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.
In between scrambling around catching films at the Chicago International Film Festival, I’ve also tried to keep up with the very busy openings of the fall theater season. So on one weekend I attended Silk Road Theatre Project’s riveting, stimulating, immensely satisfying Chicago premiere of Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched, clearly one of the best productions I’ve seen this year. And then last weekend, I trekked out to the hinterlands of Rogers Park to catch Ludicrous Theatre Company ’s take on Peter Shaffer’s outdated clunker Equus, now re-set in 2010 instead of the early 1970s, and taking place in a farm community outside Reno, Nevada instead of rural England. I know I should have learned my lesson after seeing Redtwist’s version barely two months ago, but I believe in second chances and in Chicago theaters’ passion, daring, and can-do fervor. Unfortunately, this version of Equus, stuffed to the gills with questionable artistic decisions which can’t be redeemed by Ian McCabe’s impressive performance as Alan Strang, is one of the least notable, least recommendation-worthy shows I’ve seen in Chicago in a long time. That’s the life of the passionate Chicago theatergoer – because of the wide-ranging options offered by our 150+ theater companies, you take the highlights with the lowlights, the pearls with the sandy grit.
The Chicago International Film Festival ends another year tonight with its 7 pm screening of the The Debt, starring Helen Mirren and Sam Worthington. I ended my Film Festival experience earlier this week with the last of my dozen films – below are my impressions on the last four films I saw. See you all next year for another remarkable film-viewing experience!
I’ve seen some pretty heady, wacky, and at times, whacked-out stuff at the Chicago International Film Festival over the years. Christopher Honore’s Ma Mere, for one, in which Isabelle Huppert’s character has an affair with her son, played by Louis Garrell (who probably sets the cinematic record for male masturbation, including a jaw-dropping final scene when he does the deed while he looks over her dead body in the morgue, of all places). Or Kornél Mundruczó’s Johanna which re-tells the story of Joan of Arc as an opera-musical, set in a Hungarian hospital for the terminally-ill, where a drug-addicted Joan is martyred for trying to heal the patients by having sex with them. Or Kim Ki-duk’s Time about an obsessive woman who undergoes plastic surgery to get back her boyfriend, which contains a lengthy surreal coffee shop scene followed by a chase scene in which the actors are wearing white masks throughout. But this year’s Leap Year, the Mexican film from Australian transplant Michael Rowe, which caused quite the commotion at Cannes earlier this year and won the Camera D’Or prize for best first film, is up there with the outrageously memorable. It is audacious and envelope-pushing, not only because of its graphic sex scenes (an unsimulated hand job, asphyxiation during anal sex and “golden showers”, anyone?) and it’s ferociously brave performance from lead actress Monica del Carmen, but also because by having a laser-sharp focus on the mundane, routinary aspects of a person’s daily life, it is able to paint a vivid, tragic, universal portrait of contemporary urban living. It is breathtaking. Here are my thoughts on Leap Year and other films I saw this week at the Festival, all of them coming to us from Cannes:
The Chicago International Film Festival is in full swing, and I’m swinging along with it. Panting and dizzy is probably more like it, though, given the cinematic shenanigans I witnessed during the first festival weekend – from a guy gagged, bound, hooded, stuffed into the backseat of a car with the engine running in a sealed garage, to graphic sex scenes, amputee and non-amputee alike, to lengthy MRI scans of a woman’s thorax and diaphragm. Yeah, really. Thank goodness for the gay film! I’d like to give props, though, to the Festival organizers, not just for the adventurous programming, but also for more audience-friendly logistics. I think the Festival is really settling in quite gracefully at the AMC River East, its home of the past three years, and there’s less of Nurse Ratched’s mental ward’s frenzy of previous years. The lines to see the films are still there, but they’re less chaotic than before (and the Film Festival experience wouldn’t be complete without these lines – especially if in some of them you bump into long-forgotten participants of your far-flung youth’s numerous walks of shame!). Here are my thoughts on the first set of films I saw at the Festival:
Despite what Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland might have said, you can’t just put up a musical in a barn. Musicals are tricky stage business. The composer and book writer should convince the audience that it makes sense for their subject matter to be sung, rather than talked about, or narrated, or demonstrated. The director of a musical, on the other hand, should have the ability to make the audience truly believe that it makes sense for people to suddenly break out into song in the middle of a conversation, or a jaunt along the park, or amongst the remnants of a clambake, and not interrupt the narrative flow of the piece as well. I have a lot of friends who like going to the theater, but who just happen to not like going to musicals, because the latter requires a lot more unnerving suspension of their disbelief. And musicals have taken somewhat of a bad rap among people of my generation and younger simply because there have been so many poorly-produced productions of great musicals which look and sound like they’ve indeed been produced inside a barn, or worse, a karaoke joint. So I’m somewhat thrilled, and also quite apprehensive, that there is a preponderance of musical theater in the Chicago fall arts and culture season, especially since many of our theater companies seem to be more comfortable chewing into Stoppard or Mamet, instead of Rodgers and Hart. The centerpiece musical theater production of the season is arguably Tony-winning director Mary Zimmerman’s new version of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide at the Goodman Theater – a lush though somewhat chaotic production, most memorable for musical director Doug Peck’s rendering of that gorgeous, unsurpassable Bernstein score. Surprisingly (well, for me, at least), Griffin Theatre and the much-acclaimed young director Jonathan Berry have also unveiled a minimalist version of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, one of my favorite musicals of all time. I’m not going to talk about Griffin’s Company at length (more on that later), but I do want to say that I firmly believe that just because you want to sing Sondheim doesn’t mean you should.