Postscript to Chicago Gourmet 2009

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There was general consensus that last year’s Chicago Gourmet, a “celebration of food and wine” which was designed to showcase the city as a vibrant culinary scene was quite the mega-train wreck, with its staggeringly high ticket prices (you had to pay to get in, to attend the wine seminars, and to partake of the Grand Cru tasting), the general lack of seating areas in Millenium Park’s Great Lawn where the event was held, and the commission of  the most heinous crime a food festival could ever commit:  making food as scarce a commodity as the black rhino in Tanzania or common sense in Glenn Beck’s head.  I was quite apprehensive, then, when I bought my one-day pass for this year’s event, scheduled to run last September 26-27 (ok, so I got a substantial discount courtesy of Groupon.com, which would have made it less of a sucker punch to an empty stomach if history repeated itself and I had to run to the Randolph street Chipotle after the event).  But there were some early signs of hope – attendance at the wine seminars didn’t require separate admission tickets anymore, and the number of Chicago restaurants and chefs increased substantially from last year.  There were still some kvetching and doubting and naysayering in the city’s foodie community but boy, did the organizers of the event, the Illinois Restaurant Association, show us all:  they picked themselves up by their bootstraps, shook off the dusty shoeprints on their back, retouched their mascara, and put on a Chicago Gourmet that was quite the thrilling celebration of a city that prided itself on being a major player in the culinary world stage.

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Infectious

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yeast-2.jpgBecause the beginning of this year’s fall theater season has been so busy, I’ve been going to a show almost every night since last week (thankfully, I’m in between client projects right now and temporarily off the road). Hey, I’m not complaining – I am grateful for this bountiful harvest, especially since it’s chockful of world premieres and original work emanating from a diverse set of really unique playwriting voices.  But of all that is onstage in Chicago currently, I don’t think there are voices as unique, as singular, as jolting as those of former Chicagoans and Tony-winning creators of Urinetown, Neo-Futurist founder Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann.   They’ve created a musical about yeasts, those unicellular fungi that we associate with breadmaking, beermaking, and certain delicate types of infections, and theorized that these cells are the forerunners of all living creatures.  They’ve set this yeasty (sorry, couldn’t resist) musical under the sea, around 5 billion years ago, in some “primordial soup” ruled by an iron-fisted king who is starving his salt-eating citizens to prevent them from asexually reproducing, in what can be surmised as a primitive form of birth control. They’ve thrown in a Greek Chorus led by a blind yeast-seer, named, well, the Unnamed.  They’ve set the story to a pop-rock score that contains such titular gems as “Stasis is in the Membrane”.  Absurd?  Yes.  Insane?  Absolutely.  Ridiculously over-the-top?  You got it, man.  But Kotis and Hollmann’s Yeast Nation (the Triumph of Life), which is receiving its Midwest premiere at the American Theater Company (although it supposedly is quite different from its world premiere at Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre a couple of years ago, so we could possibly consider this a quasi-world premiere), is also thrilling, exuberant, imaginative, hilarious, so exhilaratingly alive.  Yeast Nation is the one show that should make everyone want to go to the theater.  In its energy, creativity, and mind-heart-gut pull, it proves why live performance will never be matched, or supplanted, by television, webisodes, Wii games, and all other media that cater to the 21st century’s short attention spans and instant gratification needs.

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Force of Nature

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mistakes-were-made.jpgIf I were to ever write a memoir of my theatergoing experiences over the years, two of the most memorable nights I would single out would be ones I spent at A Red Orchid Theater‘s tiny, cramped, highly atmospheric theater in Old Town.  In the fall of 2004, I became a passionate fan for life when I saw its unforgettable, unmatchable, cojones-bursting production of Philip Ridley’s already outrageous, not-for-all-tastes, but insanely brilliant The Fastest Clock in the Universe.  Nearly two years later, in the spring of 2006, BFF Camela and I were two of  the fourteen mesmerized audience members, as seventeen actors (yes, there were more people onstage then in the seats) literally sweated their guts out over more than three hours in Eugene Ionesco’s demandingly obtuse, uncompromisingly intellectual Hunger & Thirst, directed by founding ensemble member Michael Shannon.  For me, these two nights signify why Red Orchid is such an essential, irreplaceable part of Chicago’s artistic life – it is a theater company that assumes a theatergoing audience wants to be challenged and provoked, inspired but not pandered to, inflamed but sufficiently educated.  Despite the critical acclaim, and since its productions can, at times, be a little too much even for the most committed, sophisticated theatergoer, I don’t think it has had the commercial success over the years that it deserves to have in this highly competitive, theater-mad town.  As Chris Jones notes though, it seems like the theater’s fortunes are turning up – there are sold-out houses, hissy fits by patrons who couldn’t get a seat, and a lot of deafening buzz about the theater and its season-opener, the world premiere of Craig Wright’s Mistakes Were Made, starring the now hyphenated Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon.  As a long-time supporter, I am thrilled for the box-office success, but I am even more excited that Red Orchid, the theater, and Michael, the committed theater actor, stayed true to what I love and respect about them – the folks standing in line to see an Academy Award nominee and Hollywood star up close and personal will discover as well (or instead?) a theatrical production that demands as much from its audience as itself, in the Red Orchid tradition.  And that’s a great thing.

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Ten Plays to Watch in Chicago this Fall

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The biggest laugh I had over the weekend (more so than the bellyaching guffaws I tried hard to suppress while watching pseudo-hipsters pretend to look impressed by some atrocious art during the West Loop gallery openings last Friday, but that’s a topic for another blog post) was over New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood’s almost sheepish admission – in print, for everyone to read -that New York theater, specifically Broadway, should be considered the east side of Chicago, given the number of Chicago-originating productions and artists currently on stage in New York.  Thank you, Mr. Isherwood, but our fair city already has an east side, so we don’t really need to annex New York City.  It was still pretty hilarious, though, to finally see the snobbish, self-promoting, out-of-touch Times theater section admit what many of us passionate theater aficionados have known for a while now – that the vital center of American theater has already migrated from the Big Apple to the City of Broad Shoulders.  So while one-step-behind New Yorkers will be drooling over chi-town exports Superior Donuts, A Steady Rain, and David Cromer (making his Broadway directing debut with revivals of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, running in repertory) this fall, theater-forward Chicago audiences will be immersing ourselves in some of the best theater this side of the Atlantic.  I’ve compiled below my annual list of the ten must-see theatrical events in Chicago this fall, most of them world premieres, never been seen anywhere; hopefully I’ll bump into many of you in some of them.  You never know, but that obscure, low-key, storefront production you paid twenty bucks for may be next year’s frenzy-inducing hot ticket in New York (exhibit A:  A Steady Rain). 

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Of Goats and Pigs

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I have a lot of friends who think watching a reality TV show is like getting a botched dermabrasion, but who are, nevertheless, out and proud fanatics of Top Chef.  With its well-thought out competitive matches, its highly qualified contestants, and its superior production values, Top Chef is in a class of its own, towering above, and incomparable to, those other reality shows where people eat reptiles, or where real housewives scream at each other in an Italian restaurant by the New Jersey turnpike, or where non-suburban floozies scream at each other to become Flavor Flav’s own real housewife.  Of course, for this Chicagoan, the most exciting Top Chef season had to be the season set  in Chicago, not just because it showed off our wonderful, food-centric city and innovative, talented chefs, but also because it was won by the only female Top Chef so far, our city’s very own Stephanie Izard.  I was a big fan of Stephanie’s now-shuttered Bucktown seafood restaurant, Scylla, so I was very thrilled when she was crowned Top Chef, since I knew it was so well-deserved.  So when I had the opportunity to attend the underground supper club she was doing monthly as a lead-in to the early 2009 debut of her new restaurant, The Drunken Goat, so appropriately called The Wandering Goat dinners, I jumped at the chance (plus, this particular dinner would be devoted to the lusciousness, deliciousness, bungee-jumping-worthiness of all things bacon).  As devoted readers of the blog know, I’ve written quite a bit about the underground dining scene in Chicago, so I was curious, what would a Top Chef winner’s underground supper club be like?

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