Un Bel Di

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m butterfly courtA theater-lover just doesn’t spring from the ground fully-formed reciting Shakespeare and high-kicking it to “Oklahoma”.  It takes years and years of watching and re-watching plays to fully grasp the theatrical medium and to cultivate one’s taste and preferences; I started my love affair with the theater at age 10, and until now, in my fourth decade, I’m still confounded by some of the plays I see.  Growing up in Manila in the early 1990s I saw several productions of David Henry Hwang’s ground-breaking  M.Butterfly about the strange, real-life, decades-long love affair between a married French diplomat and a transvestite Peking Opera performer who turned out to be a spy for the Chinese government. Strange because the diplomat claimed in the thirty or so years he was with his mistress, he never saw her fully naked and therefore never knew she was actually a man.  Hwang’s writing was brilliant, heady and train-stopping: heavily stylized incorporating elements of both Western and Peking opera, it tackled huge, intriguing themes around the notion of masculinity, the Western view at that time of Asians and Asian culture,  the accumulation and exercise of power.  The staging of the productions I saw with their impressive use of choreography, music, and visual spectacle were some of my initial indelible experiences with the uniqueness of theatrical storytelling.  I haven’t re-visited the play in decades until a couple of weekends ago when I saw Charles Newell’s new production at Court Theatre- nearly 20 years later, M. Butterfly’s storytelling and construction is still riveting and resonant. Despite some reservations I have with this particular production, I think the play wears it’s age well, even now in the “Asian century” where China is the ascendant superpower, just like an elegant Shanghai matron in a black dress, pulled-back hair, and jade jewelry.

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Ain’t Got No

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Zach Kenney and Sky Seals - HI was in Portland last year for the first time and when I got back to Chicago some of my friends who’ve never been to the city asked, “Were there a lot of hippies?”  I guess they were asking about those tie-dye-shirt-wearing, patchouli-oil-smelling, peace-sign –flashing bearded men and frizzy-haired women who will talk to anyone in sight about Greenpeace, veganism, pot, and the pleasure of strumming guitars off-key in street corners (for the record there were more “hipsters” than “hippies” in Portland, but that’s subject matter for another blog post).  Pop culture is rife with images of the hippie stereotype, and much of it were either appropriated from or encouraged by the Broadway musical Hair and its famous catalogue of eccentric, dippy, off-kilter, “make love-not war” songs, permanently enshrined in our collective memory by the frequent cable reruns of the Milos Forman film version, numerous community theater productions, and Diane Paulus’ recent Broadway revival (seen on tour in Chicago a couple of years ago).  But anyone who thinks they know Hair and its lovable, flaky hippies should check their expectations in together with their love beads at the door of American Theater Company which is currently staging a bold, stunning re-envisioning of this seminal musical.  This is not a baby boomer’s Hair- Artistic Director PJ Paparelli (who directs this production with additional direction by JR Sullivan) worked with surviving creator James Rado to reclaim the meaning and context of the show.  Putting back material (both dialogue and musical) from the original East Village production in 1968 but cut from its Public Theater premiere and subsequent Broadway transfer, re-arranging and re-orchestrating some of the songs, re-imagining the staging of some of the musical numbers, Paparelli with Rado’s guidance has staged a dark, raw, intense Hair, one of my top  shows so far of 2014, filled with young people as frightened as they are rebellious,  unprepared for the massive socio-political issues (the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, the Sexual Revolution, the drug counterculture)  enveloping them.   ATC’s Hair is a staggering and important theatrical achievement, truly unmissable.

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#PinoyPride

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qui_sanmigMost of the time when people talk to me about Filipino food, they start off with the question “Have you had balut?”  I tend to shut down pretty quickly any talk about balut, the boiled duck egg that contains an 18-day embryo which has gained worldwide notoriety by being frequently trotted out in adventure eating shows and Fear Factor, with an eyeball-popping mother of all side-eyes.   Yes, I’ve eaten balut (who hasn’t if you grew up in the Philippines where it is a pretty common street-food snack?).  And no, this dish which is unusual and disturbing to Western eaters (but hardly any more unusual or disturbing than some of the indigenous food of other cultures, Peruvian cuy anyone?) doesn’t define Filipino food, in the same way that a Minnesotan hot dish casserole doesn’t define American food.  It’s hardly surprising though that there’s a lack of understanding and even basic knowledge about Filipino cuisine – unlike its fellow Southeast Asian cuisines from Thailand and Vietnam it hasn’t really broken into the American culinary mainstream despite the fact that Filipinos make up the second largest percentage of Asian-Americans according to the 2010 US Census.   There are a lot of theories from both Filipino and non-Filipino food people on why this is (Filipino immigrants assimilate into American food and culture more rapidly than other cultures because the Philippines was a former US colony; since Filipino immigrants are pretty dispersed in the US there are no “Filipino-towns” where Filipino restaurants can thrive; Filipino food just doesn’t have the attention-grabbing spice and “funky-ness” levels of Thai food, etc., etc.) which will take blog post upon blog post to dissect.   So my ears perked up, my eyes blazed, and my nose twitched when I started seeing Twitter and Instagram photos late last year of modernized takes on Filipino dishes like dinuguan, chicken adobo, sisig, and halo-halo being served at qui in Austin, the new restaurant from Top Chef Texas winner Paul Qui.  I knew from being an avid Top Chef watcher (and yes I was rooting for Qui to win that season despite the presence of six Chicago chefs) that he is Filipino-Chinese and that he moved to the US when he was a kid, but did he really open a Filipino-inspired restaurant when his celebrity chef-hood could have led to a myriad of different options that are sexier, less obscure and more “foodie-friendly”? Coming to Austin and checking it out was the only way to find out.

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Writers Block

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teatro vista a view from the bridgeAs 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.

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Tragedy, Comedy, Tonight

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mud blue sky a red orchidI’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.

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Rapturous

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kneehigh tristan and yseultAs 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.

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