If they can make it here ...
New York exports not only shows that shine on Chicago theater scene
Yes, 2009 was the year when, for better or worse, many Chicago-bred shows (“Superior Donuts,” “A Steady Rain,” “The Lady With All the Answers”) received the “Manhattan transfer” treatment.
But the real news was not what happened in New York; it was the large crop of exciting shows that opened here — many of which enjoyed extended runs despite the economic turmoil.
Several strong new works, as well as some first-rate revivals of classic dramas and Broadway musicals, all were part of the mix. Here’s a quick look backward to some of the best (in no particular order):
“The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity” by Kristoffer Diaz (at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater): Wrestling served as a galvanic metaphor in this multiethnic, verbally brilliant, politically rambunctious play that was a bravura showcase for actor Desmin Borges. A surefire hit, the plans for a New York transfer already are afoot.
• Also at Victory Gardens, which was on a roll this season, was Michael Golamco’s “Year Zero,” a funny, touching, winningly played drama about Cambodian Americans in California. It inaugurated the theater’s studio space.
“The History Boys” by Alan Bennett (TimeLine Theatre): This monster hit, which had a six-month sold-out run, was perfection — from its young, exceptionally deft ensemble under director Nick Bowling, to its environmental set by Brian Sidney Bembridge. A tale of British lads prepping for university exams, it earned top grades.
• Also from TimeLine: A scorching revival of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.”
The Eugene O’Neill in the 21st Century Festival (Goodman Theatre): Of all the entries in this enormous, often revelatory, multinational project (including Robert Falls’ massive “Desire Under the Elms”), it was Brazil’s Companhia Triptal, with its environmental staging of three sea plays, and the Dutch company Toneelgroep Amsterdam, with its sexually charged take on “Mourning Becomes Electra,” that proved most electric.
• Also at the Goodman was Jose Rivera’s “Boleros for the Disenchanted,” a gorgeously rendered portrait of the long marriage between a Puerto Rican couple who spent most of their lives in the United States.
“Fake” by Eric Simonson (Steppenwolf Theatre): With its split time frames and neatly mirrored set of characters, this examination of the real and the fake (whether in science or in love) was smart, emotionally deep and superbly acted.
• Also at Steppenwolf, a most modern, imaginative, and visually and aurally ingenious version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” directed by Tina Landau.
“Beethoven as I Knew Him”
(at the Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place): Hershey Felder, equally talented as an actor, writer and pianist, can’t be categorized easily, and this causes him problems. But no one can deny that he holds his audiences in a state of rapt attention. The man makes you listen to every word and every note.
“Mistakes Were Made” by Craig Wright (A Red Orchid Theatre): It was all but impossible to separate the manic brilliance of the play (about an insane theater producer who comes closer and closer to selling his soul), from its performer (Michael Shannon, in a mind-boggling and hilarious tour de force). But why even try?
“The Overwhelming” by J.T. Rogers (Next Theatre): Director Kimberly Senior and her cast gave this searing play about the lead-up to the Rwanda genocide a wholly nerve-jangling rendering.
• Also at Next was Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “End Days,” an alternately hilarious and disturbing look at fear and faith in the first decade of the 21st century.
“Old Times” by Harold Pinter (Remy Bumppo Theatre): A pitch-perfect revival of this play about a married couple and a woman from their past was more perfectly choreographed than a ballet and superbly “danced” by the actors.
“Lucinda’s Bed” by Mia McCullough (Chicago Dramatists): Actress Elizabeth Laidlaw morphed from preteen to late middle-age woman in this richly insightful look at a battered heart.
“Graceland” by Ellen Fairey (Profiles Theatre): A new play marked by its memorably offbeat look at love, loss and maturity interrupted.
“The Little Foxes” (Shattered Globe Theatre): A searing revival of Lillian Hellman’s classic, ideally tuned to our recession mentality.
The world premiere of “The Minister’s Wife” (at Writers’ Theatre), which is clearly headed to New York; the amazing cabaret theater revival of “Evita” (at Theo Ubique); the blistering national touring revival of “Rent,” which reunited its two original stars; the immensely moving, beautifully crafted tour of “In the Heights,” the hit Broadway musical unique for its humanity; the bristling version of “Cabaret” at Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace Theatre; Circle Theatre’s sharp storefront revival of “Tommy, The Musical,” and Chicago Children’s Theatre’s disarming “The 100 Dresses.”