Edward II (Chicago Shakespeare)--Sean Graney's promenade staging in Chicago Shakespeare's Upstairs space, with the audience and the actors sharing the same place and scenes erupting all over the place, may not have been a purist rendering of Christopher Marlowe's script (about half of which was missing). However, since I wasn't familiar with the play, I was swept up in the show's intensity and theatricality. The production lacked subtlety, but it packed a punch, and I'll never look at a pair of garden shears the same way again.
Ruined (Goodman Theatre)--Lynn Nottage's new play took on a grisly subject--sexual violence against women in the Congo--and made it gripping and sympathetic. This was no lecture, it was a play full of vibrant life and hope. As Kate Whoriskey's production moves to the Manhattan Theatre Club, I hope that it continues to reach audiences as it did in Chicago.
A Steady Rain (Chicago Dramatists)--I caught this play from fall 2007 in its run at the Royal George this spring. Simple, powerful stuff, about two cops in a downward spiral. No formal fireworks, but a simple story that packed a wallop. It's great to see something so serious have a real financial success.
Superior Donuts (Steppenwolf)--For his followup to August: Osage County, Tracy Letts went in a completely different direction, for this comedy set in an Uptown doughnut shop. It lacked the scope and intensity of its Pulitzer-winning forerunner, but it featured a real depth of feeling and a keen eye of the issues facing Chicago (and many other cities) today. Tina Landau's production was bursting with warmth and life.
Titus Andronicus (Court Theatre)--Wrenching. This revisionist production wildly divided people, but I found its stark look at how groups slide into violence extraordinary. It may not quite have held together, but I can't argue with the fact that I was almost sick after seeing the show. Some of the images still haven't left my head.
Caroline, Or Change (Court Theatre)--Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's profound meditation on race, religion, civil rights, family, and change made its belated Chicago debut, five years after its scandalously brief Broadway run. It was worth the wait. Charles Newell's gloriously simple staging let the play's intense emotional and intellectual impact come through. Gorgeous playing and singing didn't hurt. The audience was left devastated and cheering, and a serious, dark musical managed to sell out an extended run.
Carousel (Court Theatre)--Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote an extremely dark play, and this production played up the desolation in Billy and Julie's lives--how the complete lack of economic opportunities drove them to self-destructive behavior. The singing was inconsistent, and some missed the color and romance, but I was wiping away tears by the last scene.
Nine (Porchlight)--Maury Yeston's gorgeous score was given a highly entertaining, exceptionally well-sung production. What a pleasure to hear such amazing female voices given the chance to wrap themselves around such powerful songs.
The Threepenny Opera (The Hypocrites)--Sean Graney used the entire Steppenwolf Garage space for this galvanizing production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's extraordinarily difficult show. They nailed both Brecht's social point and his wicked sense of fun, and Weill's gorgeous tunes were well-served. An orchestra would have been nice, but it was still electrifying.
10 Virgins (Chicago Dramatists)--Laura Jacqmin's play was not completely successful, but it made for a fascinating exploration of the place of gender in fairy tales. A real mind-teaser, but theatrically vivid as well.
Ruined (Goodman Theatre)--Lynn Nottage has crafted a play that succeeds both in raising awareness of a real problem and bringing us deeply into the lives of the characters. We'll see more of this play.
A Steady Rain (Chicago Dramatists)--Intense and moving, and proof that sometimes, all you need is a good story told well.
Superior Donuts (Steppenwolf)--Warm, funny, moving, and socially acute. The success of August: Osage County caused people to underrate it, but I think it will eventually find wider respect than it has now.
Celebrity Row (American Theatre Company)--Itamar Moses extraordinary, though as yet unrealized, play got a scorching production in the hands of four actors playing four of the most notorious criminals in recent history, along with one actress as the idealistic lawyer who got caught up in their games. Their performances made even the script's slack sections riveting.
The Misanthrope (Greasy Joan)--The production of Moliere's comedy was inconsistent and sometimes puzzling, but Kevin Cox as the title character was a marvel. He was a comic whirlwind, the proverbial bull in the china shop, and took the play to dizzying comic heights.
Superior Donuts (Steppenwolf)--The word "incandescent" was created for Jon Hill. As young doughnut shop employee Franco Wicks, he lit up the stage whenever he appeared. It was impossible to take your eyes from him. He more than justified having been chosen as a Steppenwolf Ensemble member as soon as he graduated college.
The Trip To Bountiful (Goodman Theatre)--Realism at its finest, in the extraordinary performances of Lois Smith and Hallie Foote, daughter of playwright Horton Foote. Rarely have I seen performances that seemed so effortlessly lived, rather than acted.
Caroline, Or Change (Court Theatre)--The titanic E. Faye Butler, in the title role, led the way, but the women of this production all stood out, with Melanie Brezill, Jacqueline Williams, and Kate Fry being only the most amazing. What a combination of fiercely committed acting and gorgeous voices.
Forbidden Broadway (Royal George Theatre)--Unsurprisingly, the cast proved extraordinarily adept at skewering a wide variety of Broadway personalities, but Valerie Fagan, with a dangerous glint in her eye, stood out.
Nine (Porchlight)--With a commanding and delightful lead performance by Jeff Parker and one of the most diverse and impressive groups of women I've ever seen on stage, this was first-class musical theatre performing.
Sweeney Todd (Broadway in Chicago)--In John Doyle's fascinating production, Judy Kaye gave an exceptional performance as Mrs. Lovett. By performing the play rather than her own private show, Kaye significantly improved on Patti LuPone's work and made the entire production look much better.
David Cromer--While I sadly missed his acclaimed productions of Our Town and Picnic, his crystalline work on Celebrity Row made it eminently clear why Cromer has suddenly, after a 20 year career, become a celebrity, and will be making his Broadway directing debut in the fall on 2009.
Sean Graney--He can certainly be accused of flash, but every one of Graney's productions I've seen has been vivid and involving. Edward II and The Threepenny Opera were two of the most pulse-pounding productions I've seen in a long time, though perhaps better if viewed as Graney's plays rather than classics.
Charles Newell--I have yet to not love one of Newells productions. All three shows he directed this year were among the best I saw--Titus Andronicus, Carousel, and Caroline, or Change. His stagings divide many, but count me among his fans.
Kate Whoriskey--The sense of a world fully lived in that she created with the exceptional cast of Ruined is hard to forget. I went from knowing little about the Congo to feeling like I'd visited.
10 Virgins (Chicago Dramatists)--Five of the ten sisters depicted in the play are portrayed by puppets, and Allison Daniel's designs made them full parts of the production, as well-characterized as the flesh and blood actresses. They were invaluable in telling the story.
The Birthday Party (Signal Ensemble Theatre)--Harold Pinter's play shows a seemingly ordinary world where menace slowly undermines everything the characters and audience think they know. Julie E. Ballard's lighting slyly and subtly helped to bring this atmosphere to disturbing life.
Cadillac (Chicago Dramatists)--While I had problems with Bill Jepsen's script, he and set designer Kevin Depinet worked together to create a pitch-perfect evocation of the used car lot where it was set.
Termen Vox Machina (Oracle Theatre)--I didn't like the confusing script or the production concept of live actors lip-synching to a pre-recorded soundtrack at all. However, I can't get Tyler Burke's set, made from layers plastic curtains, out of my head. If the entire play had been as intriguing as the set, I would have been hooked.
Bernarda Alba (Bohemian Theatre Ensemble)--In adapting Federico Garcia Lorca's extraordinary play, Michael John LaChiusa added some gorgeous music. Unfortunately, he also sapped the play of its dramatic vitality and tension. Boho's production put some exceptional voices onstage, but a miniscule stage and some bizarre miscasting undercut the power of their production. Possibly the year's saddest case of a potentially amazing piece of theatre constantly undercutting itself.
Jersey Boys (Broadway in Chicago)--While I'm no great fan of the music of The Four Seasons, I was led to expect that Jersey Boys would be an interesting story told in an exciting and entertaining way. Instead I found a script that was a laughable concoction of cliche and sentimentality. This is what has sold out everywhere it has played? Oy.
Saint Joan (The Shaw Festival at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre)--Ever since I appeared in a production of it, George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan has been among my very favorite plays, and in the may years I have been lucky to attend it, Canada's Shaw Festival has proved itself among the best theatres on the planet. So what a disappointment to find this production too polite and lacking in fire. Perhaps the saddest disappointment of the year.
A Commedia Christmas Carol (Chicago dell'Arte)--In their adaptation of A Christmas Carol, the expert clowns of Chicago dell'Arte resurrect the 16th Century Italian art of commedia dell'arte in deliriously funny fashion. Completely ridiculous and utterly delightful.
Los Desaparecidos (The Vanished) (Babes With Blades)--Barbara Lhota's new play, set in 16th-Century Spain, may have stretched credulity with an improbable plot and the characters somehow maintaining gay and interracial relationships against the odds. But if you were willing to let go, it made for a thoroughly delightful evening, full of laughs, thrills, and exceptional stage combat.
What a year! Hapy New Year, and here's to a 2009 that's just as exciting!