Recollections

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lookingglass north china loverIt has been quite the busy Chicago fall theater season so far; I saw eight shows over a two week period during the last week of September and the first week of October.  Yes, yes, I say that every year, but 2013 seems to be particularly burdensome, and maybe that’s because the number of plays I’ve seen since the season formally opened in early September that have been disappointing, unsatisfying, or generally leaving me wanting for more has been much higher than on the other years I’ve been writing this blog.  Two of the plays I saw during that crazy theatrical marathon was Lookingglass Theatre’s world premiere of Heidi Stillman’s stage adaptation of Marguerite Duras’  autobiographical novel/screenplay The North China Lover which she also directed,  and Steep Theatre’s North American premiere of Simon Stephens’ Motortown , directed by veteran Stephens interpreter Robin Witt.  Both shows have interesting, unique stories to tell about the scarring, wrenching impact of the past on someone’s present, and both demonstrate a lot of artistic effort and thought.  Unfortunately both plays suffer from flawed playwriting (and in the case of The North China Lover perplexingly lethargic direction), and no amount of heroic effort can make up for that.

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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 »

Legendary

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I saw Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses right after it transferred to Broadway in 2002, after a much-heralded off-Broadway run that began two days after the September 11 attacks. It was one of the highlights of my theatergoing life till that point – Zimmerman’s luminous yet bittersweet adaptation of Greek myths that dealt with death, separation, loss, and transgression bowled me over, and left me sobbing like the New Yorkers sitting around me (seeing tears in a New York theater audience was, and still is, as surprising as seeing tears in a, well, crocodile). It was also the first show that I saw that had a swimming pool as part of the performance space, and I thought then, wow, who would have ever thought to stage a play in a pool? In the ten years since, I’ve seen so many more plays with pools; I’ve seen so many more plays, period, so I’ve become as I’d like to believe a jaded, savvy, not-easily-impressed theatergoer.  So when I went to see Zimmerman’s re-staging of Metamorphoses which opened the 25th season of  Lookingglass Theater (where she is an ensemble member), with the original design team and with a cast comprised of many of the original Chicago and Broadway cast members, I was a little apprehensive: would this play affect the older, wiser, more skeptical, more self-possessed Francis differently?  Should I just have left it well enough alone as a fond, burnished memory of my cultural upbringing? Since 2002, I have had lots of life changes as well, including the significant life-marking loss of my Mom, my greatest influence and cheerleader, in 2006, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that seeing Metamorphoses this time around was actually a more illuminating and, to a certain extent, gut-wrenching experience.  It was also a more optimistic one.  Like all great theater, Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses puts up a clear-eyed mirror to your own life – with age and experience, its reflections and reverberations become richer and more profound.

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River Run

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I was just telling one of my friends the other week how it seems like there have been a noticeably higher number of musical productions in Chicago this half-year.  At one point several weeks ago the entire landing page of From the Ledge was comprised of posts about musicals.  Which isn’t a bad thing – I begin generating as much electricity as an Oklahoma lightning storm whenever I hear the first bars of a showtune. If there’s anyone who fervently loves his Barbra and his Patti, it’s me. But in years of Chicago theatergoing, I’ve felt that musical theater isn’t really the sweet spot of a theatergoing city built on the sweat, guts, tirades, and machismo of Mamet and Shepard and Wilson. So I’m always surprised when I see a musical production, and an original one at that, which bowls me over.  The Lookingglass Theatre world premiere of Andy White’s Eastland, with music by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman and lyrics by White, is one of those welcome surprises- it’s one of the best plays I’ve seen in Chicago this year. 

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Second Chances

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Despite the fact that on these pages I sometimes sound like a hipper, sultrier Bette Davis crossed with a litter of hungry cats and the ladies of The View on a good day, I’m a pretty generous guy.  I like to think of a glass as half-full, I coo at infants (of course from a distance to avoid getting baby spit on my fab cashmere sweater), and I like to give multiple second chances to theater companies, where earlier viewing experiences might not have been as pleasant or as enjoyable.  So I have gone back to the Lookingglass Theatre, which has, over the years, failed to impress me (with my disappointment even greater because of the very visible boatloads of money they spend on their productions in that beautiful downtown space that should have been spent on better shows), and the locale for one of the most heinous nights at the theater I have ever spent in my life (The Wooden Breeks almost made me want to be a Cubs fan instead of a theater aficionado, that’s how awful it was).  I’ve also gone back to Remy Bumppo, which I’ve decided not to drop any money on after a disastrous, geriatric-appealing The Philadelphia Story a couple of years back.  And, of course, if you regularly read this blog, I have a pretty complicated relationship with the Goodman.  I respect its important role in Chicago’s cultural conversation and legacy, so I keep on going back, hoping to find, once again, an unforgettable Ruined or King Lear amidst drifting dreck like Turn of the Century and Ghostwritten.  Over the past couple of weeks, Lookingglass surprisingly impressed with the engrossing world premiere of Trust, Remy Bumppo validated with the unsexy Les Liaisons Dangereuses (yes, dear readers, I didn’t even think that was possible, but more on that later!) and the Goodman…well, the Goodman, with the head-scratching, narcolepsy-inducing world premiere of Rebecca Gilman’s The True History of the Johnstown Flood, probably provided one of the worst nights at the theater I’ve had since…The Wooden Breeks.

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Ten Plays to Watch in Chicago this Fall

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The biggest laugh I had over the weekend (more so than the bellyaching guffaws I tried hard to suppress while watching pseudo-hipsters pretend to look impressed by some atrocious art during the West Loop gallery openings last Friday, but that’s a topic for another blog post) was over New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood’s almost sheepish admission – in print, for everyone to read -that New York theater, specifically Broadway, should be considered the east side of Chicago, given the number of Chicago-originating productions and artists currently on stage in New York.  Thank you, Mr. Isherwood, but our fair city already has an east side, so we don’t really need to annex New York City.  It was still pretty hilarious, though, to finally see the snobbish, self-promoting, out-of-touch Times theater section admit what many of us passionate theater aficionados have known for a while now – that the vital center of American theater has already migrated from the Big Apple to the City of Broad Shoulders.  So while one-step-behind New Yorkers will be drooling over chi-town exports Superior Donuts, A Steady Rain, and David Cromer (making his Broadway directing debut with revivals of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, running in repertory) this fall, theater-forward Chicago audiences will be immersing ourselves in some of the best theater this side of the Atlantic.  I’ve compiled below my annual list of the ten must-see theatrical events in Chicago this fall, most of them world premieres, never been seen anywhere; hopefully I’ll bump into many of you in some of them.  You never know, but that obscure, low-key, storefront production you paid twenty bucks for may be next year’s frenzy-inducing hot ticket in New York (exhibit A:  A Steady Rain). 

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