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 »

Tragedy, Comedy, Tonight

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mud blue sky a red orchidI’ve been flying to Charlotte a couple of times a month since the beginning of the year for my day job.  Sometimes I’d scan the performing arts listings of Creative Loafing, their equivalent to the Chicago Reader, hoping that maybe this was the week that I could savor the pleasures of live theater in North Carolina. But every week there’s always no more than five shows listed, one of them almost always either a touring production or a community theater staging of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (For unfortunate North Carolinians, between their right-wing extremist legislature and low-brow musical theater, they just can’t win!). That’s why I’m always glad to come back to Chicago and breathe in our lively theatrical air. And I never take for granted that on any given weekend we have several dozens of plays and musicals to choose from, and that if we wanted to, we can go to the theater every single day of the week, alternating between tragedies and comedies, serious themes and larks.  Here are my thoughts on a couple of shows I saw the past weekends.

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The Smartest Men in the Room

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As you my dear readers know, despite my penchant for outsized theatricality, I am also a sucker for brainy plays (cue Tom Stoppard, Frank Galati’s adaptations of Haruki Murakami).  I love navigating through intricately-constructed narratives, subtext-filled dialogue, dense themes, and clever meta-theater. Admittedly however, I also, at times, can find some wordplay-heavy and idea-laden theater to be distancing. Ultimately, I want my theater to hit me as much and as forcefully in the gut and in the heart as it does in the noggin. Two really smart plays from two very smart playwrights have opened over the past couple of weeks in Chicago:  Remy Bumppo’s revival of Edward Albee’s 1975 Pulitzer-prize winning play, Seascape, directed by new Artistic Director Nick Sandys, and Victory Gardens’ Chicago premiere of Bill Cain’s recent work, Equivocation, directed by the indispensable Sean Graney.  Both are intellectually interesting plays, and the playwrights have intriguing things to say…and say them non-stop.  Both are talky, heady work, but both have also been enlivened and given a lot of heart by superlative acting. In my opinion, Seascape, because of a dominant, remarkable performance by Annabel Armour, is the more successful in transforming the work from one that is chilly and removed from the audience, a trap that Equivocation does not fully escape from.

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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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Sweet November

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This month will be theatergoing month on steroids.  There’s a lot of significant productions opening in Chicago in the next several weeks, and I’m hoping I’ll have enough time to go to most of them (I do have to work, too, in my day job, you know, so I can afford to go to all this theater!).  Of course, the centerpiece of my month, the one production I am both breathlessly anticipating and apprehensive about is the Elevator Repair Service‘s much-acclaimed seven-hour Gatz, on stage at the MCA next week, which combines a complete reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with a play set in a dumpy office, in which the employees start taking on the personas of the book’s characters.  This could either be a transcendent experience, or utter folly.  I can’t wait- I’ve been preparing like a triathlete for it:  reading up on The Great Gatsby (I read the book in high school and saw the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow movie decades ago), meditating, doing extra gluteal exercises (at the gym! get your minds out of the gutter!) to ensure that I can actually sit and focus for seven hours straight.  Chris Jones seems to be as excited and apprehensive as I am, and reports that Gatz tickets are going fast- wow!  I’m also seeing Radio Macbeth at the Court Theater next weekend, Anne Bogart and the SITI company’s take on Macbeth framed by a ghost story and supposedly using sound as a dynamic and innovative theatrical device.  It has already been shown at the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, New York’s annual showcase for cutting-edge work, where it received very good reviews.  Right before Thanksgiving, the British production A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which sets the famous Shakespeare comedy in the Indian subcontinent and incorporates Indian language, culture, and sensibility, opens at Chicago Shakespeare.  This production has toured Europe and Australia, and has received unqualified raves everywhere it’s been staged.  Despite the fact that I nearly puked the last time I was at the Goodman because of the horror that was Turn of the Century, I’ll be spending quite a bit of time there this month.  I’m catching a preview for Ruined, Lynn Nottage’s new play about the victimization of women during the Congo civil war, co-produced with the Manhattan Theater Club, which will premiere off-Broadway in January 2009, right after it’s Goodman production,with the same cast and director, Kate Whoriskey.  The Goodman is also holding a series of staged readings for Noah Haidle’s work-in-progress opus, Local Time, “twelve two-act plays that trace a 24-hour period in the life of a town”, according to the theater’s website.  I already have tickets for the first one, 5-7 AM, about a young couple who takes in a baby left on their doorstep and is horrified to see the infant grow into a chain-smoking, coffee-guzzling, human-condition pondering adult in 20 minutes.  Sounds precious, and I sometimes feel that Haidle is like the male version of Sarah Ruhl, but it also sounds intriguing.  Plus this is a good opportunity to see new work by a playwright with a rising national profile.  I’ll be getting tickets for the other two readings depending on what I think about 5-7 AM.  At the Steppenwolf, despite what I think is pretty low-key marketing, many performances are already sold out for Dublin Carol, Conor McPherson’s intimate play about an alcoholic undertaker seeking redemption, starring CSI star William Petersen and directed by August: Osage County goddess, Amy Morton.  Collaboraction has already opened Jon, a world premiere adaptation of hip novelist (and MacArthur Genius grant recipient) George Saunder’s much-talked about short story.  Saunders worked closely with director and adaptor Seth Bockley, and has been doing press to support the play.  Although I’ve found many Remy Bumppo productions in the past to be more effective than Ambien and Lunesta combined, I am curious to see their version of Beaurmachais’ The Marraige of Figaro, the basis of the famed Mozart opera, in a new translation by Ranjit Bolt. It’s also being directed by up and coming Chicago theater director Jonathan Berry, so I’m hoping that the snooze factor is low to non-existent.  Finally, TUTA (in support of full disclosure, I’m on their Board) is unveiling The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (yes, it’s that famous play by our man Bill) later this month.  TUTA is always gutsy, imaginative, and singular in their theatrical concepts, so I’m betting this isn’t going to be stand-and-declaim Shakespeare.  Whew, so many plays, so little time!