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Chicago theater was true to our times in 2015

Theater Wit's Bad Jews and the Goodman's Stop. Reset. are among our senior theater critic's favorites of the year.

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Last year at this time I was writing about the spate of deaths that overtook Chicago's theater community during the late summer and early fall of 2014. We lost at least a half-dozen artists—from thirtysomething actor/playwright Sati Word to 79-year-old teacher/director/mentor/griot/quiet benefactor Sheldon Patinkin—in a bare few weeks.

If the shocks slowed some in 2015, they certainly didn't leave off. May was the cruelest month, beginning with the loss to cancer of Russ Tutterow, longtime top playwright nurturer at Chicago Dramatists, and actress Erin Myers. A couple weeks later came news that 40-year-old PJ Paparelli, whose leadership caused and then weathered a schism at American Theater Company, had died in a car accident while on a trip to Scotland. Also in May, Martha Lavey (one of the very few genuinely singular people I've ever met) suffered a stroke just as she was winding up her 20-year tenure as artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre.

Lavey survived and, from what I hear, continues to progress through a long recovery. So does the community as a whole. This year saw Columbia College naming a theater after Patinkin, and September 19 marked the first Chicago Theater Memorial Bike Ride, "celebrating those we have lost" and benefiting the Actors Fund.

Meanwhile, the shows kept coming. Here are around ten of my favorites, in more or less random order.

Theater Wit wins my Annus Mirabilis Award for presenting no less than three of the best dark comedies of 2015, all of them staged by the company's artistic director, Jeremy Wechsler: Bad Jews, Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play, and The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence.

Joshua Harmon's Bad Jews (running through 12/27) looks at first like an ethnic comedy in the embarrassing old style, with spoiled Jewish kinderlach fighting dirty over a trinket owned by their newly deceased grandfather. Before it's finished, though, the cunningly mounted, ruthlessly performed play has opened out into a painful look at the ongoing effects of the Holocaust. Speaking of holocausts, Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play opens in a postapocalyptic moment when, all the comforts of ComEd having been wiped out, a small cadre of survivors comfort themselves by recounting the "Cape Feare" episode from The Simpsons. Playwright Anne Washburn and a delightfully Dumpster-designed production demonstrated how a campfire tale plus time can equal religion. Finally, with dry wit, Holmesian intricacies, and a crack Chicago-built cast, Madeline George's The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence explored the ironies of modern tech's Great Disruptor cult.

Goodman Theatre contributed two entries to my list of faves, dipping back into the past for a revival of Lillian Hellman's 1939 The Little Foxes before shooting into the future with the Chicago premiere of Regina Taylor's Stop.Reset.

The Hellman play is a no-brainer as far as I'm concerned: a taut version of an admirably constructed drama starring the merciless Shannon Cochran as Regina Giddens, a sort of small-town southern amalgam of Machiavelli and Lucretia Borgia. Stop. Reset. is a little harder to justify, seeing as how it didn't strictly work. Still, its Afro-Futurist spin on the struggles of a dying publishing firm was not only bold as hell and passionately realized, but important in that, as I argued in my review, "it offers a way past the familiar strategies for representing American black people on the American stage."

Stop. Reset. resonated with allusions to Shakespeare's The Tempest; one of my other bests of 2015 was The Tempest itself, as magically codirected by Aaron Posner and Teller of Penn & Teller for Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Sly, gorgeous, and full of sleight-of-hand, the production vindicated all its preopening hype and more, never departing from solid storytelling even when Prospero was levitating his daughter.

Still more favorites . . .

Kurios (Cirque du Soleil): The aesthetic was steampunk in excelsus, but the acts put real humans with prodigious skills back at the center of circus, where they belong.

Three Sisters (the Hypocrites): Chicago's party theater met Chekhov and, between the two of them, discovered a stylish way to present the title characters' angst without demeaning it.

The Herd (Steppenwolf Theatre): A cast dominated by Steppenwolf ensemble veterans helped give tragic dimension to Rory Kinnear's drama about a family tested (and, often enough, found wanting) by the needs of a severely disabled son.

Travesties (Remy Bumppo Theatre): Under Nick Sandys's direction, Remy Bumppo aced Tom Stoppard's cerebro-slapstick about James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, Vladimir Lenin, and a fellow named Henry Carr in World War I-era Zurich.  v

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