A Second Look

Theater 2 Comments »

goodman-rocknroll.jpgI’m a huge Tom Stoppard fan but I wasn’t particularly thrilled when I saw the New York transfer of his London hit, Rock’n'Roll, in early 2008.  As I said in my blog entry about it last year, most of the time I felt like I was taking three Ph.d level classes at the same time instead of being drawn into an emotionally thrilling theatrical piece – it was a play full of dense, cerebral ideas, references, and metaphors, with lots of talk, debate, discourse, and hectoring.  Of course saying that a Stoppard play was full of dense, cerebral ideas and lots of talk was like saying the Chicago river turns green on St. Patrick’s Day, duh!  But Stoppard’s other plays are extremely intelligent too, and they hit the audience squarely in the heart and in the gut.  It was a shame that Rock’n'Roll didn’t – its themes around freedom and patriotism were emotionally resonant, red-blooded ones that could not, and should not, stay intellectualized.  I found the Goodman Theatre production, under the direction of Court Theatre Artistic Director Charles Newell, to be warmer and more emotionally accessible than the Broadway production, but it’s still tough to sit through.  The woman sitting beside me at the performance I was at obviously got lost after the first couple of scenes, and spent the rest of the first act fidgeting, shifting uneasily in her chair, repeatedly unzipping and zipping her purse, unwrapping candy, putting lipstick on, rubbing cream on her hands… I thought she was going to break into a Tai-Chi exercise routine while she was at it!  She, and the rest of her four person group, thankfully left at intermission.  But I couldn’t say I really blamed them for doing so. 

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Mabuhay!

Film, Personal No Comments »

brillante-mendoza-cannes-best-director.jpgManny Pacquiao wins the title of World Light Welterweight Champion and is selected by Time Magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world. Kalamansi, a small, tart, lime-lemon-orange-type fruit indigenous to the Philippines and a staple of Filipino food and drink has started it’s ascent as one of this year’s fine dining ingredients du jour – Chef Curtis Duffy at the Peninsula Hotel Chicago’s five-star Avenues restaurant pairs it with king crab and steelhead roe and sends foodies into paroxysms of ecstasy.  Then, on Sunday, at the closing ceremonies of the Cannes Film Festival, arguably the most important cinema event in the world, Brillante Mendoza cemented his growing reputation as one of the future bright lights of world cinema by winning Best Director at the Festival for another divisive film, Kinatay (The Execution of P), his second time out at the Main Competition, beating out heavyweights such as Quentin Tarantino, Ang Lee, Pedro Almodovar, Alain Resnais, Jane Campion, and Lars von Trier, in a dream-team competition slate that film pundits had dubbed the auteur’s festival.  So is everything Filipino the new black???  Seriously though I am very very proud of Mendoza’s win, the first for a Filipino director, despite the fact that the most internationally-renowned Filipino director of all time, the late Lino Brocka, also competed for the Palme D’Or twice in the 1980s (for Jaguar and Bayan Ko).  From all accounts, Mendoza’s win was the one that caught everyone by surprise (and was allegedly booed by some attendees at the closing ceremony), since Kinatay, an unflinchingly violent tale about the abduction, rape, murder, and dismemberment of a prostitute by a gang of corrupt Manila policemen had been universally reviled at the Festival.  Roger Ebert called it the “worst film ever shown at the Cannes Film Festival”, even worse than The Brown Bunny, which he had previously, and famously, pronounced as the worst ever, causing the notorious media war with it’s director Vincent Gallo. Variety called it “unpleasant” and “banal”.  I remember seeing Mendoza back in 2005 at the Chicago International Film Festival, nervously and inarticulately leading a talkback after the screening of one of his first features, The Masseur, which I found then (and still do) to be derivative and exploitative.  He has made quite a name for himself since then, though, winning major festival acclaim in Cannes and Toronto for his subsequent features, Tirador (SlingShot) and Foster Child.  Last year’s Cannes main competition entry Serbis, a jawdroppingly outrageous story of a family running a theater which functioned as a meeting place for underage male hustlers and their gay johns, complete with explicit gay and straight sex, a boil on a lead character’s ass being popped in extreme close-up, and a goat chase through the theater, equally repulsed and delighted cineastes.  I personally really, really liked it, and found it to be a mature, socially-conscious, intricately-structured work.  I can’t wait to see Kinatay, which, with it’s Cannes win, will probably be highly visible this year in the film festival circuit and in art film theaters across the country, and really, why should I give a rat’s ass to what Roger Ebert thinks, right?  But, more importantly, as a Filipino and an arts and culture lover, I really would like to celebrate Brillante Mendoza – he has loudly and deservedly claimed his own exalted place in contemporary world cinema, but he has also, almost single-handedly, demonstrated the talent, imagination, sophisticated vision that Filipino artists have, and has made the world sit up and take notice of the Philippines once again.  The country has an abundance of talent and a rich history of artistic innovation, sometimes overlooked by a world which has devoted its Philippine-related headlines only to failed coup d’ etats, Imelda Marcos histrionics, or governmental graft and corruption.  It’s about time to change all of that.   Here’s a list of 2009 Cannes Film Festival winner, led by the Palme D’Or for Michael Haneke’s The White RibbonPhoto:  Oh my, Mendoza receiving his prize from Terry Gilliam!  Faint and fall with a thud.

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Re-settings

Theater No Comments »

enemy-of-the-people.JPGonce-on-this-island.jpgOne of the great things about our Chicago storefront theater scene is that it is more likely for you to see a gutsy, no-holds-barred re-imagining of a play or a musical, whether classic or contemporary, than to see a straightforward, literal production (so when you come across a memorable one, such as the last year’s exquisite Uncle Vanya from TUTA, you are wonderfully surprised).  For an audience member like me, it is always such a thrill to see what kinds of audacious tinkering, overhauling, or re-versioning our various theater companies are up to.  Of course, for every successful risk taken, there are many, many other visions that fall flat or go awry, which I think has to come with the territory.  I was able to catch two of the re-envisioned productions currently playing in Chicago over the past week and a half or so.  Red Tape Theatre, of whom I have heard great things about with regards to their production of Lope De Vega’s Dog in a Manger last year (which I unfortunately missed), is staging a “freely adapted” Enemy of the People, from the Henrik Ibsen play, re-set in 2009, in a Southern Illinois-like small town, with the main character of Dr. Thomas Stockmann turned into a woman, Dr. Tammy Stockman, and other characters’ genders and relationships re-assigned.  Porchlight Music Theatre is closing its season with the lovely Flaherty-Ahrens musical Once on this Island, which possesses one of my favorite musical theater scores ever, but without an island or fake palm tree in sight, having re-staged it as a tale told by immigrants living in a Brooklyn Heights-type neighborhood.  Although I admired Red Tape’s, director James Palmer’s, and adapter Robert L. Oakes’ sizable cojones in pulling apart Ibsen, I don’t think I totally bought into the new world they’ve created, and I wasn’t really supported by an overall performance level from the cast that put the H in histrionic.  I also felt the conceit that Porchlight used for Once on this Island came off as artificial at times, but I was entranced by an energetic, committedly lung-busting, always riveting, although not always tone-perfect, cast. Both are notable, although some concepts work better than others.

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The Modern Wing!

Art, Chicago No Comments »

modern-wing.jpgThe much-awaited, ten years in the making Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago finally opened its doors to the public last Saturday, May 16! And it is glorious, breathtaking, epic, dramatic, super-sexy, exhilarating in I’m-glad-to-be-alive-kind of way - it deserves all the superlatives it can get, plus it’s green-friendly too (with an automated dimming system that changes the amount of artificial lighting in use based on the the level of natural light entering the galleries).  Famed architect Renzo Piano designed the Modern Wing (which adds 264,000 square feet to the Art Institute and makes it the second largest museum in the US, next to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art), and he has further enriched Chicago’s already world-class, much-acclaimed urban architecture.  But I am personally grateful to him for designing the galleries in a very visitor-friendly way, as if you’re leisurely rowing along a gently flowing river.  There’s none of the sometimes overwhelming maze-like complexity of the Art Institute main building.  Plus there are these magnificent picture windows at the north side of the building that open into jaw-dropping views of the Chicago skyline and Millennium Park – enough for anyone to say, why live anywhere else?  The Modern Wing curators confidently and smartly use the space to showcase the art in the most impactful manner possible.  None of the galleries I visited during the opening night preview party on Friday felt crammed, and the design allowed you to really soak in Cy Twombly’s Peony series, or Robert Gober’s harrowing room installation which includes his infamous Hanging Man/Sleeping Man wallpaper (the ones hanging being black men and the ones sleeping being white men), a headless mannequin wearing a wedding dress, and bags of cat litter.  I love the fact that you could actually focus on a piece, versus getting distracted by the other trainstopping art surrounding you.  Although there has been some reservations from the usual know-it-alls about the comprehensiveness and diversity of the collection, the unveiling of the Modern Wing is a watershed in the evolution of Chicago as a global culture capital.  By the way, Young Modern, the late night preview party for young professionals (as compared to what, Old Modern, the much-earlier preview party?  The, ahem, traditional Art Institute crowd was out and about all around the museum pre-sunset on Friday night) was a blast.  Boatloads of Chicago’s young (and not so young), attractively-dressed culturati (and not so culturati too) enjoyed a relaxed art viewing, mingling with other arts-oriented folks, numerous open bars, top-notch musical acts such as the Goran Ivanovic Group, and eccentric, artsy, trying-to-be-painfully-hip event touches that make art opening nights memorable such as performance artist Igor Josifov lying inside the glass walkway you cross to enter the party rooms, and serving pizza from the box with champagne at midnight.  Lovely!

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Short Cut

Music No Comments »

la-tragedie-de-carmen.jpgFor those of us who are truly passionate aficionados of all things theatrically innovative, Peter Brook is a god (I worshipped at his sacred altar, for one, last year, when he brought his Beckett masterpiece, Fragments, to the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre).  So I was as giddy and inchoate as Kara DioGuardi (ok, enough American Idol references already, since Kris Allen made it to the final two, yay!) on my way to see Chicago Opera Theater‘s production of Brook’s stripped-down, minimalist, polarizing-for-its-time (the early 1980s) version of Bizet’s glorious Carmen, called La Tragedie de Carmen.  Sitting at my seat at the Harris Theatre, waiting for the famous “Prelude” to begin, my heart was palpitating, my brow was breaking out in sweat beads, my endorphins were having a rock and roll jam session, and then…oh, there was no “Prelude”.  OK, now (although the “Prelude” came later on in the show as, gasp, recorded music). COT had, as expected, produced a polished, technically proficient, stunningly sung show.  I thought the barely-there set of a huge brick wall and a sand pit, as well as the expressionistic lighting design, were effective in heightening the point that this was not going to be your grandmother’s grand, outsized Carmen.  I thought the chamber orchestra, now only comprised of 15 musicians, still brought vivid, lush life to Bizet’s enveloping melodies.  As I have come to expect with COT, the singing was just this side of spectacular, with Sandra Piques Eddy as Carmen and, especially, Noah Stewart as Don Jose giving nuanced musical performances.  But I had a problem with Brook’s reconceptualization. To be honest, I really didn’t buy into it.  If the point of La Tragedie de Carmen was ultimately to strip away the grandiose baggage of centuries of operatic over-the-top-ness and focus on the relationships in the story, then I didn’t really think it succeeded.  The 80 minute running time and the choppy scene sequences never gave me a chance to fully understand and invest in the characters’ motivations, attractions, and decisions.  One minute Carmen was a smoldering object of lust chained to a chair or suggestively touching a microphone, the next she was a broken down, emotionally battered woman, widowed twice over (first by the death of her husband, Garcia, and then by that of her true love, Escamillo, which, by the way, I didn’t understand how that came to be).  Where were the transitions?  the clearly-depicted character arcs?  the humanity that was supposed to shine through with the operatic trappings being removed? Unfortunately, as heretical as it may sounds, Brook’s minimalist, auterist, re-ordered version may have been radical and unheard of, scandalous even, to the most rabid cultural purists, in the early 1980s but today, in 2009, it just feels….it kills me to say this, dated.  For a theatergoer like me who’s seen a Richard III reconceptualized as a modern day Arab political treatise, or seen A Doll’s House performed with 3 feet tall men and 6 feet tall women and a mystifying coda with bald puppets, or a Misanthrope with a radically altered structure set in modern day New York, reinventions of classics are not new, in fact, they’re almost to be expected.  So seeing a different interpretation of Carmen isn’t foreign to me, what’s strange, and ultimately disappointing, is that the revision, by a legendary theater director at that, wasn’t engaging, memorable, or timeless.  The last performance of La Tragedie de Carmen is on Friday, May 15, 7:30 pm at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205. E. Randolph St.

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Boys Do Cry

Theater No Comments »

timeline-history-boys-stars.jpgtimeline-history-boys-1.jpgI remembered my great excitement as I entered the Broadhurst Theatre to see the New York production of The History Boys (a direct transfer from the UK National Theatre) back in June 2006. It had just won six Tony Awards, including Best Play, a rare feat for a straight play, only previously achieved by the original production of Death of a Salesman in 1949.  It was supposed to be a revelatory, unforgettable play, but I was surprisingly underwhelmed.  I thought the performances were exceptional (boy, pre-Mamma Mia Dominic Cooper, as Dakin, the object of everyone’s affections, was already radiating blinding star quality all the way out to the New Jersey turnpike), and the writing was smart, erudite, sparkling in some places, Stoppard-lite in others.  The reason could have been Nicholas Hytner’s somewhat frigid staging, or maybe it was the Broadhurst’s massive stage and tall ceilings which drowned out the intimacy of the play, or it could have been that I had to turn my head several times to give the Medusa eye and the bared fangs look to the rude, stage-whispering lady sitting behind me who kept on asking her companion to repeat the actors’ dialogue (when she asked him “Is he British” during Richard Griffith’s first scene, I very nearly hissed “Do you want to get out of this theater alive?!”).  I really didn’t even take the time to see the movie version which starred the original stage cast. So I was wonderfully surprised by TimeLine Theatre‘s intelligently directed, beautifully designed, exquisitely acted Chicago premiere – I just have to say that it is probably the best Chicago production I have seen so far this year.  And I am eating my words sans ketchup – I’m shocked that I even thought that Alan Bennett’s writing was Stoppard-lite; it’s in a dizzying class of its own.

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