Crossing Swords

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profiles theater cockOf course, I would never miss the chance of seeing a play called Cock.  So when I was in New York on business in the summer of 2012, I snuck away after interminable day-long discussions of system user training strategies to check out the off-Broadway premiere of Mike Barlett’s acclaimed Olivier award-winning play at the Duke on 42nd Street, as staged by its Royal Court Theater director James MacDonald with an American cast led by Jason Harner Butler and the pre-Breakfast at Tiffany’s Cory Michael Smith. And I loved it- fresh, contemporary, devoid of any of the salaciousness that its title initially evokes even with non-gutter-dwellers, Cock was a riveting, inventive, intensely thoughtful play about sexual identity and fluidity.  So when I heard that the brazen and raucous Profiles Theater, the one Chicago theater that has both infuriated and provoked me, sometimes at the same time, will be staging the Midwest premiere, I thought, wow, I couldn’t have made up a better match between theater company and theatrical material. And Profile’s Cock is a bad-ass gem:  as smart and probing as the off-Broadway production but without its sometimes enervated quality; earthier, louder, sexier, a terrific interpretation of a play that upends the audiences’ beliefs about what it means to be gay, straight, bisexual, questioning, or whatever wavering signpost you claim to be along that complex continuum we call sexuality.

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Brass Tacks

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chicago shakes gypsyFor us true-blue, hardcore musical theater aficionados, there is no show greater and more iconic than Gypsy, the sharply-drawn showbiz backstage musical based on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, with an unsentimentally-constructed book by Arthur Laurents and a wondrously memorable score, simply one of the best in the history of theater, by Jules Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics).  Gypsy is our Ark of the Covenant, our Mona Lisa, our Macchu Picchu, the ultimate expression of our musical theater obsession. I’ve seen several Gypsys, both on film and in live performance, with my defining Gypsy being Sam Mendes’ spare 2003 Broadway revival (which Laurents hated with a vengeance) starring Bernadette Peters’ uniquely and at times jarringly seductive take on Rose, Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother, the stage mother to end all stage mothers.  I know the show very well so I don’t really expect to be surprised anymore by any production.  But leave it to Gary Griffin, who I’m convinced is the ultimate Sondheim interpreter working in the US today, to mine new layers and resonances, and to provide a different take on this most perfect of musicals.  As I watched, mouth agape, at the respected Canadian actress Louis Pitre thrashing around the Chicago Shakespeare stage and beating her chest King Kong style, devoid of any Broadway diva-like vanities in the devastating final number “Rose’s Turn” (in which the character unleashes all her fury and frustration at not being a showbiz star), I knew that Griffin’s Gypsy is unlike others I’ve seen – hard, hardscrabble, pessimistic, tragic. Ladies and gentlemen, this Chicago Shakespeare Theater Gypsy is the first unmissable show of Chicago’s 2014 theater season.

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Misery’s Company

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atc sons of the prophetI don’t normally make it a point to return to a show twice (if I did that in a city like Chicago with its buzzing theater scene, I’d never get to see as much theater as I would want to), but I returned a couple of times to American Theater Company’s 2008 production of Stephen Karam’s hilariously scathing yet joyfully triumphant Speech and Debate during its run, one of my ten best shows of that year.  That production was at the beginning of Artistic Director PJ Paparelli’s tenure at ATC and memorably announced his arrival in this tough theater town. Fast forward to 2014, and Paparelli, now one of the city’s admired directors, is once again taking on a Karam play, and this one a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama nominee to boot.  Paparelli stages Sons of the Prophet, about the various misfortunes that befall a gay Lebanese-American born, raised, and living in Scranton, PA (probably the biggest misfortune of all, if you asked me), warmly, and with a sure hand. Unfortunately, despite some crackling dialogue and typically outrageous plot twists, I don’t find Karam’s writing in Sons of the Prophet as insightful, as clear-eyed, or as enthralling as I did in Speech and Debate.

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