The best Chicago theater directors of 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.
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.