Very exciting news—Broadway in Chicago, which generally promotes touring shows, is partnering with Timeline Theater for the Chicago premier of Oslo. The 2017 recipient of just about every Best Play honor (including the Tony) is a masterpiece. Relaying the improbable, year-long events that led to the Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty of 1993, the script by Nick Bowling recounts how a Norwegian diplomat and her husband managed to get Israeli and Palestinian Liberation Organization officials into the same room based on the shared mission of stopping bloodshed.
The Chicago premier of Indecent was just as triumphant as the Broadway production (which I made a specific trip to New York to see in 2017). The play spans more than 30 years and travels to two continents in telling the story of a Yiddish theater troop performing the controversial play The God of Vengeance. One aspect that particularly stood out to me on this second viewing was the conviction held by every member of the troop that art (and theater in particular) must be continued even when society turns its back.
This list focuses on local Chicago productions as opposed to the traveling companies, which also provided some exceptional offerings in 2018 (most notably Miss Saigon at the Cadillac).
Thank goodness Chicago audiences embraced this musical about the city’s infamous Haymarket Affair of 1886. The folk music score by Alex Higgin-Houser and David Kornfeld is a fitting tribute to labor leaders like Albert Parsons (Erik Pearson), Lucy Parsons (Bridget Adams-King) and August Spies (T.J. Anderson), who were in the process of unifying working people around the cause of an eight-hour workday when a bomb destroyed their peaceful protests. I was able to see Haymarket on its second extension at its second theater; hopefully we’ll see another remounting in the near future.
To start with the greatest asset of this adaption of a 1976 movie: Bryan Cranston. Not just his acting, but the effects that propel a close-up of Cranston’s face across the entire back of the stage during Howard Beale’s iconic breakdown. From my seat in the front row, I saw Cranston run up the aisle in a state of dementia and then shed tears as he decries a country where corporate money dominates the needs of everyday citizens. And, yes, I felt angry as Cranston stood in dead silence, and then exploded in Beale’s mantra: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” (if you want, you can purchase a $20 coffee cup with the slogan in the lobby)
An early conceit of Bruce Norris’s Downstate is that the convicted sex offenders—to varying degrees—view themselves as victims. Their parole officer Ivy (Cecilia Noble) says as much when she is questioning Felix (Eddie Torres) about his using the internet at the local library. Felix at first denies it, and then he decries the society that has placed this limitation on him. Felix looks like he is going to cry, Ivy looks exhausted, and far to stage right a window is ominously covered in cardboard—a hint that the larger community is the most unhappy character of all regarding this living situation.
Several years back, I had a few encounters with a local politician who was aligning himself with schools. I missed the scandal that followed and did not discover until years later (via a newspaper article) that he had been arrested for crimes related to child pornography – the evidence included thousands of photos on his work computer. He had been diagnosed with cancer prior to the scandal, and he died under house arrest not long after. This incident shook me in the way that was maybe similar to how America reacted to the disgrace of Jared Fogel, the former Subway pitchman.
No Home for Bees, which was performed in workshop by 20% Theater Company, features an extraordinary script by Emily Dendinger. This five-actor character study asks poignant questions regarding a topic that is so disturbing that we do not yet have the right vocabulary to discuss it.
Chicago Shakespeare’s previous full staging of Macbeth back in January of 2009 was set in a warzone. The characters donned combat fatigues and crew cuts (I never could quite distinguish one character from another), and in one scene music blared as Mike Nusbuum c-sectioned a baby boy from a woman’s body. It was memorable and ambitious, but not particularly fun.
In comparison, the company’s newest Macbeth is set in a virtual magic forest, where the whims of men and women are controlled as much by their surroundings as by free will. Directed by Aaron Posner and Teller, this production does not contain the sheer number of illusions that were seen in The Tempest (their 2015 collaboration), but they still manage to make this tragedy more magical than horrific—a fitting interpretation for Shakespeare’s bloodiest play.