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.
I had only been gone a year (having skipped the 2011 version due to continuous business travel), but the Chicago International Film Festival suddenly feels like a true film festival. Thanks to the floor-length banners, the multiple information desks, the plentiful volunteer ushers, and the organized audience lines there is hardly any of the helter-skelter, madhouse frenzy of previous years. But I think it’s also because of the presence of numerous directors, actors, and producers introducing their films, holding talkbacks, and yes, attending screenings of other people’s films. I think, finally, world filmmakers are realizing that Chicago is not just a blip on the film festival circuit map between Telluride and Toronto. And Chicago audiences are the luckier for it. Here are my thoughts on the first set of films I saw during my first weekend at the festival.
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.
For some people October is about going on long drives to see the changing of the leaves, while for others it is about spending weekends prancing around apple groves or pumpkin patches. For some, it’s the month of plotting to come up with the gayest, most outrageous, most bedazzling Halloween costume this side of RuPaul’s All-Star Drag Race. For me it’s the time of year when I can spend two glorious weeks in a darkened theater watching, for hours on end, the best (or at least the most intriguing and provocative) of world cinema during the essential, irreplaceable Chicago International Film Festival. I’ve gone to the Chicago filmfest since the late 1990s, and I’ve only missed it once, last year when I was on a grueling 5-days-a-week travel schedule, so if you’ve been around my blog woods for a while, you would have read my sometimes infuriated, sometimes awestruck reviews of the films, many of which do not get commercial runs in Chicago. The 2012 edition, which begins this Thursday, October 11 and runs till Thursday, October 25, seems slightly smaller than previous festivals with approximately 150 films from 50 countries, but it’s a very well-curated one (although I’m perturbed by the lack of Asian films from a festival that has historically had strong representation from them).