My Theatrical Year

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Where did those twelve months go? It just seemed like yesterday when I was washing the champagne and various other substances out of my hair (yep, that was quite the 2011 New Year’s Eve shindig), and now we are at the end of 2012, or the end of the world as we know it if you’re one of those Mayan Calendar Doomsday groupies.  I’ve compiled my sixth annual best theater in Chicago list, and I gotta say that this was probably the most difficult of the lists to put together since I began. I know I say this every year, but 2012 was quite the fantastic year in Chicago theater, with many, many notable actors, writers and theater artists coming to the city to work on truly stellar, world-class, only-in-Chicago productions.  But our storefront theater scene, which gave rise to and nurtured theatrical giants like Cromer and Letts, continued to be unparalleled in the country.  I’ve added and crossed-out the productions on this list several times despite the fact that I missed several shows (it was just impossible to balance my day job, extensive travel, and all that theatrical bounty). It’s also notable that for the first time in six years, I have no non-Chicago production in the top ten – that’s how great 2012 was. When New York magazine called Chicago theater the “farm team” for Broadway and off-Broadway, I scoffed and knew that that New York hack couldn’t really tell his sunken derriere from his skeletal face, because I know, and hundreds of Chicago audiences know, how good we have it here in the city, much better than those high-horsing New Yorkers.  Here then are my best Chicago shows for 2012, as well as the next 5: Read the rest of this entry »

Agents Provocateur

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You never know what you’re going to get with a Martin McDonagh or a Bruce Norris play, which is a significant part of the pleasure of going to them.  You may leave the theater aghast with the revelation of what the itch is in Norris’ funny, searing The Pain and the Itch.  You may be repulsed by the tortuous stories in McDonagh’s The Pillowman, certainly one of the best, most provocative plays of the past ten years in my opinion.  You’ll feel unsettled and goaded by writing that doesn’t hesitate to critically expose your fallibilities, or ragingly question your belief systems, but you’ll also feel exhilarated, entertained, and to be honest, enlightened to an extent.  I’m a big fan of both writers, so, of course, in the past couple of weeks I took the opportunity to see productions of their works – in Los Angeles a couple of weekends ago, I caught the Center Theatre Group production and LA premiere of McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, starring Star Trek hunk Chris Pine and staged by its original Broadway director Wilson Milam.  Last weekend I was at Steppenwolf Theater’s world premiere production of Norris’ latest work, A Parallelogram, directed by Tony winner Anna D. Shapiro.  I’m not a big fan of the McDonagh work;  although provocative, I’m not sure I’ll place the Norris work at the top of this favorite playwright’s oeuvre.

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Lost in Translation

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It’s been more than a week already since I saw it, but I’m still mulling over how to respond to Steppenwolf’s current production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.  It’s gotten some of the best reviews of plays currently onstage in the city, which is always so heartening for me as a Steppenwolf subscriber and a member of the theater’s Auxiliary Council.  It is a near-flawless production – Frank Galati’s masterful direction brings out the comedy and the echoes of family dynamics in this Theater of the Absurd classic about a man who can’t stand, his servant who can’t sit down, and his parents, who may or may not be imagined presences, who live in trash cans, all seemingly the last people in a world surrounded by endless water (all played in pitch-perfect fashion by Ensemble members William Petersen, Ian Barford, and Martha Lavey and Francis Guinan, respectively).  It is a near-flawless production, if you get Beckett.  But in 2010 Chicago, how many people, who are not theater critics, theater practitioners, and theater and literature majors of some form at some point in their lives, can actually say that they get Beckett? 

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No Easy Answers

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the-pillowman.jpgAt intermission during the superb Redtwist Theater production of Martin McDonagh’s brilliant, intricate The Pillowman, I overheard the two women of a certain age sitting beside me in the cramped theater smugly, disgustedly ask each other:  “Who can you recommend this play to?”  In fairness, before coming to the theater, they might have been hunched over the whole day cutting-out reindeer cookies while wearing their snug wool sweaters with Frosty the Snowman embroidery on them, singing along to their Perry Como holiday CDs, tasks and outfits that tend to cut oxygen to the brain, but…I shot them the patented withering look nonetheless.  Who do you recommend The Pillowman to – one of the most riveting, most provocative, most smartly-written and surprising scripts of the past decade?  Well, people who embrace the power of great theater, for one.  Folks with cultural taste more sophisticated than theirs, for another. When I saw the play’s Chicago premiere a couple of years ago in a heartbeat-stopping Steppenwolf production, directed by a pre-Tony nomination Amy Morton, starring a pre-Pulitzer prize Tracy Letts and a pre-Oscar nomination Michael Shannon, I didn’t think this play could be improved.  It was a great play, period. But in Redtwist’s production, creatively staged by director Kimberly Senior in a suffocating, sometimes malevolent, ultimately affecting manner, the impact of the play’s theme of the power and legacy of storytelling comes through wondrously.  It’s definitely one of the best Chicago productions for 2009.

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Welcome Wintry March

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our-town-warming-up-new-york.jpgIs it March already?  It seems like I spent most of the first quarter that is about to end waiting in tundra-like winter weather for the Brown line to get me to and from the Goodman Theater.  Although I’m out of town this weekend, and will have to miss the final entry in the brilliant Eugene O’Neill Festival, the Neo-Futurists’ four and a half hour production of Strange Interlude directed by Greg Allen, I have to say that the Festival is an unqualified success.  This city owes a tremendous amount of gratitude to Bob Falls and the Goodman staff for enriching our artistic lives permanently, and here’s hoping to more world-class theater in the future!

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August: Osage County triumphs, yet again, in London

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I’m on my regular Thanksgiving sojourn in Minneapolis this week, but I couldn’t help but take note of the to-be-expected phenomenal reviews that our very own Steppenwolf Theater‘s London transfer of August:  Osage County received after opening on Wednesday night at the National Theater.  Deanna Dunagan, Amy Morton, Rondi Reed, Ian Barford, Jeff Perry, Sally Murphy, Maryann Mayberry, Kimberly Guerrero, and Troy West all reprise the roles they created here in Chicago and took to Broadway; Steppenwolf ensemble member Gary Cole (recently of Desperate Housewives), Broadway understudy Molly Ranson, and newbies Chelcie Ross and Paul Vincent O’Connor (taking over from original Chicago and Broadway cast member Francis Guinan, who had stayed in Chicago to be part of the soon-to-open The Seafarer on the Steppenwolf main stage) join them.  Our very own Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune was first on the scene, saying August “kicks London in the gut” and finally, after three reviews, calls Amy Morton’s shattering performance as the eldest daughter Barbara “one of the great theatrical performances of the modern era”.  The London critics were a little bit more reserved than that, but the usually crotchety Guardian drama critic Michael Billington admiringly compares Tracy Letts to British dramatic icon Alan Ayckbourn in his four-star review, singles out the performances of Dunagan, Morton, Perry, and Reed, and says the whole play is full of “buccaneering vigor”.  Although Charles Spencer at the Telegraph says he isn’t “persuaded that this is the the first indisputably great American play of the 21st century”, he gives it four stars and calls the production “consistently gripping, moving and often wildly funny”.  Benedict Nightingale, at the Times, rightfully gushes at the ensemble acting, and says the actors give performances that are so “so robust yet so punctilious they’d have had Stanislavsky dancing round Red Square.”  OK, so the Brits liked the play a lot.  It’s so wonderful to see the continuous triumph of this proudly Chicago-made play in the great, discerning, been-there-seen-that theatrical capitals of the world, New York and London, but …. when do we see August again at home, in this production, with this cast?