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 »
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:
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.
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.
A good friend of mine and avid reader of this blog asked me recently whether he should see this “X” show or this “Y” show this weekend, and my response to him was – “If you are going to the theater this weekend in Chicago, why would you go to anything other than Black Watch?” And I don’t mean that statement as any form of disrespect to the many, many terrific shows currently onstage in Chicago, but as an unqualified, enthusiastic tribute to what is certainly the best play I have seen this year so far (and in the top five of the past couple of years), the National Theatre of Scotland’s globally-heralded depiction of soldiers from the famous Scottish regiment while they are deployed in Iraq, brought to our city by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Black Watch is the reason why I go to the theater – it impressively, searingly co-mingles idiosyncratic theatricality with raw, powerful emotions, and a pointed, insightful engagement with the issues and concerns of our contemporary world. It is theater at it’s very, very finest and most memorable, and shame on you if you call yourself a passionate Chicago theatergoer and you haven’t run out yet to get your ticket to this unmissable theatrical moment.
I grew up in the Philippines in the early 80s, during the height of the “conjugal dictatorship” of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. I remember, as a child, being told by my mom not to mention the Marcos name on the phone in any manner whatsoever, in case there was a wiretap and the whole family got into trouble. I remember being told the story of one of my grand-aunts and her housemaid who inadvertently crossed in front of one of Imelda Marcos’ sacred, un-crossable beautification gardens and were then taken by military police to the local police station and, in an act of flabbergasting intimidation, told to sing the Philippine national anthem and pledge allegiance to the Marcos government. I still distinctly remember the palpable environment of fear and mistrust, of covertness and suppression, of anxious caution. Anyone who has ever lived under an authoritarian regime is permanently marked by it. Conversely, anyone who has never lived under one will never fully understand it. Harold Pinter, despite his masterful, incisive storytelling gifts, and his empathy for oppressed populations such as the Turkish Kurds, whose plight he reflected in his short play Mountain Language, always lived in the free world. Consequently, I feel that his late 80s “political plays”, which, in addition to Mountain Language, also includesThe New World Order and One for the Road, all three I saw together in a spectacular basement production from the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t SlimTack Theatre Co. last year, beat you over the head more than punch you in the belly or pierce you in the heart. However, when these plays are performed by the astonishing, courageous, invaluable Belarus Free Theatre, a theater company that has been repressed by the Belarusian government for speaking out in defense of the basic freedoms we sometimes take for granted, and now unable to go back home, you get the heartplunge and the bellypunch, and these plays become such a painful, illuminating, powerfully wrenching night of theater. Especially since Pinter’s angry words are interspersed with the heartfelt ones of Belarusian political prisoners. If you have only one night of theater you can go to this year, then let it be Belarus Free Theatre’s unforgettable Being Harold Pinter, which started performances at the Goodman Theatre last weekend, and will continue its month-long Chicago residency at Northwestern University and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in the upcoming weekends. It is as simple as that.