Early Warning Device

Theater 2 Comments »

For those of you who have been reading my blog since it’s inception in October 2007, you know how much I love Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer and Tony-winning August: Osage County and think it’s one of the greatest American contemporary plays (something Time Magazine seems to agree with, having selected it as number 1 in its Best Plays of the Decade list).  Curiously though, I have never seen a live production of any of Letts’ previous plays- Killer Joe, Bug, or the Pulitzer finalist Man from Nebraska.  Obviously I didn’t think he sprang fully-formed and awards-ready from a mythical Great Playwright mother pearl, so August, with its almost-perfect dialogue and its mesmerizing storytelling could only be the culmination of techniques and themes that he used in the earlier ones.  I was also very aware of the semi-notoriety that both Killer Joe and Bug have in terms of its raw sexuality and violence, so I was very intrigued to see how Profiles Theatre, the admittedly brazen storefront theater company that I’ve had a rollercoaster love-it/hate-it relationship over the years of Chicago theater watching would stage Killer Joe.  Although I don’t think it has the depth, the impact, and the lingering quality of August (really though, which recent play has?), the twenty year old Killer Joe holds up pretty well, continuing to deliver the goods in explosive drama, and the Profiles production, directed by Letts’ fellow Steppenwolf ensemble member (and original August cast member) Rick Snyder is a (literally) rip-roaring night at the theater.  And it’s still the one play that has the most original use of KFC drumsticks as stage props that I’ve ever seen.

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Magical Grieving

Theater No Comments »

When my mom passed away several years ago, which had to be one of my watershed life experiences, I sent out an email to my close friends all over the world to let them know, and I included this quote from Joan Didion’s autobiographical book about coping with the sudden death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and the prolonged illness of their daughter, Quintana, “The Year of Magical Thinking”:  “…when we mourn for our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves.  As we were.  As we are no longer.  As we will one day not be at all.”  I think it’s a beautiful quote, so articulately and delicately crystallizing with a minimum of words that almost indescribable state of tremendous grief, that sense of losing huge chunks of one’s self and one’s past and future with the loss of the loved one.   “The Year of Magical Thinking”  is one of the most important and memorable books I’ve ever read in my life; I finished it a couple of months before my mom entered the hospital for her very rapid, and ultimately failed, battle with kidney ailments, and I couldn’t have realized how prescient the book would be for capturing my emotional responses to my own forthcoming loss.  For Didion, in the book, powerfully, expressively, and relentlessly paints the various emotions that you go through when dealing with the loss of a loved one, and the terrifying possible loss of another – the anger, the discombobulation, the helplessness, the overwhelming pain, the sometimes gratuitous but always searing self-pity.  So I was very excited and curious to see how Didion adapted the book, so emotionally frank, so introspective, into a theatrical piece, now being given its Chicago premiere by the Court Theatre.   Although The Year of Magical Thinking, the play, is extremely well-written, and in the hands of Court Artistic Director Charlie Newell and actress Mary Beth Fisher, is masterfully, at times exquisitely, staged and performed, I missed some of the emotional clarity of the book.  I felt that the play was indeed a portrayal of “magical thinking” versus “magical grieving and feeling” which the book so invaluably, and unapologetically, provided.

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Linger, Disturb

Film 2 Comments »

If  I’m on a date and the guy I’m with doesn’t get, doesn’t love, or even worse, has not heard of, Michael Haneke’s brilliant Cache, certainly top of the list among the best films of the ‘noughts, then I’m probably not seeing him after we’ve gone Dutch on the check that night.   I know, I know, it sounds so snobbish and condescending, but hey, I’m a guy who thinks you are the type of films you see (and if there’s any mention at all of Judd Apatow, or yes, Na’vis, in the course of the date, I’d be surreptitiously calling for my cab home while he’s in the bathroom).  Cache, the story of a French family who keeps on receiving videotapes of themselves under surveillance from an unknown source, is one of the most intellectually challenging, psychologically provocative, and artistically impressive films I’ve ever seen, with a perfect Gordian knot of a screenplay that allows its themes to linger, disturb and provoke you days, no, even months, after you’ve seen it.  I didn’t think Haneke could ever top Cache, but he comes quite close to doing so with his latest film, The White Ribbon, the deserving winner of many, many film prizes including the Cannes Film Festival Palme D’Or last May, the European Film Awards Best Picture last December, and the Golden Globes Best Foreign Language Film last weekend (and the pleasure of seeing Haneke, truly one of our times’ great directors, humbly, somewhat bewilderedly, accept his prize, more than makes up for the sight of  James Cameron winning the Best Director award for that Wii video game masquerading as cinema, Avatar).  Sure, The White Ribbon is infuriating, chilly, dense, and slow-moving at times (some of the reasons which keep it, in my opinion, from surpassing Cache as Haneke’s personal best), but more importantly it’s also powerful, intelligent, sophisticated, and visually stunning all the time. 

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Rubbernecking

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minna.jpgOn the plane ride home from a business trip to Boston last week, I was reading director John Waters’ Top Ten Films list in the fabulously artsy art magazine, Art Forum, and had to gag myself with a paper napkin in order to stop my belly-aching guffaws at his descriptions, including this one for Lucretia Martel’s The Headless Woman:  “Bleached hair, hit-and-run accidents, in-laws with hepatitis?  Huh? I didn’t get it, but I sure did love it!”  I’m sure Mr. Waters would be collapsing in ecstasy if he saw a performance of British playwright Howard Barker’s Minna, now having its American premiere at Trap Door Theatre, since The Headless Woman had nothing on the sheer wackiness, absurdity, and incomprehensibility of this play, which was way off even the usual Trapdoor loony scale.  I would normally be infuriated at plays like Minna, with its deliberate intent to distance itself from the audience, to create a minefield of inaccessibility for people who paid good money to see it, but I was surprisingly riveted by the unabashed dramaturgical mayhem, director Nicole Wiesner’s no-holds-barred approach, and the committed cast’s embrace of the crazy-ass material.  The evening is the equivalent of theatrical rubbernecking – you’re horrified and embarrassed at the wreckage onstage but you’re just too fascinated to look away (or call for help).  I gotta say, I quite enjoyed myself at Minna (and enjoyment is normally not a state of being I associated with my previous Trapdoor experiences, but we will let bygones be bygones).

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Back!

Personal, Theater No Comments »

The new decade arrived somewhat inauspiciously last week, but who would have thought on January 8, 2000 that on January 8, 2010 I would be heading into the third year of writing an energetic Chicago arts and culture blog?  Certainly not me.  It’s been a busy couple of weeks between holiday madness, recuperation from a nasty fall on Christmas Eve (don’t worry, dear readers, no broken bones!), and a business trip during the first week of the new year.  But I’ve been catching up on my potential Oscar-contending films (look out for an upcoming blog post with capsule comments on those I saw over the holidays) and planning my cultural expeditions for the next month (which may include a trip to Minneapolis to “experience” the cutting-edge theatrical piece, Call Cutta in a Box:  An Intercontinental Phone Play by the German performance group Rimini Protokoll, part of the Walker Art Center’s “Out There” theater series).  The most exciting news I heard this week was the confirmed off-Broadway transfer of Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, whose Chicago world premiere last fall was my pick for the Best Theater of 2009.  There’s no announced casting yet, but with Chicago director Eddie Torres, Artistic Director of Teatro Vista, taking the helm of the Second Stage production once again, and with the Chicago designers from the Victory Gardens production already confirmed to participate, I think the possibility of New Yorkers’ socks (and underwear, belts, scarves, lucky amulet necklaces, and all) being blown away by Desmin Borges’ stunning lead performance is a pretty real one.  So who’s still contradicting my vehement assertion that Chicago is the theater capital of the US? 

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