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After The Protest: What We Learned in 2018

Southern Gothic in ChicagoAfter two decades of outrage, our fingers are weary with pointing and feet sore from recoiling at shadows, bringing us to finally ask whether we can't all just get along. An international play competition recently challenged authors to reach beyond "romanticizing revolt" and instead, offer suggestions for peaceful solutions in the struggle between prejudice and principles.

How did we accomplish this goal in 2018? What did audiences learn about sharing with the people living next door?

Gender Issues Don't Always Involve Sex: It took three generations for playwrights to stop locating women characters, even those possessing substantial power and intellect, within the traditional spheres of boyfriends, husbands, and children. Rivendell Theatre Ensemble's The Scientific Method explored sexism and racism in the realm of biochemistry research without hormonal imperatives ever derailing the real agenda.

Americans Can Be Foreigners, Too. When have you ever seen the words "Africa" and "comedy" in the same sentence? Or heard a Vietnamese narrator greet her audience with a bemused, "We sure got a lot of white people in here!" Global cultures are traditionally utilized in western literature as exotic decorations, but the wedding party in Steppenwolf's Familiar encompassed three generations, two races—one of them, Zimbabwean immigrants—and a Minnesota snowstorm that somehow ended with everybody in accord, while Qui Nguyen's Vietgone recounted the story of his parents' courtship amid the barbarians of Fort Chaffee, Oklahoma.

Service Employees Are Not Mere Appliances. In 2016, a segment of our population proclaimed their indignation at being ignored, marginalized and mocked by society. Theaters in 2018 remedied that omission with empathetic portraits of auto workers in Northlight's Skeleton Crew, cafeteria servers in Redtwist's Surely Goodness and Mercy, restaurant staff in Shattered Globe's How to Use A Knife and retail-security guards in Broken Nose's Plainclothes.

Flirting, Fighting and Fumbling Require Instruction: Love scenes, disaster scenes, sword fights and slapstick all involve the risk of injury to participants. Nick Sandys and Kristina Fluty's choreography in Victory Gardens' Mies Julie gave audiences a definitive demonstration of the connection between violence and intimacy design and the necessity of hiring specialists to make sure nobody gets hurt.

Villains and Victims Are Both Our Neighbors. Ex-convicts in Steppenwolf's Downstate and Victory Gardens' Lettie, compulsive gamblers in Block St Theatre's Flamingo and Decatur, Christian evangelists in Griffin's The Harvest and the title AI androids in three highly-diverse adaptations of Frankenstein all got an unbiased hearing before the tribunal.

Our Comfort and Convenience Is Important. Wooden-crate benches and gas-station restrooms might have been part of Storefront Theater's initial allure, but baby-boom playgoers are becoming increasingly high-maintenance. The Steep and Mercury playhouses are the latest additions to the list of facilities boasting cafe-bar lobby annexes with comfortable chairs for pre-and-post-show refreshment.

A Play that Won't Quit Deserves Its Own House. Windy City Playhouse's Southern Gothic opened in February and, ten months later, shows no sign of closing. Since its scenic design replicates a three-dimensional five-room walk-in residence, the only way to vacate the premises for the company's long-delayed next scheduled show was to take out a lease on a second home—in this case, a loft in the up-and-coming South Loop.

Individual Outstanding Work Deserves Recognition. To Brian Parry for his fearless portrayal of the most hated president of the last century in Redtwist's Frost/Nixon, Rudy Galvan and Curtis Edward Jackson for their delicate tag-team work in Raven's The Gentlemen Caller and Nick Sandys for creating the year's most terrifying tragic hero in Remy Bumppo's Frankenstein. To Cynthia Van Orthal for her scary-sad Bunraku cadaver in Lifeline's Frankenstein, Mary O'Dowd for her Cornell Box set dressing in Artistic Home's Rock and Roll and Brandon Moorhead for making playgoers reading the playbill for Jackalope's The Light Fantastic wonder what a "ghost wrangler" was. To John Cardone, whose ecdysiastic bodywork in Theo Ubique's The Full Monty revived the category of "AARP Pin-Up" in year-end compendiums like this one. Finally, to Goodman's Support Group For Men and City Lit's The Safe House for reminding us how much we've missed smart Chicago playwrights Ellen Fairey and Kristine Thatcher.

Watch For Mass Migrations in 2019. Theo Ubique closed out 2018 by inaugurating its new quarters on the Howard Street boundary between Chicago and Evanston, but the shift in affordable Off-Loop theater districts will soon undergo another mass migration north into Uptown and Edgewater, where Timeline Theater recently announced its purchase of a building near the Argyle Red Line stop and the drag queens of the celebrated Baton Lounge will soon take up residence in the former Uptown Underground space across from the freshly-rehabbed Wilson Avenue El station. South of the Loop on historic Motor Row, another sequins-and-kinky-boots franchise called Lips will soon provide post-game entertainment for conventioneers at McCormick Place. How can you not find a reason to go to a theater?

Mary Shen Barnidge
Contributing Writer

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