The You-Missed List: Top Shows of 2011

December 19, 2011

Best show of the year in any category: Gary Griffin’s Follies at Chicago Shakespeare. This flawless version of an underappreciated early Sondheim should be remounted somewhere and run forever; there’s not a false note or step anywhere in it. In short: absolutely brilliant.

Best one-man show of this or any other year: An Iliad at Court Theatre, by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, as performed by the extraordinary Timothy Edward Kane. Again, won’t director Charles Newell seek out another site for an open-ended run? The city is full of people who wanted to see it and couldn’t.  

And now on to our regularly-scheduled list, already in progress.

Best musical we’ve seen in years: Life is unfair. Only a perfect Follies could eclipse two other superb productions in this category, Sweeney Todd at Drury Lane and Merrily We Roll Along at The Music Theatre Company (starring Jessie Mueller, now knocking them dead in On A Clear Day on Broadway). Sondheim was everywhere this year, but in the race for attention these three are a deserved win, place and show.    

Best plays about monarchs (including any Shakespeare play you care to name): So who’da thunk Chicago Shakespeare would win this category, too, and with two non-Bard productions? No one who saw Harry Groener in The Madness of George III will ever forget his hilarious, pathetic, tragic and deeply human character, and the same can be said for Diane D’Aquila’s powerful, hearthbroken  and heartbreaking Elizabeth Rex. And with its offstage gods and kings manipulating its onstage warriors and fools, let’s count An Iliad once again–just because it was so amazing.  

Best plays about racism: Artistic Home’s revival of Alice Childress's Obie-winning Trouble in Mind anatomized discrimination within the theater itself, while–-speaking of painfully close to home-–Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer-winning Clybourne Park called out gentrification in Steppenwolf’s own neighborhood. It take some nerve to raise the ghost of Lorraine Hansberry, and a top-notch intellect to confront it on equal terms. Fortunately, Norris shows himself as able a combatant as we’ve seen since Jacob wrestled with the angel til dawn.  

Best avant-garde plays, even for those of us skeptical about the very concept: Trap Door took a play that is literally revolting, featuring a character with an intimate relationship with excrement – Werner Schwab's First Ladies -- and made it into a savage and inescapable commentary on the dregs which constitute contemporary life. Nicole Wiesner’s performance as the obsessed plumber was first among equals, and deserved a much wider audience than it got. Kudos to her and to the entire company for deciding that doing the work they believe in is more important than the commercial success they could all surely have.

Meanwhile, Mickle Maher's There is a Happiness That Morning Is, which Theatre Oobleck did at the DCA Theatre, broke the fourth wall while making William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience into a surrogate for all conflicts between Apollo and Dionysius, between head and heart, between conformity and individuality. Performed as a pair of dueling lectures, with a few comments from the peanut gallery, the piece is Impossible to describe but was thrilling to observe. 

Best adaptations from other media: honors are shared here by Marilyn Campbell's The Beats at 16th Street Theatre, which makes the 1950s poets seem our contemporaries; Moby Dick at the Building Stage, in which everyone onstage takes a turn as Ahab, reminding the audience that anyone is capable of cruelty, obsession and insanity; The House Theatre’s version of Cyrano, which rescued the tale of love and chivalry from the musty cloth in which it’s been swaddled (not to say suffocated); and Spunk at Court Theatre, a delightful musical adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston short stories. And speaking of Court, did I mention its one-man adaptation of Homer?

Best plays with an Irish lilt (always a crowded category in Chicago): a tie between Shadow of a Gunman at Seanachai (directed by John Mossman) and A Touch of the Poet at the Artistic Home's new space at Stage 773 (directed by Mossman's wife, AH's Artistic Director Kathy Scambiatterra). Whether it’s O’Neill or O’Casey, you can count on a true feel of the Ould Sod from these two.

Best plays about escaping from reality: There were a lot of these this year–--and, looking at the world as it is, can you blame us?  Red Twist’s Man from Nebraska heads the list, with a production of the Tracy Letts play that outdid its world premiere at Steppenwolf.  Strawdog’s Conquest of the South Pole (the other play about unemployed miners) showed us a group of East Germans whose fantasies of liberation involve death on the ice. At Eclipse, playwright Naomi Wallace limned the constraints of poverty, isolation, and gender in The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, while the same company’s revival of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall demonstrated that even people married to Marilyn Monroe occasionally need a break.

I realize I've spoken about companies more often than directors, so permit me a shout-out to Kimberly Senior, Jonathan Berry, Andrew Jessop, Seret Scott, Matt Hawkins, Blake Montgomery, Ann Filmer, Zeljko Djukic, Amy Morton, Vaun Monroe, Barbara Gaines, Penny Metropulos, Jessica Redish and Rachel Rockwell. And may I happily note an equal number of men and women in this group of those responsible for the great work here described?

Happy New Year.