My Theatrical Year

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Where did those twelve months go? It just seemed like yesterday when I was washing the champagne and various other substances out of my hair (yep, that was quite the 2011 New Year’s Eve shindig), and now we are at the end of 2012, or the end of the world as we know it if you’re one of those Mayan Calendar Doomsday groupies.  I’ve compiled my sixth annual best theater in Chicago list, and I gotta say that this was probably the most difficult of the lists to put together since I began. I know I say this every year, but 2012 was quite the fantastic year in Chicago theater, with many, many notable actors, writers and theater artists coming to the city to work on truly stellar, world-class, only-in-Chicago productions.  But our storefront theater scene, which gave rise to and nurtured theatrical giants like Cromer and Letts, continued to be unparalleled in the country.  I’ve added and crossed-out the productions on this list several times despite the fact that I missed several shows (it was just impossible to balance my day job, extensive travel, and all that theatrical bounty). It’s also notable that for the first time in six years, I have no non-Chicago production in the top ten – that’s how great 2012 was. When New York magazine called Chicago theater the “farm team” for Broadway and off-Broadway, I scoffed and knew that that New York hack couldn’t really tell his sunken derriere from his skeletal face, because I know, and hundreds of Chicago audiences know, how good we have it here in the city, much better than those high-horsing New Yorkers.  Here then are my best Chicago shows for 2012, as well as the next 5:

  1. Oedipus El Rey (Victory Gardens) – Luis Alfaro’s galvanizing retelling of the ancient Greek tale of the warrior who killed his father and married his mother, re-envisioned within the violent, complicated milieu of the Chicano gangs in south central LA was what I thought 21st century theater should be: fresh, insightful, engaged in conversation with the world. Chay Yew’s production was electrifying – dramatically stylized but unabashedly tough, brazenly confident in its story-telling, with magnificent performances from an exceptional ensemble anchored by the borderline-dangerous Adam Poss as Oedipus and the world-weary Charin Alvarez as his mother Jocasta.  Read my original post.
  2. Good People (Steppenwolf Theatre) – David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2011 play about struggling working-class people hit hard by the recession in Boston’s Southie neighborhood was uncannily prescient for an election year in which the Republicans’ disdain for the “47%” and America’s new poor played a central role in the political discourse. Lindsay-Abaire’s writing was complex, nuanced, startlingly perfect in its construction, and K. Todd Freeman’s Chicago production made it soar. Not least because of a pitch-perfect ensemble that defined acting greatness, particularly Mariann Mayberry’s ferocious, multi-layered Margie, who just wanted to get a break, and Lucia Strus as her wisecracking, pragmatically empathetic best friend Jean.
  3. Hostage Song (Signal Ensemble Theater) – I never thought I would have on my year-end top ten theater list a musical about political hostages in the Middle East (yes, a musical). And where the actors playing the hostages sang blindfolded.  And which included a beheading. But Clay McLeod Chapman and Kyle Jarrow wrote a show that was memorably potent and resonant; it fiercely drove home the tragedy and unjustness of the wars we’ve engaged in as a country in a truly original way. And Signal Ensemble, one of the most exciting young storefront theaters we have in the city, gave this work a raw, gripping, graceful Chicago premiere.  Read my original post.
  4. Metamorphoses (Lookingglass Theatre) – I saw the original Broadway production of Mary Zimmerman’s legendary adaptation of Ovid’s myths in 2002, several months after 9/11 and wept. I saw the luminous, wrenching revival in Chicago (starring many of the original cast members) ten years later with my older, wiser, more cynical, less believing self approaching middle age with hardened scars of loss, grief, and defeats, and wept. Zimmerman’s masterful stagecraft, centered on a pool of water, and her simple yet radiant way with words that spoke clearly and directly to both the tumult and hope of our daily lives proved why theater is irreplaceable. Read my original post.
  5. Camino Real (Goodman Theatre) – I didn’t think anyone could ever out-Tennessee Williams, well Tennessee Williams, but controversial Catalan director Calixto Bieto’s original, very original, production of Camino Real, and all its stunning, almost cinematic mise-en-scene, mammoth theatricality, and gleefully stylized excess, came close.  It was a show, with its heightened violence and sensuality as well as narrative disjointedness, which set out to divide audiences- but it was unique, challenging, and unforgettable. Read my original post.
  6. Eastland (Lookingglass Theatre) – There was an uncommon abundance of musicals in Chicago this year and Andy White’s world-premiere work, with music by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman, was, for me, one of the best.  It told the true-to-life tragedy of the Eastman ship sinking in the 1920s with haunting melancholy yet managed to evoke and pay tribute to Chicago’s and its citizen’s tough and enduring nature, determined to prevail. Director Amanda Dehnert and designer Dan Ostling came up with some of the most striking theatrical images of the year – when that canvass roof covering the theater drew away, you were left breathless with wonder.  Read my original post.
  7. The Iceman Cometh (Goodman Theatre) – Eugene O’Neill’s nearly five hour epic tragedy about losers and failures and their fleeting shot at redemption could be daunting for an audience.  But Robert Falls’ landmark production, which everyone who saw it would surely be talking about for years, proved why this is one of the unsurpassable works of American theater – O’Neill wrote some of the greatest roles, magnificent in their complexity and truthfulness. And Falls’ cast was up to the challenge, creating some of the most unforgettable portraits of sadness I’ve seen onstage, from Nathan Lane’s increasingly desperate Hickey to Brian Dennehy’s broken-down Larry Slade to Stephen Ouimette’s angrily delusional Harry Hope to John Hoogenakker’s heartbreaking Willie Oban. And the German Expressionism-meets-Clifford Odets design aesthetic from Natasha Katz on lights and Kevin Depinet on sets was as enthralling.  Read my original post.
  8. Sunday in the Park with George (Chicago Shakespeare Theater) – This is one of my favorite Sondheim musicals, but I feel it’s also one of the most difficult to stage because of the tricky construction between the two acts. But Gary Griffin’s sumptuous, emotionally-wrenching production, a re-conception of his more intimate 2002 version which I loved as well, was thrilling, sophisticated, and technically flawless. Everyone involved delivered best-in-class work but Carmen Cusack’s Dot was heartbreakingly real, stopping the show with an unmissable rendition of “Children and Art” in Act Two.  Read my original post.
  9. The Mikado (The Hypocrites) – Sean Graney had already proven that there was nothing more joyous than Gilbert and Sullivan performed in boyshorts (see Pirates of Penzance). Except perhaps Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado performed in all its dizzying, rambunctious glory in a circus setting. Of all of Graney’s audience-promenading experiments, this I felt was the most successful, helped immensely by Michael Smallwood’s tightly-conceptualized set design and its game, instrument-playing ensemble cast, led by the impeccable, golden-voiced Shawn Pfaustch pulling double-duty as endearing Paul Rudd-like leading man and scary drag queen.  Read my original post.
  10. Hit the Wall (The Inconvenience) – Ike Holter’s world premiere about the night of the Stonewall riots, now off-Broadway bound in 2013, was the epitome, for me, of what made Chicago’s storefront theater so great: fresh, distinctive writing brought to devastating life by an unstinting ensemble cast in a low-cost, DIY staging. Holter’s writing blew you out of the theater, with scenes that mixed anger, ferocity, sadness, and yep, bitchy repartee, emotions that were all still part of the gay experience despite what The New Normal said (oh over there bitchy repartee was the gay experience).  Manny Buckley as the gritty yet scared, big-hearted yet walled-in drag queen Carson gave one of the best performances of the Chicago theater year.  Read my original post.

And the next five:

Disgraced (American Theater Company). Read my original post.

The Butcher of Baraboo (Red Orchid Theater).

The Gospels of Childhood Triptych (Teatr Zar at the MCA Stage). Read my original post.

Angels in America (Court Theater). Read my original post.

The Glass Menagerie (Mary-Arrchie).

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