This year I saw 77 shows. While not a staggering amount (considering I’ve colleagues and friends who’ve tripled that, not to mention I saw 104 shows in 2011), I feel overall this year surpassed others in terms of consistent quality and daring theatricality.
So: Here are my top ten, in a very particular order:
10) Camino Real: Let’s start things off with an immensely unpopular choice. Calixto Bieito and Marc Rosich’s daringly (and sometimes literally) in-your-face adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ rarely produced work thrilled me with its unwavering commitment to a disorienting, nightmarish tone. While scads of audience members may have walked out, I remained riveted. The Barcelona-based Bieito, who also directed the piece, filled the stage with American excess and corruption. And any chance to see respected Chicago actress Barbara Robertson belt out an emo rock tune in burned out hooker drag sounds like a good time to me.
9) Angels in America: While I had some significant reservations with Court Theatre’s epic, seven-hour production (which I saw in one day), one can’t ignore the brilliance of Tony Kushner’s writing matched by a fantastic ensemble cast led by Rob Lindley’s brave, bitchy and heartbreaking turn as Prior Walter, a gay man battling AIDS whose vivid and prophetic fever dreams provide entrée into this “gay fantasia on national themes.”
8) Immediate Family: In this riveting dramedy by Paul Oakley Stovall, the Bryant family is suddenly forced to unpack some deeply closeted emotions, resulting in hair pulling, a broken wine glass, and more than a few well placed laughs. A fine ensemble cast under director Phylicia Rashād smartly veered away from the potential sitcom-ness that could have easily derailed the thing, and instead filled it in with truth, making this one of the most observant and smart family-centric plays I’ve seen in some time.
7) Superior Donuts: Every so often you encounter the perfect pairing of actor and role. Mary-Arrchie founding member and Artistic Director Richard Cotovsky has found one of those roles. From his shoulder-slumped shuffle to his cautious and weary gaze, Cotovsky fully embodies Arthur, an inert Uptown donut shop owner who’s the center of Tracy Lett’s 2008 play, Superior Donuts, which Mary-Arrchie revived this year to great acclaim leading to an extended run and transfer to Royal George Theatre, where it’s playing through Dec. 31.
6) The Light in the Piazza: Theo Ubique, a small-yet-mighty storefront musical theatre company in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, outdid itself with this surprisingly grand and glorious production of this heartbreaking musical masterpiece. But the real landmark for this production was Kelli Harrington’s Jeff Award-winning turn as Margaret Johnson, a fiercely protective mother who’ll do anything to see that her daughter finds true love and happiness, even if it means making great sacrifice.
5) A Little Night Music: This sweeping, sophisticated and sexy production, directed by William Brown, beautifully captured the essence of this breathtaking show. The pairing of Shannon Cochran, who struck the perfect balance of drama, deviousness and self-depreciation as perpetually touring actress Desiree Armfeldt, and Tony winner Deanna Dunagan, who returned to the Chicago stage as a willowy and wry Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s mother, proved nothing short of brilliant.
4) Eastland: It’s a very rare thing when a beautiful, complex and emotionally stirring new musical comes along. Usually, such things hit one or two of the marks well. But with Eastland, which used a widely overlooked tragedy involving the capsizing of the SS Eastland in the Chicago River as a jumping off point (no pun intended), writers Andrew White (book), Andre Pluess (music) and Ben Sussman (lyrics) made a landmark debut in a soul-shattering production at Lookingglass Theatre that finally gave a voice to these unsung everyday heroes.
3) Hit the Wall: A powerful new play about the Stonewall Uprising produced by the relatively newbie theater company The Inconvenience, was one of those shows everyone in Chicago was talking about. Written by Inconvenience company member Ike Holter and directed by Eric Hoff, the play premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre’s Garage Rep Series in February and started gaining buzz following its stellar reviews. Then, the likes of Rosie O’Donnell and Mayor Rahm Emanuel showed up in the 100 seat space to see it. And then the production got extended — twice. So, I feel so lucky to have finally caught this amazing show and its equally excellent ensemble.
2) Good People: As Margie, a single, middle-aged mother of an adult mentally handicapped daughter, Mariann Mayberry brought heart and working class ferocity to this powerful play by David Lindsay-Abair. Steppenwolf’s production provided a sobering examination of class in America and the power one actually has in pulling themselves up by their bootstraps in a society where the cards already seem firmly stacked against you.
1) Sunday in the Park with George: There’s something magical about the combination of Sondheim, Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Gary Griffin. Last year, ChiShakes’ Griffin-directed production of Follies was my no. 1 pick. And this year, Sunday in the Park with George takes the top spot. While maybe not as electrifying as Follies, this spot-on production made me fall in love with the show again — a show that deftly explores the pain, joy and deep sacrifice that goes into creating something new, innovative, and true to one’s self. It also doesn’t hurt that stars Jason Danieley and Carmen Cusack filled the show with their glorious voices and commitment to character.