The New Year is here for the Chicago theater scene and there are lots of things to look forward to in 2014, ranging from the pre-Broadway world-premiere musical The Last Ship by British rock star Sting to the world premiere play The Qualms at Steppenwolf Theatre by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Bruce Norris.
But now is also a good time to reflect on the past year. Since there were a lot of productions I couldn't catch before they closed, I'm offering up a 2013 theater news highlights column rather than a "Best-of" listit's only fair. Several news items are already firmly in the rear-view mirror, while others are still developing as you read this.
Changes in comedy
The Second City gave a major show of confidence in GayCo by offering up Chicago's oldest LGBT sketch comedy troupe the chance to officially open its newly renovated Donny's Skybox Theater with a brand-new revue called #GodHatesHashtags. So what if the show wasn't up to GayCo's past glories, it was certainly a fine occasion to show off the space which is largely used by students in The Second City's classes and training programs. Now that Donny's Skybox has been reconfigured and elongated to resemble The Second City's classic Mainstage, perhaps it will help The Second City's students work their way up the company ladder.
Another major change was the Annoyance Theatre exiting from Uptown with plans on reopening sometime this year in Boystown at 851 W. Belmont Ave. The move will allow the Annoyance to house its classes and theater in the same building for the first time. The Annoyance will also help make Boystown a true center for Chicago comedy since it will be just down the street from ComedySportz and a couple of blocks away from the Playground Theater.
Our country may officially be out of the recession, but that doesn't mean that arts organizations are free of struggles. For instance, Chicago Dramatists this season isn't producing its own shows, rather just using its venue near the intersection of Chicago and Milwaukee avenues as a rental house.
Buffalo Theatre Ensemble in Glen Ellyn has also cancelled the rest of its season. Apparently, the Equity theater ensemble will need to renegotiate its connection and mission with the College of DuPage and its McAninch Arts Center ( which has been closed this year for major renovations ).
Silk Road Rising, a company dedicated to producing works focusing on Asian and Middle Eastern culture, generated a lot of controversy in 2013 as its artistic founders called out a couple of influential Chicago theatrical heavyweights.
Silk Road Rising artistic director Jamil Khoury posted a blistering blog post about Tony Award-winning director Mary Zimmerman due to some dismissive comments she made regarding Rudyard Kipling's colonial views in a Chicago Magazine article ( which appeared as an advance piece to her highly anticipated Goodman Theatre stage adaptation of Disney's The Jungle Book ). Khoury accused Zimmerman of building her career on cultural appropriation and "Orientalism," which in turn prompted Zimmerman to have a face-to-face meeting to iron out their differing opinions of her work. ( Either way, the dustup seemed to generate lots of extra interest for both Silk Road Rising and The Jungle Book. )
Silk Road Rising also took on Chicago Sun-Time theater critic Hedy Weiss in another blog post. Weiss' review of Silk Road Rising's production of Invasion! could have been interpreted as an endorsement of racial profiling in the fight against global terrorism.
Addressing Chicago violence
Steppenwolf Theatre and Collaboraction both produced works as a way to address and comment on a growing tide of violence in Chicago neighborhoods. Collaboraction produced a very interactive production of Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology conceived by Anthony Moseley that seems to beg for expansion, while one wishes that Steppenwolf Theatre's production of Miles Harvey's How Long Will I Cry? Voices of Youth Violence will have a future life in high schools beyond its original production and subsequent tour of Chicago Public Library branches.
On the LGBT theater front
Bonnie Metzgar said goodbye as About Face Theatre's artistic director with a marvelous Chicago premiere production of Alexi Kaye Campbell's The Pride, which showed how far gay men have come in British society in just 50 years time. The esteemed Chicago company dedicated to LGBT theater also welcomed Andrew Volkoff to lead About Face Theatre as its new artistic director. One of Volkoff's first decisions was to bring back We Three Lizas in a heavily revamped version for 2013 ( it continues through Jan. 5 ).
Pride Films and Plays is also going from strength to strength with its program of developing new works through playwriting contests and then subsequently producing many of the winners. The original musical Under a Rainbow Flag proved to be a big winner at the non-Equity Jeff Awards, while Pride Films and Plays continued to show its dedication to new works by producing the world premiere of Martin Casella's Directions for Restoring the Apparently Dead.
Pride Films and Plays is also producing significant revivals, like Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing in 2013 and its upcoming production of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour. But also very encouraging was the fact that Batavia-based Albright Theatre in Kane County also staged Beautiful Thing in 2013, while Glen Ellyn-based Village Theatre Guild in DuPage County produced Geoffrey Naufft's Next Fall ( following AstonRep's Chicago premiere ) this past year as well. Seeing LGBT theater in Chicago is old hat, but in the conservative suburbs it can still generate a certain amount of controversy and hopefully change a few minds.
Another major item of LGBT theater news in 2013 was out playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney being awarded a MacArthur Fellowship "Genius Grant." The jet-setting McCraney is a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble, which presented the world premiere of his play Head of Passes in 2013. But I hope that two other works by McCraney will also have Chicago premieres soon. The Windy City still has yet to see his drag drama Wig Out!, while his 2013 work Choir Boy deserves to be seen in Chicago following its acclaimed runs in New York and Atlanta.