The best Chicago theater directors of 2011

December 20, 2011

Some theater folk hold that 90% of the work of a really good director is casting the show. Certainly, there are times when the quality of the talent on stage is such that a gifted director simply gets out of the way and makes him/herself invisible. But not always. Sometimes concept or interpretation make all the difference and then the director becomes the star of the show in the best sense, or at least a co-star. There were several strong examples in 2011.

At Next Theatre Company last winter, the time-tested director Kimberly Senior again demonstrated her skill with J. T. Rodgers’s Madagascar, a three-person monologue play about a missing person that offers audiences a conundrum inside a puzzle. Senior guided her actors knowingly through every inch of this poetic, rich and layered work of direct address to the audience, resulting in a spell-binding piece where one might have had mere drone.

Dexter Bullard, highly regarded as a director of physical theater, was at the top of his game with the February world premiere of The Big Meal at American Theater Company; a fast-paced and multi-scene comedy by Dan LeFranc that was both verbally and physically complex. All actors played multiple roles and ages in portraying four generations of a family (or was it five?) meeting across the holiday dinner table. Vastly entertaining and meaty as well, the play and the performances gained critical mass as the show progressed.

Director Jonathan Wilson long has been one of Chicago’s under-appreciated treasures, who combines nuanced understanding of text with a firm hand and—always—clear vision. Wilson’s merits were fully on display in Yellowman, produced in September by Greentree Productions. Dael Orlandersmith’s prize-winning drama has been seen in Chicago before, but never in such a funny, tender and terrifying production. A tale of love, discovery, racism and class conflict, the play is too long, but it didn’t matter this time.

September also brought us one of America’s top directors in top form as Robert Falls staged John Logan’s Red at the Goodman Theatre (of which Falls is the long-time artistic director). This witty two-man work about artist Mark Rothko and a fictional young assistant is surprisingly physical, and Falls made the physical business dazzling (although not unnecessarily so). However, his real contribution was an interpretation radically different from the New York/London original production; one which brought more meaning out of the text and, therefore, out of the characters.

Also in September, Seanachai Theatre tackled the great Sean O’Casey’s first important play, The Shadow of a Gunman. It’s a play of character and “crack” (Irish slang for talk and banter) rather than plot—which O’Casey telegraphs miles away—and Seanachai was fortunate to have John Mossman as director. Himself an actor and teacher (he and his wife run The Artistic Home), Mossman took the often-purple and poetic prose of O’Casey and turned it into intimate speech deeply rooted in the personality of each character, without ever losing the Irish charm or O’Casey’s passion.

Finally, I can’t let the year wind down without citing the astute comedic glory of what Ron OJ Parson and three superb actors are doing with Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe (running through next March 25). Parson’s high concept puts the audience—all 40 or so of them—inside the set, which is a complete four-walled room built within the already-tiny theater space. Within the confines of this space, the audience becomes one with the three distinct personalities of the characters, whom Parson and company bring to crystal-clear life.