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…to the American Blues Theater, the new company that is immediately being formed by 23 of the 28 ensemble members of the American Theater Company, who is leaving their artistic home due to irreconcilable “artistic and administrative” differences with Artistic Director, PJ Paparelli.  It has been the big news in Chicago theater since late last week, with more than 110 comments on Chris Jones’  blog entry alone.  As an audience member, I should ultimately judge a theater company based on the quality of its product, and not on its internal workings, but this time, I felt that I personally should put my money where artistic integrity lies.  One of the things that has been justly celebrated about Chicago theater in the performing arts worlds, both national and international, and which I am particularly proud of, is our ability to build and nurture theatrical ensembles – it’s one of our differentiating trademarks.  So I can’t really support a person or an organization that tries to undo one that has stood strong for 25 years.  I’ve written on this blog about Paparelli’s significant achievements in his short stint here in Chicago – last year’s wonderful Speech and Debate, this year’s searing True West.  Unfortunately, those achievements seemed to have come at a tremendous cost to the ATC ensemble, many of them stalwarts of the Chicago theater community.  And I don’t think I, as an audience member passionate for our town’s theater-how it works, why it sustains, can stand for that.

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Old Is New Again

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porchlight-pacific-overtures.jpgeclipse-blue-surge.jpgIn 2001, three years after I moved to Chicago, I resolved to make theatergoing a semi-regular habit. It was a good time to do so, because the spanking new Goodman Theater on Dearborn St. just opened. One of the first productions to grace its stage was a world premiere by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Artistic Director Robert Falls, called Blue Surge, about a pair of cops and a pair of sex workers whose paths cross in the seamy underside of an unnamed Midwestern town. I remember feeling very underwhelmed by the play, and I wasn’t sure at that time if it was the flawed writing, or the fact that for such an emotionally coiled, small-scaled piece, the Goodman’s Albert Theater felt like a cavernous museum. It was notable for me though as one of the first plays I saw which demonstrated Chicago male actors’ infamous propensity to drop trou at the slightest provocation (in this case, it was the terrific Steve Key playing the more laidback police officer, who performed his entire first scene au naturel) which I always seem to be an inadvertent witness to. Later in 2001, I saw the Chicago Shakespeare’s production of a sublime, minimalist, thoroughly unforgettable Pacific Overtures, directed by a pre-Color Purple Gary Griffin, a mounting of Stephen Sondheim’s mid-1970s Broadway flop about the opening up of Japan to the West through Commodore Perry. It was so excellent, it blew away any of the productions I saw at the much-heralded Sondheim Festival at the Kennedy Center earlier in the year. Wow, how time flies; eight years later, these two plays are getting new productions: Pacific Overtures is being staged with an all-Asian American cast by our resident musical theater company, Porchlight Music Theatre, while Blue Surge, which to my knowledge hasn’t been revived since the original production, is being mounted at the compact Greenhouse Theater by the storefront Eclipse Theatre Company. This time around, my views of the two productions are the reverse of my response to the 2001 productions: I think Eclipse’s Blue Surge is a great example of what I’ve come to expect from our best storefronts, intense, committed, full of sweat and soul; while Porchlight’s Pacific Overtures is a huge disappointment from a company that in my eyes could do no wrong.

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This Isn’t a Powerpoint Presentation

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monsters-and-prodigies.jpgSometimes when you think you’ve seen it all at the theater, a sweet roll, perfectly aimed like a stealth missile, knocks you senseless. Thank goodness, I didn’t mean this literally, because the buns that the actors of Teatro de Ciertos HabitantantesMonsters and Prodigies: The History of the Castrati were pelting the audience with during a wacky, whacked-out foodfight at the performance on Friday night at the MCA Stage, hit my shoe instead of my forehead. But I might as well have been clobbered over the head by this heady, outrageously eccentric, undeniably informative, trainstopping hybrid of theater, opera, and an MFA lecture, the latest entry in an unforgettable Museum of Contemporary Art performance season. It is that good, and that memorable. And I am so thrilled that between the Goodman’s Eugene O’Neill Festival, the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s World Stage season, and the MCA Stage line-up, Chicago audiences have, since the fall of last year, had the opportunity to sample some of the best of the world’s theatrical offerings. This production, though, from the Mexico-City based theater company is quite a unique, one-of-a-kind experience – inventive and riveting, each artistic decision an essential contributor to communicating its themes and advancing its narrative structure.

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Sophomore Class

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frat-new-colony.jpgI’m very thrilled to report that, despite the continuous doom and gloom naysaying of glass-half-empty-watchers, Chicago’s storefront theater scene is vibrant, busy, alive and kicking.  New theater companies, making the most out of limited finances but abundant soul and artistic aspiration, continue to sprout all over the place.  I was very excited to spend the previous weekend going to see the sophomore productions of two theater companies that are just a year old, but who’ve been having much-sought after buzz swirling around them:  the New Colony, which focuses on original work, is staging Producing Director Evan Linder’s site-specific new work Frat, about, well, southern fraternities and fratboys, in the meeting hall of Dank Haus, the German cultural center in Lincoln Square, while Theater Mir, which deals with globally-oriented work, is running British playwright Robin Soan’s play about the political-socio-cultural climate of the West Bank as refracted through it’s citizens’ cooking and eating practices, The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, at the Storefront Theater.  Although, I personally feel there’s room for improvement in both, I think they are very strong productions and bode well for the future of storefront theater in Chicago, economic crises notwithstanding.

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Final Thoughts on the O’Neill Festival

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Chris Jones reports that the Goodman Theater’s O’Neill Festival, which concluded last weekend with the Neo-Futurists’ controversial take on Strange Interlude (which I sadly missed), has turned in “recession-busting” numbers:  average of 90% capacity in the theater, 50,000 audience members, $1.1 million gross for Robert Falls’ Broadway-bound Desire Under the Elms.  This is terrific, terrific news, which just goes to prove that good, stimulating art is alive and well in this economic downturn.  And I think the numbers are accurate,  since, in all the performances I attended during the Festival (and I saw all the productions except for Strange Interlude), the Goodman was packed with people, many of them the “non-traditional Goodman audience” kind – people of color and people below forty.  I think the results of the O’Neill Festival once again proved what I continue to harp on from my soapbox here on this blog:  that we, the Chicago theater audience are generally a pretty sophisticated lot, so if a theater appeals to our intellectual level and artistic sensibilities, we will come; and if they don’t, we’ll find something else to do.  People flocked to see an Emperor Jones that stunningly mixed minstrelsy and Noh theater (Wooster Group), an eloquent and elegant Cardiff that was performed in Portugese without any surtitles, letting the imagery speak to the audience directly (Companhia Triptal), a memorable Desire Under the Elms without any elms but with boulders, a floating house, a vague time period, and a Bob Dylan musical score (Goodman), a flawed but mesmerizing Hairy Ape performed in three performance levels and with a re-conceptualized final scene (The Hypocrites), a world-class Mourning Becomes Electra that powerfully used video and technology (Toneelgroep Amsterdam), and a Strange Interlude performed in its original five hour length and as an almost-parody of the text (Neo Futurists).  Man, the Festival was the height of provocative, cerebrum-busting theater!  But the Festival’s productions, more importantly, respected the audience, and engaged us to be thinking, introspecting, reflecting, and passionate participants in O’Neill’s work; the plays didn’t give us a hallway pass for a relaxing, catatonic night at the theater, which so many nights seem to be; rather, they made us think, feel, explode (just check out these passionate responses to Strange Interlude in Chris’s blog).  I know some theater companies in Chicago are loudly bellyaching and constantly sounding mournful doom and gloom bells about the impact of the recession on the arts.  I agree that all of us, artists, audience members, and critics alike, who have a stake in Chicago’s vital arts community need to be aware and concerned.  But the audiences are out there, and we will give theaters our money- just don’t give us another round of The Cherry Orchard, or another tedious play by some hot-shot, MFA-stamped, self-absorbed New Yorker, or an original play about a teenage girl that brings together a Midwestern community that suspiciously sounds very similar to that original play you’ve already trotted out a couple of years ago. 

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Opera Buzz

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One of the “buzzy” arts and culture news coming out of New York last week was the fact that Chicago-based Tony award-winning director Mary Zimmermann (whose The Arabian Nights is opening in May at her ensemble home, the Lookingglass Theatre) was booed when she took her bow at curtain call during opening night of her new production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula at the Metropolitan Opera. The production has gotten mixed to negative reviews, with critical brickbat primarily directed towards Zimmermann’s conceptual, meta-theatrical approach to the opera:  re-set in 2009 New York City, an opera company rehearsing La Sonnambula finds its performers’ real lives starting to resemble those of the opera’s protagonists’.  It’s not a novel approach at all (uhmm, the movie version of French Lieutenant’s Woman?  the recent Comedy of Errors at Chicago Shakespeare?), but there seems to be a lot of angst and anger at the updating and reconceptualization of “sacred” opera text – check out Chris Jones’ theater blog for a very lively discussion among both Chicago and New York-based opera goers.  Although I’m amused at the opera “purists” yakking away on Chris’s and other blogs, and though I won’t back off from a fight with arts purists of any kind, I won’t be jumping into the fray given I haven’t seen the production.  As my avid blog readers know, though, in theater, or opera for that matter, I am a very strong advocate of artistic concepts and visions that 1) create additional, fresh, insightful layers of meaning and resonance from the original text; 2) and in the process, draw new, non-traditional audiences to the work.  If Zimmermann’s La Sonnambula accomplishes these two things, then brava to her, and the “purists” can go sequester themselves in their hideous dank attics with their Maria Callas LP albums.

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