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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Epic Win

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Sometimes Chicago can be a city of theatrical size queens.  And no, gutter-dwellers, it’s not what you think.  Over the past several years the city has seen ambitious, grandiose, unapologetically lengthy theatrical events:  in 2009, the Neo-Futurists put on a six-hour deconstruction of Strange Interlude as part of the Goodman Theater’s Eugene O’Neill festival; just last year, The Building Stage mounted a non-operatic, movement-based, six-hour condensation of Wagner’s The Ring Cycle while Steppenwolf Theater staged Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unforgettable The Brother/Sister Plays over two evenings.  So The Hypocrites’ four-hour Sophocles:  Seven Sicknesses, an adaptation of all seven existing Sophocles plays (Oedipus, In Trachis, In Colonus, Philoctetes, Ajax, Elektra, and Antigone) by Founding Artistic Director Sean Graney should be a cakewalk.  But I still came to the production with a little trepidation – really, four hours of Greek tragedy, with its unceasing bloodthirstiness, its outrageous melodrama, its hysterical reliance on oracles, choruses, and incestuous relatives, and its archaic speech patterns can send even the most jaded, committed theatergoer (well, me) screaming towards the exit pulling their hair and scratching their eyes out.  Also, I am a huge, like really huge, fan of Sean Graney, and greatly and deeply admire his tremendous love for theater, his imagination, and his ballsiness; when he succeeds (Edward II, The Mystery of Irma Vep, 4.48 Psychosis), in my opinion, there is no one more creative and ovation-worthy in this town.  When he doesn’t quite succeed though (uhmm, Frankenstein?), even his biggest fans (well, me) will be running screaming towards those exits as well.  His production of Oedipus a couple of years ago was compelling but it was also marred, in my opinion, by messy symbolism and precocious hipsterism.  Well, I am very happy to report that despite (spoiler alert) being showered by stage blood and dirt, I didn’t run towards any exit in the course of Graney’s four-hour epic.  Actually, I wasn’t even aware that four hours had passed, since Sophocles:  Seven Sicknesses is fresh, funny, brave, accomplished, resonant, beautifully and ambitiously written, a perfect match between the source material and the sensibility of the writer-director and his theater company.  Honestly, I could have sat at the Chopin basement theater for another four hours – the show was that good.

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In Pieces

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I’ve seen some of the most memorable Chicago productions of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpieces at Porchlight Music Theatre (Company in 2003, Sweeney Todd in 2004, Assassins in 2007) but I have been dismayed by the middling quality of its recent forays into the oeuvre of the greatest living American musical theater composer, an inconsistent and somewhat bloodless Into the Woods and a horrifically amateurish Pacific Overtures, one of my top Sondheim musicals of all time.  I was starting to wonder where the Porchlight artists’ deft understanding of Sondheim’s intricate, complex, multi-layered reflections on human nature and relationships had gone. Well, wherever it took a tropical island vacation at, I’m glad it is back in full, rested, reinvigorated force at the theater’s season-opener and the first show of the company’s new Artistic Director Michael Weber, Stephen Sondheim’s Putting It Together, a revue of Sondheim’s early work.  This show is an energetic, classy, extremely well-performed production for adult theatergoers – my dear Porchlight, I’m sure Chicago’s rabid musical theater queens like myself are glad to have you back.

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“Art Isn’t Easy”

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When Stephen Sondheim, the mighty deity of  the American musical theater, speaks (or writes a letter to the New York Times), the national theatrical eco-system of critics, practitioners, and audiences stops to listen.  When he attacks a new production of a classic work without a single performance having been performed yet, calling its director, librettist, and lead actress “arrogant”, “condescending”, and even “dumb” for the supposed changes to the work that they are planning to make, everyone drops whatever they are doing and buys a plane ticket to Boston to see what the hell the theatrical kerfuffle is all about.  So that’s how I found myself last week at the American Repertory Theater sitting in seat B16 waiting for the curtains to rise on its new Broadway-bound production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, directed by Artistic Director Diane Paulus, starring four-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald as Bess, with an updated libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks.  And I gotta say, I’m not really sure what Sondheim was fussing about, because, despite some slight imperfections, this is a glorious Porgy and Bess- marvelously sung, impeccably and thoughtfully staged, a reverent, soulful tribute to its legendary creators, the Gershwins and novelist Dubose Heyward and his wife Dorothy.

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My Chicago Theater Picks for Fall 2011

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Where have I been?  Looks like everywhere, except for this blog.  August was a blur of 15 hour days for nearly two weeks straight in Arizona trying to get my client project completed, attempting to recover from some health issues, and waiting to snap a photo with Cate Blanchett at the stage door of the Kennedy Center after a matinee performance of Uncle Vanya.  I’ve just come back from Boston to see what the big hoo-hah was about on the updated Porgy and Bess at the American Repertory Theater (more on that in a succeeding blog post).  I’ll be in town, hopefully, for the next couple of weeks so I’ve been perusing my weeks of unread email from theater companies to figure out what to tell my avid blog readers about the upcoming Chicago fall theater season.  The season, unfortunately, in one word, is underwhelming.  In more than one word:  there’s a lot of your usual dead white male playwrights this season. Oh and then there’s Sarah Ruhl, whose plays always make me run screaming back to the dead white male playwrights; at least they knew how to write.  Thank goodness, then, for the following shows, my picks for the Chicago fall theater season:

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