The “fake news” phenomenon may have been all the rage in 2017, but Chicago theaters continually grabbed hold of “real news” (often by way of its historical roots) in a slew of incisive and imaginative productions. There also were just enough shows whose pure entertainment value came as much-needed spirit-raisers.
Here is a highly distilled look at some of the best of the year:
“Objects in the Mirror” (Goodman Theatre): Based on a true story, Charles Smith’s heart-wrenching world premiere play was set against the vicious civil wars that raged in several West African countries from 1989 to 2003, but also was emblematic of the many refugee crises now plaguing much of the world.Directed by Chuck Smith, and featuring exceptional performances by Daniel Kyri and Allen Gilmore, “Objects” chronicled the horrific plight of those who flee violence, survive desperate treks to “safer” ground, end up trapped in putrid camps, and suffer deep psychological scars as they face the loss of family and identity in a new country.
“The Heavens Are Hung in Black” (Shattered Globe Theater): James Still’s rich fantasia on Abraham Lincoln (portrayed here with uncanny brilliance by Lawrence Grimm), was set during the summer of 1862 as the casualties in the Civil War were piling up, as Lincoln mourned the death of his beloved son, as assassination threats loomed, and as the dissolution of the nation seemed imminent. Most crucially, the president had to make the monumental decision to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Beyond Caring” (Lookingglass Theatre): A reader wrote me saying she was offended by Alexander Zeldin’s soul-stripping play and didn’t go to the theater “to be guilted.” But this show was not designed to “guilt.” It was meant to be a vivid reminder of what it means to be among the working poor. Set in a meat processing plant — a toxic, modern-day Underworld — the play homed in on the desperate situations of three women, all temporary workers besieged by low wages, no benefits, short-term contracts and appalling safety conditions. Harsh reality, yes, but ideally conjured with not a hint of sentimentality.
“Machinal” (Greenhouse Theater Center): Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 playwas in many ways far ahead of its time in both style and substance. And this superb revival – a production that eerily presaged the current sexual harassment storm – dealt with the issue in the most complex psychological manner, with a stunning central performance by Heather Chrisler enhanced by an airtight ensemble.
“Lela & Co.” (Steep Theatre): The physical and psychological abuse of women took an even more harrowing turn in this play by Cordelia Lynn that looked at the sexual enslavement of a young woman during the war in Bosnia but, tragically, could easily have been set in many other countries around the world. Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel’s performance in the title role was utterly riveting.
“Lizzie” (Fireband Theatre): This new Equity feminist company devoted to musical theater left an indelible mark as it charged out of the starting gate at full force in this sensational punk rock musical about Lizzie Borden, the infamous ax murderer. Its cast of four fearless actresses, all with powerhouse voices and emotional fire to spare, spun the twisted tale.
“Sweeney Todd” (Paramount Theatre): On every level this production of the Stephen Sondheim classic was on a grand opera scale, with Bri Sudia perhaps the finest Mrs. Lovett ever.
“Ragtime” (Griffin Theatre): Using the intimate confines of The Den Theatre in the most ingenious ways, director Scott Weinstein and choreographer William Carlos Angulo infused this glorious, grand-scale musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty with ferocious energy.
“Five Guys Named Moe” (Court Theatre): For pure joyful, giggle-inducing fun, this musical had no equal (except, perhaps, the irresistible satirical revue, “Spamilton”). The show featured the wonderfully antic songs of Swing Era star Louis Jordan, plus an antic cast of six actors under director Ron OJ Parsons (on a roll this season, with two other outstanding productions — “Blues for an Alabama Sky” at Court Theatre and “Paradise Blue” at TimeLine Theatre).
“A New Brain” (Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre): William Finn’s quasi-autobiographical musical about a struggling young songwriter who experiences an emotional awakening after undergoing life-threatening brain surgery burst with surprising charm and freshness.
Honorable mentions from 2017: “The Minutes,” Tracy Letts’ new play that savages local government and national mythmaking (at Steppenwolf Theatre),; “The Nether,” Jennifer Haley’s creepily brilliant look at the darkest side of cyberspace (at A Red Orchid Theatre); “Shockheaded Peter,” a crazily imaginative, visually stunning rendering of fairy tale cruelty (Black Button Eyes Productions); “Marie Christine,”Michael John LaChiusa’s soaring musical with a Creole spin on “Medea” (at BoHo Theater); “By the Water,”Sharyn Rothstein’s poignant, timely tale of lives upended by a natural disaster (at Northlight Theatre); “Yasmina’s Necklace” Rohina Malik’s witty rom-com with an Iraqi immigrant twist (at Goodman Theatre) ; “Marry Me a Little,” “Billy Elliot” and “The Scottsboro Boys,” a winning triumvirate of musicals by this top-notch company (Porchlight Music Theater); “Bridges of Madison County” and “She Loves Me,”both ideally realized (at Marriott Theatre); “The Belle of Amherst,”with the ever-radiant Kate Fry in a bravura turn as poet Emily Dickinson (at Court Theatre); and “Amarillo,” a wrenching evocation of Latin-American immigrants presented as part of the hugely ambitious inaugural season of the Chicago International Latino Theater Festival.