For the theater year in review, 11 critics describe the most memorable theatrical event of 2006 for them. It might have been a performance, an image, an ad hoc line, or a five-minute bit, but it had to have made a lasting and positive impression.
House Theatre of Chicago's staged comic book, Valentine Victorious, trafficked heavily in 30s-era mad scientist technology--great and forbidding inventions out of a "Bizarro World" edition of Popular Science. But the January show's most advanced device was a nuclear blast carried out with nothing more than a few green umbrellas--demonstrating that even when the science is fiction, the simplest solution is probably right.
Jennifer Mathews improved on Laurie Metcalf's performance in a role created for her by Alexandra Gersten in 1992's My Thing of Love, about marital infidelity. Where Metcalf as the beleaguered wife treated her lines as a sitcom audition, Mathews in the Infamous Commonwealth Theatre production in April played the character's serious side, turning scenes that at Steppenwolf had been mildly funny into some of the evening's most moving moments.
During the kinetic climax of Redmoon Theater's The Golden Truffle this spring, athletic Rick Kubes--ridiculously padded out to portray a rotund chef--attempted to vault a banquette and fell into a tableful of innocent audience members. Somehow his energy, spilling over into ineptitude, epitomized all the exuberant missteps of this generous, ludicrously oversize show about consumerism.
In the middle of the Nonsense Company's audaciously antitheatrical Three Penny Opera in April, one actor climbed naked onto a table for no discernible reason while another actor worked a dildo in his ass. Three cheers for the alienation effect.
In a September Chicago Underground Comedy show, burly local stand-up C.J. Sullivan showed off his trademark bite in an off-the-cuff response to the loud, unusual ring tone of an audience member's cell phone. "What is that, Coleco?" Sullivan asked. "You got Donkey Kong Jr. on that thing? Remember that big steering wheel plug-in? Drive to the back and answer it."
The most heartbreakingly beautiful moment of the year came at the end of Jay Torrence's fanciful Roustabout: The Great Circus Train Wreck!, about the imagined lives and all-too-real deaths of 87 circus performers in a 1918 train accident. After the actors took one last poignant turn around the big top--the scruffy Neo-Futurarium--they covered themselves with canvas versions of the headstones for the anonymous dead in Forest Park's Woodlawn Cemetery.
Despairing townspeople dragging their war dead onstage during Robert Falls's King Lear at the Goodman this fall was the year's most powerful image. Recognizing that the shapes wrapped in plastic represented human forms, including children, was particularly wrenching, driving home the play's contemporary relevance. It seemed ages before Gloucester's body was finally thrown into the burial pit, but wanting the scene to end only underscored how effective it was.
Deborah Hearst's noble performance in the thankless title role of Neil LaBute's Fat Pig was one of the year's highlights. Night after night, at every performance, the Profiles Theatre actress was forced to lose the guy she craves because he's not bighearted enough to overlook her size. Hearst gave the role a graceful Rubenesque energy. To hell with Kate Moss--more is more!
Mary Shen Barnidge
It was October, and the Batey Urbano storefront space in Humboldt Park was unheated. But Ivan Vega's performance as a disco-era pimp--indeed, the entire UrbanTheater Company production of Miguel Pinero's 1977 play, Eulogy for a Small-Time Thief--generated blowtorch heat.
The off-Broadway hit Altar Boyz--which launched its national tour here in mid-October--was a sweet surprise. Clever songs, a smart script, and sexy/silly hip-hop dances depicted a boy band's struggles with postadolescent identity crises and preaching the gospel. In a show-stopping solo, Ryan J. Ratliff as an effeminate Clay Aiken wannabe revealed his long-hidden "secret" with a diva-esque declaration: "I ... am ... a ... Catholic!"
A tie: act two of the Kirov Ballet's Swan Lake at the Auditorium Theatre in November, and the "horse snorkles" routine by sketch comedians the Pajama Men at the Gallery Cabaret in July. Both brought tears to my eyes.