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 »
Midway through the latest MCA Stage production, Anna Halprin/Anne Collod and guests: parades & changes, replays when dancer Laurent Pichaud was transformed into a wacky, flummoxing cross between Rae Dawn Chong in Quest for Fire and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind run through a trash compactor, wearing a variety of disparate costumes and accoutrements, from animal heads to hoop skirts to fur-lined clogs to trash bags to a mop and bucket which the rest of the cast had piled on him while a hypnotic, electronica score played in the background, I had to remind myself that I was neither drunk, medicated, or ‘shroomed. I have always been an avid fan and passionate advocate of MCA Stage, but this adventurous, highly audience-demanding show, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that it plays an essential, irreplaceable role in making sure that our beloved Chicago will never just be flyover country in the minds and hearts of serious performance artists everywhere. I’m not really sure if parades & changes, replays is dance, theater, bizarro fashion show, or a combination David Lynchian-Burning Man fantasia, but, it is a highly memorable, intriguing, jaw-dropping night of performance (and I guess the New York Times and the audience in this summer’s Athens and Epidaurus Festival, one of the most prestigious dance festivals in the world, also didn’t really know what to make of it, as well.)
As avid readers of this blog know, I have pretty definitive ideas on what I like when it comes to theater (challenging material, creative re-envisionings) and on what I don’t (inanity, inauthenticity, audience pandering). Sean Graney and The Hypocrites are definitely often in the “like” column, and sometimes even in the “very much liked” one; I strongly feel that they have an abundance of collective creative genius which is not often surpassed in the city’s storefront theater scene. Although I admired elements of Graney’s new adaptation of Frankenstein, the first time the Hypocrites, a truly edgy storefront theater group was performing at MCA Stage, a truly edgy performance space and presenting entity (why did it take so long?), I left the show discombobulated, the second straight Hypocrites production (after Oedipus) that I didn’t really buy into.
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).
As my avid blog readers know, I am an enthusiastic supporter of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s performance season, known as MCA Stage. I whole-heartedly agreed with one of my Chicago culturati friends when he said that MCA Stage is like our own version of the Brookly Academy of Music (BAM) in New York, the one institution in the city that has the vision, the commitment, and yes, the balls to present cutting-edge, risky, courageous, potentially audience-distancing work from both US-based and international arts organizations. The fact that they brought New York experimental theater Elevator Repair Company’s mesmerizing seven and a half hour Gatz last year (one of my top ten cultural experiences ever!) makes me want to throw money at them, regardless of what they’re showing. They just released their 2009-2010 season this week, and I’m already itching to open my wallet. I’m a little surprised, and a tad disappointed, that MCA Stage only has two straight-up theatrical offerings next year: our very own The Hypocrites is putting on an original adaptation of Frankenstein (October 21-November 1, 2009) from Artistic Director Sean Graney, to be staged in his trademark promenade staging; and experimental theater provocateur Young Jean-Lee’s The Shipment (March 26-28, 2010), a “Black identity politics” show using a mix of song, dance, theater, and stand-up comedy, which may make the Wooster Group’s controversial The Emperor Jones seem like an Easter garden brunch by comparison. There’s a very strong dance focus this year, with dance greats Lucinda Childs and Anna Halprin, and contemporary dance groups that have never been seen in Chicago such as the John Jasperse Company, as part of the season, but the one performance I’m looking forward to is a potentially bombastic collaboration between London-based choreographer Akram Khan and the National Ballet of China called bahok, from the Bengali word for “carrier”, which explores issues of cultural and national identity within the throughline of multi-cultural passengers stranded in an airport. It sounds ridiculously good! You can view the entire MCA Stage season here.
Last 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.