Throughout the year, my standard response to friends, acquaintances, and random cocktail chit-chatters alike when they told me they were going to New York City to see a play was: “Save your airfare. Spend it on Chicago theater instead.” 2008 was, undeniably, a phenomenal year for Chicago theater. Local boy Tracy Letts won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play for the stupendously successful August: Osage County, which was conceptualized, incubated, fleshed out, and first performed by Chicago’s leading theater company, Steppenwolf Theater. Legendary director Peter Brook came to Chicago this year (Fragments at Chicago Shakespeare), but so did acclaimed contemporary playwright Lynn Nottage, who premiered her latest work, the shattering Ruined, at the Goodman Theater. Horton Foote, still spry and vibrant at 92, was also at the Goodman, gracing activities for it’s Horton Foote Festival. Elevator Repair Company, Tim Supple, the Shaw Festival, Marta Carrasco, Mike Daisey, William L. Petersen (more of a comeback than a visit), the best and the brightest of the world’s stage were all in Chicago, interacting with a live theater audience that was as sophisticated, critical, open-minded, educated, and enthusiastic as any in the world. But the great thing about our Chicago theater community is that our local heroes continued to thrive, expand, inspire, and astound this year too. Directors David Cromer and Sean Graney staged some of the most brilliant, world-class theater in any time zone. Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey continued to demonstrate that she has the keenest, bravest, most uncompromising artistic sense among arts leaders in the city by opening a season that followed the August high with a highly-impressionistic, dense, intellectually provocative original adaptation of a Haruki Murakami novel. Great performances abounded, showcasing the almost limitless talent pool in the city: E. Faye Butler in Caroline, or Change, Hollis Resnick in Grey Gardens, John Judd in Shining City, Steve Pickering and Jen Engstrom in Fatboy, the list goes on and on. The storefront theater scene was energetic and impressively original, with inventive work coming from groups as diverse as the Hypocrites (every single play they staged this year), Collaboraction (Jon), Strange Tree Group (Mysterious Elephant), and TUTA (a haunting Uncle Vanya), introducing new theatergoers to the magic of live performance. It was a great year to be an arts lover in Chicago.
Here then is this year’s very diverse list of From the Ledge ten best stage productions, comprised of eight full length plays, an opera, a staged reading of a play, and a ten-minute short play performed within a collection of short plays. They all demonstrate why Chicago is not just a regional, or a North American, but a global capital for the arts.
1. Our Town (the Hypocrites) – David Cromer, both directing and performing as the Stage Manager, breathed unexpected life into a play that had ignobly borne the reputation of cobwebby chestnut over the years, proving that amidst all that misconception, was one of the truly original, resonant, emotionally affecting pieces of American drama. His knockout conceptual staging of Act III ferociously defied expectations, and deposited the shell-shocked audience somewhere south of Antartica. New York audiences will see this production off-Broadway in 2009, and they are in for another Chicago surprise.
2. The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragic Fall of Proud Mortimer (Chicago Shakespeare) – The Hypocrites’ Artistic Director, Sean Graney, on the other hand, was rambunctiously taking down the elegant rafters at Navy Pier with a balls-out, bitch-slapping, absolutely riveting version of Christopher Marlowe’s sixteenth-century classic staged with the actors in the middle of a milling walkabout audience, the theatrical equivalent of being in an Ultimate Fighting ring. Jeffrey Carlson, as Edward, and especially the jaw-dropping Karen Aldridge as Isabella, led a cast that stunningly balanced control of the text, their performances, and the crowd’s stunned heavy breathing. And I’m sure Judd Apatow would be shuddering at the thought that a mass of twentysomethings would proclaim Christopher Marlowe “awesome!” (actual quote heard after a performance).
3. Caroline, Or Change (Court Theater) – It’s very rare to have the privilege of seeing a perfect play, and the Court Theater’s version was one of those unique times. Everything came together beautifully, from Charlie Newell’s strong-handed direction, to Doug Peck’s perfectly calibrated musical staging, to a pitch-perfect (both literally and figuratively) ensemble cast anchored by a legendary performance from E. Faye Butler. When she sang, no, lived, the eleven o’clock number, “Lot’s Wife”, you were left speechlessly reaching for your neighbor’s oxygen tank. If you were at the last performance of the show, you’d be battling it out for that tank with playwright Tony Kushner and composer Jeannine Tesori, who attended that performance and were as moved as everyone else in the room, the ultimate honor for this one-of-a-kind production.
4. Titus Andronicus (Court Theater) – Charlie Newell was on a roll, since he started 2008 with this truly innovative take on Shakespeare’s tragedy, set during an initiation rite for students of an exclusive male prep school. It was a from-far-left-field conceptual take which infuriated purists, such as some of my theater-savvy friends, but which I thought was refreshing, courageous, and totally apt for material that ultimately made pungent points about class warfare, elitism, and entitlement. Its young, hip, uber-sexy male cast also proved that the phrase ”talented Shakespearian actor” could elicit visions, not just of Stacy Keach, but also of Robert Pattinson.
5. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Chicago Shakespeare, World’s Stage Series) – British director Tim Supple has been touring the world with this beautifully-devised, powerfully-staged, highly-theatrical version of one of the best-known Shakespearian comedies of all time. Performed in seven languages, English and six from the polyglot Indian subcontinent, without any projected subtitles, this colorful, hypnotic Midsummer clearly demonstrated the universal joy of live theater, and it’s ability to cross, and overcome, cultural divides.
6. Gatz (Elevator Repair Company at the MCA Stage) – It was seven hours in physical time, but a nanosecond in theatrical impact time. Chicago was fortunate to see The Elevator Repair Company‘s acclaimed adaptation/reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s seminal novel, The Great Gatsby, a production that still cannot be produced in New York due to rights and licensing issues with the Fitzgerald estate. Gatz held Chicago’s most battle-scarred, been-there-done-that, jaded theatergoers enthralled and entranced throughout its running time, proving that text is king, and that the best theater is evoked, takes root, and truly lives in the imagination.
7. Speech and Debate (American Theater Company) – On the surface, Stephen Karam’s play about three marginalized high school students forming a Speech and Debate club, seemed like the equivalent of Facebook for the theater: of-the-moment, quip-filled, ADD-paced, smartly caustic. But its well-etched out themes of alienation, loneliness, friendship, and longing for human touch were timeless, not just for adolescents, but for everyone. And Sadieh Rifai as Diwata, the zany, hectoring, absolutely heart-breaking lifeline of the production, was one of the brightest stars of a Chicago theater season full of acting supernovas.
8. The Laramie Project reading (About Face Theater) – In a one night only event to commemorate the tenth year anniversary of Matthew Shepherd‘s death , About Face theater, revitalized by its new Artistic Director, Bonnie Metzgar, reminded us that theater was ultimately about community. This simple but powerfully moving staged reading of The Laramie Project, directed by co-creator Leigh Fondakowski, and with co-creator Kelly Simpkins and Tony winner Deanna Dunagan as part of the cast, was theater as memory and as tribute, but it also ably demonstrated theater’s ability to bond people together.
9. Don Giovanni (Chicago Opera Theater) – Opera is very close to theater as an artistic medium, so I feel very comfortable including one on my top ten list. And this sexy Don Giovanni was opera that subverted normal preconceptions about a night at the opera. Set in a, ahem, S and M sex club, a setting that was not just showy conceptual, but felt totally apt and organic for this opera, with its themes around sexual powerplays, this production was fresh, out-of-the-box thinking. And which proudly card-carrying gay guy wouldn’t be enamored of seeing something on stage that had lots of leather-clad sopranos and tenors singing arias while perched on a stripper pole? Fabulous!
10. “Cowboy Birthday Party” (Collaboraction) and The Mysterious Elephant and the Terrible Tragedy of the Unlikely Addington Twins…who kill him (Strange Tree Group) – Emily Schwartz is one of the Chicago playwrights whose career I am very excited about after seeing these two works. The first one was a 10 minute play that was part of this year’s Sketchbook about, well, a surreal cowboy’s birthday party, while the other one was a full-length play that had music, wacky characters, and a textured Edward Gorey-like visual look. “Cowboy” was compact and muscular, while Mysterious Elephant was messy and outrageous, but fascinating. Both demonstrated a young playwright’s surprising creativity and boundless imagination.