Top Stage Performances of 2019

 A long time ago, a young man in a play I was directing was having great difficulties finding his character and was growing supremely frustrated.

“It was so natural with my last role,” he told me. “I found a way to climb inside his head and really felt what he was feeling. I just don’t feel that with this character.”

I reminded him that this situation was precisely why he had studied his craft. 

“The audience really doesn’t care,” I said, “if you are having a moment. They only care if they are having one. And you possess all the tools to make that happen.”

The greatest performances are those that move the audience in some way, whether the result is laughter, tears, horror, anger, or whatever. There are times when actors put their souls on the line to make this happen, and there are others when they achieve it through powerful and meticulous technique. Usually, the audience can’t tell which is which; all they care about is the emotional experience that happens when they react to a performance someone has really invested in. 

2019 was full of remarkable moments of acting in Chicago, and it gives me great pleasure to remind you of some of the best. You might think that I overlooked a stellar piece of work, but starting a conversation about this great year in Chicago theatre is what these lists are all about. So feel free to disagree. Put other names in the comments. Chances are that I’ll even agree with you that they should have been honored. 

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 performances in plays I saw were considered. (I did see approximately 160 plays this year, though.)
  • I am creating this list in a gender-neutral format; hence instead of lists of ten women and ten men, we have 20 performances in my “Top 10″ without consideration of gender. (It’s not that I’m bad at math, I swear.)
  • I am not even going to think about trying to divide apples from oranges and name a “best performance of the year”; performers are listed alphabetically.

Cher Álvarez, A Doll’s House, Writers Theatre: Nora Helmer’s life consists of willingly playing the roles that men define for her in Ibsen’s classic play, and Cher Álvarez, in a performance that was comic and endearing as well as painful, portrayed her with all of the energy and enthusiasm that this character exudes. She was equally comfortable as the little songbird flitting about the stage and flirting with her husband Torvald as she was in Nora’s final emphatic exit; no matter what was going on, nothing ever felt forced. A brief, wordless coda perfectly punctuated her character’s ‘woke’ action, allowing Álvarez to let Nora wonder what on earth happens now. 

Dennis Bisto, The Killer, Trap Door Theatre: Bisto was amazing as Bérenger, a man caught up in this bizarre mystery woven by Eugene Ionesco. Expressing his emotions with every inch of his body and cutting through the absurdist chaos in his own single-minded quest to catch a killer, Bisto was compelling whether expressing Bérenger’s ebullient joy in discovering the “radiant city” or contorting himself through manic maneuvers in various comic scenes. His final lengthy monologue confronting the killer was a pleasure to watch: a driven man who initially believes he has an advantage slowly realizing that, in this passionless, isolated Paris in which no one really cares, the advantage is always going to go to evil. 

Diana Coates, Henry V, First Folio Theatre: Gender-blind casting in a classic role might seem at first to be a bit of a game played by the director, but when the performance is as strong as Coates was as the young king seeking to overcome a frivolous youth, the casting feels perfect. Coates showed from the opening scenes how that youth has shaped her Henry into a thoughtful person who can easily command the respect of his followers. And her delivery of the king’s famous soliloquies made it clear that enemies will underestimate him at their own peril.

Chaon Cross, Photograph 51, Court Theatre, and Midsummer (A Play With Songs), Proxy and Greenlight Theaters: Other critics are justifiably honoring Cross’s brilliant performance as scientist Rosalind Franklin in the Court play, praising her understated portrayal of a woman who deserves far more acknowledgment than history has given her. But as much as that performance deserves the recognition, I think that her role as Helena, a lawyer whose messy life leads her to a wonderfully chaotic weekend with a petty criminal she meets at a bar in the comedic Midsummer, has been unfairly overlooked. Cross actually played multiple roles in this very original comic play, as well as several musical instruments. When you also factor in her strong performance in Court’s The Adventures of Augie March, Cross might just have been the most fascinating performer on Chicago’s stages this year.

Matt Crowle, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Porchlight Music Theatre: As all eight of the doomed members of the D’Ysquith family, Crowle, through movements and voice—and his uncanny ability to dart his eyes in extremely comical fashions—had a great time in a tour de force performance. For pure joy of performance, 2019 didn’t get much better than this.

David Darlow, The Father, Remy Bumppo Theatre: Darlow was brilliant as André, an aging man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease searching the discontinuous corridors of his memory to try to make sense of the life he is living when he does not have all of the pieces of the puzzle. His anguish and confusion are palpable, especially because, with the play’s structure, we don’t have all of the pieces either. As his character devolves as the play goes on, Darlow showed us the sheer terror of this insidious disease.

Emjoy Gavino, Kentucky, The Gift Theatre: As Hiro, the self-destructive daughter of an emotionally abusive Kentuckian father and a submissive Japanese mother, Gavino’s powerful, emotionally raw performance galvanized this piece, which finds her returning to her hometown to try to stop her younger sister’s wedding. Whatever facade of strength and confidence Hiro used to get by in New York City simply melts away as she is confronted by the life she tried to leave behind. Gavino stripped the layers from Hiro’s pretense and self-delusion to reveal the character’s barely repressed anger and pain. Hiro may be a hot mess, but Gavino’s portrayal was brilliant.

Jyreika Guest, In the Blood, Red Tape Theatre; In my review of Guest’s performance almost a year ago, I said that it “sears its way into your heart and won’t let go,” and it still has not let me be. In a remarkable and raw portrayal of Hester, a beaten-down, impoverished mother of five (from five different deadbeat dads) living in a dark, abusive world, she managed to allow Hester’s love for her children to outweigh all of the horrors of her life.

Kelli Harrington, The Bridges of Madison County, Theo Ubique Theatre: Harrington’s nuanced portrayal of Francesca, the displaced Italian woman trying to make a life for herself in the American midwest, was full of the kind of emotional dissonance, passion, and heartbreak that the character demands. The complex struggle between her love for and commitment to her family and the newly discovered eroticism of her affair with a soulmate whom she can’t ever really have is powerful; in Harrington’s hands there was actually reason to doubt which way Francesca would go in the end, despite the fact that she really has no choice. It was a beautiful, painful, realistic and intense characterization.

Maurice Jones, Hamlet, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre: Jones’ take on the most iconic role in all of English-language theatre was compelling from the start, as the despondent prince moped about the castle while his mother and uncle married, but when his father’s ghost (an enormous projection) appeared and he was spurred to vengeance, his character simply came to life. Whether engaged in witty conversation with Larry Yando’s wonderful Polonius, tangling with the righteous anger of Paul Deo, Jr’s Laertes, or accosting Karen Aldridge’s Gertrude and forcing her to see her hasty marriage from his eyes, Jones demanded our attention with both powerfully emotional and subtly expressive acting. 

Will Lidke, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Theo Ubique Theatre: Along with having a truly rocking band, any production of this musical is dependent on the actor playing Hedwig, and Lidke was excellent. Fueled by his never-ending energy and strong voice, Lidke’s Hedwig, a blend of neurosis and narcissism, occupied a narrow space between telling the story of her life, surrendering to the power of the music, and having a complete breakdown. 

Dierdre O’Connell, Dana H, Goodman Theatre: O’Connell’s performance as the real-life mother of playwright Lucas Hnath was as astounding as it was complicated: recordings of the real Dana H discussing her harrowing kidnapping did all the talking while O’Connell, seated on stage, lip-synced along with them. Her lip-syncing was perfect, but that was only the start. We could read the conflicting emotions of the actual Dana H in her face, in her fidgeting, in her eyes. Because this recording was culled together from many hours of interviews, it was often slightly discontinuous in tone and mood, and O’Connell’s quick shifts from one moment to the next perfectly mapped the stream of consciousness recounting of the story. It was easily one of the year’s most difficult, and finest, performances.

Hollis Resnik, Sunset Boulevard, Porchlight Music Theatre: Resnik overcame the play’s flaws as the stage veteran delivered a take on Norma Desmond that, were it not for the fact that she clearly has a lot left to give, might have been labeled the crowning achievement in her stellar career. Resnik’s virtuoso performance could well have served as a lesson on body language and facial expression and she made it impossible not to feel sorry for this woman, broken by time and the absurd beauty standards of studio-era Hollywood, as she futilely attempts with her will alone to become once again what she once was.

Barbara E. Robertson, Queen of the Mist, Firebrand Theatre: In one of the year’s most inspired performances, Robertson played Taylor, a woman in her 60s who, though she feels she has “greatness in me,” has no idea what it is until she hears the story of a man who died in an attempt to ride a barrel over Niagara Falls and decides to use her own scientific knowledge to succeed where he failed. With a combination of self-confidence and desperation, Robertson’s Taylor was a fascinating creation: a person who dreams big and is able to follow through and, even as she is being crushed by the inevitable letdown of her expectations, remains true to her own unique set of ideals.

Kevin Roston, Jr., Oedipus Rex, Court Theatre: Director Charles Newell’s splendid version of Sophocles’ greatest tragedy was anchored by Roston’s dynamic and powerful portrayal of the doomed king who is cursed both by Fate and his own unmitigated hubris. Whether commanding the stage as Thebes’ leader or broken down in a highly personal moment with Oedipus’ daughter Antigone, Roston was extremely moving in one of the year’s most passionate performances.

Rebecca Spence, Every Brilliant Thing, Windy City Playhouse: Spence’s solo work in this play was immediately engaging and likable, important qualities for an actor whose job here was to mine the darkness beneath the surface of the play for all of its optimistic, inspirational gems. Weaving an audience-interactive monologue dealing with a detached father and a suicidal mother, Spence kept us smiling and focusing on the good things in life: no mean trick.

Eliza Stoughton, How I Learned to Drive, Raven Theatre: Portraying the sexually-abused L’il Bit from ages 11-34, Stoughton was uncanny at developing the nuances that helped to clearly signify each age as well as the emotions that derived from the abuse. From the shocking betrayal she showed us in Li’l Bit’s painful breakdown the first time her uncle abuses her to the more subtle horror we feel when we see the way such abuse perpetuates itself, Stoughton delivered one of the year’s most devastating performances.

Keely Vasquez, Next to Normal, Writers Theatre: Playing one of the most difficult female roles in all of musical theatre, Vasquez rivaled the deeply layered emotional performance that Alice Ripley gave in the Broadway production. Whether she was playing a quiet scene with her daughter or husband or frantically trying to get her latest doctor to see her desperation, Vasquez’s urgent performance dug deep to find the highs and lows of a character burdened by schizophrenia. Her nuanced, honest characterization and her powerful voice combined to help David Cromer’s production to become one of the best shows of the year.

Ned Zegree, Million Dollar Quartet, Marriott Theatre: As cocky hotshot young pianist and up-and-coming star Jerry Lee Lewis, Zegree was all manic action, playing his piano from any of a dozen different positions and getting on the nerves of the other members of the quartet: Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. Somehow, amidst this powerful company, Lewis simply steals the show, and Zegree was the reason why.

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