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:
"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
“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
Nina Metz's picks:
"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.