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The 7 Best Off-Loop Theaters in Chicago

By Melody Udell in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 4, 2015 5:18PM

This wasn't an easy list to craft. After all, there's no shortage of great theater in this town: The Goodman, Steppenwolf and Chicago Shakespeare Theater are consistently turning out great work, and suburban big-box theaters like the Paramount in Aurora and Drury Lane in Oakbrook are deserving of praise. But when it comes to Chicago’s vivid small- to mid-size stage scene, choosing between one bold, innovative theater company and the next is no easy feat. Yet for the sake of pointing potential Chicago theater newbies to a few no-fail favorites, here are seven truly brilliant off-Loop theaters and theater companies that stand out from the ensemble.

The Hypocrites' 2015 production of 'Pirates of Penzance' at The Den Theatre. (Photo by Evan Hanover)

The Hypocrites

Known for their proclivity to deconstruct well-worn works, The Hypocrites’ shows are bold and zany, sometimes leaving the audience to wonder if a bunch of adult-sized kids were simply let loose on stage to play dress-up. The Hypocrites look at well-known musicals like Into the Woods and Pirates of Penzance with a fresh, youthful eye. This season, the company has brought a bit of absurdist humor into the fold with classics like Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, which ran earlier this year. Its crowning achievement, however, is All Our Tragic, an epic undertaking that combines all 32 surviving Greek tragedies into one 12-hour play. The ambitious project first launched in 2014 and closed its remounted production last month to rave reviews—a marathon day of theater that was well worth the commitment. And with founding artistic director Sean Graney back at the helm after a three-year absence, the upcoming season is the company’s biggest yet.

The Hypocrites perform at the Den Theater, 1329 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Kokandy's production of this season's 'Loving Repeating.' (Photo by Michael Brosilow.)

Kokandy Productions

One of Chicago’s newer yet polished non-equity (aka non-union) musical theater companies is a consistent go-to for fun, well-rounded productions, many of which are given new life thanks to fresh, energetic casting, like 2014’s Sweet Smell of Success and 2013’s The Last Five Years. It’s not afraid of the non-traditional, either: The theater’s most recent production, Loving Repeating, which ended its well-regarded run on Aug. 30, put ‘60s-era feminist Gertrude Stein’s often heady writing to music in an effort to chart the icon’s coming of age in Paris.

Kokandy’s performances take place on the intimate black box stages at Theater Wit, and most nights you can find a few cast and crew members having post-show drinks across the street at Cooper’s. (Get the disco fries. Just trust us.)

Kokandy Productions’ performance space is located at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.

The Gift Theatre

Located in Jefferson Park, the Gift was devised nearly 20 years ago specifically to bring professional theater to an underserved Chicago neighborhood. While The Gift is a bit of a hike, it’s only a half-block walk to the Jefferson Park stop on the CTA Blue Line, and parking is usually easy to find.

The Gift’s focus on thought-provoking storytelling—seen recently in productions like 2014’s understated Bethany and 2013’s lingeringly haunting Mine (both written by playwright Laura Marks)—is one of the theater’s best assets. Another is the Gift’s unquestionably intimate venue, which makes emotions feel somewhat concentrated—more potent, really—on its tiny stage. (Cramped seating aside.)

The Gift Theatre is located at 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Last year's production of 'Waiting for Godot' at the Court Theatre. (Photo by Michael Browsilow)

Court Theatre

Part of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, this mid-size professional theater houses some of the most impassioned shows we’ve seen of late. The Court puts a focus on classical texts—fully leveraging its academic side—and produces works by Molière, Samuel Beckett and Homer, along with musicals like this season’s The Secret Garden. (The theater’s revived adaptation of Homer’s An Iliad in 2013 remains one of our favorite shows we’ve seen. Ever.) The Court does modern work, too—and does it well. Every season, the theater puts on one of the works from Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of 10 plays that documents the African-American experience throughout the 20th century. Just one tip, though: Bring tissues.

Court Theatre is located at 5535 S. Ellis Ave.

Profiles Theatre

Profiles is almost synonymous with Chicago theater itself. This small, professional storefront delivers the kind of edgy, raw drama that can only be captured on a small stage. (Or rather, two small stages: Profiles opened a second stage location adjacent to its original Lakeview digs in 2012.) The theater’s artist in residence, Neil LaBute, has brought a focus on middle-class masculinity and a penchant for nearly lyrical prose with plays such as In the Company of Men and Wrecks. Profiles’ isn’t afraid of grit, either, as evidenced by the 2014 production of Sharr White’s tense two-person drama, Annapurna, or its multi-season undertaking of Richard Nelson’s four-play cycle, The Apple Family Plays. Profiles has also been the most recent home to Chicago’s long-running—23 years and counting—holiday production of Hellcab, Will Kern’s brash yet touching drama that follows a cab driver on Christmas Eve.

Profiles Theatre is located at 4147 N. Broadway and 4139 N. Broadway.

Writers Theatre

It’s no secret around here how much we love Kate Fry, a regular presence at many of Writers’ intimately staged productions. While the theater company is currently undergoing a $34 million project to build a more expansive home in downtown Glencoe—the Writers Theatre Center, set to open in early 2016—we’re still expecting to see a blend of charming musicals, innovative new work and contemporary takes on classic plays, even if they’ll no longer be staged in the back of a bookstore. Last year’s production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Conor McPherson’s Port Authority, and 2013’s production of John W. Lowell’s The Letters, have stood out amid the theater’s consistently intriguing season lineups, making the trek up to the North Shore time well spent.

Writers Theatre is located at 325 Tudor Ct. and 664 Vernon Ave. in Glencoe.

Mary-Arrchie Theater Co.'s 2014 production of 'Crime and Punishment.' (Photo by Emily Schwartz.)

Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co.

Sadly, the nearly 30-year-old Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co. just announced that it will close after its forthcoming season, but it’s no less deserving of recognition, so it’s staying on this list. The small yet venerable non-equity theater, founded by pharmacist-by-day Richard Cotovsky, focuses on both classic and obscure works that challenge actors and audiences. Its performance space—Angel Island Theater in north Lakeview—is difficult to find and far from splashy, perched directly above a convenience store. But what happens on the cramped, attic-like stage is meaningful and thought-provoking, including works like Hans Fleishmann’s reimagined production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie in 2013 and a stage adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment last year. Before Mary-Arrchie’s final curtain call, audiences can catch the farewell production of Peter Morris’ political drama Guardians, which runs Sept. 10 through Oct. 18.

Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co. is located at Angel Island Theatre, 735 W. Sheridan Rd.