With Friends Like These

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As a bona-fide, pink-union-card-emblazoned, goldstar gay, you’d think I would be rushing breathlessly to About Face Theatre’s world premiere of Philip Dawkins’ The Homosexuals.  Well, I did sashay with unaccustomed speed to Victory Gardens, where it was playing, over the weekend, but as I told my friend Fab Jason, I was a little wary about the whole business after reading a summary description of the play on the theater’s website.   The Homosexuals sounded like a whole lot of Love! Valour! Compassion! mixed in with some Boys In The Band and drizzled with a dash of Queer As Folk repurposed for the millennial generation.  In short the play could be a mishmash of every single circle of gays movie, TV show, or play that we’ve seen over the past decade.  Is there something new or fresh that Dawkins would say about the gay experience in the 21st century?  Will it talk about what the words “gay” or “homosexual” or “queer” mean right now?  And how the definitions and constructs have evolved through the years?  I think for the most part The Homosexuals is funny, poignant, captivating, delightfully energizing, a packs-little-punch summer diversion, which is terrific.  But, despite the play’s attempt to survey some of the key themes that have and continue to confront the community over the past decade, I feel that, as a homosexual, the play is somewhat of a missed opportunity.

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Best Meal of the Year, so far

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I recently came back from Hong Kong, a city that in my and many of my travel-savvy friends’ opinion is in the top five destinations in the world.  It’s a dazzling, vibrant, breathlessly fast-paced city where the whiff of money, ambition and futuristic visions permeate the air more than tradition, history, or East Asian exoticism do.  The limitless energy and intoxicating buzz of the city is unmatched by very few other world capitals (New York City and Tokyo come to my mind), and these qualities extend to a dynamic, diverse food scene.  In my opinion, there is absolutely no possibility of getting a bad meal in Hong Kong. The city has 63 Michelin-starred restaurants (in contrast, New York City has 57 and Chicago has a surprisingly paltry 23).  Alain Ducasse and Joel Robuchon have flagship restaurants in the city, while Hong Kong superstar chef Alvin Leung has the highly-acclaimed Bo Innovation, the preeminent Asian take on molecular gastronomy.  Spectacular food can be had in its many teahouses and dimsum restaurants as well as in its unique dessert-only cafes, and dai pai dongs or the cooked food stalls in street markets. And then there are Hong Kong’s private kitchens, unlicensed, covert restaurants housed in residential flats or within the upper floors of commercial buildings.

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Secrets and Lies

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The one thing I clearly remember about going to see the Danish film The Celebration back in 1999 at the Music Box Theatre was that my friend Niels, who was originally from Copenhagen, kept bursting out laughing throughout the screening even as the rest of us in the audience sat rapt and riveted by the horrific family tragedy unfolding on screen.  I remember shushing him several times, because, frankly, people were getting ticked off (and we were in the smaller theater as well so even the most restrained guffaw became an irritating echo).  But his reaction was probably typically Danish – in the film and in it’s theatrical adaptation by British playwright David Eldridge, Festen (the film’s original title in Danish), now receiving an astounding, triumphant Midwest premiere from Steep Theatre, the terrible, gut-wrenching revelations of family secrets and lies are intermingled with dancing, singing, laughter, festivity, a culturally-programmed emotional response filled with denial and delusion.  And thanks to Jonathan Berry’s moody, confident direction, and the exceptional ensemble cast, especially the magnificent Kevin Stark, the play is both emotionally draining and terrifying, exacting and suffocating, like a bizarre blend of August: Osage County meets Paranormal Activity.  In short, Steep’s Festen is superb, a must-see for everyone who seeks out unsettling theater.

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Clockwatchers

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It’s been quite the week since I got back from Hong Kong, jumping back into the corporate fray with the zeal of someone who didn’t just get back from a ten day vacation.  I’m back on the business travel jaunt, but I wanted to make sure I let my blog readers know to check out Chicago Dramatists’ world-premiere production of Marisa Wegrzyn’s Hickorydickory, which won the playwright the 2009 Wendy Wasserstein prize for work by an emerging female playwright.  It’s closing this weekend, so catch it then, because I think it’ll probably have a bigger and longer life after Chicago.  I’ve been a big admirer of Wegrzyn over the years, since I think she has probably one of the most distinctive voices among Chicago playwrights.  Her plays are dark, biting, hilarious, and insightful, putting the surreal and the absurd in what, on the surface, seems drab and ordinary.  Sometimes, I think her plays are memorably successful such as Killing Women, a black comedy about corporate-like politics in an organization of housewife-assassins, one of the most ingeniously eccentric new plays I’ve seen during the past several years.  At other times, though, I think they’re quite frustratingly chaotic such as Butcher of Baraboo, about a family with violent secrets in, you guessed it, Baraboo, Wisconsin.  Hickorydickory falls in the former category.  It has quite an interesting premise – what if we have alarm clocks behind our hearts (and for some of us, maddeningly inside our heads) that tell us how long we will live?  How much will we change the way we live our life, missing opportunities and dismissing potential, sticking to the mundane here and now, if we know our time of death?  What kind of relationships will we form?  What if we had the chance to tamper with our life clock, will we play god and try to extend our mortality? What kind of person does that make us, then?  It’s a masterfully written piece that touches on profound questions around the mastery of our fate and the fallibility of our humanity.  Additionally, it also beautifully paints a portrait of familial, especially maternal, love.  I won’t give away the narrative since I think part of the pleasure of watching Hickorydickory is seeing Wegrzyn’s finely-etched characters unfold their surreal lives, told in an engaging way that recalls the short stories of Murakami despite being set in a generic Chicago suburb.  Overlooking the close to three hours running time, I think it’s definitely one of the plays to catch this month (and despite the length, it is never boring or heavy handed).  Chicago Dramatists Artistic Director Russ Tutterow directs the play with a light hand and a warm heart, and is greatly aided by a terrific cast.  The young actress Cathlyn Melvin, touching, feisty, heartachingly good in two roles, is the definite standout.

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