Revisit

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As my regular blog readers know, I nearly fell into a coma as I ran out of superlatives after seeing Liv Ullmann’s minimalist, unsentimental Sydney Theatre Company production of A Streetcar Named Desire last year.  It had a truly definitive Blanche du Bois, imho, from the great Cate Blanchett as its center of gravity.  With the standards set so high for Streetcar, truly my favorite play of all time, a little part of me was prepared to be disappointed with David Cromer’s production at Writer’s Theater, his first work in Chicago after his Broadway debut last winter, despite the unanimous, worshipping critical raves it had already received.  But as the Sun Times’ Hedy Weiss says, it’s kinda pointless to compare and contrast Cromer’s Streetcar with any other versions of the play one has previously seen:  this production of Tennessee Williams’ great, legendary play stands proudly and singularly on its own – visceral, gutwrenching, voyeuristic, with towering performances, and startlingly, a shift in the dramatic center of gravity from Blanche (the focal point of most productions I’ve seen) to a freshly re-thought Stanley Kowalski, played to dazzling, ferocious perfection by Matt Hawkins.  I was breathless and exhilarated after the three hours on this Streetcar – I’d gladly haul my urban, non-847-area-code-friendly-self on the Metra back to Glencoe anytime for a production this terrific.

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Rock of Ages

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I’m not really a rock and roll kinda guy (does loving Liza Minnelli’s beyond-mind-exploding cover of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” for Sex and the City 2 count?  Yeah, I didn’t think so.  And to head off the snark, yes, I do know that “Single Ladies” isn’t rock and roll. I’m being funny here, people!).  So I think it’s quite interesting that my last two theater outings had been rock and roll themed, one directly, the other very loosely.  A couple of weeks ago, I was at Signal Ensemble Theater’s Aftermath, one of the best reviewed shows currently playing, a world premiere play from Artistic Director Ronan Marra about the original leader of the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones, who met a young, untimely death.  Last weekend, I was out supporting TUTA Theater Chicago, where I’m a Board Member (that’s my standard full disclosure statement), for the opening night of the second show of the season, Bertolt Brecht’s first, and because of all the revisions and updating he made throughout his lifetime, last, play, Baal, about a free-wheeling hedonistic young man who magnetizes both sexes, usually interpreted and staged as a metaphor for the destructiveness of the rock and roll culture.  And despite being such a Sondheim-lovin’ showtunes diva, I can heartily recommend both.

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Star Gazing

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I should be pretty jaded already having seen many, many major performing artists live onstage in my lifetime.  However, there are still those increasingly rare instances when ineffable, magnetic star power just sweeps me, breathlessly, dizzyingly, off my tiny Asian feet.  There were the nights, for example, of seeing Mikhail Baryshnikov at the Minneapolis Orpheum Theater in the mid-1990s, or Dame Judi Dench in Amy’s View on Broadway, or, more recently, Cate Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Kennedy Center.  Last Wednesday night, at the Harris Theater, seeing the celebrated American opera superstar Frederica von Stade, in one of her last staged opera performances in Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, the last production for the season of the essential Chicago Opera Theater, was one of those times.  Von Stade is luminous, riveting, wonderfully graceful, radiating never-ending concentric circles of charisma as Madeline Mitchell, a celebrated Broadway actress with fractured relationships with her two children, Charlie, whose partner is dying of AIDS, and Bea, who has turned to alcohol to escape her troubled marriage.  Von Stade, both through her impeccable musicality and her terrific acting chops, is able to make Maddy, seemingly monstrous on paper, both maddening and sympathetic, a truly multi-layered characterization, closer to the best of musical theater performance, in my opinion, than operatic performance (which tends to be more about the singing than the acting).  She is also very generous in her scenes with the star-in-the-making Matthew Worth (seen last season at COT in Britten’s Owen Wingrave, which I’m now kicking myself for missing), who gives Charlie a serious dose of sexy heartwrench, and Sara Jakubiak, who infuses Bea with steely, quiet rage. 

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Brecht’s In Da House!

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Every time I go into a theater and see that I’m the youngest person there, my heart sinks.  I’ve written about my frustration in the past; I know that one of the most pressing challenges facing the performing arts today is the lack of new, young, non-traditional audiences in seats.  What will it take to get the Twittering, Facebooking, I-Pading generation used to jumpcuts, flash-forwards, I-Tunes downloads, and multi-media displays to see live theater, especially the dramatic classics?  Although there are no easy answers (and this blog post will not attempt to go down that rabbit hole at this time), I’m sure they will not be traditionally-staged Cherry Orchards or Cymbelines or Beckett plays that are mandated to adhere to the play as written.   That’s why I find it really thrilling and heartening when a production such as Strawdog Theater’s take on Bertolt Brecht’s classic 1940s indictment of capitalism and a perfect example of Epic Theater, The Good Soul of Szechuan, comes along.  Using Blackbird author David Harrower’s edgy, colloquial, contemporary translation, and staged like a house party by director Shade Murray with energetic performances and vibrant musical numbers that span the gamut of musical genres from folk to indie rock, this Good Soul makes Brecht’s pungent, sometimes overly didactic points about materialism, greed, the blackness of the human heart, and the lack of rewards for the virtuous, written more than 60 years ago, stingingly relevant to our 21st century world that is continuously outraged by Wall Street bonuses, movie and sports star contracts, real estate shenanigans, and the collapse of  mismanaged national economies.

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World Views

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As I’ve previously said, one of the great things about having such a lively theater scene is the fact that there are new works premiering all over town every weekend.  Some of them may be boring, formulaic reflections on twentysomething self-absorption, but many, many of them give us interesting glimpses into new, intriguing worlds.  Two of the plays currently onstage in the city tackle the volatile, complicated topic of cultural identity, something, as an immigrant, I am particularly keen on. After the triumphant success of the brilliant, Pulitzer-nominated, off-Broadway transferring The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, my choice for best production of 2009, the hot, young playwright Kristoffer Diaz is back with a world premiere at the American Theater Company of a play that he actually wrote before Chad Deity, Welcome to Arroyo’s, mixing a heady brew of Latino identity politics, doctoral dissertations, sushi-eating, graffiti-making, and hiphop.  Over at Chicago Dramatists, arguably the best incubator of new work in the city, Will Cooper, a new playwright, is having the first professional production of his works in Jade Heart, a world premiere about international adoption and the tension between keeping true to one’s cultural roots and assimilation.  I love strongly advocating for new work; however, I can only recommend Welcome to Arroyo’s with reservations, since, although it confirms for me Diaz’s brilliance and future greatness, and his exceptional ability to crisply capture the 21st century zeitgeist, it lacks the clarity and audience engagement of Chad Deity.   On the other hand, as an Asian, I struggled mightily with Jade Heart- although I think its intentions are noble, it is so simplistically-written and so old-fashioned in its worldview, Cooper might as well have been writing about cultural identity concerns in 1980 versus 2010.

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