Top 10 shows that live on: Best Chicago theater of 2013

The year in Chicago theater produced some gorgeous new plays, a stunning revival of one of the most important dramatic works ever penned by a Chicagoan and any number of intimate encounters with matters of import, not the least being the problem of gun violence in Chicago, with which Chicago's theaters wrestled throughout 2013.

At the same time, there were shows that seemed to find new ways of making us laugh, old ways of making us cry and any number of ways of making us think. Here, in order of preference and with a wish there was room for more of the worthy, is my list of the best of Chicago theater in 2013. The list includes shows that did not originate in Chicago. (This was a fine year for visiting companies, especially from other nations.) But it does not include productions — such as the excellent “Once,” the national tour of “Anything Goes” and its fine professional song-and-dance folks, the remount of Court Theatre's “An Iliad” or the sublime Mary-Arrchie Theatre production of “The Glass Menagerie” — that I had previously reviewed in another city or year, even if the cast had changed.

All the shows here were new to Chicago in 2013. All live on in my mind.

1. "Smokefall," Goodman Theatre: Even if director Anne Kauffman's production of "Smokefall" had not showcased the incomparable Mike Nussbaum, the dean of Chicago actors, this still would have been a fragile new play with which to fall in love. Its author, Noah Haidle, had been through some stuff. And, after greatly revising his latest play following its West Coast premiere, he seemingly poured every ounce of his rich personal experience into this deeply moving story of several generations of a fractured Midwestern family, populated by needy eccentrics, all looking for happiness but willing to settle for a little peace. Here was a kind of "Our Town" with a new twist: Nowadays we run fast and far from Grover's Corners (or Grand Rapids), but, if things don't work out, we might well find ourselves back, staring at our childhood ceiling. "Smokefall" precisely caught how that feels.

2. "A Raisin in the Sun," TimeLine Theatre: Lorraine Hansberry's masterpiece is so often produced that it's hard for a production to stand out. But director Ron OJ Parson's superb TimeLine Theatre production came with several inspired notions, including high stakes, young actors and an intimate, immersive design concept that reminded you that the Younger family was living in a cramped apartment building and their dream was, no more and no less, to have a home of their own. Hansberry's play may have crushed racial barriers, but it also is a beautiful piece of poetry, on a par with most anything written in America in the 20th century.

3. "Columbinus," American Theater Company: Staged last winter when memories of Sandy Hook were still extremely raw, the American Theater Company production of "Columbinus," the story of another shooting in a real-life American school, was wading into the very trickiest of waters, exploitation or sensationalism just a hair-trigger away. Somehow, P.J. Paparelli's production of a work he created himself, alongside Stephen Karam, avoided all of that. In his best work since arriving in Chicago, Paparelli built on a previous frame to forge a newly expanded, deeply moving piece of theater long in gestation, driven by painful oral histories and filtered through minds determined to wrestle with the confounding problem of gun violence in America.

4. "Proof," Court Theatre: We thought we knew David Auburn's well-made 2000 play (and a proven commercial hit and movie) about the troubled but brilliant daughter of a University of Chicago mathematician. But even though he was producing this play in the Chicago neighborhood of its setting, and even though the playwright himself was nervous, director Charles Newell made the bold choice to shatter the realistic frame of the work, scramble the aesthetic equation, and substitute an intensely expressionistic exploration into the dreams and insecurities of a fevered mind.

5. "Ganesh Versus the Third Reich," Back to Back Theatre at the MCA: The work of a touring Australian company, this amazing show featured an ensemble made up both of so-called normal actors and those with mental disabilities, a few living and working with personal situations some would describe as extremely challenging. But this remarkable piece of theater took on any and all perceptions and preconceptions about disability and political correctness, forcing you to confront your own liberal pieties and absurd prejudices. Both a profound meditation on the unknowable aspects of the great art of acting and a fearless exploration of who has the right to tell what story, this hugely gutsy piece seemed to take enormous risks. Actors with backgrounds you rarely see on a Chicago stage soared.

6. "A Clown Car Named Desire," Second City e.t.c.: This was not the first time the Second City's second stage has eclipsed the folks in the big room, but "Clown Car" still was the best e.t.c. revue since Keegan-Michael Key and Jack McBrayer were jumping off that pushy B-list joint's ambitious walls. The cast of contrasting personalities — Brooke Breit, Carisa Barreca, Michael Lehrer, Chris Witaske and Mike Kosinski — all killed in notably different ways. This was a true comedic ensemble, not a big set of auditions for "Saturday Night Live!," all layered into a very textured show by director Ryan Bernier and hilariously in tune with our current urban neuroses.

7. "The Knowledge," Steep Theatre: In many ways, this British play by John Donnelly was intended as a counterpoint to Alan Bennett's better-known drama "The History Boys," a play about the British educational process set among the so-called Oxbridge bound. "The Knowledge" took place in a very different kind of school, where the kids were bound for nowhere clear. But you had the sense that Jonathan Berry and his young, raw, hugely talented Steep Theatre cast perfectly understood the milieu of these troubled school kids. Berry and his crew, who went right to the edge in an intimate setting, understood the most important thing about the play: These underachievers were whip-smart youngsters, unlucky in birth and failed by others.

8. "The Table," Blind Summit Theatre at Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Although consisting of nothing more than three puppeteers, an ordinary American table and a mouthy puppet with a hollow head and a cloth body, "The Table" somehow ranged wide and deep as it probed why we are so ready to believe in inanimate objects. A hilarious entertainment as well as a deconstruction of the entire artistic process, "The Table" was a masterful reminder of the virtue of simplicity in theater. No show all year was funnier — and no central character more disconcertingly charming.

9. "Miss Saigon," Paramount Theatre, Aurora: Joseph Anthony Foronda played the Engineer for years in tours of this famously epic musical. But his work in this new production in Aurora seemed to come from a whole different place: deeper, wiser, darker, older. That amazing performance fused with a formidable visual landscape from Linda Buchanan and Mike Tutaj, a huge orchestra in the pit and a terrific ensemble cast to make director Jim Corti's sizzling Paramount Theatre production a genuine jaw-dropper.

10. "Henry VIII," Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Even a second-tier "Hamlet" is still "Hamlet." But you would not say that about "Henry VIII," a mongrel work hardly at that level. Yet this clear, insouciant and unexpectedly entertaining production, notable for its design and the exceptional cutting of the text, was among my favorites of Barbara Gaines' Shakespearean productions to date, not least because it went after the guy on the marquee, the guy with all the wives, with such irreverence, feminist exuberance and fierce determination.

Ten more, in alphabetical order: "Appropriate," Victory Gardens Theater; "Burning Bluebeard," The Ruffians; "Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology," Collaboraction; "Flare Path," Griffin Theatre; "Great Expectations," Strawdog Theatre; "Julius Caesar," Chicago Shakespeare Theater; "Minsk, 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker," Belarus Free Theatre at Chicago Shakespeare Theater; "Roadkill," Chicago Shakespeare Theater; "South Pacific," Marriott Theatre; "The Whale," Victory Gardens Theater.

THEATER LOOP CHAT: What were your favorite shows of 2013?


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2013 YEAR IN REVIEW
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