Writers Block

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teatro vista a view from the bridgeAs I’ve always said all these years on this blog, theater is ultimately for me a writer’s medium.  You can have all the life-sized war horses, swinging chandeliers, flying helicopters, and  cavorting half-naked men all you want, but if the playwriting is weak, unfocused, clumsy, the audience will leave the theater feeling dissatisfied and cheated (well, maybe not when  there’s cavorting half-naked men, who needs playwriting for that?!).  I went on a theater marathon the past several days seeing a play a day since there just isn’t enough time to go to all of the spring season’s theatrical bounty.  And the great thing about our Chicago theater scene is that one night you’re going to a masterwork that has endured through decades of being trotted out, broken down, and built up again, but continue to be invigorating and resonant; then on another night you’re watching a first play by a much buzzed-about playwright that shows a lot of interesting promise but is also frustratingly underdeveloped.  Here are my thoughts on those plays.

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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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Recollections

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lookingglass north china loverIt has been quite the busy Chicago fall theater season so far; I saw eight shows over a two week period during the last week of September and the first week of October.  Yes, yes, I say that every year, but 2013 seems to be particularly burdensome, and maybe that’s because the number of plays I’ve seen since the season formally opened in early September that have been disappointing, unsatisfying, or generally leaving me wanting for more has been much higher than on the other years I’ve been writing this blog.  Two of the plays I saw during that crazy theatrical marathon was Lookingglass Theatre’s world premiere of Heidi Stillman’s stage adaptation of Marguerite Duras’  autobiographical novel/screenplay The North China Lover which she also directed,  and Steep Theatre’s North American premiere of Simon Stephens’ Motortown , directed by veteran Stephens interpreter Robin Witt.  Both shows have interesting, unique stories to tell about the scarring, wrenching impact of the past on someone’s present, and both demonstrate a lot of artistic effort and thought.  Unfortunately both plays suffer from flawed playwriting (and in the case of The North China Lover perplexingly lethargic direction), and no amount of heroic effort can make up for that.

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Roundup

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As I was tweeting about this week, there’s so much Chicago theater and so little time.  Which is a great thing.  But I’ve seen several shows this spring season that I really wanted more from.  For me, ultimately, the best theater boils down to the best writing.  If the text is lacking, or fragmented, or seemingly-unfinished, or needing three more drafts to make it watchable, then the play is still unsatisfactory despite the best direction, acting, or design that it may have.  Here’s a roundup of some recent shows I’ve seen.

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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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Secrets and Lies

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The one thing I clearly remember about going to see the Danish film The Celebration back in 1999 at the Music Box Theatre was that my friend Niels, who was originally from Copenhagen, kept bursting out laughing throughout the screening even as the rest of us in the audience sat rapt and riveted by the horrific family tragedy unfolding on screen.  I remember shushing him several times, because, frankly, people were getting ticked off (and we were in the smaller theater as well so even the most restrained guffaw became an irritating echo).  But his reaction was probably typically Danish – in the film and in it’s theatrical adaptation by British playwright David Eldridge, Festen (the film’s original title in Danish), now receiving an astounding, triumphant Midwest premiere from Steep Theatre, the terrible, gut-wrenching revelations of family secrets and lies are intermingled with dancing, singing, laughter, festivity, a culturally-programmed emotional response filled with denial and delusion.  And thanks to Jonathan Berry’s moody, confident direction, and the exceptional ensemble cast, especially the magnificent Kevin Stark, the play is both emotionally draining and terrifying, exacting and suffocating, like a bizarre blend of August: Osage County meets Paranormal Activity.  In short, Steep’s Festen is superb, a must-see for everyone who seeks out unsettling theater.

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