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Curtain times: Highlights of 2011
by Mary Shen Barnidge

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We have heard extensively in recent years about the trend toward recognition of the "local" landscape—its crops, crafts and culture. Many of 2011's significant plays focused on our own city, beginning with Route 66's A Twist of Water and ranging through Gift Theatre's Northwest Highway, Lookingglass's The Great Fire, the Rude Mechanicals' El Stories series, the NeoFuturists' holiday-offering Burning Bluebeard, Theatre Seven's We Live Here and Chicago Landmark Project.

This doesn't mean that 2011 heralded an epidemic of myopia. Several plays addressed the big picture: Halcyon's Family Devotions, Silk Road's Yellow Face and Goodman's Chinglish presented audiences with David Henry Hwang's view of Chinese-United States relations from the 1980s to the present, while Teatro Vista's productions of Jennifer Barclay's Freedom, NY and Candido Tirado's Momma's Boyz put a different face on xenophobic and economic tensions, as did About Face's premiere production of Philip Dawkins' The Homosexuals, with its explorations of the contemporary gay scene. Most daring, however, was the take-no-prisoners White Noise, an acid-etched caveat on neo-Nazi supremacist propaganda making a try-out stop at the Royal George.

Sometimes a single performance is capable of striking down outmoded prejudices: consider the career of octogenarian Mike Nussbaum, whose Jeff award-winning performance in Drury Lane's Broadway Bound gave the lie to so-called "senior moment" aphasia. Consider also John Mahoney's fearless refusal to go gentle into that good night in The Outgoing Tide at Northlight, and Mary Ann Thebus, long one of our favorite sweet-old-grannies, who brought unexpected tough-love to the clan matriarch in Victory Gardens' The Boys Room and soul-crippling secrets to a devoted widow in Next Theatre's The Piano Teacher.

Success is often found in the freshness imposed on revivals of previously seen works as well, whether drawn from the classic repertoire, such as Vitalist Theatre's vigorous rendering of the classroom-staple Life Is A Dream and Promethean's no-irony staging of Irwin Shaw's long-lost Bury The Dead, or a risky first-cover of a previous hit, like RedTwist's boat-in-the-bottle stagings of Tracy Letts' Bug and Man From Nebraska. (Not to be excluded is the annual remount of The Christmas Schooner, now residing in the cozy Mercury Theater after 12 years sailing in opera-sized auditoriums at home and throughout the world.)

Other noteworthy boat-in-bottle settings include Lifeline's The Moonstone, Steep Theatre's Lakeboat and Timeline's The Front Page. Let's not forget, either, those shows where all the artistic and technical elements are so closely-coordinated as to create a full-spectrum environment: Examples include WildClaw's Carmilla, Infusion's Soul Samurai, Lifeline's Watership Down and Ka-Tet's Side Man.

Finally, what would a year-end wrap be without a few individual awards?

1. They're talented, attractive and just starting out—they're my Flying Star Award recipients Stephen Louis Grush, Michaela Petro, Nicolas Gamboa, Allison Torem and Brittany Burch.

2. They've got a few miles on them and their bodies show it, but they're willing to bare all for art—the 2011 winners of the AARP Pin-up Award winners are Beauty of the Father's Madrid St. Angelo and Penelope's Speedo-clad Scott Jaeck, Yasen Peyankov, Tracy Letts and Ian Barford (at least three of whom have gone full-monty for Chicago audiences in previous years).

3. The dramatic premise is problematic and the roles are thankless—the recipients of the Heavy-Lifting Acting Award are Nick Sandys and Annabel Armour for Remy Bumppo's The Goat, while the coveted Tag-Team Award goes to David Parkes and Janet Ulrich Brooks, who lent new meaning to international negotiations in Timeline's A Walk In The Woods.

4. Plants and animals onstage are always hard to pull off: The Flora and Fauna Awards go to Freedom NY's lush autumn garden and to Elizabeth Rex's bear (the latter not simply pursuing an exit, but capable of expressing emotions as complex as those of the humans surrounding it). Freedom, NY's Día de Los Muertos decorations also share the Museum-Grade Set Dressing prize with All Childish Things' collection of Star Wars memorabilia.

5. Finally, a pair of miscellaneous accolades: The Romantic Ambience Award goes, not to any of the season's eight Romeo and Juliets, but to Livewire's The 13th of Paris, while The Hinterland Royalties prize is awarded to Jon Steinhagen's Aces, which ought to fit snugly into dinner, community, school and casino playhouses throughout the country for years to come.

This list is incomplete, of course—how can anyone select only a few moments from the 800-plus plays offered audiences in a single Chicago season? Next year, add your own selections to the roster, huh?

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