I was an English major in college, which left me with a bad habit of looking at plays as literature—and play productions as, well, animated literature. Chicago theater has done just about everything conceivable to break me of that habit, but I feel as if the lessons only really took hold this year. So many astonishing performances, big and little, loud and quiet, violent and still, and sometimes all of the above in turn. I was overwhelmed by actors and acting in 2011, and my list of favorites tends to reflect that fact.
An Iliad The story goes that Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson used a semi-improvisational approach in developing their stage adaptation of Homer's Trojan War epic. O'Hare would read a section of Robert Fagles's translation out loud, then "explain, extemporize, and elaborate" on it for Peterson, who shaped the material O'Hare supplied. The result is an evening-length monologue that has the makings of a tour de force—which is precisely what Timothy Edward Kane made of it at Court Theatre. There's a lot that's murky about the show's premise. We don't even know for sure who the storyteller is meant to be. But Kane's thunderous, desperate, kidding, athletic performance rendered all objections moot.
Overweight, Unimportant: Misshape—A European Supper The premise of this absurd Austrian satire couldn't be simpler: a sleek, affluent, coosome young couple goes slumming at a neighborhood bierstube, upsetting the already iffy social ecology among the regulars and, naturally, triggering a bout of orgiastic cannibalism. Werner Schwab's 1991 script is a gleefully grotesque provocation, utterly lacking in fairness or restraint—just the sort of thing American playwrights should be emulating in these rotten times. But what made the Trap Door Theatre production optimally nasty was the delicate ensemble work by fringe mainstays like H.B. Ward, Dado, and Carolyn Hoerdemann.
The New Electric Ballroom Though Irish writer Enda Walsh has been turning out well-received work since the 1990s, he wasn't much of a presence here until 2009, when Chicago Shakespeare Theater hosted a guest production of his brilliant The Walworth Farce. Now the local Walsh drought seems to be breaking. Steppenwolf Theatre is currently running his Penelope (featuring Yasen Peyankov, director of Trap Door's Overweight, Unimportant: Misshape), and last winter A Red Orchid Theatre gave us The New Electric Ballroom, in which three middle-aged, working-class sisters continually reenact the central trauma of their lives. Robin Witt's mounting evoked the slow, solemn, cloistered horror of the sisters' existence, and the actors playing them—Kirsten Fitzgerald, Laurie Larson, and Kate Buddeke—were mesmerizing.
The God of Carnage and Chinglish Goodman Theatre put up two exceptional comedies in 2011—one of them exceptional enough to qualify as a masterpiece. David Henry Hwang's Chinglish is the masterpiece, an intellectual (and occasionally physical) farce about a guy from Ohio trying to sell signage to the Chinese. Leigh Silverman's production gave flawless form to Hwang's cunning, hilarious strategies for dissecting the paradoxes of communication across cultures. Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage is more conventional in its aims and means as it depicts four well-heeled New Yorkers wrangling over a playground incident involving their children. What lifted Rick Snyder's version into best-of territory was a crack ensemble comprising Mary Beth Fisher, Keith Kupferer, Beth Lacke, and David Pasquesi. Pasquesi, in particular, was scary brilliant.