In the best Chicago plays of 2013, drama took the lead
By HEDY WEISS Theater Critic December 22, 2013 6:16PM
Timothy Edward Kane reprises his role as The Poet in his one-man stage presentation of "An Iliad" at Court Theatre. | Michael Brosilow Photo
VERY CLOSE RUNNERS-UP
“The North China Lover” (Lookingglass Theatre); “Flare Path” (Griffin Theatre); “Fall of Heaven” (Congo Square Theatre); “Northanger Abbey” (Remy Bumppo Theatre); “Completeness” (Theatre Wit); “Trevor” (A Red Orchid Theatre); “American Wee Pie” (Rivendell Theatre); “Mojada” (Victory Gardens Theatre); “Columbinus” (American Theater Company): “A Raisin in the Sun” (TimeLine Theatre); “The Kiss of the Spider Woman” (BoHo Ensemble); “4000 Miles” (Northlight Theatre); “One Name Only” (Black Ensemble Theatre); “Mastering the Art” (Broadway Playhouse); “Once” (Oriental Theatre); “South Pacific” (Marriott Theatre);
“Veronica’s Room” (BoHo Ensemble); “In the Heights” and “Miss Saigon” (Paramount Theatre).
Updated: January 24, 2014 6:02AM
Name the 10 best theater productions of 2013? Impossible. Without even paging through my calendar for the year I was able to tick off the names of at least 25 genuine contenders — shows that dealt with a great breadth of subject matter, were packed with acting, directing and design talent, and employed many inventive approaches to storytelling.
So here is “the list,” in alphabetical order. And I confess, I’ve anguished over it — all in the name of truth and beauty.
Does a revival count? Yes, if it is actor Timothy Edward Kane’s mind-bogglingly brilliant solo turn in the Lisa Peterson-Denis O’Hare adaptation of the Homer classic. This galvanic Court Theatre production remains one of the most astonishing evocations of the insanity of war you will ever experience.
‘Blood and Gifts’
In this TimeLine Theatre production, director Nick Bowling and his whip-smart cast nailed J.T. Rogers’ brainy, ferocious, culture-crossing drama that probed the United States’s involvement in Afghanistan, and the dirty double game being played by Pakistan.
Strawdog Theatre’s exquisitely rendered version of the Charles Dickens classic was a major achievement — a marvel of ensemble acting and ingenious direction conjured on a shoestring budget.
‘Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill’
I’ve seen this one-woman show a number of times over the years, but in this Porchlight Music Theatre edition, Alexis J. Rogers’ uncanny performance as Billie Holiday was beyond mesmerizing, capturing the onstage and backstage persona of this troubled but unique artist.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think back to this harrowing production about human trafficking. An import from Scotland, produced as part of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s World’s Stage series, this immersive, off-site experience, conceived and directed by Cora Bissett, was seen by far too few people. But for those who did follow the experiences of a young Nigerian girl (the magnifient Mercy Ojelade) who arrives in Chicago with a wide-eyed sense of possibility only to be locked in an apartment and subjected to the most hideous degradation, there is no forgetting.
Noah Haidle’s eccentric, touching play about several generations of a troubled Midwestern family possessed a delicate, aching beauty and an eccentric comic edge. And the Goodman Theatre production, highlighted by an unforgettable performance by an almost 90-year-old Mike Nussbaum, captured just the right tone.
This insightful, elegantly realized Lookingglass Theatre production was all about loss as it traced the fraying mind and body of an accomplished middle-aged woman suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s. Alice’s failing faculties were hauntingly echoed by the ever-shifting and depleting set.
‘The Normal Heart’
It has been nearly 30 years since Larry Kramer’s play about the early years of the AIDS epidemic in New York City first came to the stage. And in many ways director Nick Bowling’s scorching TimeLine Theatre revival, which featured a bravura cast, tapped into the brutal honesty and bravery of the play in a whole new way.
‘The Pianist of Willesden Lane’
In this seamless melding of brilliant musicianship and deeply moving storytelling (at the Royal George Theatre), pianist-actress Mona Golabek paid homage to her remarkable mother and the power of art to sustain the spirit. Using music as her scene partner, Golabek followed the adventures of a gifted girl who prevailed over every obstacle when saved from the Holocaust by Britain’s kindertransport.
Three hugely engaging puppeteers from London’s Blind Summit company (another Chicago Shakespeare import) brought their fantastic puppet of Moses, that Old Testament prophet, to vivid life. Who could have guessed that the aging lawgiver, with his skinny little cloth legs and oversized cardboard head, would elicit such wisdom, such existential hijinks and such hilarity?