San Francisco is a city very close to my heart. It’s the first city I visited during my first trip to the United States way back when so my initial glimpse of its skyline and harbor views, my inaugural sense of its smells and throbbing vitality are all indelibly etched into my memory, as only first experiences can be. It has been a city of joyous celebrations over the years: of my college BFFs congregrating from everywhere in the world for Tina’s wedding weekend in 2003, a weekend full of memorable feasts (at Aziza and Ton Kiang, courtesy of Chef Mako) and uhmmm, memorable unmentionables (ahem, courtesy of SF-based Jojolah and me); of Filipino-style Christmases (including, one year, four Christmas eve dinners, or noche buenas, in one night) with Minneapolis-based BFF Tita Joey and John and the colorful cast of characters that naturally gravitate to their dynamic personas; of the last trip I took with both of my parents together. San Francisco and New York City are the two places I try to go to every year to get away from Chicago in order to regroup and rejuvenate. Despite the fact that it is, in my opinion, a theatrical wasteland, there’s a lot of other things that San Francisco can fascinate one with: it’s a hot hub for visual art, design, world music, and cuisine. It was the city’s thriving, one-of-a-kind food scene that I wanted to zero in and explore further during my most recent week-long trip. And it didn’t disappoint: from Burmese food to organic Bolivian to Michelin-reviewed dimsum palaces to exciting nights at two of the city’s hottest new restaurants (Perbacco and Zinnia), San Francisco demonstrated once again that it is the perfect city for collecting memorable culinary experiences. I’ll be recounting the five evenings and four days I ate my way through the city in a series of blogposts over the next week or so, and I’d like to start the series with one of my favorite San Francisco experiences, culinary or otherwise, a walk through of the gourmet food market, the Ferry Building Marketplace.
Throughout the year, my standard response to friends, acquaintances, and random cocktail chit-chatters alike when they told me they were going to New York City to see a play was: “Save your airfare. Spend it on Chicago theater instead.” 2008 was, undeniably, a phenomenal year for Chicago theater. Local boy Tracy Letts won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play for the stupendously successful August: Osage County, which was conceptualized, incubated, fleshed out, and first performed by Chicago’s leading theater company, Steppenwolf Theater. Legendary director Peter Brook came to Chicago this year (Fragments at Chicago Shakespeare), but so did acclaimed contemporary playwright Lynn Nottage, who premiered her latest work, the shattering Ruined, at the Goodman Theater. Horton Foote, still spry and vibrant at 92, was also at the Goodman, gracing activities for it’s Horton Foote Festival. Elevator Repair Company, Tim Supple, the Shaw Festival, Marta Carrasco, Mike Daisey, William L. Petersen (more of a comeback than a visit), the best and the brightest of the world’s stage were all in Chicago, interacting with a live theater audience that was as sophisticated, critical, open-minded, educated, and enthusiastic as any in the world. But the great thing about our Chicago theater community is that our local heroes continued to thrive, expand, inspire, and astound this year too. Directors David Cromer and Sean Graney staged some of the most brilliant, world-class theater in any time zone. Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey continued to demonstrate that she has the keenest, bravest, most uncompromising artistic sense among arts leaders in the city by opening a season that followed the August high with a highly-impressionistic, dense, intellectually provocative original adaptation of a Haruki Murakami novel. Great performances abounded, showcasing the almost limitless talent pool in the city: E. Faye Butler in Caroline, or Change, Hollis Resnick in Grey Gardens, John Judd in Shining City, Steve Pickering and Jen Engstrom in Fatboy, the list goes on and on. The storefront theater scene was energetic and impressively original, with inventive work coming from groups as diverse as the Hypocrites (every single play they staged this year), Collaboraction (Jon), Strange Tree Group (Mysterious Elephant), and TUTA (a haunting Uncle Vanya), introducing new theatergoers to the magic of live performance. It was a great year to be an arts lover in Chicago.
OK, I admit it. As much as I worship the ground that Meryl Streep walks on (and I have watched 95% of her cinematic oeuvre, even the abysmal She-Devilwith, eeek, Roseanne), I was perturbed that she took the role of Sister Aloysius in the film version of one of the most brilliant contemporary American plays, John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt. Because having seen Cherry Jones, who originated the role and won a Tony for it, twice, on Broadway, and with the touring version here in Chicago, the second time as electrifying and devastating as the first, I cannot imagine anyone, even the world’s great living actress, making this maddeningly complex role their own. So, let’s get it out of the way then – Meryl Streep, in my opinion, although excellent in the film version, certainly does not. And she doesn’t erase for one bit from this audience member’s memory the legendary, breathtaking, indisputably definitive portrayal that Ms. Jones created onstage. What La Streep does though, other than create a totally riveting, multi-faceted, meticulously constructed characterization, is act as a strong cornerstone for a dynamic, potent, game-on acting ensemble. In the stage production, because Cherry Jones’s performance was so dominant, you’d hardly notice it if either a battleship or even a streaker came on stage. In the film version, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and especially Viola Davis, go toe-to-toe, nostril-to-nostril, emotional volcano-to-emotional volcano with Streep. And seeing this quartet of exceptional performances makes the movie version of Doubt ultimately very satisfying.
I have to admit I’m a bit of a Scrooge during the holidays (well, a lot of my close friends would probably say it’s not just “a bit”…). I really can do without the materialism and sentimentality, and to be frank, insincerity (I can’t believe I get Christmas cards from people I haven’t heard from since the previous year…if they really wanted to keep in touch, they probably should have sent an Easter card, or better yet picked up the phone instead) that’s prevalent during the Christmas season. I normally can’t wait for December to be over, but this year, I can’t get this month to move fast enough. If I’m going to spend Christmas, I’d do so in January 2009 since that’s the start of the most highly-anticipated theatrical event of the winter season, the Eugene O’Neill festival at the Goodman. It’s an ambitious, unique, highly commendable project to bring the best of world-class theater to Chicago, and I’ve been breathless with excitement and tingling all over since the line-up was announced a couple of months ago. The Goodman is offering a terrific value with it’s O’Neill Explorer pass, which at $124, offers a 20% savings on the total cost of seeing seven of the eight plays being showcased in the Festival. Desire Under the Elms, O’Neill Festival curator and Goodman Theater Artistic Director Robert Falls’ Broadway-bound version is not part of the Explorer Pass. I’m convinced that it’s worth it to buy tickets for Desire Under the Elms (it’s one of the more histrionic O’Neill dramas, which I LOVE), especially after seeing this promotional picture: I can’t wait to see Brian Dennehy’s Owen Wilson-meets-Carol Channing-on-crystal-meth blonde wig! I think January’s highlight though will be the play that kicks-off the Festival in the first week of January- the acclaimed, experimental New York theater company Wooster Group‘s Emperor Jones. Regular Wooster Group leading lady Kate Valk plays Brutus Jones, the lead role, played in previous productions by acting titans like Paul Robeson and Ossie Davis. Yes, Kate Valk is female; yes, she is white; and yes, she will be playing the role in blackface, as she did in New York and Philadelphia. It’s a performance whose power and impact the New York Times’ drama queen, I mean drama critic, Charles Isherwood has compared to Sandra Bernhardt’s in La Dame aux Camelias, Laurette Taylor’s in The Glass Menagerie, and Maria Callas in Tosca. Wow, that’s quite a pantheon to live up to. I think this production of Emperor Jones will be provocative, political, and highly contemporary, and I can’t wait! The other January productions will be the three one-act plays that comprise O’Neill’s Sea Plays. The Brazilian theater group, Companhia Triptal, will stage a US premiere under the umbrella title, Homens ao Mar. It seems that these plays will be highly-theatrical, and staged in surprising, boundary-expanding ways. I haven’t heard a lot about Zona di Guerra (In the Zone) and Longa Viagem de Volta pra Casa (The Long Voyage Home), but I’ve seen a video of Cardiff (Bound East for Cardiff) where the audience is right up there on stage with the actors. Delirious!
Tags: Goodman Theater
I’ve had so much Shakespeare this past few weeks, that I almost feel like Judi Dench (well, turning the 40th year milestone did that too). There’s always something Shakespearean going on somewhere in this city’s energetic arts community, but to have both Anne Bogart and the SITI Company‘s experimental take on Macbeth which had already drawn raves in New York’s Under the Radar Festival of cutting-edge work, as well as British director Tim Supple’s vibrant, highly-acclaimed, polyglot version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in the Indian subcontinent, on stage at the same time, is some kind of special. I saw both last weekend, but unfortunately, both shows have already closed as of this writing.
I remember the very first play I went to. I was ten years old, and it was Annie, staged by Manila’s pre-eminent English language theater group, Repertory Philippines, and it starred an eight year old Lea Salonga, pride of the Philippines and future Tony winner (for Miss Saigon). I remember being awestruck through it, as well as inspired and uplifted. I remember keeping the show program for years, a habit that I continue to have to this day, just to keep on reminding me of the magical experience of that evening. My mom brought me and my brother Judd to see it, because she loved musicals and live performance. I fell in love with the theater that night, and it has been a full-time love affair ever since. My mom also loved looking at paintings and sculptures, and one of my most vivid memories is the two of us silently walking, inspired and immersed, among the Philippines’ national artist Juan Luna‘s works in the National Museum in Manila, and staring open-mouthed at the splendor of his most famous work, the Spolarium. Every year that my mom came to visit me in Chicago from Manila, we would have the MCA or the Art Institute AND a musical on the agenda (one year, we gushed all over Chita Rivera, when she was doing The Visit at the Goodman, and we told her we also both saw her in Kiss of the Spider Woman in New York oh so many moons ago). Passion for the arts isn’t acquired overnight, it’s nurtured, cultivated, deepened over the years of continuous exposure to theater, or film, or art, or music, opera, literature. It’s built upon a sense of intellectual curiosity, an open-mindedness to new experiences and to soak them in like a sponge, an ability to reflect and construct and deconstruct honed continuously and regularly. I owe a lot of who I am today to my mom who was tireless in shaping her son’s life with new, interesting, different experiences; who encouraged interest, curiosity, and endless questions. My mom passed away more than two years ago at 66 years old. She never saw this blog come into being, but I think she’ll be pleased and tickled pink with it - she was always convinced that I could write exceptionally well, and was so proud all those years ago when I contributed feature articles to the Philippine Daily Inquirer as a lark, and when I wrote plays in high school and college that actually got staged and won awards. Today, the day I turn forty, is a day for reflection and gratitude. Thanks Mama!