Chicago overflowed with great plays to see this year. From fabulous remounts, such as the Ruffian’s Burning Bluebeard and the Goodman’s Smokefall, to Tavi Gevinson’s star turn in This is Our Youth, there were too many great moments to mention in one list, but I did my darnedest to reflect what I found to be the best—and worst—of Chicago theater in 2014.
Best display of jaw-dropping creativity
All Our Tragic, The Hypocrites
Aided by a $70,000 grant from Harvard, Hypocrites founder Sean Graney took all 32 extent Greek tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and shaped them into a gory 12-hour marathon. With libations and feasts offered during half a dozen or so intermissions, All Our Tragic was the closest thing to a bona fide Dionysian frenzy this year.
Best hat trick performance
The Year of Larry Yando
Yando started 2014 in a barbed battle of wits with Shannon Cochran and Philip Earl Johnson in Writer’s Theater’s Dance of Death, a violently funny domestic drama about a husband, wife, and interloper. In September, Yando followed up as the titular monarch of Chicago Shakespeare’s King Lear. His take on the spoiled king was equal parts exhausting and emotionally draining. The long-time Chicago actor closed the year in his beloved and longtime role of Ebenezer Scrooge at the Goodman’s A Christmas Carol, a show he carries with both heart and class.
Best set built on a shoestring budget
The Gravedigger, First Folio Theater
For Joseph Zettelmaier’s The Gravedigger, set designer Angela Miller crafted two creepy and incredibly evocative environments: A ramshackle hut made of rough-hewn wood and dirt and a bramble-choked cemetery that seemed a place where even angels feared to tread. Both were immersive and stunning.
Most realistic use of copious fake blood
Carrie, Bailiwick Chicago
We were all waiting for the symbolism laden crimson dump throughout this deliciously gory staging of Stephen King’s seminal novel, and special-effects maestro Greg Poljacik did not disappoint.
Best channeling of a dead country icon
Hank Williams: Lost Highway, American Blues Theater
Matthew Brumlow’s Hank Williams and his drifting cowboys gave such a powerful, tortured performance that it left even the deepest of urban dwellers yearning for a truck, a hand-rolled smoke, and a backwoods still. Special kudos to Greg Hirte, who practically lit his fiddle on fire.
The most important show Rahm Emanuel should have seen
Exit Strategy, Jackalope Theatre
Painfully real and unexpectedly funny, Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy schooled us in the the messy, emotional fallout from the closing of more than a hundred Chicago Public Schools.
Most emotionally lethal ensembles
Airline Highway, Steppenwolf Theatre, and Luna Gale, Goodman Theatre
In Lisa L’Amour’s Highway, you could practically smell the sweat surrounding the seedy hotel where a group of poor 99-percenters celebrate a dying burlesque queen. Together ensemble members Caroline Neff, K. Todd Freeman, Kate Buddeke, and Stephen Louis Grush created a troubled, loving family of misfits whose devotion to each carry them through shifting tides.
The knife-sharp cast of Rebecca Gilman’s Lula Gale brought to life the impenetrable problems of the child welfare system in the poignant and heartbreaking play.
Most Braindead Plot
Evil Dead, Broadway in Chicago
The blood looked cheesy, the scares were non-existent, and female characters were reduced to their cup sizes. Add a stupid plot and a sloppy production and you have Broadway in Chicago’s Evil Dead.
Biggest Waste of Time
The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, Broadway in Chicago
Not even Stephen King (book) and John Mellancamp (music) could make this backwoods morass feel like more than outtakes from a Beverly Hillbillies knock-off.