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 »

What Lies Beneath

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atc the humansWe’re very fortunate that Chicago has become quite the incubator of new plays for the national theater scene. But that’s a double-edged sword: as I’ve said on this blog over the years and over at the Twitterverse, many of the new plays we Chicago theater-lovers see are truly new plays, needing rewriting, editing, tightening, and improving based on how a playwright sees and hears his or her words performed by actors and received by live audiences for the first time.  Sometimes though we get lucky and come across an August: Osage County or an Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, fully-formed and perfectly-realized works, but they do come far and few between. Most of the time, we’re suffering (quietly and heroically because we do love supporting new work!) through something like Ask Aunt Susan.  Several years ago, I was blown away by American Theater Company’s world premiere of Dan LeFranc’s luminous The Big Meal which traced the life, loves, and heartbreaks of a middle-class American family. It went on to raves off-Broadway but seeing that play without any knowledge of previous productions was exciting for me.  Lightning can strike twice it seems, since ATC is at it again with another superb world premiere of a family drama, Stephen Karam’s achingly beautiful The Humans which will receive a New York production in Roundabout Theater’s 2015 season. This is a great, memorable production directed by ATC Artistic Director PJ Papparelli, and you should be able to tell your pesky New York theater aficionado friends that you’ve seen it first. Because I can bet you they will run to get tickets for it, and love it as much as you do.

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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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Misery’s Company

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atc sons of the prophetI don’t normally make it a point to return to a show twice (if I did that in a city like Chicago with its buzzing theater scene, I’d never get to see as much theater as I would want to), but I returned a couple of times to American Theater Company’s 2008 production of Stephen Karam’s hilariously scathing yet joyfully triumphant Speech and Debate during its run, one of my ten best shows of that year.  That production was at the beginning of Artistic Director PJ Paparelli’s tenure at ATC and memorably announced his arrival in this tough theater town. Fast forward to 2014, and Paparelli, now one of the city’s admired directors, is once again taking on a Karam play, and this one a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama nominee to boot.  Paparelli stages Sons of the Prophet, about the various misfortunes that befall a gay Lebanese-American born, raised, and living in Scranton, PA (probably the biggest misfortune of all, if you asked me), warmly, and with a sure hand. Unfortunately, despite some crackling dialogue and typically outrageous plot twists, I don’t find Karam’s writing in Sons of the Prophet as insightful, as clear-eyed, or as enthralling as I did in Speech and Debate.

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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 »

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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