This time of year we’re inundated with reminders to shop local, but there’s never a bad time to check out smaller local theater companies who specialize in innovation, guts, and sometimes just sheer blissful goofiness. These artists mostly work for love, not money — and their damn-the-torpedoes commitment to craft over the bottom line makes our weekly voyages “On the Fringe” a homegrown adventure. Here are our top shows from 2011.
Kerry Reid’s picks:
“The Word Progress On My Mother’s Lips Doesn’t Ring True” (Trap Door Theatre): This Bucktown company’s commitment to European avant-garde work makes them one of the fringiest of fringe companies — they’re not exactly striving for mainstream accessibility. But Matei Visniec’s sorrowful exploration of the aftermath of a Balkan civil war circumvented the cerebral for a punch to the gut. Through a series of heartbreaking and darkly poetic vignettes (captured through director Istvan Szabo K.’s unforgettable stage pictures), Visniec’s script and the stellar cast channeled the voices of the dead — and walking dead — in a region where war has been a predominant fact of life for centuries. Through Jan. 14. Up next for Trap Door: Peter Handke’s “They Are Dying Out,“ opening Feb. 16; trapdoortheatre.com.
- Happy holidays from the Theater Loop
- Best Chicago theater performances of 2011
- Theater Chicagoan of the Year is JESSIE MUELLER: A glass slipper, a crystalline voice
- Leah Urzendowski in The Neo-Futurist production of "Burning Bluebeard."
- Superman (fictional character)
- Chicago Transit Authority
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“Man From Nebraska” (Redtwist Theatre): Tracy Letts got a lot of exposure this year (not that he needs it) from this Edgewater troupe, which produced both “Bug” and this 2003 play about insurance salesman who faces a crisis of faith that sends him on a journey to London while his wife tries to pick up the pieces back home. Andrew Jessop’s finely tuned production brought out all the shades of midlife existential angst contained in Letts’ compassionate script with clarity and precision, and the performances by Chuck Spencer and Jan Ellen Graves (delivered inches from our noses) were so painfully honest I wanted to reach out and hug them both. Up next for Redtwist: Michael Hollinger’s “Opus” runs through Jan. 15; redtwist.org.
“Or,” (Caffeine Theatre): Caffeine has long specialized in examining lives of famous literati (their production of “Boojum!” about Lewis Carroll was on my list last year), but they found a way to combine egghead with goofball in this smart and thoroughly engaging farce. Liz Duffy Adams’ portrait of Aphra Behn, the first woman in the English-speaking world to make a living by her pen, managed to weave together feminist literary criticism with historical intrigue and bodice-ripping bedroom romps. Up next for Caffeine: “The Oxford Roof Climber’s Rebellion” by Stephen Massicotte in March; caffeinetheatre.com.
Nina Metz’s picks:
“Superman: 2050” (Theater Un-Speak-Able): No matter how dazzling the special effects may be in the upcoming cinematic remake of “Superman,” none will feel as witty or clever as the analog efforts of creator Marc Frost (as Clark Kent/Superman) and his six fellow actors — all clad in blue body-hugging spandex — crammed onto a platform the size of a parking space for this winking yet utterly sincere and high-energy version of the Superman myth. Never has physical theater embraced pop culture so wholeheartedly. Using zero props and zero set design, they created an action-packed story — from Smallville to the offices of the Daily Planet — using only shifts in body language. The budget for this thing couldn’t be more than a couple hundred dollars at most. Now that’s a fringe show. Up next: After touring the Midwest over the summer, Un-Speak-Able will perform “Superman” in New York next month as part of the Times Square International Theater Festival; un-speak-able.com.
“Burning Bluebeard” (Neo-Futurists): Bursting out of body bags, a deranged band of ghost performers prowl the stage in Jay Torrence’s darkly comic, strangely moving burlesque about the real life 1903 fire that annihilated the newly built Iroquois Theater on Randolph Street. Of the 600 people that died, only one was a performer, and Torrence has crafted a work based on a palpable, antic sense of survivor’s guilt. Beautiful, weird and silly — qualities that tend to work well on stage at the Neo-Futurarium — director Halena Kays brings this embroidered moment in history back to life with discombobulating music choices (a mashup of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “The Final Countdown”) and a sense of whacked-out theatricality. I swear I could smell something burning at the outset of the show. Through Dec. 28. Up next for the Neo-Futurists: “The Strange and Terrible True Story of Pinocchio (the wooden boy) as Told by Frankenstein’s Monster (the wretched creature)” from Greg Allen in March; neofuturists.org.
“El Stories: Holiday Train” (Waltzing Mechanics): As a regular rider of the CTA, I was a sucker for the latest installment of this series, which is as uncomplicated as it sounds: brief vignettes depicting the absurdities and random encounters that define any trip on public transportation. Using the stories of real people interviewed by company members, the cast happily skewers the CTA’s annual holiday train tradition while also carefully tending to the more whimsical and, yes, touching anecdotes that have a way a getting under your skin long after the show has ended. Through Jan. 14; waltzingmechanics.org.