Stella Adler said that “the theatre is a spiritual and social x-ray of its time.” If that is the case, what did Chicago theatre in 2018 tell us about our world? This year’s best shows in Chicago spoke of a world where racial tension is still strong, where women’s empowerment is clear but inconsistent, where story-telling goes beyond traditional structures, and where laughter is still possible despite the darkness. The best shows varied greatly in style and format, but they all had one key element in common: they affected us. They enlightened us or made us think or made us laugh or made us cry. They had us leaving the theatre realizing we had seen something special.
Choosing the best plays of the year is a reductive exercise that unfortunately omits some excellent productions, but it is an expectation for this time of year. It is also a pleasure: I get to go back and relive some of the most impressive moments of the year. And unlike film or television, the only way to do that is in lists such as this one. Maggie Smith talked of theatre as “an ephemeral thing…every performance is like a ghost; it’s there and then it’s gone.” Come with me and revisit some of the ghosts that made 2018 a truly wonderful year for Chicago theatre.
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 200 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. Nor did out of town plays, or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child would have topped my list.
Just missing the cut, in alphabetical order, were A Shayna Maidel (Timeline Theatre), Buried Child (Writers Theatre), Cyrano (Boho Theatre), Downstate (Steppenwolf Theatre), Gypsy (Porchlight Music theatre), Once (Paramount Theatre), Radio Golf (Court Theatre), Second Skin (Wildclaw Theatre),This Bitter Earth (About Face Theatre), and Witch (Writers Theatre).
And here is my list of the Best Plays of 2018.
10a. Nell Gwynn (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre) Sometimes you just want to laugh, and Nell Gwynn proved to be one of the funniest plays of the year. Jessica Swale’s play tells the true story of the title character, an orange-seller (and probably a prostitute) who rose to fame as one of England’s first great leading actresses and then caught the eye of King Charles II, who fell in love with her and took her into his court as a mistress. Rather than trying to write a straight biography, though, Swayle opted to turn her play into a witty, enjoyable comedy complete with singing and dancing and snappy, sometimes bawdy humor. Featuring a simply wonderful performance by Scarlett Strallen and crisp, inventive direction from Christopher Luscombe, Nell Gwynn left its audiences in stitches while portraying a woman’s empowerment in Restoration England.
10b. Women Laughing Alone Eating Salad (Theatre Wit) In what is surely the first play based on an internet meme, this play was a hilarious piece of work that also happened to be socially relevant. There were more laughs in the first five minutes of this play alone (in which no dialogue is spoken) than in most comedies. Through the use of humor, playwright Sheila Callaghan made important points about body image, sexual politics, and what we get ourselves into willingly as opposed to what we find ourselves doing. It was a bold and brave play that toyed with gender performance as it explored sexual dynamics, and it required an equally bold and brave ensemble to pull it off, under the direction of Devon de Mayo. This was a play in which an extended mostly nude sex scene in the first act was not the most audacious element of the script, and that tells you all you need to know.
9. Mies Julie (Victory Gardens Theatre) Yael Farber’s Mies Julie, based on Strindberg’s Miss Julie and set in South Africa on the 18th Freedom Day (celebrating apartheid’s end), tackled racism head-on as it tackled the equally difficult issues of classism and sexism. Directed by Dexter Bullard and featuring revelatory performances by the powerful Heather Chrisler and Jalen Gilbert, Mies Julie made for seventy minutes of compelling theatre. It was a play that put its audience through an emotional wringer and didn’t let up until it ended. Bullard didn’t miss a single opportunity to shock and disturb us, not gratuitously but all in the service of the catharsis the play sought from its audience. It was, quite simply, one of the most intense (and best) shows of the year.
8. The Wolves (Goodman Theatre) A high school indoor soccer team is warming up, doing various exercises and stretches. Several girls are having a serious conversation about the Khmer Rouge; several others are debating the use of tampons vs. pads for athletic endeavors. The new girl doesn’t seem to fit into any conversation, and the team captain, all business, wants them to concentrate on the game. This was the opening of the Goodman Theatre’s The Wolves, a glimpse into the lives of teenage girls through the medium of a soccer team trying to win its league championship. Sarah DeLappe’s Pulitzer finalist play took its audience back to what we all think of as a simpler time in our lives, but which, as she and director Vanessa Stalling showed, is rife with complications. The Wolves uncovered the most raw details of young lives, when emotions are heightened and everything is the most important thing in the world.
7. The Steadfast Tin Soldier (Lookingglass Theatre) The title character of this one-hour long visual extravaganza, based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, was a one-legged tin soldier played by puppets and by Alex Stein. We first saw him being discarded by a giant baby due to his deformity, and that was the least of what happens to him. Throughout the play, he was tormented by a malevolent jack-in-the-box and an equally horrendous older brother, as well as tossed out a window, eaten by a fish, buried in the sand, set upon by a rat, and tossed into a furnace. This was worse than Alexander’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. The play, though, was a beautiful, funny, and poignant tribute to the power of love reimagined by Mary Zimmermann, and Lookingglass’ best production of the year.
6. Father Comes Home From the War Pts 1, 2, and 3 (Goodman Theatre) Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ three hour fifteen minute exploration of the meaning of freedom was revelatory and powerful and also, despite its Civil War setting and focus on slavery, wonderfully funny. Parks dared us to laugh at a very serious subject and made us do it, all the while revealing the honest and complex emotional experience of being a slave that too many similar productions fail to get at. Kamal Angelo Bolden starred as Hero, a slave fighting for the Confederacy in order to secure his freedom. Director Niegel Smith had plenty of balls to keep in the air during this complex show: two choruses of slaves, a musician/narrator, original music, three different storylines, and some really memorable characters, and proved a masterful storyteller.
5. Frankenstein (Manuel Cinema and Court Theatre) In a year when three different Chicago theatres (with a fourth coming in the spring) offered versions of the 200-year-old Frankenstein story, it was perhaps inevitable that one would make this list. But what a production! We watched as the Manual Cinema company put on a silent movie of Shelley’s novel right before our eyes using actors, cut-outs and puppets. You could watch the resulting film on a large screen or focus on any of the equally compelling parts of its stagecraft: the actors rushing through their moments and readying for other scene, the musicians creating a brilliant and moody live soundtrack, the things that were happening, had just happened, or were getting ready to happen. The result was a complex visual treat that is easily one of the best shows of the year.
4. Ragtime (Marriott Theatre) A multiple-Jeff-winning production (four, including awards for ensemble, direction, and best musical) Ragtime was simply perfect. Nick Bowling did things with the Marriott’s theatre-in-the square stage that I wouldn’t have thought possible, and the performances he managed to get from his actors (including Jeff-winning Katherine Thomas as Sarah) kept audiences riveted. I was thoroughly impressed from the opening number, when Bowling managed to get his entire large cast onstage in several varied and easily recognizable “locations” and still all visible to the audience, and it just got better from there.
3. Boy (Timeline Theatre) Anna Ziegler’s small play, a fictionalized account of a famous case involving gender identity, was a complete gem. From the outstanding performance of its lead, Theo Germaine, to the brilliant set design by Arnel Sancianco, Boy was the best play of the year about trans issues without even having a trans character. (The titular “boy” was cisgender but raised as a girl after a botched circumcision left him with too little to work with.) Still, in the relationships that the play shows us: with his doctor, his parents, and a maybe girlfriend, we can see the pain and confusion of being brought up in the wrong gender.
2. Sweeney Todd (Theo Ubique) This play is usually done in larger venues, but Theo Ubique’s tiny No Exit Cafe revealed a more personal side of this dark Sondheim masterpiece. Philip Torre’s Todd was powerful and dangerous, Jacqueline Jones’ Mrs. Lovett was hilarious, and director Fred Anzevino worked the tiny space like a maestro. This masterful version of the musical somehow worked even better than the usual large-scale productions because we were up close and personal with the darkness we normally view from a distance.
1. The Light (New Colony Theatre) In the #metoo era, in the year of the Brett Kavanough hearings, it shouldn’t be amazing that a play about sexual abuse would sit at the top of this list. But what set this apart from other plays dealing with this subject were the powerful performances by both of the lead actors. In Chicagoan Loy A Webb’s play, Jeffrey Owen Freelon, Jr. and Tiffany Ogelsby first invited us into the lives of a happy, loving couple before ripping the floor out from under them. It was joy and pain and heartache wrapped into a package that excoriated American rape culture, and it was simply transcendent.