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Best Of: Theater & Performing Arts

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Best Established Theater Company

rThe Reader's ChoiceSteppenwolf Theatre Company

Sure, there's the sense of a foregone conclusion about Steppenwolf taking Best Established Theater. This was the year of August: Osage County, after all. Or, more accurately, the most spectacular so far of what promise to be several years of August: Osage County (coming up next: the touring production and the movie). Tracy Letts's play and Steppenwolf's Broadway production of it won pretty much everything New York had to offer in 2008, including five Tony Awards and a Pulitzer. But it's not the trophies from national institutions that have earned Steppenwolf this particular honor. It's not the show's incredible popularity, its stunning craft, or even the chance that it might help turn the tide against whiny little MFA plays. It's the proof the show provides that a major nonprofit enterprise like Steppenwolf can still be organized in such a way that it can pick up an ensemble member's untried script and do it to the hilt. It's that artistic director Martha Lavey, executive director David Hawkanson, and whoever else gets in on those decisions went ahead and let Todd Rosenthal build that enormous, three-story set—an apparently life-size cross section of a house—before they knew what a success August would turn out to be. Basically, it's that the company kept faith with itself—its founding communal values—when it had the resources and prestige not to. aNext at Steppenwolf is Shakespeare's The Tempest. Previews 3/26-4/3. Opens Sun 4/4, 6 PM. Through 5/31: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 7:30 PM, Wed 5/6-5/27, 2 PM, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org, $20-$70. —Tony Adler

&Our readers' choiceSteppenwolf Theatre Company

Best Emerging Theater Company

rThe Reader's Choice16th Street Theater

Most Chicago theater companies get started because like-minded artists decide they want to do the work they love best the way they want to do it—finding a space and an audience comes later in the process. Ann Filmer took a different approach. When she moved out to Berwyn a few years ago, she found there was a nifty little black-box theater in the Berwyn Cultural Center, but no professional company to use it. So with the help of the North Berwyn Park District, the longtime director started 16th Street Theater, and got busy producing work that would speak to the western suburb's ethnically diverse, working-class audience base.

Filmer's background in new work encompasses shows at the Aardvark, the now-defunct collective she cofounded in 1995, as well as many credits with Chicago Dramatists, A Red Orchid Theatre, and Writers' Theatre in Glencoe. Taking note of Berwyn's large Latino population, she has forged a fruitful alliance with Teatro Luna and staged one of the best shows I saw in 2008—Kita y Fernanda, a breathtaking look at class consciousness and female bonding among Mexican immigrants by Teatro Luna cofounder Tanya Saracho.

Teatro Luna finishes its current 16th Street production, S-E-X-Oh! The Remix, this weekend. Then comes the Words in Motion Festival, consisting of three autobiographical performance pieces running in repertory. Unveiled, a solo show about women in Islam, follows. And in July Filmer will revive The Last Barbecue, by her old buddy Brett Neveu, using the original cast from its 2000 premiere production with the Aardvark. After only one year, 16th Street Theater is an indispensable part of Berwyn's cultural fabric—and a destination for anyone interested in checking out new voices in a warm, intimate environment. aTeatro Luna's S-E-X-Oh! The Remix runs through 3/29: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 5 and 8 PM, Sun 5 PM. The Words in Motion Festival opens Thu 4/2 and runs through 4/25: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 5 and 8 PM. Berwyn Cultural Center, 6420 16th, Berwyn, 708-795-6704, 16thstreettheater.org, all shows $16. —Kerry Reid

&Our readers' choiceThe New Colony

aThe current show, Frat, runs through 4/4: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, DANK Haus, 4740 N. Western, 800-838-3006, thenewcolony.org, $20 suggested donation.

Best Touring Production in the Last Year

rThe Reader's ChoiceAvenue Q

Set in the fringiest fringe neighborhood of contemporary New York, the adult puppet musical Avenue Q fuses Sesame Street whimsy with Rent grit: playwright Jeff Whitty and songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx appropriate the format of a kids' TV show to examine the crises of young adulthood from a satirical and sometimes raunchy perspective. The touring edition—which finally made it to Chicago's Cadillac Palace last spring, four years after director Jason Moore's Broadway hit won a trio of Tonys—featured a crack ensemble of singer-actor-puppeteers as well as ingenious animated video. My runners-up in this category also played the Cadillac Palace: The Drowsy Chaperone, a hilarious and inventive spoof of 1920s musicals, and John Doyle's bold, minimalist rethinking of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in which the singer-actors also doubled as the orchestra. —Albert Williams

&Our readers' choiceXanadu

aThrough 3/29: Tue and Thu 7:30 PM, Wed and Sun 2 and 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut, 312-902-1400, drurylanewatertower.com, $22.50-$84.50

Best Local Production in the Last Year

rThe Reader's ChoiceTUTA's Uncle Vanya

Theater devotees know the swoon—that rapturous transport when every element of a production coalesces (or, more often, when the acting and direction is so persuasive that the cheap set and crappy costumes fade into irrelevance) and something true about the human soul is revealed. About a dozen shows in 2008 gave me the swoon, among them Profiles Theatre's nerve-racking In a Dark, Dark House, Building Stage's crafty Dracula, Goat Island's wistful The Lastmaker, and Factory Theater's ludicrous Ren Faire. But few shows I've ever seen have sent me into a deeper swoon than TUTA's Uncle Vanya.

Founded by the Serbian husband-and-wife team of Natasha and Zeljko Djukic, TUTA (an acronym for The Utopian Theatre Asylum) has been producing in Chicago since 2002. But they didn't really distinguish themselves from the rest of the off-Loop crowd until their 2006 staging of Ugljesa Sajtinac's Huddersfield, a Mike Leigh-esque portrait of disaffected post-Soviet Serbian youth. That exquisitely acted show—about a half-dozen twentysomethings wasting long, drunken days in a cramped apartment—featured all the in-your-face excess Chicago actors love. After TUTA's equally excessive follow-up, Tracks, in 2007, it was hard to imagine this troupe handling Chekhov's static masterpiece, in which a disgruntled group of friends and relations, stranded on a provincial estate, do almost nothing for three acts but nurse unrealistic romantic dreams and regret missed opportunities for making them come true. But director Zeljko Djukic assembled a near-perfect cast who found suspense, heartache, and absurdity in Uncle Vanya's subtle orchestration of nonevents. Like European Repertory's mesmerizing Ivanov from a decade ago, TUTA's restrained, elegant production revealed how melancholy gnaws at the human heart. aTUTA revives Uncle Vanya this spring. Opens Fri 5/22. Through 6/28: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, 847-217-0691, tuta-theatre.org, $25. —Justin Hayford

&Our readers' choice

Amelia Earhart Jungle Princess

aBy James Asmus, produced by the New Colony

Best Emerging Playwright

rThe Reader's ChoiceMark Chrisler

Googling Mark Chrisler is instructive. Once you've separated him out from the San Francisco banker and the Berkeley high school tennis coach—who may be the same guy—you find that Mark Chrisler the playwright doesn't turn up in the orthodox playwright spots. He doesn't have a listing, for instance, on doollee.com, giving his oeuvre, play by play. But he's around, alright, hooked up with Chicago's longtime, unreconstructed fringe—the companies, like Curious Theatre Branch, that never made the transition from family to institution. I saw Chrisler's latest last month, at Curious's 20th Rhino Fest: Histories Minor, a trio of short plays that turn events in the lives of obscure historical figures (physicist David Bohm, journalist Nellie Bly, and pioneering photographer George Barnard) into absurd dreams. The Bohm play was brilliant; the others were more interesting than good. But they were all funny, menacing, subversive, smart, unique, and impossible to imagine anywhere but on a stage. —Tony Adler

&Our readers' choiceJames Asmus

Best Improv Group

rThe Reader's ChoiceImprovised Shakespeare Company

Doing funny improv is hard enough. The men of the Improvised Shakespeare Company do it using the language and themes of the Bard. In rhymed couplets and swashbuckler blouses, they're consistently hilarious. But the preparation that goes into their spontaneous two-act show is no joke. Director-performer Blaine Swen, a PhD candidate in philosophy at Loyola University, steeps his players in Elizabethan drama through plays and films, Renaissance Faires, seminars with local scholars, and even quizzes. He also leads a Shakespeare improv workshop that produces many of the new cast members. The group is up to 16 now, with six or seven going onstage each week—and it features some of the finest talent around, including Swen, Steve Waltien, and Ross Bryant, whose cerebral comedy is a perfect fit for the form. aOpen run: Fri 8 PM, iO, 3541 N. Clark, 773-880-0199, chicago.ioimprov.com, $14. —Ryan Hubbard

&Our readers' choiceSecond City

aThe current main-stage show, America: All Better!, is in an open run: Tue-Thu 8 PM, Fri-Sat 8 and 11 PM, Sun 7 PM, 1616 N. Wells, 312-337-3992, secondcity.com, $20-$25

Best Sketch Group

rThe Reader's ChoiceSecond City E.T.C.

If you're looking for the next SNL or sitcom star, start with the current Second City E.T.C. ensemble, whose two most recent sketch revues have been funnier and riskier than their main-stage counterparts'. In particular Laura Grey and Andy St. Clair seem destined for prime time, but all the players right now are exceptional. Given the turnover at Second City, troupes don't have a chance to develop the chemistry of sketch outfits like the Cupid Players. But the performers in this crew work extremely well together, and that's especially evident when they improvise. Their current production, Brother, Can You Spare Some Change?, showcases the breadth of their skills—which include acting, singing, and magic—as well as a rising talent behind the scenes, musical director Michael Descoteaux, who has a great sense of timing and satire and whose original compositions and effects heighten the hilarity. aBrother, Can You Spare Some Change? is in an open run: Wed-Thu 8 PM, Fri-Sat 8 and 11 PM, Sun 7 PM, Second City E.T.C., Piper's Alley, 1608 N. Wells, 312-337-3992, secondcity.com, $20-$25. —Ryan Hubbard

&Our readers' choiceHey You Millionaires

aheyyoumillionaires.com.

Best Stand-Up Comedian

rThe Reader's ChoiceRobert Buscemi

It's been a banner year for surreal comic Robert Buscemi. He's done national festivals, appeared in commercials and short films, and this month released his second live DVD. But he also remains a local fixture, performing frequently at showcases like Chicago Underground Comedy and the Lincoln Lodge. Trained in improv and theater, Buscemi says he enjoys the mental challenges of stand-up—a form he's been experimenting with since at least 2004, when I first saw him hosting an open mike.

Buscemi walks a thin line onstage: his persona is genial yet macabre, his style conversational yet sophisticatedly self-reflexive, his material accessible yet eccentric. (His subjects include the innards of penguins, sponges that have given up on life, and using the classic Prague phalanx chess stratagem on Jesus.) Buscemi earns his audience's trust with serious charisma and a command of performance cliches to which he never fully submits. He likes to play the part—wearing a fedora, an ill-fitting suit, and a wisecracking grin—while playing with the part. aBuscemi shares the bill with five other comics at Chicago Underground Comedy, Tue 3/31, 9:30 PM, Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont, 773-281-4444, chicagoundergroundcomedy.com, $5. —Ryan Hubbard

&Our readers' choiceJoe Shelby

aPerforming with Endangered Comics, Mon 3/30, 8 PM, the Zoo, 3369 N. Clark, 773-697-4511, thezoochicago.com. F

Best Dance Company

rThe Reader's ChoiceChicago Dance Crash

Seven-year-old Chicago Dance Crash has impressed me with its street-smart, out-of-the-box approach since Tribulation and the Demolition Squad—an apocalyptic pop-cult dance-theater piece for 22 created by company founder Mark Hackman in 2005. Two artistic directors later, Kyle Vincent Terry heads the troupe, and since 2007 he's branched out into new territory while nurturing the company's trademark blend of hip-hop, breaking, ballet, martial arts, gymnastics, and modern dance. I haven't loved everything CDC has done, but it never fails to take chances, and I like the variety inherent in its approach. You name it, Chicago Dance Crash has done it.

The company's known not only for producing the KTF (Keeper of the Floor) dance contest series but also for its evening-length pieces. Many choreographers tackle long works with a sense of self-importance. Not Terry. He's fine with pop music and movement for its own sake, as in Destructible Daytrip, set to cuts by rapper El-P, and the even poppier Kyle Kills the Radio Stars. But Terry can get serious, too: last summer he tried his hand at a danced version of Faust that proved to be remarkable for its passion and off-the-wall ideas

What else distinguishes this surprising troupe? Fine dancers, among them mercurial Marissa Moritz, break-dancing warrior Lyndsey Rhoads, lanky wizard Christopher Courtney, and the fierce Terry himself. aCDC presents a KTF battle Fri 3/27, 10:30 PM, Lakeshore Theater, 3175 N. Broadway, 773-472-3492, lakeshoretheater.com, $10. An all-male series, Movement/Gentlemen, opens Fri 4/17, 7:30 PM, then runs through 5/3: Fri-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, Storefront Theater, 78 E. Washington, 312-742-8497, dcatheater.org, $17-$22. —Laura Molzahn

&Our readers' choiceMatter Dance Company

a The summer show Revolving Doors runs 6/25-6/28, Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Vittum Theatre, 1012 N. Noble, 773-342-4141, matterdance.com, $25.

Best Choreographer

rThe Reader's ChoiceEduardo Vilaro

Eduardo Vilaro has wrestled Luna Negra Dance Theater from small-potatoes beginnings to well-deserved prominence. Born in Cuba and raised in the Bronx, he danced for nine years with New York's Ballet Hispanico, then moved here in 1996 to attend Columbia College. In 1999 he founded Luna Negra, which started out contributing little pieces to big, overstuffed multicompany programs and now performs its own shows twice annually at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

Vilaro picks and chooses from the realms of modern, classical, and Latin dance to create works that can be sexy or lighthearted yet touch on challenging subjects: male-female relations in 2005's Quinceañera, or Cuban communism in 2007's Cugat! Always strong musically, Vilaro in recent years has come into his own with pieces set to live Latin music. Mi Corazon Negro, a 2006 collaboration with Afro-Peruvian singer Susana Baca and her band, was a party-time creation with a get-up-and-dance sense of community. And last September Vilaro debuted Deshar Alhat, an emotionally and musically complex piece set to sensuous Sephardic songs performed live by Stefani Valadez.

No attention hog despite his talent, Vilaro has invited many other artists to set works on the accomplished Luna Negra dancers. The company performed José Limon's classic There Is a Time as part of its fall program and has worked with homegrown choreographers Ron DeJesus, Maray Gutierrez, and Luna Negra rehearsal director Michelle Manzanales. aLuna Negra's spring concert is Sat 3/28, 8 PM, with a family matinee (for kids six and up, $10) at 3 PM, Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph, 312-334-7777, harristheaterchicago.org, $25-$55. The company also performs its "best works" Thu 5/14, 6:30 PM, Sat 5/16, 11 AM and 2 PM, Storefront Theater, 78 E. Washington, 312-742-8497, dcatheater.org, $10-$20. —Laura Molzahn

&Our readers' choiceCarisa Barreca

aOf Matter Dance Company.

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