Closed Quarters

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reverbOne of the things I love so much about Chicago storefront theater is the astounding intimacy that the audience has with the actors. A lot of it has to do with the performing spaces – many of the theaters are in small black boxes that put the actors almost literally in the face (and laps and arms) of the audience.  But some of it has to do as well with the brazen resourcefulness and creativity of the best directors and actors in this city, and their impressive ability to draw the audience in deep into the world of the play.  There’s a heady immediacy, and an intoxicating, if sometimes unsettling, pseudo-voyeurism in Chicago storefront theatergoing that is rarely experienced anywhere else, except maybe in the outer reaches of off-off Broadway.  On Saturday, in the close quarters of Redtwist Theater in Edgewater, I could smell the whiff of lead actor Peter Oyloe’s chewing gum in the opening scene of Leslye Headland’s Reverb, now receiving a bombastic Chicago premiere.  That’s how close I was to him (and by the way, Oyloe is one actor whose chewing gum whiffs I would gladly envelop myself with, ahem).  And when he slapped his co-star Mary Williamson hard at the end of that scene, I flinched and recoiled, as if he slapped me as well.  Where else could I have felt such a visceral instance of the blurring between spectator and performer?

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Fall Frenzy

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With a travel schedule that is, to say the least, brutalizing (anyone want to swap with me on my five-day weekly sojourn to the city of the gateway arch?), it’s been quite a challenge to catch all the fall theater openings.  I did manage to go to several over the past couple of weekends, and I talk about three of them below. (Photo:  Redtwist’s Elling with Andrew Jessop and Peter Oyloe)

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My Chicago Theater Picks for Fall 2011

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Where have I been?  Looks like everywhere, except for this blog.  August was a blur of 15 hour days for nearly two weeks straight in Arizona trying to get my client project completed, attempting to recover from some health issues, and waiting to snap a photo with Cate Blanchett at the stage door of the Kennedy Center after a matinee performance of Uncle Vanya.  I’ve just come back from Boston to see what the big hoo-hah was about on the updated Porgy and Bess at the American Repertory Theater (more on that in a succeeding blog post).  I’ll be in town, hopefully, for the next couple of weeks so I’ve been perusing my weeks of unread email from theater companies to figure out what to tell my avid blog readers about the upcoming Chicago fall theater season.  The season, unfortunately, in one word, is underwhelming.  In more than one word:  there’s a lot of your usual dead white male playwrights this season. Oh and then there’s Sarah Ruhl, whose plays always make me run screaming back to the dead white male playwrights; at least they knew how to write.  Thank goodness, then, for the following shows, my picks for the Chicago fall theater season:

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Storefront Summer

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The big theater news of the 2011 summer have centered around the critical and popular success of the world premieres of About Face’s The Homosexuals and the Goodman’s Broadway-bound Chinglish, two shows that I admired but felt ambivalent about, and the polarized reaction to the Chicago debut of Will Eno’s quirky, moving Middletown at Steppenwolf which I liked a lot (and in the spirit of full disclosure, I am President of the theater’s junior board and a Trustee).  But the storefront theater scene is hot and hopping as well; over the long holiday weekend I managed to catch the latest productions from two theater companies I’ve raved about on this blog over the years:  I’ve followed The New Colony since their Frat days and way before they won Broadway in Chicago’s Emerging Theater Award, and have always loved their fearless, bungee-jumping-adrenalin-infused approach to new work;  Redtwist Theatre gave me one of my most indelible theatrical productions of the past two years with their searing and claustrophobic The Pillowman5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche from The New Colony and That Face from Redtwist Theatre, although I have some reservations on both, should be welcome alternatives to the usual Chicago summer diversions of Ravinia lawn picnics, Lake Michigan sailboat cruises, indistinguishable street fairs, and endless rooftop deck partying.

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War Horses

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It has been an unusually busy season for theatergoing in Chicago (in past years, the highlights of the summer theater season have only been Steppenwolf’s season-closer and the remounts at Theater on the Lake) so I’ve been madly dashing from one theater to another over the past couple of weekends, a frenzy that’s been aggravated by my weekly bounce-arounds between New York City and Phoenix for my day job.  Last weekend, I caught Strange Tree Group’s Shakespeare’s King Phycus and Redtwist Theatre’s Equus. Playwright Tom Willmorth breathes life into Shakespearian war horses by devising a world premiere play that mixes together the best and not-so-best elements of Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Richard III into one clever, energetic, eccentric, at times laugh-out-loud funny brew which, with its questionable length, ultimately wears the audience down.  Horses figure literally and metaphorically in Peter Shaffer’s Equus which, despite an impressively atmospheric staging from Redtwist Theatre, really cannot overcome the fact that it is a tired, dated, quite pretentious piece of 1970s-era writing, although often perplexingly revived (a version with Alec Baldwin as the doctor is now playing in the Hamptons in New York, right on the heels of the Daniel Radcliffe-led revival on Broadway last season).

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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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