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Art Endured: How Chicago Theater Triumphed in 2017

Linda VistaRemember January last year? Not since the so-called "Death of Irony" in 2001 were so many gloomy prognostications uttered regarding the extinction of theater as a unifying experience—its goal, to encourage individuals in putting aside their differences and acknowledging the human values we all share.

We endured, however. Healing strategies were implemented. Let's look at what we accomplished at the theater in 2017:

We Saved the Theaters We Had: It's said that any empty space in Chicago bigger than a bathroom eventually houses a play (if smaller than a bathroom, you'll probably find a poetry reading there). Pride Films and Plays moved quickly to rescue the twin storefronts abandoned by the scandal-beset Profiles company, thus continuing its anchoring presence in the burgeoning Uptown historical district. Following the loss of three Lakeview stages to commercial interests, Strawdog Theatre seized command of the Ravenswood Alley duplex (formerly owned by Signal Ensemble) to ensure that it remained a playhouse, while Porchlight's occupancy the Ruth Page Auditorium attracted new audiences to a corner on the cloistered near-north side.

We Created New Theaters: More than simply preservation, 2017 also saw sumptuous new properties completed, the most conspicuous being Chicago Shakespeare's conversion of its chilly outdoor pavilion at Navy Pier into a multi-purpose indoor arena dubbed The Yard. In the neighborhoods, Red Tape Theater established residency in Lincoln Square at a former Video Game outlet dubbed The Ready, while another plank in the bridge connecting Lakeview to Andersonville was forged by a furniture store on Clark Street now operating under the sobriquet of The Arkham.

We Ate and Drank at the Theater: A return to the age of orange-girls is unlikely, but no entertainment venue can deny the favorite-neighbor status of warm rooms with chairs and refreshment suitable for huddles before or after the show. Windy City Playhouse and Public House Theater offer patrons liquid sustenance during show hours, as do pioneering lobby bars at Theater Wit, Stage 773, the Athenaeum and the Greenhouse (whose facility also includes a Theater Bookstore for pre-curtain reading), but 2017 saw the inauguration of all-day nosheterias in Steppenwolf's Front Bar cafe and the Den's Haven Lounge. Let's not forget, either, Klein's Bakery and the Bar on Buena, currently serving as annexes for the lobby-challenged Pride Arts Centers.

We Listened to Storytellers at the Theater: The roots of theater lie in a single person recounting an adventure to a group, but Lifeline's annual Fillet of Solo festival notwithstanding, the "one-man show", in recent years, had become associated with vanity tours—that is, until Ron Keaton's 2014 turn as Winston Churchill at the Greenhouse established the feature-length "solo play" as stand-alone fare capable of drawing audiences for a likewise full-length run. The subsequent success of single-narrator dramas led to increased opportunities citywide for such spotlight turns as Beauty's Daughter and Bette Davis Ain't For Sissies.

We Saw The Lives of Other People at the Theater: Unsettling glimpses of demographics seldom explored on the stage included Fred Wiseman-styled verite plays like Lookingglass' Beyond Caring and Red Orchid's paranoia-inducing Evening At the Talk House. We were introduced to ethnically-diverse microcosms in Victory Gardens' Wonder In My Soul, Nothing Without a Company's Bobby Pin Girls, Steppenwolf's Linda Vista and BLKS, Goodman's Yasmina's Necklace and Silk Road Rising/Remy Bumppo's South Asian Great Expectations. Actors, too, like Honey West, Joel Rodriguez and Dani Shay expanded casting perimeters beyond preconceived expectations.

We Remembered How to Have Fun at the Theater: Swashbuckling came to the suburbs with First Folio's Captain Blood and Oak Park Festival's Fair Maid of the West. Lifeline's board-game Sylvester and Chicago Shakespeare's meta-suffragette Taming of the Shrew invigorated period classics. Northlight's Legend of Georgia McBride proposed drag culture as a liberating experience to be shared by everyone, and Redtwist's I Saw My Neighbor On the Train finally solved the problem of replicating tobacco consumption onstage.

We Looked Ahead to Theater in 2018: To return engagements of Rose and Bette Davis. To the opening of the Magic Lounge at Clark and Argyle. To Theo Ubique Cabaret Theater's new quarters on Howard Street, joining with Factory Theater in rejuvenation of the city-suburb border district. Oh, and to see what Mike Nussbaum, Chicago's own Living Treasure, will be playing in this, his ninetieth decade.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Contributing Writer

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