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11 for ‘11: The year’s best theater

Harry Groener played tormented monarch struggling retapower Alan Bennett’s “The Madness George III.”

Harry Groener played the tormented monarch struggling to retain power in Alan Bennett’s “The Madness of George III.”

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Updated: January 26, 2012 8:03AM

1. Show of the year

“The Madness of George III” (Chicago Shakespeare Theater): At the very moment when all the world seems plagued by a crisis of leadership, director Penny Metropulos gave us a penetrating, even revelatory revival of Alan Bennett’s play about the British monarch who lost the American colonies, lost his mind, and yet still retained the essential core of himself. Actor Harry Groener turned in an unforgettable, tour de force performance as the tormented king who is subjected to terrible medical procedures, corrupt doctors, separation from his wife and usurping efforts by a son, but who somehow maintains his dignity. Every element of this production — from its many superb supporting performances, to its elegant design ­— was ideal. Bennett, of course, is a masterful writer capable of both razor-sharp wit and great emotional heft. And he could not have had a better interpreter than Groener.

Honorable mentions:

† “Black Watch,” the National Theatre of Scotland production, presented by Chicago Shakespeare in the vast hall of the Broadway Armory, was a masterpiece of ensemble playing and physical theater as it captured the agony of soldiers in a Scottish army regiment in Iraq.

† “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” imported from Ireland’s Druid Theatre (and also at Chicago Shakespeare), proved that when played by masters, playwright Martin McDonagh’s language and black humor can be made to echo Samuel Beckett.

2. Outstanding solo turns

“The Amish Project” (American Theater Company) was a wholly luminous one-woman, seven-character play about the horrific 2006 murder of schoolgirls in an Amish community. Written by Jessica Dickey and directed by PJ Paparelli, it was performed to sublime effect by Sadieh Rifai, a blazingly gifted young Chicago actress.

“Maestro: The Art of Leonard Bernstein” (at the Royal George Theatre) once again revealed the multiplicity of talents (actor, pianist, writer) of Hershey Felder. And in “Ann,” actress Holland Taylor ideally captured Ann Richards, the Texas political maverick.

3. Reborn musicals

“Follies,” presented in Gary Griffin’s grand-scale revival for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, put Chicago’s full complement of divas in the Stephen Sondheim spotlight. At Court Theatre, director Charles Newell and musical director Doug Peck gave us an elemental “Porgy and Bess,” with glorious voices and revelatory orchestrations.

Director Rachel Rockwell brought astonishing new life and meaning to “The Sound of Music” in her Drury Lane Oakbrook revival, which featured glorious performances by Jennifer Blood as Maria and Patti Cohenour as Mother Abbess.

Director Jim Corti inaugurated the Paramount Theater’s Broadway series with an altogether cork-popping revival of “My Fair Lady.” Bailiwick Chicago and director Lili-Anne Brown put a fresh, young, wholly believable face on “Passing Strange,” improving greatly on Stew’s autobiographical Broadway musical.

And Porchlight Theatre wowed with its Sondheim revue, “Putting It Together.”

4. Reimagined classics

In Court Theatre’s “An Iliad,” an ultra-modern adaptation of the Homer epic by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, actor Timothy Edward Kane delivered a searing, fearsome one-man performance that captured every horror of war, with superb direction by Charles Newell.

The five-hour epic “Sophocles: The Seven Sicknesses,” by ingenious adapter-director Sean Graney and his splendid Hypocrites cast, gave us a marvelously modern take on a royal family’s disintegration.

Meanwhile, the Building Stage production of “Moby-Dick” was so good it made you feel like part of the crew on Captain Ahab’s doomed whaling vessel.

5. House and home

“Festen” (at Steep Theatre) featured Jonathan Berry’s bloody brilliant direction of an ace cast in David Eldridge’s stage adaptation of the Danish film about a sexually and psychologically damaged bourgeois family.

“Assisted Living” (still running at Profiles Theatre) is a touching, spot-on, often comic look at siblings, the care of an aging parent and more.

Also powerful were “The Big Meal” (at American Theater Company), Dan LeFranc’s intriguing tale of several generations of a family facing all the milestones of life; “The Caretaker” (at Strawdog Theatre), a superbly rendered version of Harold Pinter’s triangulated romance, and “Man From Nebraska” (Redtwist Theatre), a riveting, emotionally taut revival of Tracy Letts’ best play.

6. Rocky relationships

“The Real Thing” (Writers’ Theatre), a superbly acted and directed revival of Tom Stoppard’s classic about infidelity; “This” (Theater Wit), Melissa Jane Gibson’s smart, incisive play about contemporary relationships, filled with fine performances, and “The Homosexuals” (About Face Theatre), Philip Dawkins’ expertly rendered tale of a group of gay men.

7. On the job

Work is of the essence these days, and a number of powerhouse productions celebrated it in a variety of different ways, including “The Pitmen Painters” (TimeLine Theatre), Lee Hall’s deeply moving tale of English miners in the 1930s whose lives are altered when they begin to paint (with a scorching central performance by Dan Waller); “Red,” John Logan’s play about artist Mark Rothko (at the Goodman Theatre); “Working,” a revised version of the musical based on Studs Terkel’s book (at the Broadway Playhouse), and “The Front Page,” TimeLine Theatre’s exuberant revival of the play about Chicago’s newspaper heyday.

8. High style

Four productions were especially notable for the way they captured a particular time, place and locution, including “The Doyle and Debbie Show” (the hilarious sendup of a country- western duo, at the Royal George Cabaret); “The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen” (Strange Tree’s marvelously stylized murder and madness tale); “Sense and Sensibility” (Northlight Theatre’s scintillating take on Jane Austen), and “The Beats” (in which the 16th Street Theatre’s young cast did an uncanny job of conjuring 1950s hipsters).

9. Artful Chicago history

“Burning Bluebeard” (at the Neo-Futurists) is an intensely imagined, winningly phantasmagoric evocation of the horrific fire that swept through Chicago’s Iroquois Theatre in 1903. “The Chicago Landmark Project” by Theatre Seven, offered a dozen charming “snapshots” of Chicago neighborhoods.

10. Brainy fun

“Chinglish” (Goodman Theatre), David Henry Hwang’s zestily comic satire on Chinese-American relations both intimate and entrepeneurial, was a linguist’s delight, and Colin Quinn’s “Long Story Short” (at the Broadway Playhouse) was a laugh-out-loud chronicle of Western civilization and its pitfalls.

11. For kids of all ages

“No More Dead Dogs” (Griffin Theatre) and “Goodnight Moon” (Chicago Children’s Theatre) were utterly beguiling, and in many ways the older you were the more fun these shows probably were.

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