Chicago’s Best Shows of 2017

Chicago’s Best Shows of 2017

For many Americans, we have entered an era where we must face some difficult truths. For too many others, those truths are coming to the surface, and those that would deny it have become emboldened by a country that is full of too many eager to perpetuate oppression. On Chicago’s stages this year, today’s America was at the forefront. Of the 247 shows our critics reviewed, many of their favorites went beyond the plight of the marginalized — beyond making liberal theatergoers feel sorry for their part in our society — to twist the knife in the nuance and intersectionality of the American experience. While the Chicago theater community has such a long climb ahead out of the hole of privilege, exclusion, and the white male gaze, it’s clear that the majority of the very best work this year was created by the artists who walk America’s grand canyon of inequality.

PICNIC at American Theater Company

Pictured: (l-r) Malic White, and Molly Brennan. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

“PICNIC is an homage to queer art-making and a reclamation of William Inge’s 1940s classic. Will Davis directs a production that breathes 2017 life into Inge’s text. Davis meditates on desire and failure, resurrecting Inge as the playwright’s personal struggles are reincarnated in his fragile characters.” –Kelsey McGrath

LIZZIE at Firebrand Theatre

(left to right) Jacquelyne Jones and Liz Chidester. Photo by Marisa KM.

“Raw, aggressive and raucous, “Lizzie” plays like a mashup of Sleater-Kinney and Pussy Riot, with a dash of “Spring Awakening” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” It is also wholly its own animal, and defies comparison to any other resident of musical theater land. The tale of suspected (but ultimately acquitted) ax murderess Lizzie Borden is also as delightfully bloody as you’d anticipate.” –Catey Sullivan

WEDDING BAND at The Artistic Home

(Left-right) Lisa McConnell, Susan P. Anderson, Myesha-Tiara, Photo by Joe Mazza, BraveLux Photography.

“Directed by Cecilie Keenan, “Wedding Band” is relentlessly compelling in its exploration of the very worst and the very best of human nature. The battle between Julia and Herman’s mother is the apex of the drama, but the entire production is fueled by similarly rendered heat, light and anguish.” –Catey Sullivan

FUN HOME at Victory Gardens Theater

Pictured: Hannah Starr, Danielle Davis, and Danni Smith. Photo by Liz Lauren.

“Part of the work of an art-maker is to keep the faith – to keep our heads above water, to stay invested and engaged when we want to hide away, when we’re tempted by that backup career in psychology or that full-time office job with benefits. It’s a tall and wonderful order, to give up stability in order to unpack and understand our most intense emotional experiences, to relate to each other profoundly, for catharsis and social justice and communion and all the rest. Sometimes there’s a little too much time in between those artistic catalysts, and sometimes, for a minute, I forget why I do the thing. And then I see a show like Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s FUN HOME, based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, and I think, ‘yes. This. This is why. Remember this, remember this, remember this.'” –Erin Shea Brady

FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE at Court Theatre

Pictured (l-r): Eric A. Lewis, Darrian Ford, James Earl Jones II, Lorenzo Rush, Jr., and Kevin Roston, Jr. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

“FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE captures the power of music in a way that will hit home with an audience that takes part in making it a night to remember. Yes, the story is simple, but the message is grand. We need to smile and laugh more at life, and this play allows us to do just that amongst friends and strangers.” –Naima Dawson

PASS OVER at Steppenwolf Theatre

Julian Parker and Jon Michael Hill. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

“PASS OVER is a picture-perfect representation of the inner-city lower economic areas across the nation. Even if their circumstances are different, the audience can relate to this feeling of being stuck while still having dreams of a better life, because hope is a powerful thing. We need to ask ourselves, “do black lives matter?” Because the thought of complacency is frightening for the future of humanity. PASS OVER is an important play that is necessary for now.” –Jonald Jude Reyes

Gabriel Ruiz and Paloma Nozicka. Photo by Liz Lauren

“Victory Gardens’ production of NATIVE GARDENS is an utter delight. The writing is smart, the delivery is hilarious, and the surroundings are beautiful. This farce may fool you into thinking that it is a simple plot revolving around a neighborly battle of boundaries, but it isn’t – this is a play that wields commentary about race and entitlement with swift aim, making incisions that cut deep.” –Bec Willett

PILGRIMS at The Gift Theatre

Pictured: Ed Flynn and Janelle Villas. Photo by Claire Demos.

“Last night at Jefferson Park’s Gift Theatre — a storefront venue if ever there was one — I sat down, the lights shifted, the actors came on stage, a world swam around me. I was transfixed, and suddenly, the end. I blinked, and thought “it’s too soon.” And yet, there I was clapping and the actors were bowing. It was over. I stood up breathless and bursting to talk to someone about what I just experienced. I walked out to a warm Chicago evening and realized I had just witnessed a company catch lightening in a bottle. And like a kid getting off a rollercoaster, I wanted to jump back in line and do it all over again.” –Abigail Trabue

TIME STANDS STILL at AstonRep Theatre Company

Pictured: Robert Tobin and Sara Pavlak McGuire. Photo by Emily Schwartz.

“What happens when you take two journalists from the front lines and plop them down in their cozy loft to recover from their internal and external wounds? This snapshot in time is the subject of David Margulies’ thought-provoking and witty play TIME STANDS STILL, and in the hands of AstonRep Theatre Company, Margulies’ story is solid and alive.” –Abigail Trabue

OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR at Goodman Theatre

Daniel Kyri in OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR. Photo by Liz Lauren.

“This story begins with a boy who is lost in transition, and it ends with a young man who finds a way to give himself permission to be free, regardless of the price he must pay. OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR is an important story that is timely and will speak to all.” –Naima Dawson

TIGHT END at 20% Theater Company

Pictured: Erich Peltz and Bryce Saxon. Photo by kClare McKellaston.

“Playwright Rachel Bykowski beautifully illustrates the world of small town high school football and its influence on its fans in 20% Theatre Company’s production of TIGHT END. In countless small towns across the US, where most citizens live most of their lives and plant deep roots in the community, high school football is life. For student Ash (don’t call her Ashley) Miller, the daughter of a late legendary quarterback for Westmont High, her life focuses on trying out for and making the Westmont football team. Kallie Noelle Rolison’s sensitive direction finds the many moments of humor in a story rife with tough issues and questions. Bykowski’s script describes the difficulty so familiar to trail-blazers, especially women who aren’t taken seriously.” –Elizabeth Ellis

PINOCCHIO at Neverbird Project in association with Chicago Children’s Theater

Pictured: Ensemble of PINOCCHIO. Photo by Milo Bue.

“When the lights came up at the end of this play’s seventy minutes, my friend and I looked at each other both surprised to have tears in our eyes. When entering the theater I expected noses, puppets, and entertaining jingles, but I left contemplative and moved as Hanna’s words to her husband Gepetto echoed in my thoughts, ‘You can’t know joy without pain, dummy.’ Don’t be fooled; this is no ordinary children’s theater — this is theater for everyone.” –Bec Willett

KING OF THE YEES at Goodman Theatre

Francis Jue and Stephenie Soohyun Park. Photo by Liz Lauren.

“Lauren Yee’s KING OF THE YEES is a rambunctious odyssey that explores Chinese folklore through a contemporary lens. It brings to light value shifts between generations and a daughter’s longing to understand her father’s story. Her family’s story. Her story. It opens doors in ourselves we didn’t know existed. The set is composed of red, ornate double doors: the entrance of the Yee Fung Toy, an obsolescent family association and symbol for community. Lauren must open these doors to find answers to her questions.” –Kelsey McGrath

THE MINUTES at Steppenwolf Theatre

(l to r) Jeff Still, Danny McCarthy, Cliff Chamberlain, William Petersen and James Vincent Meredith. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

“The play contends that darkness exists beneath all of us, beneath the collective lies we tell ourselves to continue benefitting from its consequences. When presented with the uncomfortable truth, we are given a choice: to reckon with it, or to keep living in blissful ignorance. Ignorance may be bliss, but the truth is always lurking just below the surface, waiting to be found.” –Conor McShane

THE WIZ at Kokandy Productions

Pictured (l-r): Sydney Charles, Gilbert Domally, Chuckie Benson and Steven Perkins. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

“This production exemplifies what I love about Chicago. Deep in the seams of this city rest a wealth of artists who are anointed with such a wide range of talent. Lili-Anne Brown kept the continuity of THE WIZ, found the most amazing cast, and laced the production with so many magical moments. Every single actor and dancer in this play is phenomenal. THE WIZ is fairytale magic and I really did not want this show to end. I wanted to hit a rewind button and watch it again.” –Naima Dawson

BLKS at Steppenwolf Theatre

(L to R) Leea Ayes, Celeste M. Cooper, and Nora Carroll. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

“The stage of BLKS is vaguely reminiscent of an aquarium; a pink and turquoise cacophony of colored couches, overstuffed pillows and drapes hanging from the ceiling, video projected across the scene. And like an aquarium, it is the audience’s fish-eye lens into the daily world of black women: riotously hilarious, vulnerable, beautiful and unedited. BLKS is a wickedly funny romp that places the audience as wingwoman to the lives four vibrant black women, navigating love and work in New York. This powerhouse cast treats you to a delicious tale of black women living in joy and humor rarely seen onstage.” –Sheri Flanders

WELCOME TO JESUS at American Theater Company

Pictured: Rashaad Hall. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

“With the recent controversy surrounding football players kneeling for the national anthem, one particular counterargument has emerged. There are those who would argue that protest has no place in sports, that players are being paid handsomely and should just shut up and do what they’re told. Don’t speak up, don’t make waves. Know your place. Janine Nabers’ new play WELCOME TO JESUS explores this idea through an eerie, Southern Gothic lens. Set in the fictional burg of Hallelujah, Texas, Nabers examines the terrifying history of racial violence that’s well known in the south, but perpetuated in subtler ways throughout our culture as a whole.” –Conor McShane

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