Hamlet at Writers' Theatre

It’s a nearly impossible task, culling the 10 best from a year wherein we were fortunate enough to take in upward of 200 productions. To make things nominally manageable, we ruled out touring shows and Broadway tryouts (Book of Mormon, War Horse, Les Mis, Kinky Boots) in favor of home-grown Chicago productions. The results are below, listed in alphabetical order. Why alphabetical? Because if it it’s all but impossible to come up with the Top 10 from a roster of hundreds, it is downright unjust to further rank such an incomparable list. So without further ado, our Top 10 of 2012:

Angels in America
Court Theatre
Tony Kushner’s epic puts the AIDS pandemic front and center, but it’s not so much a play about a devastating disease as it is a galvanizing exploration of the world entire. And while that may sound grandiose and vague, Kushner’s brilliance lies in his ability to wrench universal truths from intensely specific situations. Directed by Charles Newell and anchored by Larry Yando‘s remarkable channeling of Reagan-era power broker (and closet case) Roy Cohn, Angels in America was at once cathartic, exhausting, brilliant, and essential.

Rick Bayless in Cascabel
Lookingglass Theatre
Romantic and luscious, Cascabel was a feast for both mind and mouth. Co-created by superchef Bayless, Heidi Stillman, and Tony Hernandez, it was infused with equal parts joy and indulgence. In combining the wonder of world-class aerial artists with four-star dining, Lookingglass created an inspired fusion of circus and cuisine.

Dark Play, or Stories for Boys
Based on a creepy/freaky true-crime incident wherein a young man came this/close to engineering his own murder, Carlos Murillo’s exploration of the darkest, wildest corners of social media was as chillingly fascinating as a sociopath. Directed by Anthony Moseley, newcomer Clancy McCartney gave a breakout performance as a disturbed teenage boy whose fantasies start bleeding into reality.

The Doyle and Debbie Show
Royal George Theatre
Belting out songs like ”God Loves America Best” and”(I Ain’t No Homo) But You Sure Look Good to Me” the Double Ds (aka Bruce Arntson and Jenny Littleton) proved themselves to be master satirists and bona fide, country-fried vocalists who had us laughing with the rip-snorting abandon of a drunken hillbilly at a red neck hoedown.

Writers' Theatre
A kingdom decaying from the inside out and a young prince tangled in a shocking web of sex, lies, murder and vengeance. Such are the bones of Shakespeare’s drama-turned-blood bath, here rendered with exquisite clarity by the director Michael Halberstam. Something may be famously rotten in the state of Denmark, but in Brown’s vision, all was brilliantly vivid, making Hamlet a production of fascinating menace and infinite complexity.

Hit the Wall
The Inconvenience
It’s been more than 40 years since the Stonewall rebellion, the historic night when a crew of drag queens, fed up after years of police harassment and brutality, planted their stilettos into the pavement and fought back. The events that ignited on June 27, 1969, resounded with thrilling urgency in Ike Holter’s fierce ensemble piece. Directed by Eric Hoff, this wasn’t a gay play so much as a passion play, steeped in the blood, sweat and triumph that birthed a movement.

The Iceman Cometh
Goodman Theatre
We were fortunate enough to see Iceman twice, on both opening and closing nights. Over the course of the run, the lost souls of O’Neill’s epic only gained intensity, making Iceman a heartbreaker with the gut-punching impact of 175 proof whiskey. As ensembles go, they simply do not get any better than the extraordinary group assembled by the director Robert Falls for Eugene O’Neill’s booze and sorrow-steeped saga of deluded dreams forever deferred.

Court Theatre
August Wilson’s dialogue is pure poetry: earthy, accessible, and forever in the service of his gorgeous storytelling. In director Ron OJ Parson, Wilson has an interpreter fully capable of doing justice to the playwright’s rhythms, the rich subtext embedded between the words and the overarching themes that drive the storytelling.

A Little Night Music
Writers' Theatre
Having seen both Bernadette Peters and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Stephen Sondheim’s wry, wise romance this season, we’ve gotta say: Broadway has nothing on Writers’ Theatre. The director William l. Brown mined the depths of a gloriously seductive show, crafting a dazzling ode to love and sexuality in a piece that was absolutely incandescent in its examination of yearning, folly and true love.

Sunday in the Park with George
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
It was a moment that brought goose bumps and left you breathless – the final scene of the first act when the characters of Stephen Sondheim’s musical form a shimmering replica of Georges Seurat’s masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. Art isn’t easy, so the lyric goes, but in this Chicago Shakespeare production directed by Gary Griffin, it was radiant with light, color, harmony and meaning.

Catey Sullivan is Chicago’s contributing theatre critic.