In addition to my top five shows from Chicago’s 2010-11 theater season, the following shows all had a lot to recommend them. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the writers, performers, directors and designers who created these programs. In no particular order:
Exiles, Theater Y
James Joyce’s only play predates the wild experimentation of Ulysses, but gets a hyper-stylized treatment in Theatre Y’s inventive, intense production. The story concerns a brooding writer who jerks around his devoted common-law wife. By halfway encouraging her to return the romantic advances of his own childhood buddy, he sets up a manipulative, tragically un-passable test of her loyalty. Director Kevin Smith spotlights the play’s oppressive sexual politics: The female characters are done up like drag queens, their suppressed emotions bursting out in spasms, shouting fits, and–at the end of each act–explosive lip-sync numbers. Joyce’s script has some plodding passages, but the ensemble’s commitment, vision, and precision fire up many startling, haunting moments.
The Last Act of Lilka Kadison, Lookingglass Theatre
Cranky 87-year-old Lilka bickers with her home health aide while the ghost of her first lover demands that she acknowledge his significance in her life. When she was 17, he drew Lilka out as an artist, knocked her up, and helped her escape the Holocaust–all in less than a week. Literally written by committee, this new script deploys some formulaic tropes. But the results are funny, poignant, and romantic, thanks largely to a stellar cast, designer Tracy Otwell’s charming toy-theater sequences, and the wonder cabinet of a set crafted by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod. As the health aide, Usman Ally uses his characteristic intelligence, intensity, and wit to provide crucial leavening.
The Chicago Landmark Project, Theatre Seven
This ambitious project comprises a dozen brief plays, each of which explores a different Chicago location with a different author, director, and cast. There’s a lot of heart and–except for two duds–a lot of skill all around, and the two shortish programs offer an efficient chance to sample the work of a large, diverse crew of local artists. Most of the plays aren’t fully baked; some are emotionally thin, some transparently didactic. But their brevity, energy, and variety work in their favor. The standout is a devised piece about Oz Park by the all-female A Red Orchid Youth Ensemble, who sell their work with delightful precision, confidence, and wit. Runners up include a harsh and tender scene by Robert Koon, set on Navy Pier, in which a father and daughter hash out their issues as she prepares to leave for college, and Aaron Carter’s sharp, funny, magic-realist fable about race and romance, set in the long-defunct Riverview amusement park.
Agnes of God, Hubris Productions
After a dead baby turns up in a convent, a court-appointed shrink (Barbara Roeder Harris) tries to determine whether the mother, Agnes–a childlike, definitely weird young novice–did the killing . . . and whether she’s nuts. Agnes claims to remember nothing about the baby’s conception, birth, or death. Mother Superior (Lorraine Freund) hopes she’s a holy mystic–and maybe a virgin–and spends much of John Pielmeier’s 1982 play in ponderous debate with the shrink, a bitter ex-Catholic. Harris and Freund get bogged down in speechifying at times, but Sara Pavlak’s Agnes burns with love, terror, and finally rage, lighting up this Hubris Productions show.
Verse Chorus Verse, Tympanic Theatre
Did an envious Seattle rocker murder Kurt Cobain? And was the crime witnessed–perhaps even abetted–by the young woman whose real-life kidnapping, rape, and torture Cobain wrote about in the song “Polly”? These questions provide the MacGuffin on which Chicago playwright Randall Colburn hangs his smart, creepy, affecting script. Scenes from Polly’s ordeal punctuate a story set decades later, when a callow young musician draws her into a campaign to investigate Cobain’s death. Directed by Kyra Lewandowski, Tympanic Theatre’s stripped-down, intense production features sharp, nuanced performances throughout. Victoria Gilbert is riveting as Polly, Jon Penick endlessly likable as her friend, and Neal Starbird eerily sweet as her tormentor.
The Copperhead, City Lit
City Lit dusts off this long-forgotten melodrama–it made Lionel Barrymore a star in 1918–and shines it up brilliantly. An Illinois farmer, Milt Shanks, serves the Union cause as a double agent during the Civil War. But his family and neighbors think he’s a traitor, and he lives as a pariah for 40 years before unburdening himself. With director Kathy Scambiatterra avoiding the temptation to camp up the many unsubtle elements in Augustus Thomas’s script, her capable actors invest unstintingly. It works. Confrontations between Shanks and his wife are searing, a proper young couple’s first kiss is notably hot, and Mark Pracht’s climactic monologue as Shanks is spellbinding.
Fa La La La… Fuck It, Annoyance
This tale of a dysfunctional family’s nightmarish Christmas is genuinely unsettling. Dad–a mountainous, grunting, embittered drunk–is onstage the least, but his weary belligerence sets the tone. Mom only stops her pathetic, ineffectual attempts at sugar-coating when she pours her grief out in soliloquy. Having adopted opposing coping strategies, the two teenage kids tear at each other: the boy, his face covered in zits, affects childish enthusiasm, trying to buttress mom’s Martha Stewart fantasies; the girl, her face a riot of piercings, does her sullen best to withdraw, but her unplanned pregnancy blocks the way. The raging, intimate dread recalls Eugene O’Neill, Jennifer Estlin is devastating as mom, and the laughter of drunk audience members only makes the play more disturbing.