2009: My Year in the Audience

By J. Scott Hill

Chicago theatre is so vital and dynamic that there was a lot to love in 2009.  My fantastic year in the audience began with Lori McClain’s beautiful barrage of obscenity as Patty Blagojevich in Rod Blagojevich Superstar! at Second City e.t.c., and ended with Jill Erickson’s movingly recalcitrant and affirming “Prostitute” monologue in the Beast Women 2009 Winter Series at PROP THTR.  Between those two outstanding performances, I experienced too many examples of exceptional artistry in theatre around Chicagoland for me to compile a comprehensive “Best of” list, but here are a few highlights….

History Boys was a runaway hit for TimeLine, well worthy of such success; Brian Sidney Bembridge designed a runaway set that was pure genius — part classroom and part field house, with dorm rooms spilling out of the theatre to overtake the lobby. Alex Weisman shone brightest from the talented ensemble, giving us layer upon layer of the struggles of youth, and demonstrating how so many of those struggles wind up never being resolved.

At the opposite end of maturity, James Harms blew the audience away as Cervantes/Don Quixana/Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha at Theatre at the Center.  While “The Impossible Dream” is the franchise number, Harms exceeded all possible expectations with that song and indeed throughout the entire show.

Frank Galati’s Prospero in The Tempest at Steppenwolf breathed life anew into the contemplative, forgiving side of Shakespeare’s master sorcerer. Step’s Tempest was a triumph for director Tina Landau, in no small part due to the incredible acrobatics and longing for a mortal life of Jon Michael Hill’s Ariel.

Other spirits possessed the Mercury Theatre.  When FPA Theatre Company remounted The Screwtape Letters with a new cast, Peter Kevoian sparkled like fool’s gold as the senior devil Screwtape. Aislinn J. Mulligan richly haunted the stage as his wordless minion, Toadpipe — a fallen Jellicle Cat in apoplectic fits of contortion, yet exuding languorous grace.  Scenic Designer Cameron Anderson’s black-on-black raked dungeon was gluttony for the eyes.

Some devilry must have extracted the soul from Kevin V. Smith’s Orlando in The Conduct of Life — presented by Tooth and Nail and by Two Lights at the Viaduct.  Smith’s brutal, megalomaniacal military interrogator was riveting and vile.  Director Marti Lyons added elements of chamber theatre, modern dance, and Japanese Butoh movement to heighten the tension while stylizing the extreme physical and emotional violence.

Brian Amidei scared the crap out of me as the tethered zombie Joe in WildClaw’s The Revenants at Angel Island.  What could have come across as silly had menace. Charlie Athanas’s basement set created a marvelously uneasy environment for The Revenants – in particular, the partial wall collapse in the opening scene.

Evil was not the only thing that drew my notice on the Chicago stage in 2009. Jenn Remke embodied compassion itself as Rose of Sharon in The Grapes of Wrath, produced by Infamous Commonwealth at the Raven. Jennifer Mathews as Ma Joad was the heart and soul of the excellent ensemble for most of the production, but for the show’s final, heart-wrenching scene, Remke was imbued with new purpose: creating a beatific vision that left the audience in tears.

There were moments of pure joy onstage, too. Larry Wyatt was delightfully goofy as Leo Clark/Maxine — a down-on-his-luck actor pretending to be a demurely bombastic actress in order to inherit a fortune — in the implausible Leading Ladies at Theatre at the Center. Steve Tolin’s special effects for the black comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore at Northlight brought smiles to splatterpunk fans.  Macabaret at Porchlight was a frightfully good evening of spooky banter and tongue-in-cheek torch songs.

Vaudezilla gave Chicago a thrill with Rollin’ Outta Here Naked: A Big Lebowski Burlesque at Gorilla Tango and later at the Chopin, interspersing recreated scenes from the cult movie with inventive striptease acts. Red Hot Annie elegantly performed “Maude’s Sheet Dance” that utilized a couple of yards of gossamer instead of a fan-dancer’s ostrich plumes.  Wham Bam Pam uproariously played Walter (John Goodman’s character), and did an oddly titillating bump-and-grind in which she first stripped out of her Walter fat suit before stripping off her lingerie.

The most fun at the theatre in 2009 was Animal Crackers at the Goodman. Adapter/Director Henry Wishcamper made the Marx Brothers contemporary and vibrant in this rollicking revival. Stanley Wayne Mathis’s song-and-dance, “Keep Your Undershirt On,” was the purest single piece of entertainment I saw on stage all year.  Ora Jones and Molly Brennan gave us vibrant and original yet respectful takes on the characters that came to define Margaret Dumont and Harpo Marx.  Jonathan Brody was more Chico than Chico.

…and then, there was Joey Slotnick.  Slotnick gave the best musical-comedy performance in town in 2009 as Captain Spaulding/Groucho in Animal Crackers.  To play the madcap Groucho in his signature role without resorting to caricature, to sing and dance and crack wise and ad-lib as a character within a character — Slotnick obviously approached his role in this delightful romp as seriously as one might approach the role of Macbeth.

Kevin Cox triumphed as the Creature in Playing with Fire (after Frankenstein), produced by BoHo at Heartland Studio.

Cox’s powerful physicality and vocalization commanded rapt attention.  His emotional portrayal garnered great sympathy from the audience. Cox gave this manmade abomination a soul.

One of the most mesmerizing performances of the year came from Beau O’Reilly as Davies in The Caretaker, presented by Curious Theatre Branch at the Side Project. Colm O’Reilly and Jeff Bivens were uncompromisingly disturbed as Ashton and Mick, but Beau O’Reilly’s disjointed transient Davies had an undercurrent of unrealized threat that made you keep him in your eye, even if he was only fumbling around in the background.  This was a great production, a study in how to convey absurdity to an audience in a way the audience can wrap its brain around.

Not to be outdone by his father, Colm O’Reilly captivated the audience — literally and figuratively — in Theatre Oobleck’s aptly claustrophobic revival of Mickle Maher’s An Apology For the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening at the Chopin. O’Reilly’s John Faustus still suffers over the existential dilemma, and that dilemma is in crisis as his mortal existence is about to be replaced with an eternity in Hell.  Colm O’Reilly as Faustus is all over the place: regretful and unapologetic, contemplative and blurting, powerful and frail.  His performance is the noise of a human mind, full of second thoughts and second-guesses — relentless self-examination without relief or resolution.  Watching him deconstruct his privileged, unhappy life was like trying to talk someone off of a ledge without being able to get a word in edgewise or formulate a worthy rejoinder. Complicated and intimate and disturbing, Colm O’Reilly filled every pause with seething, roiling mental anguish over not being able to parse it all out and make his life matter in any substantive way.  This is one of the best performances I have ever seen, or will ever see.

The most moving performance of the year came from Mary Beth Fisher as Eleanor and the adult Esme in Rock ‘N’ Roll at the Goodman. I marveled goggle-eyed at Fisher conducting an acting master class on showing an audience the full range of the human condition, through the adversity of terminal illness as Eleanor and over the experiences of a lifetime as Esme — subtlety and depth that were unmatched onstage in Chicago last year.

I want to take a few lines to make a special notice of one performer who had an exceptional year in 2009: Larry Adams.  A fixture in Theatre at the Center shows, Larry Adams was in four shows I attended, and wowed me every time. As Rev. Wooley in Leading Ladies, Adams played a petty, superior man with wonderful hatefulness.  As theatre impresario Bela Zangler in Crazy for You, Adams went engagingly over-the-top.  As Reverend Moore in Footloose, Larry Adams wrestled with the impact of life’s tragedies, and deeply moved the audience with the song “Heaven Help Me.“ As the Duke/Dr. Sanson Carrasco/The Knight of the Mirrors in Man of La Mancha, he conveyed a level of introspection untypical for that pompous role.  Cheers for Larry Adams, a versatile workhorse character actor.

Thank you to all of the performers, directors, and designers mentioned above — and the hundreds of others there was no space to mention — for your amazing work in Chicago theatre in 2009.  I cannot wait to see what 2010 brings.

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