Fearless

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new colony rewilding geniusA couple of weeks ago I was at a party with my dear friend Jonathan (who has traipsed through these blog pages before) and after several gushy mentions of shows currently playing, he (cattily?) remarked “you’re clearly Chicago theater’s biggest supporter”.   Well, flattered though I was, I wouldn’t really call myself #1 superfan- that title unequivocally belongs, and rightly so, to this guy. But even after 15 years of Chicago theatergoing, I’m often impressed and dumbstruck at the fearlessness and audacity of our energetic storefront theaters, their unwavering spirit of collaboration, their can-do, no-obstacles attitude to putting together ambitious, enthralling theatrical evenings in spaces no bigger than laundry rooms (and in one instance the theater was actually one) with budgets equivalent to the price of a pair of Christian Louboutins.  As an audience member I’ve always felt privileged to share that passion. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen several risk-taking storefront endeavors; not all of them succeed, but man, their aspirations are thrilling! Here are some of my thoughts on them.

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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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2013 Chicago International Film Festival, Part One

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CIFF Monsoon Shootout IndiaThere’s been such a sea change in moviegoing since I first started attending the Chicago International Film Festival in 1999:  you can now watch movies on streaming NetFlix anywhere as long as you have a laptop, and some of these movies are available on-demand the same day they’re released in the movie theaters. The ones you do end up going to see in theaters are usually event spectacles, such as the current critical and box-office champion, Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron – interestingly his 1999 stunner Y Tu Mama Tambien with then boyish babes Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna was one of the films I saw during my first festival year.  But for an avid arts and culture person like me, no amount of convenience and easy accessibility can replace the exhilaration of seeing film in a darkened room, on a 22 feet screen, with a silent and passive yet likeminded community of people. Film festivals like this year’s smoothly-run, globally-competitive (congratulations guys!) Chicago festival reminds you of why you fell in love with movies in the first place (and it wasn’t because you were eating a bagel while watching The Hangover on your Mac cramped inside a rush hour Red Line train car).  Following are my thoughts on the first set of films I saw this year.

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Catch-Up

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bailiwick mahalAs I said in my previous post, Chicago’s summer stages are as hot and sizzling as the 104 degree heat index we’ve been experiencing this past week. And of course, it’s just about the time that I get truly frenzied in my day job (which then leads to times when I daydream of being in France working 35 hours a week and then getting July and August off to take languorous vacations with a Romain Duris intellectual-hunk-a-like, but I digress).  Having been a long-term theatergoer and active theater supporter in the city, I’ve been surprised by the generous bounty of summer offerings this year, so much so that I haven’t made plans to hightail it to my usual hot weather distraction, National Pastime Theater’s Naked July Theater Festival, where the Living Canvas puts on an annual show you’ll never see anywhere else (and with audiences you don’t want to see anywhere else too after having seen more of them than you need to! Check out my post from a couple of years ago).  There’s just so much stuff to see other than naked people!  But being a long-term theatergoer and theater supporter also means that I have relationships with theaters and theater artists that may, to a certain extent, inhibit a truly objective blog post on the merits and demerits of a specific show.  Below then are my short observations on Steppenwolf Theater’s Chicago premiere of Amy Herzog’s Belleville, and Bailiwick Chicago’s world premiere of Danny Bernardo’s Mahal.

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Rule of the Lawless

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When a leading Republican Party presidential contender thinks it’s ok to discriminate against gays, doesn’t think that the constitution separates the church and the state, believes states should make birth control illegal, and points out that the uninsured shouldn’t use cell phones, then living in a world after an asteroid collision sounds like a better option than in a world with a Republican as President of the United States.  The rhetoric and posturing in this long-drawn out Republican primary has bordered on the inconceivable, and, at times, the dangerous, so the shenanigans in Jason Wells’ funny, razor-sharp, yet seemingly underdeveloped The North Plan, now in its first Chicago production, in which America is under martial rule and where ordinary people ultimately, and literally, take the law into their own hands, seem to be less far-fetched than they originally seem.  I saw The North Plan last year in its developmental production as part of Steppenwolf Theater’s new play program, First Look Rep, and although Theater Wit’s frenetic, exciting production under the flawless direction of Kimberly Senior (who also directed the earlier First Look production) is watchable, the reservations I had with Wells script last year still remain.

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Fresh Air, Part One – Hit the Wall

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This is the first of a two-part blog post.

While some theaters in the city are still going on their merry way with productions of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and, inexplicably, hoary chestnuts that should be put to rest already in heavily-padlocked vaults, the 2012 winter theater season in Chicago has already seen the emergence of several strong, new playwriting voices who feel like a comforting and bracing breath of fresh air. At Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep, the laudable annual showcase for emerging storefront theater companies, The Inconvenience is currently mounting Ike Holter’s fearless, vivid, attention-grabbing world premiere of Hit the Wall, about those who lived through the watershed event of contemporary GLBT history, the Stonewall riots in the summer of 1969. A little further north, the American Theater Company also has another terrific, provocative world premiere in Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, tackling themes around assimilation and cultural identity among Muslim-Americans.  Both Hit the Wall and Disgraced have jawdropping, breathtakingly-spectacular central performances; both also, despite many, many good qualities, in my humble opinion, require some more work in the playwriting department.  These two remarkable plays still prove though that Chicago is quite the formidable incubator of new work; and if they’re an indication of how great theater will be in 2012, then all of us avid theatergoers will be quite the happy campers (Mayan Calendar Doomsday prediction be damned!).

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