I’ve been reviewing theater for the Chicago Reader since last summer, and this seems like as good a time as any to look back on some favorites. Keep in mind, I’ve only seen a small fraction of what’s out there– the Reader’s got a small army of us– so there’s a lot of good stuff that I’ve missed.
In no particular order, here are the five that I’m most psyched to have seen– the ones I walked out of, thinking, “Damn! That was unusually awesome. I’m sure glad I’m alive.”
Arnie the Doughnut, Lifeline Theater
On the morning he’s born, chocolate-covered Arnie gamely resolves to find his life’s purpose. Discovering the shocking truth when his owner attempts to take a bite, Arnie makes his objections heard. Frances Limoncelli’s adaptation retains the absurdist zing of the 2003 children’s book by Laurie Keller while freely adding complementary ingredients, including zippy songs by George Howe and a Kafkaesque subplot involving a totalitarian condo-board president. Brandon Paul Eells brings not only sweetness but wit to the title role–this doughnut is a naive goofball, but nobody’s fool–and makes Arnie’s terror and disillusionment truly affecting. The entire cast provide spirit, charm, and jazzy harmonies under Elise Kauzlaric’s capable direction. The show is a delight–delicious and substantial, even without a kid tagging along.
Watership Down, Lifeline Theater
Lifeline Theatre’s brilliant production captures the epic sprawl and driving suspense of its source–the 1972 novel by Richard Adams in which a band of rabbits, their warren destroyed, go on a perilous search for a new home. In fact, Lifeline tops Adams’s signature feat of delivering well-defined, often affecting characters who are–you know–rabbits. Where Adams had the luxury of relying on the reader’s imagination, Kate McLean Hainsworth’s ace cast have to sustain the conceit for two hours using body language. And they succeed with wit and style. Each cocked head and thumping leg makes a specific, emotionally-resonant contribution to the narrative. John Hildreth’s script navigates the story’s many turns clearly and economically, while Hainsworth’s direction keeps the wheels turning in a satisfying, vigorous rhythm.
The Nutcracker, House Theater
In this House Theatre of Chicago version of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s classic holiday story, the nutcracker Uncle Drosselmeyer gives young Clara is a likeness of her older brother, who died in war a year before, plunging the family into mourning. The wooden soldier comes to life at midnight, leading Clara and her dolls in a crusade to help the household recover from its loss by reclaiming Christmas. Giant rats, of course, resist. Witty, energetic and charming–with crackerjack stagecraft, some excellent songs, and a comic vision that borrows skillfully from the Toy Story movies–the show draws special power from its stark confrontation with grief. It was first staged in 2007, and I hope the House folks keep bringing it back so that my one-year-old son can see it someday.
Menorca, 16th Street Playhouse
Ollie, the archaeologist heroine of Robert Koon’s new play, has been a foreigner most of her life– a Basque in Barcelona, a Spaniard in England, a European in America– and yearns for “a place to settle.” Kirsten D’Aurelio’s warmth and intelligence in the role are captivating, and director Ann Filmer’s sure hand keeps this pensive, densely-layered story moving swiftly and gracefully between the Spanish island of Menorca, where Ollie investigates a newly-discovered set of human remains, and California’s southern desert, where she spends a cold, illuminating night on patrol with a border guard. Juan Gabriel Ruiz is a perfect foil as the guard– earthy, smart, and completely unfazed by Ollie’s haunted, ambivalent manner.
Contribution, ETA Creative Arts
The kindly old granny of a civil rights activist secretly does her bit for the cause–and one-ups the kid–by poisoning the local sheriff. This Nixon-era one-act by Ted Shine remains fresh, potent, and funny, with Felicia McNeal serving up a strong, well-balanced cocktail of clowning and steel as the granny. I’d never heard of Shine’s work before getting this assignment and was completely blown away. “Contribution” was paired with another Shine one-act called “Herbert III, which had both charms and weaknesses. This was my first review for the Reader, and I struggled over whether to recommend the program; it wasn’t a full evening of awesome, but “Contribution” was an outstanding recovery of a forgotten gem. I found myself talking about it for weeks.