I already honored Ron OJ Parson for his outstanding direction of Home at Court Theatre, by honoring every one the actors he directed in that superb production. That means I get five more bites of the apple!
1. Michael Menendian, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at Raven. I don’t understand it, actually—for some years, Raven was known as a middling producer of chestnuts. With the same company and leadership, in the last two years it’s come roaring out as a premier interpreter of classics. Menendian’s thoughtful and re-focused Cat … (not Maggie’s play, in this rendition, but Brick’s and Big Daddy’s) comes on the heels of his definitive “Death of a Salesman” last year, literally the best production of that play I have ever seen—and I saw Dustin Hoffman do it on Broadway. It’s a joy to see a journeyman turn into master craftsmen, and ours not to reason why.
2. Mark Ulrich, “Mary’s Wedding” at Rivendell. If instead of being “Chicago’s Premier Women’s Theatre” Rivendell were run by white men and did work focused on white men, it would long since have been acknowledged as a top-tier troupe, spoken of in the same breath with the Hypocrites and Timeline. Maybe having one man write and another direct this year’s superb show (following hard on the heels of last year’s unforgettable world premiere, “These Shining Lives,” about the women killed by their job painting radium-dial watch faces) will help overcome that reputational lag. In any case, Ulrich’s expert handling of this delicate play about war and remembrance included one of the toughest tricks to turn in the theater: presenting a surprise ending without making the audience feel deceived by everything that came before.
3. Jaime Castañeda, “Welcome to Arroyo’s” at American Theatre Company. From Dallas and now based in New York, Castaneda’s stop in Chicago should be remembered for taking a lively but overstuffed script by Kristoffer Diaz and turning it into a thrilling evening of mixed-media theater. I saw the show in the company of a class of high-school students who began the evening in the usual state of boredom, both real and assumed. Long before intermission they were completely enthralled, cheering on the characters and clearly identifying with their fates. That’s directorial magic.
4. Ira Amyx, “Shakespeare’s King Phycus” at the Strange Tree Group. Amyx came up from Set Designer/Tech Director (at a company whose tech is always noticeable, for better or for worse) to do a slam-bang perfect job with this nearly bare-staged parody of every Shakespeare play ever written using every comic device ever thought of. He kept his tiny cast in constant motion and his not-as-large-as-he-deserved audience in constant laughter. Look for more from him, and from the rest of the elaborately talented and deeply peculiar Strange Trees.
5. Dale Calandra for “Sweet Bird of Youth” at Artistic Home. This was the other half of this fall’s unplanned Tennessee Williams festival. Unlike Menendian, whose task was to take a play well-known for being perfect and do something knew, Calandra faced a relatively unknown and difficult script—the title metaphor nearly jumps off the page and bites you—and managed to make it feel contemporary even while keeping it in period; to share the focus between the two main characters without losing focus; and to engage the audience with the philosophical and spiritual considerations of aging without losing the visceral pleasures of one of Williams’ sexier scripts.