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The Best (and Weirdest) of Chicago Theater in 2016

From best demonic possession to best use of root vegetables, Chicago’s theater scene set plenty of new creative precedence this year.

American Buffalo was the last production at the beloved Mary-Arrchie Theatre.   Photo: Michael Brosilow

See ya, 2016. Don’t let the door hit you in the nethers on the way out. Amid losses in Chicago’s theatrosphere (RIP The Ruckus, Oracle, Signal, Mary-Arrchie) and national cultural icons (David Bowie, Prince), Chicago’s theaters continually provided balms to soothe all of Gilead. Here, in no particular order, is a rundown of the most ingenious and unexpected superlatives the fraught year had to offer.

Best Integration of Robotics with a Human Being

Richard III, The Gift Theatre

When Michael Patrick Thornton left his wheelchair and buckled into a whirring, clanking robotic body suit that allowed him to stalk the stage on two feet, the infinite villainy of the hump-backed king Richard III literally hit new heights. With or without the robotics, Thornton’s Richard was one of the most unforgettable villains of the year.

Best Demonic Possession of a Chicago Actor Not on Fox’s Exorcist

Hand to God, Victory Gardens Theatre

Don’t let that cherubic face fool you. As the son of a Sunday School teacher, Alex Weisman showed us that the Lord of Darkness loves a good hand puppet and can turn even the most innocent of school boys into a monster. Blood and other bodily fluids spewed forth with abandon in a production wherein the power of lies ran rampant.

Best Use of Chainsaws as Tools of Female Empowerment

The Secretaries, About Face Theatre

Ever have one of those days (months/years) where the boss seems intent on crushing your soul? So it goes for the women in the Five Lesbian Brothers’ tale of administrative assistants who take to the woods for Dionysian frenzies involving sex, murder, and power tools. Forget Victoria’s Secret: these ladies made roaring chainsaws the sexiest accessory on earth.

Best Non-Traditional Casting

The Matchmaker, Goodman Theatre

Usually, Thornton Wilder’s romp through early 20th century New York is a uniformly Anglo-Saxonish affair. Director Henry Wishcamper broke with tradition by casting an ensemble that looked like Chicago and reflected a spectrum of skin colors, genders, and physical abilities. Here’s to the day when such “non-traditional casting” is simply known as “casting.”

Best Reminder that the Country Has Survived Dubiously Competent Presidents

Looking Over the President’s Shoulder, American Blues Theater

As the presidential campaign raged onward, actor Manny Buckley dug into the history of the country’s highest office. In James Still’s one-man show, Buckley played Alonzo Fields, chief White House butler from Hoover to Eisenhower. The solo piece was a captivating testimony to the strength of democracy to prevail in the darkest of times.

Best Barn-Burning Power Belt

SongBird Blu, a.k.a. Donica Lynn, in Dreamgirls, Porchlight Theatre

Calling “And I Am Telling You” a power ballad is like calling Mount Everest a pile of rocks. It’s the wailing heart of Dreamgirls, and one of the most technically and emotionally demanding numbers in musical theater. Lynn brought the thunder and the house down with her incomparable performance, delivering a master class in show stopping.

Best Use of Root Vegetables

Cinderella at the Theater of Potatoes, The Hypocrites

Inspired by 19th-century composer Pauline Viardot Garcia, Andra Velis Simon gave us a gloriously goofy, unapologetically feminist take on a stale, sexist fairytale. The abundance of potatoes in the plot (and the soup served post-show) was a nod to Viardot’s famous salons, where admission price was a potato. (Let us all hope the Hypocrites’ recent cancelation of the last two shows in their 2016/2017 season is but an aberrant blip in their story.)

Best History-Making, Gender-Transcending Performance

I Am My Own Wife, About Face Theatre

Delia Kropp made history when she returned to Chicago stages as a woman, the post-transition second act in a career she started decades ago, pre-transition. As Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, an East German transwoman who survived both the Nazis and the Communists, Kropp made one thing abundantly clear. She’s not a trans actor. She’s an extraordinary actor, who happens to be trans.

Best Radically Feminist Tale Disguised as a Holiday Rom-Com

Miss Bennet, Northlight Theatre

Yes, it often felt like Hugh Grant was sure to show up at any moment in this sequel to “Pride and Prejudice.” But the feel-good holiday hit was actually a charmingly subversive commentary on the plight of women without rights, and their ability to find agency in Regency-Era England.

Best Bittersweet Requiem for an Off-Loop Treasure

American Buffalo, Mary-Arrchie Theatre

The house that Richard Cotovsky built stood for 30 years at 735 West Sheridan Road, in a scruffy Lake View space atop a convenience store. Condos are moving in where Mary-Arrchie once stood, but before the wrecking ball hit, Cotovsky provided a worthy grand finale with David Mamet’s profane tale of the underside of the American Dream. RIP Mary-Arrchie, and long live the newly named “Richard Cotovsky Way.”

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