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 »

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 »

High Concept

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The December holiday theater season in Chicago has usually been a tepid grab bag of plays about Scrooge, George Bailey, Santa Claus, and all forms Rudolph, naughty, nice, and red-hosed.  A couple of years ago, the holiday month was electrified by non-typical non-holiday theatrical fare:  a blistering, unforgettable Steppenwolf staging of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (now similarly electrifying Broadway audiences), and The Hypocritesdelirious island-set, promenade-staged version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, which will close the main stage season in May 2013 of American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, one of the most important regional theaters in the country.  This year, thankfully, amidst the multiple It’s a Wonderful Lifes around the Chicagoland area (really how many times can this old horse be trotted out and live another day?), there are several exciting, high-concept productions to see if you, like me, want to fast-forward through all the dripping candy cane sentiment and come back to real life, or at least to real theater (yes, if you’ve read my blog for the past couple of years, you know my holiday spirit is, well, non-existent).  The Hypocrites is back this season with Pirates and is performing it in repertory with another Gilbert and Sullivan classic operetta, The Mikado, an intoxicating, exhilarating, unexpected production that is sure to be on my list of the ten best productions of the year (yep, it’s that good). Over at Victory Gardens is a noteworthy world premiere of Philip Dawkins’ Failure:  A Love Story, a melancholy, delicately-etched play being given a production too big, and too messy, for its britches (which is a problem).  If you have time for only one play in between the fruitcake-and-eggnog coma, I’d say go see The Mikado and it will rouse you back to exhilarated life.

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Orange-Scented Rose

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When you’ve been going to the theater in Chicago as long as I have, you learn to embrace the unexpected in a The Hypocrites production, especially one from founding Artistic Director Sean Graney.  And in Graney’s distinctive, refreshing take on that most sturdy of theatrical warhorses, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, inexplicably yet aptly retitled Romeo Juliet, the unexpected can be precious (tea with the cast on picnic tables with gingham tablecloths and cutout hearts before the performance even begins) or  it can be painfully hipster-ish (the use of vinyl records to play an eclectic musical score) or it can be sublime (audience members are asked to peel and eat an orange during the famous balcony scene, a generous nod to a similar practice among audiences at the Globe during Shakespeare’s time).  What is most unexpected though in my mind is the fact that Graney and his formidable, hard-working cast of four has given a fresh, inspiring take on a play that all of us think we know so well that its impact is about as potent and as insightful as a bad Saturday Night Live skit.

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Lost

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I gotta admit I always have a certain level of apprehension whenever I go to see a Hypocrites show. Mind you, it’s not a “walking alone down a dark alley scared of being jumped by an axe murderer” kind of anxiety, but more like “first date from Match.com and is he going to be as charming and smart as his online picture is hot” type of uncertainty.  Because, you never really know what you are going to get with The Hypocrites, truly the most unpredictable, irreverent, wildly creative, wickedly smart theater company in Chicago, responsible for many unsurpassable Chicago theatrical highs over the past couple of years, but also, frankly, some resounding lows. So I really wasn’t sure what to think when at the beginning of what I thought was their latest show, a new adaptation by Steve Moulds of Luigi Pirandello’s Absurdist classic 6 Characters in Search of an Author, the actors started rehearsing Pirates of Penzance, their recently-shuttered remount of an idiosyncratic take on the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. I’m like, Huh?  Of course, when the titular six characters finally show up, looking like haunted escapees from an Edward Gorey book crossed with Halloween night at the Kardashians,  I finally get where director Halena Kays, in her first production as new Artistic Director succeeding Sean Graney (the embodiment of The Hypocrites for more than a decade) is going  in this production.  6 Characters is a celebration of the artistic passing of the baton, and a reassurance to its zealous followers (like me) that the qualities that unmistakably and brilliantly brand and differentiate a Hypocrites show will continue to endure. 

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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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