States of Mind

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It’s a crazy world we live in people, between face-eating in Miami, Scott Walker-unrecall in Wisconsin, and beauty pageant-rigging in Donald Trump’s House of Miss USA.  For my part, I nearly shaved my head bald and ripped my clothes off to run naked in the streets when I read the crazy rumor that Liza Minnelli and Tony Danza were getting married. Liza and Tony married?  That’s not one hell of a jumbotron of crazy, but Armageddon.  So I’m not surprised that some of our younger playwrights are writing about the delicate balance of mind and heart that our turbulent 21st century world creates in its citizens.  My thoughts on two productions I recently saw:

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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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Clockwatchers

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It’s been quite the week since I got back from Hong Kong, jumping back into the corporate fray with the zeal of someone who didn’t just get back from a ten day vacation.  I’m back on the business travel jaunt, but I wanted to make sure I let my blog readers know to check out Chicago Dramatists’ world-premiere production of Marisa Wegrzyn’s Hickorydickory, which won the playwright the 2009 Wendy Wasserstein prize for work by an emerging female playwright.  It’s closing this weekend, so catch it then, because I think it’ll probably have a bigger and longer life after Chicago.  I’ve been a big admirer of Wegrzyn over the years, since I think she has probably one of the most distinctive voices among Chicago playwrights.  Her plays are dark, biting, hilarious, and insightful, putting the surreal and the absurd in what, on the surface, seems drab and ordinary.  Sometimes, I think her plays are memorably successful such as Killing Women, a black comedy about corporate-like politics in an organization of housewife-assassins, one of the most ingeniously eccentric new plays I’ve seen during the past several years.  At other times, though, I think they’re quite frustratingly chaotic such as Butcher of Baraboo, about a family with violent secrets in, you guessed it, Baraboo, Wisconsin.  Hickorydickory falls in the former category.  It has quite an interesting premise – what if we have alarm clocks behind our hearts (and for some of us, maddeningly inside our heads) that tell us how long we will live?  How much will we change the way we live our life, missing opportunities and dismissing potential, sticking to the mundane here and now, if we know our time of death?  What kind of relationships will we form?  What if we had the chance to tamper with our life clock, will we play god and try to extend our mortality? What kind of person does that make us, then?  It’s a masterfully written piece that touches on profound questions around the mastery of our fate and the fallibility of our humanity.  Additionally, it also beautifully paints a portrait of familial, especially maternal, love.  I won’t give away the narrative since I think part of the pleasure of watching Hickorydickory is seeing Wegrzyn’s finely-etched characters unfold their surreal lives, told in an engaging way that recalls the short stories of Murakami despite being set in a generic Chicago suburb.  Overlooking the close to three hours running time, I think it’s definitely one of the plays to catch this month (and despite the length, it is never boring or heavy handed).  Chicago Dramatists Artistic Director Russ Tutterow directs the play with a light hand and a warm heart, and is greatly aided by a terrific cast.  The young actress Cathlyn Melvin, touching, feisty, heartachingly good in two roles, is the definite standout.

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World Views

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As I’ve previously said, one of the great things about having such a lively theater scene is the fact that there are new works premiering all over town every weekend.  Some of them may be boring, formulaic reflections on twentysomething self-absorption, but many, many of them give us interesting glimpses into new, intriguing worlds.  Two of the plays currently onstage in the city tackle the volatile, complicated topic of cultural identity, something, as an immigrant, I am particularly keen on. After the triumphant success of the brilliant, Pulitzer-nominated, off-Broadway transferring The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, my choice for best production of 2009, the hot, young playwright Kristoffer Diaz is back with a world premiere at the American Theater Company of a play that he actually wrote before Chad Deity, Welcome to Arroyo’s, mixing a heady brew of Latino identity politics, doctoral dissertations, sushi-eating, graffiti-making, and hiphop.  Over at Chicago Dramatists, arguably the best incubator of new work in the city, Will Cooper, a new playwright, is having the first professional production of his works in Jade Heart, a world premiere about international adoption and the tension between keeping true to one’s cultural roots and assimilation.  I love strongly advocating for new work; however, I can only recommend Welcome to Arroyo’s with reservations, since, although it confirms for me Diaz’s brilliance and future greatness, and his exceptional ability to crisply capture the 21st century zeitgeist, it lacks the clarity and audience engagement of Chad Deity.   On the other hand, as an Asian, I struggled mightily with Jade Heart- although I think its intentions are noble, it is so simplistically-written and so old-fashioned in its worldview, Cooper might as well have been writing about cultural identity concerns in 1980 versus 2010.

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Broadway IS in Chicago

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which-precinct-are-these-boys-at.jpgChris Jones is writing on his blog today about what Chicago theater aficionados have been excitedly buzzing about the past several weeks since the confirmation of the Broadway productions of Keith Huff’s A Steady Rain (first produced at Chicago Dramatists in the fall of 2007 and then transferred to the Royal George Theatre for an extended run during the first half of 2008) and of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts (first produced at the Steppenwolf Theatre in the summer of 2008) came out:  Chicago theater is going to be KING OF THE HILL in the New York arts and culture season this fall, when these two amazing new plays open within days of one another.  I loved, loved these two’s original productions.  Written by Chicago-based playwrights, they are so quintessentially Chicago:  from their shared Uptown setting (as I said in my rave for Superior Donuts:  “Uptown, for me, is a great microcosm of a Chicago in flux, in the midst of change and renewal, but yet still stubbornly, and, at times, proudly, holding on to what made, and makes this city great and unique, both the good and the not-so-good.”) to their distinctive Chicago dialogue and accents (particularly in A Steady Rain) to their uncompromisingly uniquely Chicago points of view on life: straight-shooting, salt-of-the-earth, calloused, pragmatic, a city that’s got it’s people’s backs.  Snobbish New York theater patrons will get the wind knocked out of them!  I am very thrilled to hear too that the entire Steppenwolf cast of Superior Donuts will be recreating their roles on Broadway – our wonderful Chicago-based talent, from Jon Michael Hill to James Vincent Meredith to Cliff Chamberlin, all making their Broadway debuts, will prove once and for all that our city is the go-to city for actors who want to be nurtured and cultivated. A Steady Rain, on the other hand, is going the traditional Broadway mega-star route – instead of the brilliant Randy Steinmeyer and Peter deFaria, Chicago storefront theater actors who definitively created the lead roles here, Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman will be taking them on in New York.  Frankly, I’m ambivalent about this:  I’m thrilled for Huff and Chicago Dramatists, because there will definitely be an audience for the work (Chris is reporting that several millions of advance tickets have already been sold for the play), but I’m not really convinced, having seen the original, that Craig and Jackman are the best choices for these roles.  Tell me where to find a Chicago cop who looks like Hugh Jackman, and I’ll show up wearing only gift-wrapping paper and a red ribbon!  Seriously though, regardless of how good actors Craig and Jackman are (and I saw Hugh in his Tony-winning turn in The Boy from Oz where he was terrific), they’re still stars, known commodities with personas shaped by pop culture (James Bond and Wolverine) so I think it’ll be quite the effort, for me at least, to suspend disbelief that they are indeed truthfully inhabiting the lives of these gritty, emotionally raw Chicago cops (and I hope they’re doing research on those South side accents!).  Regardless, it’s going to be a watershed time for Chicago theater this fall and that’s a GREAT thing!  PS- Since I can’t seem to find the Broadway posters for either A Steady Rain or Superior Donuts, I think no one’s going to complain if I put up these photos of Hugh and Dan instead!