Ten most wanted
We pick the year's best plays.
The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity
Victory Gardens Theater and Teatro Vista
Breathless and brainy, this raucous, candy-colored new play gave us insightful commentary on race, identity and pro wrestling. Chad Deity made instant stars of playwright Kristoffer Diaz and lead Desmin Borges while reaffirming Eddie Torres’s status as one of the savviest directors around. And when was the last time we could say we had a blast at the usually staid Victory Gardens?
An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening
A decade ago, the initial run of this diabolically clever monologue established the singular genius of playwright Mickle Maher, insouciantly infecting the Western canon with his dark brand of whimsy. This time around, Colm O’Reilly’s indelible performance as the soul-selling scholar, whispering and ranting his way through Maher’s hauntingly absurd and slippery language, made the chilly Chopin basement space the Chicago fringe’s epicenter. When David Shapiro’s silent Mephistopheles turned off the lights at play’s end, he left audiences as speechless as his character.
Strawdog Theatre Company
The funniest play about the Black Plague we saw this year, Matt Hawkins’s revival updated Peter Barnes’s allegory (first staged in 1985) about clowns battling the medieval church. Hawkins’s kinetic staging cannily incorporated ’80s pop music (artfully arranged by Mike Przygoda), and designers Nic Dimond and Aly Renée Greaves made the space a plainclothes playground for the large cast. And what a cast: The 18-member ensemble pulled together some of our favorite storefront stalwarts and let them ping off one another like pinballs.
The success of this revival of the 1928 Marx Brothers vehicle was no foregone conclusion. While some fretted in advance over Molly Brennan’s gender-bending Harpo, we were more uncertain that the light-comedy format would hold up fourscore years later. But Brennan’s wicked clowning, Joey Slotnick’s deft ad-libbing and Jonathan Brody’s hammer-fingered piano stylings all captured the anarchic trio’s spirit brilliantly, supported by Ora Jones’s elegant Margaret Dumont act and Doug Peck’s fine onstage band. Henry Wishcamper’s lavish, imaginative staging rendered even the perfunctory romantic plots a delight.
The Mystery of Irma Vep
This year, tireless Hypocrites artistic director Sean Graney won some (Oedipus) and lost some (Frankenstein), but his finest moment was helming this revival of Charles Ludlam’s 1984 campy parody of the gothic novel. Switching fluidly among a plethora of roles, reedy Erik Hellman and monumental Chris Sullivan exhibited impeccable teamwork. Their final exit through the production’s costume rack underscored Irma Vep’s theatrical magic.
The Ruby Sunrise
The Gift Theatre
NYC-based playwright Rinne Groff’s 2005 multilayered fantasia on the early days of television boasts an intricately deceptive structure and a compelling, if old-fashioned, tale of taking on big business—like Clifford Odets with an ontology jones. The play’s Chicago debut gave the Gift, always solid but not always inspired, a chance to shine; a smart ensemble headed by Michael Patrick Thornton and Brenda Barrie demonstrated the emotional depth of Groff’s cerebral scenario.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
After 12 outings directing August Wilson’s work, Ron OJ Parson might just be the playwright’s premier interpreter. This pitch-perfect production of Wilson’s 1984 barn burner, in which a Chicago blues recording session goes badly wrong, certainly helped his case. Alfred H. Wilson, A.C. Smith and Cedric Young bickered as though they’d been stuck on the road together for years, while James T. Alfred lent trumpeter Levee a majestic hurt power.
The Man Who Was Thursday
New Leaf Theatre
New Leaf’s new adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s 1908 satire about a man who finds himself tapped by Scotland Yard to infiltrate a council of anarchists was blessed by playwright Bilal Dardai’s deft touch and the shrewd, apparently endless inventiveness of director Jessica Hutchinson and the company’s resident designers. New Leaf has often found innovative ways of looking at its unique space; here the troupe did it several times in the same night. Add an ensemble equally adroit with the urbane and the farcical, and this theater experience is one we’d like to revisit every day of the week.
About Face Theatre
In one of Bonnie Metzgar’s first big, bold moves at About Face’s helm, she and co-director Megan Carney lovingly ripped apart John C. Russell’s 1991 caricature of teen angst, splicing Russell’s stylized study of closeted gay teens negotiating the John Hughes era (played by professional actors) with observations by a Greek chorus of modern-day queer kids from About Face’s youth program. Stupid Kids 2.0 climaxed in a dizzy dance-off between the two groups that encapsulated the fusion’s fizzy fun.
The History Boys
It wasn’t TimeLine’s only triumph this year—Kimberly Senior’s searing revival of All My Sons would follow—but the astounding success of Alan Bennett’s 2004 English-schoolroom drama in Nick Bowling’s Chicago premiere was a phenomenon like no other. The intimate production in TimeLine’s transformed space (scenic designer Brian Sidney Bembridge squeezed an entire boarding school into a single room) made an indelible impression, not least for its eight outstanding young male actors, all practically unknown. We don’t think that’s a problem any of them will have from here on out.