2011′s Theatrical Dazzlers

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As I said in my previous blog post, I flew lots and lots of miles over three continents in the course of 2011. But when I was in Chicago, I made sure I slid my butt into a theater seat (over the objections and recriminations of friends and (ex) lovers who I ended up not seeing during those so few weekends). So I still managed to go to a significant number of shows this year despite feeling as if I lived at O’Hare instead of my Ravenswood loft.  No regrets on this end, since Chicago continued to be a dazzling North American capital for live performance, with a bounty of world premieres, Chicago stops of great touring productions, and storefront theatrical treasures.  Here, then, is my annual top ten list of Chicago theater:

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A Bountiful Year

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And, I’m back! Yes, 2011 has been a bountiful and memorable year, my dear readers, but it has also been quite the frenetic, stressful, distraction-filled year too, so my sincerest apologies for not posting on this blog as much as I’ve done in the past.  The main benefit, however, of continuing to be on the travel circuit for another year (yep, once again, I flew more than 90,000 miles across three continents)  is the opportunity to spend time with family, colleagues, and new and old friends alike over convivial meals either rediscovering the past, exploring the present, or creating the future. And sometimes, with those closest to me, all three.  

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European Dis-Union

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Whew! The past couple of weeks have been a whirlwind blur of commuting every week to the city of the gateway arch, and pulling in long hours on an intense strategy project.  That’s the reason for the MIA, people.  This grueling schedule will continue till mid January 2012 so if I’m popping in and out of this blog just keep mind I’m stuck in the middle of Missouri.  As I read through the scant arts and culture listings in St. Louis’ equivalent of the Chicago Reader, the Riverfront Times, I’m struck by how culturally emaciated the denizens of this fair-sized Midwestern city seem to be.  During the past several weeks, the only things playing in the city has been God of Carnage, the touring production of The Addams Family, Blood Wedding, The Who’s Tommy, and Nuts (which was turned into a movie in the late 1980s and starred Barbra Streisand as a high-class callgirl on trial for murdering one of her clients. Babs as a ‘ho? Seriously, it sounds like a sci-fi film to me).  It’s a meager plate that makes me so thankful for our gloriously diverse and vibrant theater scene: on one weekend two weeks ago, I managed to catch two Chicago premieres of the works of contemporary European playwrights – Trapdoor Theatre‘ s expectedly whacked-out production of Werner Schwab’s OVERWEIGHT, unimportant: MISSHAPE – A European Supper, and Sideshow Theater Company’s more restrained staging of a similarly unconventional play, Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One.  Although I’m not a big fan of both,  I’m still grateful Chicago affords me a look into such idiosyncratic material.  I wonder how both will play in St. Louis.

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Beautiful Girls

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Although I love all theater, I have a soft, melty, mushy spot for musical theater (I was once memorably harangued by a neighbor in the hi-rise I used to live in for singing showtunes at night inside my apartment and disturbing her evening reality-tv watching.  Ha. Whatever. That angry, loveless beatch is probably scouring writeaprisoner.com even as we speak).  I find it quite ironic though that my favorite musical of all time isn’t one of the grand, outsized Rogers and Hammerstein classics such as Oklahoma!, or the life- and love-affirming Dreamgirls or the epic, rousing Les Miserables, shows that define what musical theater is for many a theatergoer, but rather Stephen Sondheim’s melancholy, complicated, sometimes sharp-edged, always life-like classic Follies.  Although ostensibly the story of a reunion of former showgirls, their theater impresario, and the men they love the night before their old theater was to be demolished, Follies cuts deep by delving into themes around regretful choices, unhappy relationships, failed aspirations, and the loss-tinged fatigue of living and aging. For me, it’s the one musical that should and could stand beside the best of Harold Pinter or Edward Albee, instead of, well, the best of musical theater.  Follies is profound, impactful, disturbing. It is the one Sondheim show, though, that is often talked about in legendary, hushed tones since few have really seen it in live performance.  Unfortunately, when it is produced, such as the last Follies production I saw, the 2001 Roundabout Theater Broadway revival with Blythe Danner, Treat Williams, Gregory Harrison, and Judith Ivey,  it is coated with the froth of musical theater (and in the Roundabout production’s case, a confused froth at that).  So I am so thrilled and excited to see Gary Griffin’s marvelous production of Follies at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.  It is intimate, raw, heartbreaking, entrancing, filled with unexpected interpretations, a show that is truly a Chicago production, not some New York-style rip-off.  It is, in my mind, a production that unequivocally demonstrates Follies’ legendary reputation.

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Fall Frenzy

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With a travel schedule that is, to say the least, brutalizing (anyone want to swap with me on my five-day weekly sojourn to the city of the gateway arch?), it’s been quite a challenge to catch all the fall theater openings.  I did manage to go to several over the past couple of weekends, and I talk about three of them below. (Photo:  Redtwist’s Elling with Andrew Jessop and Peter Oyloe)

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Children Will Listen

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When I was still joylessly participating in the gruelling gay dating circuit (oh so many years ago during the Paleolithic age), one of the criteria in my mental checklist for moving beyond a second date with a particular guy was whether having kids was one of his non-negotiables.  If it was, then it was ”hasta la vista, baby” time after the second date, regardless of how much he resembled Mr. Right for me. Although I love my nephews and niece, I don’t particularly consider myself paternal – I highly value my independence and my non-tethered lifestyle, and the fact that, unlike my straight friends, there really isn’t any pressure for me to respond to socio-cultural expectations and a metaphorical biological timeclock to settle down and create a nuclear family.  So Sarah Gubbins’  The Kid Thing, a world premiere co-production between About Face Theatre and Chicago Dramatists, is particularly resonant and unsettling for me, and, I could imagine, for the gay people of my generation.  Although I think the script requires some more polish and a little bit more focus, The Kid Thing is quite incisive and thought-provoking, with beautifully-constructed performances, and a punch that lingers with you way after the show has finished.

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