Few things are more enthralling than watching a group of actors collectively and unselfishly bring a play and its characters to life. Here are just a few examples of the sensational ensemble work that characterizes theatre in Chicago—where the Jeff Award for best ensemble is commonly referred to as “the coveted award for best ensemble.”
Note: The Hypocrites’ All Our Tragic, the ultimate ensemble show, is covered in our list of life-changing theatre experiences.
(in chronological order)
Marathon ’33 by June Havoc, produced by Strawdog Theatre Company in 2006: When we learned that Strawdog Theatre was doing this infrequently performed nearly-40-actor play written by Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister, we made plans to see their production (our first ever at Strawdog). This is an ensemble-driven show if ever there was one, and the cast under the direction of Shade Murray was brilliant. Although we had been to a few Chicago storefront theatres before this, we had never seen a cast of this size and calibre fill a small stage and totally transport us to the world they created. By the end of the play, not only did we feel intimately acquainted with every character, but we felt as if we had been in the audience of a 1930s dance marathon—sweaty, tired, and somehow exhilarated!
Interesting quote about the playwright from Dance of the Sleepwalkers: The Dance Marathon Fad by Frank Calabria: “Seattle native June Havoc (1912?-2010), formerly a child vaudeville star and later an actor in films and on Broadway, spent the early 1930s as a professional dance marathoner. Havoc, who was 14 when she entered her first dance marathon, wrote later of her experiences, ‘Our degradation was entertainment; sadism was sexy; masochism was talent.’ ”
Interesting note: The ensemble of the original 1963 Broadway production of Marathon ’33 included Ralph Waite, best known as the father in the 1970s TV show The Waltons. Character actor Joe Don Baker (Walking Tall) played Mr. James in the original Broadway run.
The Wedding by Bertolt Brecht, produced by TUTA in 2010: Comedies tend to revolve around a featured character, with the rest of the cast assisting (setting up funny situations or reacting to the humor of the main character). However, TUTA’s The Wedding was a true ensemble comedy, with all nine characters falling apart during the course of a hilarious wedding dinner. Their decline was acted out through physical, verbal, and musical comedy, with director Zeljko Djukic orchestrating a descent into chaos that was side-splittingly funny. Every member of the cast had to be perfect (and work perfectly together) to pull off this absurdist delight.
The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill, produced by Goodman Theatre in 2012: In addition to Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane, the Goodman’s production also featured a who’s who of Chicago theatre in its 18-person cast, under the direction of Robert Falls. The entire cast was pitch-perfect in this notoriously difficult five-hour O’Neill play, each conveying their own little piece of hell while contributing to the overall tone of the scenes and meshing with (not overshadowing) the other characters. The success of their efforts and the tone of the collaboration were evident in cast member Tara Sissom’s response to a blogger’s question, “How do you feel at the end of the performance?” Her response: “Proud, of everyone.”
Interesting note: Approximately 42,000 people saw The Iceman Cometh at the Goodman Theatre (100% of capacity). Three years later, the production had a successful run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with the original cast intact.
Eastland by White, Sussman, and Pluess, produced by Lookingglass Theatre in 2012: Eastland captured the human tragedy and heroism of a little-known event in Chicago history, when the S.S. Eastland, known as the “Speed Queen of the Great Lakes,” sank in the Chicago River in 1915 with more than 2,500 people aboard. The multi-talented 12-person ensemble, directed by Amanda Dehnert, brought the stories of individual passengers as well as the ship’s sinking to life with first-class ensemble work and haunting music, sung and played by the cast members (and beautifully integrated into the story-telling). Interesting note: The Eastland Disaster Historical Society is a source of well-documented information on the history of the Eastland sinking and its passengers. Also, in 2015, nearly 100 rare photographs of the disaster were discovered in the Chicago Tribune basement archives.
Hank Williams: Lost Highway by Mylar and Harelik, produced by American Blues Theater in 2013 and remounted in 2014: It may seem odd to include a show about a single iconic person in our list of memorable ensembles. But the 10-person cast of American Blues Theater’s production worked together like a well-oiled machine, under the direction of Damon Kiely. Both the acting and musical collaboration were stunning, and the cast members were off-the-charts talented in both areas. Interesting note: In her excellent article entitled “Pulling The Strings: Musical Instruments in Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” Mary Shen Barnidge mentioned that Austin Cook (who played bass in the show, and is one of the top musical directors in Chicago and beyond) actually learned to play bass only a few days before auditioning for the role.
The Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge, produced by Raven Theatre in 2014: Director Michael Menendian cast 12 actors who were perfectly suited to their roles in this classic play. They created not just fleshed-out individual characters, but also a multi-dimensional view of the life of a small community disrupted by the arrival of an intriguing stranger. An added bonus of this production was the ensemble’s vigorous and organic execution of the imaginative fight choreography by David Woolley.
Porcelain by Chay Yew, produced by Prologue Theatre Company in 2015: This insightful play was brought to life by five actors, under the direction of Matthew Ozawa. One of the actors portrayed a young man who commits a crime of passion. The other four cast members took on many characters, all involved in the telling or exploitation of the young man’s story. Their dialog and movement were often interwoven, always thought-provoking, and brilliantly delivered and directed. The spare staging kept the focus squarely on the actors and the issues highlighted by the story. The ensemble of Graham Emmons, Cory Hardin, Scott Olson, Scott Shimizu, and Colin Sphar made every aspect of this production memorable.
The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neill, produced by Oracle Theatre in 2016: Director Monty Cole revisited The Hairy Ape with a current-day perspective, casting six African-American actors to play all the roles. In addition, cast member Breon Arzell devised a devilishly difficult suite of choreographed movements executed by the ensemble to depict, for example, the brutality of the working conditions, the soul-crushing monotony, the confinement, and the class-based isolation. The movements were fully integrated into the narrative, and executed on the floor and on the matrix of metal pipes that doubled as the too-low ceiling of the ship’s stokehold. The 2016 Jeff Award nominations recognized the quality of the acting—both individual and ensemble—as well as the direction, sound, and movement, with wins in the categories of Actor in a Principal Role (Julian Parker as Yank), Sound Design (Jeffrey Levin), and Artistic Specialization: Step Master (Breon Arzell). We don’t expect ever to see another production of The Hairy Ape that approaches the imagination, stunning execution, and visceral impact of this gem.
The Grapes of Wrath adapted by Frank Galati from the novel by John Steinbeck, produced by The Gift Theatre in 2016: When you get 19 actors on the shirttail-sized stage at The Gift Theatre, you must have (a) a clever set design and (b) artists who know how to right-size their performances and be mutually supportive. Director Erica Weiss gathered a diverse ensemble for Grapes of Wrath who excelled on all counts. The diversity of the cast enhanced the quality; in fact, the many comments we heard from audience members at intermission were all about the authenticity of the performances, not even noting the non-traditional casting. The best way we can sum up our admiration for this production and this ensemble is to note that, even though we had seen three noteworthy productions of this play before and therefore knew what was coming at every plot turn, we were as emotionally moved and intellectually stimulated as though seeing The Grapes of Wrath for the first time. That kind of impact requires very special actors, working in concert under a great director.
At the Table by Michael Perlman, produced by Broken Nose Theatre in 2017: We decided to see this show, our first by Broken Nose Theatre, because we were intrigued by the premise (six friends/conversation/no phones or Internet) and attracted by the casting, which included Evan Linder (Byhalia, Mississippi) and Echaka Agba (United Flight 232). As soon as the play began, we knew we were in for a very memorable theatre experience! The script (updated by the playwright for this production “in response to the new times we live in”) ranged from extremely funny to intensely thought-provoking, and director Spenser Davis’s staging and pacing were flawless. But ultimately, in this essentially perfect production, the ensemble work by the eight-member cast is what stayed with us. They brought the characters and the ideas to life so vividly that their complexities and relationships seemed real rather than theatrical. At the Table happened to be our 3,000th show, but it remains indelibly memorable in its own right.