2011's funniest and best-dressed Chicago shows

December 21, 2011

Being funny and looking good aren’t mutually exclusive (see below), but they don’t always go together either. Just think of your high school boyfriend.

Most of these dance and theater shows were new—because to me, though original work can be downright awful, it can also pay off big-time. Seems like, once all the creative juices get flowing, they flow into every corner of the work. (And, as the Washington Post’s Peter Marks recently remarked, what stage artists are creating right now is “the true measure of a nation’s artistic vitality.”)

Two of these shows—candidates in both categories—are currently running: the Hypocrites’ remount of The Pirates of Penzance and the Neo-Futurists’ Burning Bluebeard. Actually, so is perennial favorite That’s Weird, Grandma.

2011’s Top 5 Funny Shows

Lucky Plush Productions’ dance/theater hybrid The Better Half poked unmerciful fun at its source, George Cukor’s 1944 film noir Gaslight, and at marriage, theater, and the movies. Collaborating with 500 Clown’s Leslie Danzig, Julia Rhoads managed to nail the bittersweet tragicomedy of wedded (or unwedded) “bliss.”

The Neo-Futurists’ Burning Bluebeard also inhabits the universe of high-spirited comic takes on tragic subjects. (And, though hardly dance-theater, it often conveys meaning and emotion through nonverbal means, including Mike Tutaj’s amazing sound design and the chair dance that playwright-performer-amateur choreographer Jay Torrence cobbled together.) 

Jumping from the sublime to the ridiculous: another irreverent take on a film, Musical of the Living Dead. The campy Halloween hit, which had its second season at Logan Square’s Charnel House last fall, deserved every shred of its word-of-mouth fame. (And, in a unique take on set design, part of the décor is blood-spattered audience members.)

Moving on to the only slightly less ridiculous: the Q Brothers’ rap-a-thon Funk It Up About Nothin’ at Chicago Shakes. The brothers themselves—Chicagoans JQ and GQ—compared it to Brecht crossed with The Simpsons. And they were right.

And finally there’s Barrel of Monkeys’ ongoing That’s Weird, Grandma, which for ten years has been doing good in multiple ways, including re-acquainting full-grown adults with the joys of spazzy childhood humor.

2011’s Top 5 Best-Dressed Productions

As every fashionista knows, style has nothing to do with budget. All these shows substituted intense creativity for cold hard cash. (And by “dressed,” of course, I mean the overall stage design.) 

A commercial loft’s old refrigerator room, painted and lit in blinding white, served as the whistle-clean hellish set for Theatre Y’s Vincent River. A door allowed the audience to peer in at the story’s two victims, Laura Jones in a festive poppy-red dress and Kevin V. Smith in nondescript coat and tie. But somehow they radiated the horror of the story—especially given the beads of sweat visible on Smith’s face, illuminated by the harsh beam of a slide projector. 

Trap Door’s fussy set for First Ladies was at the opposite end of the design spectrum. But set designer Ewelina Dobiesz’s Old World parlor—complete with floral wallpaper and framed pictures of the Virgin—created a vivid contrast with Werner Schwab’s highly inappropriate script.

The dance conglomerate of Jonathan Meyer and Julia Rae Antonick (aka Khecari, at least sometimes) has produced design magic three times over the last year alone, aided in particular by superb lighting. Whether it was the wild party of Antonick’s Commissura, set on the tenth floor of an old Loop building, the treasure hunt of Meyer’s Whence in a 15,000-square-foot Pilsen loft, or the fractured fairytale of Khecari's The Clinking in the stodgy old Hamlin Park fieldhouse—these folks know how to transform a space.

So does Rachel Bunting. Her eerie, magical Paper Shoes transfigured the Hamlin Park stage with shoes and toys painted white, Collin Bunting’s shredded white gowns, two tall stepladders (the base for an anomic “love” duet to the drippy yet stirring “Never My Love”), and horse heads—stuck backward on the dancers’ heads, thereby creating a threatening human/animal herd with oddly moving legs.

Like First Ladies, the Hypocrites’ Pirates of Penzance sets up a fruitful disjunct between script and stage design. Treating the Gilbert & Sullivan classic with the utmost disrespect, costumer Alison Siple outfits the cast in flippers, retro bathing suits, and sunglasses. Docks and kiddie pools add to the “seaside” ambience of this sun-drenched visual feast staged, remarkably, in a basement.