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Best of Chicago 2008: Theater

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THEATER

Best Theater

Reader's Choice: The Neo-Futurists

There are larger local companies, and god knows there are local companies that are financially better endowed, but none more completely embraces the DIY spirit that first put Chicago theater on the map than the Neo-Futurists. And come December, they'll have been at it for 20 years. All their shows are original works, written, directed, and for the most part performed by ensemble members. In fact their signature production, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, by design, forces company members to create new material every week. That's refreshing in an increasingly timid theater scene, packed with revivals of shows that were hits (or near hits, or bombs) elsewhere. aToo Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind: Fri-Sat 11:30 PM (doors open 11 PM), Sun 7 PM (doors open 6:30 PM), Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland, second floor, 773-275-5255, neofuturists.org, $7 plus the roll of a die ($8-$13). —Jack Helbig

Readers' Choice: Steppenwolf Theatre Company

a1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, steppenwolf.org.

Best Emerging Theater Company

Reader's Choice: Polarity Ensemble Theatre

In three years Polarity Ensemble Theatre has produced five full-length shows (mostly original adaptations of meaty classics), staged a new-plays competition in a Moroccan cafe, and published a book. By Chicago theater standards they're slackers, and until recently I'd have said they were indistinguishable from any number of other ambitious but destitute itinerant companies. But their Hamlet, which closed June 15, has made them a force to be reckoned with. Their threadbare, bullshit-free production turned five structurally unruly, linguistically dense acts into an evening of engaged and engaging storytelling—something that big, moneyed, Tony-winning Shakespeare complex on Navy Pier does only on occasion. In Polarity's relatively green hands, the 400-year-old behemoth felt positively brisk, as though it had been written yesterday. Hopefully they'll keep proving how vital and contemporary classic theater can be. apetheatre.com. —Justin Hayford

Readers' Choice: Organic Theater Company

a312-634-0199, organictheater.org.

Best Actor

Reader's Choice: Ross Lehman, Larry Yando, and John Mahoney (tie)

Chicago's lousy with best actors; picking one on the basis of skill alone is plain silly. How do you compare James Vincent Meredith's fierce dignity in The Crucible, say, with Joel Hatch's weary bewilderment in The Adding Machine? You don't. Still, there's one test of bestness that makes sense to me: the ability to grow and flourish in one's craft over time. By that measure, three actors stand out: Ross Lehman, Larry Yando, and John Mahoney. Each one's had a long career onstage, and each took it to a new level of profundity this season. Mahoney found and mined a powerful complexity in Northlight's otherwise weak comedy, Better Late. Yando turned Scrooge into a tortured figure and As You Like It's tortured Jaques into a beat philosopher. Comic actor Lehman, meanwhile, seems to be going through a Picasso-like second bloom, combining amazing freedom with absolute mastery. aLehman in The Comedy of Errors: Through 6/29, Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Sun 6/8, 3 and 7 PM, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand, 312-595-5600, $54-$70. —Tony Adler

Readers' Choice: Joel Stanley Huff, Organic Theater Company

Best Actress

Reader's Choice: Martha Lavey, Amy Morton, Rondi Reed, and Deanna Dunagan (tie)

A major reason for Steppenwolf Theatre's continued success—including the recent Broadway triumph of August: Osage County—is the work of ensemble members Martha Lavey, Amy Morton, and Rondi Reed and frequent guest artist Deanna Dunagan. These superb performers have been offering intelligent, compelling portrayals of complex characters on local stages for decades. Reed and Morton have also made their mark as directors; Lavey, Steppenwolf's artistic director since 1995, has done an extraordinary job of steering the company—once the epitome of bad-boy rock 'n' roll theater—to new standards of artistic maturity while expanding the troupe's diversity and relevance to younger artists and audiences. The three of them and Dunagan exemplify the artistry and commitment of a number of actresses whose steady growth has mirrored the ripening of the off-Loop movement. I've given both positive and negative reviews to their work over the years, and why not? Their careers embody the freedom to experiment—the right to fail as well as succeed—that defines Chicago theater. aAmy Morton directs Dublin Carol Thu 11/13-Sun 12/21, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, upstairs theater, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, $50-$70, tickets go on sale Thu 9/25. —Albert Williams

Readers' Choice: Meghan Shea, Organic Theater Company

Best Director

Reader's Choice: Dexter Bullard

Some directors stick to a particular genre or niche, but since 1990, when he founded the Next Lab, Dexter Bullard has proved equally adept with farce, satire, naturalistic drama, extreme physical theater, and—for Second City—sketch comedy. (He most recently helmed the world premiere production of Brett Neveu's Gas for Less at the Goodman Theatre.) But it's not just the range and depth of his work that makes Bullard such a strong director—it's his refusal to fall into the twin ruts of repeating his own past successes and re-creating those of others. His drive to create new work and explore new ways of making theater—best exemplified by his experimental group, Plasticene—makes him one of the Chicago theater scene's living treasures. —Jack Helbig

Readers' Choice: Alexander Gelman, Organic Theater Company

Best Playwright

Reader's Choice: Emily Schwartz and Marisa Wegrzyn (tie)

This town's been all about Tracy Letts lately, but two young playwrights might give him a run for his Pulitzer Prize money. Emily Schwartz's Mr. Spacky... The Man Who Was Continuously Followed by Wolves delivered more laughs per minute than anything I saw all last year, and her bold, silly Cowboy Birthday Party was the highlight of this year's Collaboraction Sketchbook Festival. Meanwhile, Marisa Wegrzyn had two very different scripts produced by Theatre Seven in 2007: Diversey Harbor, a poignant play-in-monologues about postcollegiate Chicagoans grappling with tragedy, and Killing Women, a take-no-prisoners black comedy about a hit woman recruiting a single mom. There's nothing wan or cutesy about the way these two write (if you hate Sarah Ruhl, you'll love them), but neither do they keep reminding us How Rotten People Are (are you listening, Neil LaBute?). aSchwartz's The Mysterious Elephant runs through 7/19, Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 2 PM, no show Thu-Fri 7/3-7/4, Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, 773-598-8240, $20. Wegrzyn's Psalms of a Questionable Nature runs through 6/29, Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Live Bait Theater, 3914 N. Clark, 773-334-7728, $15-$20. —Kerry Reid

Readers' Choice: Tracy Letts

aLetts's new play Superior Donuts previews through 6/28, Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sat also 3 PM, and opens 6/29, Sun 6 PM. Through 8/17 it runs Tue-Sun 7:30 PM, Sat and Sun 3 PM, Wed, 6/30-8/13, 2 PM, no show Sun 7:30 PM 8/3-17, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, downstairs theater, 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650, $20-$68.

Best Lobby Bar

Reader's Choice: The Viaduct Theater

As the son of a theater critic, my eldest has been taken to lots of shows. But the first theater company he got interested in on his own as an adult was the House Theatre of Chicago. I don't doubt that their high-energy, rock-inflected, never-back-down productions had a lot to do with it—but I'm also certain that the lobby bar at their old space, the Viaduct Theater, was a huge factor too. Grungy but comfortable, with just the right amount of poor lighting and a touch of faded class, it offered my kid a congenial atmosphere for having a beer and hanging out—often enough with the cast—before and after performances. The House has moved on, but the Viaduct's still there, hosting other companies. And so is the bar. People are always worrying about how to lure digital natives to live theater. Here's one simple answer. aWed-Sat, from about an hour before shows, 3111 N. Western, 773-296-6024, viaducttheatre.com. —Tony Adler

Readers' Choice: Strawdog Theatre Company

a3829 N. Broadway, second floor, 312-528-9696, strawdog.org.

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