Top 10 (ish) Chicago Plays of 2019

“The stage is a magic circle where only the most real things happen, a neutral territory outside the jurisdiction of Fate where stars may be crossed with impunity. A truer and more real place does not exist in all the universe.”― P.S. Baber, Cassie Draws the Universe

The City of Chicago proclaimed the year 2019 to be the “Year of Chicago Theatre.” As that year draws to a close, it seems reasonable to assess where our various journeys within the “magic circle” have taken us and what we have been witness to. In many ways, of course, despite the special designation it has been pretty much the same as any other year; that is to say that there have been many, many stellar productions and extraordinary performances that have graced the more than 200 stages in this great theatre city. They have ranged in genre from the ubiquitous musicals, comedies and family dramas to literary adaptations to history plays to science fiction and horror to proudly defiant blends of multiple genres at once. Two of the finest were as much rock concerts as they were plays. 

Trying to compile a list of the strongest of these shows is at best a reductive exercise that will omit many fine productions and at worst a paean to the critic’s personal taste, but that’s part of the job expectation at this time of year. We attempt to present what amounts to a snapshot of the year’s top offerings in an ephemeral form of entertainment that, unlike movies or music or books, exists only as long as a given production is being performed and then is gone forever. Nothing anyone could possibly write would ever be able to revive in a reader the panoply of emotions they experienced (or could have experienced) seeing these shows live; the best we can do is remember them and honor them.

My rules for consideration were simple: 

  • Since there is no realistic way for me to see every play in town and I cannot judge what I have not seen, only plays I saw were considered. (I did see approximately 160 plays this year, though.)
  • It didn’t matter whether they were dramas, comedies, or musicals, or whether they were original works or revivals; what did matter was that they were Chicago based. Touring companies did not qualify, so The Light in the Piazza, one of the year’s best productions, does not appear on this list. Nor do out of town plays.

Just missing the cut, in alphabetical order, were: The Adventures of Augie March (Court); The Bridges of Madison County (Theo Ubique); The Father (Remy Bumppo); For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf (Court); How I Learned to Drive (Raven); Into the Woods (Writers); Lottery Day (Goodman); Oslo (Timeline); Sweat (Goodman); and Tiny Beautiful Things (Victory Gardens).

“Honest to God, this is the absolute best kind of moment. The auditorium lights are off except for ones over the stage, and we’re all bright-eyed and giggle-drunk. I fall a little bit in love with everyone.”― Becky Albertalli, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Here are the plays I fell a little bit in love with this year:

10a. Ghost Quartet (Black Button Eyes)  Ghost Quartet was one of the most unusual shows I’ve encountered in a long time, and I absolutely loved it. This 90-minute song cycle from Dave Malloy, the creative force behind Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812—itself based on a very small segment torn from the middle of War and Peace—is based on an entire pastiche of familiar sources from Edgar Allen Poe to The Arabian Nights to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, with a little Thelonius Monk thrown in for good measure. Its various stories, told by four personable actor/musicians, are interlaced and repeat themselves, helping the audience to start to see the complicated and rich connections among them. It was without a doubt among the most inventive and unusual shows of the year.

10b. Head Over Heels (Kokandy) There can something incredibly satisfying about a play that does not reach for heavy messages or complicated issues but instead is happy just to be thoroughly entertaining. And if that play also happens to take the recently overused concept of jukebox musicals and reinvent them by combining its music with an obscure 16th Century play, well, the results can be sort of magical. Add to this the fact that Head Over Heels is an unabashed celebration of queerness in a year that (outside of the protective realm of the theatre) saw more and more indications that our current government would like nothing better than for LGTBQ people to disappear from the face of the earth, and what you get is a joyful, whimsical production that may feel too slight to appear on most Top 10 lists but was one of the year’s most enjoyable evenings.

9. Every Brilliant Thing (Windy City Playhouse) Windy City Playhouse inaugurated the new upstairs space of its new South Loop theatre with this one-woman show starring Rebecca Spence. Despite the fact that the entire premise for the play is her ongoing efforts to stop her mother from killing herself, this is among the most inspirational shows you will ever see. Written by Englishman Duncan MacMillan, this gender-switched version of the play follows Spence as she seeks to calm her mother by creating an ever-growing list of the most “brilliant” things in life. This list (which she begins at age seven with “ice cream”) forms the spine of what is a thoughtful, at times hilarious, audience-interactive show designed to touch any viewer’s soul. I found myself compelled to add to the list myself, as I suspect most audience members would after watching this uplifting play.

8. Grey House (A Red Orchid Theatre) This highly original variation on the horror staple of the “cabin in the woods” was one of the most frightening shows I have attended in a long time. In this increasingly creepy and macabre drama, a young couple is involved in a car crash during a blizzard near the titular dwelling and seeks shelter within it. They discover that the house is inhabited by a group of intense, disturbing, and occasionally menacing teenage girls and a woman who is acting as their guardian. Levi Holloway’s ominous, unpredictable script, coupled with disturbing characterizations from the young actors and direction from Shade Murray designed to make your skin crawl, kept the audience in suspense for the entire show and probably kept their flesh crawling all the way home.

7. All Quiet on the Western Front (Red Tape Theatre) When I saw Matt Foss’s powerful adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic antiwar novel, I said it was “the first great show of the fall season.” It also happens to be one of the best of the year. Red Tape’s production featured a mixed-race and gender cast, a riveting soundtrack comprised of both antiwar songs from the 60s and eerie notes played on the many onstage pianos, and powerful, imaginative, and provocative choreography as it told the “lost generation” story of a group of young German soldiers in WWI coerced by lies about glory and patriotism to join the fray. In this production, directed by Foss, the tiny cash-strapped company managed to pull off one of the two great literary adaptations of the year.

6. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Lookingglass Theatre) The other brilliant adaptation was also the fourth and final one of Shelley’s visionary science fiction/horror novel in the year of its 200th anniversary. (Court Theatre’s production made this list last year.) Here, David Catlin’s adaptation seamlessly blended the story Shelley wrote with the story of the woman herself, a decision that allowed more layers of emotional experience to engulf the show than would a straightforward retelling of the tale of the mad scientist who decided to play God with horrific results. Catlin’s adaptation was utterly faithful to the novel, but at the same time existed outside of it as well, in the real world occupied by an eighteen-year-old who had already suffered more than her share of calamity in her young life. With Catlin’s equally inventive direction, Lookingglass put a huge exclamation point on the year of many Frankensteins

5. SIX (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre) This highly original musical, now on its way to Broadway, is an effervescent romp through the tales of the infamous six wives of Henry VIII, structured as a kind of concert by the six women combined with a contest to allow the audience to determine which of them he mistreated worst. (It’s a tough call.) It is a blend of entertaining show tune story-telling with the female power-pop of the last two decades and, though it may not work by itself as a history lesson (it’s much too interested in being catchy for the darker nuances of history), it certainly shows its audience a joyous good time. It also succeeds in providing at least a basic exploration of the lives of six very different and very interesting women who are often overlooked when historians talk of their more famous husband.

4. Next to Normal (Writers Theatre) In a year that also saw Writers produce an artful and entertaining revival of Into the Woods, their Next to Normal still stood out as their finest production. In the best version of this extraordinary Pulitzer Prize-winning play I have ever seen, director David Cromer returned to Writers with some exciting and original staging as he helmed a brilliant, poignant, powerful journey into the lives of a woman suffering from bipolar disorder and her family, who have been forced to suffer along with her. Featuring a riveting lead performance by Keely Vasquez, who pushed all the right emotional buttons to bring out new and painful layers in her long-suffering character, this production of David Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s intense (but at times quite funny) rock-scored musical was anything but normal.

3. Cambodian Rock Band (Victory Gardens Theatre) For a long, long time, I thought that Lauren Yee’s amazing pastiche of rock concert, history play, mystery, and family drama would easily be at the top of this list. That it isn’t in no way diminishes the power of this remarkable production. Under Marti Lyons’ inventive direction, this exciting, entertaining and disturbing play tells the story of the Khmer Rouge era in Cambodia, a time that featured the horror of The Killing Fields. There are many issues involved in this play that make it extremely relevant beyond its history lesson: immigration, race, genocide, human rights violations, the rights of refugees, how important it is not to be apathetic when a brutal regime seeks to take over your country, the destruction of freedom of expression, and other things. But most important of all in this show featuring live rock performances (in Cambodian) is the healing power of art. 

2. Midsummer (A Play With Songs) (Proxy and Greenhouse) This one was thoroughly unexpected. A tiny, under-the-radar production with a crazy, chaotic script by David Grieg, this play, told in a non-linear fashion that often restarts to show the same moment from a different perspective, is a hilarious and imaginative paean to the idea that we are never stuck in life: no matter how hopeless, dull, or repetitive our lives might seem, change is always possible. Patrick Mulvey and Chaon Cross starred as a man and woman on a whirlwind Edinburgh weekend full of gangsters, sex, a wedding, and lots of alcohol in a play creatively directed by Randy White that was full of laughter and (yes) songs as well as the joy of watching two excellent actors playing off of each other and just having a great time.

1. The First Deep Breath (Victory Gardens Theatre) With its Tiny, Beautiful Things and Cambodian Rock Band already on this list, it figures that Victory Gardens would complete the trifecta by claiming the top spot. The only show on this list that is still playing (through Sunday), Lee Edward Colston II’s nearly four-hour-long play—don’t be put off by that because Colston’s humor and Steve H. Broadnax III’s direction make the time whiz by—is an utterly remarkable show in every conceivable way. Featuring galvanic performances from a hugely talented cast, Colston’s play uses the lives of a single Black family in Philadelphia to discuss the ways in which secrets, lies, religion, and sexuality can easily unravel the bonds holding us together. In the bitter but often simply hilarious story of the Jones family, he manages to weave a tenuous tapestry that includes LGBTQ+ rights, toxic masculinity, extra-marital affairs, self-righteous religious people, the railroading of Black men into prison, alcoholism, abuse, and even human trafficking before it is finished. If you can get out to see it this weekend, you should; it is a remarkable production.

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