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.
I’ve had a love affair with the great Latin American cities since those first visits a couple of years ago to Mexico City, and then Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Being Filipino, the shared Iberian colonial legacy, from architecture to language to ways of life and gently fatalistic worldviews, has been seductively familiar and enticing. Also, because I was born and bred in Manila, and having travelled extensively in the developing countries of Asia, I’ve always felt at home with- hey, feel energized by – these cities’ unruly grandness co-mingling with frenetic urbanization. And then, there’s the cuisine. All the great chefs in the world (who you think would care about these things) from Ferran Adria to his heirs Rene Redzepi and Jordi Roca, not to mention global culinary media, have proclaimed Latin America, with Mexico, Brasil, and Peru in the forefront, as the future of cuisine. So it was just a matter of time, then, that I would jaunt over to Peru, specifically Lima, and find out what the heck everybody’s croaking about. And much like Francisco Pizarro (who established the city of Lima but is much-vilified in Peru as the symbol of the worst of Spanish colonialism) on his pursuit of the fabled city of gold, El Dorado, albeit with fancier footwear and sexier scarves, this Francisco embarked during the last week of May on a journey to explore the fabled, and excitingly hot and exploding, Lima culinary scene. And boy, was I not disappointed. Despite struggling with the Asian influences on Peruvian cuisine (more on that later), I had many, many excellent meals in Lima, and a couple of mind-blowing ones.
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
It has been quite the exciting, eclectic grab bag of theater openings this Chicago spring (or non-spring, after the cruel tease of two days of 80 degree weather this week, it’s now back to the usual cold, damp, grey of early May that we Chicagoans know only so well). There have been brilliant gems like The Whale, world premieres, revivals, an impeccable Broadway in Chicago production of Anything Goes which gives dignity back to the words “touring production”, even a bunch of New York City female theater artists cavorting in all their full-frontal natural glory on the MCA Stage, thanks to the brazen Young Jean Lee. Similar to past years, I’ve been having difficulty catching up, despite seeing 2-3 shows a week. I’ve been able to go, though, to Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co.’s intensely atmospheric production of the little-revived 60s experimental theater watershed, Kenneth H. Brown’s The Brig; as well as the graceful, if somewhat disjointed, world premiere at the Goodman Theater of Quiara Alegria Hudes’ The Happiest Song Plays Last, the follow-up to her Pulitzer prize-winning Water by the Spoonful (which will receive its Chicago premiere at the Court Theater next season). Both plays feature soldiers as leading characters; both are worth seeing, intriguing despite their flaws.