2010′s Wondrous Ten

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It is that time of year again when I’m making lists – from things I’m going to give up in the new year (eating pork belly being one of them) to places I’m going to visit in 2011 (return trips to Hong Kong and Vancouver and a first trip to Rio de Janeiro on top of that list) to the various ways I can meet hot chefs in the city (oops, ok, that’s a secret list).  I’ve also compiled my annual ten best theatrical experiences for 2010, a list, as always, compiled from the point of view of a passionate audience member.  It was another strong year in Chicago theater, and I saw plays everywhere in the city, from the major houses like the Goodman and Steppenwolf, to most of the storefronts, to the basement of an apartment building in Uptown where folding seats were set up in front of washers and dryers.  Fantastic!

1. A Streetcar Named Desire (Writer’s Theater) – David Cromer’s enthralling, galvanizing version of Tennessee Williams’ classic, one of my favorite plays of all time, was so chock-full of brilliant theatrical moments that I thought both Webster’s and Urban Dictionary would run out of superlatives.  From the dazzlingly voyeuristic staging to the intricately palpable sound design to the impeccably detailed supporting characterizations to a quartet of unforgettable performances – Natasha Lowe as a brittle but desolate Blanche, Stacy Stoltz as a devastating Stella, Danny McCarthy as a painfully vulnerable Mitch, and, most especially, in the performance of the Chicago theatrical year, Matt Hawkins as a re-envisioned Stanley, more compensating little boy lost than Brando snarling thug, it was the kind of theater you would recount to your grandchildren years from now with undiminished fervor.

2. The Brother/Sister Plays (Steppenwolf Theater) – Incomparable in its ambitious dramatic palette, unnerving in its emotional impact, mesmerizing in its multi-disciplinary story-telling, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s two-night masterpiece was, in my view, the Angels in America of my theatergoing generation.  Heady, literate, angry, funny, lively, caustic, but always-intelligent, full of movement and music, the three plays that comprised the production were briskly and imaginatively staged by Tina Landau and acted with furious intensity by a peerless ensemble cast, including K. Todd Freeman as Ogun, the plays’ invaluable emotional center.

3. Cabaret (The Hypocrites) – If you thought Sam Mendes unearthed everything that could be discovered in Kander and Ebb’s musical theater classic, then you didn’t see The Hypocrites version, brilliantly directed by Matt Hawkins, who proved he was as excellent offstage as he was on.  Almost cinematic in its staging, recalling but not imitating the chill and pessimism of Michael Haneke and the no-holds-barred bawdiness of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, this version was not your grandmother’s Broadway touring production.  Hawkins’ startling but unassailable artistic decisions – a female Emcee, poly-sexualized musical numbers, and a deeply pessimistic final scene that one-ups the Broadway revival- proved that the Chicago storefront could produce great musical productions in the vein of its great dramatic ones.

4. Frost/Nixon (Timeline Theatre Company) – Having only seen Ron Howard’s drab film version, I thought I’d be fidgeting through a couple of hours of talking male heads in tight-crotched bell-bottoms, punctuated by Richard Nixon speechifying.  But this Timeline production, strikingly directed by Lou Conte with the immediacy and contemporary relevance of a Frontline segment, brought out Peter Morgan’s pointed, snappy insights on ambition, adulation, and the public lives of notable people.  Terry Hamilton’s Nixon, both Gorgon and outcast, was magnificent, matched word for word and Italian shoe for Italian shoe by Andrew Carter’s subtly conniving Frost.

5. Cherrywood (Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company) –  The MacArthur Foundation should have given David Cromer a genius grant for life, since after coming off the triumphant high of A Streetcar Named Desire, he delivered, right after, another terrific production of a play, one that could be seen as the opposite of Streetcar.  Kirk Lynn wasn’t Tennessee Williams:  Cherrywood was meandering, rambunctious, broadly sketched, and dealt with big ideas and declarative sentences instead of meticulous characterizations and nuanced dialogue.  But Cromer made this hyper-contemporary exploration of group dynamics and generational malaise, staged as a house party with a dash of Stephanie Meyer wackiness, as riveting as his Streetcar production. And assembling that cast comprised of more than forty of Chicago theater’s best, most compelling young actors, and having them outnumber the audience, was mind-boggling. 

 6. Scorched (Silk Road Theatre Project) -  Wajdi Mouwad’s fascinating reflection on the ravages of war and dislocation from homelands, framed as a Greek tragedy-harrowing, incendiary, emotionally riveting- was one of the most exciting writing I saw in Chicago this year.  Silk Road’s Chicago premiere production, well directed by Dale Heinen and marvelously acted by a cast led by Diana Simonzadeh, impressively balanced the painful naturalism and the diaphanous memory play that were meticulously linked in Mouwad’s masterful writing.

7. The Seagull (Goodman Theatre) – This spare, radiant, affecting take on Chekhov’s masterpiece about unfulfilled lives was beautifully and clearly directed by Robert Falls, and the reason I headed back to Dearborn Street after being traumatized earlier in the year by the wrecking ball that was Falls’ The True History of the Johnstown Flood.  Falls brought out the luminous, wondrous ache in Chekhov’s writing, and elicited top-notch performances from a cast of Chicago’s most valuable actors, including Francis Guinan as a heartbreaking Sorin, Janet Ulrich Brooks as a quietly desperate Polina, and, most especially, Stephen Louis Grush as an emotional Konstantin and Cliff Chamberlain as a passive-aggressive Trigorin, riveting in their rivalry.

 8. Romeo and Juliet (Chicago Shakespeare Theater) – The purists fumed, but I loved Gale Edwards’ unapologetic, muscular re-imagining of Shakespeare’s timeless romance.  More conflict parable than dewy-eyed love story, this Romeo and Juliet might not have had dynamic lead performances, but it boasted vivid stage images that recalled Eastern European filmmakers; Brian Sidney Bembridge’s shockingly distressed and squalid but meticulously constructed urban stage design; and dazzlingly outsized supporting performances, notably Judy Blue’s desperate housewife of a Lady Capulet and Ariel Shafir’s sexually ambiguous, dangerously predatory Mercutio.  Modern, energetic, jump-cutting, confidently butch, it was Shakespeare for a 21st century audience, something you didn’t see a lot of at the theater on the pier.

 9. Death to Fascism, Freedom for my People:  A Basement of One Acts by Harold Pinter (Slimtack Theatre Co.) Possibly the most intriguing theatrical experience I had this year, this collection of late Pinter plays centered around the common theme of the horrors of totalitarianism was performed by the on-again, off-again theater group, Slimtack Theatre Co., in director Mike Rice’s apartment building basement.  Watching these harrowing plays in a confined, low-ceilinged space, amidst a dirt floor, hissing water pipes, dirty light bulbs, and stacked cartons was in-your-face menacing, thrilling, and absolutely unforgettable.

 10. Adore (XIII Pocket)The Chicago critics mercilessly skewered Stephen Louis Grush’s original work based on the true-to-life shocking story of two German men who lived out their cannibalism fantasies, but I thought it was brash, audacious, and refreshingly original.  The subject matter was repulsive, some of the staging was messy but I felt Grush successfully evoked the ordinariness of the men and their lives, which made their frightening, wacko love affair understandable even if it was not condonable.  Mike Kwielford’s video segments were intriguingly conceptualized, shot, and utilized, and reinforced the cutting-edge nature of the work.

 The next five:

 Detroit (Steppenwolf Theatre)

The Good Person of Szechuan (Strawdog Theatre)

The Twins Would Like to Say (Dog and Pony Theater)

K. (The Hypocrites)

The Wedding (TUTA Theatre)

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