2011′s Theatrical Dazzlers

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As I said in my previous blog post, I flew lots and lots of miles over three continents in the course of 2011. But when I was in Chicago, I made sure I slid my butt into a theater seat (over the objections and recriminations of friends and (ex) lovers who I ended up not seeing during those so few weekends). So I still managed to go to a significant number of shows this year despite feeling as if I lived at O’Hare instead of my Ravenswood loft.  No regrets on this end, since Chicago continued to be a dazzling North American capital for live performance, with a bounty of world premieres, Chicago stops of great touring productions, and storefront theatrical treasures.  Here, then, is my annual top ten list of Chicago theater:

1. Festen (Steep Theatre) – Even those people I know whose idea of Chicago theater is traipsing through the Cadillac or the Ford Oriental for Broadway in Chicago touring productions were clamoring to get tickets for this sold-out production in the spring at Steep’s intimate storefront off the Berwyn Red Line station.  Jonathan Berry’s layered, atmospheric, and ultimately gut-wrenching Chicago premiere of the stage adaptation of the Danish film about the unraveling of family secrets and lies was breathtaking, with an unsurpassable performance (even better than Ulrich Thomsen’s in the film, in my opinion) by Kevin Stark as eldest son Christian, both catalyst and host of the filial Armageddon.  Read my original post.

2. Follies (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre) – Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece about a reunion of aging showgirls is my favorite musical of all time and Gary Griffin’s revival is one of my favorite musical productions of the past couple of years.  Unlike the Broadway productions, full of distracting, well, Broadway-ness, this Chicago Shakespeare mounting was emotionally raw, discomfiting, unapologetically dark and pessimistic.  And boy did I love it! It also contained several surprising, unforgettable re-interpretations of classic Sondheim roles: Caroline O’Connor’s mesmerizing, battle-scarred Phyliss; Marilyn Bogetich’s unwaveringly furious Hattie belting out “Broadway Baby” as an anti-showstopper (which stopped the show anyway); and, most especially, the brilliant Hollis Resnick whose multi-layered, intricately characterized Carlotta encapsulated the profound themes of survival and tenacity of human nature that Sondheim wrote about.  Read my original post.

3. en route  (one time at a step like this at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre) –  Chicago Shakespeare was the theater scene’s MVP this year, not only bringing us local gems like Follies, but also invaluable international productions such as a World’s Stage offering from the Australian theater company one time at a step like this.  Chicago theater lovers were so lucky to have participated in this immersive experience, an indescribable hybrid of theater, performance art, books on tape, and walking tour that took them all over the Loop, since the group would be putting on a similar production for the prestigious 2012 London Cultural Olympiad.  It was an exhilarating experience, truly breaking down the barrier between audience member and theatrical content. Read my original post.

4. The Big Meal (American Theater Company) – On paper, Dan LeFranc’s searing, thought-provoking drama about the changes in American family life, values, and priorities through the years sounded like a Showtime TV movie.  But I loved going to the theater and having my preconceptions smashed.  This was theater of unrelenting honesty and poignancy, the best new work that premiered in the city this year, complemented by the stunningly fluid, cinematic direction from the excellent Dexter Bullard and the most pitch-perfect acting ensemble of the year, anchored by the too-scarce Lia Mortenson.  Read my original post.

5. Clybourne Park (Steppenwolf Theatre Company) – As my blog readers know, I am the President of Steppenwolf’s young professionals board, so I try not to comment on its shows too much to avoid being accused of partisanship.  But Steppenwolf’s production of Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize winner would make partisans of everyone – great playwriting, both impressively cerebral and emotionally gut-punching, with a vivid, pointed look at American society’s racial tensions; masterful, even keeled direction from ensemble member Amy Morton; and top-of-their-A-game performances from some of the city’s acting royalty – John Judd, Cliff Chamberlain, Karen Aldridge, and Kirsten Fitzgerald.

6. Black Watch (National Theatre of Scotland at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre) –  This fiercely unflinching drama about Scottish soldiers in Iraq already took jaded, cynical New York City by storm several years ago, and I could see why. Gregory Burke’s writing was insightful and fearless, and as riveting as it already was, director John Tiffany’s stylized production that beautifully blended song, dance, video, marching, and theatrical flourishes took it out to the dramatic stratosphere. I’m sure the been-there seen-that New York theatergoers would have been smitten as well by the site-specific production that Black Watch received at the Broadway Armory, for years the site of Illinois National Guard training exercises, which gave the show additional, intangible heft.  Read my original post.

7. Sophocles:  Seven  Sickness (The Hypocrites) – My BFFs, so used to my wacky theatrical thrill-seeking, thought Sean Graney’s four hour adaptation of all of Sophocles’ existing dramas was totally up my alley.  But it was also up the alley of anyone who loved great storytelling, outsized performances, and directorial bungee-jumping.  This was truly one of the most thrilling shows of the year – challenges around the material and the running length overcame by a director and a sterling cast who treated their audience as smart, curious, and embracing of exceptional work.  Read my original post.

8. El Nogalar (Goodman Theatre and Teatro Vista) – I was perplexed by the tepid reaction received by Tanya Saracho’s resonant, contemporary play about immigrants returning to their hometown in Mexico now ruled with an iron hand by the drug cartels.  This was the kind of conversation-starting theater that dealt with important themes around identity, social violence, cross-border migration, and class structures that I felt people should be seeing (instead of, say, reading up on Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries). Cecilie Keenan’s unassuming direction let her terrific ensemble give some of the best performances of the year (with special mention to Yunuen Pardo as the pragmatic, survival-minded maid, Dunia).  Read my original post.

9. Pornography (Steep Theatre) – Steep followed-up Festen with another exceptional show, Simon Stephen’s series of monologues ostensibly about the 2005 London subway bombing, but which tackled broader questions around how safe a world could be when daily life was full of racism, sexual brutality, deception and moral ambivalence. Robin Witt’s simple staging gave Stephen’s words the space they needed to envelop the audience, and her bold cast, especially Kendra Thulin as a bitter corporate saboteur and Michael Salinas as a conniving job-seeker, gave them the unforgettable impact and immediacy they intended.  Read my original post.

10. Heddatron (Sideshow Theatre Company) – Entrancing, astounding, sometimes maddeningly flawed, Elizabeth Meriweather’s play about an Ypsalanti, Michigan housewife kidnapped by robots to perform Hedda Gabler in the middle of the Amazon jungle was the most idiosyncratic show of the year.  Sideshow’s production used robots, videos, and a rousingly jaw-dropping musical set-piece of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” performed by both mechanized and human beings alike to demonstrate the endless inventiveness and big-heart of Chicago’s storefront theater scene.  Read my original post.

 And the next five:

 Being Harold Pinter (Belarus Free Theatre at the Goodman Theater) – read my original post

A Twist of Water (Route 66 Theatre Company) – read my original post

Middletown (Steppenwolf Theater Company)

Passing Strange (Bailiwick Chicago) – read my original post

Mary (Goodman Theatre) – read my original post

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2 Responses to “2011′s Theatrical Dazzlers”

  1. Esther Says:

    I saw Clybourne Park at Trinity Rep in Providence and it belongs on everyone’s list! It was my first Bruce Norris play and I thought it was a compelling look how we talk about race, how attitudes have changed (or not changed) over the past 50 years.

    A theater company near me is doing Festen in January, so I’m really looking forward to it.

    Also, I want to give a shoutout to another Chicago production, Candide, which I saw at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston and made my list of favorites for 2011. It was my first time seeing the musical and I thought the score was glorious and the story was so entertaining.

  2. francis Says:

    Thanks Esther! “Clybourne Park” was definitely one of the most exciting productions I saw this year. And I hope you enjoy “Festen” – the Chicago was as much about the staging and the exceptional staging as it was about the writing.

    I love “Candide” and Bernstein’s score, but as you probably may have read on the blog, I was ambivalent about Mary Zimmermann’s production which premiered at the Goodman and transferred to Arena and Huntington.

    Looking forward to more theater-going exchanges in 2012!

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