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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The Grey Zone

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luna gale goodmanOver the years I’ve had a rollercoaster relationship with the plays of Rebecca Gilman.  As an avid fan and advocate of Chicago theater, I’m thrilled that despite her national renown and her Pulitzer Prize nomination, she continues to live and work and premiere her latest works in hometown Chicago.  But as I said when writing about a 2009 production of her Blue Surge which I admired: “I’m still not completely sold on her plays (I feel some of her writing comes off academic and intellectual versus emotional and visceral, see Spinning into ButterDollhouse, etc.)”. And in 2010’s True History of the Johnstown Flood, truly one of my most deplorable theatrical experiences, the writing was also chaotic and confounding.  But I think after all these years, I’ve finally come across a Rebecca Gilman play that I really, really like, no, make that really, really love: Luna Gale, in a world premiere production at the Goodman Theatre, is extraordinary, the first must-see play of 2014– emotional and visceral, yes, and also intelligent, urgent, complex, painted on a canvas of varying hues of grey, full of characters deep with flaws, warts, and scars, but kindnesses too. If you call yourself a theater lover, you’d be a fool to miss Luna Gale.

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Ambition

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sweet smell of successChicago has been repeatedly plagued by the Polar Vortex, but the city’s winter theater season is undeniably sizzling.  I was very disappointed by last fall’s lackluster theatrical offerings, so I was quite excited to see shows during the first three weeks of 2014 that are ambitious, challenging, and daring. Some of them may not be totally successful, but hey in my more than six years of writing this blog, I’ve come to deeply believe that thinking big and takings risks have always been part of what made our theater life so vibrant and thrilling and different from other cities; traits that unfortunately seemed to have fallen by the wayside during last year’s safe, revival-heavy, audience-friendly theatrical choices.  Here are my thoughts on three of the plays I’ve seen during the past several weeks:

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Theaterhopping in 2013

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the whale best of 2013I slowed down writing on this blog this year. I started a new job, I travelled a lot more for leisure rather than business, and decided, after six years, that I just wanted to write if something compelled me, either for good or for bad, in order to get back some of that writing mojo I felt like I’ve lost from feverishly putting up a blog entry about every show I watched over the years.  I still saw a lot of theater this year, mostly in Chicago, some in other cities, but I just didn’t write about all of them.  This was probably a good year to slow done on the writing though, since I felt like Chicago theater lost some of its own mojo – 2013 for me was the most disappointing year for theater audiences in recent memory.

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I’m Coming Out

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timeline normal heartAs a gay man who grew up in the 1980s, there are very few theatrical works, heck, cultural pieces as a whole, that are as important and as resonant to me as Larry Kramer’s 1985 call to arms to address the AIDs crisis, The Normal Heart. I ran to see the 2011 Broadway revival that won Tonys for best revival of a play and best featured actress for a surprisingly feisty, emotionally-sucker-punching performance from Ellen Barkin.  And I cried copious tears, not just because of the tragic history of suffering and death among my people, but also at the perception and treatment of gays at that time, vestiges of which continue to this day (and despite the fact in the previous week my home state of Illinois became the 15th state in the union to recognize same-sex marriages, there are still 35 other states that don’t).  Last weekend, I saw Timeline Theater’s equally blistering, heartbreaking production of The Normal Heart, and I cried so much more, and so much longer. Definitely because of the same reasons, but also because the intimacy of the staging not hindered by a Broadway house’s size and proscenium, and the visceral acting of Chicago actors not accessorized by movie star glow, more powerfully convey the multitude of emotions-grief, injustice, helplessness, loss- that Kramer intricately explores.

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Recollections

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lookingglass north china loverIt has been quite the busy Chicago fall theater season so far; I saw eight shows over a two week period during the last week of September and the first week of October.  Yes, yes, I say that every year, but 2013 seems to be particularly burdensome, and maybe that’s because the number of plays I’ve seen since the season formally opened in early September that have been disappointing, unsatisfying, or generally leaving me wanting for more has been much higher than on the other years I’ve been writing this blog.  Two of the plays I saw during that crazy theatrical marathon was Lookingglass Theatre’s world premiere of Heidi Stillman’s stage adaptation of Marguerite Duras’  autobiographical novel/screenplay The North China Lover which she also directed,  and Steep Theatre’s North American premiere of Simon Stephens’ Motortown , directed by veteran Stephens interpreter Robin Witt.  Both shows have interesting, unique stories to tell about the scarring, wrenching impact of the past on someone’s present, and both demonstrate a lot of artistic effort and thought.  Unfortunately both plays suffer from flawed playwriting (and in the case of The North China Lover perplexingly lethargic direction), and no amount of heroic effort can make up for that.

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