Soldiers’ Tales

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TheBrig-3It has been quite the exciting, eclectic grab bag of theater openings this Chicago spring (or non-spring, after the cruel tease of two days of 80 degree weather this week, it’s now back to the usual cold, damp, grey of early May that we Chicagoans know only so well).   There have been brilliant gems like The Whale, world premieres, revivals, an impeccable Broadway in Chicago production of Anything Goes which gives dignity back to the words “touring production”, even a bunch of New York City female theater artists cavorting in all their full-frontal natural glory on the MCA Stage, thanks to the brazen Young Jean Lee.   Similar to past years, I’ve been having difficulty catching up, despite seeing 2-3 shows a week. I’ve been able to go, though, to Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co.’s intensely atmospheric production of the little-revived 60s experimental theater watershed, Kenneth H. Brown’s The Brig; as well as the graceful, if somewhat disjointed, world premiere at the Goodman Theater of Quiara Alegria Hudes’ The Happiest Song Plays Last, the follow-up to her Pulitzer prize-winning Water by the Spoonful (which will receive its Chicago premiere at the Court Theater next season). Both plays feature soldiers as leading characters; both are worth seeing, intriguing despite their flaws.

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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 »

2010′s Wondrous Ten

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It is that time of year again when I’m making lists – from things I’m going to give up in the new year (eating pork belly being one of them) to places I’m going to visit in 2011 (return trips to Hong Kong and Vancouver and a first trip to Rio de Janeiro on top of that list) to the various ways I can meet hot chefs in the city (oops, ok, that’s a secret list).  I’ve also compiled my annual ten best theatrical experiences for 2010, a list, as always, compiled from the point of view of a passionate audience member.  It was another strong year in Chicago theater, and I saw plays everywhere in the city, from the major houses like the Goodman and Steppenwolf, to most of the storefronts, to the basement of an apartment building in Uptown where folding seats were set up in front of washers and dryers.  Fantastic!

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Un-Play

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Seeing a play at Mary-Arrchie has always been, for me, the classic Chicago storefront theater experience.  Between its eccentric, grungy location on the second floor of a convenience store and across a gas station on the outer fringes of Boystown, to its wildly-diverse, always-provocative programming, spanning classic Harold Pinter to early Keith Huff to hip Finn Kennedy, staged in a sweaty, gutsy, DIY-budget manner, a night at this theater is always going to be energizing, regardless of whether one actually liked the play or not.  And I think there will be polarized responses to Cherrywood:  The Modern Comparable, its current production directed by David Cromer, hot off his wildly-raved-about A Streetcar Named Desire at Writers’ Theatre, and right before his fall Broadway experiments with Picnic and Yanks.  There certainly were, even in my own tiny group of five people– some of us could barely wait for the ninety intermissionless minutes to end, others, like me, were mesmerized with mouths agape.  I think some people won’t know what hit them with the immersive, plotless, at parts undeniably head-scratching Cherrywood, which playwright Kirk Lynn wrote for his Austin-based experimental theater group, Rude Mechanicals.  Is it a play?  Or is it an un-play – a hipster take on performance art, a post-modern loft rave party with dialogue, a critique on our current socio-political preoccupations masquerading as a kegger (with wild werewolf’s milk instead of beer)?  Whatever is it, I feel very strongly that you should run out and pack the Mary-Arrchie space for the duration of its run: Cherrywood is invigorating, challenging, brilliantly conceptualized – a production that I would argue is even more vital to my experience as a passionate Chicago theatergoer than Cromer’s Streetcar is (which I loved!), because it is contemporary, unsettling, defiant, and talks to a world much bigger and messier than itself.

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The Vanishing

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how-to-disappear-mary-arrchie.jpgOf course, I’ve Googled myself (and I’m pretty sure a significant number of this blog’s readers have done it for themselves as well, but too embarrassed to admit it).  I have close to 700 Google entries, ranging from various From the Ledge posts to my Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter profile pages to random web and media mentions such as the Tribune’s article on Top Chef Stephanie Izard’s Wandering Goat dinners (the last time I could recall seeing the word habitué it was in relation to the regular denizens of Studio 54…am I the Bianca Jagger of the Chicago underground dining scene? Yikes!).  In our world today, technology has not only bridged distances and arguably improved human interaction, but has also heightened virtual voyeurism and scrutiny of other people’s lives, whether they are public personas like celebrities, politicians, athletes, or Levi Johnston or just regular people such as your 7th-grade crush who’s now living in Wyoming whom you’ve  Googled and friended on Facebook.  Unless you’re Unabomber Redux, your identity DNA is scattered everywhere.  So Fin Kennedy’s How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, now receiving a crisp, riveting Midwest premiere from the Godfather of all Storefronts, Mary-Arrchie Theater Co., is provocative and timely in its starting premise that one can erase one’s former life and dive into a totally new one.   I think it’s a terrific production that should deservedly bring in the Tweeting, Facebooking, Posterousing peeps into that second floor enclave on Angel Island.

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