As I’ve always said all these years on this blog, theater is ultimately for me a writer’s medium. You can have all the life-sized war horses, swinging chandeliers, flying helicopters, and cavorting half-naked men all you want, but if the playwriting is weak, unfocused, clumsy, the audience will leave the theater feeling dissatisfied and cheated (well, maybe not when there’s cavorting half-naked men, who needs playwriting for that?!). I went on a theater marathon the past several days seeing a play a day since there just isn’t enough time to go to all of the spring season’s theatrical bounty. And the great thing about our Chicago theater scene is that one night you’re going to a masterwork that has endured through decades of being trotted out, broken down, and built up again, but continue to be invigorating and resonant; then on another night you’re watching a first play by a much buzzed-about playwright that shows a lot of interesting promise but is also frustratingly underdeveloped. Here are my thoughts on those plays.
I’ve been flying to Charlotte a couple of times a month since the beginning of the year for my day job. Sometimes I’d scan the performing arts listings of Creative Loafing, their equivalent to the Chicago Reader, hoping that maybe this was the week that I could savor the pleasures of live theater in North Carolina. But every week there’s always no more than five shows listed, one of them almost always either a touring production or a community theater staging of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (For unfortunate North Carolinians, between their right-wing extremist legislature and low-brow musical theater, they just can’t win!). That’s why I’m always glad to come back to Chicago and breathe in our lively theatrical air. And I never take for granted that on any given weekend we have several dozens of plays and musicals to choose from, and that if we wanted to, we can go to the theater every single day of the week, alternating between tragedies and comedies, serious themes and larks. Here are my thoughts on a couple of shows I saw the past weekends.
As I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, I saw my first play at 10 years old when I was growing up in Manila, thanks to my mom who loved musical theater with a passion. Since then I’ve continued to be entranced by the magic and inspiration of live theater, literally having seen thousands of plays in my roughly two scores and change on this planet. Although theatergoing is embedded deep into my DNA, of course I’ve had some nights over the years as well when I’ve asked myself that split second before the lights dimmed, shouldn’t I just be at home eating greasy egg rolls in my comfy “I Survived the Coldest Minnesota Winter in a Hundred Years- 1995” sweatshirt, binge-watching Built (for those of you who think the Shahs of Sunset is the name of a falafel food truck, Built is a Style Channel TV show were male models work as handymen during the day, sort of like the ultimate gay porn movie without the porn)? Frankly, sometimes I feel like going to the theater is a chore (and if it’s a play by Sarah Ruhl an unbearable root canal). Then I see a play that is so thrilling and enjoyable and wistfully beautiful that I’m strikingly reminded why I fell in love with theater all those years ago. Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult, currently onstage at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater invaluable World’s Stage series in a regrettably limited run, is one of the most perfect nights that you can spend in the theater, filled with music, dance, movement, imaginative staging and entrancing story-telling, a show both poignant and warm-blooded; it is an extraordinary experience that proves why theater is first among equals in the performing arts.
A couple of weeks ago I was at a party with my dear friend Jonathan (who has traipsed through these blog pages before) and after several gushy mentions of shows currently playing, he (cattily?) remarked “you’re clearly Chicago theater’s biggest supporter”. Well, flattered though I was, I wouldn’t really call myself #1 superfan- that title unequivocally belongs, and rightly so, to this guy. But even after 15 years of Chicago theatergoing, I’m often impressed and dumbstruck at the fearlessness and audacity of our energetic storefront theaters, their unwavering spirit of collaboration, their can-do, no-obstacles attitude to putting together ambitious, enthralling theatrical evenings in spaces no bigger than laundry rooms (and in one instance the theater was actually one) with budgets equivalent to the price of a pair of Christian Louboutins. As an audience member I’ve always felt privileged to share that passion. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen several risk-taking storefront endeavors; not all of them succeed, but man, their aspirations are thrilling! Here are some of my thoughts on them.