Last summer Jamil Khoury erased all doubt: he's far and away the hardest-working polemicist in Chicago theater. June saw the Silk Road Rising artistic director going after Mary Zimmerman for the "shocking and breathtaking" insensitivity of comments she made apropos of her Goodman Theatre staging of The Jungle Book. In an essay posted on his company website, Khoury damned the "theatricalized Orientalism" of Zimmerman's oeuvre, the "unexamined white privilege" in her attitudes, and—somewhat mysteriously—the way her thinking echoed "how our judicial system has historically protected rapists." In August he rebuked Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss with a similar intensity for what he called "Islamophobic and anti-Arab views" contained in her review of a Silk Road show, Invasion! (Full disclosure the Sun-Times and the Reader share an owner.)
But he wasn't done yet. Just a few days after l'affaire Hedy, Khoury issued a manifesto calling for an Arab-American theater movement. "We need safe space in which to confront challenges and taboos," he declared. "And by inviting others to join us in that safe space, including non-Arab Americans, even those we perceive as ignorant or hostile . . . by allowing their opinions to matter, fully and without censure, without admonishment, regardless of how annoying or offensive some of those opinions may be, that's how we'll create social and political change."
Among the other memorable performances of 2013:
Four of my favorites were from out of town, and Chicago Shakespeare Theater's consistently great World's Stage Series presented no fewer than three of them. In Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker the consistently brave Belarus Free Theatre toured the title city Ulysses in Nighttown style, demonstrating how tyranny debases every human activity, including—maybe especially—sex. A consortium of Italian troupes staged Inner Voices, a tragedy masquerading as a farce, in which longtime neighbors go into a backstabbing frenzy over a possible crime. And London's Blind Summit let the garrulous old puppet protagonist of The Table kibitz to his charming, caustic, ultimately profound heart's content—occasionally while dancing.
The fourth import was Pedro Páramo, an adaptation of Juan Rulfo's classic "magic realist" novel about a man on an errand to a village of ghosts. The tale was—yes—hauntingly realized at Goodman Theatre's Latino Theatre Festival by a cast mingling Chicago actors with members of Havana's Teatro Buendía.
Is it cheating to list remountings of shows that were hits in previous years? Well, can't be helped: three such redos were also among the best of 2013. Under the auspices of the Chicago Commercial Collective, Timeline Theatre gave us a piquant, touching, wonderfully acted second look at a 2010 success, To Master the Art—the tale of how Julia Child, bureaucrat's wife, evolved into Julia Child, queen of haute cuisine. Court Theatre brought back Timothy Edward Kane to repeat—somewhat more meditatively this time, I thought—his 2011 tour de force in An Iliad, a 90-minute monologue that centers on but resonates well past the Trojan War. And most remarkable of all, artists who participated in the Neo-Futurists' 2011 production of Burning Bluebeard reconstituted themselves as the Ruffians to resurrect that truly strange and delicate piece about the Iroquois Theatre disaster, which killed 600 people in 1903. An ensemble masterpiece, at once comic, horrific, and holy, Burning Bluebeard is scheduled to run through January 5.
More bests, unique to Chicago and 2013:
Dawn, Quixote After eight years at the visually exquisite end of the Chicago fringe, Blake Montgomery decided to close down his theater company, the Building Stage. His splendid farewell show told the story of Don Quixote—the aging, mad nobleman whose name has passed into language as the very word for lost causes. In the process, Montgomery poked wry fun at the mad, noble enterprise of starting a theater.
Cyrano de Bergerac Yet another Chicago Shakespeare show, though—unlike the World's Stage productions—this one can be considered homegrown to the extent that director Penny Metropulos and lead actor Harry Groener have worked at the theater on Navy Pier before (having teamed up for The Madness of George III in 2011) and many of the subsidiary roles were filled by CST regulars. Together with their designers they generated a work of aesthetic beauty, psychological depth, and moral ambiguity.
Smokefall In my review of this Goodman Theatre show, I called playwright Noah Haidle the current "king of theatrical quirk," and I'll stand by that. He's a sophisticated wit who mines bizarre conceits (ladder salesmen with a sideline in human hearts, a four-year-old unhappily married to her imaginary friend), playing with their absurdity even as he attempts to draw a melancholy poetry from them. In my experience of his plays, this assertively odd family chronicle marked the moment when Haidle's quirkiness became a mature vision. No small amount of the credit goes to director Anne Kauffman and a crack ensemble featuring Mike Nussbaum, who capped his 89th year with phenomenal performances in two roles.
Port Authority This Writers Theatre production looks gentle enough as its trio of Irish losers start addressing the audience and one another, telling the stories of where, when, and how they missed their respective moments. Funny enough, too. But William Brown's staging of the 2002 Conor McPherson play is capable of doing some real damage as it sinks in. If you drive home afterward (and it's still running through February 16), I suggest you pull over until your vivid, livid, human-heart's-core recognition of waste subsides.
The Whale I felt ambivalent about Samuel Hunter's somewhat too self-consciously artful script, but never about Joanie Schultz's Victory Gardens Theater production of it. Basically, what put the show on this list was Dale Calandra's performance as Charlie, a morbidly obese man suffering his dark night—well, let's face it, dark decades—of the soul. Acting mainly with his head from inside a body suit ingeniously engineered by Janice Pytel, Calandra was quietly stunning.