As I said in my previous post, Chicago’s summer stages are as hot and sizzling as the 104 degree heat index we’ve been experiencing this past week. And of course, it’s just about the time that I get truly frenzied in my day job (which then leads to times when I daydream of being in France working 35 hours a week and then getting July and August off to take languorous vacations with a Romain Duris intellectual-hunk-a-like, but I digress). Having been a long-term theatergoer and active theater supporter in the city, I’ve been surprised by the generous bounty of summer offerings this year, so much so that I haven’t made plans to hightail it to my usual hot weather distraction, National Pastime Theater’s Naked July Theater Festival, where the Living Canvas puts on an annual show you’ll never see anywhere else (and with audiences you don’t want to see anywhere else too after having seen more of them than you need to! Check out my post from a couple of years ago). There’s just so much stuff to see other than naked people! But being a long-term theatergoer and theater supporter also means that I have relationships with theaters and theater artists that may, to a certain extent, inhibit a truly objective blog post on the merits and demerits of a specific show. Below then are my short observations on Steppenwolf Theater’s Chicago premiere of Amy Herzog’s Belleville, and Bailiwick Chicago’s world premiere of Danny Bernardo’s Mahal.
July has traditionally been a quiet, laidback month in Chicago theater, with the major Equity houses wrapping up their current seasons with lower-profile offerings and the storefronts already on hiatus preparing for their new seasons, some of which already begin in late August. And most of the audiences that packed theaters year-round will be on their boats on Lake Michigan, on the lawns of Ravinia or Millennium Park listening to concerts, or will just quietly take a break from theatergoing to re-charge for another busy cultural year ahead. But this July for us avid theatergoers those boats and outdoor concert lawns and stay-at-home evenings will need to wait since there is a ton of exciting things going on our city’s stages. There are a lot of bold-faced names running around town right now. Over at A Red Orchid Theater, Michael Shannon, fresh off his mega-blockbuster hit Man of Steel, is headlining a revival of Sam Shepard’s Simpatico. A little west at Steppenwolf, one of the country’s most buzzed playwrights Amy Herzog has been in town working with director Anne Kauffman to stage the Chicago production of Belleville which was universally acclaimed earlier this year when they premiered it off-Broadway. Additionally, William Petersen will be opening Slowgirl at Steppenwolf later in July. And over at Victory Gardens, another acclaimed playwright, Luis Alfaro, has been working on his world-premiere production of Mojada, which relocates the Medea story to Pilsen. But the biggest, boldest, most ambitious productions, both world premieres, have already opened this week within days of each other: at Lookingglass Theater, David Schwimmer is directing A Steady Rain and Mad Men scribe Keith Huff’s Big Lake Big City while at the Goodman Theater, Mary Zimmerman, with support from Walt Disney Theatricals, just unveiled her musical adaptation of The Jungle Book. Although flawed to various degrees, Big Lake Big City and The Jungle Book demonstrate what makes Chicago theater the leading theater scene in North America – both have immensely talented and creative theater makers taking risks and creating new work in different, aspirational ways. Despite what the Chicago theater critics have said about them (they have been mixed), I say, so what, these productions should be embraced and supported by ordinary audience members like me and you, my dear blog readers, who passionately care about our city’s theatrical life.