In early 2009, I said that Frat, the second production of the new theater company The New Colony, was “a terrific example of youthful, raw, blistering, ferocious, hungrily-acted and directed Chicago storefront theater”. Later that year, I said of their Calls to Blood that it was “…gut-punching, heart-breaking, tears-inducing, and throat-catching, quite simply one of my more memorable nights at any theater recently.” Since 2009, The New Colony has won Broadway in Chicago’s Emerging Theater Award, brought Calls to Blood (re-titled Hearts Full of Blood) to the New York Fringe Festival, and had a bona-fide water-cooler summer hit last year with 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche. There is no doubt that The New Colony is a vital, pivotal part of the city’s ever-thriving storefront theater scene. And as an audience member who has followed the theater company since its inception, it has been a thrilling journey. So I’m really confused and disappointed that their latest production, the original rock-musical Rise of the Numberless, in collaboration with another stalwart of the storefront scene, Bailiwick Chicago, is possibly one of the most ill-advised shows I’ve seen in the past twelve months. Just like the hipsters that throng the Bucktown cross-streets of the Flat Iron Arts Building where it is being performed, Rise of the Numberless is calculatedly-styled, with every pulsating song, fake-angry choreography, and meticulously-set-designed grime strategically placed to evoke a hip-cool-glam-cutting-edge-(insert other buzz words here)-production. And just like these Bucktown/Wicker Park hipsters (and many of them will probably be flocking to the show because it sounds and looks, oh, so cool), the production feels hollow and superficial, with none of the “blistering” and “heart-breaking” qualities that I found with the theater’s early shows which I loved.
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)
I’m writing this blog post half way around the world, in Hong Kong, mercifully away from the rain and cold that has caught Chicago in their grip. I don’t get back to the US until after the long Memorial Day weekend holiday, but I thought I’d pass on to my blog readers that Bailiwick Chicago’s production of Passing Strange is closing this Sunday, May 29. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should go during this holiday weekend (it would be a more rational alternative to having a cookout in fifty degree damp weather), since I thought it was one of the most enjoyable productions of the spring theater season.
Just for the record, as someone who has been a long-standing, proudly goldstar stamp-bearing, laminated card-carrying member of the homo brigade, gay life isn’t all about getting laid at every lamppost (or on a king-size bed with 300 thread-count Frette sheets for some of us). You’d never think otherwise, though, given the continuous mass media attention, bordering on sensationalism, on the sexual aspects of being gay– from the highly-eroticized, fetishistic male pairings in Lady Gaga’s Madonna rehash of a video, “Alejandro”, to the crackling, butch-loving intensity between vampire Bill and werewolf Sam in that Arkansas hotel room in the season opener of True Blood, to the flurry of blog twitters about Inception breakout star (and Goodman Theater headliner) Tom Hardy’s admission about his “fluid” sexual history – for example, here’s The Huffington Post’s headline: “Inception Star Tom Hardy: I’m An Actor, Of Course I’ve Had Gay Sex.” Classy. I am very ambivalent about all this so-called “mainstream acceptance” – all of this was almost unthinkable ten years ago (Will and Grace was pretty neutered, as many have observed), so I’m glad we’ve shown some progress in portraying and disseminating gay-themed material, but there is so much more to being gay than having sex. Gay people, just like, uhmmm, straight people, struggle with relationships, face disappointments and failures, secondguess ourselves, aspire to create and nurture families as best as we can. This whole dichotomy was pretty apparent in my previous weekend’s arts and culture activities: one night, I was at Bailiwick Chicago’s F**king Men, a contemporary, all-male version of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, written by recent Tony winner (for Memphis) Joe Di Pietro; the next day I saw the exquisitely honest Lisa Cholodenko-helmed film The Kids Are All Right, possibly the best film I’ve seen so far this year. F**king Men, despite a solid staging, sadly reinforces gay sexual stereotypes; The Kids Are All Right goes beyond the gay sex (there is hardly any in it too, which is refreshing) and beautifully paints truthful, compelling 21st century lives.
How time flies. I remember going to the newly-renovated Cadillac Palace way back in 1999 to see the pre-Broadway premiere of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, directed by Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls. I took away two things from that viewing experience- despite the mega-millions thrown onstage, there was an unfortunately high level of cheesiness in the show (including a heinous fashion runaway scene…yeah, in ancient Egypt); but there was also the wondrous, dazzling, breakthrough performance of Heather Headley as Aida, who, a year later, deservedly won a Tony. In the newly-revitalized Bailiwick Chicago’s minimalist version of this excess-prone theatrical relic of the go-go 90s, there are still moments that feel like they came packaged from those curd stands lining the highways of Wisconsin, but there’s also a lot more heartfelt emotion, a little bit more urban edge (thanks to impressively muscular choreography from the Artistic Directors of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater), and best of all, a similarly wondrous, scintillating, blow-the-rooftop-off-this building performance from Rashada Dawan as the titular Nubian princess.