The dawn of a new year is particularly exciting for local theatre-goers, as it signals the start of new seasons of productions around town. While the Broadway-style shows in the Loop often steal the limelight, there’s never a shortage of top-quality theatre to experience outside of downtown. Neighborhood theatres are too often one of those things that people discover only after having lived in a particular area for a long time. Get a new year’s jump on expanding your entertainment horizons and check out some of Chicago’s hidden (and not-so-hidden) theatrical gems. Here’s a list of some of the best places to start.
A Red Orchid Theatre
Live entertainment in this area of Old Town leans heavily toward live comedy, but for those looking for something a little more cerebral, consider a visit to A Red Orchid Theatre. Breakout star Michael Shannon has been an ensemble member since the early 90s, and given the level of talent on the roster here, he should be just the first of many to transition to the mainstream. Despite the Wells Street location and the production quality, ticket prices are very affordable. A Red Orchid Theatre blends comedic chaos with futuristic drama in their newest production, “Megacosm,” opening January 12.
The Chopin Theatre in Wicker Park was originally built in 1918 as a Nickelodeon, and has served as a neighborhood hub for the Polish community throughout its history. The theater today is impressively versatile, with two performance spaces, an art gallery, a bar and a coffee shop, busily decked out like a funky 19th century European salon. Since its current ownership took over in 1990, the Chopin has hosted over 7,000 presentations, encompassing live theatre, film, literary events, music, dance, visual arts and more. Currently playing (through January 22) is The Hypocrites’ take on “Pirates of Penzance,” and opening January 19 is House Theatre’s “Death and Harry Houdini,” performed by magician Dennis Watkins.
The location may be a college campus, but there’s nothing overtly collegiate about the Court Theatre. The program here is invariably top-notch and professional. The material leans heavily toward the classics, as with recent productions of “Porgy and Bess,” “Orlando,” and “The Comedy of Errors.” A world premiere stage adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man opens on January 12.
The Mercury Theatre
The Mercury opened in 1912 as the Blaine Theater, showing silent films before becoming obsolete in the “talkie” era and later being used as a carpet cleaning facility. The theater was renovated in the 90s by Cullen’s Bar owner Michael Cullen, and has resumed operations following a recent ownership transition. The bar is conveniently attached to the theater for easy post- or pre-show pints and pub grub. “The Houdini Box” opens January 24 (I’m sensing a cross-town theme here), based on a popular children’s book by the author behind the hit film Hugo.
The Neo-Futurists signature production, “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind,” is the longest-running show in Chicago, having racked up 23 years’ worth of performances so far. The show’s longevity is due in part to its affordability, interactivity, irreverence and short attention span appeal (the players attempt to perform 30 plays in 60 minutes, much of it improv-style). Tickets are $9 plus the roll of a single six-sided die ($10-$15). If you’re looking for a particularly unique Friday night out, head first to Big Joe’s 2 and 6 Pub, just a few blocks west on Foster, and try your luck at the weekly live turtle races.
This small storefront space in Uptown is a little rough around the edges, but has undergone a recent upgrade, and the stellar quality of the Profiles Theatre group’s productions makes this a north side destination. It’s exemplary of the gritty Chicago style that sets this city’s scene apart from others. The venue is an intimate space, recommended for those who like their theatre up close and personal. “Bachelorette,” by Leslye Headland, opens January 20, directed by Profiles’ award-winning ensemble member Darrel W. Cox.
Raven Theatre Company
In the category of “Best Theatre that Used to be a Grocery Store,” the Raven wins, hands down. This is an especially fortunate distinction for far north side dwellers, who have this excellent theatre option close to home. The company started out in a small Rogers Park storefront before moving to their current home in 2002, a venue with a 150-seat East Stage, and a 60-seat West Stage. Productions focus on “American classics and the American experience.” The world premiere of Jon Steinhagen’s dark comedy “Dating Walter Dante” opens February 7.
While much of Chicago’s theatre reputation has been built on kitchen-sink style dramas and raw performances that evoke the rough-and-tumble urban experience, Redmoon takes a different approach. Shows here are about imagination and spectacle, with an emphasis on visuals and sensory effects. There is often a strong nod to old-timey theatrical methods, and storytelling rooted in fairy tales and mythology. If you prefer puppetry to plot lines, Redmoon is your jam. The company brings its visionary interpretation of a Shakespeare classic to Navy Pier with “The Feast: an Intimate Tempest” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, opening January 18.
Royal George Theatre
The Royal George may be in the shadow of the Steppenwolf across the street, but it stands alone as a fine venue in itself, with an impressive string of acclaimed shows over the past several years. The space is cozy, every seat’s a good seat, and the acoustics are ideal for a variety of productions. The neighborhood has plenty of fine hangouts for before or after a show, though street parking’s a bit of a challenge (the theatre offers a valet option). “The Doyle and Debbie Show” pays hilarious homage to country music with performances continuing through March 18.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
The Steppenwolf is an obvious choice, of course, but it makes the list because it’s likely one of those places that many locals have had on their “places to visit” list for a while without actually having gone. While some of the productions may be unfamiliar and a little challenging, it’s a safe bet that the players involved are rather easily recognizable and seasoned professionals. It’s true that ticket prices are a bit higher than other off-Loop theatres, but at this point I’d say the Steppenwolf has earned it, and prices are fair relative to other cities when you consider the talent involved. “Penelope,” Enda Walsh’s humorous and philosophical perspective on a group of modern-day suitors competing for Odysseus’ wife, is playing through February 5. “Time Stands Still” by Donald Margulies opens January 19.
Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre
In 2006, Victory Gardens completed a major renovation of the legendary Biograph Theater in Lincoln Park, and last year opened a new studio theater on the second floor. The expansion has allowed the Victory Gardens Theater Company (2001 Tony Award® winner for Outstanding Regional Theater) to broaden its programming, giving new vitality to the site of Dillinger’s demise. Hurricane Katrina and related social issues are examined in the energetic, performance-based “Ameriville,” opening January 27.