Year in Review—2019’s Best Non-musicals

#1. All Quiet on the Western Front (Red Tape)

All Quiet on the Western Front_2
The gender-blind cast of All Quiet on the Western Front

The script by Matt Foss is a tribute to Erich Maria Remargue’s novel—a no-holds-barred criticism of war as seen through the eyes of WW1 soldiers, who have accepted that their survival means nothing to the unseen figures calling the shots. Elena Victoria Feliz as Paul moves through the most inventive staging of the year—war is played out on top of old pianos, and colored powders communicate the impact of bombs and bullets.

#2. Grey House (Red Orchid)

Grey House
Kayla Casiano, Sarah Cartwright, Dado & Haley Bolithon

An isolated family with four strange girls, who seem to possess supernatural abilities, shelter a couple surviving a car wreck high in the mountains. Among the many payoffs in this thriller by Levi Holloway is the gradual realization that the girls (named Marlow, Bernie, A1656, and Squirrel) hold the power over their pained mother and their disbelieving houseguests.

#3. Ms. Blakk for President (Steppenwolf)

Ms Blakk for President
Tarell Alvin McCraney (who is also the playwright) & Patrick Andrews

Staged as a big party, Ms. Blakk presents a story that needs to be told—that of Joan Jet Blakk and her 1992 campaign to be the first queer President of the United States. We learn that Ms. Blakk’s courage is overshadowed by the political aims of Queer Nation Chicago, but a split-second video interview with Terence Smith (the real Ms. Blakk) reminds us that change occurs in small steps rather than great leaps.

#4. Twilight Bowl (Goodman)

Twilight Bowl 1
Anne E. Thompson, Heather Chrisler, Hayley Burgess & Becca Savoy

The barroom at the back of a bowling alley is an inspired setting for Rebecca Gilman’s play about six women aged 18 to 22. While their experiences vary dramatically—Jaycee (Heather Chrisler) goes to jail at the same time that her younger cousin Sam (Becca Savoy) goes to college as a scholarship athlete—each matures as she navigates the transition from teenager to independent adult.

#5. Oslo (Timeline at Broadway Playhouse)

Bri Sudia and members of the cast of Oslo

Producing the Chicago premier of this Tony-award winning Best Play was a giant accomplishment for Timeline, which is perhaps the most consistently excellent small Chicago company. A behind-the-scenes look at how a Norwegian couple (played by Bri Sudia and Scott Parkinson) initiated peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1993, playwright J. T. Roger’s script builds suspense by establishing both the tremendous stakes (people were dying everyday) and the crippling hurdles both sides had to overcome to sit at the negotiation table.

#6. The Recommendation (Windy City Playhouse)

The Recommendation_Combo
Brian Keys, Julian Hester & Michael Aaron Pogue (in two separate rooms designed by Lauren Nigri)

Prior to its Chicago premier, The Recommendation had been performed with minimal sets and props. Windy City Playhouse approached this three-actor exploration of race and privilege by moving the audience through a maze of rooms including a college dorm, a prison cell, a sake bar, and a sauna—the scenic design giving the audience an inclusive experience that enhanced the script by Jonathan Caren.

#7. X (Sideshow)

Sarah Price, Gage Wallace & Nate Whelden

Begin with an intriguing science-fiction premise—a team of scientists stationed on a remote, self-sufficient base on Pluto lose contact with Earth. Add letters on the wall written in blood along with a mysterious girl who may or may not be a delusion, and you get playwright Alistair McDowall’s X. Sideshow’s sound design and video projections made the play’s climax particularly chilling.

#8. Us/Them (Chicago Shakespeare)

Us_Them Chicago Shakes
Gytha Parmentier & Roman Van Houtven

Chicago Shakespeare’s WorldStage program followed last year’s Bigmouth with another one-of-a-kind theatrical experience. An intricately choreographed play with two Belgian actors, Us/Them dramatizes the 2004 Beslan tragedy in which hundreds of children were taken hostage at their school by Chechen separatists. The script, derived from interviews with children present during the siege, explores unique perspectives in coping with trauma.

#9. The Father, Bloomsday & Howards End (Remy Bumpo)

Remy Bumppo_2019
David Darlow (The Father), Bryce Gangel (Bloomsday) & Heather Chrisler and Terry Bell (Howards End)

A look through the eyes of a proud man suffering from dementia, an almost-love story with two elder people questioning their younger selves, and a literary adaption about the rigidity of British social classes—Remy Bumppo delivered an exceptional variety of plays in 2019. Stand-out performances included David Darlow as André (The Father), Bryce Gangel as Caithleen (Bloomsday) and Terry Bell as the mistreated Leonard Bast (Howards End).

#10. Five Presidents (American Blues Theater)

Five Presidents
Martin L’Herault (Jimmy Carter), Tom McElroy (Gerald Ford), John Carter Brown (George. H. W. Bush) & James Leaming (Ronald Reagan)

Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush and newly-elected Bill Clinton find themselves in the same room awaiting the pomp and circumstance that will accompany Richard Nixon’s funeral. They air grievances, but more importantly their conversation supports an opinion eloquently stated by Ronnie: “A person would need to be crazy to want to be President.”

Honorable Mentions

Honorable Mention_2019

Sweat (Goodman)
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Lookingglass)
The Children (Steppenwolf)
Noises Off (Windy City Playhouse)
The Niceties (Writer’s Theater)
Keely and Du (Redtwist)

Year in Review—2019’s Best Non-musicals

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