Notes from the Front Row

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haven theater seminarThere was a brief tease earlier this week that this winter of 2014, the harshest one I’ve experienced in my 16 years of living in Chicago, would finally leave us alone. As I write this blog post though, snow blankets my condo building’s courtyard, and that glorious 60 degree Monday seemed to be nothing but a cruel trick from the cosmos.  But Chicagoans are a hearty theatergoing lot and we’ve been giving the big middle finger to the cosmos throughout this winter- all of the shows I’ve been to in the past several weeks have been packed, ice, snow, tundra temperatures, potholes, and swimming-pool like puddles of melting ice notwithstanding.   Here are some impressions on a couple of shows I’ve recently seen:

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Cosmic Forces

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I know it sounds so cliché, but this year, time did fly by, like Dreamliner-speed fly by.  After a blur of a difficult summer, I’ve suddenly found myself in early September and right smack at the beginning of Chicago’s fall arts and culture season, the fifth one I’ll be writing about since From the Ledge’s inception in 2007.  Yes, five years writing this blog – I can’t believe it myself.  And it’s so fitting that my fall arts season officially begins with Chicago Opera Theater (COT)’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, the first new Chicago production of the well-worn but well-loved opera in 17 years, in an English translation by Jeremy Sams. The Magic Flute was the first opera I ever saw way back when during the medieval times (actually Manila in the 1970s which, in some aspects, was similar), and was one of the first cultural experiences I distinctly remember; it obviously played a role in shaping the smart, curious, discerning, not to mention fabulous, cultural cognoscenti I’ve become (ahem).  I’ve actually always found The Magic Flute to be a fun romp, a shimmying, dazzling, light-hearted ball of operatic silliness and grandiosity, sometimes incoherent, mostly engaging, a great introduction to opera for children and those unfamiliar with the art form.  COT’s production, despite some questionable design and directorial choices, doesn’t disappoint – it’s an accessible, fast-paced, gloriously-sung production which should win operatic converts all around.

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Star Gazing

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I should be pretty jaded already having seen many, many major performing artists live onstage in my lifetime.  However, there are still those increasingly rare instances when ineffable, magnetic star power just sweeps me, breathlessly, dizzyingly, off my tiny Asian feet.  There were the nights, for example, of seeing Mikhail Baryshnikov at the Minneapolis Orpheum Theater in the mid-1990s, or Dame Judi Dench in Amy’s View on Broadway, or, more recently, Cate Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Kennedy Center.  Last Wednesday night, at the Harris Theater, seeing the celebrated American opera superstar Frederica von Stade, in one of her last staged opera performances in Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, the last production for the season of the essential Chicago Opera Theater, was one of those times.  Von Stade is luminous, riveting, wonderfully graceful, radiating never-ending concentric circles of charisma as Madeline Mitchell, a celebrated Broadway actress with fractured relationships with her two children, Charlie, whose partner is dying of AIDS, and Bea, who has turned to alcohol to escape her troubled marriage.  Von Stade, both through her impeccable musicality and her terrific acting chops, is able to make Maddy, seemingly monstrous on paper, both maddening and sympathetic, a truly multi-layered characterization, closer to the best of musical theater performance, in my opinion, than operatic performance (which tends to be more about the singing than the acting).  She is also very generous in her scenes with the star-in-the-making Matthew Worth (seen last season at COT in Britten’s Owen Wingrave, which I’m now kicking myself for missing), who gives Charlie a serious dose of sexy heartwrench, and Sara Jakubiak, who infuses Bea with steely, quiet rage. 

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Short Cut

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la-tragedie-de-carmen.jpgFor those of us who are truly passionate aficionados of all things theatrically innovative, Peter Brook is a god (I worshipped at his sacred altar, for one, last year, when he brought his Beckett masterpiece, Fragments, to the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre).  So I was as giddy and inchoate as Kara DioGuardi (ok, enough American Idol references already, since Kris Allen made it to the final two, yay!) on my way to see Chicago Opera Theater‘s production of Brook’s stripped-down, minimalist, polarizing-for-its-time (the early 1980s) version of Bizet’s glorious Carmen, called La Tragedie de Carmen.  Sitting at my seat at the Harris Theatre, waiting for the famous “Prelude” to begin, my heart was palpitating, my brow was breaking out in sweat beads, my endorphins were having a rock and roll jam session, and then…oh, there was no “Prelude”.  OK, now (although the “Prelude” came later on in the show as, gasp, recorded music). COT had, as expected, produced a polished, technically proficient, stunningly sung show.  I thought the barely-there set of a huge brick wall and a sand pit, as well as the expressionistic lighting design, were effective in heightening the point that this was not going to be your grandmother’s grand, outsized Carmen.  I thought the chamber orchestra, now only comprised of 15 musicians, still brought vivid, lush life to Bizet’s enveloping melodies.  As I have come to expect with COT, the singing was just this side of spectacular, with Sandra Piques Eddy as Carmen and, especially, Noah Stewart as Don Jose giving nuanced musical performances.  But I had a problem with Brook’s reconceptualization. To be honest, I really didn’t buy into it.  If the point of La Tragedie de Carmen was ultimately to strip away the grandiose baggage of centuries of operatic over-the-top-ness and focus on the relationships in the story, then I didn’t really think it succeeded.  The 80 minute running time and the choppy scene sequences never gave me a chance to fully understand and invest in the characters’ motivations, attractions, and decisions.  One minute Carmen was a smoldering object of lust chained to a chair or suggestively touching a microphone, the next she was a broken down, emotionally battered woman, widowed twice over (first by the death of her husband, Garcia, and then by that of her true love, Escamillo, which, by the way, I didn’t understand how that came to be).  Where were the transitions?  the clearly-depicted character arcs?  the humanity that was supposed to shine through with the operatic trappings being removed? Unfortunately, as heretical as it may sounds, Brook’s minimalist, auterist, re-ordered version may have been radical and unheard of, scandalous even, to the most rabid cultural purists, in the early 1980s but today, in 2009, it just feels….it kills me to say this, dated.  For a theatergoer like me who’s seen a Richard III reconceptualized as a modern day Arab political treatise, or seen A Doll’s House performed with 3 feet tall men and 6 feet tall women and a mystifying coda with bald puppets, or a Misanthrope with a radically altered structure set in modern day New York, reinventions of classics are not new, in fact, they’re almost to be expected.  So seeing a different interpretation of Carmen isn’t foreign to me, what’s strange, and ultimately disappointing, is that the revision, by a legendary theater director at that, wasn’t engaging, memorable, or timeless.  The last performance of La Tragedie de Carmen is on Friday, May 15, 7:30 pm at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205. E. Randolph St.

Opera Buzz

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One of the “buzzy” arts and culture news coming out of New York last week was the fact that Chicago-based Tony award-winning director Mary Zimmermann (whose The Arabian Nights is opening in May at her ensemble home, the Lookingglass Theatre) was booed when she took her bow at curtain call during opening night of her new production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula at the Metropolitan Opera. The production has gotten mixed to negative reviews, with critical brickbat primarily directed towards Zimmermann’s conceptual, meta-theatrical approach to the opera:  re-set in 2009 New York City, an opera company rehearsing La Sonnambula finds its performers’ real lives starting to resemble those of the opera’s protagonists’.  It’s not a novel approach at all (uhmm, the movie version of French Lieutenant’s Woman?  the recent Comedy of Errors at Chicago Shakespeare?), but there seems to be a lot of angst and anger at the updating and reconceptualization of “sacred” opera text – check out Chris Jones’ theater blog for a very lively discussion among both Chicago and New York-based opera goers.  Although I’m amused at the opera “purists” yakking away on Chris’s and other blogs, and though I won’t back off from a fight with arts purists of any kind, I won’t be jumping into the fray given I haven’t seen the production.  As my avid blog readers know, though, in theater, or opera for that matter, I am a very strong advocate of artistic concepts and visions that 1) create additional, fresh, insightful layers of meaning and resonance from the original text; 2) and in the process, draw new, non-traditional audiences to the work.  If Zimmermann’s La Sonnambula accomplishes these two things, then brava to her, and the “purists” can go sequester themselves in their hideous dank attics with their Maria Callas LP albums.

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Ten Indelible Memories

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david-cromer-director-of-best-play-of-the-year.jpgThroughout the year, my standard response to friends, acquaintances, and random cocktail chit-chatters alike when they told me they were going to New York City to see a play was: “Save your airfare. Spend it on Chicago theater instead.” 2008 was, undeniably, a phenomenal year for Chicago theater. Local boy Tracy Letts won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play for the stupendously successful August: Osage County, which was conceptualized, incubated, fleshed out, and first performed by Chicago’s leading theater company, Steppenwolf Theater. Legendary director Peter Brook came to Chicago this year (Fragments at Chicago Shakespeare), but so did acclaimed contemporary playwright Lynn Nottage, who premiered her latest work, the shattering Ruined, at the Goodman Theater. Horton Foote, still spry and vibrant at 92, was also at the Goodman, gracing activities for it’s Horton Foote Festival. Elevator Repair Company, Tim Supple, the Shaw Festival, Marta Carrasco, Mike Daisey, William L. Petersen (more of a comeback than a visit), the best and the brightest of the world’s stage were all in Chicago, interacting with a live theater audience that was as sophisticated, critical, open-minded, educated, and enthusiastic as any in the world. But the great thing about our Chicago theater community is that our local heroes continued to thrive, expand, inspire, and astound this year too. Directors David Cromer and Sean Graney staged some of the most brilliant, world-class theater in any time zone. Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey continued to demonstrate that she has the keenest, bravest, most uncompromising artistic sense among arts leaders in the city by opening a season that followed the August high with a highly-impressionistic, dense, intellectually provocative original adaptation of a Haruki Murakami novel. Great performances abounded, showcasing the almost limitless talent pool in the city: E. Faye Butler in Caroline, or Change, Hollis Resnick in Grey Gardens, John Judd in Shining City, Steve Pickering and Jen Engstrom in Fatboy, the list goes on and on. The storefront theater scene was energetic and impressively original, with inventive work coming from groups as diverse as the Hypocrites (every single play they staged this year), Collaboraction (Jon), Strange Tree Group (Mysterious Elephant), and TUTA (a haunting Uncle Vanya), introducing new theatergoers to the magic of live performance. It was a great year to be an arts lover in Chicago.

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