Refurbishing Classics

Theater 2 Comments »

desire-under-the-elms.jpgAs regular readers of this blog would know by now, I am the biggest fan of refurbishing dramatic classics.  What I hate the most is going to the theater and coming away underwhelmed and unsurprised, seeing something that I could have seen at a high school drama club production for free or for much less money.  I strongly believe that classical theater is universal and timeless, so a clear-minded, courageous, inspired director and/or adapter can transpose a play’s themes to different milieus and time periods and have them resonate with a wide variety of audiences.  Additionally, directors can reinvigorate classical text by introducing various theatrical devices and elements (a reimagination of the set design, evocative musical scoring, new sound effects, etc.) that the playwright might not originally have included in the play.  Over the past couple of years, I have had the pleasure of seeing fresh takes on classics many, many times, but two of the most memorable had been Robert Falls’ magnificent King Lear at the Goodman in 2006 with Stacy Keach, set during the Balkan civil war, which gave unexpected layers to the power themes of Shakespeare’s play; and Charles Newell’s hip, modern, radical redo of another Shakespeare play at the Court Theater last year, Titus Andronicus, set during an initiation rite at an elite boys’ prep school, which also took the play to startling interpretations (you can read my blog post here).   Serious lovers of theater can warm themselves up this frigid season with Falls’ and Newell’s new reimaginings of classical drama – Desire Under the Elms, the centerpiece of the Goodman’s extraordinary O’Neill Festival, and Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck at the MCA Chicago, respectively.  I think both are notable, much, much better than any other night in many of the theaters in this theatergoing town, which says a lot.  So on that level, I think both of these productions have succeeded.  However, although I found Desire Under the Elms riveting and I was blown away by many of Falls’ directorial choices, I still came out a little baffled and disconnected.  The Wild Duck, for me, is the bigger disappointment.  I was really looking forward to Newell’s take and came out not just perplexed also with some of his directorial approaches, but also with the feeling that the production, despite good intentions, was stale.

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Shattering

Theater No Comments »

the-investigation.jpgWithout sounding too conceited, I have to admit that I consider myself to be a pretty smart, introspective, globally-savvy guy. So it’s a little unsettling for me when I go to an arts and culture event, and I end up feeling uninformed, inadequate, unimaginative, an intellectual lightweight. That’s how I felt on Sunday when I went to see an extraordinary production of Peter Weiss’ famous Holocaust-themed play The Investigation from the Rwandan theater company Urwintore, already highly-acclaimed in London and Paris, and currently onstage at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater as part of it’s exemplary World’s Stage Series. The matinee performance was bookended by two fascinating events: a pre-show discussion called “Perspectives on The Investigation” which had intellectual heavyweights Chicago Humanities Festival and well-known New Yorker writer Lawrence Weschler, educator and writer Elliot Lefkovitz (who worked with Steven Spielberg on the Survivors of the Shoah project), and Northwestern Professor of Performance Studies and human rights activist D. Soyini Madison on the panel to provide not just context for the production, but also their rich, thoughtful perspectives on the complex intersection of theater, history, and socio-political reconciliation. More impactfully, the performance was followed by a post-show discussion with the actors, including director, adapter, and Urwintore founder Dorcy Rugamba, who lost close family members during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. At the end of the day, I was intellectually and emotionally spent (so much so that I forgot I actually spent five straight hours at that pit of excessive commercialism, Navy Pier, where the Chicago Shakes theater is located), but it was a deeply rewarding experience, full of new learnings and insights, and a especially shattering one – seeing these fantastic actors, survivors of a recent genocide speaking and acting out words related to the biggest genocide in history, was too devastating for words.

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Congratulations, Mike!

Chicago, Film, Personal No Comments »

After years of Oscar-watching, soothsaying, trend-spotting, kvetching, and celebrating, I FINALLY know someone who is up for an Academy Award.  And in a major acting category at that.  Here’s a heartfelt, awe-inspired congratulations to Michael Shannon, A Red Orchid Theater founder/ensemble member, for his nomination in this year’s Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role category, for his terrific, film-stopping performance as Kathy Bates’ mentally unstable son in Revolutionary Road.  I’ve been volunteering with A Red Orchid Theater over the years through the Arts and Business Council of Chicago and it’s a Chicago theater company that is very close to my heart.  With Mike’s nomination and soon-to-be widespread name recognition, I am equally thrilled for Red Orchid since it was on their stage that Mike brought a lot of indelible performances to life such as the lead role in the original production of Tracy Letts’ Bug, as well as his first directorial effort, Ionesco’s Hunger and Thirst.  Although Mike is now an Academy Award-nominated movie star, I still think of him as a Chicago theater actor through and through, so his Oscar nomination is also fantastic for the city’s theatrical community.  Very, very cool!

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No Guts, No Glory: 2009 Oscar nominations predictions

Film 1 Comment »

I’m giddier than Jeremy Piven on a fishing expedition or David Duchovny in the middle of a nudist resort since it’s the day before the 2009 Oscar nominations are announced!  I’ve been Oscar prognosticating with my buddy the divine Ms. Jennifer M for close to ten years now, yet, I’m still as breathless, as hotflashy, as woozy with anticipation as an Arizona Cardinals fan will be at the Super Bowl, to find out who gets nominated, who doesn’t, and what kind of jaw-dropping, coffee-spilling, croissant-spitting surprises the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can come up with tomorrow.  Mark my ominous words though:  Brangelina, despite nominations from most of the precursor awards for their turns in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Changeling, respectively, will be snubbed!  The Academy, as they have demonstrated in the past, is an extremely political, backstabbing, envy-filled, grudge-carrying group (oh, just like a lot of the co-workers we know and love!), and I think the two most beautiful people in the world have bullseye targets painted on their backs (or at least on their headshots in aging, decrepit, desperately-looking-for-work Academy members’ home-based shrines to revenge and the eradication of beauty in the world!).  I have mixed feelings about this since I think it’s going to be a shame if Pitt doesn’t get nominated for his solid, luminous Ben Button.  But I really don’t need to see HER and HER SMIRK, floating around the Kodak Theater like a Fijian Goddess, as if she is above us ordinary mortals!  (well, she kinda is, with her money, her causes, her perfect man, and her multi-cultural children!) Here then are my predictions for Oscar nomination morning.  I have seen most of the films that are being buzzed about this year, but my predictions do not match up completely with my own personal preferences.  I take pride in my Oscarwatching skills, so these nominations are the one that I think the Academy will make, given its history, its tendencies and leanings, its preferences over the years.  I have also indicated my “No Guts, No Glory” pick for each of the categories (in some categories, it’s more than one), since I have a strong sense that there’ll be a lot of surprises coming!

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Pig Out

Food No Comments »

So it was going to be on a Saturday, at 10:30 in the morning, with 20 F weather (relatively summer-like, though, compared to the past several days of 20 below weather) and massive snowbanks still blocking the alley behind my garage which restricted any conceivable ability to get my car out and running after a week.  But it was an event held by the Green City Market, one of the most essential fixtures of Chicago’s vibrant food culture and an organization I love to support, to celebrate their first year as a year-round market. It was going to have renowned Chicago chefs such as Topolobampo’s Rick Bayless, Blackbird’s Paul Kahan and Prairie Grass Cafe’s Sarah Stegner offerring tastings.  And the whole event, called “Snout to Tail: Showcasing Green City Market Pork” was going to be all about food which was near and dear to this Filipino’s heart.  So my friend Eric and I hightailed it to the Peggy Notebaert Museum in Lincoln Park, the site of the indoor Green City Market during the colder months, to partake of all kinds of pork tastings imaginable, on-a-freezing-Saturday-morning.  Well, I should have known, given the amount of food cooked and consumed at last year’s Green City Market Summer Barbecue, “tasting” was probably going to be an understatement.  Despite the massive crowds (the event was free, but you had to RSVP to the Market), there were boatloads of pork dishes on display which begged for not just seconds, but third and fourth helpings. My personal favorites were Bayless’ pozole, a luscious, pungent, seasonally-appropriate Mexican pork soup with chilis and cabbage, topped with a crispy tostada, which he was personally ladling on to tumblers; Kahan’s and The Publican’s Brian Huston’s surprising, hearty pork confit stew with chorizo and mussels; Stegner’s delicately grilled homemade pork sausage on top of sweet-savory pureed black beans; The Bristol chef Chris Pandel’s porchetta sandwich, the salumi wonderfully seasoned and finely sliced, served on a flaky brioche-like bun with mayonnaise; and Carnivale chef Mark Mendez’s robust, gut-kicking, system-shocking pork soup which employed all types of pork meat from all parts of the pig, from shredded pork to homemade chorizo to crispy chicharones to even crispier fried pig’s ears to tender pork jaw meat- it was wonderful!  My only relatively minor criticism, which hopefully the Market would improve in the upcoming tastings (there would be one every other Saturday at the Notebaert) would be to arrange the room flow and set-up better so that the Market’s vendors (who were all stationed at the outer perimeter of the room) would not be crowded out by the rabid, hungry, pushy foodies.  But it was a terrific event overall, which was a good way to spend a wintry Saturday morning.  With the heat generated by the passionate Chicago food community, chefs, purveyors, and consumers coming together once again, who needs Florida beach time?

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O’Neill Festival Week 2: Zona de Guerra

Theater No Comments »

zona_de_guerra.jpgAfter last week’s combustible, jaw-dropping Wooster Group production of The Emperor Jones, the Goodman’s O’Neill Festival unveiled this week the first of three one-act adaptations of O’Neill’s early Sea Plays from the Brazilian theater company Companhia Triptal, the marvelous and creative Zona de Guerra.  Triptal, which is making their US debut here in Chicago, will have one new production in the Festival for the next two weeks; I am particularly looking forward to the last one, their acclaimed staging of Bound East for Cardiff, called Cardiff, which will have 30 actors, and which will reconfigure the Goodman’s Owen Theater to allow for audience participation in the play’s merchant ship setting.  Zona de Guerra, although much more conventionally-staged, is quite the stunner also.  Both the Wooster Group and Companhia Triptal incorporate so many well-thought out, specific, insightful, fresh artistic choices in the shows they’ve brought to the O’Neill Festival that they make many of the recent theater I’ve seen seem like community college productions.  Zona de Guerra, an adaptation of In the Zone, about sailors in a merchant ship during World War I who suspect that one of them is a German spy, is so richly and imaginatively conceived by Triptal Artistic Director Andre Garolli, that this staging really transcends O’Neill’s text.  The very specific, World War I-set original story about the suspicions and rivalries of a claustrophic group of men becomes a powerful commentary on fearmongering, xenophobia, mob mentality, social status resentments, themes that are so relevant and contemporary to audiences anywhere in the world, not just the US or Brazil.  Also, as my fellow theater blogger Rob Kozlowski mentions, the first ten to fifteen minutes of this sixty minute play is stunningly performed in silence, the better to evoke the world of the play and to enthrall us and ease us into it, complete with a visually arresting tableaux of the actors where you can’t figure out which limb belongs to whom and where one body ends and another one begins.  I also felt very privileged to attend the talkback last night where the smart, articulate, accessible Garolli (who looks like an intellectual cousin to Cristian Ronaldo twice removed) spoke of his vision and directorial touches (in Portugese too, with a translator), elements that O’Neill probably had no inkling could be derived from his play:  the use of animal movement to characterize each sailor’s persona and reactions to the situation; the integration of Catholic symbolisms to cleverly comment and expound on the sailor community’s rituals and superstitions, which border on religiosity; the imaginative use of space to communicate social hierarchy.  Beautiful!  With the brilliant, sparkling, one-of-a-kind first two weeks of the O’Neill Festival, I feel the Goodman has already regained a lot of the luster it lost when it foisted the heinous Turn of the Century on the unsuspecting Chicago public.  There are four more performances of Zona de Guerra:  Saturday, January 17, at  2pm and 8 pm, and Sunday, January 18, at 2 pm and 7:30 pm.  Run to get your tickets!

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