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THEATER FEATURE The best of Chicago theater (part one)

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Two Windy City Times theater critics weigh in on the best theater Chicago had to offer in 2018. More will offer their selections in the Jan. 3 issue

1. Sean Margaret Wagner's choices:

—Tilikum, Sideshow Theatre ( BEST ): Kristiana Rae ColÃ"n's deeply affecting story of marine life in captivity highlights the ways we are disregarding in real time the humanity of people who are unlike us. Gregory Geffard's Tilikum is supposed to be a captured orca whale, but it's no mistake that he is also a black man in a hoodie. In a very profound way,

Tilikum is not about sea life; it's about mass incarceration, the effects of trauma and enslavement on humans, and the injustices being dealt to incarcerated men, women and children of color as we speak. Tilikum evokes the mass spectacle of orca shows, and invites the audience to join in. It's brazen, funny and spirit-lifting above all else. It's one of the most revelatory concepts onstage in 2018.

—Merchant on Venice, Rasaka Theatre & Vitalist Theatre: Shishir Kurup's modern-ish take on Merchant of Venice has something to teach us about fear, violence and stereotyping, it has something to teach us about politics, sex and prevalent hate in our 2018 American lexicon, and while it harkens back to Shakespeare, it has something to teach us about the Bard's limitations and the pedestal we reserve for them. The original text is abandoned for the authors own verse, bursting at the seams with metaphors for these characters' cultural and sexual frustrations that cite modern tech, pharmaceuticals, and even some Queen lyrics. It's aptly performed by a terrific cast, hilarious, inviting, and understandably angry.

—Radio Culture, TUTA Theatre: The human consciousness goes under a microscope ( and over a loudspeaker ) in Maxim Dosko's exploration of one Belorussian construction foreman's inner monologue, translated by Natalia Fedorova and Amber Robinson. Volodya's thoughts are so specific they become universal, and so trivial, they encompass whole lives. He fixates so hard on keeping his life pristine, that it gives way to an unspoken concern that his thirtysome years of work has been a waste. Kevin V. Smith is still and calm as Volodya, levying such precise judgements on his workers, family and himself, you can't help but wonder what he must think of you. That's what makes Radio Culture so astounding: experiencing an internal voice that is not your own.

—The Light, The New Colony: Loy A. Webb's The Light inspired the deepest anger I've ever felt in a theater seat. Director Toma Langston explores a small argument between a newly engaged couple and explodes it brutally into a testament of just how powerful a woman's word must be before it is accepted as fact. How powerful? The answer isn't fair, but judging by the tear-stained faces of nearly every female patron, the truth of it resonated. Her claim must be airtight, beyond reproach, and is only as valid as she is perceived as "good." Tiffany Oglesby and Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr. crackle with intensity as Genesis and Rashad, two Chicagoans who have let down their guard for each other, and must deal with the breaking of their unspoken boundaries.

—HeLa, Sideshow Theatre: HeLa is as messy, complicated and emotionally gripping as the real account of the life ( and afterlife ) of Henrietta Lacks on which it was based. Director Jonathan L. Green has crafted a truly wonderful stage experience, and honors author J. Nicole Brooks' complex tale, jumping between eras, dimensions and realities. The production is an amazing showcase for Deanna Reed-Foster as Jata, a lonely imaginary spacewoman, or maybe the form that sentient multiplying HeLa cells blasted to space have opted to take. The heart of HeLa rests with Nicole Michelle Haskins, brilliant and blistering as Auntie Bird. Her vulnerability and vitality in every facet really hammers home how little of their lives these women were allotted. It's lasting, effective and one-of-a-kind.

2. Sarah Katherine Bowden's choices:

—The Light, The New Colony at The Den Theatre: I saw this production a week into 2018; I have been thinking about it ever since. Loy Webb's script, developed as part of The New Colony's Writers' Room, is a searing two-hander that has the audience rooting for both characters in a newly engaged couple, as they grapple with belief and perspective in our #MeToo moment. Tiffany Oglesby and Jeffrey Owen Freelon Jr. gave courageous performances, helmed by Toma Langston's controlled direction, with a gorgeous set by John Wilson, complete with paintings that reflect iconic Black women who prove how important it always has been to speak truth to power.

—In the Canyon, Jackalope Theatre at the Broadway Armory: Just before midterms, Jackalope delivered the best reason to vote: in order to avoid the dystopia presented in Calamity West's exploration of an America that sentences women to death for having abortions. Steeped in movie references and just under the surface religious fervor, West's vision of our future seems only a few steps away from where we live now, making its time jumps from 2007 to 2067 even more chilling. Packed with tension, and directed with a sure hand by Elly Green, this production provided a necessary reminder that all women are right to be terrified in 2018.

—Small Mouth Sounds, A Red Orchid Theatre: Drama often relies on dialogue between its characters, but that doesn't mean dialogue is required to create theatre. Small Mouth Sounds, written by Bess Wohl and ably directed by Shade Murray, proves that connection, rather than conflict, can stir an audience's soul; silence can build bonds between actor and viewer that defy easy explanation. Wohl's exploration of a silent retreat is at turns funny and harrowing, and A Red Orchid's production features strong ensemble work, with a standout performance by Lawrence Grimm.

—Scraps, New American Folk Theatre at The Den Theatre: Anthony Whitaker re-imagines the Land of Oz as a decidedly queer realm in a charming check-in on what happens long after Dorothy lands her house on the Wicked Witch. Scraps, a patchwork person gamely played by Brittney Brown, yearns for adventure. Under the advisement of friends like wise Princess Ozma, played with warmth by JD Caudill, and self-described as "part boy and part girl," Scraps learns how to define herself, rather than cave in to others' expectations. Jamal Howard's energetic direction, combined with the bright costumes by Zachary Ryan Allen and Whitaker's clever puppetry, make for a lovely spin on a well-known yarn.

—Merchant on Venice, Rasaka Theatre & Vitalist Theatre at the Greenhouse Theater Center: I doubt anyone was thirsting for an adaptation of The Merchant of Venice in 2018, but Rasaka and Vitalist's revival of this earlier Silk Road Rising production was surprising for its wit and depth and revitalization. Playwright Shishir Kurup moves the action from Europe to Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles, in order to explore conflict between Hindu and Muslim businessmen in America. Kurup's dialogue is musical and lively, and he raises the stakes in the trial sequence to a dangerous new level, while Anish Jethmalani as Shakur, this world's Shylock, blends pathos and stubbornness to earn his tragedy.

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