Life on the fringe can be precarious, and this year three small Chicago theater companies with a combined 31 seasons among them decided to call it quits: BackStage Theatre and Caffeine Theatre (both on our best-of compilations in the past) and New Leaf Theatre, which bows out with its final production making our list this year. But the great thing about the rich Chicago theatrical loam is that it always encourages new companies and collaborations to take root. Every week, we cover the storefronts, lofts, basements, bars and all the other venues where the fringe is in full bloom. Below are some of the best shows we saw in 2012. Next week, we'll present some of our best bets for early 2013.
"Arcadia" (New Leaf): The former New Leaf theater company went out triumphantly with this beguiling and intimate production of Tom Stoppard's masterpiece about math, gardening and the intricacies of desire. Jessica Hutchinson's ensemble of New Leaf regulars delivered rich resonant performances that found the beating heart in this heady piece and lit up the company's warm paneled home in the Lincoln Park Cultural Center.
— Kerry Reid
"The Strange and Terrible True Tale of Pinocchio (the Wooden Boy) as Told by Frankenstein's Monster (the Wretched Creature)" (Neo-Futurists): Always up for an intellectual fight, playwright Greg Allen gave us a re-interpretation of the Pinocchio tale that yanked it from the sanitized hands of Walt Disney and restored the story's dark-hearted weirdness.
The production was exceedingly smart, crazed and indeed funnier than even the supremely twisted spirit of the original 1883 children's novel. With Allen directing as well, Robert Fenton's Pinocchio was no less than a spoiled brat stumbling through a narrative felt suspiciously like the fairy tale version of "Jersey Shore." And who better to narrate this bizarre story of daddy issues gone awry than another troubled literary character — Frankenstein's monster, played by a wonderfully gnarly Guy Massey.
Up next: Writer-performer Kurt Chiang transcribes, by hand, the entire novel of "Lord of the Flies" in "Analog." Starting Feb. 28; neofuturists.org
"Blackademics" (MPAACT): A different kind of intellectual cage match unfolded in Idris Goodwin's sardonic social comedy in which two black female professors literally fight for a place at the table in an impossibly trendy boite, brandishing cultural references and personal recriminations.
Marie Cisco and Shepsu Aakhu's cunning world-premiere staging demonstrated why MPAACT's focus on new African-American writing makes it indispensable.
Up next: "Leaves, Trees, Forest," Paul Notice's drama about the Obama generation's struggles with hope and change, starting Jan. 18; mpaact.org
"Long Way Go Down" (Jackalope Theatre): Zayd Dohrn's violent, absorbing story of a pair of Mexicans smuggled across the border by an unsentimental coyote and his dimwitted son is akin to a human chess game filled with endless traps.
Like the best Chicago productions, this one offered deeply rooted, honest performances, including Daniel Martinez's standout turn as a wily, fast-talking antihero (under Maiser Zaki Ahmed's direction).
Up next: Jackalope tackles John Guare's 1976 comedy "Rich and Famous," a zinger-filled story of a struggling playwright who finally sees one of his scripts produced, starting Feb. 14; jackalopetheatre.org
"Yo Solo" (Collaboraction and Teatro Vista): Collaboraction and Teatro Vista inaugurated a festival of solo works from the Latin American diaspora with pieces performed in English, Spanish and Spanglish, and it was largely a triumph. Juan Francisco Villa's "Empanada for a Dream," about growing up on the Lower East Side of New York in a family connected to Colombian drug cartels, was a highlight. But the entire festival provided a rich look at the demographic sector the pollsters forgot to factor in during the 2012 election.
Up next: "Empanada for a Dream" returns starting Feb. 14 at Berwyn's 16th Street Theater in a co-production with Teatro Vista; 16thstreettheater.org
"My Mans" (iO Theater): Chicago's comedy stages are full of future household names. This summer, just a few weeks before Tim Robinson was hired on "Saturday Night Live," he, comedy partner Mark Raterman and director Andy Miara devised this unusually funny show that tweaked the standard sketch comedy format.
Originally developed with Bob Odenkirk as a TV pilot for Comedy Central (the network ultimately passed), the show was among the more creative comedic experiments of the past year, wherein scenes existed in an alternate reality dictated most often by Robinson's playful idiocy and deadpan, Monty Python-esque sense of the absurd.
Based on that show alone, Robinson is the dark horse to watch for on future episodes of "SNL."
Up next: "America's Next Great Game Show" features a team of iO writers and performers who create an original game show every Thursday (open run), and "SNL" veteran Tim Meadows returns for a solo show that will run Fridays in February; ioimprov.com
— N.M.Copyright © 2015, RedEye