politics, and estranged families all in one.
4. Mike Pence Sex Dream at First Floor Theater
Understandably, there were many shows written in response or set during the Trump administration. While I initially was skeptical, Dan Giles' play, directed feverishly by Hutch Pimentel, was a welcome exception to this hot topic. Its depiction of modern queer relationships, critique of the meat packing industry, and fantasies with the Vice President himself, made for a dreamy, steamy time. It's also rare to encounter a set that's literally jaw dropping, and William Boles managed to do so. Eric Backus' sound design of salacious pop hits was music to our ears.
5. I Wanna Fucking Tear You Apart at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble
This Midwest premiere directed by Jessica Fisch was a breath of fresh air at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble. Written with a unleashed vulnerability by Morgan Gould, BFFs/roommates, Samantha and Leo, were at the center of this comedy with surprisingly dark consequences. The arrival of a new friend illuminated years of underlying, fascinating issues between Sam and Leo. From performing "Joyful, Joyful" from Sister Act 2 in their living room, to a joint work session turned into a game of Mario Kart, this play made me laugh, gasp, and really crave a Popsicle.
6. 12 Ophelias (a play with broken songs) at The Martin
We love a good retelling and 12 Ophelias hit the G-spot--G for Gertrude obviously--with this candy coated take on Hamlet. Winter Sherrod as a prophetic, sultry Ophelia mesmerized us and paired with Lora Nicole's Rude Boy was kismet in their heated, strip down of one another. Directed wonderfully by Whitney LaMora, Caridad Svich's cheeky dialogue got a boost from this all femme ensemble and ghostly tunes from Lauren LoPiccolo. It's a show that left you feeling shameful yet satisfied by its sweet tricks, helped by complimentary lollipops and Skittles.
7. Cambodian Rock Band at Victory Gardens Theater
Thank goodness Lauren Yee's work is being produced more. As a writer, The Great Leap at Steppenwolf this fall felt like Yee's strongest work, but this play moved me the most. It traversed the history of the Cambodian genocide while also reconnecting a father and daughter relationship in need of repair. Set against the insanely catchy music of Dengue Fever, you had what began as a play then turned into a full on rock concert. This switch felt natural and electrifying, with an understandable encore. This was a production I wanted a tour of. I even would have settled for the cast performing as this band worldwide.
8. Killing Game at A Red Orchid Theatre
I've always found myself amused with Eugene Ionesco as he found truth and comedy in the absurd. This production could not have warranted more of a precedent. Dado made this play their own as an opera of gruesome, comedic proportions with original, goosebump inducing music from Elenna Sindler. The feelings of melancholy and horror were a song for success as discussions of plagues, isolation, and poverty became mind numbing, not unlike our current news cycle. The tides of death and violence are highlighted as being so constant that the show felt like both a forewarning of the end of civilization and that we weren't so far off now. Innovative, cruel, and wickedly funny, body parts never looked so fashionable thanks to Grant Sabin.
9. 3 Sisters at The Neighborhood Theatre
If we must continue to do classics, let's leave it to theatre companies like The Neighborhood. It felt like a spring awakening of this Chekhov classic thanks to illuminating direction from Kadin McGreevy and a clever adaptation from Maiya Corral, who also provided a devastating, eternally big mood Masha. The whole cast made these stock characters feel incredibly human, where their strengths shone as boldly as their shortcomings. A true surprise came from Gloria Imseih Petrelli's Natasha, who righteously seized power and pointed out the cruelty the sisters were capable of united. With a lot of cursing, techno dance parties, and powerful original music from the Undead Circus Band, this show that was aptly tucked away in a rummage room of a church was a hidden gem.
10. We Are Pussy Riot at Red Tape Theatre
Red Tape Theatre turned up the stakes and volume in this punk infused performance. From start to finish, the commitment of this energetic ensemble was wired as we got a much needed overdue lesson in Russian history. Everyone embodied Pussy Riot, and its ideas of musical protest, and in the end even the audience felt inspired to turn it up a notch. Barbara Hammond's dialogue packed a punch, and Kate Hendrickson's direction of violence, sexual harassment, and fractured families was sincerely next level.
11. First Read Festival at The Syndicate
This event was the highlight of the summer. A series of readings and workshops by trans and non-binary artists was an incredibly touching experience to be apart of. Each play brought a new lived experience to the table with Lucas Garcia's Quemado, June Thiele's Ashana: A Native Play, Gavin D. Pak's prefer not to answer, or other, and Theo Germaine's DIG. In a space like The Martin that cultivates an accepting, warm environment, it felt even more reassuring for this festival of great magnitude to take place. I had never been in the presence of so many queer artists and audience members who aren't regular theatre goers before. It was highly emotional, but a necessary reflection on creativity and togetherness.
12. Head Over Heels at Kokandy Productions
Head Over Heels made a splash this summer at Theater Wit. Medieval times offered a reckoning in the form of The Go-Gos, and as mandated by the all-knowing Pythio, played with an innate star quality by Parker Guidry. Jointly directed by Elizabeth Swanson and Derek Van Barham, this play felt less like a production and more like a party where you wanted to jump up on stage with the best of them. In the woes of romance and ruling thrones, this game of love showed that there are no boundaries it cannot overcome no matter age or gender. When we find the community of people who accept us, there's nothing that can take us down.
13. Kiss at Haven Theatre
Guillermo Calderón's Kiss was a dramaturgical dream. At first, it was as if a soap opera played out in real life with all the classic theatrics. The sudden knocks at the door, tender holding of heads in hands, and pretty tears made for a well done melodrama directed by Cole who also played Ahmed. Then, when it appeared the play was over, it did a complete one-eighty into something far more profound. It was a twist that cut deep and reflected some of the core issues we have when it comes to performing texts. A show that wrestled with its own shortcomings, leaving you speechless.
14. Ghost Quartet at Black Button Eyes Productions
T.J. Anderson, Alexander Ellsworth, Rachel Guth and Amanda Raquel Martinez all made the heart of Dave Molloy's Ghost Quartet beat strong and harmonious. This fearsome foursome were each talented in their own way whether making ghastly noises or strumming away their inhibitions. This warped fairy tale directed by Ed Rutherford was haunting, sinister, and unforgettable. Its ending was a true light in the darkness found in this production and beyond, for all to hold onto.
15. The Fly Honeys at The Den Theatre
Bringing the heat to wrap up summer, The Fly Honeys proved they always can cause a buzz. Created and directed by Erin Kilmurray, it was a celebration of sex, solidarity, and body positivity encouraging all to come as they are. Through various songs, blissful banter, and sick dance moves also from Kilmurray, there was never a dull moment. In its tenth year, hundreds of performers and audience members can attest that stepping into this hive was like a long, pop fueled, pep talk. There's nothing wrong with a little bump and grind, and at The Fly Honeys the beautiful motto of being for anybody, no matter what your body proved good for the soul.
16. The Storefront Project at Prop Thtr and Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
This stunning collaboration presented many new works aimed at exploring the underbelly of our local, devised theatre scene. Curators Olivia Lilley and Tara Willis assembled a fearless, striking team of directors to uplift narratives that fed their appetites: Dado Gyure, Lucky Stiff, Denise Yvette Serna, Coya Paz, Sydney Chatman, and Mikael Burke with April Cleveland. Taking place simultaneously at the grand, ornate spaces of MCA Chicago and the lovable, yet scrappy house of Prop Thtr, shows were staged not only once, but twice to accommodate these distinct settings. It made you applaud the efforts of all these artists in their flexible, clever nature. It also made you examine what resources are available to make art accessible for those who perform and watch.
17. The Camino Project at Theatre Y
From one project to another, Theatre Y made their own ambitious mark. Directed imaginatively by Melissa Lorraine and written by Evan Hill, this free six hour performance wonderfully replicated a portion of Spain's sacred Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Combining movement, monologues, and a feast (with snacks along the way), it was a moving, communal experience. Whether entering solo or with friends, at the end you felt a sense of kinship among your fellow travelers. Walking five miles in a city you love, but might not necessarily pay attention to the details of, provided you with a memory you can't forget nor would you want to.
18. Happy Birthday Mars Rover at The Passage Theatre
Preston Choi's new play made me excited about the future of the American theatre. Forty-three scenes directed by Alison Thvedt offered a magical mix of comedy, tragedy, sex, and existentialism of our world's inevitable doom. It heightened my anxieties about climate change, yet also soothed as a reminder that this is a battle we cannot win alone. The Passage thrives from gathering actors who are ready to play and revel in soaking up material in order to share its glittering wisdom.
19. The First Deep Breath at Victory Gardens Theater
Three and a half hours can be tough to muster through a play, but here it felt like a gift instead of a burden. Lee Edward Colston II weaved many family secrets and frayed relationships across three acts, each more thrilling than the next. While paying homage to the family epics of August: Osage County and Long Day's Journey into Night, the issues dividing this family felt more grounded for a modern age. Burgeoning queerness, racism through a faulty justice system, and putting the bond of family above your own happiness made this production full of relatable dynamics. Director Steve Broadnax III let the poetic text and lovable characters breathe and rise amid their crises.
20. Good Grief at Free Street Theater
One of the last performances of this year included a much needed trip to Melissa DuPrey's Good Grief. A solo performance that began from a place of comfort and descended into chaos, DuPrey highlighted the instrumental, yet complicated relationship between mother and daughter. DuPrey, along with director Reshmi Hazra Rustebakke, captured the complexity of addiction and the difficult journey of self-care that's part of the package. This performance was supplemented by resources with crafts, tissues, childcare, and the presence (and contact information) of health practitioners. Ensuring audiences felt comfortable during and after a show demonstrated a caring gesture that was deeply felt, not going unnoticed.