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Best of 2010
by Jonathan Abarbanel

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There are 200 or so theater companies in Chicago and 'burbs staging upwards of 800 shows a year and no one person can see more than one-third of them and remain sane. Best of 2010? Who the hell knows? I saw, maybe, 200 shows and here's what I though best of that relatively narrow sampling. In alphabetical order:

—Billy Elliot the Musical, Broadway In Chicago. A dynamic, hard-edged and faithful stage version of the hit film about a coal-miners boy who wants to dance, with a pounding score by Elton John who now has learned how to write music that's part of a show, not music applied to the show. Gorgeous staging and choreography, and four brilliant boys alternating in the demanding role of Billy.

—Boojum! Nonsense, Truth and Lewis Carroll, Caffeine Theatre and Chicago Opera Vanguard. Co-authored by Australian twin brothers, this chamber opera puts Charles Lutwidge Dodson in confrontation with his literary alter-ego, Lewis Carroll. Somewhat arcane to all but devoted Lewis Carroll fans, it nonetheless featured a brilliant pastiche score straddling the line between pop and opera, and wonderful (and handsome) 10-person cast. It was Chicago Off-Loop at its best.

—The Brother/Sister Plays, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Theater began as communal story-telling through rituals of music, movement and language, and the sheer joy of this production was the connection it made between a contemporary story and the primitive and communal nature of theater itself. The wonderful, large ensemble cast was guided by playwright Terell Alvin McCraney and insightful director Tina Landau in a true creative partnership.

—K., The Hypocrites. Greg Allen—former artistic director of the Neo-Futurists—directed his own wonderful adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial with an abundance of meta-theatrical devices, especially the brilliant scenic design of 15 doors. Allen turned the story into an Absurdist comedy; in which Joseph K awakes to an arbitrary world in which there are no reasons or answers. Would Kafka approve? Who knows, who cares? He died before finishing this one.

—Master Harold ... and the Boys, TimeLine Theatre. Written in the 1980's but set in 1950, Athol Fugard's three-character play illuminates nothing less than the soul of South Africa on the brink of national tragedy. Seemingly simple, the play begins as comedy and then breaks your heart. Under director Jonathan Wilson, the TimeLine production was a profound event, exquisitely acted by Alfred H. Wilson, Daniel Bryant and Nate Burger.

—Mistakes Were Made, A Red Orchid Theatre. We watch a man and a producer totally melt down before our eyes in Craig Wright's darkly comic look at deal-making and life, equal parts valentine and stiletto hurled at showbiz. Essentially a monologue conducted between man and telephone, it requires a fucking brilliant actor. Ta-da! Michael Shannon is a fucking brilliant actor with weirdness and charisma to spare.

—Romeo and Juliet, Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Australian director Gale Edwards showed Chicago audiences that R&J can be driven forward by its text and not slowed down by treating the text as poetry. Her production successfully juxtaposed classic and modern visual devices, had slam-bang fight choreography and galloped along while cutting nary a word. Also, it was the most handsome production of the year (scenic and costume) and provided a clearly-gay Mercutio lusting after Romeo.

—A Streetcar Named Desire, Writers' Theatre. A claustrophobic and physically-brutal staging by MacArthur Fellow David Cromer, which allowed me to see this often-parodied Tennessee Williams classic with fresh eyes. What higher praise can one give any production of a familiar work? Cromer physicalized things Williams left to the imagination—such as two men discovered in bed—and I didn't agree with all his choices, but they were bold choices that certainly made the play a sweaty and sensual experience!

—Travels with My Aunt, Writers' Theatre. One of the best shows and comedies of the year. Grahame Green's richly comic novel—think Auntie Mame but her nephew is 55 instead of 12—has been wittily adapted for four adept actors all of whom dazzle and charm in multiple roles. The clever scenic design and the turn-on-dime staging make this a huge show in a most intimate venue. Best of all, it's still running (through March 27).

—Trust, Lookingglass Theatre Company. This bleeding-heart liberal play won me over by the integrity of its acting and directing, and the truth of the family relationships portrayed. Not a play about internet sex predators—as some made it out to be—Trust was about family relationships, especially that between father and daughter, who end in a state of hard-earned grace, although sadder and wiser. Co-authored and directed by David Schwimmer who did himself proud.

—The Year of Magical Thinking, Court Theatre. Joan Didion's one-woman adaptation of her own memoir about life and death was funny, touching, acerbic, heart-stopping, angry, philosophical, wise, profound, brave, clean and reverent ... and deeply moving. Performed to glory by Mary Beth Fisher, one of the best actors working today (and I don't mean only in Chicago, where we are damn lucky to keep her busy), and directed by Charles Newell.

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