Fresh Air: My Best Theater of 2014

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atc the humans_best ofAfter what I thought was a dismaying year in 2013, Chicago theater bounced back with impressive aplomb this year.  There were a lot of world premieres (some much readier for primetime than others), fresh voices and story-telling, searing examinations of America and the world, lots and lots and LOTS of Sondheim,  a 12-hour adaptation of all 32 existing Greek tragedies, and exemplary work from a host of renowned artists, from celebrated actors such as Michael Cera and Sandra Oh to award-winning directors like Joe Mantello and Chicago’s pride, incoming Steppenwolf Artistic  Director Anna Shapiro to exciting, ascendant playwrights like Marcus Gardley and Lisa L’Amour and exciting, established playwrights like Rebecca Gilman and Bruce Norris.  Then of course there was The Evil Dead: The Musical.  Chicago theater in 2014 had something for every theatergoer out there, from discerning to indifferent and back. Here then is the eight edition of my best theater productions of the year. Read the rest of this entry »

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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My Theatrical Year

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Where did those twelve months go? It just seemed like yesterday when I was washing the champagne and various other substances out of my hair (yep, that was quite the 2011 New Year’s Eve shindig), and now we are at the end of 2012, or the end of the world as we know it if you’re one of those Mayan Calendar Doomsday groupies.  I’ve compiled my sixth annual best theater in Chicago list, and I gotta say that this was probably the most difficult of the lists to put together since I began. I know I say this every year, but 2012 was quite the fantastic year in Chicago theater, with many, many notable actors, writers and theater artists coming to the city to work on truly stellar, world-class, only-in-Chicago productions.  But our storefront theater scene, which gave rise to and nurtured theatrical giants like Cromer and Letts, continued to be unparalleled in the country.  I’ve added and crossed-out the productions on this list several times despite the fact that I missed several shows (it was just impossible to balance my day job, extensive travel, and all that theatrical bounty). It’s also notable that for the first time in six years, I have no non-Chicago production in the top ten – that’s how great 2012 was. When New York magazine called Chicago theater the “farm team” for Broadway and off-Broadway, I scoffed and knew that that New York hack couldn’t really tell his sunken derriere from his skeletal face, because I know, and hundreds of Chicago audiences know, how good we have it here in the city, much better than those high-horsing New Yorkers.  Here then are my best Chicago shows for 2012, as well as the next 5: Read the rest of this entry »

Fall Frenzy

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With a travel schedule that is, to say the least, brutalizing (anyone want to swap with me on my five-day weekly sojourn to the city of the gateway arch?), it’s been quite a challenge to catch all the fall theater openings.  I did manage to go to several over the past couple of weekends, and I talk about three of them below. (Photo:  Redtwist’s Elling with Andrew Jessop and Peter Oyloe)

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Two Men, Two Plays

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I have gotten several concerned emails from my avid readers regarding the lack of theater-related entries recently.  No fear, I’m in town for the next couple of weeks and trying very hard to catch-up with Chicago’s blazing, swinging winter theater scene.  Last weekend I caught two recent openings – Neil LaBute’s recent Broadway foray reasons to be pretty in its Chicago premiere at Profiles Theatre, directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Rick Snyder, and Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom, which received raves when it ran at New York’s St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2009, another Chicago premiere at A Red Orchid Theatre, directed by Robin Witt.  I think the plays present an interesting study of contrasts – both written by male playwrights, the two of them are as different as night and day.  reasons to be pretty is definitely what you see is what you get, but raises the disturbing question of whether you really want to get what you’re getting, while Electric Ballroom is packed full of symbols and subtexts that, ultimately, you’re quite disoriented as to what it is you’re actually getting.

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Confounded

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With their recent critical and box-office successes Mistakes Were Made and Abigail’s Party, extremely well-directed and well-acted productions that I felt were more conventional than the ballsy, infuriating, impressively and unabashedly idiosyncratic plays of seasons past such as Blasted and The Fastest Clock in the Universe that I’ve come to love them for, I thought A Red Orchid Theatre was growing soft in its middle age.  Then they open their season with the Chicago premiere of Paul Mullin’s Louis Slotin Sonata, a ballsy, infuriating, wacky, a little too precious play about the real-life story of a scientist in the Manhattan Project whose fingers slipped while handling a piece of plutonium, and exposed himself to deadly nuclear radiation.  It’s a play I cannot imagine any other theater in Chicago taking on, and clearly demonstrates Red Orchid’s strengths and weaknesses.  On the other hand, I’ve always thought that Porchlight Music Theatre is the city’s foremost interpreter of Stephen Sondheim’s genius musicals in an intimate yet heart wrenching manner.  Two of the best Sondheim productions I’ve seen in Chicago were their takes on Company (with a formidable “Ladies Who Lunch” from the then-unknown Rebecca Finnegan, now one of the city’s leading musical theater performers) and Assassins.  Their most recent Sondheim productions were disappointing either in performance, conceptualization, or both.  In their 15th year, they decide to tackle Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize winner and arguably the most sophisticated work in his oeuvre.  And my disappointment continues with this low-wattage, frankly, at times, dinner-theaterish rendition that failed to capture the exquisiteness and the toughness of the best stagings of the musical (Exhibit A:  Gary Griffin’s luminous, minimalist version at Chicago Shakespeare several years back).  I’m left confounded.

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