When we decided to launch the first ever Time Out Chicago Theater Awards, we were counting on our readers being an opinionated bunch. And we weren't disappointed—nearly 2,800 of you made your picks over the two-week voting period this summer. Here, then, are your choices for the best in a year of Chicago theater.
Best New Work
All Our Tragic
It was certainly among the year’s most ambitious projects. The Hypocrites founding artistic director Sean Graney, building on the success of 2011’s Sophocles: Seven Sicknesses, devoted a year to working full-time on his 12-hour adaptation of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides that strung all 32 surviving Greek tragedies into one anachronistic but reverent narrative. Audiences, remarkably, wanted all-in: Weekend marathon performances sold out, while Friday night bite-size chunks were under attended.
Other nominees: The Downpour, Caitlin Parrish; The Humans, Stephen Karam; Native Son, Nambi E. Kelley; Shining Lives: A Musical, Jessica Thebus, Andre Pluess and Amanda Dehnert
Best Production of a Musical
The Wild Party
Brenda Didier’s up-close Bailiwick Chicago staging of Michael John LaChiusa’s 1999 Jazz Age musical, based on Joseph Moncure March’s narrative poem about a particularly heated soiree, was a steamy, swinging affair. A 15-actor ensemble, reigned over by Danni Smith’s marvelously layered Queenie, kept the proceedings at a steady simmer before boiling over; it was the best work yet from both Smith and Bailiwick.
Other nominees: Assassins, Kokandy Productions; The Secret Garden, Court Theatre; Camelot, Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace; Shining Lives: A Musical, Northlight Theatre
Best Production of an Existing Play
Stupid Fucking Bird
Aaron Posner’s brilliantly self-aware riff on Chekhov’s Seagull wasn’t a satire so much as a reboot, updating the text for our age of self-narration. Director Jonathan L. Green’s lithe, inventive staging for Sideshow Theatre Company, the play’s Chicago premiere, sported breathtakingly open, honest performances
by the likes of Stacy Stoltz, Nina O’Keefe and Nate Whelden as modern versions of Chekhov’s pained Russians.
Other nominees: Balm in Gilead, Griffin Theatre Company; Marie Antoinette, Steppenwolf Theatre Company; Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, Theater Wit; Two Trains Running, Goodman Theatre
All Our Tragic
You certainly couldn’t say they weren’t hardworking: The 24 cast members of the 2014 Hypocrites production (pared to 17 for the 2015 remount) were on the job from 11am to 11pm every Saturday and Sunday of their run, essaying multiple characters and executing carefully choreographed fight scenes. The fact many of them had been workshopping the play with Graney for months showed in their intimacy with the material and one another. But they also served as break-time ambassadors, mingling with the audience in street clothes at intermissions and making us all feel a part of the ensemble.
Other nominees: Accidentally, Like a Martyr, A Red Orchid Theatre; The Apple Family Plays, TimeLine Theatre; The Herd, Steppenwolf Theatre Company; Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, Theater Wit
Jeremy Wechsler, Mr. Burns, a post-electric play
Wechsler, Theater Wit’s artistic director, has lately been combing Off Broadway’s brightest to snag titles theaters with bigger footprints should be fighting for. But he handles them with remarkable care, including Anne Washburn’s slyly smart play with music that posits a post-apocalyptic world in which the plot of a classic Simpsons episode maybe becomes, over generations, a society’s guiding myth. Mr. Burns crackled with electric inventiveness, no d’ohs about it.
Other nominees: Jonathan Berry, Balm in Gilead, Griffin Theatre Company; Shade Murray, Accidentally, Like a Martyr, A Red Orchid Theatre; Robert O’Hara, Marie Antoinette, Steppenwolf Theatre Company; Jessica Thebus, Shining Lives: A Musical, Northlight Theatre
Michael Patrick Thornton, Title and Deed
Thornton has long been known as a uniquely soulful actor. He’s also worked well before with playwright Will Eno’s quirky, inquisitive style. But something about the pairing of the two, along with director Marti Lyons, on this solo piece at Lookingglass seemed to ignite an engaging and unnerving new flame in Thornton. His weary traveler from parts unknown pierced audiences deep.
Other nominees: Travis Delgado, The Jungle, Oracle Theatre; Steve Haggard, Accidentally, Like a Martyr, A Red Orchid Theatre; Jerod Haynes, Native Son, Court Theatre and American Blues Theater; Matthew Keffer, The Wild Party, Bailiwick Chicago
Hillary Clemens, Bethany
In Laura Marks’s drama, Gift Theatre ensemble member Clemens played a single mother in financial crisis who goes to remarkable extremes to keep custody of her daughter (Bethany is the unseen child’s name). Clemens’s muscular depiction of the mother’s desperation and resolve was as grounded as her character’s ultimate actions were excessive.
Other nominees: Alana Arenas, Marie Antoinette, Steppenwolf Theatre Company; Shannon Cochran, The Little Foxes, Goodman Theatre; Heidi Kettenring, The King and I, Marriott Theatre; Tara Mallen, Look, we are breathing, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble
Best Supporting Actor
Chester Gregory, Two Trains Running
It almost felt unfair to nominate Gregory for his work among a universally fine ensemble in the Goodman Theatre’s revival of the 1960s entry in August Wilson’s Century Cycle. But Gregory’s charisma and energy as newly released ex-con Sterling were overpowering. Call his magnetic performance a standout among standouts.
Other nominees: Behzad Dabu, Samsara, Victory Gardens Theater; K. Todd Freeman, Airline Highway, Steppenwolf Theatre Company; Brendan Meyer, Look, we are breathing, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble; Jack Miggins, The Vandal, Steep Theatre
Best Supporting Actress
Caroline Neff, Airline Highway
Neff’s grounded, honest presence has been a favorite for years at some of the city’s smaller theaters, including Steep Theatre, where she’s an ensemble member. It’s only recently that she’s found a steady footing at the likes of Steppenwolf; with her performance as a New Orleans stripper with good intentions but bad impulses in Lisa D’Amour’s new work, which became her Broadway debut with the production’s transfer to Manhattan Theatre Club, Neff cemented her status as a Chicago star.
Other nominees: Scottie Caldwell, A Map of Virtue, Cor Theatre; Rae Gray, The Little Foxes, Goodman Theatre; Lindsey Pearlman, The Mousetrap, Northlight Theatre; Stacy Stoltz, Stupid Fucking Bird, Sideshow Theatre Company
Marie Antoinette, Clint Ramos (scenic), Dede M. Ayite (costumes), Japhy Weideman (lighting), Dave Bova (wigs and makeup), Lindsay Jones (sound and original music), Jeff Sugg (projections)
The flashy, fashion-forward design elements of director Robert O’Hara’s production of David Adjmi’s take on the French queen were a bit of a departure for Steppenwolf. But as a commentary on celebrity culture then and now, Ramos’s mirrored runway, Ayite’s sickening costumes for Alana Arenas and friends, and Jones’s groovy French hip-hop soundtrack combine with everything else for a royal aesthetic experience.
Other nominees: Balm in Gilead, Griffin Theatre Company; A Map of Virtue, Cor Theatre; Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, Theater Wit; Stupid Fucking Bird, Sideshow Theatre Company