Dining Theatrics

Food No Comments »

I’m sorry to disappoint anyone, but, despite the title, this blogpost is not about Chanhassen Dinner Theaters or Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding (and I’m sure some of you have thought I’ve come down from my pretty little perch on a marble pedestal…uhmmm…no), nor is it about some loud, dramatic break-up scene I may have had with a mysterious lover from out-of-town over the caprese salad at Follia (a more unlikely event than the plopping from the pedestal).  Nope, this is about a highly memorable, truly mind-opening, three hour dinner at Moto, that shrine to the progeny of science and gastronomy in the Fulton Market district, built by wunderkind chef Homaro Cantu (who, among many accolades, is probably most famous to the average person as the guy who beat Morimoto in Iron Chef, a feat in itself).  Moto, together with Alinea, really helped create the reputation and stature that Chicago now has on the world map of boundary-pushing dining, a pretty exclusive map that includes Ferran Adria’s El Bulli in Spain and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck in the UK.  Without a doubt, its reputation for highly imaginative, unexpected, sometimes dumfounding, always thrilling, and yes, impressively theatrical dining, is well-deserved.  Although I felt that some of the dishes were less successful than others in the 12 course tasting menu, the overall experience was uniquely wonderful and indelible, and for the most part, headily delicious.  I can’t wait to go back!

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Finishing the Hat

Theater No Comments »

One of the highlights of my past two summers was participating in Steppenwolf Theater’s unique, new play development program called First Look Repertory of New Work, through its audience-interactive component, First Look 101. First Look 101 provided 101 subscribers, supporters, and audience members with phenomenal multiple opportunities to observe and provide feedback on the three new plays being developed and workshopped as part of First Look Repertory, from table reading to initial rehearsal to technical rehearsal to actual performance. The 101ers could either follow one play from the beginning, or drop into multiple plays at different parts of the development process. Additionally, there were new play readings, a new play symposium, and other assorted activities (last year, I think it numbered 21 different activities throughout the summer) that gave the First Look 101 participants a very privileged immersion into the art and craft of creating new theater. For a theater geek like me, it was pure bliss, a one-of-kind, insightful look into the creative process; maybe sort of akin to feeling like Winona Ryder in a fully-stocked and surveillance-camera-free Nordstroms. In the 2006 First Look, I followed Kate Fodor’s luminous 100 Saints You Should Know from table reading to rehearsals to performance, so I was very delighted to see it’s off-Broadway incarnation last year, which received good reviews. Although Janel Maloney, Jeremy Shamus, Zoe Kazan, and, especially, the great Lois Smith gave wonderfully truthful and riveting performances in New York, I still couldn’t erase the indelible performances that I saw in Chicago of K.K. Dodds, John Hoogenakker, Kelly O’Sullivan, and Mary Ann Thebus, as well as the discussions around the characterization of the mother betweeen Thebus, Fodor, and the Chicago production’s director, BJ Jones, which the First Look 101ers were very lucky to eavesdrop on during rehearsals. In the 2007 First Look, I attended a rehearsal where there were scenes being re-written and new ones added for the marvelous When the Messenger Is Hot, Laura Eason’s adaptation of Elizabeth Crane’s collection of short stories about women coping with family tragedy, romantic mishaps, and late 30s early midlife crises. When the Messenger is Hot, which was my favorite from last year’s group of new plays, ended up off-Broadway too last year at 59E59, with most of the original Chicago cast led by Steppenwolf ensemble member Kate Arrington. I didn’t participate in this year’s First Look 101 due to a hectic late spring/early summer, but I vowed to catch all three of the new plays last weekend. Since all three plays are new works that are still in various levels of development, I won’t be posting detailed critical impressions in deference to the playwrights’ and the program’s creative processes and intentions. As it is with new plays, I think all three would be better served by further work, some more so than others. But I was very impressed by two of them, and hope that they get further productions either in Chicago, New York City, or somewhere else, because they deserve to be enjoyed by a wide audience.  I think Pursued by Happiness, written by A Steady Rain (one of my favorite plays of the year) scribe Keith Huff, and directed by ensemble member Tim Hopper, is the one most ready for primetime among the three plays. It is a wonderfully quirky and ultimately poignant piece about single 40something research scientists who discover that late-blooming romance isn’t all sweetness and light. Although it goes into unexpected, but very welcome, directions, the themes and characters are meticulously realized. Jason Wells’ Perfect Mendacity, about leaks of corporate secrets, directed by OBIE winner David Cromer, who I am hopelessly starstruck by, is provocative and intellectually challenging and Sarah Gubbins’ Fair Use, directed by Meredith McDonough, about lawyers defending a novelist accused of plagiarism, has some laugh-out loud lines but I feel it requires a little more development.  First Look Repertory runs till August 10 (check out www.steppenwolf.org for days and times of the three plays since they’re in rotation); please support new play development in the city (oh and you can always tell your snotty New York friends you saw THAT play first in Chicago!).  Additionally, here is a very nicely-written article article about First Look’s Grand Poobah and Steppenwolf’s Director of New Play Development, and the dramaturg for August:  Osage County himself, the brilliant Ed Sobel.

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Thank You for the Music

Film No Comments »

mammamiaposter2.jpgI am sure many of my avid blog readers will find this hard to believe, but sometimes I just want to be entertained.  Yes, there are days when any thoughts of seeing one more obscure foreign-language film, or another experimental, multi-media theater piece, or one more obtuse visual artwork are banished from my hurting brain.  Sometimes, even I surrender at the thought of any more Peter Sellars or Eugene Ionesco.  I’m sure Meryl Streep also has days when she’s had had enough of mastering difficult, foreign accents, or playing intense, emotional roller-coaster dramatic scenes, days when all she wants to do is sing “Waterloo” and do a split in midair while wearing overalls and a mop of stringy hair.  And thank heavens for all of us, she does those, as well as play air guitar, fall through a roof, wear a spandex spacesuit, and lead a conga line for “Dancing Queen” in the absolutely, wonderfully, irresistibly entertaining film version of the stage hit Mamma Mia!  The divine Ms. Streep looks like she’s actually having a ball, and that is the one surefire way to get audiences to heartily feel that the nine dollars they paid to see her is worth it.  Of course, Mamma Mia! has built in terrific-time-ness:  who can resist the superficial yet snappy, infectious musical rhythms and endearing, perplexingly syntaxed Scandinavian-English lyrics of ABBA’s invaluable songbook?  Songs like “Take a Chance on Me” and “Chiquitita” are like candybars without the calories, instant gratification without the queasy need to take a shower right after.  I’m not really sure what these cranky film reviewers were expecting- have they not seen the play?  Mamma Mia! is not about plot, or realism, or nuanced, multi-dimensional characters.  It’s about ABBA songs and the pleasures that they give.  And the movie makes these pleasures seem even more, uhmmm, pleasurable, by having Christine Baranski redefine what it means to be a trainstopping cougar in “Does Your Mother Know That You’re Out?”; by having Julie Walters knock out both physical comedy and emotive singing in the hilarious “Take a Chance on Me”; by having Colin Firth in paisley pants and Dominic Cooper in almost nothing (love this boy! I saw him in the Broadway production of The History Boys, and everytime he was on stage you really didn’t want to look at Richard Griffiths, the scenery, or anything else, actually, but I digress); and by having Ms. Meryl Streep, greatest living American actress, show she’s having a hell of a time belting the schmaltz and the corn and the quirky grammar of “Winner Takes It All”, and proving to one and all that she can be as riveting as Sophie or Karen Silkwood or Isak Dinesen when playing a role that’s a walk in the park, in a film that’s as glossy and shallow as the Greek ocean that permeates it.

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I Love This Town!

Music, Theater No Comments »

chicago.jpgThere’s probably no other city in North America, other than New York City, that is like Chicago in terms of the staggering number of arts and culture events that you can go to at any given day. There’s music, theater, dance, film, visual arts, even glassmaking, pottery-making, tattoo art demonstrations- you name it you can find it here, in rickety schoolrooms converted into theaters, in cavernous loft warehouse spaces, in parks and botanical gardens, in gleaming, acoustically-perfect music pavilions, in art galleries and antique shops. There’s high-art and low-art, spectacular extravaganzas and intimate chamber performances, world-class productions and artists and brazen “hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show-in-the-barn” performances. And you have a pick of them at any given day of the week. Last Saturday was one of those days when I felt truly lucky to be living in the arts vortex that is Chicago. I started the evening off with a marvelous, perfectly put-together Gershwin tribute concert (for free!) with acclaimed Broadway stars, and a brilliant up-and-coming Russian pianist, framed by a skyline glowing in the sunset at Millennium Park’s stunning Pritzker Pavilion, and ended it after midnight at a dark, dank, perspiration-inducing storefront in Uptown where the bathrooms were scarier than the Blair Witch Project, but where the whole air was tingling with artistic ambition treading on a high-wire without a safety net. Man, this is why I love living in this city!

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Navel-gazing?

Theater No Comments »

For me, as a regular Chicago theatergoer, the one thing that makes the recent Chicago Shakespeare Theater Tony Award for Best Regional Theater so well-deserved, and so important for the city, is that they’re the one Chicago theater company, bar none, which has consistently and visibly brought to Chicago audiences the great work being created in other artistically vibrant countries.  Over the years, their World’s Stage series has brought in Peter Brook multiple times, France’s James Thieree and La Comedie Francaise, the UK’s Complicite and Cheek by Jowl, South Africa’s Foundry Theater, and Ireland’s Abbey Theatre; this year the program includes the British director Tim Supple’s acclaimed Midsummer Nights Dream, spoken in eight languages, and set in the Indian subcontinent.   I am passionate in my belief that we are a great theater town, in terms of the variety of work on view, the brilliant creativity of our homegrown talents, and the sophistication of our audiences, but if there is one thing we lack, in my view, which our sister North American theater capital New York City has, it is access to theater coming from different countries.  In addition to Midsummer and the other World Stage production, Sweet William, this coming theatrical season will also see Ivo von Hove (whose astounding New York work I’ve been privileged to attend) and his Toneelgroep Amsterdam‘s version of Mourning Becomes Electra, and Brazil’s Compania Triphal as part of the Goodman’s Eugene O’Neill festival, as well as Japanese performer-director-writer Toshiki Okada’s chelfitsch at the MCA’s performance series.  As far as I know, that’s it. 

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The Ones to Watch

Theater No Comments »

mysterious-elephant.jpgFor me, the highlight of Collaboraction’s 2008 Sketchbook Festival was an eccentric, conceptually brazen, and very funny piece called “Cowboy Birthday Party” by Chicago playwright Emily Schwartz.  It was so creative and so astounding, so in-tune with the exciting new work that Sketchbook has showcased in the past (unlike the disappointment of this year’s edition, but you could read about that in my previous blog post), that I was eagerly awaiting Schwartz’s next full-length play.  I know she wrote Mr. Spacky…the Man Who Was Continuously Followed by Wolves which was much buzzed about last summer, and which actually won an Orgie award for best theatrical ambience or something like that (yeah, you read it right, the Orgies are theater awards supposedly given by anonymous critics/judges/audience members to the freshest, most creative, and tragically overlooked gems of the Chicago storefront scene, sort of like the antidote to the more conventional, fuddy-duddyish taste of the Jeff Awards).  So I was looking forward to seeing her latest opus, The Mysterious Elephant and the Terrible Tragedy of the Unlikely Addington Twins…who kill him, currently being staged by her theater company Strange Tree Group in the basement of the Chopin Theater (which, notably, has hosted a bounty of theatrical delights this year such as the Hypocrites’ Our Town and TUTA’s Uncle Vanya).  After several false starts given my wacky schedule nowadays, I finally made it to see the play last Sunday.  Although Mysterious Elephant is not quite the must-see theatrical event of the season that some people have anointed it to be, I personally think it is unique, impressive, engaging, balls-out creative, and definitely deserves a wide audience.  And I think it’s safe to say that Emily Schwartz and the Strange Tree Group are inarguably major talents on the rise, the ones to watch, the ones whom we can safely entrust the future of Chicago theater to.

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