Acclaimed actor Brendan Coyle takes the Goodman stage in Conor McPherson’s thoroughly bizarre monologue play ST. NICHOLAS, which combines the innately unsettling and the supernatural. Coyle, known for his work as Mr. Bates in DOWNTON ABBEY (which this critic has admittedly never seen) proves a master at his craft in this production transferred from London’s Donmar Warehouse.
2018 was another glorious year for Chicago theater. Here are some of my top picks from the past year, in order of opening date. I enjoyed this opportunity to look back on all the remarkable storytelling I’ve seen onstage this year, and I’m looking forward to the official Year of Chicago Theatre in 2019 (though honestly that’s every year for me)!
I left the world premiere of Isaac Gomez’s LA RUTA at Steppenwolf Theatre Company with a heavy heart, yet one that was also full as I admired the immense work of the all-female Latinx ensemble. Gomez’s necessarily tragic play focuses on Mexican women who live in Ciudad Juárez and have been disappearing along the bus route home from their factory jobs. LA RUTA handles its devastating subject matter with compelling gravitas (Gomez conducted several interviews to bring the play to life). Through his strong and deeply human characters, Gomez gives voice to this tragedy without ever sliding into a didactic tone.
For this one-man dark side of the holidays show, Goodman Theatre could not ask for a better actor than Matt Crowle. He brings all of David Sedaris’s droll humor to life in THE SANTALAND DIARIES (Joe Mantello adapted Sedaris’s original short story into the play). In the role of Crumpet the Elf, the show’s stand-in for Sedaris, Crowle maximizes every ounce of cynicism and crass humor in the material, while also instantly winning audiences over. Crowle’s malleable facial expressions and ever-changing mannerisms allow him to easily slide into each of the characters in the story. Crowle’s improvisational skills also make the material fresh and allow him to mine the play for even more outrageous jokes (THE SANTALAND DIARIES has been around since 1996).
Danai Gurira’s FAMILIAR, now in its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf, offers up a lighthearted and laugh-out-loud funny family comedy, even as the play probes questions of identity and assimilation into American culture. Director Danya Taymor’s dynamite ensemble builds on the richness of the characters inherent in Gurira’s script.
Ike Holter’s RIGHTLYND sets into motion the central theme of the tension between political idealism and the realities that come with power in a complicated, often stagnant political machine. The first in Holter’s seven play cycle all focusing on Rightlynd, the fictional 51st ward of Chicago, this world premiere focuses on Nina Esposito. Nina is a resident of Rightlynd, who still mourns the closing of her mother’s corner store, Esposito Express, as the neighborhood faces gentrification. No longer content with the shifting changes in her neighborhood, Nina runs for alderman of the 51st ward with the hopes of protecting her home. But when she wins the office, will Nina be able to turn her idealistic plans into reality, or will she become another cog in the Chicago political machine? In RIGHTLYND, Holter sets up this tension not just in Nina’s trajectory, but seems to set up this theme of power and change for the cycle as a whole.
The behemoth national tour of the 2017 Tony nominated revival of MISS SAIGON has made its helicopter landing at Broadway in Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre, and every single production element is larger-than-life. Nothing about the staging nor the material of MISS SAIGON is subtle. Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil’s gargantuan pop opera (with lyrics by Boubil and Richard Maltby, Jr.) paints all of the plot points and characters in broad strokes, but the emotional tensions run big and true. Laurence Connor’s production aims to rectify some of the elements of the musical, which has a reputation as something of a “problem child” in the theater world. The original staging in 1989 was notorious for its use of “yellowface” (white actors playing Asian roles), particularly for the central role of the Engineer.
BoHo Theatre’s production of Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones’s 110 IN THE SHADE makes the central, fierce, independent female character of Lizzie Curry take center stage. This is particularly true because Neala Barron’s expert performance anchors every moment. Barron mines her character for the maximum amount of meaning and layers she can find: she makes us feel Lizzie’s strong-willed, intelligent presence while also conveying a deep sense of longing to find a husband and start a family. 110 IN THE SHADE strikes a chord precisely because these two facets of Lizzie’s character are not presented as irreconcilable: rather, Lizzie is simultaneously pragmatic and ambitious in her desires. With direction by outgoing Artistic Director Peter Marston Sullivan and music direction by Ellen Morris, Barron also thrives in each musical number backed by a 3-piece orchestra.
In Timeline Theatre Company’s MASTER CLASS, Chicago favorite Janet Ulrich Brooks schools the audience with her commanding performance as famous opera singer Maria Callas.
The touring production of the 2017 Tony Award-winning revival HELLO, DOLLY! has arrived in Chicago with a jubilant, tuneful, and visually pleasing staging. Jerry Zaks’s fast-paced production finds every moment of joy and adventure in Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s classic musical. This bright and bold HELLO, DOLLY! offers unapologetic escapist entertainment, but that’s precisely what makes the production such a success. At its core, HELLO, DOLLY! was created to supply fun and farce, and that’s precisely what’s served up.