Twelve outstanding ensembles in Chicago theater | 2011 in review

  • Photograph: Maggie Fullilove-Nugent

    Burning Bluebeard at the Neo-Futurists

  • Photograph: Liz Lauren

    Circle Mirror Transformation at Victory Gardens Theater

  • Photograph: Eric Y. Exit

    El Nogalar

  • Photograph: Anne Petersen

    5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche at the New Colony

  • Photograph: Johnny Knight

    Nick Sandys and Annabel Armour in The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? at Remy Bumppo Theatre Company

  • Photograph: Cheryl Mann

    The cast of The Homosexuals at About Face Theatre

  • Photograph: Joel Moorman

    John Zinn and Matt Farabee in MilkMilkLemonade

  • Photograph: Liz Lauren

    Joe Kinosian and Alan Schmuckler in Murder for Two at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

  • Photograph: Michael Brosilow

    Spring Awakening at Griffin Theatre Company

  • Photograph: Heath Hays

    Rebekah Ward-Hays and John Henry Roberts in Three Days of Rain at BackStage Theatre Company

  • Photograph: John W. Sisson Jr.

    Colm O'Reilly and Diana Slickman in Theater Oobleck's There Is a Happiness That Morning Is

  • Photograph: Nathan Lyle Black

    Kevin V. Smith and Laura Jones in Vincent River at Theatre Y

Photograph: Maggie Fullilove-Nugent

Burning Bluebeard at the Neo-Futurists

Last week I named my picks for 2011's ten best productions, but the terrific year in Chicago theater can't be contained to a simple top ten list. Here, in alphabetical order, are a dozen shows whose casts offered thrilling onstage teamwork.

Burning Bluebeard, The Neo-Futurists: Representing the cast members of the show that was playing the Iroquois Theatre on the afternoon of the fire that killed 600 audience members, the six performers in Jay Torrence's play brought a deft touch to the subtly shifting tones in their excavation of the tragedy.

Circle Mirror Transformation, Victory Gardens Theater: The hugely appealing clutch of actors in Dexter Bullard's production of Annie Baker's portrait of a small-town acting class gave us lessons to take home.

El Nogalar, Teatro Vista and Goodman Theatre: With fiery performances by the likes of Charín Alvarez, Sandra Delgado and Carlo Lorenzo Garcia, Tanya Saracho's Mexico-set update of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard sizzled.

5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, The New Colony: This ensemble-devised comedy, about 1950s "widows" who take their eggs very seriously, certainly delivered what the title promised. But in the crackerjack performances of Mary Hollis Inboden, Megan Johns, Thea Lux, Beth Stelling and Maari Suorsa, it also offered precision comic timing.

The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?, Remy Bumppo Theatre Company: The familial interplay among Annabel Armour, Nick Sandys and Will Allan ratcheted up the tension in Albee's expertly uncomfortable dramedy.

The Homosexuals, About Face Theatre: Philip Dawkins's seriocomic look at a close-knit circle of friends benefited from a stellar ensemble. Cast members including Patrick Andrews, Elizabeth Ledo and Stephen Cone fleshed out Dawkins's archetypes with rich, vivid performances.

MilkMilkLemonade, Pavement Group: The fearless fivesome of Matt Farabee, John Zinn, Cyd Blakewell, Jessica London-Shields and Sarah Rose Graber embodied the whacked-out inhabitants of Joshua Conkel's daring comedy—including a ribbon-dancing 11-year-old, his emphysemic grandma and his best friend, a human-sized chicken—with élan.

Murder for Two, Chicago Shakespeare Theater: With one playing an ambitious cop investigating a locked-room whodunit, the other playing all nine potential suspects, and both playing piano, Alan Schmuckler and Joe Kinosian frankly killed in this murder-mystery comedy.

Spring Awakening, Griffin Theatre Company: For the first Chicago production of the Tony-winning rock musical, director Jonathan Berry assembled an impressive array of young actors, some making their professional debuts and all turning the energy level to 11.

Three Days of Rain, BackStage Theatre Company: With each of its three actors playing dual roles—first, the children of a legendary duo of architects, then, flashing back to the 1960s, their parents—Richard Greenberg's play can be an actors' showcase or an actor's nightmare (sorry, Julia). In Matthew Reeder's production, it was the former, with Tony Bozzuto, John Henry Roberts and Rebekah Ward-Hays perfectly attuned to their roles and to one another.

There is a Happiness That Morning Is, Theater Oobleck: In Mickle Maher's comic riff on the limits of ecstasy, Diana Slickman and Colm O'Reilly slayed us with rigorous, detailed performances as college lecturers with incompatible takes on the poet William Blake.

Vincent River, Theatre Y: In Melissa Hawkins's production of Philip Ridley's play about an encounter between a middle-aged seamstress and a young man with a mysterious connection to her dead son, the electric connection between Laura Jones and Kevin V. Smith and their commitment to Hawkins's unique physical staging elevated standard fare to something astonishing.

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