Preview of the 2010 Chicago International Film Festival

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For those of you who’ve read my blog through the years, you know I devote a couple of weeks in October talking about the films I’ve seen at the Chicago International Film Festival.  As an arts-conscious Chicagoan, it’s definitely one of the priceless perks of living in this great city.  Although there is a lot of heartburn with the graying of the audience demographic in many of our great, world-class cultural institutions, I’m thrilled to say that every year I’m at the Film Festival I see a diverse, younger demographic, with people who you’d expect to mob Lollapalooza lining up for the latest Daren Aronofsky pic, or better yet, for an obscure, wacky South Korean entry.  I griped about the slim pickings of last year’s festival, so I’m excited to see the slate of films that are coming our way beginning October 7, in my humble opinion, possibly the strongest selection of films I’ve seen since the early 2000s.

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Rose By Any Other Name

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When I saw Chicago Shakespeare was opening its 2010-2011 season with Romeo and Juliet, I audibly groaned.  I need another Romeo and Juliet as much as I need another tetanus shot in the derriere. But I’ve heard of Australian director Gale Edwards, and more specifically about her acclaimed Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare Theatre in Washington DC a couple of years back, so I thought maybe this poke in the bum would be worth checking out.  And am I glad I did.  As my blog readers know, I have a pretty ambivalent view towards Chicago Shakespeare, which, despite its massive financial resources and organizational infrastructure, can still put on unqualified stinkers like Cymbeline and Richard III that infuriatingly reinforce the misguided audience perception that Shakespearean plays are unappealing to a demographic younger than retirement community age, side by side with dazzlers like Twelfth Night.  Watching Edwards’ energetic, inspired, strongly visionary Romeo and Juliet, though, made me, for the first time in years, want to sign up for a subscription.  If Chicago Shakespeare Artistic Director Barbara Gaines continues to bring forceful yet thoughtful directors like Edwards to Navy Pier, hey, I’ll gladly sign up for anything.  This Romeo and Juliet is not like your typically mushy, dewy-eyed, low-rent Franco Zeffirelli-like versions staged anywhere and everywhere.  I am very impressed with Edwards’ ballsiness in viewing this play not as a tragic love story, but more as a cautionary tale of how a world that is angry, divisive, polarized, and belligerent will always crush youthful passion.  I love the macro perspective that she takes towards this play, a perspective that resonates strongly in the world we live in right now, where tea parties mask xenophobia and religious defense propagate intolerance.  But, as importantly, Edwards’ Romeo and Juliet is fresh, contemporary, and incredibly entertaining, as all great plays should be.

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Confounded

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With their recent critical and box-office successes Mistakes Were Made and Abigail’s Party, extremely well-directed and well-acted productions that I felt were more conventional than the ballsy, infuriating, impressively and unabashedly idiosyncratic plays of seasons past such as Blasted and The Fastest Clock in the Universe that I’ve come to love them for, I thought A Red Orchid Theatre was growing soft in its middle age.  Then they open their season with the Chicago premiere of Paul Mullin’s Louis Slotin Sonata, a ballsy, infuriating, wacky, a little too precious play about the real-life story of a scientist in the Manhattan Project whose fingers slipped while handling a piece of plutonium, and exposed himself to deadly nuclear radiation.  It’s a play I cannot imagine any other theater in Chicago taking on, and clearly demonstrates Red Orchid’s strengths and weaknesses.  On the other hand, I’ve always thought that Porchlight Music Theatre is the city’s foremost interpreter of Stephen Sondheim’s genius musicals in an intimate yet heart wrenching manner.  Two of the best Sondheim productions I’ve seen in Chicago were their takes on Company (with a formidable “Ladies Who Lunch” from the then-unknown Rebecca Finnegan, now one of the city’s leading musical theater performers) and Assassins.  Their most recent Sondheim productions were disappointing either in performance, conceptualization, or both.  In their 15th year, they decide to tackle Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize winner and arguably the most sophisticated work in his oeuvre.  And my disappointment continues with this low-wattage, frankly, at times, dinner-theaterish rendition that failed to capture the exquisiteness and the toughness of the best stagings of the musical (Exhibit A:  Gary Griffin’s luminous, minimalist version at Chicago Shakespeare several years back).  I’m left confounded.

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Tasting Notes: Avenues

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Alinea, the seventh best restaurant in the world and the best restaurant in North America, is, without a doubt, first among equals in the dazzling gastronomic capital that is Chicago.  However, if I were going to choose among our plethora of towering fine dining destinations, I’d say Avenues at the Peninsula Hotel Chicago is a close second.  It shouldn’t be surprising since the Chef de Cuisine at Avenues, the mega-talent Curtis Duffy, was Grant Achatz’s second-in-command at Alinea’s opening in 2005.  But if Achatz’s cuisine at Alinea is like the best of Harold Pinter-boldly intellectual, complexly layered, trafficking in big themes and ideas (his Escoffier tribute dish at my recent spring 2010 dinner captured both the complex history of gastronomy and the limitless potential of its future in one brazen, memorable plate)-Duffy’s cuisine at Avenues is like the best of Stephen Sondheim:  cerebral, thoughtful, intricately and exquisitely crafted, but seemingly effortless, and yes, like mellifluous musical pieces on a plate.  (I couldn’t resist using theatrical metaphors, so sue me). I had two recent dinners at Avenues – in the spring when I brought endearingly exacting New Yorker friend Hedy (who had the chandelier-sized cojones to question Wylie Dufresne to his face about a dish, but that’s a story for another blog post) and then in the summer when BFF Debra and our travelin’ buddy Reva, both accomplished world travelers and consumers of fine goods, joined me at dinner.  Both times, I got to say, I was blown away (and my highly discriminating dinner companions as well).

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Tasting Notes: Uncle Mike’s Place

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I’m taking a little bit of a break from theater coverage and sharing my thoughts and impressions on some recent memorable dining experiences in this great food town I call home.  The next several blog posts will be restaurant-focused, and hopefully will whet my blog readers’ appetites for more!

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Audacity

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Probably one of my leading stereotypically gay traits is that of musical theater queen.  I just love me a rousing, bombastic, glitter-and-spangles-and-feather-boa encased showtune (and I’ve been known to break into one after a couple of sidecars with the gays and the gals).  I’m a big Stephen Sondheim aficionado, but I’m also an equally fervent John Kander and Fred Ebb fan, with their musical theater masterpieces Chicago and Cabaret (just recently in a triumphant spring production I couldn’t stop raving about) near the top of my list of all-time favorite musicals (Sondheim’s Passion and Sweeney Todd occupy the primo spots).  One of my favorite memories of the ‘naughts, for example, is the night I led a drunken, but still definitely on-pitch, sing-along of “Cabaret” at a Montreal karaoke bar (and yes, if I recall, there was a feather boa involved).  I think the Kander and Ebb musical partnership was genius, not just in creating memorable, hummable, yet intricately constructed songs, but also in clearly and vividly telling stories and creating characters in these songs that build the singular power and impact of the overall piece (Chicago’s “When You’re Good to Mama”, for example, in one dazzling swoop, establishes both the gritty, protectionist milieu of a woman’s prison and the tough-as-nails yet pragmatic character of the warden, Mama Morton).  So there was no doubt in my mind that I would catch The Scottsboro Boys, Kander and Ebb’s final collaboration which they were still working on when Ebb passed away in 2004, in its pre-Broadway engagement at Minneapolis’ wonderful Guthrie Theater, after an acclaimed off-Broadway run.  And I am pleased to report that The Scottsboro Boys is audacious and astounding, a musical that is bold, brassy, feet-thumping, as all great musicals are, but also disturbing, uncomfortable, but ultimately inspiring in its powerful closing moments.  Despite some nits, I think it’s a must-see show for lovers, not just of musical theater, but of exceptional theater in general.

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