The best of Chicago theater in 2011

| December 31, 2011

December’s end brings frantic resolutions, plans for heavy drinking and of course, a barrage of best/worst lists. Being the largest theater review site west of Broadway, Chicago Theater Beat covered over 600 shows in 2011, and the difficulty of choosing the top 25 speaks to the city’s vibrant cultural landscape. In alphabetical order, here are our choices for the year’s best:

Sadieh Rifai - American Theater Company - The Amish Project Mierka Girten, Susan Monts-Bologna - Becky Shaw, Red Orchid Theatre Mortensen, Leahy - The Big Meal, American Theater Company CST_BlackWatch_1 - Copy Jay Torrence, Dean Evans, Leah Urzendowski, Ryan Walters, Molly Plunk
Theatre Mir - Caucasian Chalk Circle - Production 1 Jennifer Lim and James Waterston - Chinglish Goodman Theatre Karen-Aldridge-Cliff-Chamberlain-Ste[3] East of Berlin, Russian Play - Signal Ensemble en-route---Chicago-Shakespeare-One-S[2]
Faust - TheMASSIVE - Chicago Festen_Lev_911 Chicago Shakespeare Theater's "Follies" About Face Theatre's "The Homosexuals" Timothy-Edward-Kane---Court-Theatre-[3]
CCTJackieMe_10 Frank, Fiffer, Bone Harry Groener, Ora Jones, by Peter Bosy Steve-Casillas-Jessie-David-Marvin-Q Andrea Prestinario and Nathan M. Hosner - My Fair Lady Paramount Theatre
Outgoing Tide - Northlight Theatre 011 004_Passing Strange by Bailiwick Chicago Plumpp-and-cast---H1 The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard - Writers Theatre 015 stef-tovar-and-projections-by-john-b[1]


                     See entire list


              Top Chicago Plays of 2011

                                     (in alphabetical order)


Sadieh Rifai - V


The Amish Project

American Theater Company 

Jessica Dickey’s powerful play recounted a true story – the October 2006 massacre of ten Amish girls in their classroom, and the community’s subsequent forgiveness of the assailant – with gravity and wit, brought to light by PJ Paparelli’s respectful direction. But the real star was the show’s single cast member. Portraying everyone from a pregnant teenager to the gunman himself, Sadieh Rifai illuminated each nuance until her one voice conjured a cast of thousands.  read more


Mierka Girten, Susan Monts-Bologna - Becky Shaw, Red Orchid Theatre


Becky Shaw

A Red Orchid Theatre 

Dark comedy is difficult to execute, but A Red Orchid Theatre pulled off the near impossible – dark romantic comedy – with razor-sharp flourish. Gina Gionfriddo’s biting dialogue conjured Neil LaBute as it presented what happens when a blind date goes horribly, horribly wrong. Damon Kiely helmed a stunning cast of well-meaning yet dysfunctional characters, including Mierka Girten as the title character, a big-eyed, destructive pixie who could beguile and shame in a single sentence.  read more


Mortensen, Leahy - V


The Big Meal

American Theater Company 

One chance encounter between a weary waitress and her customer led to 50 years of courting, bickering and multi-generational drama, all around the dinner table. ATC’s production of Dan LeFrancs dramedy was appropriately meaty, leaving the audience sated yet craving seconds. Using eight actors in multiple roles, director Dexter Bullard condensed decades to minutes without sacrificing flavor.   read more


CST_BlackWatch_2 - Copy


Black Watch

National Theatre of Scotland 

Music, multimedia and modern dance took the place of conventional plot structure in Gregory Burke’s intense exploration of a never-ending war. Though the six soldiers of Black Watch, Scotland’s senior infantry regiment, were interviewed in a bar, the play takes them on an emotionally forceful ride through the Iraq they left behind. Petty infighting, soul-killing boredom and intense homesickness battled alongside moments of bloody combat as the National Theatre of Scotland’s brilliant production spotlighted the unity only found in war buddies.  read more


Jay Torrence, Dean Evans, Leah Urzendowski, Ryan Walters, Molly Plunk


Burning Bluebeard


With the disturbingly creative production values that are their signature, Chicago’s most consistently innovative theatre company conquered a tragic piece of city history. Utilizing garbage bags, pop music of the 80’s and 90’s and a parallel to the most unconventional of Christmas plays, Jay Torrence’s gut-wrenching play chronicled the 1903 Iroquois Theater fire that left 600 dead. A sextet of able performers engaged the audience from hopeful beginning to disastrous end, and Maggie Fullilove-Nugent’s genius lighting was an active, vibrant character.  read more


Mira Vasiljevic in Theatre Mir's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," by Bertolt Brecht. (photo credit: Adam Orton)


The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Theatre Mir 

What happens when a government collapses, leaving a population to decide its fate? As Jonathan Berry’s sound direction of Bertolt Brecht’s challenging classic proves, the results can be ambiguously negative but captivating to watch. Though Berry’s bright cast interpreted Alastair Beaton’s contemporary translation with ease, the production’s greatest strengths lay in its fortuitous production elements: Chance Bone’s folk rock score, Chelsea Warren’s found-material set and Melanie Berner’s stylistically symbolic costumes. read more


Jennifer Lim and James Waterston Goodman Theatre's "Chinglish," by David Henry Hwang.



Goodman Theatre 

Miscommunication, culture shock and adultery are puzzling in more ways than one when not everyone speaks the same language. Led by James Waterston and Jennifer Lim, Chinglish’s stellar cast deftly illustrated the cautionary tale of an American salesman and an ambitious Chinese government employee with their eyes on a very distinct prize. In the span of just two hours, Goodman’s fast-paced world premiere of David Henry Hwang’s new classic was both challenging and playful. The opposite of lost-in-translation, Chinglish was a delightful and charming find.  read more


Karen-Aldridge-Cliff-Chamberlain-Michael Brosilow


Clybourne Park

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

What makes a home, a neighborhood, a culture? These questions were raised, analyzed and deeply felt, by characters and audiences alike, in director Amy Morton’s brilliant interpretation of Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize-winner. Each act spanned one day in the same house, but in a separate decade in a rapidly changing area of Chicago, requiring the phenomenally intelligent cast to each play multiple roles. Opening with an innocuous remark about Neapolitan ice cream, Clybourne Park quickly escalated to a sharp, scathing exploration of race relations, leaving theatregoers’ mouths speechless and their minds racing. read more


East of Berlin, Russian Play - Signal Ensemble


East of Berlin

Signal Ensemble Theatre  

Anything involving the Holocaust can be a lazy ticket to gravity, but Hannah Moscovitch’s soulful play didn’t take the easy way out. Beautifully blocked by Ronan Marra and carefully executed by a skillful cast, the story of a young German émigré who learns his father’s devastating secret contained moments of genuine emotional devastation, sexual discovery and filial revenge. Signal Ensemble’s Chicago premiere was a one-act so compelling and rich, the play could have proceeded all night to the audience’s delight.  read more




en route

One Step At A Time (i/a/w Chicago Shakespeare)

No seats. No programs. Just a cryptic text message, a series of verbal and visual clues and Chicago as you’d never seen it before. Combining performance art with self-discovery, the Australian troupe One Step at a Time teamed up with Chicago Shakespeare Theater to create a grown-up treasure hunt where the rewards were far beyond physical. Armed with an iPod full of city-friendly tunes and poetic musings on each locale, each participant became fully immersed in a unique encounter with an urban fairyland. Those who experienced en route were reluctant to describe exactly what they did (so as not to ruin the surprises), but overflowed with how it made them feel. read more


Sarah Keating Oates and Nebi Berhane in TheMassive's "Faust," directed and choreographed by Kyle Vincent Terry. (photo credit: Josh Reichlin)




Premier emerging dance company TheMASSIVE relied on the exquisite bodies of its performers to convey the dark consequences of a deal with the devil. Enacted in varied incarnations, their Faust was the gift that kept on giving. Director/choreographer Kyle Vincent Terry’s movements combined precise steps with organic carnality, accompanied by a terrific score and exciting multimedia. Hell never looked so good.  read more


A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen," by David Eldridge. (photo credit: lev Kalmens)



Steep Theatre 

A riff on Hamlet set at a high-stakes dinner party? No problem. Steep Theatre dove headfirst into the Midwest premiere of the London hit, fiercely attacking family fracas, marital infidelity and suicidal tendencies with breathtaking precision. A drawing room murder mystery without the murder, David Eldridge’s dramatization of the first Dogme 95 film was brought to raging life by a stellar ensemble and supplemented by Sarah Hugheys shadowy, symbolic lighting design. Jonathan Berry’s direction deftly incorporated simultaneous complex interactions, proving no battles are more captivating – and potentially destructive – than those within. read more




Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Chicago Shakespeare Theater attracts the crème de la crème of performers and technicians, and its flawless revival of Stephen Sondheim’s lost classic brought it’s A game to the final haunting note. Even Sondheim naysayers were loath to find fault with the musical showgirl reunion on the eve of a Broadway playhouse’s destruction. Enhanced by Virgil C. Johnson’s glorious costumes and Alex Sanchez’s pristine choreography, Follies’ stunning production numbers ran the gamut from old-fashioned entertainment (Marilynn Bogetich’s “Broadway Baby”), a vaudeville-style probe of the human psyche (Caroline O’Connor’s “The Story of Jessie and Lucy”) and a stirring tale of survival (Hollis Resnik’s mind-blowing rendition of “I’m Still Here”). It disappeared from the stage for decades, but thankfully, Follies survived. It’s still here. read more


About Face Theatre's "The Homosexuals," by Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins. (photo credit: Jonathan L. Green)


The Homosexuals

About Face Theatre 

With the simplest of production values and a score of top 10 hits, Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins’ moving ode to sexual identity and friendship concentrated on emotion-packed writing and a strong cast – a wise choice. Traveling back in time from a 2010 breakup to a 2000 party, The Homosexuals encouraged its audience to – paraphrasing late Rent scribe Jonathan Larson – measure their lives in love. As small-town transplant Evan learned, platonic relations can quickly turn sexual, attraction can’t always be explained and everyone enters one’s life for a reason. Dawkins’ articulate dialogue examines career challenges, family relations and fidelity with the intellectual grace of a writer to watch. read more




An Iliad

Court Theatre 

War is hell. So can be Homer’s epic poem communicating that message with many, many more words. But with director Charles Newell at the helm, the Court’s vigorous adaptation was a game-changer. Using a dynamic cast of one (Timothy Edward Kane), Newell scrutinized the heady tragedy of combat with blunt force and authentic brutality. An Iliad’s audience was initially sucked in and ultimately wrung out by the edible language, disturbing action and manic sensations. The journey of gods and monsters was never more intense – and never more groundbreaking. read more




Jackie & Me

Chicago Children’s Theatre 

Magical realism is difficult to execute with genuine pathos rather than manufactured treacle. Jackie & Me accomplished the former, using time travel as a seamless segue into a passionate portrayal of the beloved American sport and the history-making athlete who broke down racial barriers. What could have been an utterly silly device – a young boy’s ability to meet the player on any baseball card he holds in his hand – transitioned into a dynamic story thanks to warm and empathetic performances by Tyler Ross as the boy and Kamal Angelo Bolden as Jackie Robinson. A triumph of the human spirit and an entertaining evening for kids and adults alike, director Derrick Sanders’ production hit a home run. read more


Dodds Frank, Ally, Bone, Fiffer - V


The Last Act of Lilka Kadison

Lookingglass Theatre Company 

2011 was a banner year for Lookingglass. While prominent company members accepted the Best Regional Theatre Tony Award in New York, the Chicago home base opened a wonderful, whimsical meditation on life and death. Adapted from the writings of the late Johanna Cooper and the radio stories of Jews worldwide, The Last Act used proscenium: a traditional staging method atypical to Lookingglass. As the trials of a romantic Jewish girl turned bitter matriarch unfolded. Nonetheless, the company’s signature blend of theatrical innovation and social commentary was never more prominent.   read more


Harry Groener as King George III, by Liz Lauren


The Madness of King George III

Chicago Shakespeare Theater 

Alan Bennett’s true tale of the degenerative medical condition that destroyed the titular monarch was an acting endurance test for Tony nominee Harry Groener. The latter forcefully strode through King George’s losses of family, power and bowels, giving the man strength and power even at his weakest. With frenetic staging and a hearty dose of humor, director Penny Metropulos brought to the CST stage a frenetic, fully realized and bizarrely gorgeous train wreck: much as the audience wanted to look away, they couldn’t.  read more


A scene from Teatro Vista's "Momma's Boyz," by Candido Tirado. (photo credit: E. Torres)


Momma’s Boyz

Teatro Vista 

Told in reverse chronology, Teatro Vista’s chronicle of brotherly love and filial tragedy defied easy urban drama stereotypes to create a fully realized character study. The three central players weren’t paint-by-numbers gangbangers, but complex individuals doing what they could to survive in their impoverished, violence-ridden environment. They played pranks. They dealt drugs. They murdered one of their own. Thanks to Candido Tirado’s beautiful writing, Ricardo Gutierrez’s sure direction and a trio of top-notch performances by Steve Casillas, Jessie David and Marvin Quijada, these characters were achingly real. read more


Andrew J. Lupp and cast in Paramount Theatre's "My Fair Lady," directed by Jim Corti.  (photo credit: Liz Lauren)


My Fair Lady

Paramount Theatre 

Lerner and Loewe’s flawless blend of social satire and outright silliness, set to a legendary score, enjoyed a glorious revival in Aurora. At the masterful hands of director/choreographer Jim Corti, the professional partnership turned personal connection between effete Professor Henry Higgins (Nathan M. Hosner) and unrefined Eliza Doolittle (Andrea Prestinario) was rendered even more loverly by divine dance sequences and remarkable chemistry among the star-studded cast. The rain in Spain fell mainly on the county of Kane, and it was the perfect storm.  read more


Outgoing Tide - Northlight Theatre 006


The Outgoing Tide

Northlight Theatre 

John Mahoney is one of Chicago’s favorite sons. Often seen at Steppenwolf, Mahoney graced the Northlight stage in Bruce Graham’s The Outgoing Tide as Gunner, a blue-collar trucker staring down the dark tunnel of terminal illness. The play’s central conflict – whether or not to stage an accident that would set the family for life but result in Gunner’s suicide – became startlingly relatable thanks to Mahoney’s assured delivery and easy rapport with fellow actors Rondi Reed and Thomas J. Cox. Keep coming back to Chicago, Mr. Mahoney. We’ll keep watching.  read more


003_Passing Strange by Bailiwick Chicago


Passing Strange

Bailiwick Chicago

A journey of the heart was never more soulful than in Bailiwick Chicago’s Midwest premiere of the Tony Award-winning rock musical. Exuberant performances by Jayson “JC” Brooks, LaNisa Frederick and Steven Perkins and dazzling music direction by James Morehead made this coming of age pilgrimage of a young black man a remarkable experience, a thought-provoking production and an unparalleled musical celebration. Wherever you go, there you are, and Passing Strange patrons were exactly where they wanted to be.  read more


Court Theatre's "Porgy and Bess," directed by Charles Newell. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)


Porgy and Bess

Court Theatre 

For the Court’s revival of George Gershwin’s operatic tragedy, director Charles Newell trimmed the cast, minimized the set and stripped the music bare. The result: a powerful ode to doomed love and a skillful presentation of an American composer’s magnificent opus. Designers John Culbert (set) and Jacqueline Firkins (costumes) used shades of white to craft a weathered yet optimistic tone, and the lusty, majestic notes of the ensemble – led by Todd M. Kryger and Alexis J. Rogers in the title roles, and music direction by Doug Peck – lovingly illuminated the insurmountable challenges of the intricate characters. Porgy and Bess, impossible to present? In the words of the charismatic Sporting Life, it ain’t necessarily so. read more


The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard - Writers Theatre 006


The Real Thing

Writers’ Theatre 

Life imitates art imitates life again in Tom Stoppard’s witty parable of fidelity and jealousy. Michael Halberstam’s introspective staging treated source material with the respect it deserved, and the accomplished cast relished Stoppard’s trademark articulate rants: catnip for capable thespians. Presented with the Writers’ Theatre’s signature fierce intelligence, the play was the intelligent and articulate thing.  read more


Stef Tovar in Route 66 Theatre's "A Twist of Water," by Caitlin Montayne Parrish. (photo credit: John Boersch)


A Twist of Water

Route 66 Theatre Company 

Route 66 Theatre’s world premiere was a seamless blend of snarky humor, true vulnerability and a touching love letter to Chicago. A collaboration of playwright Caitlin Montayne Parrish and director/co-creator Erica Weiss, A Twist of Water knew just when to challenge, when to hold back, when to joke and when to let loose. Gorgeous monologues interspersed with thoroughly realized scenes took the audience on a fully realized journey of a father and daughter whose happy family was ripped apart by a fatal accident, then slowly stitched back together with the help of a sympathetic colleague and the girl’s birth mother. No man, woman or child is an island, and A Twist of Water emphasized the magnitude of kindred souls in the face of trauma. read more

Summaries by Lauren Whalen


Honorable Mentions



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Category: 2011 Reviews, Best-of-Year, Lauren Whalen

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