One reason I started writing a blog was because I see so much film, theatre, and other performing arts, that I needed an outlet to express either my passionate raves or my grave disappointments. Well, other than over Sunday brunch with the BFFs, who most of the time needed several strong cups of Ethiopian bean (with a shot of bourbon) to not only get over Saturday night day-after-regrets of all kinds, but also sit through my exuberance or ranting over the latest play or movie that I saw. In 2007, I was grateful to be a Chicagoan, because it was the watershed year when our city cemented its place as a world cultural capital, when artists and arts lovers from New York, London, and everywhere else came to Chicago not because they had a layover or a delayed flight at O’Hare, but because they were eager to participate in and partake of the vibrancy, energy, and commitment of our artistic community and audiences. It was quite the year in Chicago, when the summer saw the premiere staging of Steppenwolf Theatre’s August: Osage County, now widely hailed as the best new American play of the past several years and currently taking Broadway by storm; when dozens of world-class productions and cultural events, from both our homegrown arts companies as well as from companies from other cities in the world, were available on our stages and performance spaces.
It has been quite the challenge then to put together my year-end list, but I somehow managed to do so after much rethinking, reminiscing, and crossing-out and re-ordering of list entries. My twelve most memorable arts events for 2007 (yep, I couldn’t limit the list to 10) may not be “the best” as defined by the multitude of arts critics, bloggers, or pundits out there, but they are the ones that have stayed with me throughout these months, because either I continued to be in awe of their craft and originality, or because their themes continued to resonate with me, or maybe because I continued to remember, with gladness, those feelings evoked in that darkened theatre many months ago. The list is eclectic, since I go to a lot of things, with many plays on it, but also a couple of operas (yes, Jerry Springer, the Opera is a true opera), puppet theatre, and a film mixed in, and contain mostly Chicago events, but also include some I saw elsewhere (New York City, Washington DC, and Louisville). It’s a collection of highbrow and lowbrow (yep, that Jerry Springer again), experimental and mainstream, new works and revivals, but all of them have somehow, and in their own way, educated me (on life, on art, on issues and important topics). Here then is the inaugural From the Ledge list of the twelve most memorable arts events of the year:
- August: Osage Country (July, Chicago). Magnificent is the only word that can describe Steppenwolf’s three hour and a half magnum opus about an Oklahoma clan and their fractured relationships, individual frailties, and tragic outcomes, which is as addictive and entertaining as Reality TV and as insightful and provocative as the best of Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee (Tracey Letts’ acknowledged influences). Broadway is currently validating what Chicagoans first recognized and embraced. In a cast that can only be described as “great”, I was totally blown to molecular particles by Deanna Dunagan, as the vitriolic matriarch Violet who can eat Joan Crawford for breakfast and have leftovers too- a performance so legendary, I predict MFA theses will be written about it in years to come.
- Dr. Atomic (December, Chicago). I found the Lyric Opera‘s production of John Adams and Peter Sellar’s modern opera about the days leading to the first atomic bomb test in New Mexico to be a work of staggering intellectual provocations, with its contemporary relevance to our world today, still full of countries on the path of war and aggression, to be truthful and disturbing.
- The Misanthrope (September, New York City). Not your grandfather’s Moliere, I found this dark, radically deconstructed, highly modernized staging by the acclaimed Dutch theatrical provocateur, Ivo von Hove, at the New York Theatre Workshop, to be one of the most memorable productions I have seen of a classic, ever. My jaw dropped so low I needed a forklift to lift my face at the fierce commitment of Bill Camp as Alceste, whether intensely delivering lines in close-up on the video projections, grabbing trash bags from E.4th street and then strewing the horrific New York City garbage on stage, or stuffing a banana, tomatoes, and a pecan pie down his crotch.
- Doubt (January, Chicago). I saw Doubt in New York in 2005 and thought that Cherry Jones’ Sister Aloysius (a performance which garnered her a Tony) was one of the best live performances I have seen in my life. Well, she took the show on tour, and of course I had to see her here in Chicago. She was as great, if not greater, than she was in New York, particularly because I think she was playing opposite an actor named Chris McGarry, whose nuanced performance (much more shaded than Bryan F. O’Byrne’s in New York) made the play’s did-he-or-did-he-not-molest-the-altar-boy theme so much more richly ambiguous.
- Au Revoir, Parapluie (November, Chicago). The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre was the first US stop of James Thierree’s theatrical boundary-stretcher of a masterpiece, already acclaimed in London and Paris. Acrobatics, mime, magic acts, dance, and song framed an engaging but sad story of searching for lost loves.
- 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (October, Chicago). I saw this Romanian movie, surprise winner of the Cannes Film Festival Palme D’Or, during the Chicago International Film Festival. It’s probably the best film I saw this year, with hauntingly realistic performances, an almost painful documentary-like directorial style, and an amazing screenplay that clearly and probingly showed the lack of individual choice and moral obligations within a totalitarian regime.
- Peter and Wendy (May, Washington, DC). When I saw the experimental theatre troupe Mabou Mines‘ revisionist A Doll’s House (where all the women were six feet tall , all the men were three feet tall, and the set was designed around the men’s height- crazy!) in Spoleto a couple of years ago, I knew I had to see more of their work. I was so thrilled to catch their remount of Peter and Wendy, about Peter Pan and the Darling kids, at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, because it was the antithesis of A Doll’s House- using puppets and only one actor, Karen Kandel, as the narrator and the voice of all the characters, it was magical, intensely fascinating storytelling with no gimmicks but with all the theatrical elements-design, music, acting, and yes, puppetry-perfectly in synch with each other.
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (April, Chicago). Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin reprised their Broadway roles on the national tour, and boy, did Chicagoans not know what hit them! Turner and Irwin erased any memory of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the movie version of the play, with their ferocious, no-holds-barred, but ultimately poignant performances as the battling couple, Martha and George. I would offer myself as a vestal virgin (well, maybe just vestal) anytime at the altar of the acting great Kathleen Turner, but I was more surprised by Irwin’s interpretation- his George is subtly vicious, underhanded, and bitterly vengeful, unlike the usual emasculated portrayals of the role.
- Jerry Springer, the Opera (May, Chicago). Bailiwick Theater mounted the US premiere of the London sensation, and it rocked! Wickedly hilarious, exuberant, and very entertaining, the opera also made caustic but honest points about America’s preoccupation with sleaze and the misery of others. The performances were pitch-perfect, especially Jeremy Rill, who was mesmerizing and vocally impressive as Jerry’s warm-up man in the first act and as the devil in the second act. And where else could you hear a classical libretto contain references to various body parts, different sexual practices and positions, transsexuals and diaper daddies, and oh, being ravished by lesbians?
- Merchant on Venice (October, Chicago). Silk Road Theatre presented this world premiere of Shishir Kurup’s play which transplanted the narrative and characters of The Merchant of Venice to the modern day Indian immigrant community in Southern California. It was highly creative, wildly entertaining, impressively literate, and multi-culturally cast, a very positive indicator of the future of Chicago theatre.
- Oedipus Complex (May, Chicago). I was probably one of the few people who enjoyed this very intriguing new work from Frank Galati staged at the Goodman Theatre in the spring. It re-told the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, as layered and refracted through Sigmund Freud’s discovery of the psychological state of Oedipus Complex. I thought it was highly ambitious and original, with a terrific set evoking a 19th century Viennese lecture hall, and a great Greek chorus composed of many of Chicago’s most accomplished male actors.
- Batch: An American Batchelor/ette Party Spectacle (April, Louisville). I went to the Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville, Kentucky for the first time this year. The Humana Festival has been the pre-eminent showcase for new work in the US. Although, I had mixed feelings on many of the plays and playlets, the experience was still quite the memorable one for this theatre groupie (I mean seeing five full length plays and thirteen short plays in two and a half days was heaven!). Of all the plays I saw at Humana, I was very impressed by Batch, which was staged by the Philadelphia based experimental theatre group, New Paradise Laboratories (NPL). It was definitely a spectacle: staged in a Louisville gay bar, it had the male and female actors playing both male and female roles, huge video projections, male full frontal nudity, satyr heads, dildos (yes, dildos), and all other kinds of sundry theatricality, which made this play bawdy, rowdy, kinky, but also intriguing around its portrayal of bachelor and bachelorette parties as a narcissistic, excessive, totally unnecessary rite of passage.
Picture: The Misanthrope at the New York Theatre Workshop