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 »

Ambition

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sweet smell of successChicago has been repeatedly plagued by the Polar Vortex, but the city’s winter theater season is undeniably sizzling.  I was very disappointed by last fall’s lackluster theatrical offerings, so I was quite excited to see shows during the first three weeks of 2014 that are ambitious, challenging, and daring. Some of them may not be totally successful, but hey in my more than six years of writing this blog, I’ve come to deeply believe that thinking big and takings risks have always been part of what made our theater life so vibrant and thrilling and different from other cities; traits that unfortunately seemed to have fallen by the wayside during last year’s safe, revival-heavy, audience-friendly theatrical choices.  Here are my thoughts on three of the plays I’ve seen during the past several weeks:

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Theaterhopping in 2013

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the whale best of 2013I slowed down writing on this blog this year. I started a new job, I travelled a lot more for leisure rather than business, and decided, after six years, that I just wanted to write if something compelled me, either for good or for bad, in order to get back some of that writing mojo I felt like I’ve lost from feverishly putting up a blog entry about every show I watched over the years.  I still saw a lot of theater this year, mostly in Chicago, some in other cities, but I just didn’t write about all of them.  This was probably a good year to slow done on the writing though, since I felt like Chicago theater lost some of its own mojo – 2013 for me was the most disappointing year for theater audiences in recent memory.

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Butch

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sideshow 9 circlesAdmittedly, I was a little skeptical about going to another Bill Cain play. The last one I saw was Victory Gardens’ 2012 fall season opener Equivocation, which I thought needed drastic amounts of editing and re-writing, not to mention a smaller dosage of intellectual smugness. But maybe Cain, one of the country’s ascendant playwrights, can write forcefully and from the heart instead of condescendingly and from the cerebrum if he is tackling contemporary themes such as a soldier’s experience in Iraq, versus the foibles and farce of Shakespeare’s life.  And I should have known that Sideshow Theatre Company, one of the few young Chicago theater companies that have continued to impress me (their wacky but heartfelt Heddatron made my best of 2011 theater list) will take any material and do the best it can with it, mining the play as deeply, imaginatively, and emotionally as it can. Sideshow has terrific, bombastic material with Cain’s 9 Circles, and gives it a devastating, jaw-droppingly excellent production, one of the best of this already rich Chicago theatrical year, with an unforgettable central performance by Andrew Goetten as Cain’s troubled grunt protagonist. If you love Chicago theater (and you wouldn’t be reading my blog if you didn’t), you’ll be a fool to miss 9 Circles.

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Gutsy

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I am back. Finally. It has been a beatch of a summer between 15 hour workdays for weeks on end, lingering physical wear and tear, and a distressing week-long business trip into the dark unknown that is central Pennsylvania where gay Asian men from Chicago are about as common as two-headed dogs with wings and pig hooves. Jeah (in the words of that adorable boy Ryan Lochte), it’s been rough. Fortunately, theater in Chicago during the dog days of August is often quiet, so I didn’t feel too guilty, hmmm, sleeping instead of writing a blog post.  But the fall theater season is creeping up on us, and I was able to catch a couple of shows that opened this weekend.  Interestingly enough, both are quite distinctively-written and staged, and pretty gutsy:  Sideshow Theatre Company is mounting the US premiere of German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Idomeneus, an intriguing and quite political take on the Greek myth of the Cretan king’s return to his country, while Vitalist Theatre is presenting the Midwest premiere of British writer Mark Ravenhill’s pool (no water), about envy and loyalty among a group of artist-friends, maddeningly yet at times hypnotically staged.  Both are risky, adventurous, demanding productions, so I was pretty thrilled to see the packed houses at the performances I attended. Chicago audiences are definitely not pushovers!

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2011′s Theatrical Dazzlers

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As I said in my previous blog post, I flew lots and lots of miles over three continents in the course of 2011. But when I was in Chicago, I made sure I slid my butt into a theater seat (over the objections and recriminations of friends and (ex) lovers who I ended up not seeing during those so few weekends). So I still managed to go to a significant number of shows this year despite feeling as if I lived at O’Hare instead of my Ravenswood loft.  No regrets on this end, since Chicago continued to be a dazzling North American capital for live performance, with a bounty of world premieres, Chicago stops of great touring productions, and storefront theatrical treasures.  Here, then, is my annual top ten list of Chicago theater:

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