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"Chicagoans of the year
The Chicago Tribune
December 28, 2003
By Michael Phillips

Another year, dead as vaudeville. What are you left with? A few select faces if you're lucky. It's true in life and it's true in the theater.

Some indelible faces graced Chicago stages this year: That of Deanna Dunagan dying once again, exquisitely, in "James Joyce's The Dead"; Michael Shannon, rubbing his soul-sick eyes in "Mr. Kolpert"; Karen Aldridge, defying the Fates as she steels herself for the worst in "In the Blood"; Charin Alvarez, giving the man reading "Anna Karenina" a polite but soulful once-over in "Anna in the Tropics"; and Mark Rylance, his eyebrows little stairways of puzzlement, in "Twelfth Night." Oh, and Jim Slonina, looking like a pale Midwestern version of Toshiro Mifune, unleashing the dogs of kung fu war on his opponents in Defiant Theatre's "Fabulon" fundraiser.

There were more. But you have things to do, I'm sure.

In 2003 some of the bloom slipped off the rose known as the Chicago storefront theater movement. All year, but particularly in November, the City of Chicago got tough on various unlicensed small theaters, issuing cease and desist orders until the theaters secured the right license as required by various city codes. Those codes are another, improbably convoluted story.

It was a year -- not unique in this regard -- when certain plays left the building. Walkabout Theatre's "Downsize" continues to tour various restrooms around the city (don't worry; it's set in a restroom), while Incognito Inc. took carfuls of theater-goers for a spin and for a play called "Job Opportunity."

The year had to get used to war, and this is the elephant in the room with which everyone has become strangely comfortable. A lot of us have been a little distracted by the country's newfound and apparently saleable preemptive foreign policy. A fair amount of theater responding to our post-9/11 world hit stages everywhere. Not much of it was memorable, to be honest. I get the feeling good, urgent politically charged work will yet emerge, reflecting on the planet America has begun to remake.

Top 10, in alphabetical order:

"Alladeen," Builders Association and motiroti at the Museum of Contemporary Art. In New Delhi young men and women, borrowing names from the sitcom "Friends," talk to Westerners looking for computer assistance, or trying to rent a car. From this shadowy call-center universe came a very high grade of multimedia performance.

"Aztec Hotel," Teatr Cogitatur at the Chopin Theatre. From Poland, this troupe brought to West Division a "Wings of Desire"-tinged example of low-budget, high-skill visual theater.

"Happy Days," the Hypocrites at Stage Left Theatre. Director Sean Graney proves his versatile mettle once again with Samuel Beckett's version of "Same Time, Next Year."

"James Joyce's The Dead," Court Theatre. Again? This musical made last year's list. But it was lovely again this year.

"Mr. Kolpert," A Red Orchid Theatre. Black comedy from Germany, not for the squeamish, but sharply staged by Karen Kessler and acted to a sicko fare-thee-well.

"Our Town," Writers' Theatre. For lots of people, here was the "Our Town" they'd been waiting for: Deeply involving, full of bittersweetly apt and skillful performances -- and no corn anywhere.

"Passion," Ravinia Festival. Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald and Michael Cerveris, backed by a genuinely full orchestra, took this daunting Stephen Sondheim score to town.

"The Romance Cycle: Cymbeline and Pericles," Court Theatre. Charles Newell's double-header used Shakespeare's lesser romances for a classy romp that somehow didn't feel lesser at all.

"Seagull," Redmoon Theater at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Chekhov's lovelorn fools got the Redmoon treatment, full of atmospheric felicities and lively performances.

"Twelfth Night," Shakespeare's Globe Theatre at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Proof that "original practices" Shakespeare could actually be interesting Shakespeare -- vital, often hilarious, fully imagined.

Runners-up, many of which represent flawed material in superb productions, but that's the way it goes: "Alice," Utopian Theatre Asylum at Chicago Dramatists; "Elaine Stritch at Liberty," Shubert Theatre; "I Am My Own Wife," About Face Theatre at MCA; "In the Blood," Next Theatre; "The Play About the Baby," Goodman Theatre; "The Rocky Horror Show," Chicago Center for the Performing Arts; "The Rose Tattoo," Goodman Theatre; "The Secret in the Wings," Lookingglass Theatre Company; "The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol," Vitalist Theatre at Theatre Building Chicago; "Topdog/Underdog," Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

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