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 »

Women on the Verge

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court iphigenia in aulisIf you’ve been around these blog parts for years, you’d know I’ve outed myself as an inveterate lover of Greek tragedies years ago. One of the most indelible and enriching cultural experiences I’ve had this year (as well as within the past five years), was The Hypocrites’ All Our Tragic, the 12-hour adaptation of all 32 existing Greek plays staged earlier this summer which reinforced for me the fact that all the stories I love and admire right now, from my guilty pleasure How to Get Away with Murder (doesn’t the flawed Annaliese Keating have uhmm, buckets, of Antigone’s stubbornness and ferociousness?) to box-office sensation Gone Girl (isn’t Nick Dunne as clueless and isolated as Oedipus?) can trace their roots back to the dramatic convolutions and character motivations of the Greek tragedies.  (Full disclosure: I am a Board Member of The Hypocrites and have chosen not to write about the critically-acclaimed All Our Tragic because of my role with the theater). So if there’s a Greek classic playing somewhere in Chicago, for the most part I’m there faster than anyone can say The Furies.  So last week I was at Court Theatre for its production of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis in a new translation by its former Artistic Director Nicholas Rudall and directed by its current Artistic Director Charles Newell, set to kick-off a three-year cycle of Greek texts about the House of Atreus (Rudall’s new translations of Aeschylus’ Agammemnon and Sophocles’ Elektra will be staged in subsequent seasons).  Iphigenia in Aulis is intense and riveting with some stellar acting, so it was definitely worth the trek to Hyde Park for this Chicago northsider; however, I’m somewhat perplexed by some elements of Newell’s production which in my view dilutes some of Euripides’ powerful playwriting.

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Un Bel Di

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m butterfly courtA theater-lover just doesn’t spring from the ground fully-formed reciting Shakespeare and high-kicking it to “Oklahoma”.  It takes years and years of watching and re-watching plays to fully grasp the theatrical medium and to cultivate one’s taste and preferences; I started my love affair with the theater at age 10, and until now, in my fourth decade, I’m still confounded by some of the plays I see.  Growing up in Manila in the early 1990s I saw several productions of David Henry Hwang’s ground-breaking  M.Butterfly about the strange, real-life, decades-long love affair between a married French diplomat and a transvestite Peking Opera performer who turned out to be a spy for the Chinese government. Strange because the diplomat claimed in the thirty or so years he was with his mistress, he never saw her fully naked and therefore never knew she was actually a man.  Hwang’s writing was brilliant, heady and train-stopping: heavily stylized incorporating elements of both Western and Peking opera, it tackled huge, intriguing themes around the notion of masculinity, the Western view at that time of Asians and Asian culture,  the accumulation and exercise of power.  The staging of the productions I saw with their impressive use of choreography, music, and visual spectacle were some of my initial indelible experiences with the uniqueness of theatrical storytelling.  I haven’t re-visited the play in decades until a couple of weekends ago when I saw Charles Newell’s new production at Court Theatre- nearly 20 years later, M. Butterfly’s storytelling and construction is still riveting and resonant. Despite some reservations I have with this particular production, I think the play wears it’s age well, even now in the “Asian century” where China is the ascendant superpower, just like an elegant Shanghai matron in a black dress, pulled-back hair, and jade jewelry.

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Canvass

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As a gay man who grew into adulthood in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Tony Kushner’s two-part theatrical masterpiece, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, was the definitive cultural marker for my generation of gay people. The play gave articulate voice, unequivocally and unapologetically, to our sense of self, our concerns, our contradictions, and our perspectives on government, history, and community- both ours and the broader social environment. I read it, I read articles and reviews about it, I saw the indelible HBO mini-series, which was directed by Mike Nichols and starred Meryl Streep and Al Pacino, but I’ve never seen a theatrical production. Since I moved to Chicago in 1998, there had been two significant productions in the city, both of which I missed:  David Cromer’s legendary, talked-about-in-hushed-tones version for The Journeymen in 1998 and Sean Graney’s take for The Hypocrites in 2006.  So I was really excited to see Charles Newell’s new revival for Court Theatre, which, notably, has Kushner’s support and participation, and it did not disappoint. Straightforwardly directed, electrifyingly acted, fluidly designed, Court’s Angels in America is 7  hours of gloriously compelling theater (3 hours for Part I: Millennium Approaches and 4 hours for Part II: Perestroika), with Kushner’s powerful, unforgettable writing, trafficking in both big, global themes, and personal, intimate tragedies, still undeniably relevant in a 21st century American socio-political-cultural milieu that is already an alarming echo of the play’s 1980s Reagan-era setting.

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Magical Grieving

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When my mom passed away several years ago, which had to be one of my watershed life experiences, I sent out an email to my close friends all over the world to let them know, and I included this quote from Joan Didion’s autobiographical book about coping with the sudden death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and the prolonged illness of their daughter, Quintana, “The Year of Magical Thinking”:  “…when we mourn for our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves.  As we were.  As we are no longer.  As we will one day not be at all.”  I think it’s a beautiful quote, so articulately and delicately crystallizing with a minimum of words that almost indescribable state of tremendous grief, that sense of losing huge chunks of one’s self and one’s past and future with the loss of the loved one.   “The Year of Magical Thinking”  is one of the most important and memorable books I’ve ever read in my life; I finished it a couple of months before my mom entered the hospital for her very rapid, and ultimately failed, battle with kidney ailments, and I couldn’t have realized how prescient the book would be for capturing my emotional responses to my own forthcoming loss.  For Didion, in the book, powerfully, expressively, and relentlessly paints the various emotions that you go through when dealing with the loss of a loved one, and the terrifying possible loss of another – the anger, the discombobulation, the helplessness, the overwhelming pain, the sometimes gratuitous but always searing self-pity.  So I was very excited and curious to see how Didion adapted the book, so emotionally frank, so introspective, into a theatrical piece, now being given its Chicago premiere by the Court Theatre.   Although The Year of Magical Thinking, the play, is extremely well-written, and in the hands of Court Artistic Director Charlie Newell and actress Mary Beth Fisher, is masterfully, at times exquisitely, staged and performed, I missed some of the emotional clarity of the book.  I felt that the play was indeed a portrayal of “magical thinking” versus “magical grieving and feeling” which the book so invaluably, and unapologetically, provided.

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2009′s Theatrical Treasures

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cchad-deity-2.jpgI’m not a theater critic, nor a theater practitioner.  I’m just a regular, passionate theater aficionado who writes a blog (and who pays for most shows that I go to see).  And it was wonderful to be a regular, passionate theater aficionado who wrote a blog in 2009 in Chicago, when great-not merely good, not just serviceable-theater was available every weekend night.  2009 began with the Goodman Theatre‘s Eugene O’Neill Festival, a singular, unsurpassable program of theatrical bravado that I will always remember, and which even long time Chicago residents marveled at.  But 2009, for me, was also a year of getting a thrilling first look at world premieres; of seeing plays in random places, whether it was in a warehouse in Ravenswood, inside the rehearsal hall of the Goodman theater, or on the actual stage of the MCA; of discovering new theater companies putting on plays with so much impressive, balls-out fierceness; of finally being validated in my very firm, vocal belief that it is Chicago, not New York City or any other self-proclaiming town, that is the theater capital of the US. 

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