2017 is coming to a close and I don’t know about you, but I definitely spent a majority of the year getting lost in the variety of stories being told on stages throughout Chicago. Some of the stories provided a nice escape from the harsh realities of the world. Other stories forced us all to take a long, hard look at the current state of our society, and work to challenge it. I’m delighted to share 10 of my favorite shows (or performance moments) from 2017.
10. Blue Man Group - Drummers are KEWL
I had to throw this one on here for the sake of pure, uninhibited joy at the theater. And Goddess knows we all needed a little joy this year. Not a traditional play of course, but this was definitely an experience to remember. It takes some stamina, stage presence and sense of play to pull off this show. Doesn’t hurt if you’re a badass on the drums as well. I didn’t realize that they do audience participation during the show. This made for a very hilarious interaction between myself and my companions as we all made sure to avoid their eyes as they searched the audience for victims…I mean, volunteers! There is a reason why this show has gone on so long and I’m all for it!
9. Venus in Fur (Circle Theater) – Don’t mess with women!
My Instagram post before I saw this show reads “Loud noises, bright flashes and sexual situations. My kind of show!” Well, it was all that and then some. The verbal, psychological and physical exploration between Vanda (Arti Ishak) and Thomas (Zach Livingston) kept me guessing who was going to best the other, moment to moment. This show was sexy, hilarious and a bit naughty. I loved it!
8. The Adventures of Robin Hood (Filament Theater) – Power to the people!!
Anyone who knows me is all too aware of my slight obsession with fight sequences in all forms. When Jyreika Guest (Robin Hood, et al) and Molly Bunder (Sheriff of Nottingham, et al) used the full length of the stage to duke it out over the fate of Nottingham, I may have forgotten that I was not one of the children in the audience. I was so impressed by the physical aspects of the production. The twist on this classic story was pretty cool too! Guest and Bunder definitely put in work and carried this show beautifully.
7. Bright Half Life (About Face Theater) – Love has no timestamp
I so wanted this play to go on longer than it did. I really enjoyed the non-linear way this relationship unfolded. In one scene, Vicky (Rachael Holmes) and Erica (Rebecca Henderson) are broken up but still amicable and the next one shows one of their first meetings. The simplicity of these vignettes highlighted how even the smallest of choices can have a huge impact in the lives of two lovers trying to sustain a long-lasting relationship. Also, anytime there are two STRONG female leads doing their thang on stage, I’m a fan.
6. Punk (The New Colony) – When life on the inside is the lesser of two evils
I need an extra set of hands to count off all the things I loved about this show: the lighting, the set, the verbal sparring, and the gut-wrenching trials of each character are just a few of the elements of this piece that I was in awe of. This world premiere introduced a subject matter that I didn’t know much about prior to seeing the play. Michael Harris didn’t pull any punches with his exploration of the harsh realities of GBTQ and their individual struggles as inmates of a maximum security prison. Monette McLin (Ms. Olivia), Kyle Encinas (Glenn), Evie Riojas (Sonya), Aaron Sanchez Travis (Daniel Shtivelberg) all gave strong performances. All of the characters of this piece were flawed and fragile in their own way. Throughout, I found myself siding with or rallying against every one of them.
5. A Little Bit Not Normal (Victory Gardens) – “Hey, baby girl.”
Arlene Malinowski’s personification of her depression in this one woman show snags one of the awards (cuz there are more than a few winners) for Best Villain. Every time I heard that southern drawl (a signal that Depression was paying Arlene a visit) I wanted to disappear into my seat. There was also a humor about Arlene’s representation that almost made me forget that sometimes the best villains can be charming tricksters. What do you do when that charming trickster is your own mind? It takes a lot of courage to share one’s journey with mental illness with a group of strangers. I applaud Arlene’s bravery and honesty.
4. Breath, Boom (Eclipse Theater) - Taking Care of Business
One of my favorite moments of this show was raw and unapologetically violent. It happened at the top of Act One. Comet (Jennifer Glasse) let her mouth run away from her and took a nasty beating from Angel (Jalyn Greene), Malika (Destini Huston) and Prix (BrittneyLove Smith). This beatdown gave a dark meaning to #GirlPower and showed the ugly reality of how young, inner-city women have to survive. This moment was a strong indication that the play was not going to be light and full of sunshine, which is exactly how I like my drama. Of course, the show as a whole was beautiful and sat with me long after I left the theater. So many ugly truths were explored in this 2.5 hour rollercoaster. But those first few moments?? Whew!
3. Blues for an Alabama Sky (Court Theater) – Hustling and Surviving
This play was filled with so much life! And as we all know, life comes with unequal parts of joy, pain, hope and despair. This production had all of that and everything in between. I cried just as much as l laughed while watching Angel (Toya Turner), Guy (Sean Parris), Sam (James Vincent Meredith), Delia (Celeste M. Cooper) and Leland (Geno Walker) take whatever life threw their way. Even after all of the selfishness, heartbreak and tragic end of many of the relationships (and one of the characters), I was left with a feeling of hope.
2. At the Table (Broken Nose Theater) – The Friends We Keep
A weekend with friends in a cabin in the woods sounds like fun, right? OF COURSE NOT! This is the recipe for a horror film waiting to happen. So it’s no surprise when things start going downhill pretty fast for this group, especially when booze and pot are introduced. One of my favorite parts of the story was when Lauren (Echaka Agba) confronts realities about the group of friends that she has surrounded herself with. It was a confrontation she was having with herself just as much as she was with the other characters on stage. Heartbreakingly beautiful.
1. Pass Over (Steppenwolf) – Everything is NOT O.K.
The entire experience of this show left me breathless, in awe, anxious, enraged, drained, and honestly a little scared. I fell in love with the percussive poetry of Nwandu’s words, which all three artists handled with ease. The actors made full use of the stage and while said stage was bare (save for that incredibly disturbing picnic), my mind had no problem creating the street which Moses and Kitch wanted so badly to get off of. One moment I will never forget is Mister’s (Hallahan) final speech directly addressed to the audience. His declaration that everything is now ok and that America is great again, after murdering Moses (Hill) left me left me haunted.
There ya have it, folks! 2017 definitely threw many of us for a loop, I’m sure, but there is no doubt that some stellar art was created in Chicago. Here’s hoping that the art in 2018 continues to provide an escape from the terrors of the world, as well as a mirror to reflect them.
Ashley J. Hicks is an actor, writer and singer, currently digging her way out of the sunken place of graduate school applications. She is an ensemble member with Eclipse Theater Company. Recent credits include Gina (Megastasis, Eclipse Theater), Eve (Displayed, The New Colony) and Nadine (The Little Flower of East Orange, Eclipse Theater). Her one-woman show Beautifully Broken is the winner of the 2016 STL Fringe Crush Award, has been performed twice in Chicago and will make it's Kansas City, MO debut in July of 2018. Here's to helping create (and promote)more art that amplifies muted voices in 2018 and beyond.