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Best of Chicago 2011: Theatre

Last season’s winners

PJ Powers of TimeLine Theatre, director Dexter Bullard, and actors Nick Sandys and Ora Jones
From left: TimeLine’s PJ Powers, director Dexter Bullard, and actors Nick Sandys and Ora Jones
 

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THEATRE COMPANY TIMELINE For every Steppenwolf, Lookingglass, and Chicago Shakespeare, there are a dozen or more casualties strewn along the road to longevity. (Remember FirstBorn, Roadworks, or Big Game? Who? Exactly.) Then there’s TimeLine. The company, which focuses on plays with historical themes, has transcended all the usual traps. Helmed by PJ Powers (right), who cofounded it when he was working at a clothing store, TimeLine just crossed the finish line of its 14th season. The thrilling affair included a fascinating production of Frost/Nixon; the world premiere of To Master the Art, an original biodrama about Julia Child by Doug Frew and William Brown; and cofounder Nick Bowling’s rousing revival of The Front Page. All the while, TimeLine has made it look easy, gradually adding full-time staffers and putting to great use its loyal and talented core of artists.

BOX OFFICE HIT A TWIST OF WATER Since when does an off-Loop play with virtually no marketing budget draw the attention of both the city mayor and the suburban clergy? Caitlin Montanye Parrish managed it with A Twist of Water. Those who saw the vividly drawn drama before Rahm Emanuel personally endorsed it already knew: Parrish’s deceptively simple story possessed that quicksilver quality that separates the extraordinary from the adequate. The Route 66 Theatre Company spun the tale, about a recently widowed gay man and his adopted African American daughter, who, in the wake of her other father’s sudden death, wants to find her biological mother. Parrish interwove the narrative of a modern family rising from emotional ashes with the story of the city rising from the cinders of the Great Chicago Fire. The resulting dialogue was at once poetic and dramatically rich. The play also examined the power of rejuvenation. In a recent sermon, the Reverend Rex E. Piercy, of the Congregational United Church of Christ in Arlington Heights, cited the 27-year-old dramatist’s description of a family and a city “moved by water and unearned hope.” Parrish’s words, it seems, speak to everyone.

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DIRECTOR DEXTER BULLARD As shows go, Victory Gardens’ season closer sounded like Dante’s ninth circle of performance-art hell: A 110-minute intermission-free sprint in which actors play adult students doing theatre games at a community center? How could Circle Mirror Transformation be anything other than a portrait of insufferable navel-gazing? Directing Annie Baker’s darkly humorous drama with a sure hand, Dexter Bullard made this self-referential world improbably fascinating. It was but one of many Bullardian efforts to grace the landscape last season. He also directed Brett Neveu’s creepy Odradek for the House Theatre and The Big Meal, Dan LeFranc’s gastronomic tale of emotional upheaval, for American Theater Company. In his spare time, Bullard oversaw the transfer of A Red Orchid’s Mistakes Were Made to New York and curated The Dialogue Series, a Links Hall production. And, oh yes, he’s the head of the graduate acting program at DePaul University and still the artistic director of Plasticene, an avant-garde ensemble. Clearly, the man can handle quantity and quality.

ACTOR NICK SANDYS As the star of Remy Bumppo’s The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?, Nick Sandys, a native of Coventry, England, was charged with a task as close to impossible as things get in the land of suspended disbelief: make audiences believe that Martin, the brilliant architect/loving husband/totally normal protagonist of Edward Albee’s provocative tale, was in love with a goat. And not just puppy love either, but deep, true, potentially heartbreaking love, carnal embrace and all. Even harder, Sandys had to make audiences empathize with Martin. Beginning with an extraordinary monologue and continuing the length of the riveting production, Sandys took us there, and he perhaps even taught a lesson about how to survive the unthinkable. For that, we think his single performance topped all the rest last year.

ACTRESS ORA JONES Harlots, queens, and all the women in between. On the continuum of female roles, Ora Jones falls just about everywhere—sometimes literally, as in her gloriously prolonged comic pratfall down a grand staircase in 2010’s Animal Crackers at the Goodman. A Notre Dame alum, Jones seems to be hitting her stride at an age when many actresses find roles increasingly scarce. Over the past season, she spanned a range of complex women with her usual aplomb: In Steppenwolf’s epic Brother/Sister series, Jones delivered a haunting portrayal of Mama Moja, a tough-love matriarch in the dirt-poor fictional bayous of In the Red and Brown Water. She skipped centuries and continents to become the pampered but vexed Queen Charlotte in The Madness of King George III at Chicago Shakespeare. Against the megawatt Sturm-und-Drang star power of Henry Groener’s noisily disintegrating royal, Jones never faltered

MUSICAL WORKING Back in 1978, Working, the Stephen Schwartz musical based on Studs Terkel’s beloved book, tanked on Broadway after only a few dozen performances. What a difference 33 years makes. Tightened and retooled by Schwartz (Wicked, The Addams Family), the show opened here in March, and the city roared its approval. With new songs by renowned composers including James Taylor and Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), streamlined scenes, and a cast of genuine singing-dancing-acting triple threats, Working brought its stories to vivid life. Those stories included powerhouse E. Faye Butler’s anthemic lament “Just a Housewife” and Gene Weygandt’s soulful philosophizing about the dying breed of blue-collar manual laborers. By the time Gabriel Ruiz began belting about the freedom of fast-food delivery, we had been swept away with appreciation for everyday heroes.

 

Photography: Lisa Predko; Hair & Makeup: Martina Sykes; assistant: Sarah Crump

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