I’m Back!

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Yes, I am back in Chicago after eight really intense weeks commuting back and forth to the great Buckeye state for a client project (waiting to board that last flight from CMH to ORD tonight felt like the helicopter scene in Miss Saigon, but unlike Kim, I got out!  Ha!).  There’ll be lots more blog postings in the near future, although I’m taking a much needed break for a week or so, getting airdropped into a fabulous, undisclosed, inaccessible location for some cell rejuvenation (nope, I’m not going to show up in a VH1 reality show a couple of months from now!).  My “welcome back to chi-town” gift was yesterday’s announcement of the nominees for last season’s Jeff Awards for Equity theater.  Unlike last year, when I was pretty flummoxed, and then dismayed, and then angered, at what the Jeff committee came up with, I’m pretty impressed with their selections this year, and I’m glad to see that the Jeff committee’s theatrical taste has not totally gotten lost somewhere inside the Bermuda Triangle.  I’m very thrilled with the nominations for Timeline’s The History Boys, Chicago Shakespeare’s Edward II, Court Theatre’s Caroline or Change (although where was Kate Fry’s nomination?), The Goodman’s  pre-Pulitzer Ruined, and Drury Lane’s surprising, stripped down, Miss Saigon.  These were some of the best theater you could have seen in Chicago, or arguably anywhere, last season – sophisticated, emotionally engaging, beautifully and imaginatively crafted.  However, as it happens every year, the Jeff committee continues to perform heinous acts of nominations oversight.  I find it particularly egregious that they failed to nominate Victory Gardens’ Blackbird, the best production I’ve seen this year hands down, for Best Play, despite the much-deserved acting nominations for its lead stars, William Petersen and Mattie Hawkinson.  This is high-caliber, provocative, unshakeable, world-class theater, much better than some of the other nominees (say Twelfth Night).  Speaking of Twelfth Night, the Jeff Committee predictably demonstrated once again that it likes it’s Shakespeare served traditional (maybe with scones and jam on the side?), otherwise why is there no Best Production nomination for Steppenwolf’s 21st century take on the Bard, The Tempest, despite a very justified Best Actor nomination for Jon Michael Hill?  And where are the acting nominations for Francis Guinan, who gave impressively detailed performances in Kafka on the Shore and The Seafarer; for Ann Whitney, whose Big Edie in Grey Gardens, was both impressively strong-willed and heartachingly vulnerable. a performance that equally complemented and deepened Hollis Resnik’s nominated performance as Little Edieand especially, for Carla Gugino who magnificently prevailed over boulders, a flying house, a mystifying Bob Dylan background score, Pablo Schreiber’s naked butt, and general excess in Desire Under the Elms, by vividly painting a train-stopping, defiantly contemporary O’Neill heroine?

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Hanging In There

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Man, it’s been close to two weeks since the last blog post.  That’s the longest I’ve gone in between posts since From the Ledge began in October 2007.  Yep, it’s been as busy as I expected it to be, if not more so.  Being on the road for business is a young person’s game, and folks my age struggle to keep up with all the physical and lifestyle demands it makes.   But I’m hanging in there, since the end is quite near, with the Buckeye project officially set to close at the end of August, and everyone can finally heave a sigh of well-deserved relief!  On the other hand, with the weekly commute, summer has flown by and I nearly missed one of my regular arts and culture summer events of the past several years – seeing all three new plays being developed at Steppenwolf Theater‘s amazing playwriting incubator program, First Look Repertory of New Work.  Because of time constraints and admittedly poor planning on my part, I only managed to see two of the three plays this year.  I’ve been kicking myself for missing Laura Jacqmin’s sold out Ski Dubai, especially since that play was the last opportunity to see James Vincent Meredith and Cliff Chamberlain before their Broadway debuts in the Superior Donuts transfer opening next month in New York.  I thought Laura Eason’s Sex with Strangers, which got a head-scratching (at least on my part) rave from Chris Jones, and Steppenwolf ensemble member Eric Simonson’s Honest, both still needed a significant amount of development, clarification, and tightening.  I liked Honest, about a James Frey-like best-selling writer whose memoir seems to be more fiction than fact, a little bit more, since it had surprising narrative twists and communicated its central thesis-what constituted truth and could someone live a life of lies without being morally disturbed by it- more clearly.  Although Sex with Strangers felt so contemporary, I thought there were a lot of themes that needed to be sorted out and clarified better – was it primarily about the generational differences in the notion of intimacy?  was it about the generational differences in the definition of success?  was it about the difference between a traditional writer’s creative process and a blogger’s?  was it a play about all of these? and if it was, could the intersections have been tightened and smoothed out more effectively?  The plays though were noteworthy in that they both boasted starmaking performances from their male leads – Stephen Louis Grush, whose onstage electricity could provide power for the entire Mid-Atlantic region, was sexy, cocky, vulnerable, and gutsy as the promiscuous twentysomething blogger who fell in love with an older woman in Sex while Erik Hellmann, who I’ve seen mostly play weaker-willed characters in the past, was astounding and utterly believable as Honest‘s emotionally disturbed writer who had made lying a way of life, able to shift from charming to unsympathetic in a half beat.  I would love to see these guys with Blackbird‘s Mattie Hawkinson in a play soon! 

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Runner Stumbles

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No one can be on their “A-game” all the time.  After the dreamy, profound, incandescent Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola makes the indulgent, unfocused Marie Antoinette.  For every astounding dazzler such as a late 1990s Balkan War-set King Lear, the Goodman comes up with astounding mediocrity such as Turn of the Century and Ghostwritten.  So my pragmatic self is very much willing to see the undeniable misfire that is Put My Finger In Your Mouth, such a painful disappointment coming after the stunning And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers, one of the best shows I’ve seen in Chicago in the early part of 2009, as a blip, as a recoverable stumble, in the ascendancy of the terrific storefront theater company, The Right Brain Project.  I’m sure there was some logical reasoning behind the company’s decision to stage this original work from Bob Fisher as their summer show. Unfortunately both my friends and I failed to grasp the raison d’etre behind putting on an incoherent, underwritten, seemingly under-rehearsed play about two sisters, so different in the way they approach life (one’s a responsible homemaker, the other an unfocused club kid), but who ultimately realize that family are the strongest ties that bind.  As I sweated it out, as if trapped in a Turkish hammam, at the RBP Rorschach, the group’s tiny blackbox theater on the third floor of a warehouse building by the metra tracks at Irving Park and Ravenswood, I wondered, have I totally lost my sense of humor at the theater?  Was I just not getting this play?  Was this a serious attempt to comment on our contemporary times, increasingly marked by drugs, sex, irresponsibility, and familial disaffection?  Was this a parable about the dangers of barebacking (yeah, I didn’t really know where I got that; oh, maybe from the line repeated several times in the play- the girls’ mother’s exhortation when they were little to “play, but play safe”, which sounded like a Steamworks poster to me?!?)?  Or was this just a theater company wanting to not take itself so seriously during the warm weather, having a grand time nudging, winking, in-joking with and at itself, in preparation for a strong, serious season in the fall? Otherwise, how could I explain the perplexing role of the Boxman, who may or may not be the girls’ father (and no clear message was actually telegraphed by the playwright to the audience)?  Why would there be a painfully amateurish American Idol-like group song and dance number incongruously plopped in the middle of the play like whipped cream on a burger patty?  Why did a fight scene occur with actors wearing gigantic rabbit heads and other animal masks?  Who were these animal people? Why were the performances directed to come off like tweens playing dress-up in front of their parent’s bedroom mirror? And why the hell was everyone wanting to suck on club owner The Snailman’s finger?  Other than some woozy ooh-aahhing, no one really made it clear what all this finger-sucking gave to the suckees.   Director Nathan Robbel, also Artistic Director of The Right Brain Project, continued the interesting experimentation with lighting design that he demonstrated in Handcuffs, but other than that, there really wasn’t anything in Put Your Finger that I found striking or memorable.  I’m still up for the theater’s October show, because I know what they’re capable of; I’m chalking up this summer show to warm weather light-headedness.

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