Gaily Ever After

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about face the prideOh, 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.

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La Vie

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For years, whether in cocktail parties or at work events, whenever I mention I’m a theater buff, someone would ostensibly reply back with, “That’s great! Rent is my favorite musical of all time.”  Hmmm, well, Rent really isn’t my favorite musical of all time, but I find it interesting that it’s one of the first things that a new acquaintance comes up with when trying to find common ground with my interests, whether in the interest of genuinely deepening the conversation, or merely trying to pass time with idle chitchat.  For my generation of theatergoers, Rent is probably the definitive musical, not just because the rock-music soundtrack and the numerous touring productions were ubiquitous for a time in the late 1990s/early 2000s, but also because we saw for once on the musical theater stage our young adult concerns vividly depicted: sexuality, hetero-, homo-, and everything in between; relationships; anti-materialism; pursuing one’s art at all costs.  For me, however, Rent, unlike, say Angels in America, which despite being anchored on a specific time period spoke to broader philosophical and socio-political concerns, always felt like an artifact of its time. And Rent’s time has definitely passed (for example, the squatter protests that playwright and composer Jonathan Larson depicted in the show look pretty quaint versus Occupy Wall Street’s fiery aspirations and methods).  It was “cool” and “current” to see Rent in 1999, with its references to AIDS, homelessness, bisexuality, drug use, S and M, transvestitism, topics that have been treated more insightfully in theater, film, and other performing arts since then. But leave it to a genius theater director such as David Cromer, who has put on a superb, lively version in a co-production between American Theater Company and About Face Theatre, to make Rent vital once again, surprisingly fresh at times despite its dated references, a show that this new generation of theatergoers can discover and claim as their own as well.

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Children Will Listen

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When I was still joylessly participating in the gruelling gay dating circuit (oh so many years ago during the Paleolithic age), one of the criteria in my mental checklist for moving beyond a second date with a particular guy was whether having kids was one of his non-negotiables.  If it was, then it was ”hasta la vista, baby” time after the second date, regardless of how much he resembled Mr. Right for me. Although I love my nephews and niece, I don’t particularly consider myself paternal – I highly value my independence and my non-tethered lifestyle, and the fact that, unlike my straight friends, there really isn’t any pressure for me to respond to socio-cultural expectations and a metaphorical biological timeclock to settle down and create a nuclear family.  So Sarah Gubbins’  The Kid Thing, a world premiere co-production between About Face Theatre and Chicago Dramatists, is particularly resonant and unsettling for me, and, I could imagine, for the gay people of my generation.  Although I think the script requires some more polish and a little bit more focus, The Kid Thing is quite incisive and thought-provoking, with beautifully-constructed performances, and a punch that lingers with you way after the show has finished.

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My Chicago Theater Picks for Fall 2011

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Where have I been?  Looks like everywhere, except for this blog.  August was a blur of 15 hour days for nearly two weeks straight in Arizona trying to get my client project completed, attempting to recover from some health issues, and waiting to snap a photo with Cate Blanchett at the stage door of the Kennedy Center after a matinee performance of Uncle Vanya.  I’ve just come back from Boston to see what the big hoo-hah was about on the updated Porgy and Bess at the American Repertory Theater (more on that in a succeeding blog post).  I’ll be in town, hopefully, for the next couple of weeks so I’ve been perusing my weeks of unread email from theater companies to figure out what to tell my avid blog readers about the upcoming Chicago fall theater season.  The season, unfortunately, in one word, is underwhelming.  In more than one word:  there’s a lot of your usual dead white male playwrights this season. Oh and then there’s Sarah Ruhl, whose plays always make me run screaming back to the dead white male playwrights; at least they knew how to write.  Thank goodness, then, for the following shows, my picks for the Chicago fall theater season:

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With Friends Like These

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As a bona-fide, pink-union-card-emblazoned, goldstar gay, you’d think I would be rushing breathlessly to About Face Theatre’s world premiere of Philip Dawkins’ The Homosexuals.  Well, I did sashay with unaccustomed speed to Victory Gardens, where it was playing, over the weekend, but as I told my friend Fab Jason, I was a little wary about the whole business after reading a summary description of the play on the theater’s website.   The Homosexuals sounded like a whole lot of Love! Valour! Compassion! mixed in with some Boys In The Band and drizzled with a dash of Queer As Folk repurposed for the millennial generation.  In short the play could be a mishmash of every single circle of gays movie, TV show, or play that we’ve seen over the past decade.  Is there something new or fresh that Dawkins would say about the gay experience in the 21st century?  Will it talk about what the words “gay” or “homosexual” or “queer” mean right now?  And how the definitions and constructs have evolved through the years?  I think for the most part The Homosexuals is funny, poignant, captivating, delightfully energizing, a packs-little-punch summer diversion, which is terrific.  But, despite the play’s attempt to survey some of the key themes that have and continue to confront the community over the past decade, I feel that, as a homosexual, the play is somewhat of a missed opportunity.

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Projecting Woyzeck

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My game-to-see-everything theater buddy Joel has told me that if there is one play he won’t ever go to again, it’s Georg Buchner’s unfinished masterpiece of theatrical naturalism Woyzeck (he, obviously, had been scarred by Greg Allen’s eccentric version produced by the now defunct Greasy Joan & Co. from several years ago, which I thought was actually pretty decent).  So at the risk of being snarled at, I didn’t drag him or any of my other theater buds to The Woyzeck Project, a combination of The Hypocrites’ idiosyncratic view of Woyzeck, and About Face Theatre’s world premiere of Sylvan Oswald’s Pony, in my mind, a quite perplexing take on the piece, both running in repertory at the Chopin Theatre.  I personally like seeing different productions of Woyzeck because its fragmented, opaque, yet timelessly tragic nature allows brazen, gutsy directors and playwrights to project their own interpretations, preoccupations, and agendas on to it for fascinating theater without really destroying its spirit (in 2008, I scuttled plans to see the hot Icelandic director Gísli Örn Gardarsson’s version at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s New Wave Festival which incorporated a circus atmosphere and  a large swimming pool where the actors swam laps during the performance).  I gotta say though, despite some fascinating artistic choices in the two plays, The Woyzeck Project is somewhat of a missed opportunity in my mind, since both, individually and together, don’t truly present any cohesive, intriguing, and insightful take on Buchner’s work.

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