Christina Anderson’s HOW TO CATCH CREATION, now in its world premiere at Goodman Theatre, uses language that is simultaneously poetic and realistic in its exploration of legacy and artistic expression. The play centers on two generations of characters. We learn that these characters, though living several decades apart, are connected in unexpected ways. And each character longs to establish some kind of legacy, whether it be personal—in the form of children and loved ones—or professional—through works of art that will outlast the creator.
Ike Holter’s RED REX, now in its world premiere at Steep Theatre, is a delightfully meta-theatrical experience. The play is the sixth in local playwright Holter’s ambitious seven-play cycle about Rightlynd, the fictional 51st ward of Chicago. It is one of the most intriguing, brilliant, and solidly constructed plays in the “Rightlynd Saga.” RED REX is Chicago theater that is quite literally about Chicago theater. Yet Holter never panders to his theater-loving audience in his writing. Watching RED REX is a simultaneously gratifying and challenging experience, and that’s precisely what makes this play so powerful.
Despite the title, Will Eno’s THE REALISTIC JONESES, now receiving its Chicago premiere in a co-production between Shattered Globe Theatre and Theater Wit, does not seem to wholly exist in the real world. Though Jack Magaw’s tidy set design, Hailey Rakowiecki’s quotidian costume designs, and John Kelly’s lighting design are all quite realistic, Eno’s play dwells in the realm of the absurd. Rather than following any conventional narrative structure, THE REALISTIC JONESES plays out as a series of vignettes between two married couples; both are the Joneses of the title. The elder Joneses, Jennifer and Bob, are long-time residents of the unidentified town near the mountains, while Pony and John are newcomers to the neighborhood.
In DADA WOOF PAPA HOT, now in its Chicago premiere at About Face Theatre, playwright Peter Parnell explores that nagging question of what it means to have it all. The play centers on a gay couple and their circle of friends. Though Alan (Bruch Reed) and Rob (Benjamin Sprunger) have been together for fifteen years, they’ve been married for a much shorter period of time and must navigate their shifting identities as partners and as parents of their three-year-old daughter, Nicola. (The play’s seemingly nonsensical title refers to her first words and attempt at her parents’ names.) The characters in DADA WOOF PAPA HOT are clearly well-off, but that doesn’t make the ways in which they struggle with the challenges of daily life and parenthood any less human.
Hansol Jung’s CARDBOARD PIANO, now in its Chicago premiere at Timeline Theatre Company, centers on historical and contemporary issues in Uganda. Jung’s narrative sweeps up much of that nation’s recent history of violence, child soldiers, and homophobia into the story of just a few characters inside a church. And CARDBOARD PIANO relays all this alongside lofty themes of forgiveness, the power of religion, and the human need to fix what’s broken and right wrongs. While this may sound like a tall order for one play to tackle—and it is—it is Jung’s utterly human, multidimensional characters that allow her to find success. Jung also proves a masterful playwright because she knows that the best plays meditate on themes and add more complexity to some of life’s biggest questions, without offering up clear answers.
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.