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.
Oh, it’s June. And it’s Pride Month. So there are plenty of gay characters jaunting around onstage in Chicago. In some years, this has mildly annoyed me – as an out and proud gay man, I would like to see gay characters and gay themes whenever I want them, year round. In other years, such as this summer, when I’m seeing a variety of theatrical pieces from various authors and time periods, I’ve been struck by the impressive arc that gay stories have taken in our theatrical and cultural lives. In John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Terence McNally’s 1993 Tony-winning musical, Kiss of the Spider Woman, which BoHo Theatre is reviving in a sometimes enjoyable but inherently flawed production, the gay character is a catalogue of clichés: an effeminate window-dresser living in a fantasy world of movie glamour divas who falls in love with a straight guy. And as we all know historically, in the theater and in cinema, all of this will end tragically; as if the gay boy should be punished for unsettling the straight boy’s world (which we also all know isn’t how it works in real life, ahem). 15 years later, in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s ambitious but imperfect The Pride, receiving a stellar Chicago premiere from About Face Theatre, the gay characters, for the most part, are nuanced, well-rounded, compelling – tragic yes, but also celebratory, sexy, confused, forgiving. Theater reflects the society we live in: in 1993, theater audiences welcomed, maybe expected, swish and sashay and nothing more; in 2013, theater audiences, grappling with the debate on same-sex marriage, expect to see characters who are just like their brother, son, neighbor, best man.
One of the things I love so much about Chicago storefront theater is the astounding intimacy that the audience has with the actors. A lot of it has to do with the performing spaces – many of the theaters are in small black boxes that put the actors almost literally in the face (and laps and arms) of the audience. But some of it has to do as well with the brazen resourcefulness and creativity of the best directors and actors in this city, and their impressive ability to draw the audience in deep into the world of the play. There’s a heady immediacy, and an intoxicating, if sometimes unsettling, pseudo-voyeurism in Chicago storefront theatergoing that is rarely experienced anywhere else, except maybe in the outer reaches of off-off Broadway. On Saturday, in the close quarters of Redtwist Theater in Edgewater, I could smell the whiff of lead actor Peter Oyloe’s chewing gum in the opening scene of Leslye Headland’s Reverb, now receiving a bombastic Chicago premiere. That’s how close I was to him (and by the way, Oyloe is one actor whose chewing gum whiffs I would gladly envelop myself with, ahem). And when he slapped his co-star Mary Williamson hard at the end of that scene, I flinched and recoiled, as if he slapped me as well. Where else could I have felt such a visceral instance of the blurring between spectator and performer?
Tags: Redtwist Theatre
I thought I would never say this at the risk of shaving points off from my classy broad image, but I boarded a tour bus at Navy Pier on Sunday afternoon. But this was not just any tour bus, this was the beginning of the audience experience for Roadkill, a Chicago Shakespeare Theater World’s Stage production from Scotland, conceived and directed by the immensely talented multi-hyphenate Cora Bissett. Somewhere around West Town the bus stopped to pick up a gregarious teenage girl and a twenty-something woman she called “Auntie”. As the bus trip continued on for ten more minutes, I started thinking about dinner later that night after the show (sushi or pasta?) as the familiar building facades and monotonously hip denizens of Wicker Park whizzed by, amused by the non-stop inquisitiveness of the girl, who told us, her bus mates, that she just arrived from Nigeria that day “to become an American”. And then we reached our destination, a nondescript apartment building very close to the Western blue line train station, where we were all ushered into one apartment’s living room and listened in horror as the girl screamed while being raped in the bedroom next door, her initiation into her new life as a sex slave. And as the horrifying, gut-wrenching immersion into the Roadkill theatrical experience unfolded, plunging me and the other 15 or so audience members into the heinous world of human trafficking, suddenly any of our concerns, whether my dinner plans that night or someone else’s Cubs tickets or another person’s job deadlines, became so inconsequential.
Back in 2010, I caught the Tricycle Theater’s ambitious, staggering, and nearly eight hour production of The Great Game: Afghanistan in Washington DC during its US tour. Comprised of 12 mini-plays from a wide range of playwrights tackling the history of Afghanistan from its colonial British roots to its recent fraught history, it contained a contribution from American playwright Lee Blessing about the relationship between the CIA and the Afghan warlords in the early 1980s which ironically contributed to laying the groundwork for the Taliban’s rise to power in that county. I later learned that Blessing’s contribution replaced the original piece that another American playwright wrote – J.T. Rogers had expanded his original vignette to a full-length play which premiered ahead of The Great Game. And I’m sure, despite Rogers’ exceptional playwriting powers, the complex, conflicting perspectives in that unsettling episode of both US and Afghan history could not have been given its due in eight minutes, so I’m glad he wrote a real two and a half hour play about the topic instead. And I am so glad that Timeline Theatre Company, clearly becoming one of the most essential arts companies in Chicago, has given that play Blood and Gifts an exciting, suspenseful, magnificently acted and directed Chicago premiere. It is the most vital theatrical experience I’ve had this year so far– rich, provocative, intellectually and emotionally fascinating, it will leave you gobsmacked in the middle of Lakeview, wishing the play continued on for another two and a half hours .
Tags: TimeLine Theatre Company