I thought I would never say this at the risk of shaving points off from my classy broad image, but I boarded a tour bus at Navy Pier on Sunday afternoon. But this was not just any tour bus, this was the beginning of the audience experience for Roadkill, a Chicago Shakespeare Theater World’s Stage production from Scotland, conceived and directed by the immensely talented multi-hyphenate Cora Bissett. Somewhere around West Town the bus stopped to pick up a gregarious teenage girl and a twenty-something woman she called “Auntie”. As the bus trip continued on for ten more minutes, I started thinking about dinner later that night after the show (sushi or pasta?) as the familiar building facades and monotonously hip denizens of Wicker Park whizzed by, amused by the non-stop inquisitiveness of the girl, who told us, her bus mates, that she just arrived from Nigeria that day “to become an American”. And then we reached our destination, a nondescript apartment building very close to the Western blue line train station, where we were all ushered into one apartment’s living room and listened in horror as the girl screamed while being raped in the bedroom next door, her initiation into her new life as a sex slave. And as the horrifying, gut-wrenching immersion into the Roadkill theatrical experience unfolded, plunging me and the other 15 or so audience members into the heinous world of human trafficking, suddenly any of our concerns, whether my dinner plans that night or someone else’s Cubs tickets or another person’s job deadlines, became so inconsequential.
Back in 2010, I caught the Tricycle Theater’s ambitious, staggering, and nearly eight hour production of The Great Game: Afghanistan in Washington DC during its US tour. Comprised of 12 mini-plays from a wide range of playwrights tackling the history of Afghanistan from its colonial British roots to its recent fraught history, it contained a contribution from American playwright Lee Blessing about the relationship between the CIA and the Afghan warlords in the early 1980s which ironically contributed to laying the groundwork for the Taliban’s rise to power in that county. I later learned that Blessing’s contribution replaced the original piece that another American playwright wrote – J.T. Rogers had expanded his original vignette to a full-length play which premiered ahead of The Great Game. And I’m sure, despite Rogers’ exceptional playwriting powers, the complex, conflicting perspectives in that unsettling episode of both US and Afghan history could not have been given its due in eight minutes, so I’m glad he wrote a real two and a half hour play about the topic instead. And I am so glad that Timeline Theatre Company, clearly becoming one of the most essential arts companies in Chicago, has given that play Blood and Gifts an exciting, suspenseful, magnificently acted and directed Chicago premiere. It is the most vital theatrical experience I’ve had this year so far– rich, provocative, intellectually and emotionally fascinating, it will leave you gobsmacked in the middle of Lakeview, wishing the play continued on for another two and a half hours .
Tags: TimeLine Theatre Company
It has been quite the exciting, eclectic grab bag of theater openings this Chicago spring (or non-spring, after the cruel tease of two days of 80 degree weather this week, it’s now back to the usual cold, damp, grey of early May that we Chicagoans know only so well). There have been brilliant gems like The Whale, world premieres, revivals, an impeccable Broadway in Chicago production of Anything Goes which gives dignity back to the words “touring production”, even a bunch of New York City female theater artists cavorting in all their full-frontal natural glory on the MCA Stage, thanks to the brazen Young Jean Lee. Similar to past years, I’ve been having difficulty catching up, despite seeing 2-3 shows a week. I’ve been able to go, though, to Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co.’s intensely atmospheric production of the little-revived 60s experimental theater watershed, Kenneth H. Brown’s The Brig; as well as the graceful, if somewhat disjointed, world premiere at the Goodman Theater of Quiara Alegria Hudes’ The Happiest Song Plays Last, the follow-up to her Pulitzer prize-winning Water by the Spoonful (which will receive its Chicago premiere at the Court Theater next season). Both plays feature soldiers as leading characters; both are worth seeing, intriguing despite their flaws.
Two weeks ago, as I entered The Public Theater’s LuEsther Hall for David Byrne’s world-premiere musical Here Lies Love to thumping disco beats, a seductively enveloping haze, and the eerie gaze of a sparkling floor-length reproduction of the infamously haughty photo of the entire Marcos family wearing sashes like some godlike royalty (no one wears effing sashes in the Philippines unless you’re the Roman Catholic Cardinal or a beauty queen, jeez), I had to ask myself: “why am I here?”. I have had a complicated reaction (a combination of fascination, horror, and admiration-at-the-chutzpah-of-it-all, not to mention deep-seated ambivalence) to Here Lies Love ever since the concept album came out in 2010. My generation was called “Martial Law babies”, Filipinos who were young children in the Philippines around the time Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972, and together with Imelda, began a despicable, brutal, plundering “conjugal dictatorship” aided, abetted, and coddled by the military and the business elite, lasting throughout our childhood and adolescence in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a childhood and adolescence of fear and silence, of both looking over shoulders and looking away. So I was uncomfortable with a play about Imelda, but also inexplicably drawn to it (was it because, despite how repulsive it was, I was finally going to see a Filipino story onstage? Was it because I was just drawn to the potential stratospheric level of outrageousness of a disco musical about a singular diva who, as a writer once said, made Evita Peron, Cleopatra, and Marie Antoinette all look like bag ladies?). And as a passionate theatergoer, I just couldn’t miss a new work by Byrne, staged by Tony-nominated Alex Timbers, which promised to be a wholly original “360-degree” “immersive theater event”. Here Lies Love is indeed original; it is also stunningly exhilarating, train-stopping, sea-parting, hyper-caffeinated, boundlessly creative, a theater piece recommended for voracious art-consumers (if you can get tickets to the sold-out run, buy that plane ticket to New York City now). But as a Filipino who lived through the Marcoses and survived, as well as a conscientious and thoughtful theatergoer, I do have to ask the question – is a musical truly the appropriate art form to portray such a dark period of a people’s history, even if it doesn’t purport to be a realistic biography or docudrama? Are there some subjects that, by their very nature, should not be done in such a joyous, celebratory medium? What’s next, a circus spectacle about Baby Doc Duvalier or a cabaret revue about Slobodan Milosevic?
Tags: Public Theater
Yes, after an almost four month hiatus, I’m back. I decided to take a break from posting for a couple of reasons: after twelve years, I switched jobs and wanted, no needed, the time to adjust, acclimate, and settle in. Also, I’ve been writing From the Ledge for the past five years (since 2007!) and wanted, no needed, to slow down and just enjoy myself a little bit more when going to an arts and culture event without the hovering thought that I’d be writing about it afterwards. I always planned to write again, although maybe less frequently and more leisurely, but I needed to find that compelling subject that would make me want to spill more online ink on. I very nearly wrote about the slew of Shakespeare plays I saw over the past few months: the revelatory takes on Twelfth Night and Taming of the Shrew by the British group Propeller at the Guthrie Theater which mined original nuances in Shakespeare’s texts without changing, cutting, or re-assembling any of it, placed side by the side with the frustrating production of Measure for Measure at the Goodman where Robert Falls’ redone ending shifted the focus of the production from being a Shakespeare play to being a Robert Falls play that has language and characters supplied by Shakespeare (heavy sigh). And I very nearly wrote about my admiration for the vital, resonant, impressively original Victory Gardens production of Anupama Chandrasekhar’s Disconnect about young Chennai call center workers which unfortunately was torn to shreds and fed to ravenous crocodiles by the most influential theater critic in the city, who I didn’t think truly got the material (another heavy sigh). But it’s another Victory Gardens play that has me excitedly back on the blog – currently onstage is Joannie Schultz’s outstanding production of Samuel D. Hunter’s painfully exquisite drama about truthtelling and delusions The Whale, featuring an unforgettable central performance by Dale Calandra as a 500 pound dying gay man. If you love Chicago theater, you can’t afford to miss this!
Tags: Victory Gardens
Where did those twelve months go? It just seemed like yesterday when I was washing the champagne and various other substances out of my hair (yep, that was quite the 2011 New Year’s Eve shindig), and now we are at the end of 2012, or the end of the world as we know it if you’re one of those Mayan Calendar Doomsday groupies. I’ve compiled my sixth annual best theater in Chicago list, and I gotta say that this was probably the most difficult of the lists to put together since I began. I know I say this every year, but 2012 was quite the fantastic year in Chicago theater, with many, many notable actors, writers and theater artists coming to the city to work on truly stellar, world-class, only-in-Chicago productions. But our storefront theater scene, which gave rise to and nurtured theatrical giants like Cromer and Letts, continued to be unparalleled in the country. I’ve added and crossed-out the productions on this list several times despite the fact that I missed several shows (it was just impossible to balance my day job, extensive travel, and all that theatrical bounty). It’s also notable that for the first time in six years, I have no non-Chicago production in the top ten – that’s how great 2012 was. When New York magazine called Chicago theater the “farm team” for Broadway and off-Broadway, I scoffed and knew that that New York hack couldn’t really tell his sunken derriere from his skeletal face, because I know, and hundreds of Chicago audiences know, how good we have it here in the city, much better than those high-horsing New Yorkers. Here then are my best Chicago shows for 2012, as well as the next 5: Read the rest of this entry »
Tags: A Red Orchid Theatre, American Theater Company, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Court Theater, Goodman Theatre, Lookingglass Theatre, Mary-Arrchie Theater Co., MCA Stage, Signal Ensemble Theatre, Steppenwolf Theater, The Hypocrites, The Inconvenience, Victory Gardens Theater