In Your Face

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Paper Gifts

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paper-anniversary.jpgI think it is so apt that my 135th blog post, written twelve months to the day of From the Ledge’s unveiling to the world, was about Kafka on the Shore, since Murakami wrote a beautiful, sensitive, impactful sentence that Frank Galati wisely preserves in the play:  “In dreams begin responsibilities.”  Having a blog was a dream that lay unrealized for many, many years, as I wandered through the busyness of life, as I second-guessed myself, lost confidence, found excuses not to write about what I’m passionate about.  It really was not “do I have something to say?” since I thought I did, and I had a responsibility to articulate and share it, but “is anyone willing to listen?“.  I really do feel that a blog can only be as good as its readers – it’s a channel for personal expression, yes, but it should also be an avenue for conversation and provocation. It has been quite a year for me and for From the Ledge, with more than 12,500 hits, coming from people not only in Chicago, or the United States, or the Philippines, where the critical mass of my friends and family are, but from places far and wide such as Germany, Brazil, India, Japan, Belarus, and Norway.  It was a year of strongly advocating for Chicago’s talent and artistic life:  for August: Osage County and Steppenwolf Theater, for Sean Graney and the Hypocrites, for Keith Huff, for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNow series, for the Chicago Opera Theater, for the Court Theater, TUTA, Strange Tree Group, the Gene Siskel Film Center, the Chicago International Film Festival, Art Chicago, and the Grant Park summer music Festival- all of them essential and irreplaceable. But it was also a year to reflect and challenge: on the lack of artistic appreciation among my demographic group, on disconcerting hints of Chicago arts parochialism, on the responsibilities of bloggers and blog commenters, on the tension between playwrights’ and directors’ artistic visions.  Most importantly, it was a year of making connections and starting conversations, both on the blog, and via email, of discovering readers, of listening to other people’s points of view, of taking feedback seriously.  A big thank you to everyone, and here’s to another year of delightful dialogue.

Imagination

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kafka-on-the-shore.jpgAt the beginning of the audience talkback right after the performance of Kafka on the Shore, Frank Galati’s radiant adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s novel, that I attended, someone rightly asked Steppenwolf Theater Associate Artistic Director, David New, “So could you tell us what this means?”. I am an avid Murakami fan, and when I read “Kafka” several years ago, I found it compelling, poetic, vividly etched like one of those rare dreams that give you a sense of triumph and boundless energy when you wake up. I also found it elusive, evanescent, intellectually challenging, full of metaphors and references that were almost, at times, indecipherable. It was a great example of a truly metaphysical novel, with the twist of Japanese magical realism- quintessential Murakami. So I was really curious to see how Galati would take the qualities that were great on the page and translate them into equally great theater. Unlike “After the Quake”, the collection of short stories that Galati also dramatized a couple of Steppenwolf seasons ago, I thought “Kafka” – with its reordering of time and space, its fusing of characters points of view such that you wonder whether one was an extension, a doppelganger, or a reverse mirror image of the other, it’s surreal imagery- was more permeable, less able to be taken into a literal context , something that is, most of the time, important in live theater. I think Kafka on the Shore, the play, is terrific, which I enjoyed a lot, but it is not for all theatrical tastes and sensibilities (people who are heavily left-brained, or who have pretty conventional concepts around what theater is, would be terribly frustrated). I admire Steppenwolf for courageously selecting this play as their first play of the new season, despite the risk that it will leave audiences cold and alienated, since it does set the right tone for the theater’s focus on the theme of “imagination” (something that I think we will all be better off if we had some more of; there were a LOT of people who left their rations at home during the performance I attended).

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Remembrance

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laramie-project.gifIn October of 1998, I just marked my first year of living in Chicago, having moved from Minneapolis and grad school during the summer of 1997.  On October 7, 1998, Matthew Shephard, an openly-gay University of Wyoming student, was robbed, heinously beaten, and left for dead tied to a fencepost in the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming by two men who despised Matthew’s homosexuality. It was, and still is, a watershed event for my generation of gay people – we, too, in consonance with Matthew, were brutalized by the frighteningly deep, inexplicable, unconscionable hatred that caused his death.  It’s been ten years, but I have to wonder, how much really has changed? Sure, there’s been a lot of “mainstreaming” of gay culture, there’s a lot of “it’s hip to be gay” (or it’s hip to know a gay person) in urban communities such as Chicago, but…. No hate crimes legislation has been signed into law.  In February of this year, in Ventura County, California, a 15 year old gay teenager was shot inside his high school’s computer lab by the straight classmate he had a crush on.  It’s been ten years, and the circumstances and impact of Matthew’s death seemed to be fading into the soft gauze of memory.  So it felt so right, so necessary, that About Face Theater, Chicago’s pre-eminent gay and lesbian theater, staged a one-night only reading of Moises Kauffman and the Tectonic Theater Project’s The Laramie Project, which dramatized the Matthew Shepard case using interviews conducted with the stunned community of Laramie, Wyoming, last Monday night, to remember the 10th year anniversary of Matthew’s death.  It was a privilege for me to attend.  I really have to commend new Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar, who, with the Taylor Mac season-opener and this reading, has infused so much vigor, energy, and yes, much-needed relevance back into About Face in the short time she’s been in Chicago.  The Laramie Project reading was a tremendous accomplishment.  She got Leigh Fondakowski of the Tectonic Theater Project, one of the co-creators, to direct the reading.  She assembled a jaw-dropping Chicago-based cast:  Kelly Simpkins, another co-creator of The Laramie Project, who is now actively performing in Chicago; Tony Award-winner Deanna Dunagan; About Face co-founder Kyle Hall; Chicago acting titans such as John Judd, Steppenwolf ensemble member Ora Jones, and Lookingglass Theater Producing Artistic Director Philip R. Smith; rising stars such as Patrick Andrews; and members of the About Face Youth Theater.  And with these talents working beautifully together, she made the reading one of the highlights of this Chicago theater-going year.  Despite how many times you see the play or the HBO movie, The Laramie Project continues to be powerful, emotionally walloping stuff, taking you through a rollercoaster of grief, vehement anger, helplessness, and consolation in community.  There were a lot of sniffling and teary eyes in the theater last night, and I hope many of them were remembering Matthew and rediscovering themselves.  The Laramie Project is ultimately about community and seeing Chicago’s theater community, artists and audiences alike, coalescing to honor Matthew’s memory, and what it stands for in gay experience, was touching.

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Chicago International Film Festival 2008

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Although it’s not as prestigious as Toronto, New York, and Telluride, the Big Three of the North American film festival circuit, my heart palpitates, my hands shake, my eyeballs rotate uncontrollably every time the brochure containing the full lineup of the Chicago International Film Festival falls out of my mailbox.  I’ve been going to the Film Festival since 1999, and it’s been one of the shining lights of my fall season; every October, for two weeks, world cinema, in all its edgy, obscure, esoteric glory, comes to Chicago.  This year is quite the bountiful harvest, compared to the slim pickings of last year, with 174 films from 46 countries, many of them coming to Chicago already having been acclaimed in other film festivals, so I have spent several days diligently perusing the program catalog to choose the ones I am going to (and as a public service to my blog readers).  It’s been tough, but I think I am going to have quite the film festival experience this year (now, if only last-minute business travel waits until November 1 to rear its ugly head).

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Fierce

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taylor-mac.jpgTaylor Mac is fierce, fiercer than Christian Siriano or Amy Winehouse or any alumni of Destiny’s Child, hell, at times, fiercer than Cher, and that’s quite an icon to cross. Part of it, I’m pretty sure, is the look – in his one-person show, The Young Ladies Of…, the compelling season opener of new artistic director Bonnie Metzgar’s first season at About Face Theater, the 5’11 Taylor Mac wears a tossed Shirley Temple wig, a helter-skelter Baby Jane-style dress which looks like it was wrung out from an automated carwash line, half a pantyhose, a thong made from brassieres, boatloads of golden eye glitter, and bright-red, lip-exaggerating lipstick. Add to this a ukulele and a vaguely Southern accent that can come off as both seductive and harsh, and you have someone who looks like a cross between a washed-out Bette Davis and Heath Ledger’s Joker character in The Dark Knight, with a dash of gay pornster Chichi LaRue. Taylor Mac, physically, is both intimidating, and strangely fascinating. But more than his physicality, his work defines fierceness - it is courageous, take-no-prisoners, outrageously unfiltered, intellectually stimulating, an intriguing blend of the personal redacting and amplifying the political.

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