Truly World-Class

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electra-2.jpgelectra-1.jpgOne of the defining moments of my theatergoing life was seeing Dutch-Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s The Misanthrope at the New York Theater Workshop, one of From the Ledge’s inaugural top ten theatrical events, back in the fall of 2007.   The Misanthrope wasn’t just great theater, it was boundary-expanding, preconception-breaking theater, with its innovative use of both live and filmed video, it’s emotionally intense, no-holds-barred acting, it’s rocket-out-of-your-chair directorial devices (“did Bill Camp actually haul in New York City garbage from outside the theater and strew it all over the stage as additional props?” WOW!).  So when I saw that van Hove and his theater company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, one of the pre-eminent contemporary theater ensembles in all of Europe, was going to be part of  the Eugene O’Neill Festival at the Goodman Theatre, I thought I was going to have an out-of-body experience – van Hove is actually coming to my city!  As Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls said in the pre-performance director’s conversation last night, he could not have imagined curating a festival of O’Neill’s works in the 21st century without having van Hove participate.  The American premiere of his Rouw Siert Electra (Mourning Becomes Electra), already widely-acclaimed in Europe, finally arrived last night at the Goodman, and with all due respect to the Wooster Group, Companhia Triptal, The Hypocrites, Mr. Falls himself, whose Broadway-bound Desire Under the Elms is quite memorable and noteworthy, the unquestionable highlight for this audience member of the Festival is van Hove and Toneelgroep’s stunningly-realized, truly world-class Mourning.  No, make that universe-class.  Anyone who says he or she is a sophisticated and savvy theatergoer, but doesn’t go to see Mourning during its four performance run (people, it’s $25 on the Goodman website, $12.50 on hottix.com), is an imposter.  And I mean that.

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Magnificent Mile

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our-town-lookingglass.jpgThere’s a compact satellite of the Chicago downtown theater district right off Michigan Avenue at Chicago Avenue. Ixanadu.jpg‘ve gone quite regularly to the MCA Stage, the performing arts venue of the Museum of Contemporary Art, over the past several months since they’ve had a really exceptionally strong season (including the transformative Gatz, one of my top ten best live performances for 2008). But I haven’t been to the Lookingglass Theater in a while since I’ve never been a big fan of the group (their excruciating The Wooden Breeks in 2007 was one of the most traumatic nights of Chicago theater I’ve had in years), and although I was at Drury Lane Theater Water Tower Place in December for Meet Me in St. Louis, I don’t really make it a regular stop on my personal theatergoing circuit since I find a lot of their shows to be more suitable for the palettes of the tourists crowding the intersection of Chicago and Michigan like spillovers from Epcot Center. So it was quite the coincidence that three of the last plays I’ve seen were ones that were being mounted in the area. I was curious to see what Lookingglass and its reunited famed ensemble would do with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, coming on the heels of an unforgettable version from The Hypocrites and David Cromer which has now transferred off-Broadway. Last weekend, I wanted to catch the Japanese avant-garde performing company, Chelfitsch, which has set the international theater scene abuzz with their unique take on the reaction of Japan’s Gen Y-ers (The Lost Generation) to the war in Iraq, Five Days in March, but had a limited three performance run at the MCA. And then, after a really intense diet of O’Neill, Arrabal, Shakespeare, Shepard, and Peter Weiss by way of Rwanda during the first month and a half of the new year, I needed the rabid theatergoer’s version of an office worker’s mental health day, so I threw all caution and artistic taste to the wind and purchased a ticket for, ok, avid blog readers can gasp now, the touring version of Xanadu, here at the Drury Lane, courtesy of Broadway in Chicago, for an open run. Here then are my thoughts on each of these productions.

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Oscars 2009

Film 3 Comments »

As some of my blog readers know, this is a huge weekend for me.  My Superbowl, the Oscars, is going to be on Sunday, so I’ve been delirious with anticipation this whole week for one of the most competitive Academy Awards in years.  Before I enter my hermetically-sealed viewing room, not to re-emerge until early Monday morning, I’d like to share with you my predictions for this year’s Oscar categories, and yes, for the first time in my prognosticating years, for all 24 of them.   As a caveat, although I have seen 98% of the nominated films, I’ve seen only a couple of the foreign language films nominated (The Class and Revanche), and none of the documentary, animated, and short film nominees, so I’ll be going with what my tea leaves tell me (actually I’m basing them on predictions of various Oscar bloggers, pundits, and avid watchers).  Also, just note that my predictions may not necessarily tally with my own personal preferences.  Anyone who’s been obsessed with all things Oscar knows that merit is probably one of the least important factors when Academy voters pick their winners.  Imagine that ha?

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TMZ at the Theater

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hairy-ape-hypocrites.jpgIf there is one Chicago theater company that I think would be a no-brainer fit with the kind of adventurous, text-transcending theatrical visions that the Goodman Theater has programmed in the terrific Eugene O’Neill Festival that I’ve been salivating about since the beginning of January, it would be the Hypocrites. I am an unabashed fan of this theater company and of it’s idiosyncratic Artistic Director, Sean Graney, who has gifted this city with many, many nights of one-of-a-kind theater over the past several years. So on paper, the Hypocrites taking on Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, a classic of 1920′s American Expressionism about the dehumanizing effects of an industrial, materialistic society on the individual worker is like an e-Harmony match made in artistic heaven. So, although I really, really admired Graney’s production, currently at the O’Neill Festival till this Saturday, February 21, I felt ultimately, though, that my high expectations of this group, doing this text, was somewhat missed.

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Crossing Lines

Culture, Dance No Comments »

Last weekend, BFF Debra, the lovely Reney, and I went to see Batsheva Dance Company‘s production of Deca Dance, a “greatest hits” compilation of some of the best work choreographed by the company’s Artistic Director Ohad Naharin over the past ten years, already performed at the Spoleto Festival in 2007 and the Edinburgh Festival in 2008.  Although Batsheva, founded in the 1960s by Martha Graham and the Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild and based in Tel Aviv, is one of the most important, pre-eminent arts organizations in the world, continuously travelling and presenting in the world’s cultural capitals, it’s last show in Chicago was a very long 15 years ago.   So their two-show performance schedule last weekend was quite the treat for Chicago’s cultural cognoscenti.  And it was quite the performance – the troupe of 17 dancers displayed both jaw-dropping technique and evocative emotion in seven complex numbers, from the energetic, mesmerizing opening number “Anaphaza” (also being performed by Hubbard Street Chicago as part of their repertoire) in which they performed intense, synchronized moves in a “wave”-like fashion until they feverishly removed their clothes, to the 35 minute excerpt from the modern ballet “Three” which seemed to be a reflection and commentary on young adult life in Israel.  Deca Dance was world-class performing arts at its best, and I gave the group a sincere, well-deserved standing ovation at curtain call.  Before we entered the Auditorium Theatre, though, we had to get through a pretty sizable phalanx of Chicagoans with signs, passed-out leaflets, bullhorns, and drums protesting against Israel and expressing support for Palestine.  Regardless of what I personally feel about the Middle East conflict, I thought crossing those protesters’ lines was quite jarring and discomfiting.  I don’t think the majority of the audience members bought tickets to Deca Dance expecting to encounter a political event prior to taking their seats in the theater.  We weren’t there to be political, we were there to view the work of a globally-acclaimed, extremely-talented, culturally-significant arts group.  Sure, the playwright Tony Kushner and other artists have said that all art ultimately is political (and Naharin’s work has admittedly political overtones, some subtle, some not-so), but from a paying audience member’s point of view, was it appropriate for the protesting groups to confront us in such an in-your-face fashion?  Were they merely trying to raise consciousness of their cause and their opinions, or were they also implicitly indicting us, attempting to extend our support of the art, of the work, to a support of the arts organization’s politics?  I respect the right of the protesting groups’ to demonstrate outside of the Auditorium Theatre, and we’re very fortunate to live in a country where they have the freedom to do so, but were they fair to the audience members?  Shouldn’t audiences be allowed to embrace the art, de-coupled from its politics? 

Demanding Much from the Audience

Theater 1 Comment »

rbp.gifI’m continuously on my soapbox on this blog about audiences needing to be exposed to challenging theatrical material.  I hate to break it to the gazillion people who made Wicked such a phenomenon in the city, but there’s more to the stage than flying witches and saccharine pseudo-pop musical theater songs.  I feel very strongly that people should think and feel MORE when they come to the theater to truly get immersed in the power of live performance; if they want mindless escapism, than they can stay home, break open a PBR, scratch some belly, and watch COPS or Real Housewives of Orange County.   Fortunately, Chicago is a city with a thriving, risk-taking, multi-faceted theatrical community, so there’s no shortage of adventurous productions to sample.  And one of the most adventurous, and most notable and worthwhile that I have seen in years, is Right Brain Project‘s startling environmental production of Fernando Arrabal’s rarely produced masterpiece, And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers, currently being staged in a suffocatingly tiny, raw, black box performance space on the fourth floor of a warehouse building by the train tracks at Ravenswood and Irving Park.  For me, this production is what makes the Chicago storefront scene explosive:  staged for hardly any money, not expecting to make any (the play is free with suggested donations), comprised of innovative, can-do directorial fervor, bravely naked (both literally and emotionally) acting, and yes, challenging, material that will provoke a variety of reactions from the audience, from repulsion, attraction, discomfort, admiration, inspiration.

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