I have never really understood the appeal of Neil LaBute, and I am very hard-pressed to understand the psyche of a Neil LaBute fan (of which there are many out there, I believe). I have always been struck by how mercilessly cruel his writing often is, with no satisfactory pay-off for the audience or for the characters at the end of the piece which would justify all the heartlessness that preceded it. Unlike the characters in Adam Rapp’s plays for example, which, despite their dark thoughts and actions, have that tinge of melancholy and vulnerability that make them sympathetic and ultimately redeem them, there is nothing redeeming in LaBute’s characters. I can never be anything but repulsed at the cocky yuppie in In the Company of Men who makes a bet with his buddy that he can make their deaf co-worker fall in love with him or at the temperamental artist-student in The Shape of Things who uses her plain Joe security guard boyfriend as the subject of an art installation without him knowing it or at the clueless hunk in Fat Pig who falls in love with an overweight woman but dumps her because he finally realizes that he is too weak-too much of the stereotype of a jock/yuppie/modern American man/call it what you will-to accept getting it on with someone who is 300 lbs. I mean, unless you have an incorrigible case of schadenfreude, who could? The Profiles Theatre production a couple of years ago of Fat Pig, which I found mean-spirited (unfortunately, I think I was the only one who detested it, since the show ran for months and got a slew of Jeff nominations) made me decide that I was done giving Neil LaBute a chance. I was so over this bully-in-the-playground-laughing-uncontrollably-mentality masquerading as edgy, thought-provoking playwriting. So I sort of surprised myself when I made the spontaneous decision on the evening of Easter Sunday to see a preview of the Profiles production of In A Dark, Dark House. Well, spontaneity sometimes brings unexpected results.
In addition to my usual theater, arts, and culture events, the next few weeks will also bring several interesting, significant, food-related events, many of which I will probably be excitedly blogging about. On Thursday, March 27, BFF Linda and I are going to the joint 10th year anniversary celebration of One SixtyBlue and Green City Market. I still remember those early days in 1998 when One SixtyBlue first opened in a desolate stretch of Randolph Street and was better known as Michael Jordan’s “fancy restaurant” (I’m not sure if Jordan is still involved, but he was a co-owner back in the days). Has it been ten years already? (Well, looking at my closet bulging with pants that I remember wearing in 1998 but which now serve as, uhmm, lovely lining for the closet’s shelves…yeah, it’s been ten years, and a dozen-gulp, at least-or more pounds, already!). One SixtyBlue over the years has gotten over this initial association it was known for (although being associated with Jordan is not a bad thing for anyone) and strengthened its reputation as one of the exceptional fine dining restaurants in the city (and a much lower profiled one than, say, its peer Blackbird, which opened the year after) thanks to the solid, creative cooking of Martial Noguier. With Green City Market as part of the mix, this cocktail party is turning out to be a promising one, with fresh, organic, sustainable produce from the Market being used both in the food Noguier is serving during the event (I heard there is going to be a Capriole cheese sandwich, yumm) as well as in an “interactive” cocktail station (well, does interactive mean I can pour myself a tumbler, or two, or six, of organic pomegranate sidecar? Gawd, I’ll be channeling AbFab’s Edina and Patsy once again!). In addition, there will be organic, biodynamic wines served as well as a roving fashion show by eco-friendly boutique, Pivot (bamboo palazzo pants anyone?). Watch out for my recap of the event, which will benefit Growing Home, which provides homeless people with employment opportunities in urban agriculture.
I have to be honest, the only reason I wanted to see Harris Yulin’s re-staging of his acclaimed off-Broadway production of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful at the Goodman is to see Lois Smith tackle the complex, touching lead role of Carrie Watts, the role that snagged the legendary Geraldine Page a much-deserved, long-overdue Oscar in 1986. I found the movie version of Bountiful to be quite the snoozer, like a game of canasta at an Arizona retirement community, with Page the one single, memorable element. The production currently running at the Goodman, although admittedly very well-done with exceptional acting all-around, does not change my opinion of the piece. I think the play, despite the admirable simplicity of its language, is really not that exemplary. It’s an old person’s play- full of wistfulness and slow rhythms. Or maybe I’m just not a Horton Foote kind of guy. But boy, does Lois Smith elevate this material to a magnificent, dynamic, electrifying night at the theater. It is a master class in acting (and she deservedly won an Obie for the off-Broadway production) - her Carrie Watts is a complicated, flesh and blood creation: stubborn and temperamental one minute; excitedly wide-eyed and generous the next. Throughout her journey from Houston, cooped up with her combative daughter-in-law in a small apartment to her bus trip with a young soldier’s wife to her arrival at the run-down family home in the nearly-obliterated Bountiful, she draws us beautifully into Carrie’s soul and makes us clearly understand her one all-consuming passion: the painfully basic human need to come home. She does this by giving us a ferocious performance- her Carrie is fierce, determined, a clear-eyed fighter (I was struck by the contrast with Page’s interpretation, which felt to me, watching the movie all those years ago, to be more about making peace with one’s life before one dies). There is no performance as satisfying, as wow-inducing, as emotionally-connected with the audience (except perhaps for the guys of A Steady Rain) on Chicago stages right now as Lois Smith’s tour de force at the Goodman. Sometimes, canasta games, depending on the players, pay off big-time.
It’s turning out to be an exciting spring in Chicago for breathing fresh life into all kinds of classics of the theater. After being bowled over by a youthful, vivacious Misanthrope at Greasy Joan, I sat, thrilled, through two more productions which have interesting, novel takes on theatrical masterpieces, opening within days of one another. At the Court Theater, Charlie Newell weaves his magic wand again and turns Carousel, the most legendary of legendary American musicals, into a realistic, pointedly and wrenchingly-human fable. At TUTA, the bold, uncompromising theater company with a strong European sensibility, Zeljko Djukich creates an Uncle Vanya for the 21st century audience, without any tricks. These two exceptional, visionary directors successfully reinvent and refocus their material and subvert expectations (dare I say stereotypes) of their dramatic type: Newell’s Carousel proves that musicals don’t have to be big, brassy, over-the top extravaganzas with belting singers and cacophonous orchestrations in order to be energetic and memorable; Djukich’s Uncle Vanya proves once and for all, and especially for this Chekhov agnostic, that Chekhov can be done in a highly entertaining, engaging manner, making it unnecessary to hammer nails into one’s eyelids to keep them wide open. I really, really hope that these two productions find their audience because one of the things that really galls me is when people- people who live in Chicago- tell me they have just gone to the theater, and it turns out the show was either Wicked or Jersey Boys. Leave those to the tourists!
It was St. Patrick’s Day weekend, and as I have come to expect all these years I have been living in this city, much of Chicago (the northside particularly) was plunged into the usual incomprehensible drunken stupor that this weekend brings (this is the one time in the year when it seems like many Lincoln Park Chads get the same idea that it’s really cool to run whooping through green lights, without a coat in 40 degree weather- yeah, gag me). Fortunately, there were a lot of things to do over the weekend in Chicago other than sit at a bar named Molly’s or Kelly’s or O’Doul’s downing pints of Guinness. On Saturday, I went to see the highly acclaimed A Steady Rain which had transferred to the Royal George Theater’s cabaret space from a sold-out run last year at Chicago Dramatists. Intense and searing are the words that immediately come to mind about this play, and the deafening buzz for an off-Broadway or a London production coming soon makes this Chicago theater lover proud. I’d be interested to see how audiences in those cities respond to a work that is so powerfully Chicago in terms of tone, milieu, and characterizations. On Sunday, I was at the MCA Chicago for the unique experience of seeing William Yang, Australian photographer and performance artist, tell stories about aborigines and German immigrants in Australia, as well as recollections of two highly charged, very different trips to Berlin (before and after the Wall came down), in a piece called Shadows, a powerful combination experience of a theatrical performance, a musical concert, and an art exhibition (which was seen a couple of years ago in the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, the festival of innovative, cutting-edge theatrical work). I love the contrast between these two live performances – A Steady Rain is punch-to-your-gut, sweat-inducing, jaw-numbing; Shadows is cerebral, thoughtful, provocative; both give its audiences a euphoric high that can only be brought about when witnessing compelling, memorable, high-caliber art, a high that ten bottles of Irish beer would be hard-pressed to replicate.
I am way behind my blogging this week since I have been going to the theater almost every night. I saw Carter’s Way at the Steppenwolf and Carousel at the Court Theater earlier this week; I have TUTA’s Uncle Vanya tonight, and then A Steady Rain (which continues to build deafening buzz about a possible off-Broadway move) at the Royal George and William Yang’s performance piece Shadows at the MCA over the weekend. I still have to write about Next Theater’s The American Dream Songbook (which I felt had a very strong first act in Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Trouble in Tahiti but got a little inconsistent in the second act with the contemporary revue) which I saw over the weekend. However, I don’t know if it’s the increasingly nicer weather, or the end of Daylight Savings Time, or there’s some lunar eclipse in Pluto or what, but it seems like undesirable theater-going behaviors and antics are back in full swing (after being in hibernation for most of the winter). I have a lot of pet peeves when it comes to the theatergoing experience (and various BFFs have seen me in action hissing at, shushing, nudging, giving dagger looks to various annoying audience members, and in one instance at the Lookingglass, tapping my playbill on a loudly-snoring broad’s seat to wake her up!). I feel that even as theatergoing is admittedly a communal experience, it is also, like many art forms, an individual one. Each audience member needs to have the mind and emotional space to process the impact of the text, the visual design, the musical score, and the acting that he or she is currently experiencing. In order to preserve this space for fellow audience members, there are expectations around behavior when watching live theater- respectful and civil, not like someone sitting down on the couch with a bag of Doritos and a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon to watch “Jackass”. There has been a lot of debate on the theater blogs about the annoying interruptions made by cell phone rings and text messaging (and of course, a cell phone rang last Wednesday night in the middle of a dramatic scene in Carter’s Way- geez!). But in addition to these, I was just flabbergasted by the obnoxious behavior of many of my seatmates in this week’s plays – why would this woman sitting beside me at Carousel wait till the first few bars of “If I Loved You”, one of the most beautiful songs in American musical theater, before loudly snorting her inhaler? I thought she was going to suction my Dries Van Noten scarf and the hair extensions of the woman sitting in front of her up her nose! Why would this guy sitting behind us again at Carousel not unwrap his candy during intermission but rather wait until the first song of Act II? And why would he continuously crumple the candy wrapper all throughout the song? Why were these women providing running commentary to the drama in Carter’s Way and punctuate their Books-on-Tape narration with shoutouts like “You Jerk!” or “Oh No -Get Away!” Where did these theater hooligans come from? Would they be doing these shenanigans in the middle of a meeting with their boss and co-workers? Or while in synagogue or church service? or during a Yoga class? Or in their condo asociation meeting? Why do some people think they can get away with uncivil, impolite, inconsiderate behavior in the theater and not in other communal settings?