Un-Play

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Seeing a play at Mary-Arrchie has always been, for me, the classic Chicago storefront theater experience.  Between its eccentric, grungy location on the second floor of a convenience store and across a gas station on the outer fringes of Boystown, to its wildly-diverse, always-provocative programming, spanning classic Harold Pinter to early Keith Huff to hip Finn Kennedy, staged in a sweaty, gutsy, DIY-budget manner, a night at this theater is always going to be energizing, regardless of whether one actually liked the play or not.  And I think there will be polarized responses to Cherrywood:  The Modern Comparable, its current production directed by David Cromer, hot off his wildly-raved-about A Streetcar Named Desire at Writers’ Theatre, and right before his fall Broadway experiments with Picnic and Yanks.  There certainly were, even in my own tiny group of five people– some of us could barely wait for the ninety intermissionless minutes to end, others, like me, were mesmerized with mouths agape.  I think some people won’t know what hit them with the immersive, plotless, at parts undeniably head-scratching Cherrywood, which playwright Kirk Lynn wrote for his Austin-based experimental theater group, Rude Mechanicals.  Is it a play?  Or is it an un-play – a hipster take on performance art, a post-modern loft rave party with dialogue, a critique on our current socio-political preoccupations masquerading as a kegger (with wild werewolf’s milk instead of beer)?  Whatever is it, I feel very strongly that you should run out and pack the Mary-Arrchie space for the duration of its run: Cherrywood is invigorating, challenging, brilliantly conceptualized – a production that I would argue is even more vital to my experience as a passionate Chicago theatergoer than Cromer’s Streetcar is (which I loved!), because it is contemporary, unsettling, defiant, and talks to a world much bigger and messier than itself.

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In The Hothouse

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I’m a big supporter of new plays – I love that sense of anticipation and discovery when you’re waiting for the curtain to rise on a play you’ve never seen or read before.  As an audience member, I bring with me to the theater my preoccupations and my priorities, my opinions and my biases, so the new plays that attract me the most are the ones that traffic in big, global themes, that recognize they are part of a bigger world and enthusiastically engage with it: August: Osage County and its generational dysfunction or Ruined and its socio-political gender struggles (ok, so I just mentioned two Pulitzer Prize winners that received their world premieres in Chicago. Yeah, so shoot me).   I’m quite skittish then with plays that seem to be to be too introspective, too preoccupied with their emotional responses, plays that a New York Times theater review I once read characterized as “hothouse” plays – delicate, sensitive, bent over by the weight of their own brooding. And really, really focused on their playwrights’ worlds, rather than a world at large.  In Chicago last weekend, I saw the Gift Theatre Company world premiere production of Andrew Hinderaker’s Suicide, Incorporated; in New York this past week, I managed to catch the Tony-nominated Next Fall by Geoffrey Naults.  I laud the playwrights for releasing new voices to the cosmos; both, though, lacked the wondrous edge, the sock-to-the-gut experience that I look for in the best new plays.  And in Next Fall’s case, “best new play” is a phrase I would never, in a million years, attach to it.

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Noble Intent

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With all the theatergoing I do, I sometimes come across shows that I feel, even before I see them that I have to, must, like them, otherwise I’m bottom-feeding pond scum.  Itsoseng, currently playing as part of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s stellar World Stage series, about bitter disillusionment in post-apartheid South Africa, written and performed by an extraordinary hyphenate Omphile Molusi, is one of them.  The War with the Newts (Mr. Povondra’s Dream), Next Theatre Company‘s world premiere adaptation of Czech writer Karel Capek’s 1936 short story about the rise of a salamander species,  initially exploited and enslaved by human beings, to world domination, is another one.  Both, however, left me uncomfortably cold and unengaged.

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People Watching

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Between the irritating travelers who cut in front of you to try to board the plane before their group number is called, the screaming babies and restless toddlers with their parents sitting indifferently by, and the drunken, sweaty men who plop into your private space in the hotel bar while you’re trying to nurse your gin and tonic in stony silence, those who travel for business like I do know exactly the meaning of “hell is other people”.  That’s the most famous line of Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic existentialist play No Exit about three people in hell doomed to spend eternity together in a small, crooked, locked room.  It’s a play that’s strangely incandescent yet ruthlessly biting, hilarious yet at the same time cynical and pessimistic.  It’s a play, then, I think, that’s totally up the alley of The Hypocrites and its hyperkinetic cultural savant of an Artistic Director, Sean Graney.  I enjoyed their staging of No Exit for what it was and I’ll enthusiastically recommend it to all.  I have to wonder, though, whether Graney’s tongue-in-cheek, undeniably hip, cultural potpourri of a production dilutes Sartre’s bite, making the play more of an intellectual sprint than a half-marathon, as it should have been.

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Why This? Why Now?

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Last year, when the American Blues Theater was formed as a breakaway group by most of the ensemble members of American Theatre Company, I cheered loudly and enthusiastically.  Here was the triumph of the committed ensemble, long an invaluable element of what makes Chicago theater great, over authoritarian Artistic Directors.  As a passionate audience member, I was very excited for the not-so-new theater company and the ambitious heights it would achieve.  So I’m pretty puzzled and quite disappointed that a group so distinguished and so fervent about its art would stage as part of its 25th year celebration a play so overwrought, so broadly-written, so, do I dare say it, irrelevant to a 21st century theater audience as Jack Kirkland’s 1933 adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s best-selling novel Tobacco Road, the second-longest running play in Broadway history (running for 3,182 performances over 8 years, from 1933 to 1941).  In this case, longevity was not an indication of quality.

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