SR Digest: 2018’s best theatrical moments

December 26, 2018—Issue #3

Kris Vire

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My favorite theatrical moments of 2018

This third edition of the Storefront Rebellion digest is coming to you two days later than the previous Monday editions, so as not to get buried amid holiday business. And now that we’re staring down the final days of the year, it felt right to look back. Unfortunately, there were way too many shows I missed in this bumpy, transitional year for me to do anything like a proper “best of” list.

Instead, inspired by a Twitter question from BuzzFeed’s Louis Peitzman, I decided to share the moments that have most stuck with me from all the shows I did manage to see. (Also read the whole thread of responses to Louis’s tweet; there are some great ones.) Here are mine, in roughly chronological order:

  • The trudge down Wells Street in mid-January Chicago weather for the town hall scene, staged in an empty storefront a few doors north of A Red Orchid Theatre, in the middle of Brett Neveu’s Traitor, before returning to the theater for the rest of the play

  • The incredible shade contest between Deanna Dunagan’s Nancy Reagan and Mary Beth Fisher’s Raisa Gorbachev over tea in the world premiere of Rogelio Martinez’s Blind Date at the Goodman

    Mary Beth Fisher, left, and Deanna Dunagan in Blind Date. Photograph: Liz Lauren
  • The bit where Tennessee Williams (Rudy Galvan) seductively unbuckled William Inge’s (Curtis Edward Jackson) belt—using his toes!—in Philip Dawkins’s The Gentleman Caller at Raven Theatre

  • The ridiculous ending to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ridiculous Phantom of the Opera sequel Love Never Dies (seen here on tour despite still having yet to play Broadway), in which (per my notes, and spoiler alert) “Christine has some impressive breath control for a woman who’s bleeding out”

  • Revisiting Ride the Cyclone, my favorite Chicago show of 2015, at Seattle’s ACT—A Contemporary Theatre/5th Avenue Theatre with much of the original Chicago cast, and having its message about a life’s unknowable impact reinforced a few weeks later by news of the too-early death of its director, Rachel Rockwell

  • The concert sequence that comprises most of the second act of Buddy—The Buddy Holly Story, with Zachary Stevenson as Buddy Holly, Cisco Lopez as Ritchie Valens and Vasily Deris as the Big Bopper leading a stirring company of actor-musicians in Lili-Anne Brown’s staging for American Blues Theater

  • Joel Reitsma’s electrically charged physicality and posturing as a rock star who’s lost his moral compass in Simon Stephens’s Birdland at Steep Theatre

    Joel Reitsma in Birdland. Photograph: Lee Miller
  • Michael Shannon delivering a cosmically absurd monologue with his entire head wrapped in black tulle, while a sopping wet Guy Van Swearingen listens at his knee, in A Red Orchid’s remount of Ionesco’s Victims of Duty

  • Raphael Diaz, Collin Quinn Rice and the rest of the cast of Griffin Theatre’s production of The Harvest, Samuel D. Hunter’s quiet portrait of young evangelicals in Idaho, competing against a metal band playing a music festival on Milwaukee Avenue right outside the Den Theatre, and the audience banding together to help the actors win

  • Playwright Qui Nguyen, as played by Ian Michael Minh, laying out the linguistic ground rules that made the Vietnamese characters the default and Americans the "Other" in Writers Theatre’s Chicago premiere of Vietgone

  • Tootsie’s Santino Fontana killing it in two entirely distinct singing voices as Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels, yes, but also two incredible patter songs by David Yazbek turned into showstoppers by supporting cast members Sarah Stiles and Andy Grotelueschen

  • Just about every moment in Jen Silverman’s thoroughly delightful Witch at Writers, but I’ll single out Steve Haggard’s Cuddy Banks, confessing his unrequited longing for Jon Hudson Odom’s Frank Thorney:

    Sometimes I really fucking hate him
    the way he takes up space and
    sort of sprawls around and
    the way he talks
    And then also I wanna just
    put my hands around his throat and
    squeeze and then
    I want to mash my face into his face
    and I want to be so close to him
    I want to wear him.

    Steve Haggard, left, and Jon Hudson Odom in Witch. Photograph: Michael Brosilow
  • The catharsis of Rashada Dawan performing “Lot’s Wife” in Firebrand Theatre’s indispensable revival of Caroline, or Change, and the realization that Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s musical has only become more resonant in the 10 years since its last Chicago production at Court Theatre

  • When an unruly, seven-foot-tall poster of Gypsy Rose Lee (Daryn Whitney Harrell) detached itself from a set piece and got left behind on the stage floor during the transition into “Rose’s Turn” on opening night of Porchlight Music Theatre’s Gypsy, and E. Faye Butler turned around, saw it lying on the stage, and decided to use it as her scene partner

  • The final moment of La Ruta, Isaac Gomez’s world premiere at Steppenwolf, with the all-Latina ensemble surrounding a grieving Sandra Delgado and lending her their strength through song

Reviews and other views

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2018) at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Photograph: Liz Lauren

At the Chicago Sun-Times, I reviewed Joe Dowling’s Chicago Shakespeare Theater remount of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I found cluttered and pandering:

Rather than trusting his audience to keep up with unadulterated Shakespeare, Dowling interpolates bits of modernized spectacle like he’s programming timeout entertainment at a Bulls game.

Read the whole thing here.

I returned to Dean Richards’ Sunday Morning on WGN Radio on Sunday, December 16 to talk about this very newsletter project, as well as plug some holiday shows worth seeing. And I stuck around after my segment as JQ and Pos of Q Brothers Christmas Carol joined Dean and me in the studio, leading to the mortifyingly wonderful experience of hearing JQ freestyle a verse about me. You can listen to the full audio here; my segment starts around the 42-minute mark.

Here in the newsletter, I reviewed the first production at Theo Ubique’s new home, a revival of The Full Monty:

In the current climate, The Full Monty’s retrograde machismo is extra cringey—and it’s not just Jerry’s dickish views on women; there’s also his blatant homophobia and casual racism. It’s hard to imagine how Theo Ubique artistic director Fred Anzevino thought this show was the best choice to christen his company’s brand new home… Monty is just poorly fitted to both this cultural moment and this company’s new digs. Theo Ubique needs to re-read the room, in multiple senses.

Shariba Rivers and Molly Southgate in The Winter Wolf. Photograph: Steven Townshend

Otherworld Theatre’s modest family folktale The Winter Wolf has much more charm to spare:

The wolf of Zettelmaier’s title is an eternal spirit, “time’s hunter,” who comes for those whose time it is to pass on. The wolf approaches the home of an assertive young girl named Cora one Christmas Eve, seeking out her ailing grandfather, but Cora tricks the wolf into a deal—or is Cora the one being tricked?

Sandra Delgado, front, and the cast of La Ruta. Photograph: Michael Brosilow

And the final big opening of the year, Isaac Gomez’s La Ruta at Steppenwolf, doesn’t bring much holiday cheer but does compellingly document a crisis just minutes south of the border:

A growing cluster of pink crosses erupts from the desert. Fliers with photos of missing women dot the city’s walls. Regina García’s set design evokes the grief and danger of Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez before Isaac Gomez’s powerful new play even begins… La Ruta, it’s clear, will treat its subject—the ongoing femicide epidemic in Juárez—with both the urgency and the complexity it demands.

Read the full reviews here and here.

What to see this week

The 2014 cast of Burning Bluebeard. Photograph: Evan Hanover

Burning Bluebeard. A few days after Christmas in 1903, a fire was sparked in the fly space of the Iroquois Theatre on Randolph Street, where the soon to be renamed Oriental Theatre now stands. A confluence of design flaws and unfortunate circumstances caused the flames to whoosh out into the house, where 600 audience members were killed. In Jay Torrence’s beautifully off-kilter 2011 piece inspired by that event, members of the cast of the show being performed that day—the Christmas panto Mr. Bluebeard—try in vain to prevent the tragedy after the fact. As I said in my original review seven years ago, “Torrence’s blistering excavation of the Iroquois Theatre disaster is alternately wistful, sidesplitting and chill-inducing.” Burning Bluebeard returns this week for just seven performances. Neo-Futurists, December 26–31

Gypsy Porchlight Music Theatre, through Dec 29

Q Brothers Christmas Carol Chicago Shakespeare Theater, through Dec 30

Rightlynd Victory Gardens Theater, through Dec 30

The Winter Wolf Otherworld Theatre, through Jan 6

Familiar Steppenwolf Theatre Company, through Jan 13

La Ruta Steppenwolf Theatre Company, through Jan 27

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