I was an English major in college, which left me with a bad habit of looking at plays as literature—and play productions as, well, animated literature. Chicago theater has done just about everything conceivable to break me of that habit, but I feel as if the lessons only really took hold this year. So many astonishing performances, big and little, loud and quiet, violent and still, and sometimes all of the above in turn. I was overwhelmed by actors and acting in 2011, and my list of favorites tends to reflect that fact.
An Iliad The story goes that Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson used a semi-improvisational approach in developing their stage adaptation of Homer’s Trojan War epic. O’Hare would read a section of Robert Fagles’s translation out loud, then “explain, extemporize, and elaborate” on it for Peterson, who shaped the material O’Hare supplied. The result is an evening-length monologue that has the makings of a tour de force—which is precisely what Timothy Edward Kane made of it at Court Theatre. There’s a lot that’s murky about the show’s premise. We don’t even know for sure who the storyteller is meant to be. But Kane’s thunderous, desperate, kidding, athletic performance rendered all objections moot.
Overweight, Unimportant: Misshape—A European Supper The premise of this absurd Austrian satire couldn’t be simpler: a sleek, affluent, coosome young couple goes slumming at a neighborhood bierstube, upsetting the already iffy social ecology among the regulars and, naturally, triggering a bout of orgiastic cannibalism. Werner Schwab’s 1991 script is a gleefully grotesque provocation, utterly lacking in fairness or restraint—just the sort of thing American playwrights should be emulating in these rotten times. But what made the Trap Door Theatre production optimally nasty was the delicate ensemble work by fringe mainstays like H.B. Ward, Dado, and Carolyn Hoerdemann.
The New Electric Ballroom Though Irish writer Enda Walsh has been turning out well-received work since the 1990s, he wasn’t much of a presence here until 2009, when Chicago Shakespeare Theater hosted a guest production of his brilliant The Walworth Farce. Now the local Walsh drought seems to be breaking. Steppenwolf Theatre is currently running his Penelope (featuring Yasen Peyankov, director of Trap Door’s Overweight, Unimportant: Misshape), and last winter A Red Orchid Theatre gave us The New Electric Ballroom, in which three middle-aged, working-class sisters continually reenact the central trauma of their lives. Robin Witt’s mounting evoked the slow, solemn, cloistered horror of the sisters’ existence, and the actors playing them—Kirsten Fitzgerald, Laurie Larson, and Kate Buddeke—were mesmerizing.
The God of Carnage and Chinglish Goodman Theatre put up two exceptional comedies in 2011—one of them exceptional enough to qualify as a masterpiece. David Henry Hwang’s Chinglish is the masterpiece, an intellectual (and occasionally physical) farce about a guy from Ohio trying to sell signage to the Chinese. Leigh Silverman’s production gave flawless form to Hwang’s cunning, hilarious strategies for dissecting the paradoxes of communication across cultures. Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage is more conventional in its aims and means as it depicts four well-heeled New Yorkers wrangling over a playground incident involving their children. What lifted Rick Snyder’s version into best-of territory was a crack ensemble comprising Mary Beth Fisher, Keith Kupferer, Beth Lacke, and David Pasquesi. Pasquesi, in particular, was scary brilliant.
En Route In this immersive piece devised by Australia’s One Step at a Time Like This, each audience member pursued a solo path through a good chunk of the Loop, led on by prompts delivered electronically or by hand. I was dubious going in: the thing sounded gimmicky, like a glorified, digitized treasure hunt. And I hated having to wear headphones and an MP3 player in order to get messages and hear the show’s musical soundtrack. But at some point, I wrote in my review, “the soundtrack, the changes of scene, the instructions, the indeterminacy of it all combined to tear me loose from my intentions and allow me to do the sort of seeing that starts with a willingness to tell yourself you’ve got nowhere else to be and nothing you need to do. I temporarily forgot to want anything.”
Urinetown The multiple-Tony-Award-winning musical obviously got things flowing at Circle Theatre in Oak Park. Inspired by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’s satirical fable about a metropolis where all the toilets are pay-as-you-go, director Kevin Bellie and company let rip a flood of creativity. This wasn’t just the best Circle show I’ve seen—it was the best Urinetown.
Maestro and The Doyle & Debbie Show On a certain level—a lot of levels, actually—they couldn’t be more dissimilar. Maestro is Hershey Felder’s grand, even tragic portrait of Leonard Bernstein; Doyle & Debbie is a big goof, set at a crummy bar where alcoholic, has-been country singer Doyle is trying for a comeback with his third Debbie. But these two concert-style shows also have some interesting points in common. For one thing, they’re both about aspiration and the pain of failure—albeit from wildly different perspectives. They also sink or swim on the authority, skill, charisma, endurance, and, yes, buoyancy of the principal performers. Both swim beautifully. The kicker is that both are still running, in different rooms at the Royal George Theatre Center.
The Merchant of Venice Uncomfortable with the anti-Semitic resonances surrounding Shakespeare’s depiction of Shylock, directors usually overcompensate by turning the angry Jewish moneylender into a tragic hero. Trouble is, (a) he’s not, and (b) that puts the whole rest of the play out of whack. For this touring, modern-dress production that reached Chicago in March, director Darko Tresnjak made the simple, commonsensical decision to restore focus to the actual “merchant of Venice”—Antonio, the speculator from whom Shylock wants a pound of flesh. And what came out was a revelation. In Tom Nelis’s portrayal, Antonio was exposed as one of the great Shakespearean villains. Less voluble, certainly, than Richard III, but easily as evil. Demonic, in fact: a personification of the malign essence of hate.
Finally, a few shows that would/should be on a slightly longer list: Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play at Victory Gardens; Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus, performed by Ireland’s Abbey Theatre at the Museum of Contemporary Art; Sarah Gubbins’s The Kid Thing at Chicago Dramatists; Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, performed here by the National Theatre of Scotland as part of Chicago Shakespeare’s great World’s Stage program (which also gave us En Route); and Manual Cinema’s shadow puppet play Ada/Ava at the Charnel House.