Bloody Bloody Honey Kinky

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So many plays, so little time! Thank goodness for projects that allow me to work from home. Here’s a rundown of shows I saw the past couple of weeks:

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April Showers, No…Snow

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aprilshowers.jpgLast Sunday evening, in what was supposedly spring in Chicago, as I miserably waited for the train to arrive on the Brown Line platform, pelted by freezing rain and snow, standing in slush, I wondered what kind of perfect past life (maybe filled with warm, tropical breezes, constant sunlight, and boys in thongs?) did I have that I should be paying for it in this life.  The weather for the rest of the month may continue to be unseasonably cold, but the city’s performing arts scene is continuing to warm up and sizzle, with tons of major theater and music events to go to.  As my monthly public service announcement to my avid blog readers, I’m giving a preview of the noteworthy performances and events I’m planning to go to in the month of April.

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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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Random Notes after a Long Weekend

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jon-collaboraction-2.jpgThe economic crisis has already began making it’s unwelcome and frightening presence felt with arts organizations.  There’s been some talk in the Chicago theater blogs lately about grant money getting scarcer by the day and several theater companies sending out year-end donation ask letters that give off a scent of panic and, it kills me to even write this, desperation (I have been deluged with many donation request letters over the past couple of weeks, even from theater companies I don’t regularly go to, but I haven’t received that one letter from that one theater group that Kris’s blog commenters mention.  I think I know who it is, and I’m floored that they even contemplated, much less sent, a letter like that to their subscribers and ticketbuyers).  My two cents on all of this is that this is the time for winnowing, where theater companies that consistently provide compelling, truthful, and impactful theatrical experiences to its audiences will survive these calamitous times, and be the stronger, more robust, and more mature for it.  As I’ve already mentioned in a previous blog post, I’ve seen a lot of self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing, indifferent-to-the-audience theater in this town, and no arts group can afford to act in that way anymore right now; it’s change or die. 

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Sweet November

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This month will be theatergoing month on steroids.  There’s a lot of significant productions opening in Chicago in the next several weeks, and I’m hoping I’ll have enough time to go to most of them (I do have to work, too, in my day job, you know, so I can afford to go to all this theater!).  Of course, the centerpiece of my month, the one production I am both breathlessly anticipating and apprehensive about is the Elevator Repair Service‘s much-acclaimed seven-hour Gatz, on stage at the MCA next week, which combines a complete reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with a play set in a dumpy office, in which the employees start taking on the personas of the book’s characters.  This could either be a transcendent experience, or utter folly.  I can’t wait- I’ve been preparing like a triathlete for it:  reading up on The Great Gatsby (I read the book in high school and saw the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow movie decades ago), meditating, doing extra gluteal exercises (at the gym! get your minds out of the gutter!) to ensure that I can actually sit and focus for seven hours straight.  Chris Jones seems to be as excited and apprehensive as I am, and reports that Gatz tickets are going fast- wow!  I’m also seeing Radio Macbeth at the Court Theater next weekend, Anne Bogart and the SITI company’s take on Macbeth framed by a ghost story and supposedly using sound as a dynamic and innovative theatrical device.  It has already been shown at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, New York’s annual showcase for cutting-edge work, where it received very good reviews.  Right before Thanksgiving, the British production A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which sets the famous Shakespeare comedy in the Indian subcontinent and incorporates Indian language, culture, and sensibility, opens at Chicago Shakespeare.  This production has toured Europe and Australia, and has received unqualified raves everywhere it’s been staged.  Despite the fact that I nearly puked the last time I was at the Goodman because of the horror that was Turn of the Century, I’ll be spending quite a bit of time there this month.  I’m catching a preview for Ruined, Lynn Nottage’s new play about the victimization of women during the Congo civil war, co-produced with the Manhattan Theater Club, which will premiere off-Broadway in January 2009, right after it’s Goodman production,with the same cast and director, Kate Whoriskey.  The Goodman is also holding a series of staged readings for Noah Haidle’s work-in-progress opus, Local Time, “twelve two-act plays that trace a 24-hour period in the life of a town”, according to the theater’s website.  I already have tickets for the first one, 5-7 AM, about a young couple who takes in a baby left on their doorstep and is horrified to see the infant grow into a chain-smoking, coffee-guzzling, human-condition pondering adult in 20 minutes.  Sounds precious, and I sometimes feel that Haidle is like the male version of Sarah Ruhl, but it also sounds intriguing.  Plus this is a good opportunity to see new work by a playwright with a rising national profile.  I’ll be getting tickets for the other two readings depending on what I think about 5-7 AM.  At the Steppenwolf, despite what I think is pretty low-key marketing, many performances are already sold out for Dublin Carol, Conor McPherson’s intimate play about an alcoholic undertaker seeking redemption, starring CSI star William Petersen and directed by August: Osage County goddess, Amy Morton.  Collaboraction has already opened Jon, a world premiere adaptation of hip novelist (and MacArthur Genius grant recipient) George Saunder’s much-talked about short story.  Saunders worked closely with director and adaptor Seth Bockley, and has been doing press to support the play.  Although I’ve found many Remy Bumppo productions in the past to be more effective than Ambien and Lunesta combined, I am curious to see their version of Beaurmachais’ The Marraige of Figaro, the basis of the famed Mozart opera, in a new translation by Ranjit Bolt. It’s also being directed by up and coming Chicago theater director Jonathan Berry, so I’m hoping that the snooze factor is low to non-existent.  Finally, TUTA (in support of full disclosure, I’m on their Board) is unveiling The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (yes, it’s that famous play by our man Bill) later this month.  TUTA is always gutsy, imaginative, and singular in their theatrical concepts, so I’m betting this isn’t going to be stand-and-declaim Shakespeare.  Whew, so many plays, so little time!

Change Is Good

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sketchbook-2008.jpgFor someone who makes a living working with organizations to get through change, it’s ironic that I can sometimes be a little resistant to it; hey, I’ve driven the same Honda Accord for ten years, dents, peeling paint, multiple muffler replacements, and all.  So I’m a little ambivalent about the numerous changes that Collaboraction‘s Sketchbook Festival introduces this year in its eight annual edition.  I’ve been going to Sketchbook over the past several years to see 14 short plays, nothing more than ten minutes, many running quite less, most startlingly original and unique, presented amidst a dance club/party/art gallery atmosphere – and I firmly believe that it is one of the must-see, must-go-to theatrical events of any given season.  It is theater as sensory overload, as an experiment in synesthesia – where risks are taken; where creative bubbles are explored and exploded; where music, language, dance and visual art (plus the occasional beer keg) are mixed together to come up with one heck of  a night you’ll recall shuddering, either from excitement, exhaustion, or both.  I fondly remember my first Sketchbook evening in its former home at the rough-and-tumble Chopin Theater- DJs spinning madly as if in a rave party, kids breakdancing, people sitting on the floor, paintings everywhere, dresses suspended in mid-air (which I never figured out if they were part of the art or part of the set), plastic cups of beer being passed around, and a collection of strange, intriguing, riveting plays (there was a puppet show, a really cryptic play from Brett Neveu about people on the el changing seats all the time for no apparent reason, something about vampires, and a tight, suspenseful, interrogation drama).  None of these, except for the strange, intriguing, riveting plays part (and I think there are less of them this year than in previous years), are in the Sketchbook at the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre.  Don’t get me wrong – I still highly recommend Sketchbook to anyone who loves Chicago theatre and its creativity and unpredictability; it’s something I will bring out-of-town guests to, or acquaintances whose idea of theater is seeing Wicked fifteen times, since it is still quite a unique, memorable, and fun evening.  Something’s missing, though, and call it maturing, evolving, reinventing, embracing adulthood, but it’s a different Sketchbook, and I’m a little wistful at the thought.

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