I’m a classical music dabbler. I don’t profess to have the ability to be conversant about Mahler’s “Symphony No.5” or Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” in the same way I am about August: Osage County or Macbeth or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but I like my classical music fix here and there, either in the hallowed halls of Symphony Center or under the bucolic greenery of Millennium Park or Ravinia during the summer. I mean, come on, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been ranked as one of the top five orchestras in the world, and it is acclaimed everywhere it goes during its extensive world tours. But I do think classical music performances among my demographic and younger continue to have that air (some would call stigma) of inaccessibility, more so than the rest of the performing arts – unlike theater or film, there aren’t clear-cut narratives and dialogue to follow; unlike pop or rock music concerts, there isn’t as much of a visceral impact. But Chicago is packed with young, talented, boundary-pushing classical musicians and ensembles, and if you keep yourself in the loop, great opportunities to hear them in places other than Symphony Center, Ravinia, Millennium Park, or the myriad of concert halls that dot the city. A couple of weekends ago, I managed to have a double dose of classical music performance in between the non-stop theatergoing I do- one night I was at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNow event called Mercury Soul at, of all places, The Metro, in the last-remaining tiny patch of grunge in the outer edges of frat-jock central Wrigleyville. The next night I attended the End-of-Season concert (and party) of the fantastic, fast-emerging Spektral Quartet in a clandestine performance arts space on the outer edges of nowheresville Chicago (actually an industrial stretch of Elston that is literally a dump – there was a garbage truck parking lot on it). Both were essential experiences for any Chicago cultural adventurer, and both proved that classical music was indeed sexy and relevant. On both evenings, I kinda had to pinch myself on how lucky I was to live in this vibrant arts city.
Sometimes going to the theater in this arts-savvy town requires having no expectations whatsoever. Over the weekend I went to two different plays with two different mindsets and came out disappointed from one, and surprisingly joyous from the other. I had been a huge admirer of The Right Brain Project’s savvy and ambition through the years and I thought its productions of And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers and The Modern Prometheus were two of the best examples of the formidable can-do attitude of Chicago’s storefront theater scene. So when I heard it was mounting Peter Weiss’ famously challenging play Marat/Sade (my dear blog readers you can look up the official, lengthier title on your own, which also tells you in essence what the show is about), I thought I couldn’t miss this one (I sat out some of its confounding recent new work outings). I would put The Right Brain Project in the very shortlist of theaters which I though could wrestle Marat/Sade to the ground and come up with something truly interesting. However, expectations are indeed meant to be shattered. On the other hand, I had no expectation going into Filament Theatre Ensemble’s Hank Williams: Lost Highway, the Chicago premiere of Randal Myler and Mark Harelik’s musical biography of the country music legend. All I hoped for was getting through 2 hours of country-western music (and I figured if Gwyneth Paltrow could embrace her inner Reba, so could I). So I was wonderfully surprised when I came out of Hank Williams: Lost Highway humming “Jambalaya” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, the effect of a truly mesmerizing, enjoyable evening at the theater.
It’s a crazy world we live in people, between face-eating in Miami, Scott Walker-unrecall in Wisconsin, and beauty pageant-rigging in Donald Trump’s House of Miss USA. For my part, I nearly shaved my head bald and ripped my clothes off to run naked in the streets when I read the crazy rumor that Liza Minnelli and Tony Danza were getting married. Liza and Tony married? That’s not one hell of a jumbotron of crazy, but Armageddon. So I’m not surprised that some of our younger playwrights are writing about the delicate balance of mind and heart that our turbulent 21st century world creates in its citizens. My thoughts on two productions I recently saw:
When you’ve been going to the theater in Chicago as long as I have, you learn to embrace the unexpected in a The Hypocrites production, especially one from founding Artistic Director Sean Graney. And in Graney’s distinctive, refreshing take on that most sturdy of theatrical warhorses, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, inexplicably yet aptly retitled Romeo Juliet, the unexpected can be precious (tea with the cast on picnic tables with gingham tablecloths and cutout hearts before the performance even begins) or it can be painfully hipster-ish (the use of vinyl records to play an eclectic musical score) or it can be sublime (audience members are asked to peel and eat an orange during the famous balcony scene, a generous nod to a similar practice among audiences at the Globe during Shakespeare’s time). What is most unexpected though in my mind is the fact that Graney and his formidable, hard-working cast of four has given a fresh, inspiring take on a play that all of us think we know so well that its impact is about as potent and as insightful as a bad Saturday Night Live skit.
Tags: The Hypocrites