I’m on my regular Thanksgiving sojourn in Minneapolis this week, but I couldn’t help but take note of the to-be-expected phenomenal reviews that our very own Steppenwolf Theater‘s London transfer of August: Osage County received after opening on Wednesday night at the National Theater. Deanna Dunagan, Amy Morton, Rondi Reed, Ian Barford, Jeff Perry, Sally Murphy, Maryann Mayberry, Kimberly Guerrero, and Troy West all reprise the roles they created here in Chicago and took to Broadway; Steppenwolf ensemble member Gary Cole (recently of Desperate Housewives), Broadway understudy Molly Ranson, and newbies Chelcie Ross and Paul Vincent O’Connor (taking over from original Chicago and Broadway cast member Francis Guinan, who had stayed in Chicago to be part of the soon-to-open The Seafarer on the Steppenwolf main stage) join them. Our very own Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune was first on the scene, saying August “kicks London in the gut” and finally, after three reviews, calls Amy Morton’s shattering performance as the eldest daughter Barbara “one of the great theatrical performances of the modern era”. The London critics were a little bit more reserved than that, but the usually crotchety Guardian drama critic Michael Billington admiringly compares Tracy Letts to British dramatic icon Alan Ayckbourn in his four-star review, singles out the performances of Dunagan, Morton, Perry, and Reed, and says the whole play is full of “buccaneering vigor”. Although Charles Spencer at the Telegraph says he isn’t “persuaded that this is the the first indisputably great American play of the 21st century”, he gives it four stars and calls the production “consistently gripping, moving and often wildly funny”. Benedict Nightingale, at the Times, rightfully gushes at the ensemble acting, and says the actors give performances that are so “so robust yet so punctilious they’d have had Stanislavsky dancing round Red Square.” OK, so the Brits liked the play a lot. It’s so wonderful to see the continuous triumph of this proudly Chicago-made play in the great, discerning, been-there-seen-that theatrical capitals of the world, New York and London, but …. when do we see August again at home, in this production, with this cast?
With Chicago’s ascendant star in the national cultural scene, it has been a delightful fall arts season in the city, since there’s been quite a diversity of the productions on view. Where else in the country, except for New York City, can you go to a rarely-produced play by an acclaimed Irish playwright starring a major television actor returning to his Chicago theatrical roots and directed by a Tony Award nominee on one night, and then hop on over the next night to the world premiere of a politically-charged new play by a hot young playwright and MacArthur Genius grant recipient, right before it’s New York City premiere? So, in less than a week, I was at the Steppenwolf to see Conor McPherson’s Dublin Carol (which was not part of the theater’s subscription season) starring William Petersen, on leave from his last season on CSI, and directed by Amy Morton, in between Broadway and London August: Osage County jaunts; and at the Goodman for Lynn Nottage’s new play, Ruined, which will play off-Broadway with the same cast and director, at co-producer Manhattan Theater Club’s home turf in January. But what is so uniquely thrilling about Chicago (and a key differentiator from New York, IMHO) is that the storefront theater milieu, the vibrant roots of Chicago theater (where Petersen and Morton both emerged from), continues to thrive, admittedly with mixed results, amidst all these major theatrical events. So in the same week as Dublin Carol and Ruined (and the altered-state-inducing triumph, Gatz, too), I also saw Greasy Joan & Co.’s collection of Chekhov short stories, Chekhov’s Life in the Country, and A Red Orchid Theater‘s brazen A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, which, I can bet, will be one of the wackiest, most unique, most fall-off-the-chair-and-hope-you-don’t-crack-your-spine production you’ll see this season, or any season.
It goes without saying that I see a lot of really good theater (of course I see a lot of stinkers too, but that comes with the territory of being a theater aficionado). But it’s a rare, blessed night (or afternoon, for matinees) that I actually see great theater – great with a capital G, so great that I get shivers up my spine, I feel zapped by an indescribable electromagnetic force, I am elevated, enthralled, transformed, enveloped in transcendence. It happened last year at August: Osage County here in Chicago and at Ivo Von Hove’s The Misanthrope in New York. It happened several weeks ago at the Chicago Shakespeare with Sean Graney’s audacious version of Edward II. And it happened again last Friday night at the conclusion of the monumentally epic, hypnotic, seven and a half hour (including a dinner break and two intermissions) production of Gatz, mounted at the MCA Stage by the Elevator Repair Service (ERS), the acclaimed New York-based experimental theater company. But unlike the other three productions, I was initially apprehensive about attending Gatz- it was going to be the longest-running play I would have seen in my theatergoing life (yep, I missed Edward Hall’s five and a half hour Rose Rage at Chicago Shakespeare a couple of years ago, and ahem, I’m too young to actually have seen Trevor Nunn’s legendary eight and a half hour The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby on Broadway in the very early 1980s). Eight hours in the theater? That’s a workday of powerpoint presentation decks, or a spa day, or a day of four movies seen back to back. It’s a huge commitment, not only of time, but also of mental and physical focus. The play hinged on a complete reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel, The Great Gatsby. Hmmm. Would I actually be able to sit through the entire play-cum-reading, or would I tarnish my arts and culture vulture stripes by needing to leave at the dinner break? Will Gatz be able to hold my attention, sustain my engagement through all those hours, or would the whole experience feel interminable and gruelling, like hand-stitching an elaborate Tibetan yak headdress? Would this be another pointless exercise in experimental theater? At 10:48 pm, during the curtain call on Friday night, approximately seven hours and thirty eight minutes from the time the houselights dimmed and Scott Shepherd, the lead actor, strolled on stage, I decided that I could have spent another seven hours with this play, these actors, this audience. Gatz renews one’s faith in the heights that theater, art, imagination, and creativity can scale. It also reinforces the belief that an intelligent and cosmopolitan theater audience, such as the one we have in Chicago, will embrace theater that is innovative, challenging, exhausting, but ultimately rewarding and memorable.
There’s been a lot of interesting and provocative back and forth in the Chicago theater blogosphere this week about dramatic content, a topic which sometimes seems to be lost in the shuffle with everyone’s (well, drama critics, bloggers, playwrights, artistic staff, and other sundry kibitzers) preoccupation with other “hot topics” such as regional theaters’ business models, etc. I think it’s a valid conversation, but I will leave the critical debate to theater practitioners and critics such as Tony Adams and From the Ledge friend Kris Vire (who both make very good points). Since I’m not a practitioner, but rather a mere audience member, I want to share my thoughts strictly from a theater goer’s perspective. I think the importance of content, the fact that theater should be really, really good, in order to bring in a paying audience, is so much more important now, more than ever, given the economic times we’re in. In conversation with some of my friends, all regular theatergoers and supporters of arts and culture, it is becoming more and more apparent that people are being very judicious in the allocation of their arts consumption dollar. A play a week, or every two weeks, is something that is a tough sell for many people right now; spur-of-the-moment weekend jaunts to the theater because something came up on Hot Tix or Goldstar.com isn’t as common as it used to be, maybe a year ago. I’ve been to the Goodman, the Court, and the Steppenwolf during the past couple of weeks and the houses are still packed, but remember, subscriptions were bought and paid for back in the late spring/early summer. (As an aside, I also think the bigger houses will weather this storm better than the smaller ones, since single ticketbuyers, given the fact that they are taking a hard look at where they are spending their arts dollar on, will be falling back on who has the reputation, who has been reliable, who has been around long enough.) Another friend of From the Ledge, PRekk, asks: “Should bad theatre be run out of town at high noon?” My response is a resounding, unequivocal yes. I really feel that theater critics and bloggers, alike, have the responsibility to honestly, directly, transparently, and, constructively, inform their readers about which plays deserve their money and which don’t. Heinous crimes against the cosmos such as Turn of the Century and Eurydice need to be called out and tagged as unworthy, so folks can go to a Caroline, or Change or a Men of Tortuga or a Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ The Glass Menagerie, instead. In this time of economic crisis, it’s so much more important to continue to support art, culture, and theater and let them thrive and prosper – part of that process is to pull up the weeds. In the past, we may have let sloppy, half-baked, unfinished plays-theatrical hot tranny messes-slip through and have a good run…but right now, we can’t afford to, literally. The pocketbook crunch is making audiences more discerning, more questioning as to which plays can ultimately touch them, introduce them to new worlds and experiences, paint for them human conditions which they can relate to, which hopefully will make theatrical practictioners-playwrights, directors, artistic directors- take a harder, more critical, less indulgent look at the art that they’re creating.
This month will be theatergoing month on steroids. There’s a lot of significant productions opening in Chicago in the next several weeks, and I’m hoping I’ll have enough time to go to most of them (I do have to work, too, in my day job, you know, so I can afford to go to all this theater!). Of course, the centerpiece of my month, the one production I am both breathlessly anticipating and apprehensive about is the Elevator Repair Service‘s much-acclaimed seven-hour Gatz, on stage at the MCA next week, which combines a complete reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with a play set in a dumpy office, in which the employees start taking on the personas of the book’s characters. This could either be a transcendent experience, or utter folly. I can’t wait- I’ve been preparing like a triathlete for it: reading up on The Great Gatsby (I read the book in high school and saw the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow movie decades ago), meditating, doing extra gluteal exercises (at the gym! get your minds out of the gutter!) to ensure that I can actually sit and focus for seven hours straight. Chris Jones seems to be as excited and apprehensive as I am, and reports that Gatz tickets are going fast- wow! I’m also seeing Radio Macbeth at the Court Theater next weekend, Anne Bogart and the SITI company’s take on Macbeth framed by a ghost story and supposedly using sound as a dynamic and innovative theatrical device. It has already been shown at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, New York’s annual showcase for cutting-edge work, where it received very good reviews. Right before Thanksgiving, the British production A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which sets the famous Shakespeare comedy in the Indian subcontinent and incorporates Indian language, culture, and sensibility, opens at Chicago Shakespeare. This production has toured Europe and Australia, and has received unqualified raves everywhere it’s been staged. Despite the fact that I nearly puked the last time I was at the Goodman because of the horror that was Turn of the Century, I’ll be spending quite a bit of time there this month. I’m catching a preview for Ruined, Lynn Nottage’s new play about the victimization of women during the Congo civil war, co-produced with the Manhattan Theater Club, which will premiere off-Broadway in January 2009, right after it’s Goodman production,with the same cast and director, Kate Whoriskey. The Goodman is also holding a series of staged readings for Noah Haidle’s work-in-progress opus, Local Time, “twelve two-act plays that trace a 24-hour period in the life of a town”, according to the theater’s website. I already have tickets for the first one, 5-7 AM, about a young couple who takes in a baby left on their doorstep and is horrified to see the infant grow into a chain-smoking, coffee-guzzling, human-condition pondering adult in 20 minutes. Sounds precious, and I sometimes feel that Haidle is like the male version of Sarah Ruhl, but it also sounds intriguing. Plus this is a good opportunity to see new work by a playwright with a rising national profile. I’ll be getting tickets for the other two readings depending on what I think about 5-7 AM. At the Steppenwolf, despite what I think is pretty low-key marketing, many performances are already sold out for Dublin Carol, Conor McPherson’s intimate play about an alcoholic undertaker seeking redemption, starring CSI star William Petersen and directed by August: Osage County goddess, Amy Morton. Collaboraction has already opened Jon, a world premiere adaptation of hip novelist (and MacArthur Genius grant recipient) George Saunder’s much-talked about short story. Saunders worked closely with director and adaptor Seth Bockley, and has been doing press to support the play. Although I’ve found many Remy Bumppo productions in the past to be more effective than Ambien and Lunesta combined, I am curious to see their version of Beaurmachais’ The Marraige of Figaro, the basis of the famed Mozart opera, in a new translation by Ranjit Bolt. It’s also being directed by up and coming Chicago theater director Jonathan Berry, so I’m hoping that the snooze factor is low to non-existent. Finally, TUTA (in support of full disclosure, I’m on their Board) is unveiling The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (yes, it’s that famous play by our man Bill) later this month. TUTA is always gutsy, imaginative, and singular in their theatrical concepts, so I’m betting this isn’t going to be stand-and-declaim Shakespeare. Whew, so many plays, so little time!
I am taking a break today from the arts and culture focus of From the Ledge to irrevocably, unequivocally express how proud and hopeful I am, as an immigrant, as a gay person, as a person of color, as someone in the 40 and below demographic, as a citizen of the world, as a Chicagoan, that Barack Obama will be the 44th President of the United States of America. It’s a difficult, anxious, chaotic world we’re living in today, but with President-elect Obama, I sincerely, truly, feel that we have the inspiration and the confirmation that there is a very real opportunity for America, and the world, to change for the better. That’s not hyperbole, that’s heartfelt emotion.