Thinking back on the hundreds of shows I saw in the past year, I made the difficult decision to narrow down the list to the top 10. Given the breadth and depth of Chicago’s theatrosphere, ranking shows in this way often amounts to comparing apples and dachshunds. Still, supreme kudos are required here, and this compendium will hopefully illustrate why Chicago’s theatre scene is among the best in the country.
1. Burning Bluebeard, The Ruffians
Helmed by the endlessly imaginative Halena Kays, Burning Bluebeard told the story of the 1903 fire that killed nearly 600 audience members at the Iroquois Theatre with a whirligig of visceral emotions and elite-level circus stunts. Jay Torrence’s new play was a rumination of theatre, grief, and guilt, with the Ruffians—who played the spirits of a clown troupe who performed the night of the fire—reliving the tragedy with such full-hearted performances that left audiences in a state of grief feeling charred, horrified, and haunted.
2. Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology, Collaboraction Theatre
Stories of Chicago violence run the risk of coming off preachy or didactic, but Anthony Mosely—who both conceived and directed the piece—gave an unblinking, unvarnished glimpse into the epidemic of violence that plagues the city. Pulling narrative from news reports, Crime Scene’s large, seamless ensemble proffered no pat solutions but rather an impressive show that raises awareness in an intensely theatrical manner, giving the audience a visceral body blow and a serious sense of outrage.
3. Trevor, A Red Orchid Theatre
Directed by Shade Murray, the titular simian in Nick Jones whiplash-inducing tale of a wild pet monkey touched on everything from how to deal with nosey neighbors to the achingly lonely fallout of sudden widowhood. Playing off the sublime Mierka Girten, Larry Grimm as Trevor was uncanny, swinging around with equal parts ferociousness and tenderness. And Girten was simply lovely as a damaged woman with a ferociousness all her own. Feral, funny, and in-your-face violent, Trevor was a tale of monkeyshines that, well, truly shone.
4. The Normal Heart, TimeLine Theatre
Larry Kramer wrote his seminal exploration of love, rage, and criminal indifference during the advent AIDs more than 30 years go, but in TimeLine’s all-but-unbearably-tragic production of the piece rang with a urgent clarion call that didn’t miss a single note under the direction of Nick Bowling. A breathtaking ensemble—starring Mary Beth Fisher, David Cromer, and Patrick Andrews—had the audience sobbing both opening and closing night. Kramer’s narrative was a relentless crescendo of fear, compassion, rebellious indignation, and acceptance. Galvanizing and brilliant, The Normal Heart stands as a powerful reminder of why theatre matters.
5. Measure for Measure, Goodman Theatre
Speaking as someone who recalls Times Square before it became a Disneyfied tourist trap, props must be given to Robert Falls and set designer Walt Spangler for capturing the 1970s Times Square with a perfect physical replication of moral decay so rotted you could practically smell the stench. Measure for Measure has long been classified as one of Shakespeare’s so-called problem plays, but Falls solved it with one masterly, bloody stroke, so shocking and so out of left field that it felt absolutely perfect.
6. A Raisin in the Sun, TimeLine Theatre
Director Ron OJ Parson took Lorraine Hansberry’s classic and made it sing. Hansberry’s riveting tale of ethnic pride and undaunted courage features a pitch-perfect performance by Greta Oglesby as the family matriarch and Mildred Marie Langford as a young woman blossoming with cultural pride. Under Parson’s direction, Raisin showed the power of holding on to your dreams, no matter how long they’re deferred.
7. Mojada, Victory Gardens Theatre
When Louis Alfaro transported the ancient Greek tragedy of Medea to contemporary Pilsen, he gave the old saga a heartbreakingly contemporary spin. Instead of grieving pre-Raphaelite damsels, Mojada’s women are caught in a deadly struggle to maintain old world traditions amid a new world thick with coyotes, back-stabbing corporate sharks, and a slippery moral code. From the street vendors to adults bickering to laundry flapping on clotheslines, Alfaro created a Pilsen you could hear, see, and almost touch, a neighborhood in violent flux that becomes an integral character in its own story.
8. Miss Saigon, Paramount Theatre
The show could easily be a cheese-filled chestnut of borderline offensive stereotypes. But under James Corti’s direction, Miss Saigon was a world where wide-eyed innocence is juxtaposed against matter-of-fact flesh-peddling. Corti and his cast made the sleazy, sultry setting truly sizzle.
9. Next To Normal, Drury Lane, Oak Brook
Directed by William Osetek, Next to Normal shined an incandescent light on mental illness. The production was deeply moving, sonically gorgeous, and, in the era of juke-box musicals and repetitive revivals, truly brave. With Susie McMonagle playing a housewife who endures shock treatments to treat bi-polar disorder, Next to Normal was a portrait of strength, delusion, rage, and compassion that trusted audiences to rise to the occasion.
10. Tartuffe, Court Theatre
Moliere’s whacky, linguistically dazzling tale of a flim-flam artist out to con a respected family man was so deftly delivered in Charles Newell’s production that its South Side setting seemed like a natural fit. The play’s infamous seduction scene—where Tartuffe (Philip Earl Johnson) attempts to have his way with Elmire (Patrese D. McClain), the lady of the house—was a slick triumph of bawdy physical comedy and stiletto-sharp repartee. And with Newell at the helm, the redoubtable A.C. Smith played the sort of gent who elicits equal parts frustration, respect, and vanity. Between the delicious language, the low comedy, and the scathing social commentary, Tartuffe was utterly terrific.