Yes, this year felt a little bit more glorious than years past. Not only because I had really, really great food – in restaurants, in homes, in hawker centers – but also, since I flew close to 80,000 miles for work and a little play, I was very fortunate to have shared many generous, heartwarming, unforgettable meals with family and old and new friends not just in Chicago, but in New York City, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Boston, Scottsdale, Minneapolis, Houston, Manila, and Singapore, as well. I’ve had meals this year with the highest-quality ingredients sourced from the best purveyors (and in one X-Marx Chicago dinner, foraged from a patch of green in Humboldt Park), spectacular culinary inventiveness from chefs at the top of their game, and unexpected pairings, combinations, and cooking techniques; but more importantly, most of these meals were also celebrations with people I cared a lot about, full of remembrances, excitement, and possibilities, with personal bonds strengthened or re-ignited or instantaneously created.
It is that time of year again when I’m making lists – from things I’m going to give up in the new year (eating pork belly being one of them) to places I’m going to visit in 2011 (return trips to Hong Kong and Vancouver and a first trip to Rio de Janeiro on top of that list) to the various ways I can meet hot chefs in the city (oops, ok, that’s a secret list). I’ve also compiled my annual ten best theatrical experiences for 2010, a list, as always, compiled from the point of view of a passionate audience member. It was another strong year in Chicago theater, and I saw plays everywhere in the city, from the major houses like the Goodman and Steppenwolf, to most of the storefronts, to the basement of an apartment building in Uptown where folding seats were set up in front of washers and dryers. Fantastic!
Tags: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Mary-Arrchie Theater Co., Silk Road Theatre Project, Slimtack Theatre Co., Steppenwolf Theatre, The Hypocrites, TimeLine Theatre Company, Writer's Theatre, XIII Pocket
Man, this year quickly whizzed by like Sarah Palin on an Alaskan dog sled. It’s been a terrific year of many personal milestones, though, so I have nothing to complain about. I’m getting ready to publish my annual From The Ledge list of the most memorable theatrical productions in Chicago (look out for the list sometime over the weekend), but before I do that, I just wanted to wrap up another year in Chicago theater viewing with my comments on a couple of productions that opened over the past several weeks. Before I left for Asia in the last week of November I managed to catch the opening of Hubris Productions’ mounting of Terence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune; after I got back from Asia, I headed over to see the wacky goings-on in the Chopin Theater basement with The Hypocrites’ version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.
No, my dear readers, I didn’t run off to Canada to get married to Ryan Reynolds (yes, People’s Sexiest Man Alive is indeed Canadian, but he’s already taken by that wench, ScarJo…grrr!). I was super busy with my day job flying all over the country beginning in late October, and then I went off and racked up more airline points in Asia to do the same meetings over there during the past couple of weeks. I haven’t been in the Asia-Pacific region, where I grew up, for more than a decade, so there was a lot of exhilaration but also quite a palpable sense of dislocation on my part. More on that in a later blog post. But now I’m back (and un-glamorously jet-lagged) in the frozen tundra that is Chicago in December, and I promise to catch up on all the blogging I’ve missed the past couple of months. On the theater front, I’ll be catching two major openings in the coming week: Steppenwolf Theatre’s hotly anticipated mounting of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with acclaimed ensemble members Amy Morton and Tracy Letts in the roles Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton infamously made their own, and the Hypocrites’ tantalizing production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, directed by Artistic Director and Chicago treasure Sean Graney. I’m also planning to catch several plays that opened while I was away: Backstage Theater Company’s Memory, XIII Pocket’s Cash, and the Artistic Home’s Sweet Bird of Youth (allegedly being brought to Broadway next year by Chicago director David Cromer, with Nicole Kidman, her forehead, and the new object of my and the country’s lustful obsession, James Franco). Oscar season is also in full swing, so it’s also the time of year when I catch up on my Oscar hopefuls. I’ll be traipsing along to The Black Swan, Daren Aronofsky’s All About Eve-in-tutus opus and 127 Hours, or the amount of time I want to spend in a hot tub with James Franco, oh, oops, wrong subtitle. I need to still write about David Fincher’s The Social Network, my current bet to lead the Oscar nominations, and about two wonderful books that recently came out about the Philippines, it’s culture, it’s people, and it’s psychology – Miguel Syjuco’s emotionally conflicted Illustrado and Rafe Bartholomew’s exciting, intriguing look at the Filipinos’ national obsession with basketball, Pacific Rims. Did you guys miss me?
…a big shrug. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very thrilled for the chefs and restaurants who received recognition and acclamation today, when the list of the Michelin starred restaurants in our fair city was released. There were a lot of well-deserved mentions in my book – Alinea’s 3 stars (expected), Avenues’ 2 stars (thrilling) and Sepia and Takashi’s 1 stars (wonderfully unexpected). I am very excited for the reinvigorated opportunities for the city to draw in more dining tourists (not that we don’t stumble over enough on Michigan Avenue, really). I’m happy for my friends in the restaurant PR industry who’ll have lots of new marketing collateral to spin. However, as I’ve been tweeting over the past several months, as a passionate, frequent Chicago restaurant diner, I really couldn’t give a hoot about the Michelin Guide. I personally don’t feel the need for what I consider an outmoded evaluation model (something developed in the early 1900s to help French motorists out with their dining selections as they promenaded up and down the French countryside during the early, novel days of automobile travel) to validate what I think are Chicago’s best restaurants. I already know that Alinea and Avenues are top dogs in this city’s competitive dining scene. I know, because I’ve been to these restaurants several times and have gone home with some of the best culinary memories I’ve ever had and expect to have. But I also know that the Publican, The Bristol, Urban Belly, and The Purple Pig (all given Bib Gourmand mentions, some sort of a second-tier recognition for restaurants that provide best value for great food, or something like that) and the surprisingly snubbed Avec (whose chef Koren Grieveson just won a James Beard award earlier this year) can give many of those restaurants deemed worthy of stars a bullet-sweating run for their money. I also fervently believe that our city’s culinary razzle-dazzle owes a lot to the variety and diversity of ethnic restaurants that seduce our diners at every street corner. If the Michelin Guide is truly a benchmark for the best restaurants in Chicago, then where are the mentions for Tac Quick or La Cebollita or La Pasadita or Sun Wah? Oh, or maybe that hazy criteria developed for last-century travelers’ palettes couldn’t recognize the brilliance and energy and cojones of food that don’t have the least bit hint of anything French in them (and as James Beard award-winning food writer Josh Ozersky points out in an invaluable Time magazine piece: what the hell is this criteria anyway? They’re so vague, Jean-Luc Naret’s anonymous inspectors probably couldn’t qualify as Olympic diving competition judges). Personally, as a 21st century Chicago food-conscious person whose palette spans continents and imaginations, the Michelin Guide is quite irrelevant.
One of the things I look for constantly as an avid theatergoer is the element of surprise. As my loyal blog readers know, and under threat of getting my theater maven credentials pulled by drama purists, I dread going to a Chekhov play – I dread it for its ponderous nature, its ennui, its lack of anything interesting going on. I’ve seen more exciting things happen on the red line el to Chinatown than in many of the Chekhov productions I’ve been to. That’s why I was very surprised to be enraptured by Robert Falls’ minimalist, deeply-felt, totally lived-in production of The Seagull at the Goodman’s Owen Theater. Encountering surprise and the unexpected at a Hypocrites production is a given, but I was still wonderfully surprised and elated by K., Neo-Futurists founder Greg Allen’s irreverent, funny, athletic, did-they-just-do-that? take on Kafka’s usually dark and malevolent The Trial. So, if the previous sentences haven’t made it clear yet – you should go and see The Seagull and K. (despite what some theater critics whose agendas I cannot fathom have said about both), two very different plays with two very unique worlds of their own, but which consistently provide unexpected discoveries and viewing pleasures, possibly the two best shows of the fall theater season so far.