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  WINDY CITY TIMES

The best and worst of Chicago theater in 2019
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2019-12-23

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The last 12 months have been celebrated city wide as Chicago Theatre Year and it's been a whopper of a time, especially September through December when no fewer than 60 shows opened each month. When final numbers are crunched, it won't be surprising if there were 850 or 900 productions during the calendar year and over 3 million tickets sold.

Theater critics, however, are not so impressed by big numbers. Their job is to assess individual productions and declare hits and misses. For this Windy City Times Year in Review, our most frequent reviewers have picked two shows each that were successes ( in their opinions ) and two that didn't make the grade. Remember that all critics are right, even when they disagree!

SUCCESSES ( alphabetized by critics' last names )

—The Delicate Tears of the Waning Moon, Water People Theatre: Part of the Third Chicago International Latino Theater Festival, this poetic two-character play eased its way from a tender tale of a woman recovering from a horrific accident to a horrifying tale of attempted assassination and suppression of truth by ruthless forces. Rebeca Aleman starred ( with Ramon Camin ) and also wrote the work. Jonathan Abarbanel

—The Great Leap, Steppenwolf Theatre Company: Playwright Lauren Yee's creation myth about the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square was filled with verve, passion, politics, comedy and basketball action, and featured a break-out performance by Chicago actor Glenn Obrero as a 5'5" Chinese-American basketball wiz. What fun! Abarbanel

—Herland, Redtwist Theatre: Too many playwrights treat the topic of advanced age as a problem for the caretakers of those afflicted with it, but Grace McLeod allowed her three elderly ladies to tell us what THEY wanted and refuse to be bossed by meddling kinfolk. Mary Shen Barnidge

—Kentucky, Gift Theatre; Leah Nanako Winkler's comedy took a candid look at the values of urban snobs, country crackers, immigrant Asians, fundie African-American Christians and talking cats without ever stooping to mean-spirited stereotype. Barnidge

—The Total Bent, Haven Theatre with About Face Theatre; Stew's The Total Bent showcased director Lili-Anne Brown's talent for emotional truth and stunning acting. As a father and son dueling through gospel music during the Civil Rights era, Robert Cornelius and Gilbert Domally smacked you in the heart. Sarah Katherine Bowden

—20/20, About Face Youth Theatre Ensemble; A joyful exploration of identity set during 1980s ball culture. From dance breaks to Lizzo's "Good As Hell" to confessionals drawn from years of Youth Ensemble rehearsals, this company showed how claiming one's self should be a celebration as much as a movement. Bowden

—Lottery Day, Goodman Theatre: Playwright Ike Holter capped his ambitious "Rightlynd Saga" of seven plays with a riotous party. Many characters from previous dramas returned to compete for a cash prize tied to a terrible tragedy. The fresh dialogue was tied to the here-and-now of a diverse Chicago. Scott C. Morgan

—Ms. Blakk for President, Steppenwolf: The past was the present in this free-flowing rally/drama about Chicago drag queen Joan Jett Blakk's scrappy 1992 presidential campaign. Tarell Alvin McCraney and Tina Landau's co-production was a scatter-shot affair, but a roaring voice for nearly forgotten LGBTQ history. Morgan

—The First Deep Breath, Victory Gardens: Featuring galvanic performances from a hugely talented cast, Lee Edward Colston II's play uses the lives of a single Black family to tell a bitter but often simply hilarious story of the ways in which secrets, lies, religion, and sexuality can easily unravel the bonds holding us together. Karen Topham

—Midsummer ( A Play With Songs ), Greenhouse Theater Center and Proxy Theatre: David Grieg's inventive, chaotic play shifted time and viewpoint in a wildly imaginative production; a hilarious paean to the idea that change always is possible, no matter how hopeless, dull or repetitive our lives might seem. Topham

—I Know My Own Heart, Pride Films and Plays: The year's steamiest history play offered a hot box of sexual tension vs. strict moral code via Anne Lister, 1800s agent of social & sexual chaos ( played by Vahishta Vafadari ), thanks to author Emma Donoghue and director Elizabeth Swanson. Sean Margaret Wagner

—SIX, Chicago Shakespeare Theater: This Broadway bound British import blew the roof off Navy Pier by portraying Henry VIII's six wives as a pop group. Directors Jamie Armitage and Lucy Moss and six astounding vocalists made you forget theater and scream like you're at a Spice Girls concert. Wagner

MISSES ( near, far or by a country mile )

—Pinocchio, House Theatre of Chicago: Too much of the horrifically dark original was sacrificed for too much modern sensibility . . . and Pinocchio never became a real boy, which blunted the audience's emotional investment. Lovely physical production but a rare miss by The House. Jonathan Abarbanel

—Red Rex, Steep Theatre: Ike Holter's world premiere was a powerfully acted ruse. Moments before intermission, Holter wrenched the play from a comedy about Off-Loop Theater to a drama about cultural appropriation. His somewhat naive attack on Off-Loop Theater socio-economics ( vs. artists' personal foibles ) bit the hand that fed him. Abarbanel

—Ada and the Engine, Artistic Home: Ada Byron Lovelace invented the computer in 1843, but playwright Lauren Gunderson fell into the sexist trap of reducing Lovelace's accomplishments to pursuit of male admiration. A final-scene tone shift suggesting vindication was too late and not enough. Mary Shen Barnidge

—Mother of the Maid, Northlight Theatre: If we're asked to view the lofty career of Jeanne D'Arc through the eyes of her Mommy, then Mrs. Arc also must be worth our attention; but author Jane Anderson grew quickly bored with the drab housewife she created and so did we. Barnidge

—Act( s ) of God, Lookingglass Theatre: Kareem Bandealy's first play might have spiraled into a satisfying free-for-all about one family's spiritual crisis, but the script obscured the purpose with too many elements. Director Heidi Stillman's effort to unite all the tones didn;t find a through-line. Sarah Katherine Bowden

—Sweet Texas Reckoning, Artemisia Theatre: This Texas showdown between liberal and conservative family members didn't pack a punch. Author Traci Godfrey reached facile conclusions, and Julie Proudfoot's stagey ( although honest ) direction hampered a complex experience. The dialogue failed hard working actors Anita Kavuu Ng'ang'a and Scottie Caldwell. Bowden

—Cruel Intentions: The '90s Musical, Broadway Playhouse: This tonally confused jukebox musical of the 1999 film felt like SNL sketches overstaying their welcome. The '90s pop hits were shoehorned awkwardly into this tale ( inspired by Dangerous Liaisons ) of preppy school kids playing manipulative sexual games. Scott C. Morgan

—Elizabeth Rex, Oak Park Festival Theatre: Timothy Findley's overly analytic, historically inaccurate 2001 drama proved tedious for outdoor summertime revival. It stretched credibility imagining Queen Elizabeth I slumming with Shakespeare and his actors, while trying to be profound about love, power and gender roles. Morgan

—Desire in a Tinier House, Pride Films and Plays: Ryan Oliveira's script purports to concern the passion of two gay men in an increasingly hostile world, but mostly it's a framework for what a lobby sign called "stimulated" sex before it bizarrely shifts gears in Act II. Karen Topham

—Kiss, Haven Theatre: In Guillermo CalderÃ"n's complicated script, points are made and remade; monologues and scenes feel forced and artificial, even delivered by earnest actors. It's sincere and thoughtful, but the intentionally self-interruptive format confuses the audience when it most needs emotional engagement. Topham

—Ruse of Medusa, Facility Theatre: Author Erik Satie and director Dado accomplished their goal of creating a nonsensical landscape of absurd noise, insane ramblings, and pointless visual stimuli. Why ask why? Just put on a mandatory bowler hat and enjoy/endure this exploration of absurdity. Sean Margaret Wagner

—Waiting For Godot, Victory Gardens Theater: Why do theater creators keep returning to this chestnut? To find new meaning or fresh perspectives? Director Dennis Zacek seemed content to rehash Samuel Beckett's bleak landscape with a majority white male cast, which seems without relevance to Chicago today. Wagner

EXTRA HITS

—How I Learned To Drive, Raven Theatre: Paula Vogel's script has not lost its power since its late nineties run. Cody Estle's revival sharply delineates Li'l Bit's ( Eliza Stoughton ) perception of her relationship with predatory Uncle Peck ( Mark Ulrich ) and the reality. And the actors never lose sight of the dark vein of humor running through piece.

Head Over Heels, Kokandy Productions: So joyful, spirited, and inclusive, this production was half party, half journey of self exploration, and half showcase of stellar Chicago vocal and acting talent ( I know that's too many halves ). Directors Derek Van Barham and Elizabeth Swanson made this singing, dancing extravaganza look downright easy.

—Cambodian Rock Band, Victory Gardens: It isn't often that you find a play that, while being thoroughly entertaining, also opens your eyes to something important that you never knew about before. Lauren Yee's play is an amazing pastiche of rock concert, history play, mystery, and family drama that resonates with our modern era.

Packing, About Face Theatre at Theater Wit: Playwright and actor Scott Bradley laid it all out for his autobiographical one-man show recounting his tumultuous life as an Iowa-born gay man. Horror mixed with humor as Bradley and director Chay Yew shared stories of disco, drugs, drag, bullying and seeking a sense of belonging.

The First Deep Breath, Victory Gardens Theatre: The multigenerational saga recounting the sorrow brought upon a family by guilty secrets has lost none of its power in a new century, and Lee Edward Colston II's epic drama achieved all the dignity of classic tragedy.

EXTRA MISSES

August Rush, Paramount Theatre: The first world premiere musical staged at the award-winning Aurora theater was an artistic misfire. Too many deliberate blanks were left in not only the script for this screen-to-stage adaptation of the 2007 film, but also in director John Doyle's production that came off as a re-conceptualized off-Broadway revival.

One for the Road, MPAACT: Steadily realistic and bound to solving social problems, One for the Road bites off more than it can chew. Director Runako Jahl's awkward staging did little to help the actors connect with their environment and the play's stakes. Static and effortful, the actors started at eleven and never let up.

Proxy, Underscore Theatre: This musical from Alexander Sage Oyen, Austin Regan and Rachel Franco derives its plot from a real 2014 murder attempt, but doesn't cite its source material. Knowing there are real people, under the age of 18 who may not know they inspired this musical, makes it impossible to enjoy.


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