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The best of Chicago theater (part two)

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More Windy City Times theater critics weigh in on what they felt was the best theater Chicago had to offer in 2018.

1. Karen Topham's choices:

It was yet another year of tremendous variety in Chicago theater, another year of difficult in coming up with a list of only five plays worthy of the "best" label. If I wished, I could make a top five list of musicals alone. But Chicago's straight theater scene, from the big houses to the black boxes, presented some amazing fare in 2018. Of course, I didn't see everything; no one could. But here are five that gave me cause to celebrate.

—Boy ( TimeLine Theatre ): Playwright Anna Ziegler's fictionalized account of a famous case involving gender identity was a complete gem. From the outstanding performance of lead Theo Germaine to the set design by Arnel Sancianco, Boy was the best play of the year about trans issues—even though it didn't have a trans character. ( The titular "boy" was cisgender but raised as a girl after a botched circumcision. ) Through the boy's doctor, parents, and his maybe-girlfriend, director Damon Kiley made audiences see the pain and confusion of being brought up in the wrong gender.

—The Light ( The New Colony ): In the wake of #MeToo, Loy Webb's two-hander about the persistence of rape culture and its intrusion into the lives of an African-American couple couldn't have been more timely. Directed by Toma Langston, outstanding performances by Tiffany Oglesby ( as Genesis ) and Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr. ( as Rashad ) that made this one of the most moving and powerful dramas of 2018. Webb took us to the defining day in the couple's relationship, revealing secrets and bringing powerful emotions to the confines of the Den Theatre. Almost a year later, The Light ( which won a Jeff Award for new work ) still moves in my memory.

—Ragtime ( Marriott Theatre ): Another Jeff-winning production ( including best production and director of a musical, large theater ) Ragtime was simply perfect. Director Nick Bowling did things with the Marriott's theater-in-the-square stage that I wouldn't have thought possible. The performances he managed to get from his actors—including Katherine Thomas as Sara—kept audiences riveted. I was thoroughly impressed from the opening number, when Bowling had the entire cast onstage in several varied and easily recognizable settings, each distinct and clearly visible to the audience.

—Sweeney Todd ( Theo Ubique ): Last year, Paramount Theatre mounted a lavish production of this acclaimed Stephen Sondheim musical. This year, Theo Ubique made the show their own with a vastly different take. With Jeff Awards for leads Philip Torre and Jacqueline Jones and for James Kolditz's lighting design, Sweeney has already been considerably honored. But it was director Fred Anzevino's brilliant direction that made this Sweeney Todd fit into the intimate space of the No Exit Cafe, bringing it to the audience, up close and personal.

—Frankenstein ( Manual Cinema at Court Theatre ): We watched as the Manual Cinema company put on a silent movie version 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 you could focus on any of the equally compelling parts of its stagecraft: the actors rushing through their moments and readying for other scenes or the musicians creating a brilliant and moody live soundtrack. The result was a complex, visual treat that is easily one of the best shows of the year.

2. Mary Shen Barnidge's choices:

Rarely in our history will you detect a shortage of popular indignation finding voice in accusations aimed at bullies, however nebulous the identities of villains and victims. In 2018, though, audiences afflicted with fingers weary of pointing and lungs seared by an atmosphere thick with grievances saw a genesis of plays hinting at possibility of resolution and accord:

—Familiar, Steppenwolf Theatre. When was the last time you heard the words "Africa" and "comedy" in the same sentence? Danai Gurira assembled two families—one, Zimbabwean immigrants—spanning three generations, on the occasion of a biracial wedding in Minnesota, who finish with everyone content.

—The Safe House, City Lit Theater. After a more than a century of playwrights bending the rules of dramatic discourse in ever-more enigmatic directions, Kristine Thatcher's return to the roots of theater in straightforward storytelling was as fresh as it was bold.

—Support Group for Men, Goodman Theatre. Reconstructive reparations are seldom easy on those deposed, but Ellen Fairey made a compassionate case for males mired down in testosterone ghettos ( both gay AND het ) desperately seeking toxic cleansing.

—Frost/Nixon, Redtwist Theatre. Our 37th president was once, to some, the most hated man in America, but Brian Parry never flinched in his courageous portrayal of a misguided man acting in good faith to his eternal disgrace.

—Southern Gothic, Windy City Playhouse. The fourth wall was never flimsier than in Leslie Liautaud's Dixie-fried comedy, with David Bell's you-are-there staging taking actor-audience intimacy to a whole new level.

3. Lauren Emily Whalen's choices:

—The Wolves ( Goodman Theatre ): It's rare to see a play with teenage girls who aren't shallow bubbleheads or sexual-assault victims, and Sarah DeLappe's Pulitzer Prize-winning glimpse into the lives of an all-female soccer team was as riveting as it was unique. Director Vanessa Stalling captured the essence of modern young womanhood as the characters bantered about periods, formed alliances and let loose with primal screams, all while performing athletic drills with practiced precision. When the lights went up after a breathless 90 minutes in Goodman's Owen Theatre, my sister and I turned to each other and said, "that was us." Fun fact: We never played soccer.

—Mies Julie ( Victory Gardens Theater ): Yael Farber's provocative adaptation of the Strindberg classic, set in newly post-apartheid South Africa, could make the top five list for several reasons. Dexter Bullard's direction perfectly conveyed the sultry heat of a life-changing summer night. Heather Chrisler and Jalen Gilbert created complex individual characters and generated stirring sexual chemistry. But the real star of Victory Gardens' Mies Julie was Kristina Fluty's intimacy choreography, a relatively new term in the theater world. As the title character and her Afrikaans love interest circled one another, flirting and eventually copulating before the play's shocking climax, both moves and energy burst with primal eroticism.

—Eclipsed ( Pegasus Theatre Chicago ): Before becoming a breakout star of TV's The Walking Dead and Marvel's Avengers franchise, Danai Gurira was already an accomplished playwright. Last fall, Pegasus Theatre Chicago presented a small but mighty production of Eclipsed, Gurira's searing take on women involved in the Second Liberian Civil War. Artistic director Ilesa Duncan skillfully transformed Chicago Dramatists' small space into a stifling environment where the wives ( read: captives ) of a rebel army captain fight over stolen Bill Clinton biographies, contemplate the possible "escape" of becoming soldiers themselves and explore the complex bonds of their forced sisterhood. The story was gripping, the acting solid, the production unforgettable.

—Jesus Christ Superstar ( Lyric Opera Chicago ): Normally, Judas is the focus of Andrew Lloyd Webber's groundbreaking rock musical, with showy vocals and a compelling character arc involving a deathly betrayal. But in Lyric Opera's bombastic blowout interpretation, Heath Saunders' Jesus emerged as the standout of the two lead characters.

As Judas ( Ryan Shaw ) blared the "Heaven on Their Minds" opening number, Saunders paced back and forth, wringing his hands and mouthing the words of a sermon, clearly uncomfortable with the adoration bestowed upon him. Thanks to Saunders, Jesus wasn't an infallible superhero, but a vulnerable man overwhelmed by the state of the world yet reluctant to leave it behind.

—Kingdom ( Broken Nose Theatre ): Within spitting distance of Disney World, an elderly gay couple contemplate their adult son's personal issues, their own failing health and the possible next step: now-legal marriage. Broken Nose Theatre isn't afraid to ask the tough questions and explore the lives of those often ignored. Kanomé Jones helmed the premiere of Michael Allen Harris' gorgeous family portrait of an all-black, all-queer family with an unapologetic passion for Mickey Mouse and Star Wars that's only surpassed by their love for one another. Presented by a stunning ensemble cast, the play deftly explored the personal kingdoms we are born into, and the ones we make for ourselves.

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