Biggest Chicago theater disappointments of 2010

December 16, 2010

1. "The Brother/Sister Plays" at Steppenwolf. This trilogy was supposed to be the unveiling of a major new talent addressing the African-American experience, and instead it turned out to be a single excellent one-act flanked by one that was mediocre and another that was out-and-out poor. ("Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet," seemed virtually pointless.) Tarell Alvin McCraney may be a big deal but we have yet to see it except in "The Brothers Size," which also had the unfair advantage of starring K. Todd Freeman, who just gets better and better.

2. "Candide" at the Goodman. When Leonard Bernstein, Voltaire and Lillian Hellman (to name only a few) meet Mary Zimmerman, what could possibly be bad? In this case, the answer is “this musical,” and actually it shouldn’t have been a surprise: when that many people have had to take a crack at a piece, there’s most likely something fundamentally wrong. In the case of "Candide," what’s wrong is that a very time-and-place-specific satire doesn’t transfer well from 18th Century France to 2st Century America; and that even if it did the satire wouldn’t be well-served by music; and that even if it would this particular group of songs wouldn’t be worth listening to. “What a day, what a day, for an auto-da-fe” is supposed to be daring and witty, but to me it’s just reaching, and failing to grasp. And no amount of Zimmerman-style reinvention, or the brutally hard work of the cast, could fix that.

3. "Krapp’s Last Tape" at the Goodman. Brian Dennehy did an extraordinary job in the companion piece, "Hughie," which turned out to be pure distillate of O’Neill—every one of his themes and characters embodied by two actors in one act. But even Dennehy’s thoughtful munching on a series of bananas, and the lively work of the signer for the hearing-impaired, couldn’t conceal that "Krapp’s Last Tape" is less distillate of Beckett than the dregs. The play is historically significant but that doesn’t mean it needs to be inflicted on audiences.

4. "101 Dalmatians" at Broadway in Chicago. How do you take a well-nigh perfect cartoon musical and ruin it? By promising real dogs on the stage and then using people in spotted dog suits to portray the actual characters. Of course, what else could they do? Dogs can’t actually talk. But the result was that the pooches’ red-carpet arrival, and their program bios identifying most of them as rescue dogs, were more engaging than the goings-on onstage. I felt ripped off, and I saw it for free. Imagine what parents who’d paid big bucks for the privilege were thinking as they watched a canine/human collective laying an egg.

5. "The Comedy of Errors" at Court Theatre. Sean Graney is known for bringing a fresh approach to familiar works, and it’s hard to imagine a work needing a freshness more than "The Comedy of Errors," Shakespeare’s first and least sophisticated play. But it’s still Shakespeare, and therefore most likely still worth doing with at least some of its text intact. Apparently, though, Graney didn’t agree, because every second of his gimmicky rendition felt like the work of someone who thinks the play is worthless—in which case, why direct it at all? The device of having each set of twins played by one person wasn’t enough to sustain the evening, even an evening that’s only 70 minutes long, and it drew attention away from the stage to the wings, where presumably impossible feats of costumery were taking place. In fact, the best part of the production was that it acknowledged its costume run crew in the curtain call.

'The Brothers/Sister Plays' rehearsal photo of ensemble member Alana Arenas with Jacqueline Williams. (photo courtesy of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company/Mark Campbell)