In his Tony Award acceptance speech this year for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Tracy Letts gave special thanks to the Chicago storefront scene that nurtured him. "We are the ones who say it to their faces," he declared of his small-theater peers. Every week, we cover the storefronts, basements and lofts where actors, playwrights, directors, and crews labor to bring audiences the intimacy and immediacy sometimes lacking in larger venues. Who knows? Maybe the next Letts will emerge from one of the shows listed here.
KERRY REID'S PICKS
"Dawn, Quixote" (The Building Stage): Every year the fringe scene suffers casualties, and this year is no exception. The Building Stage, which created thrilling shows drawn from literature ("Moby-Dick") and history ("The Franklin Expedition") for eight years, gave itself a fine send-off with this piece, conceived and directed by founder Blake Montgomery. The aging Quixote's adventures served as a fitting and emotionally rich metaphor for the end of an idealistic company whose members will certainly continue tilting at different artistic windmills.
"Broken Fences" (16th Street Theater): Steven Simoncic's timely snapshot of gentrification in East Garfield Park, not far from 16th Street's Berwyn location, is a piece that has grown richer in my mind since I first saw it this past fall. Simoncic has the same laser-precise ability to lacerate well-meaning (but self-absorbed) white urbanites as Bruce Norris, but provides a meatier dissection of urban renewal than "Clybourne Park." Daniel J. Bryant delivered a poignant performance as a working-class black man who sees his little slice of the American pie slipping away despite his efforts.
Up next: Laura Jacqmin's "Do-Gooder," which also tackles race and urban displacement, starting Jan. 16, at 16thstreettheater.org.
"The Mother" (Oracle Theatre): Artistic director Max Truax took Bertolt Brecht's 1930 agit-prop one-act about a working-class woman drawn deeper into the revolution and created an immersive musical production featuring Jonathan Guillen's simple but haunting score. Katherine Keberlein's wrenching performance in the title role was one of the highlights of the year.
Up next: "The Mother" returns in an encore Jan. 23; publicaccesstheatre.org.
Honorable mentions: Idris Goodwin's "How We Got On" at Citadel Theatre in Lake Forest; Bilal Dardai's "The Sovereign Statement" for the Neo-Futurists; "Waiting for Lefty" at Oracle Theatre.
NINA METZ'S PICKS
"The TomKat Project" (The Playground): This rollicking satire relied on gossip, conjecture and legitimate facts to speculate about the true nature of Scientology and the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes marriage. The show was a big hit for the fringe scene, with a sold-out, nearly five-month run. The brainchild of writer-performer Brandon Ogborn and director Elly Green, the show was more than a riff on tabloid culture; it was a winking indictment of our obsession with celebrity mayhem: Us Weekly-meets-Susan Sontag. The bare-bones approach was a big part of its charm, with a cast of seven versatile performers, including standout Brianna Baker.
Up next: After the show's appearance at New York's Fringe Fest and a brief run in LA, Ogborn says he is working to publish the script so other companies can perform it. Ogborn looks poised to land a TV gig and moves to LA next month. By the way, Cruise's attorney Bert Fields (played by Baker in the show) was at one of those LA performances and, per Ogborn, led the audience in a standing ovation.
"The Miss Neo Pageant" (Neo-Futurists): Here was a show ready to blow rigid notions of beauty and femininity out of the water, with a few other creaky gender norms along the way. I called it "equal parts salty performance art and high-energy riot grrrl hoedown" with a cast (including creator Megan Mercier) conspicuously atypical of the pageant look. The smiles and swimsuits were on ironic display, but so were the tattoos as they skewered everything from fantasies of the perfectly equipped kitchen to Anne Hathaway's please-like-me Oscar campaign.
Up next: "Haymaker" is coming to the Neo-Futurarium in May. Creator Trevor Dawkins explores our urge to fight by staging an action movie he wrote when he was 12 called "Tears of Shanghai." Go to neofuturists.org.
"Incident on Run #1217" (Factory): A rare drama from a company that usually dishes out boisterous comedies, Manny Tamayo's script was unnerving in its depiction of a violent assault unfolding on a CTA train. Though fictional, the show had a true-crime feel to it, constantly asking the audience: How would you react in this same situation?
Up next: In April, Factory remounts "Hey! Dancin! Hey! Musical!," an '80s-soaked comedy about a cable-access dance show; thefactorytheater.com. It's also fundraising on indiegogo.com.
Honorable mentions: Jon Steinhagen's "Successors" at Signal Ensemble; the live-lit mashup "Welcome to PleasureTown" at Stage 773; Porchlight Theater's "Best Musical! A Completely Improvised Musical Comedy"; Hell in a Handbag's "L'imitation of Life"; Emilio Williams' "Your Problem With Men" at Teatra Luna; Redtwist's "Beautiful Dark"; and New Colony's "Kate and Sam Are Not Breaking Up."
Kerry Reid is a freelance reporter.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun