Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Best of 2014: The Best Plays I Saw

2014 was another really rewarding year in terms of plays I saw--and this doesn't even include musicals or other types of shows, such as Lookingglass Alice--and made me all the more grateful to be living in the Chicago area.

Once again, I was absolutely astounded by the amount of dramatic acting talent that exists in the city, not only at large, prestigious theaters, but at many storefront and similarly small venues where the performers earn a pittance at best.

While I saw nine plays, and almost all of them first-rate ones, presented by and at the Steppenwolf and Goodman theaters, plus two that I really loved at Northlight in Skokie, some of the ones I liked best in 2014 were staged by considerably smaller companies in some rather disparate places.

As I conveyed as part of my review of Exit Strategy, which was staged by Jackalope Theatre in the far reaches of Chicago's huge Broadway Armory, the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones is by far the theater critic I most read & trust, and I greatly appreciate him prompting me to see stellar works such as that one and the currently running (at American Theater Co.) The Humans. Yet not only will my year-end ranking of the latter play not approximate Jones' naming it his #1 piece of theater seen in 2014, but his top show of 2013, Smokefall--which he liked even more in a 2014 re-staging by Goodman--was one I didn't much care for.

Exit Strategy - Jackalope
Greatly gratifying beyond the several plays I saw in subscription series (to Goodman & Broadway in Chicago) and at Chris Jones' recommendation were some wonderful evenings of theater that came about due to other stimuli.

Although I've utilized the discount ticket service Goldstar rather vociferously over the years, it seems like their "Comp Train" promotion of free tickets (+ service fees) to certain shows came and went over a weekend. But I was able to get a complimentary ticket for Wit, staged by AstonRep Theater Co. at the Raven Theater in early June--and as you'll see below, I thought it was absolutely phenomenal.

My motivation--and seemingly that of most audience members--for seeing Pride Films & Plays' production of Lillian Hellman's 1934 classic, The Children's Hour, was because I had a friend in the cast.

The Children's Hour - Pride Films & Plays
The play was outstanding and even in trying to be objective 11 months later, I still feel Britni Tozzi gave one of the best performances I saw all year, alongside terrific work by Whitney Morse and Nora Lise Ulrey, the latter whom I also found excellent in a strong rendition of The Lieutenant of Inishmore by AstonRep.

Among a plethora of outstanding performances in 2014, a few others that stand out include Alexandra Bennett in Wit, Reyna de Courcy and Colin Sphar in Luna Gale, John Mahoney and Penny Slusher in Chapatti, K. Todd Freeman in Airline Highway, Francis Guinan in The Night Alive, Sean Blake in Why Not Me? A Sammy Davis Jr. Story, Mike Nussbaum in Smokefall, Michael Urie in Buyer & Cellar, Jerry MacKinnon in Exit Strategy and Keith Kupferer in both The Qualms and The Humans.

That The Children Hour's director, Derek Bertelsen, wound up helming three of my top 10 plays of the year is also extremely impressive.

And although Evanston's Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre celebrated its 35th anniversary this year, it was only because my sister Allison sourced it out as a troupe we should check out that I saw my first play by them this summer. And then two more.

All three of which were directed by F-J Artistic Director Tim Rhoze, who also wrote one of them, a fine piece about Sammy Davis Jr. Before and after each play, Rhoze greeted Allison, my mom, me and a friend warmly, so it was especially a thrill to see him onstage (currently) in Steppenwolf's  Airline Highway, which I loved.
Airline Highway - Steppenwolf

Thus, not only was 2014 a rewarding year for dramatic theatergoing, but a personally gratifying and somewhat oddly intertwining one as well.

I also found it cool that although several plays I saw were buzzworthy, and often terrific, world premiere and/or pre-, recently on or likely-to-hit Broadway shows--Luna Gale, Exit Strategy, Airline Highway, The Qualms, Wit, This is Our Youth, Peter and The Starcatcher, The Humans, The Night Alive, Tribes, Buyer & Cellar, The White Snake, Venus in Fur, Smokefall--I liked a fairly straightforward production by Northlight of a Neil Simon classic, Lost in Yonkers, even more than most of these.

Anyway, with that lengthy setup, and unscientifically blending together the scripted quality of the 23 plays I attended and their specific productions, here's my ranking of the:

Best Plays I Saw in 2014:
(Note: All were in the Chicago area; new or recent plays are denoted with an *)

Wit - AstonRep
1. Wit - AspenRep Theatre Co. (my review)
written by Margaret Edson; directed by Derek Bertelsen

2. Lost in Yonkers - Northlight Theatre (my review)
written by Neil Simon; directed by Devon de Mayo

3. The Children's Hour - Pride Films & Plays (my review)
written by Lillian Hellman; directed by Derek Bertelsen

4. Luna Gale* - Goodman Theatre (my review)
written by Rebecca Gilman; directed by Robert Falls

Lost in Yonkers - Northlight
5. Airline Highway* - Steppenwolf Theatre (my review)
written by Lisa D'Amour; directed by Joe Mantello

6. Exit Strategy* - Jackalope Theatre Co. (my review)
written by Ike Holter; directed by Gus Menary

7. Chapatti* - Northlight Theatre (my review)
written by Christian O'Reilly ; directed by B.J. Jones

8. The Qualms* - Steppenwolf Theatre (my review)
written by Bruce Norris; directed by Pam MacKinnon

9. The Lieutenant of Inishmore - AstonRep Theatre Co. (my review)
written by Martin McDonagh; directed by Derek Bertelsen

10. Why Not Me? A Sammy Davis Story* -
Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre
(my review)
written and directed by Tim Rhoze; a one-man show starring Sean Blake
Luna Gale - Goodman

Honorable Mention (in order of preference) 

Buyer & Cellar* - Broadway Playhouse (touring) (my review)
written by Jonathan Tolins; directed by Stephen Brackett; one-man show starring Michael Urie

The Humans* - American Theater Company (my review)
written by Stephen Karam; directed by PJ Paparelli
Chapatti - Northlight

Tribes* - Steppenwolf Theatre (my review)
written by Nina Raine; directed by Austin Pendleton

This is Our Youth - Steppenwolf Theatre (my review)
written by Kenneth Lonergan; directed by Anna Shapiro

The Night Alive* - Steppenwolf Theatre (my review)
written by Conor McPherson; directed by Henry Wishcamper

The Qualms - Steppenwolf
The White Snake* - Goodman Theatre (my review)
written and directed by Mary Zimmerman

Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years* - Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre (my review)
written by Emily Mann; directed by Tim Rhoze

No comments: