Time Out Chicago Theater Awards 2017

Our critics—and you—weigh in on the year’s best.
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Another year’s worth of creative, collaborative and often innovative Chicago theater is under our belts. The 2016–17 season was marked, as always, by wildly ambitious projects at budget levels large and small. For the third annual Time Out Chicago Theater Awards, we asked you to vote on our chosen nominees in 10 categories from shows that opened between June 1, 2016, and May 31, 2017. This time, the nominations were decided with input from a panel of theater-industry experts. (We also made the decision to do away with the gender binary in performance categories, to better reflect the increasing number of trans and nonbinary performers and themes on the city’s stages.) More than 2,300 readers weighed in with their choices for the year’s best—and here they are.

The nominators:

Steve Scott, freelance director and former associate artistic director at Goodman Theatre

Michael Halberstam, artistic director at Writers Theatre

Emjoy Gavino, actor, casting director and founder of the Chicago Inclusion Project

Alex Weisman, actor and casting codirector for About Face Theatre

Erica Sartini-Combs, associate casting director at Goodman Theatre

Alex Huntsberger, theater reviewer at Time Out Chicago

Kris Vire, theater editor at Time Out Chicago

La Havana Madrid
Photograph: Joel Maisonet

Best New Work

La Havana Madrid, Sandra Delgado, Teatro Vista

A longtime Chicago performer, Delgado made a grand impression as a playwright with this conjuring of a long-forgotten Lakeview nightclub that was a gathering place for Latinx immigrants in the 1950s and ’60s. A welcome excavation of a piece of Chicago history, La Havana Madrid had a sold-out run at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre and a summer remount at the Goodman.

Other finalists: Bobbie Clearly, Alex Lubischer, Steep Theatre; The Happiest Place on Earth, Philip Dawkins, Sideshow Theatre Company and Greenhouse Theater Center; The Snare, Samantha Beach, Jackalope Theatre Company; The Wolf at the End of the Block, Ike Holter, Teatro Vista

Photograph: Joel Maisonet

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Gloria
Photograph: Liz Lauren

Best Production of an Existing Play

Gloria, Goodman Theatre

The Goodman picked up the 2015 debut production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s play wholesale from New York’s Vineyard Theatre and remounted it, cast and director Evan Cabnet intact, a year and a half later. It’s hard to imagine a stronger production of this smart and chilling work, which starts as an acerbic portrait of ambitious editorial assistants at a Manhattan magazine but takes a sharp turn to become a dark look at the commodification of tragedy.

Other finalists: At the Table, Broken Nose Theatre; How We Got On, Haven Theatre; Parade, Writers Theatre; Picnic, American Theater Company

Photograph: Liz Lauren

The Wolf at the End of the Block at Teatro Vista
Photograph: Joel Maisonet

Leading Performance in a Play

Gabriel Ruiz, The Wolf at the End of the Block, Teatro Vista

In the latest Chicago-set premiere from playwright Ike Holter, Ruiz played Abe, a Latino man who is severely beaten late one night after work and, after consulting with his activist-minded little sister, his best-friend–slash-boss and a crusading local journalist, decides to go public with his story that his assailant was an overtly racist cop. But the narrative retained a compelling ambiguity in director Ricardo Gutiérrez’s production, thanks largely to Ruiz’s quicksilver turn as a man boiling over with conflicting motivations.

Other finalists: Isa Arciniegas, We’re Gonna Die, Haven Theatre; Angela Ingersoll, End of the Rainbow, Porchlight Music Theatre; Daniel Kyri, Objects in the Mirror, Goodman Theatre; Karen Rodriguez, The Way She Spoke: A Docu-mythologia, Greenhouse Theater Center

Photograph: Joel Maisonet

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The Wiz at Kokandy Productions
Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Leading Performance in a Musical

Sydney Charles, The Wiz, Kokandy Productions

The actor’s rising trajectory over the past five years or so on Chicago stages has been somehow both assured and a stutter step (see our profile for more). Her turn as Dorothy in an updated Oz provided a perfect example of why casting directors and audiences find her so irresistible: Charles’s wicked sense of humor, flashing intelligence and a rousing set of pipes make it hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t be willing to follow her to the Emerald City.

Other finalists: Patrick Andrews, Parade, Writers Theatre; Brianna Borger, Parade, Writers Theatre; Bri Sudia, Wonderful Town, Goodman Theatre; Bethany Thomas, Marry Me a Little, Porchlight Music Theatre

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

At the Table
Photograph: Matthew Freer

Featured Performance in a Play and Breakout Performance

Echaka Agba, At the Table, Broken Nose Theatre

Agba, who has appeared in ensemble roles with companies like the House and Griffin in recent seasons, played a pivotal role in At the Table as Lauren, the only woman and person of color among the play’s core group of college pals. With a steely second-act monologue in which she reclaims her time spent playing caretaker for indolent white boys, Agba impressed our panel and voters enough to be named the top Featured Performance in a Play and the Breakout Performance of the year.

Other finalists, Featured Performance in a Play: Bear Bellinger, The Wolf at the End of the Block, Teatro Vista; Amanda Drinkall, King Charles III, Chicago Shakespeare Theater; Jerre Dye, The Grapes of Wrath, The Gift Theatre; Ryan Spahn, Gloria, Goodman Theatre

Other Finalists, Breakout Performance: Daniel Kyri, Objects in the Mirror, Goodman Theatre; Henry McGinniss, Bat Boy: The Musical, Griffin Theatre Company; Bri Sudia, Wonderful Town, Goodman Theatre; Michael Turrentine, Picnic, American Theater Company

Photograph: Matthew Freer

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In the Heights at Porchlight Music Theatre
Photograph: Gretchen Kelley

Featured Performance in a Musical

Lucy Godinez, In the Heights, Porchlight Music Theatre

Still an undergrad at Northwestern University, Godinez was magnetic in Porchlight’s intimate production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s other musical. As Nina, the neighborhood success story who comes home from her freshman year of college as a dropout, Godinez commanded the stage with an impressive voice and the natural presence of a vet. It probably doesn’t hurt that she comes from a theater family: Her mother, Nancy Voigts, is also an actor, and her dad, Henry Godinez, is an actor-director and was the longtime force behind Goodman Theatre’s Latino Theater Festival. Lucy may have picked up some lessons from them, but the chops she showed off in Heights are all hers.

Other finalists: Ariana Burks, Urinetown, BoHo Theatre; Nicole Michelle Haskins, The Wiz, Kokandy Productions; Mykal Kilgore, Jesus Christ Superstar, Paramount Theatre; Honey West, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Pride Films & Plays

Photograph: Gretchen Kelley

At the Table
Photograph: Matthew Freer

Best Ensemble

At the Table, Broken Nose Theatre

Michael Perlman’s portrait of several college friends who, 10 years after their graduation, come together for two consecutive cabin getaways with their significant others is a clever update of The Big Chill template. But the play’s Chicago premiere was undoubtedly elevated by the remarkable cast assembled by director Spenser Davis—Echaka Agba, Benjamin Brownson, Jennifer Cheung, Evan Linder, Adam Soule, Elise Spoerlein, Johnard Washington and David Weiss—who embodied this collection of identity crises with remarkable honesty and generosity. An essential of the season in a 40-seat theater, it was a testament to Chicago theater’s ensemble ethos.

Other finalists: How We Got On, Haven Theatre; Octagon, Jackalope Theatre Company; truth and reconciliation, Sideshow Theatre Company; You on the Moors Now, the Hypocrites

Photograph: Matthew Freer

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The Wiz at Kokandy Productions
Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Best Direction

Lili-Anne Brown, The Wiz, Kokandy Productions

The remount of this 1975 Broadway musical, an R&B update of The Wizard of Oz, was a passion project for Brown, who had originally announced her intention to stage it a couple of years earlier for Bailiwick Chicago, where she was artistic director. NBC’s live TV version of The Wiz, followed by the dissolution of Bailiwick, scuttled those plans, until Kokandy picked up the rights and handed Brown the reins. Her vision, a smart, compact staging of the much-loved musical in a 99-seat theater with an ace ensemble and tight musical direction, resonated with audiences looking to ease on down the road.

Other finalists: Evan Cabnet, Gloria, Goodman Theatre; Spenser Davis, At the Table, Broken Nose Theatre; Jess McLeod, How We Got On, Haven Theatre; Ron OJ Parson, Blues for an Alabama Sky, Court Theatre

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Men on Boats at American Theater Company
Photograph: Michael Brosilow

Best Overall Design

Men on Boats: William Boles, scenic; Jamie Karas, props; Melissa Ng, costumes; Miles Polaski, sound and original music; Brandon Wardell, lighting; American Theater Company

Jaclyn Backhaus’s play, which recounts an 1869 expedition on the Colorado River with a cast of female and noncisgender actors, announced the Will Davis era at American Theater Company; the company’s new artistic director, who is trans, has proclaimed his disinterest in living-room plays. The crack design team contributed to the piece’s playful abstraction with an evocative space that suggested the infinite unknowability of time and the river and sported intentionally nonrealistic “boats” and moody lighting that embraced a nonliteral theatrical vibe.

Other finalists: Blues for an Alabama Sky, Court Theatre; The Hunter and the Bear, Writers Theatre; 10 Out of 12, Theater Wit; We’re Gonna Die, Haven Theatre

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

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