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The Best and Worst of Chicago Theater in 2015

The Tempest and Sondheim on Sondheim were among the best this year.

The Tempest was the best show of the year.   Photo: Liz Lauren

After sitting through nearly 150 shows this year, I tallied hits—and a few misses—of 2015.

The Best

1. The Tempest, Chicago Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s shipwreck saga was—literally—magic. Directors Aaron Posner and Teller (of the famed Penn and Teller) peppered the show with mesmerizing illusions, making desert isle despot Prospero a master conjurer in a world of two-headed cannibals, levitating princesses and mercurial imps. The magic was enchanting, the story utterly bewitching.

2. Sondheim on Sondheim, Porchlight Theatre

As a pianist, Austin Cook has the technique of a master mathematician and an emotional range that careens through the spectrum from abject despair to unbridled joy. That killer combination of über-precision and heartfelt feeling made Porchlight’s ode to Sondheim worthy of the composer’s genius.

3. Charm, Northlight Theatre

Etiquette became an unlikely source of salvation for imperiled youth in Philip Dawkins’s story of a transgender woman whose charm school turned into a lifeline for queer youth in this heartbreakingly vivid play directed by BJ Jones.

4. These Shining Lives, Northlight Theatre

Melanie Marnich’s musical gave haunting voice to the largely forgotten women of an Ottawa watch factory where execs knowingly poisoned their workforce in the 1920s and ’30s.

5. Doubt, Writers’ Theatre

As a priest who may or may not have molested a young altar boy, Steve Haggard veered to extremes. One moment his Father Brendan Flynn made your skin crawl, the next he’d dazzle with rock-star charisma. Either way, you couldn’t take your eyes off him until the final, tantalizing scene of John Patrick Shanley’s taut drama.

6. 1984, Steppenwolf Theatre

Andrew White’s blistering adaptation of George Orwell’s alarmingly topical dystopian classic was almost unwatchable at times thanks to director Hallie Gordon’s terrifying view of the future. The most disturbing part of the production? Just how recognizable Orwell’s world was, from the hidden torture rooms used by the cops to the roaring, mindless nationalism voiced by Big Brother’s mindless devotees.

7. October Sky, Marriott Lincolnshire

Composer Michael Mahler penned an alternately transcendent and rugged score for the tale of teenage rocketeers hoping to escape their dying coal mining town. With book writer Aaron Thielen, Mahler also captured the agony and the ecstasy of adolescence among high school kids with dreams as big as outer space.

8. The Price, TimeLine Theatre

The indomitable Mike Nussbaum played a wily appraiser called on to calculate the value of an antique-filled attic and—by proxy—to shine a light on a generation of regrets of a family long shattered. Louis Contey’s invaluable direction left the final, bittersweet transaction remained lodged in your heart long after all the stuff on stage faded to black.

9. Red Handed Otter, A Red Orchid

Ever-so-slightly off-kilter, Mierka Girten set the bar for an ensemble of awkwardly troubled souls that also featured Guy Van Swearingen in Ethan Lipton’s story of a quirky cast of five. Director Dado shaped a story about humankind’s fragility and the aching, awful ways we try to carry on in the face of loss.

10. A Kid Like Jake, About Face Theater

Daniel Pearle’s drama about a little boy fascinated with princesses flew somewhat under the radar, but the About Face production directed by Kiera Fromm featured killer performances from Katherine Keberlein as mom with a disturbing streak of intolerance and Cindy Gold as the ferociously opinionated, well-meaning administrator for a private pre-school.

The Worst

1. East of Eden, Steppenwolf Theatre

Steppenwolf transformed John Steinbeck’s epic novel into a serious snoozefest with a perfunctory, patchy adaptation by Frank Galati and performances so wooden it’s a mercy the theater didn’t catch fire.

2. Fulfillment, American Theatre Company

People fling around the word “provocateur” when describing playwright Thomas Bradshaw. In Fulfillment, Bradshaw’s provocations—copious sex scenes and plenty of inflamed dialogue—felt like cynical calculations aimed at disturbing simply for shock’s sake.

3. Beauty and the Beast, Broadway in Chicago

The woebegone show is part of a larger problem: Broadway in Chicago’s habit of charging first-run ticket prices for tired, cut-rate, sub-par, non-Equity tours. Beauty and the Beast featured cheap-looking sets, a Mrs. Potts at least a generation too young for the role, and a skeleton ensemble that barely filled the stage during. Be our guest? No thanks.

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