We typically do a lot of research on shows before attending, and choose shows for a variety of reasons: intriguing premise, interesting playwright, director, or cast members, and so on. Consequently, we show up with certain expectations about the kind of evening we have in store. Occasionally though, a production will completely knock our socks off, surpassing the expectations that led us to put the show on our calendar in the first place. Here are some of our biggest surprises …
(in chronological order)
I Sailed with Magellan by Claudia Allen, adapted from the novel by Stuart Dybek: This show was our biggest surprise ever, in that we went to the theatre expecting to see a different show! On a Friday evening in June 2007, we showed up at what was then called the Victory Gardens Greenhouse to see a show we had booked weeks earlier, only to learn that the company producing the show had ended the run early and failed to notify us (and presumably others). As compensation, the person at the box office offered us tickets to I Sailed with Magellan, premiering at Victory Gardens Theater in their recently opened new home, the re-designed Biograph Theater. We practically ran the two blocks to the Biograph, arriving just in time to see a truly marvelous production of a captivating coming-of-age story set in Chicago.
Speech and Debate by Stephen Karam: We really liked this play when we saw it for the first time at American Theatre Company in 2008, so we decided to check out the production at the Station Theatre in Urbana, Illinois, only six months later. What we hadn’t anticipated was the phenomenal acting by three University of Illinois freshmen playing the high school students in the play. We just looked at each other and said, “who are these talented people?” They turned out to be Julian Parker, Tyrone Phillips, and Aurora Adachi-Winter, all currently making their mark in Chicago theatre. For examples, check out their entries in our list of favorite performances by UofI alums, the Byhalia, Mississippi entry in our list of definitive productions, and our take on the theatre company they co-founded with several other UofI alums (Definition Theatre Company).
Stage Door by Kaufman and Ferber: We loved the 2010 Griffin Theatre Company production of Stage Door, but it’s their 2009 reading that we still talk about to this day. On a very rainy Sunday evening in April 2009, we trekked to one of the lovely old mansions on Sheridan Road along Lake Michigan where the reading was to be held. But the person scheduled to unlock the door never showed up, leaving director Robin Witt, cast, and audience members huddled on the large covered front porch as the rain poured down. After a while, someone at the mansion next door graciously offered to host the reading, so we all trooped over there and chatted while folding chairs were set up in the living room. Then with the actors and the audience members seated facing each other, practically knee-to-knee, the reading commenced. It was thrilling and unforgettable. The actors (including Jennifer Betancourt, Vanessa Greenway, Caroline Neff, Suzanne Petri, and Steve Pickering) inhabited their roles; the ensemble work and direction were phenomenal.
Robin Witt directed both the reading and the following year’s full production, which she summarized by the numbers in her “Director’s Note” section of a 2010 blog entry: “248 costume pieces; 33 characters; 27 actors; 16 set pieces; 13 door slams; 9 door bells; 5 phone rings; 4 bananas; 2 apples; a baseball bat; an upright piano; a two-story staircase; and 1 small dog.” On an April night a year earlier, all of that was absent except for 17 actors (many doubling) in a borrowed mansion on Sheridan Road making theatre magic.
August: Osage County by Tracy Letts: We took a chance when we travelled to Indianapolis in 2012 to see the Phoenix Theatre production of this remarkable play. We weren’t confident that a small professional theatre with modest means could pull off a play this expansive, in every sense of the word—massive set, long running time, and 13 cast members that all need to be in top form for this ensemble play to work. We had seen the phenomenal premiere production at Steppenwolf in 2007 and the national tour in 2010 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago (which seats over 2,300), but we were eager to experience this play in the intimacy of a storefront-sized space. The risk was richly rewarded, with a great cast, direction, and set beyond anything we had expected (even though we’d been very enthusiastic about the shows we’d seen previously at Phoenix). The intimate setting made us feel as if we were experiencing the play anew on a more personal level than ever before. Interesting note: We had seen Diane Kondrat, the actor who played Barbara Fordham (the part played by Amy Morton at Steppenwolf) the previous year in the Victory Gardens production of The Gospel According to James, a role for which she received a Jeff nomination.
Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion by Stephen Massicotte: In 2012, we travelled to an out-of-the-way church basement in the Chicago area to see Caffeine Theatre’s imaginatively staged and well-acted production of this lovely play, directed by Thomas Weitz. Based on previous Caffeine Theatre shows, we had expected a good story and fine acting, but we would never have guessed that a play with scenes in the Arabian desert, World War I trenches, and Oxford University (roofs included) could have been successfully staged in a church basement.
Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris: Although Redtwist is one of our favorite theatre companies, we weren’t sure how they could ever stage Clybourne Park in their tiny performance space. In addition, the 2013 Redtwist production came only two years after the outstanding production at Steppenwolf, and only nine months after we’d seen an excellent production at Milwaukee Rep. By paring down the set to its essential elements (a table and chairs instead of a fully detailed living area), and with spot-on performances and direction (by Steve Scott), Redtwist not only pulled it off but also brought a heightened sense of immediacy to the story. In the limited, “no place to hide” space, all the characters seemed unfailingly real, as we watched them from the perimeter of their living room.
I and You by Lauren Gunderson: We knew the play’s synopsis, but not much else when we went to see I and You at Redtwist Theatre in 2014. We were unprepared for how a seemingly simple premise—two high school students working on a lit class assignment—led to a moving consideration of human connectedness and more. The performances by the two actors, one of whom was still in high school, were authentic and touching. Two years later, we saw the play again, in the inaugural season of The Yard, a company of high school students allied with professional theatre companies in Chicago. In this fabulous production, both actors were high school seniors, and most of the
audience members were of high school age. The superb quality of the production, the exuberant reaction of the audience, and the earnest professionalism of the actors and their adult mentors were beyond anything we could have imagined. And what a great way to nurture future Chicago theatre talent and develop a savvy and dedicated audience for their work!
Picasso at the Lapin Agile by Steve Martin: We first saw Picasso in a fine student production at Millikin University in 2000, and loved it. During the next decade, we saw three disappointing productions of the play (“dying is easy; comedy is hard”). So we made plans to see Organic Theater Company’s 2015 production at the Greenhouse Theatre with tempered expectations. To our delight, Organic Theatre’s cast and director found just the right combination of zaniness and seriousness, while the design team effectively tackled the play’s tricky staging demands.
Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller: By now, we should not be surprised by what Redtwist Theatre can accomplish, both artistically and spatially, but their 2015 production of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy was yet another demonstration of theatre that affects you at your core, beyond your wildest expectations. Redtwist combined 21 actors, about twice that many audience members, a spare but haunting set, and an important play by an American master to create a tinderbox experience that we won’t soon forget. Side note: Anyone who’s ever been to Redtwist may wonder how they could accommodate 21 actors with almost no backstage space. The answer is that the adjacent storefront was vacant at the time, and they were able to turn that into an adequate backstage area for this production. Theatre requires many “angels,” including in this case an empathetic landlord and fortuitous timing.
Cosmic Events Are Upon Us: The Romanov Play by Keely Leonard: In addition to our interest in history, we were intrigued by the idea of a storefront theatre company (Waltzing Mechanics) tackling the epic story of the last tsar and his family, as the Russian Revolution unfolded just outside the palace walls. We never imagined that writer/director Keely Leonard, the design team, and the cast of 20 could elucidate both the ordinariness of the ruling family and the world-changing revolution they precipitated. Yet somehow, in the cavernous 80’x55’ auditorium of a Chicago church, their depiction of everything from family picnics to battle scenes (aided by Myra Su’s brilliant shadow puppet design) captivated the audience for 3+ hours. We were educated, entertained, impelled to think about present-day parallels, and left with an unforgettable (and surprising!) theatre experience.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee: Some plays are so difficult to direct and perform that we think twice before venturing to see a production by an unknown company. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is surely in that category of insanely challenging shows. But we were intrigued by the brashness of Pulse Theatre, a very young company, in tackling this behemoth, especially with non-traditional casting. Director Chris Jackson cast actors of color as George and Martha (the multi-faceted Lewis R. Jones and the force-of-nature Nicholia Q. Aguirre), with the traditionally cast Adam Zaininger as Nick and Kate Robison as Honey (no mere space cadet in this production, but a much more complex and interesting character than usual). In a compelling interview about the production, director Jackson explained Pulse Theatre’s ethos: “That’s why our company was built: to break that archetype of casting, and to question why these shows are continually put on with the same voices. We want to showcase multiple voices, and that’s what we’ve been doing since our conception.” Indeed, the multi-racial casting brought a new dimension and added depth to Virginia Woolf , with shattering effect. Even though we saw the first-and-only preview performance, the quality of the acting and direction, plus pitch-perfect scenic design, landed Pulse Theatre’s production on our list of memorable surprises.
Interesting note about the casting of Edward Albee plays: Only a few months before Pulse Theatre’s production, a much-discussed controversy arose over a director’s casting of a person of color as Nick (in fact, the Albee estate withheld the rights and the production never took place). Subsequently, the Arts Integrity Initiative published a detailed article on, among other things, why Pulse’s casting passed muster with Albee’s estate, whereas the rejected production didn’t. The article, entitled “Contrary to What You’ve Heard, You Can Cast Albee Plays Diversely,” included this statement from the agent for Albee’s estate: “Regarding your inquiry, the Albee Estate gave Chicago’s Pulse Theatre Edward’s own script edits that the playwright thought could be useful when George and Martha are portrayed by actors of color, as they are in the current Chicago production.”