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Chicago Season In Review by Cheryl Coons

The Steppenwolf Theatre production of Tracy Letts' The Minutes. Photo by Michael Brosilow

Chicago Season In Review by Cheryl Coons

Q“What do you call two Chicago actors in a coffee shop?”
A“A theatre company.”

That old joke isn’t far from the truth. In our community, new theatre companies announce themselves with astounding regularity. How does a rich theatrical eco-system develop and evolve? In Chicago, theatres typically start with a commitment to form an ensemble. While several long-established Chicago theatre institutions have grown from the vision of a single artistic leader, most of our more than 250 theatres have been born from a collective. Itinerant troupes and those that have scratched together the means to rent an empty storefront compete for a share of the more adventurous type of audiences. The larger, more-established institutions have their own challenges. In lean years, it is the survival of the fittest, not just in ticket sales, but also in terms of attracting individual and corporate donors and committed board members.

Steppenwolf Theatre, now an enormous operation, evolved from just a handful of young actors, many of whom met at a suburban high school in the 1970s. There are legends about the troupe’s beginnings in a church basement. Laurie Metcalf’s temp job paid for the company’s first light board. Gary Sinise stole toilet paper for the theatre when he worked as a landscaper for the Ravinia Festival. Today the company is housed in a gleaming building on Halsted street, producing cutting edge work on multiple stages. The 2017-18 main stage season began with Tracy Lett’s dark comedy, The Minutes, continued with Clare Barron’s You Got Older, and is currently offering Matthew Lee Erlbach’s The Doppelgänger, starring Rainn Wilson. The season will conclude with Jen Silverman’s The Roommate, described as “The Odd Couple meets Breaking Bad.” The company’s upstairs stage presented Jessica Dickey’s The Rembrandt, and BLKS by Aziza Barnes, and will conclude with Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph. In addition, the company offers ongoing innovative performances in its new 1700 Theatre. 

Like nearly all of Chicago’s ensemble-based theatres, Steppenwolf feels more like a family than a collective. In the past year the company was rocked by consecutive losses of longtime ensemble members, including former artistic director Martha Lavey last April, Mariann Mayberry in August, and John Mahoney in February. Mahoney’s final appearance on Steppenwolf stages was in The Rembrandt.

Congo Square Theatre, another of the city’s tight-knit Ensemble-based theatres, suffered the shattering loss of its artistic director, Samuel Roberson, Jr. in May of 2017. A beloved artist, husband, father, and arts leader, Samuel Roberson Jr.’s is still deeply felt in our community. Soldiering on, continuing its mission to champion the African American experience, the company, which was founded in 1999, offered a production of August Wilson’s Jitney.

Victory Gardens Theatre is another long-term denizen of the Chicago Theatre eco-system. The company celebrated its 43rd season with an entire roster of works by female playwrights. From the season’s strong opener, an exquisite production of Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s Fun Home, through Ensemble Playwright Tanya Saracho’s Fade (co-produced with Teatro Vista), to Antoinette Nwandu’s Breach, Victory Gardens packed its season with powerhouse productions. At the time of this writing Boo Killebrew’s Lettie is about to open, a commissioned work about a woman who is released from prison and faces significant challenges to re-entry into society. The season will conclude with Mies Julie, an adaptation by Yaël Farber of Strindberg’s Miss Julie. 

Teatro Vista, Theatre With A View, has been sharing the riches of Latinx cultures with Chicago audiences for 27 seasons. This year marked two significant partnerships: besides Tanya Saracho’s Fade (co-produced with Victory Gardens) Sandra Delgado’s La Havana Madrid was co-produced with The Goodman Theatre. Teatro Vista’s season will conclude with the world premiere of The Madres by Stephanie A. Walker.

Pegasus Theatre Chicago’s season was themed “Legacies.” Kicking off with Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery by Shay Youngblood, the company also presented its 31st Young Playwrights Festival, and concluded its season with The Green Book by Calvin Ramsey. Born in 1978 out of the mission to present original student writing performed by faculty and students at Chicago’s City Colleges, the company has evolved through its history. Its longtime commitment to the Young Playwrights Festival bears witness to its mission and its roots.

Silk Road Rising was founded in 2002 by life partners Malik Gillani (a Pakistani Muslim), and Jamil Khoury (a Syrian Orthodox Christian.) The company performs in the Historic Chicago Temple, and is the only facility in the country solely dedicated to presenting Asian American and Middle Eastern American stories. This year’s offerings by the company included Novi Parsi’s Through the Elevated Line, a world premiere set in the Uptown neighborhood during the Chicago Cubs’ historic run for the World Series. The main character, Razi, fled Iran where he was imprisoned for being a gay man, and arrives on his sister’s doorstep in Chicago. The play probes the boundaries between family loss, prejudice, and desire.

Musical theatre in the Chicago area has evolved a great deal since 1971, when Grease was produced at the now-demolished Kingston Mines nightclub. The founders of the original dinner theatre complexes that once housed “star” productions (think Elke Sommer in Woman of the Year) would be astounded to see the dynamic work that is currently produced on our suburban stages. A highlight of this season included Drury Lane Theatre’s inventive jazz-funk production of 42nd Street.

The Paramount Theatre in Aurora again dominated the 2017 Joseph Jefferson Awards, and produced a varied season that included a spectacular Cabaret and will conclude with Once. Chicago Shakespeare Theatre brought the musical adventure Madagascar to life in its new Courtyard Theatre. The Marriott Theatre’s season featured lavish productions of two consecutive (and contrasting) Jason Robert Brown musicals, Bridges of Madison County and Honeymoon in Vegas. Writer’s Theatre offered an exuberant production of Trevor, The Musical.

Downtown audiences were treated to a memorable Merrily We Roll Along at Porchlight Music Theatre, and a mesmerizing Marie Christine by Boho Theatre. Underscore Theatre, in just seven years of operation, has produced 65 shows or workshops, and hosted its fourth Chicago Music Theatre Festival. Theo Ubique, housed at the intimate 60-seat No Exit Cafe will be moving to a new home next season. Their final production in their current home is an up-close-and-personal Sweeney Todd… where Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies are quite literally in your face. (God, that’s good.)

A brand new musical theatre collective generated some of the most excitement this season: Firebrand Theatre, dedicated to the work of female musical theatre artists, burst onto the scene with its production of Lizzie, a rock-and-roll telling of the Lizzie Borden story. 

Speaking of fire, and women, and music…the Second City’s offices and Training Center are back in the theatre’s beautifully rehabbed home after a 2015 fire. Among this season’s offerings was She the People, A Girlfriends’ Guide to Sisters Doing it for Themselves, a five-woman revue.

Another feminist venture that garnered great interest in this season of #MeToo was Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew, adapted and directed by Barbara Gaines, with additional dialogue by Ron West. Currently Schiller’s Mary Stuart, in a new version by Peter Oswald, is gracing the theatre’s main stage. Earlier this season, audiences were engaged by Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet, the story of Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello in London in 1833. CST’s season will close with a much-anticipated production of Scottish play (I dare not type its name), directed by Aaron Posner and Teller (of Penn and Teller).   

The Goodman Theatre, founded in 1925, presented the Chicago premiere of the Young Vic’s production of Arthur Miller’s View from the Bridge, followed by Yasmina’s Necklace by Rohina Malik, Blind Date by Rogelio Martinez, and The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe. Currently playing is Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Upcoming are Dael Orlandersmith’s Until the Flood, based on interviews with Ferguson, Missouri residents after the shooting of Michael Brown, Emily Mann’s Having Our Say, Suzan- Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home from the War, and Support Group for Men by Ellen Fairey. 

Court Theatre’s Five Guys Named Moe joyfully ushered in the company’s 63rd season, followed by The Belle of Amherst, All My Sons, and Todd Kreidler’s adaptation of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The season will conclude with The Originalist by John Strand.

Writer’s Theater, now in its 25th season, offered not only its dynamic production of Trevor, The Musical, but the plays Quixote: On the Conquest of Self, The Importance of Being Ernest, and A Moon for the Misbegotten. Currently playing is Lydia Diamond’s Smart People. 

TimeLine Theatre, founded in 1997, offered The Audience, by Peter Morgan, Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, the Chicago premiere of Boy, by Anna Zeigler, and the world premiere of Brett Nevue’s To Catch a Fish.

Northlight Theatre’s 44th season featured the Chicago Premiere of Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride, the mid-west premieres of Lauren Gunderson’s The Book of Will, and Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew. Currently running is Artistic Director B.J. Jones’ production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Northlight’s season will conclude with Molly Smith Metzler’s Cry It Out. 

As exciting as it is to witness the constant coming together of individual artists to form ensembles, and to see some long-term theatre ensembles move into spiffy new digs, it is always wrenching to see a theatre company fold. In March, American Theater Company announced that it was closing its doors after 33 years of operations. Its final production was Basil Kreimendahl’s We’re Gonna Be Okay. 

While much was made of the irony of that title, in truth, all of us, including the artists associated with that company really are gonna be okay. There really is a wealth of opportunity. There are more than 250 professional theatres here, many thriving, some treading water, and a few facing the same tough decisions that the American Theater Company’s board faced.

What we all know and trust is that somewhere in Chicago, right now, two actors are meeting in a coffee shop…