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Memorable shows burnish Chicago's theater reputation

Chicago Sun-Times
January 1, 2010
BY MARY HOULIHAN

There were many memorable moments on Chicago stages in 2009. From major houses to storefronts, our directors, designers and actors once again lived up to Chicago's reputation as the best all-around theater city in the country.

But the thrill of theater was not just on stage this year. It also was in a movie that so captured the essence of theater that it begs a mention.

In "Me and Orson Welles," director Richard Linklater brings to life the world of the Mercury Theatre and Welles' great 1937 production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."

Linklater has created possibly the best movie ever about the theater, capturing all the backstage antics, Welles' oversize persona and riveting scenes restaged from the infamous director's ahead-of-its-time staging of the classic drama.

I left the movie theater wishing I had been around to see that groundbreaking show.

Here is a list of some of the memorable shows in 2009 that left an impression, led off by an equally riveting staging of another of the Bard's works.

"The Tempest" at Steppenwolf Theatre

It took Steppenwolf more than three decades to tackle Shakespeare, and the company made sure this magical work fell into the right hands. It was a breathtaking, hypnotic adventure thanks to director Tina Landau, set designer Takeshi Kata and a fine cast led by Frank Galati as Prospero. Eight months later, scenes, images and performances keep dancing in my head.

"Mariette in Ecstasy" at Lifeline Theatre

The draw here was a favorite novel brought to life by a company that has mastered the process. Christina Calvit's adaptation of Ron Hansen's jewel of a novel, about a cloistered Roman Catholic convent and the young postulant (a stunning performance by Brenda Barrie) who disrupts life there, was poetic and eloquent.

"Goldbrick" by Walkabout Theater and Collaboraction; "All the Fame of Lofty Deeds" by the House Theatre of Chicago

Several years ago, Chicago's country-rock stalwart Jon Langford told his own story in music with the theater piece "The Executioner's Last Songs." This year, two local companies used his music in two memorable shows. In the collage-like "Goldbrick," Loren Lee Crawford and Stephan Mazurek looked at the darker, heavily romanticized side of immigration. And Mark Guarino hit on a gold mine of ideas in "All the Fame of Lofty Deeds," which cleverly used Langford's music and art to weave the story of a washed up honky-tonk singer.

"The Lieutenant of Inishmore" at Northlight Theatre

The work of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh always contains a certain shock factor, and this on-the-edge tale was no exception. Shocking and often hilarious, this story of unfortunate Irish men and women takes audiences on a bloody, heartstopping ride that is literally never forgotten.

"Walworth Farce" by Druid Theatre at Chicago Shakespeare Theater; "Mistakes Were Made" at A Red Orchid Theatre

Two plays featuring crazed, nearly over-the-edge performances. Three actors from Ireland's Druid Theatre performed the mad multi-character romp "The Walworth Farce," with a heartbreaking zeal. Academy Award nominee Michael Shannan returned to his Red Orchid home with a stunning one-man tour de force, about a manic theater producer trying to put together the deal of a lifetime.

"Our Lady of the Underpass" by Teatro Luna; "The House on Mango Street" at Steppenwolf for Young Audiences

Teatro Luna co-founder Tanya Saracho scored big this year with two riveting shows, one original, one adaptation, that speak to her heritage. In one about an urban myth (the Madonna at the Fullerton underpass) and one about an urban street (in the Humboldt Park neighborhood), she's proving to be a writer tied directly to the heart and soul of Chicago.

"Hunchback" at Rockefeller Chapel by Redmoon Theater

A staple in the Redmoon repertoire, the adaptation of the classic tale finally found its true home. Staged in the moody, dimly lit environs of the towering Rockefeller Chapel, the story of Quasimodo and Esmeralda came to brilliant life. A transporting experience that's hard to match.

"A Rogue's Gallery" at Royal George Theatre

Ricky Jay's new show was a true revelation. The sleight-of-hand and magic tricks proved dazzling, but Jay's storytelling skills were equally as dazzling as he introduced fans to the riveting stories and quirky characters that have colored his fascinating career.

"High Fidelity" by Route 66 Theatre; "Yeast Nation" at American Theater Company

"High Fidelity," the musical based on Nick Hornby's popular novel, lasted for only 14 performances on Broadway. But the show found its proper scale in Peter Amster's high-energy yet intimate staging. "Urinetown" creators Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann took a nearly impossible subject -- a colony of salt-eating yeast in the primordial soup -- and created a fun, rollicking musical full of their trademark humor and attention to modern-day issues.

"Pumpgirl" at A Red Orchid Theatre

Irish playwright Abbie Spallen's sizzling drama featured Grace Rex, Larry Grimm and Kirsten Fitzgerald, who perfectly captured the downward spiral of three lost, hopeless souls. Brutal, grim and devastating.

 

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