The December holiday theater season in Chicago has usually been a tepid grab bag of plays about Scrooge, George Bailey, Santa Claus, and all forms Rudolph, naughty, nice, and red-hosed. A couple of years ago, the holiday month was electrified by non-typical non-holiday theatrical fare: a blistering, unforgettable Steppenwolf staging of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (now similarly electrifying Broadway audiences), and The Hypocrites’ delirious island-set, promenade-staged version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, which will close the main stage season in May 2013 of American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, one of the most important regional theaters in the country. This year, thankfully, amidst the multiple It’s a Wonderful Lifes around the Chicagoland area (really how many times can this old horse be trotted out and live another day?), there are several exciting, high-concept productions to see if you, like me, want to fast-forward through all the dripping candy cane sentiment and come back to real life, or at least to real theater (yes, if you’ve read my blog for the past couple of years, you know my holiday spirit is, well, non-existent). The Hypocrites is back this season with Pirates and is performing it in repertory with another Gilbert and Sullivan classic operetta, The Mikado, an intoxicating, exhilarating, unexpected production that is sure to be on my list of the ten best productions of the year (yep, it’s that good). Over at Victory Gardens is a noteworthy world premiere of Philip Dawkins’ Failure: A Love Story, a melancholy, delicately-etched play being given a production too big, and too messy, for its britches (which is a problem). If you have time for only one play in between the fruitcake-and-eggnog coma, I’d say go see The Mikado and it will rouse you back to exhilarated life.
After a flurry of blogposts in September and October, this month has been quiet. Yep, dear avid blog readers, you know I’m back on the business travel grind and this time it’s a weekly commute to the Pacific Time zone. A four hour plane trip immediately followed by 15 hours in a windowless conference room has wrecked my lower back, my soul, and my ability to string together a coherent sentence that doesn’t begin with “Get me back to Chicago.” So blogposts have taken a back seat to well, frantic attempts to regain mental health (and a functioning lower skeleton). Fortunately, there has been a noticeable slowdown in notable Chicago theater openings, so it’s been easy to just stay at home, sink into my couch, and catch up on episodes of Revenge before I get on my next flight back to California. Over the past couple of weekends though, I’ve been able to catch two worthwhile arts events: the world premiere of Susan Felder’s Wasteland at Timeline Theatre, and the final workshop production of Chicago Opera Vanguard’s The Suitcase Opera Project, performed on the Pritzker Pavilion stage with a breathtaking view of Millennium Park and the Chicago skyline framing the performance. What’s particularly notable about both is that they each feature exciting, star-making performances from our city’s deep bench of young male performers.
A wise old queen (drag, not royal) once told me that if you stick around long enough, you will see everything start to come back again: fashion, music, ex-boyfriends who dumped you in front of Roscoe’s. Add to that list celebrated Chicago theater directors revisiting their earlier works. In 2002, I saw Mary Zimmermann’s Metamorphoses, and as I said in a previous post, this year’s Lookingglass remount is still thrilling to me ten years later. In 2002 as well I saw Gary Griffin’s intimate, emotionally-satisfying production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George at Chicago Shakespeare’s upstairs theater, well-remembered around this theater parts for it’s innovative runaway staging (years before David Cromer used it to enthralling effect in Our Town), and for it’s simple, minimalist evocation of George Seurat’s painting “La Grand Jatte” in the Act 1 musical show-stopper, “Sunday”. Griffin is also revisiting Sunday in the Park with George this year, but this time around he is staging it at Chicago Shakes’ main thrust stage, and with all the bells and whistles and grand ambition that a now internationally-renowned theater director can muster. And this Sunday in the Park is a stunning achievement, with gorgeous singing, exceptional design, and two larger-than-life yet beautifully-relatable lead performances from Jason Danieley and, especially, Carmen Cusack.
When I met a cute twentysomething guy a couple of weeks ago at an event and he asked me how old I was, I quickly answered “37”. Oops, I’m not 37, but I guess I’m already at that age when a little white lie is oddly comforting because it doesn’t include the number forty in it (and for the record, that adorable boy thought I was 35, ha!). The great Tennessee Williams wrote about our deep-seated fear of aging and its attendant harsh reminders about our limitations and mortality in Sweet Bird of Youth, an overwrought piece of business about an aging movie star (supposedly modeled after Williams’ friend Tallulah Bankhead) and her companion, a younger, but also fading, male hustler. They’re back in the guy’s hometown in Southern Florida where he plans to spirit away his former girlfriend, the love of his life, even under threat of castration from her big-time politician father. It’s rarely revived so when I read last year that David Cromer fresh off his magnificent take on Williams’ masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire in Chicago was planning a Broadway revival with Nicole Kidman and James Franco in it, I was ready to buy plane tickets to New York. Well, the fickle Franco dropped out (I guess he prefers to collaborate with gay porn directors instead?) and the production was cancelled. The Goodman Theater picked it up and thank goodness for that, because this Sweet Bird of Youth now has the glorious Diane Lane, a true movie star, playing the larger-than-cinematic-life movie star Alexandra del Lago in an inspired, freshly well-thought out performance that is ferocious in its steeliness and self-preservation.
Tags: Goodman Theatre
I saw Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses right after it transferred to Broadway in 2002, after a much-heralded off-Broadway run that began two days after the September 11 attacks. It was one of the highlights of my theatergoing life till that point – Zimmerman’s luminous yet bittersweet adaptation of Greek myths that dealt with death, separation, loss, and transgression bowled me over, and left me sobbing like the New Yorkers sitting around me (seeing tears in a New York theater audience was, and still is, as surprising as seeing tears in a, well, crocodile). It was also the first show that I saw that had a swimming pool as part of the performance space, and I thought then, wow, who would have ever thought to stage a play in a pool? In the ten years since, I’ve seen so many more plays with pools; I’ve seen so many more plays, period, so I’ve become as I’d like to believe a jaded, savvy, not-easily-impressed theatergoer. So when I went to see Zimmerman’s re-staging of Metamorphoses which opened the 25th season of Lookingglass Theater (where she is an ensemble member), with the original design team and with a cast comprised of many of the original Chicago and Broadway cast members, I was a little apprehensive: would this play affect the older, wiser, more skeptical, more self-possessed Francis differently? Should I just have left it well enough alone as a fond, burnished memory of my cultural upbringing? Since 2002, I have had lots of life changes as well, including the significant life-marking loss of my Mom, my greatest influence and cheerleader, in 2006, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that seeing Metamorphoses this time around was actually a more illuminating and, to a certain extent, gut-wrenching experience. It was also a more optimistic one. Like all great theater, Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses puts up a clear-eyed mirror to your own life – with age and experience, its reflections and reverberations become richer and more profound.
Tags: Lookingglass Theatre