Monday, December 28, 2009

2009 In Review

The time has come for the obligatory roundup of the year. However, I'm going to avoid the standard Top 10 list, for two reasons.

1) I don't like being that certain about something so very subjective.

2) I didn't see nearly enough shows. I'm guessing I saw upwards of 60 productions this year (maybe even around 75), but that's literally half what some critics have seen, so I couldn't claim to really know what was best this year. (I only saw 5 of Time Out's top 10 and 3 of the Tribune's, for example.) Anyone who missed The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, All My Sons, The Man Who Was Thursday, The Overwhelming, Blackbird, An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening, Red Noses, The Arabian Nights and many, many more is understandably a little lacking.

Those caveats in place, here's a look at the best of what I saw this year.

Best Productions

The Mystery of Irma Vep, Court Theatre: I know I was just raving about this one a few weeks ago, but bear with me. Not only is it high on the list of the funniest things I've ever seen, it is so perfectly theatrical in its hilarity. The sheer virtuosity of the quick changes, the equivalent speed with which two actors changed their entire physical and vocal selves, the complex relationship between the cast and the audience, enlivening even the most ridiculous of jokes, the joy of being in the same room as the design and effects, the onstage tribute to the backstage crew: none of this could have happened in a movie or on television. It was utterly delicious, and I hope it helps Charles Ludlam's brilliant script to lose its reputation as a "cult" classic. It's a classic, period.

Strange Interlude, The Neo-Futurists at the Goodman's O'Neill Festival: Eugene O'Neill's nine act opus was a huge hit when it opened in the late 1920's. Unfortunately, time has not been kind to its purple prose, absurdly specific stage directions, and intensely serious audience asides, and it seems deeply silly now--a straighforward production would probably be impossible. Director Greg Allen, an intrepid cast of five, and some very sharp designers recognized this, and used it as an opportunity for some of the most deliriously inventive theatre staged all year. Every act had new surprises, and the production played with the script's insanity while finding the real heart within. It was epic in length, and not every moment worked, but I spent the whole 5 1/2 hours (intermission and dinner break stretched it out longer) enthralled. There has been some talk of reviving the production. Do it now, I say.

The History Boys, TimeLine Theatre: This was, first off, one of the year's biggest theatre news stories. A smallish company, working out of a hundred-seat space in Lakeview, takes on one of the best and most ambitious scripts of the decade (a dozen actors, a nearly three hour running time, an extremely British sensibility), does amazing work with it, and it goes on to run six sold out months, winning a raft of Jeffs just after its closing. I saw it  three weeks before the end, and was hugely impressed. It's a gorgeous play, witty, sad, and remarkably honest about life and learning, and the production really was wonderful. Most impressive was the cast: some had been with the show from the start, some were replacements, but they worked together like they'd known each other for years.

500 Clown and the Elephant Deal, Steppenwolf Upstairs: My love affair with 500 Clown has been mentioned repeatedly all year, but this was what started it: a completely lunatic, wildly inconsistent show. It's true that the show flirted with dullness for the last 20 minutes or so, but what came before was so intense, scary, and hilarious at once, that even the unsuccessful bits had a heartening sense of adventure and risk.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Marriott Theatre: Sometimes you just want to laugh, and this production fit the bill--sharp, silly, and well-sung. Composer/lyricist William Finn and bookwriter Rachel Sheinkin deftly balanced sharp humor and sentiment in their portrayal of a group of preteens at a spelling bee, and Rachel Rockwell led her nine-member cast to excellent ensemble work and kept the show flying. It was a great time.

Animal Crackers, Goodman Theatre: Sometimes you just want to laugh, part two. The Goodman revived a Marx Brothers hit from the 1920s with no Marx Brothers, which is a huge risk, but they found three fantastic ringers in Joey Slotnick (Groucho), Jonathan Brody (Chico), and 500 Clown's Molly Brennan (Harpo). But that wasn't it--the rest of the supporting cast (six tireless performers) was also spot-on, with special mention for the imperious Ora Jones as Mrs. Rittenhouse, the Margaret Dumont role. The show was done with enough conviction that even the love plot and silly songs were delightful fun--and the 1920's costumes were just gorgeous.

The Ruby Sunrise, Gift Theatre: Probably the year's most pleasant surprise. The Gift took Rinne Groff's script, which had seen moderate success and mixed reviews Off-Broadway, and gave it a sparkling and enthralling production. It didn't always hit the mark, but the actors were dead on and the designs made brilliant use of Gift's miniscule space.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Northlight: Feck yes I did background research, and am therefore biased. Feck yes it was still hilarious, bloody, and totally badass.

Outstanding Performances

Chicago's so full of great actors that it seems silly to pick just a few, but here were some performers who knocked me flat:

Brenda Barrie had a hell of a year: the title role in Lifeline's Mariette in Ecstasy, the lead roles of Sara in Profiles' Graceland and  Lulu in Gift's The Ruby Sunrise, and finishing things off with another title character, Aunt Dan in Backstage's Aunt Dan and Lemon. I only saw the middle two, but in both I was hugely impressed by Barrie's emotional honesty, wit, and straightforward grace. She's a joy to watch, and I can't wait to see what she has in store for 2010.

You're all tired of hearing about Molly Brennan, but she's a stunning clown who both creates indelible performances and makes everyone around her look good. I'm not going to say any more, you just have to go see her. So there.

Chris Sullivan and Erik Hellman played at least a half-dozen roles in The Mystery of Irma Vep, with more than 30 lightning-fast costume changes between them. I'd seen and really liked each before, but this was just plain amazing.

Jackson Challinor in Graceland was both mature enough to understand the adolescent he was playing and young enough (he's still in high school) to be believable. Some of the best youth acting I've ever seen, and essential to that play's success.

The entire ensembles of The History Boys, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Court Theatre's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and Factory Theatre's Mop Top Festival worked like a dream together.


Red Tape Theatre's Mouse In A Jar didn't quite work, but William Anderson's set sure did. The audience descended into the basement setting, which surrounded us on all sides, and there was no way out. Chilling.

Animal Crackers at the Goodman poured on the glitz, but oh my did it work. For a lover of 1920's clothes, it was heaven.

I mostly haven't commented on touring shows, but oh wow was Kevin Adams' lighting for Spring Awakening awesome. Rock-concert extreme and thoroughly energizing.

Brian Sidney Bembridge's set for The History Boys has been justly praised, placing the audience in runway-style seating and putting the boys bedrooms in the lobby. It was the perfect setting for the dynamic staging.

Design was just one more element of The Mystery of Irma Vep that worked--and best of all, the designs were all in on the joke. The set was full of surprises, the lighting poured on the melodrama, the costumes were simply loony, and the funniest upholstery ever popped up everywhere you looked.

Steve Tolin's violence and special effects for The Lieutenant of Inishmore were poetry. Blood-spattered, limb-hacking poetry.

Most Overrated

Graceland, by Ellen Fairey, has real merits: she writes fantastic dialogue, and the production had some of the best realistic acting I saw all year. It also has serious flaws: there are some lapses in psychological credibility and you can usually tell where each scene is going within a few minutes. Even though it was a world premiere, it felt like a good version of something I'd already seen. So why was it greeted by the critics at the Tribune and Sun-Times like the second coming? How did it run six months and score an upcoming production Off Broadway? Maybe I'm just out of touch with the times (though I'm not the only one who felt that way). Still, I'm genuinely pleased that Fairey is finding success, and I hope her next show builds on her strengths and improves her weak spots.

Peter Shaffer's Lettice and Lovage is full of British wit, and in RedTwist Theatre's production benefited from wonderful work from Millicent Hurley and Jan Ellen Graves, but it still has a second act virtually without dramatic conflict and an overlong third act. I enjoyed the best parts of it, but it didn't cover for the script's flaws. But maybe I'm just overly critical--others were completely swept away.

Most Disappointing

Macbeth at Chicago Shakespeare had some of the best actors in town (and two of the best in Canada) and a spectacular physical production, but it also suffered from a series of arbitrary directing choices by Barbara Gaines. (Why exactly was the "Double, double" scene set in a strip club, other than the chance to dress Mike Nussbaum up in a creepy leather-fetish outfit?) The result was almost never scary or involving, and a sad waste of some real talent.

Sean Graney is one of the best directors in town (see The Mystery of Irma Vep, above), and his Hypocrites production of Frankenstein should have been awesome--four actors! Promenade staging! The Museum of Contemporary Art's giant performance space! Alas, it got bogged down in speechifying and ran out of steam by the halfway point. Hey, letting a bunch of smart artists play won't always leave you with a great result. The occasional flop is worth it for the great stuff that pops up.

The Thin Man is a fantastic book that led to a brilliant movie, but the adaptation at City Lit suffered from an over-narrated story and an underwritten female lead. It looked fantastic and the supporting cast was often delectable, but it lacked snap. Ah well.

Romulus Linney is a respected playwright, and Democracy promised to be a juicy historical satire. But it was based on two different novels, and covered way too much ground too quickly to really land.

Pleasant Surprises

The Ruby Sunrise, Gift Theatre: See above. The script may be flawed, but the production could not have been bettered. It makes sense that it got better reviews in Chicago than it had in New York.

1985, Factory Theatre: A parody of Orwell's 1984 about the year the Bears won the Super Bowl doesn't seem promising, but Chas Vrba's script was a deft blend of the two and ended up being hugely entertaining, even to someone who doesn't follow football and hasn't read the Orwell since middle school.

Days To Come, The Artistic Home: It's clear why this was one of Lillian Hellman's flops, but inconsistent Hellman is still Hellman, and Days To Come delivered the snappy, melodramatic goods with panache.


It's interesting to note that most of what I loved this year was comedic in nature. Even the two plays that might be called dramas were full of laughs. Maybe next year will be stronger for dramas.

And in case you are wondering, yes there is a worst list. I will not share it in public, but contact me personally and I will bring forth all the venom within me.

Happy New Year, and here's to lots of great Chicago theatre in 2010!

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