Rapturous

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kneehigh tristan and yseultAs I’ve previously mentioned on this blog, I saw my first play at 10 years old when I was growing up in Manila, thanks to my mom who loved musical theater with a passion.  Since then I’ve continued to be entranced by the magic and inspiration of live theater, literally having seen thousands of plays in my roughly two scores and change on this planet. Although theatergoing is embedded deep into my DNA, of course  I’ve had some nights over the years as well when I’ve asked myself that split second before the lights dimmed, shouldn’t  I just be at home eating greasy egg rolls in my comfy “I Survived the Coldest Minnesota Winter in a Hundred Years- 1995” sweatshirt,  binge-watching Built (for those of you who think the Shahs of Sunset is the name of a falafel food truck, Built is a Style Channel TV show were male models  work as handymen during the day, sort of like the ultimate gay porn movie without the porn)? Frankly, sometimes I feel like going to the theater is a chore (and if it’s a play by Sarah Ruhl an unbearable root canal). Then I see a play that is so thrilling and enjoyable and wistfully beautiful that I’m strikingly reminded why I fell in love with theater all those years ago. Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult, currently onstage at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater invaluable World’s Stage series in a regrettably limited run, is one of the most perfect nights that you can spend in the theater, filled with music, dance, movement, imaginative staging and entrancing story-telling, a show both poignant and warm-blooded; it is an extraordinary experience that proves why theater is first among equals in the performing arts.

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Brass Tacks

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chicago shakes gypsyFor us true-blue, hardcore musical theater aficionados, there is no show greater and more iconic than Gypsy, the sharply-drawn showbiz backstage musical based on the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, with an unsentimentally-constructed book by Arthur Laurents and a wondrously memorable score, simply one of the best in the history of theater, by Jules Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics).  Gypsy is our Ark of the Covenant, our Mona Lisa, our Macchu Picchu, the ultimate expression of our musical theater obsession. I’ve seen several Gypsys, both on film and in live performance, with my defining Gypsy being Sam Mendes’ spare 2003 Broadway revival (which Laurents hated with a vengeance) starring Bernadette Peters’ uniquely and at times jarringly seductive take on Rose, Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother, the stage mother to end all stage mothers.  I know the show very well so I don’t really expect to be surprised anymore by any production.  But leave it to Gary Griffin, who I’m convinced is the ultimate Sondheim interpreter working in the US today, to mine new layers and resonances, and to provide a different take on this most perfect of musicals.  As I watched, mouth agape, at the respected Canadian actress Louis Pitre thrashing around the Chicago Shakespeare stage and beating her chest King Kong style, devoid of any Broadway diva-like vanities in the devastating final number “Rose’s Turn” (in which the character unleashes all her fury and frustration at not being a showbiz star), I knew that Griffin’s Gypsy is unlike others I’ve seen – hard, hardscrabble, pessimistic, tragic. Ladies and gentlemen, this Chicago Shakespeare Theater Gypsy is the first unmissable show of Chicago’s 2014 theater season.

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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 »

2011′s Theatrical Dazzlers

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As I said in my previous blog post, I flew lots and lots of miles over three continents in the course of 2011. But when I was in Chicago, I made sure I slid my butt into a theater seat (over the objections and recriminations of friends and (ex) lovers who I ended up not seeing during those so few weekends). So I still managed to go to a significant number of shows this year despite feeling as if I lived at O’Hare instead of my Ravenswood loft.  No regrets on this end, since Chicago continued to be a dazzling North American capital for live performance, with a bounty of world premieres, Chicago stops of great touring productions, and storefront theatrical treasures.  Here, then, is my annual top ten list of Chicago theater:

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Beautiful Girls

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Although I love all theater, I have a soft, melty, mushy spot for musical theater (I was once memorably harangued by a neighbor in the hi-rise I used to live in for singing showtunes at night inside my apartment and disturbing her evening reality-tv watching.  Ha. Whatever. That angry, loveless beatch is probably scouring writeaprisoner.com even as we speak).  I find it quite ironic though that my favorite musical of all time isn’t one of the grand, outsized Rogers and Hammerstein classics such as Oklahoma!, or the life- and love-affirming Dreamgirls or the epic, rousing Les Miserables, shows that define what musical theater is for many a theatergoer, but rather Stephen Sondheim’s melancholy, complicated, sometimes sharp-edged, always life-like classic Follies.  Although ostensibly the story of a reunion of former showgirls, their theater impresario, and the men they love the night before their old theater was to be demolished, Follies cuts deep by delving into themes around regretful choices, unhappy relationships, failed aspirations, and the loss-tinged fatigue of living and aging. For me, it’s the one musical that should and could stand beside the best of Harold Pinter or Edward Albee, instead of, well, the best of musical theater.  Follies is profound, impactful, disturbing. It is the one Sondheim show, though, that is often talked about in legendary, hushed tones since few have really seen it in live performance.  Unfortunately, when it is produced, such as the last Follies production I saw, the 2001 Roundabout Theater Broadway revival with Blythe Danner, Treat Williams, Gregory Harrison, and Judith Ivey,  it is coated with the froth of musical theater (and in the Roundabout production’s case, a confused froth at that).  So I am so thrilled and excited to see Gary Griffin’s marvelous production of Follies at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.  It is intimate, raw, heartbreaking, entrancing, filled with unexpected interpretations, a show that is truly a Chicago production, not some New York-style rip-off.  It is, in my mind, a production that unequivocally demonstrates Follies’ legendary reputation.

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Shining City

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When I moved to the US from the Philippines for graduate school in the mid-1990s, I never thought I would end up living in Chicago.  I’ve visited it before then since I had cousins who lived in the city, and although I liked it, I always thought that if I stayed in the US, I would find myself ultimately settling down in New York City or San Francisco, the two American cities that personified first-world sophistication and hipness to those of us who grew up in the developing world.  But a great job opportunity presented itself, and I moved to Chicago in 1998 and have not left since.  Over the years, I have come to deeply love Chicago’s cosmopolitan buzz and sprawl, its diversity and rich history, its Midwestern plainspokenness, its thriving, confident arts and culture scene- this blog was initially conceived as, and continues to be, my love letter to the city.  But I’ve also been pragmatic enough to embrace its infuriating inefficiencies, its constant politicking, its defiance at not covering up its warts and scars.  In my mind, 13 years living in Chicago have made me an expert of its urban psyche and landscape, so I initially didn’t pay attention to the mailings from Chicago Shakespeare Theater about en route, described as “an extraordinary journey through downtown streetscapes, building lobbies, and cafés—guided by audio tracks and mobile phone communication—as (the audience’s) shifting perceptions make and remake the city they inhabit.”  I’ve walked and driven all over this city, and have gone on so many Chicago Architecture Foundation tours that I could probably ace the docent exam, so my initial reaction was “no thanks” to what, on paper, seemed to be another city tour, but with a theatrical bent, devised by the Melbourne-based theater company one step at a time like this.  But after raves from the Tribune’s Chris Jones and Timeout Chicago’s  Kris Vire which unequivocally stated en route’s exhilarating uniqueness but intriguingly did not give anything away, I was, well, intrigued.  So I scooped up one of the last tickets for en route, and boy, do I feel fortunate that I did.  As a passionate lover of theater, of culture, of urban space, and of Chicago, en route has been one of my most indelible cultural experiences ever.  It is truly, uniquely unmissable.

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