2009′s Theatrical Treasures

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cchad-deity-2.jpgI’m not a theater critic, nor a theater practitioner.  I’m just a regular, passionate theater aficionado who writes a blog (and who pays for most shows that I go to see).  And it was wonderful to be a regular, passionate theater aficionado who wrote a blog in 2009 in Chicago, when great-not merely good, not just serviceable-theater was available every weekend night.  2009 began with the Goodman Theatre‘s Eugene O’Neill Festival, a singular, unsurpassable program of theatrical bravado that I will always remember, and which even long time Chicago residents marveled at.  But 2009, for me, was also a year of getting a thrilling first look at world premieres; of seeing plays in random places, whether it was in a warehouse in Ravenswood, inside the rehearsal hall of the Goodman theater, or on the actual stage of the MCA; of discovering new theater companies putting on plays with so much impressive, balls-out fierceness; of finally being validated in my very firm, vocal belief that it is Chicago, not New York City or any other self-proclaiming town, that is the theater capital of the US. 

I saw close to a hundred theater/performing arts events this year, so it was quite challenging to narrow down what I thought were the best of the year, but after a lot of merciless selecting, unselecting, crossing-off, and re-adding, I’ve come up with my ten top choices and the next five that came close to being on the list.   What were yours?

1. The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (Victory Gardens and Teatro Vista) – Kristoffer Diaz’s impressive, unforgettable world premiere was a blistering, flammable, extremely intelligent portrayal of contemporary American society’s complicated relationships with its immigrants, its politics, and its economic divisions, set within the microcosm of the wrestling world.  Director Eddie Torres wondrously mixed together hiphop music, beefcake, crowd-rousing entrances, an in-your-face sensibility, and Desmin Borges’ triumphant, definitive Macedonio, the audience’s sherpa as well as surrogate, to give Diaz’s brilliant writing a highly original production.  It’s one of the best plays I’ve seen in this decade.

2. And They Put Handcuffs On the Flowers (The Right Brain Project) – There’s a reason Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal is not widely produced:  his works’ mixture of sacrilegious and overtly sexual surreal imagery and the playwright’s unsubtle Marxist politics could be like an irritating migraine headache that incessantly lingers.  But the brazen, passionate, destined-for-greater-things The Right Brain Project not just embraced Arrabal in all his infuriating glory, but with a jaw-dropping, arresting, site-specific production in a tiny black box on the fourth floor of a warehouse by the Ravenswood Metra tracks, made him relevant to 21st century audiences as well.  With this production, the very talented young director Nathan Robbel served notice that he should be a major player in this city’s artistic life in the coming years.

3. The Emperor Jones (The Wooster Group at the Goodman Theatre) – One of the most controversial stage productions of the decade finally came to Chicago as part of the O’Neill Festival, and the advance buzz didn’t oversell:  Elizabeth LeCompte’s highly-stylized  re-think of the O’Neill classic with male and black Brutus Jones played by female and white Kate Volk in blackface (one of the most astounding performances of anyone I’ve ever seen in my theater-going life) was dazzling and provocative, both unsettling and riveting.  The audience talkback during the performance I attended was one of the most emotionally-fraught I had ever been to, which to me, was an excellent example of how great theater, no, great art, could spur dialogue about identity and race, two things we care very deeply about.

4. Rouw Siert Electra (Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Goodman Theatre)-  I became an instant Ivo van Hove groupie after seeing his exploded-then-reconstituted version of Moliere’s The Misanthrope in New York a couple of years ago.  His take on O’Neill’s overwrought Greek tragedy, Mourning Becomes Electra, was essential viewing during the O’Neill Festival – early 20th century melodrama stripped of its dated hysterics, given fresh immediacy with the addition of live and filmed video and minimalist lighting, and performed by a blow-your-long johns-off ensemble cast from one of Europe’s leading theater companies, willing to be emotionally and physically naked when necessary over its three and a half hour running time.  Van Hove’s wacky, but genius, use of conference room furniture for the play’s sets was unforgettable (and who ever thought an overhead projector could be both sexy and menacing?).

5. Blackbird (Victory Gardens) –  Victory Garden’s Artistic Director Dennis Zacek simply staged David Harrower’s stunning play about a couple who meet again after fifteen years to better present the playwright’s delicate but provocative inquisition on whether moral certainties exist.  Most of those who flocked to the Biograph wanted to see CSI star William Petersen as the male half (and he didn’t disappoint, giving a powerful, if non-showy, performance full of heartbreak) but instead got more than they bargained for:  a gut-poking script and a truly mesmerizing, ferociously wounded performance from Mattie Hawkinson as the woman, a young actress with infinite possibilities ahead of her.  I, for one, would be forking over money to see her next play!

6. The History Boys (Timeline Theatre)- Unlike the Trib’s Chris Jones, I wasn’t disappointed that Nicholas Hytner’s acclaimed staging of The History Boys didn’t make it to Chicago, since I already saw it in New York, overloaded with its Tonys, but strangely underwhelming.  All that acclaim, however, for Timeline’s funny, poignant, and radiant Chicago premiere was well-deserved (including rapturous praise from the Wall Street Journal’s drama critic, Terry Teachout).  Thoughtfully directed by Nick Bowling, breathtakingly designed by Brian Sydney Bembridge, and performed by an unimproveable cast (with Alex Weisman’s luminous star-turn as Posner a standout), this production made Alan Bennett’s writing soar, more so than the New York production did.

7. The Tempest (Steppenwolf Theatre) – Shakespearian productions in this theater-mad city are as ubiquitous as taquerias in Humboldt Park.  But Steppenwolf had surprisingly never produced a Shakespeare play in 33 seasons, until Tina Landau’s spirited, imaginative The Tempest came roaring into town in the spring.  And boy, was it worth the wait!  Landau’s bold, contemporary directorial choices (hip-hop music, fashion-frenzied set pieces, acrobatics) and future Broadway star Jon Michael Hill’s tough, urban, androgynous Ariel clearly demonstrated the belief (sometimes negated by some snooze-inducing productions of the Bard’s works in this city) that Shakespeare’s texts were truly timeless.

8. Cardiff (Companhia Triptal at the Goodman Theatre)- The Brazilian theater company Companhia Triptal made it’s North American debut in Chicago during the O’Neill Festival with its adaptation of three of O’Neill’s Sea Plays.  Although all three were captivating and strongly realized, the most indelible was the final one, Cardiff, based on Bound East for Cardiff, the story of a dying sailor during a long sea voyage home.  Triptal’s Artistic Director, the masterful Andre Garolli, brought the audience front and center into the harrowing intimacy of the piece by placing us onstage with the actors and then letting us voyeuristically watch scenes in the middle of the Goodman Theater’s rehearsal halls, without any subtitles for the Brazilian dialogue, a pleasure that was both truly sophisticated and pure at the same time.

9. The Mystery of Irma Vep (Court Theatre)- Sean Graney is undisputedly one of the most exciting directors working in Chicago theater today, no mean feat with the talent in this city, but three of his productions this year (the uneven The Hairy Ape, the perplexing Oedipus, and the infuriatingly self-indulgent Frankenstein) left me cold.  But I renewed my Sean Graney fan club dues with his final Chicago show of the year, the rambunctious, ribald, really, really, REALLY, funny staging of Charles Ludlam’s classic.  And Chris Sullivan and Erik Hellmann, two actors I have admired in the past, eternally captured my battle-scarred, jaded theater-goer heart with their versatile, dazzling, quick-changing performances, the Most Valuable Players of a theater season bursting with memorable performances.

10. The Pillowman (Redtwist Theatre)- Martin McDonagh wrote an undeniably genius play, but director Kimberly Senior’s pressure-cooker, film-noir-lit staging in a tiny theater where the actors were within thigh-slapping and sweat-showering distance of an audience packed like sardines, made his words more frightening and powerful.  A committed cast, acting with hungry fervor, heightened the intimate, face-slapping impact of many of McDonagh’s scenes.

And the Next 5:

The Investigation (Urwintore at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre)

God’s Ear (Dog & Pony Theatre)

Calls to Blood (The New Colony)

Topdog/Underdog - Traditional Cast (American Theater Company)

True West - Traditional Cast (American Theater Company)

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5 Responses to “2009′s Theatrical Treasures”

  1. Henry Says:

    My passion (or stamina) for theater pales tremendously compared to yours. But Blackbird, Tempest, History Boys, and Irma Vep were absolutely brilliant in their own ways.

    Arabian Nights i thought deserves an honorable mention. Nothing new really, but 20 years after the first Gulf War, it’s an interesting revisit.

    For as much clunkers as Chicago Shakespeare puts out, 12th Night was such a breath of fresh air (or perhaps fresh water?). ;-)

  2. francis Says:

    Hi Henry! Thanks for the comment. Josie Rourke’s achievement with “Twelfth Night” was commendable; she’ll be back next year with “Taming of the Shrew”, which I’m really excited to see.

  3. More Top Ten of 2009 Lists. « Smichovsky Compensation Syndrome Says:

    [...] More Top Ten of 2009 Lists. From Francis Sadac of From The Ledge: [...]

  4. Chicago is a theater town, and how, part II | Andrew Wood Acting Studio Blog Says:

    [...] Sadac, a Chicago theater and culture blogger, has published his top ten theatrical happenings for 2009. Wow. I could never handle the cold, but it does sound like an INCREDIBLE array of yummy stuff. [...]

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