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 »

Crossing Swords

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profiles theater cockOf course, I would never miss the chance of seeing a play called Cock.  So when I was in New York on business in the summer of 2012, I snuck away after interminable day-long discussions of system user training strategies to check out the off-Broadway premiere of Mike Barlett’s acclaimed Olivier award-winning play at the Duke on 42nd Street, as staged by its Royal Court Theater director James MacDonald with an American cast led by Jason Harner Butler and the pre-Breakfast at Tiffany’s Cory Michael Smith. And I loved it- fresh, contemporary, devoid of any of the salaciousness that its title initially evokes even with non-gutter-dwellers, Cock was a riveting, inventive, intensely thoughtful play about sexual identity and fluidity.  So when I heard that the brazen and raucous Profiles Theater, the one Chicago theater that has both infuriated and provoked me, sometimes at the same time, will be staging the Midwest premiere, I thought, wow, I couldn’t have made up a better match between theater company and theatrical material. And Profile’s Cock is a bad-ass gem:  as smart and probing as the off-Broadway production but without its sometimes enervated quality; earthier, louder, sexier, a terrific interpretation of a play that upends the audiences’ beliefs about what it means to be gay, straight, bisexual, questioning, or whatever wavering signpost you claim to be along that complex continuum we call sexuality.

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Two Men, Two Plays

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I have gotten several concerned emails from my avid readers regarding the lack of theater-related entries recently.  No fear, I’m in town for the next couple of weeks and trying very hard to catch-up with Chicago’s blazing, swinging winter theater scene.  Last weekend I caught two recent openings – Neil LaBute’s recent Broadway foray reasons to be pretty in its Chicago premiere at Profiles Theatre, directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Rick Snyder, and Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom, which received raves when it ran at New York’s St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2009, another Chicago premiere at A Red Orchid Theatre, directed by Robin Witt.  I think the plays present an interesting study of contrasts – both written by male playwrights, the two of them are as different as night and day.  reasons to be pretty is definitely what you see is what you get, but raises the disturbing question of whether you really want to get what you’re getting, while Electric Ballroom is packed full of symbols and subtexts that, ultimately, you’re quite disoriented as to what it is you’re actually getting.

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Early Warning Device

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For those of you who have been reading my blog since it’s inception in October 2007, you know how much I love Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer and Tony-winning August: Osage County and think it’s one of the greatest American contemporary plays (something Time Magazine seems to agree with, having selected it as number 1 in its Best Plays of the Decade list).  Curiously though, I have never seen a live production of any of Letts’ previous plays- Killer Joe, Bug, or the Pulitzer finalist Man from Nebraska.  Obviously I didn’t think he sprang fully-formed and awards-ready from a mythical Great Playwright mother pearl, so August, with its almost-perfect dialogue and its mesmerizing storytelling could only be the culmination of techniques and themes that he used in the earlier ones.  I was also very aware of the semi-notoriety that both Killer Joe and Bug have in terms of its raw sexuality and violence, so I was very intrigued to see how Profiles Theatre, the admittedly brazen storefront theater company that I’ve had a rollercoaster love-it/hate-it relationship over the years of Chicago theater watching would stage Killer Joe.  Although I don’t think it has the depth, the impact, and the lingering quality of August (really though, which recent play has?), the twenty year old Killer Joe holds up pretty well, continuing to deliver the goods in explosive drama, and the Profiles production, directed by Letts’ fellow Steppenwolf ensemble member (and original August cast member) Rick Snyder is a (literally) rip-roaring night at the theater.  And it’s still the one play that has the most original use of KFC drumsticks as stage props that I’ve ever seen.

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Recognizable Grown-Ups

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in-a-dark-dark-house.jpgI have never really understood the appeal of Neil LaBute, and I am very hard-pressed to understand the psyche of a Neil LaBute fan (of which there are many out there, I believe).  I have always been struck by how mercilessly cruel his writing often is, with no satisfactory pay-off for the audience or for the characters at the end of the piece which would justify all the heartlessness that preceded it.  Unlike the characters in Adam Rapp’s plays for example, which, despite their dark thoughts and actions, have that tinge of melancholy and vulnerability that make them sympathetic and ultimately redeem them, there is nothing redeeming in LaBute’s characters.  I can never be anything but repulsed at the cocky yuppie in In the Company of Men who makes a bet with his buddy that he can make their deaf co-worker fall in love with him or at the temperamental artist-student in The Shape of Things who uses her plain Joe security guard boyfriend as the subject of an art installation without him knowing it or at the clueless hunk in Fat Pig who falls in love with an overweight woman but dumps her because he finally realizes that he is too weak-too much of the stereotype of a jock/yuppie/modern American man/call it what you will-to accept getting it on with someone who is 300 lbs.  I mean, unless you have an incorrigible case of schadenfreude, who could? The Profiles Theatre production a couple of years ago of Fat Pig, which I found mean-spirited (unfortunately, I think I was the only one who detested it, since the show ran for months and got a slew of Jeff nominations) made me decide that I was done giving Neil LaBute a chance.  I was so over this bully-in-the-playground-laughing-uncontrollably-mentality masquerading as edgy, thought-provoking playwriting.  So I sort of surprised myself when I made the spontaneous decision on the evening of Easter Sunday to see a preview of the Profiles production of In A Dark, Dark House.  Well, spontaneity sometimes brings unexpected results.

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