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 »

Ain’t Amour

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chicago shakes king learI’m back! It was a hectic summer where I was literally everywhere, from San Diego to Sao Paulo, from New York City to San Francisco.  But I’m staying put in Chicago for the next several weeks since the fall arts and culture season has begun with its usual loud, notable bang (and for the nth year I’ve thought about finally hiring that cute, virile, foot-massaging male assistant to manage my calendar of show openings and cultural events). All of the major houses have opened their first plays for the season and in the past couple of weeks I was able to catch Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new, Sinatra-inspired take on King Lear and Victory Garden Theater’s Chicago premiere of newly-minted MacArthur Genius grantee Samuel D. Hunter’s Rest. Intriguingly and coincidentally both shows revolve around the themes of age, aging, and the elderly, and both feature some notable performances from Chicago’s veteran theater actors. Unfortunately both also fall short in treating these important, less-portrayed topics with the power, poignancy, and relatability that they deserve.

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Reinvention

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road show chicago shakesDuring the Middle Ages (actually 2003), I rushed back to Chicago from wherever I was commuting to at that time for work (New Jersey, which was and continues to be seemingly stuck in the Middle Ages) in order to see the world premiere production of Stephen Sondheim’s  and John Weidman’s Bounce at the Goodman Theater. This was Sondheim’s first show since 1990’s Assassins (also co-written with Weidman) and for theater geeks everywhere who worship at the shrine of Steve (where else would we be at?), this world premiere was equivalent to a new commandment being handed down from the mountaintop. Unfortunately, Bounce, which told the story of real life brothers Addison and Wilson Mizner who embarked on a variety of get-rich-quick schemes in the early 20th century, was less sacrosanct tablet and more broken ceremonial vessel.  The Goodman production of Bounce, directed by frequent Sondheim collaborator Hal Prince, was a mess: despite some undeniably lovely Sondheim tunes here and there, it was boring, chaotic, filled with an air of desperation and incompleteness.  So when Chicago Shakespeare announced that Road Show, a revised and supposedly final version of Bounce that was originally seen at the Public Theater in 2008, would be part of its double bill of Gary Griffin-directed Sondheim musicals in spring 2014 (together with Gypsy), I was intrigued like I’m sure all Chicagoans who saw that musical theater equivalent of a disaster movie in 2003 were.  As a lifelong Sondheim aficionado, I’m thrilled to say then that Road Show, which opened last week, is a vast improvement from its earlier incarnation, thoroughly enjoyable, and in Griffin’s warm, intimate staging displays flashes of brilliance. But it is still imperfect Sondheim with a still-unsatisfying book, never achieving the perfection of Sweeney Todd or Follies or A Little Night Music, or, especially, Gypsy. However, I will take imperfect Sondheim over perfect any-other-theater-composer any time.

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Theaterhopping in 2013

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the whale best of 2013I slowed down writing on this blog this year. I started a new job, I travelled a lot more for leisure rather than business, and decided, after six years, that I just wanted to write if something compelled me, either for good or for bad, in order to get back some of that writing mojo I felt like I’ve lost from feverishly putting up a blog entry about every show I watched over the years.  I still saw a lot of theater this year, mostly in Chicago, some in other cities, but I just didn’t write about all of them.  This was probably a good year to slow done on the writing though, since I felt like Chicago theater lost some of its own mojo – 2013 for me was the most disappointing year for theater audiences in recent memory.

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Voyage of the Damned

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roadkill chicago shakesI thought I would never say this at the risk of shaving points off from my classy broad image, but I boarded a tour bus at Navy Pier on Sunday afternoon.  But this was not just any tour bus,  this was the beginning of the audience experience for Roadkill, a Chicago Shakespeare Theater World’s Stage production from Scotland, conceived and directed by the immensely talented multi-hyphenate Cora Bissett.  Somewhere around West Town the bus stopped to pick up a gregarious teenage girl and a twenty-something woman she called “Auntie”.  As the bus trip continued on for ten more minutes, I started thinking about dinner later that night after the show (sushi or pasta?) as the familiar building facades and monotonously hip denizens of Wicker Park whizzed by, amused by the non-stop inquisitiveness of the girl, who told us, her bus mates, that she just arrived from Nigeria that day “to become an American”.  And then we reached our destination, a nondescript apartment building very close to the Western blue line train station, where we were all ushered into one apartment’s living room and listened in horror as the girl screamed while being raped in the bedroom next door, her initiation into her new life as a sex slave. And as the horrifying, gut-wrenching immersion into the Roadkill theatrical experience unfolded, plunging me and the other 15 or so audience members into the heinous world of human trafficking, suddenly any of our concerns, whether my dinner plans that night or someone else’s Cubs tickets or another person’s job deadlines, became so inconsequential.

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Any Given Sunday

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A wise old queen (drag, not royal) once told me that if you stick around long enough, you will see everything start to come back again: fashion, music, ex-boyfriends who dumped you in front of Roscoe’s.  Add to that list celebrated Chicago theater directors revisiting their earlier works. In 2002, I saw Mary Zimmermann’s Metamorphoses, and as I said in a previous post, this year’s Lookingglass remount is still thrilling to me ten years later. In 2002 as well I saw Gary Griffin’s intimate, emotionally-satisfying production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George at Chicago Shakespeare’s upstairs theater, well-remembered around this theater parts for it’s innovative runaway staging (years before David Cromer used it to enthralling effect in Our Town), and for it’s simple, minimalist evocation of George Seurat’s painting “La Grand Jatte” in the Act 1 musical show-stopper, “Sunday”.   Griffin is also revisiting Sunday in the Park with George this year, but this time around he is staging it at Chicago Shakes’ main thrust stage, and with all the bells and whistles and grand ambition that a now internationally-renowned theater director can muster.  And this Sunday in the Park is a stunning achievement, with gorgeous singing, exceptional design, and two larger-than-life yet beautifully-relatable lead performances from Jason Danieley and, especially, Carmen Cusack.

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