Along with my Christmas Carol ignorance, I'll be the first to admit that I don't really know a whole lot about Commedia dell'Arte. I have a couple of very well-versed friends that I will leech information off of from time to time, but it's not my area of expertise in the least. When I saw Chicago dell'Arte's Murder, Murder, Murder earlier this year, it was a great surprise. Dispelling a lot of those preconceived notions I'm so good (or apparently bad) at, the show was funny, spontaneous, and very fresh. (It's also being remounted for three performances only at the Heartland Studio this weekend.) A Commedia Christmas Carol seemed an extension of Murder, Murder, Murder. But not necessarily in the best way.
In Christmas Carol, the aim appeared to be the same relaxed unstructure -- a story being told, yes, but with sense of distraction and self-comment that slowly becomes the show itself. But where Murder seemed oddly planned in its slapdash, Christmas Carol seemed even more thrown together than could be considered complimentary: a collection of "Insert joke here" pockets stitched on a story that we can safely assume that most everyone will know from the get go. Beyond that, the jokes inserted here seemed oddly familiar; many of them (even if not literally repeated) in timing and buildup and denouement reflected directly from Murder, Murder, Murder. I recognize that these are character archetypes which should look and act similarly from show to show, but I have to believe that Commedia as a comedic form provides more variety, if not in character or plot, than simply in humor, from show to show. Or perhaps not at all -- perhaps the problem is when the jokes become a point of insertion rather than a spontaneous eruption. That seemed to be the recurring problem. This show looked to be often searching for the combination of laxness and formality that anchored Murder, when the biggest credit towards Murder was that it never felt like it had to search for anything.
Worst of all, along the way there was more than one great idea trampled. The meta-plot in which Dottore, directing the show within a show, is haunted by the ghost light? Great setup! Dropped like a bad habit until much much later, to be used as a callback. The shadow puppet work? Very funny and surprisingly adept! Introduced from the depths of "where did that come from?" almost as quickly as it returns. There were original missteps, too (the entire loudly tiresome character of Fanuccia needs to go), but for the most part the show seemed an exercise in being so focused on what worked in the past that new ideas get passed by unstudied. Which is a helluva dangerous trap to navigate, but in a theatre world that constantly clamors for new work, a very important one to be aware of. Sometimes new work means forgetting old tactics.
And with that, the final show I saw in 2008, I can think of no more fitting way to bring the year to a close the same way as everyone else: a top ten. I figure I'm just organizationally anal enough and I definitely see enough theatre to swing one of these things, so here's my very own micro-notated Top 10 Audience Experiences of 2008.
10. Gatz (Elevator Repair Service) -- For making seven and a half hours feel like a very compelling two and a half.
9. Our Town (The Hypocrites) -- Because all the praise this production received was absolutely true.
8. The Mysterious Elephant And The Terrible Tragedy Of The Unlikely Addington Twins* (*Who Kill Him) (Strange Tree Group) -- For making me laugh harder than any show this year and then making me cry at an overload of beauty.
7. The Man Who Pictured Space From His Apartment (Cupola Bobber) -- For erasing the line between performance and reality.
6. The Return Of Tony Clifton And His Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra (Comic Relief) -- For erasing the line between performance and reality with a free shot of Jack Daniels.
5. Fragments (Chicago Shakespeare) -- Because, by itself, Kathryn Hunter performing Rockaby would have handily topped this list.
4. The Strangerer (Theater Oobleck) -- For understanding humanity and understanding the paradox of the ubermensch. And for living in that place where the gut meets the soul.
3. The Monotonix set at the Hideout Block Party -- Because in only 20 minutes, this band created an audience that was engaged more instantly and more enthusiastically than I have ever seen in any medium. There is a lesson that theatre can learn here as well.
2. Funk It Up About Nothin' (Chicago Shakespeare) -- For coming the closest to learning that lesson. The most fun to be had in a theatre in 2008. And off-the-shoulder intelligent to boot.
1. As Told By The Vivian Girls (Dog & Pony) -- Because I could have seen it a dozen more times and not gotten tired of it. Because, Jesus Christ, look what they pulled off!
There you go, the best of the best of the best. This is the stuff that lives on in memory. And because there are six shows beyond these that also made it to my Best of the Best sidebar, a few honorable mentions (in alphabetical order) to complete the 2008 Good Theatre in Chicago Compendium:
- The Brothers Karamazov (Lookingglass)
- Cabaret Of Desire (Blair Thomas & Company)
- Lipstick Traces (Pavement Group)
- The Maids (Writer's)
- A Midsummer Night's Dream (Chicago Shakespeare)
- The Threepenny Opera (The Hypocrites)
And how am I starting 2009? Hella exciting-like! Friday is Wooster Group's The Emperor Jones at the Goodman (Third World Press be damned), and Saturday is the Individual Memory: A Celebration For Hannah Weiner lineup at Links Hall's month long When Does It Or You Begin? (Memory As Innovation) Festival. Also, for those curious about the Monotonix mention above, the band is playing the Hideout on February 15th. I strongly urge you to attend for your own sake. There's Israeli men that need to be hoisted above people's heads.