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 »

Here and There

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I’m not really ready to let the summer go just yet (although I could definitely live without the sweat baths I take nearly every week while interminably waiting in the ORD taxi line to get home on travel-frenzied Thursday late nights).  But I’ve already began to plan my theater schedule for the upcoming six to eight weeks as Chicago theater companies unveil their fall seasons; I’m also taking several trips during this time period to see some of the more hotly-anticipated productions in other theater-mad cities like ours.  My plate will be quite full, but what a satisfying, bountiful harvest it will contain!

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Refurbishing Classics

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desire-under-the-elms.jpgAs regular readers of this blog would know by now, I am the biggest fan of refurbishing dramatic classics.  What I hate the most is going to the theater and coming away underwhelmed and unsurprised, seeing something that I could have seen at a high school drama club production for free or for much less money.  I strongly believe that classical theater is universal and timeless, so a clear-minded, courageous, inspired director and/or adapter can transpose a play’s themes to different milieus and time periods and have them resonate with a wide variety of audiences.  Additionally, directors can reinvigorate classical text by introducing various theatrical devices and elements (a reimagination of the set design, evocative musical scoring, new sound effects, etc.) that the playwright might not originally have included in the play.  Over the past couple of years, I have had the pleasure of seeing fresh takes on classics many, many times, but two of the most memorable had been Robert Falls’ magnificent King Lear at the Goodman in 2006 with Stacy Keach, set during the Balkan civil war, which gave unexpected layers to the power themes of Shakespeare’s play; and Charles Newell’s hip, modern, radical redo of another Shakespeare play at the Court Theater last year, Titus Andronicus, set during an initiation rite at an elite boys’ prep school, which also took the play to startling interpretations (you can read my blog post here).   Serious lovers of theater can warm themselves up this frigid season with Falls’ and Newell’s new reimaginings of classical drama – Desire Under the Elms, the centerpiece of the Goodman’s extraordinary O’Neill Festival, and Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck at the MCA Chicago, respectively.  I think both are notable, much, much better than any other night in many of the theaters in this theatergoing town, which says a lot.  So on that level, I think both of these productions have succeeded.  However, although I found Desire Under the Elms riveting and I was blown away by many of Falls’ directorial choices, I still came out a little baffled and disconnected.  The Wild Duck, for me, is the bigger disappointment.  I was really looking forward to Newell’s take and came out not just perplexed also with some of his directorial approaches, but also with the feeling that the production, despite good intentions, was stale.

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Back on the Circuit

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cruches-for-new-year.jpgIn the midst of compiling New Year’s resolutions that I’ll most likely not be able to follow through on (do thirty sit-ups a day, eat more fruits, stop flirting with straight boys even if they offer to buy me a sidecar, finally break my vow never to see a Renee Zellweger movie again), I’ve been browsing the action-packed January calendars of the various arts and culture institutions in Chicago.  After the cultural wasteland that is the month of December (really, how many Ghosts of Christmas Pasts and Snow Queens can you stomach outside of the Boystown Halloween parade?), the beginning of the year is offering quite frankly, and wonderfully, an embarrassment of artistic riches. 

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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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All Shakespeare, All the Time

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midsummer_nights_dream1.jpgI’ve had so much Shakespeare this past few weeks, that I almost feel like Judi Dench (well, turning the 40th year milestone did that too).  There’s always something Shakespearean going on somewhere in this city’s energetic arts community, but to have both Anne Bogart and the SITI Company‘s experimental take on Macbeth which had already drawn raves in New York’s Under the Radar Festival of cutting-edge work, as well as British director Tim Supple’s vibrant, highly-acclaimed, polyglot version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in the Indian subcontinent, on stage at the same time, is some kind of special. I saw both last weekend, but unfortunately, both shows have already closed as of this writing. 

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