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Eight faves, six stars, and a horror: 2012 in theater

The best productions, beloved artists, and a show more than one Reader writer hated

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Did Timothy Douglas really serve as artistic director of Remy Bumppo Theatre? Or did I just dream it? The guy's tenure went by so fast—ending in January, after he'd spent only six months in the job.

Douglas's act of administrative seppuku was one of two hot stories involving newly appointed artistic directors in 2012. The other had to do with the hackles raised by Chay Yew as he moved to consolidate his position at Victory Gardens Theater. Just like Douglas, Yew was a stranger brought in from out of town to succeed a beloved theatrical patriarch. But, far from giving up when the transition got thorny, Yew enacted his own version of the baptism scene from The Godfather, pushing out the company's old-guard icons, including longtime associate artistic director Sandy Shinner and veteran members of the playwrights' ensemble.

It'd be a lot easier to fault Yew for callous arrogance if he hadn't also directed one of this year's best plays. After a tacky start recycling his 2009 production of Ameriville for us, Yew came back with Oedipus el Rey, Luis Alfaro's conceptually brilliant, Chicano-ized retelling of the Oedipal tragedy. Though set in a Los Angeles barrio, the show wasn't out for grit. On the contrary, the narrative unwound in a mythic dimension full of grace and terror.

Other 2012 favorites:

The Iceman Cometh, Goodman Theatre Robert Falls revisited the Eugene O'Neill classic he first staged in 1990—only this time he had Nathan Lane playing Hickey, the hail-fellow salesman with a big thirst and a dark secret. Lane was predictably vivid in the role. But the true glory of this Iceman (well, one of the true glories, another being Falls's fluent, buoyant way with the material) was the ensemble of 17 astonishing actors behind Lane.

Sunday in the Park With George, Chicago Shakespeare Theater Gary Griffin's staging had the same five elements Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine found in Georges Seurat's pointillist masterpiece A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884, the creation of which forms the heart of their 1984 musical: "Order. Design. Tension. Balance. Harmony." Griffin also threw in warmth and kick-ass tech.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, National Theatre of Scotland at Chicago Shakespeare Theater The first show the National Theatre of Scotland brought to Chicago, an Iraq War epic called Black Watch, was so good that I was initially wary of the second. With its aggressively wacky title, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart sounded like a self-conscious attempt to demonstrate the company's range—and that sort of thing often backfires. Well, it didn't backfire this time. Intimate where Black Watch was sweeping, sweet and tart where Black Watch was agonized, this musical, often rhymed tale of an earnest Scottish folklorist who falls prey to the devil played out like the ceilidh—Gaelic folk gathering—of your fondest dreams. There was liquor available, and the ensemble (expert actor/musicians all) occasionally landed in your lap.

Marat/Sade, Right Brain Project Seating is always tight in RBP's studio at Ravenswood and Irving Park, but director Nathan Robbel cramped it up further for his ingenious revival of Peter Weiss's Brechtian classic. We sat stuffed into steep, narrow bleachers at one end of the room, a curtain hung practically in front of our noses, while the action unfolded throughout the other, say, 99.9 percent of the space. This not only advanced Weiss's conceit—that the audience are guests invited to see a performance given by inmates at a progressive French insane asylum, circa 1808—but also (a) gave the show an unsettling depth of field and (b) made it easier for Robbel and company to scare the hell out of us whenever they felt like it—something they did often and with escalating effectiveness.

Enron, Timeline Theatre This production of the 2009 play by Brit writer Lucy Prebble did for me what nobody and nothing else has been able to do: provide a clear and compelling explication of the complex, insanely hubristic shell game that brought down Texas energy giant Enron. Rachel Rockwell and an extraordinary ensemble staged Prebble's necessarily surreal script with great visual wit and a laughing-through-the-gape-mouthed-incredulity sense of humor.

Hit the Wall, the Inconvenience at Steppenwolf Theatre's Garage Rep In a big coup for a young playwright, Ike Holter's look at the Stonewall riots was reviewed, glowingly, by New Yorker critic Hilton Als. It deserved the national recognition. Holter and director Eric Hoff did an exquisite job of weaving together the memories, fantasies, and brutal realities of various characters who may or may not have been at Greenwich Village's Stonewall Inn during the wee hours of June 28, 1969, when the gay rights movement was born. Later in 2012, Holter offered up an eccentric, Twilight Zone-ish piece called Loom. It was basically a goof, but it helped confirm his talent.

Empanada for a Dream at the Yo Solo Festival of Latino Solo Shows While Latino-American voters were shaking up the 2012 elections, Latino-American theater was doing the same to Chicago stages. Not long after Victory Gardens's Oedipus el Rey came the first annual Yo Solo Festival, a coproduction of Teatro Vista and Collaboraction that showcased works by a half-dozen Hispano-centric artists. The standout in a fairly good field was Juan Francisco Villa's Empanada for a Dream. "Harrowing, hilarious, absurd, brave, incredibly well crafted yet terrifying in its rage," I wrote at the time, "Villa's memoir of growing up in the drug culture of Manhattan's lower east side reminds me of nothing so much as William Carlos Williams's advice to readers of Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl': 'Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.'"

As a man with an English degree, I tend to be more attentive to the playwright's words than the actors' actions. This year some Chicago performers did a great job of weaning me away from that bias. They include Marc Grapey (The Iceman Cometh, Victory Gardens' Equivocation, and Northlight Theatre's The Odd Couple), Janet Ulrich Brooks (Steppenwolf's South of Settling and Victory Gardens' Failure: A Love Story), Arturo Soria (Oedipus el Rey, Hit the Wall, and Equivocation), Sean Fortunato (Enron and Chicago Shakespeare's The School for Lies), the egregiously underknown Melissa Lorraine (Theatre Y's Porn), and a twitchy Mark Montgomery in Writers' Theatre's The Letters.

Oh, and one show I truly hated: Calixto Bieito's Goodman Theatre revival of the Tennessee Williams play Camino Real, which seemed dedicated not just to the degradation of Williams himself but of every actor onstage. Seriously, that appeared to be the concept.

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