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Best Chicago theater of 2017: These shows gave voice to our moment

December 15, 2017 at 5:25 PM

Original Article: http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/theater/ct-ae-best-chicago-theater-2017-1217-story.html

The year 2017 was a year of disruption. This was not the best of times, but a season of justified outrage, of mealy-mouthed apology, of communicative disarray. No surprise, then, that the best Chicago shows of the year tended to tell stories of talking past each other, of people failing to understand their own culpability, of reckonings, both personal and political. You could see and feel pain in many of these productions, shows that may not have been from this moment, but still seemed to articulate its immediate truths when placed in the hands of fearless Chicago artists.

Here, in ranked order, are my 10 best Chicago shows of 2017, followed by 10 more (in alphabetical order) that really should have made the list. You’ll find my best of Broadway elsewhere, so I’ve not included tours; otherwise, there would have been room for "Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the new cast of “Les Miserables,” Peter Brook and his pals in “Battlefield” at the MCA and, of course, the Cirque du Soleil’s gorgeous “Luzia.” Nor have I considered remounts or reprises.

It’s hard to pick what to review each week, it’s even tougher to list the best. But out of well over 200 reviews, these are the 20 original nights of Chicago theater in 2017 that now feel like they mattered the most.

So here we go.

1. “Evening at the Talk House,” A Red Orchid Theatre: This venerable company of highly experienced and uncompromising Chicago actors proved to be the perfect match for Wallace Shawn’s savage and blistering takedown of the denizens of show business, a show that played New York in 2015, before its moment, but opened in Chicago in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations and seemed custom-timed. We saw the director Shade Murray delving deeper than ever before, the actress Sadieh Rifai doing the best work of her formidable career, and the veteran actor H.B. Ward going to a place so dark, it’s remarkable he was ever able to recover. This was a devastating and fully immersive piece of theater from a theater that long has been integral to the artistic identity of Chicago. Here was an evisceration of a devolving nation, sparing nobody.

2. “Lela & Co.,” Steep Theatre: Another tiny Chicago theater at the top of the list, Steep Theatre was the perfect home for Cordelia Lynn’s intense play about a wonderfully spirited woman who suffered constant abuse at the hands of men. Also in tune with the events of 2017, “Lela & Co.” managed to be both horrifying and ennobling of its empathetic central character, a woman whose resilient spirit crossed border after border in search of peace and satisfaction. Robin Witt’s direction was unstinting and the central performance, from the relative newcomer Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, was the rare tour de force that did full justice to the term.

3. “At the Table,” Broken Nose Theatre: Yet another tiny Chicago theater at the top of the list, Broken Nose Theatre staged a summer show that proved so popular with urban audiences, tickets briefly rivaled “Hamilton” in their scarcity. “At the Table” had come and gone quietly in New York, but after a savvy rewrite by the author Micheal Perlman, this smart, savvy play collided with a group of Chicago actors who clearly lived its realities. “At the Table,” a portrait of friends making each other so miserable you wondered why they bothered hanging out, caught the wind of the current debate over who has the right to have an opinion on what topic and, of course, the current miserable state of our intraspecies communication. Heads in the audience nodded all night. Otherwise, nobody dared move.

4. “A View From the Bridge,” Goodman Theatre:

 

Although close to a tour of the Broadway production, the new cast of Ivo Van Hove’s eye-popping revival of the classic Arthur Miller drama still made this now-famous international production their own. After all, the Goodman Theatre was among the first to introduce the work of this remarkable auteur director to audiences on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps better than any other Miller production in history, Van Hove’s “View” made the case for Miller as a tragedian, a status the late, great playwright always craved. So potent was Van Hove’s immersive, clamplike conceit, you felt the magnitude of characters as they were buoyed by circumstances beyond their control, careering toward change and death, like all of us, but without any of the requisite ability to know themselves.

5. “Gloria,” Goodman Theatre: So drastically did Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ superb play morph and twist, it was impossible to discuss without ruining the experience for anyone who had not yet seen the show. At first, we were lulled into watching what first seemed like a comedy of pretentious writers and editors, all fending off their avaricious assistants armed in the intergenerational war of the moment, but “Gloria” ended up as an indictment of how easily we move from shared outrage to selfish exploitation. The play was almost impossible to stage realistically, yet, somehow, the director Evan Cabnet managed to make every move, every act of physical or moral violence, feel utterly credible on the Goodman’s large stage. “Gloria” has been impossible to forget; it should have gone to Broadway.

6. “42nd Street,” Drury Lane Theatre: This radical and oft-contemporary reinterpretation of an archetypal Broadway story managed both to thrill a modern audience and make Peggy Sawyer more of a timeless representative of chorus hoofers throughout history. Here was a diversified “42nd Street” that ranged into “A Chorus Line” territory, pulling inspiration from the streets and evolving eras of Broadway as well as its traditional, musical-comedy heritage. The director, Michael Heitzman, and a cast of formidable talent were bursting with fresh ideas for honoring generations of sacrifices, all in service of the great dream of putting on the best show ever and avoiding that boring alternate life in Allentown. Shudder. Through Jan. 7; www.drurylane.com

7. “Machinal,” Greenhouse Theater Center: Anchored by a formidable central performance from Heather Chrisler, the 1928 American drama of murder and marital deceit penned by the former newspaper reporter Sophie Treadwell seemed to have so much still to teach. Director Jacob Harvey’s unhyped production in the upstairs space at the Greenhouse Theater Center was one of the year’s sleepers, a high-styled show filled with savvy choices, including movement by Elizabeth Margolius and, from Eleanor Kahn, one of the smartest designs of the year. “Chrisler approaches this role like it is a study of detestation,” I wrote in September, having been fascinated by the kinetic quality of a performance that made clear how we often have little control over what is done to us, and thus what we do to others in return.

8. “Straight White Men,” Steppenwolf Theatre: In a year when many women were sick of hearing from or about men, the theater artist Young Jean Lee decided instead to take a deep dive into the subspecies, allegedly the cause of so much societal inequality, oppression and disarray. The often-amusing result — which is moving to Broadway next year under Anna D. Shapiro’s excellent direction — was a compelling exploration of the paradox of knowing you’re part of the problem but still being forced to exist in a capitalist America that never rewards self-deprecation and likely never will. Lee did not let straight white men off any of the hooks on which some have hung themselves, but she did allow that nothing in brutalist, paradoxical America ever is easy, especially when you want to argue against your own eradication.

9. “Parade,” Writers Theatre: The director Gary Griffin pulled off a wise and deeply affecting production of Jason Robert Brown’s “Parade” at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, even as America engaged in a yearlong debate about memorializing the Confederacy. “Parade,” which has a beautiful score and a brave heart, was another show from the recent past that, thanks to the commitment of Griffin’s cast, came roaring back to life in the strife of 2017. This North Shore “Parade” offered up American history as evidence for the necessity of change, but also sung of how human stubbornness and resistance always make backward steps a part of the trajectory toward justice for all. It was hard to watch much of this show without being overcome by emotion — positive, negative, everything at once.

10. “The Minutes,” Steppenwolf Theatre: Tracy Letts’ latest play — a searing attack on how small-town America is losing not only its conscience but its civic logic — will likely morph and improve as it wends toward Broadway. But it was immediately clear that here was a new Steppenwolf drama designed to hold us all accountable for our own divisiveness and to suggest that hostility and brutality reside very close to the surface of American democracy. Like “Gloria,” “The Minutes” had secrets that, when revealed, turned the quotidian into the horrific. Through Jan. 7; www.steppenwolf.org

It was that kind of year.

Also, alphabetically but each excellent: “Billy Elliot” through Dec. 31 at Porchlight Music Theatre; “The Book of Will” through Sunday at Northlight Theatre; “The Book of Joseph” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater; “Dream Freaks from Outer Space” in an open run at Second City; “Linda Vista” at Steppenwolf Theatre; “Most Happy Fella” at Theo Ubique Theatre; “A New Brain” at Theo Ubique Theatre; “Objects in the Mirror” at Goodman Theatre; “Spamilton” at Royal George Theatre; “Sweeney Todd” at the Paramount Theatre.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5(at)chicagotribune.com