Singing and Dancing

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new colony orville and wilbur did itIt’s been another hectic theatergoing weekend. Despite the maddening fluctuations of Chicago not-yet summer weather (alternating hot weather and thunderstorms), audiences continue to flock to the city’s bountiful stage offerings. Here are my thoughts on two plays I saw over the weekend:  The New Colony’s enjoyably confounding Orville and Wilbur Did It! and Kokandy Productions’ just confounding Assassins.

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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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Hipster Theater

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In early 2009, I said that Frat, the second production of the new theater company The New Colony, was “a terrific example of youthful, raw, blistering, ferocious, hungrily-acted and directed Chicago storefront theater”.  Later that year, I said of their Calls to Blood that it was “…gut-punching, heart-breaking, tears-inducing, and throat-catching, quite simply one of my more memorable nights at any theater recently.”  Since 2009, The New Colony has won Broadway in Chicago’s Emerging Theater Award, brought Calls to Blood (re-titled Hearts Full of Blood) to the New York Fringe Festival, and had a bona-fide water-cooler summer hit last year with 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche.  There is no doubt that The New Colony is a vital, pivotal part of the city’s ever-thriving storefront theater scene.  And as an audience member who has followed the theater company since its inception, it has been a thrilling journey.  So I’m really confused and disappointed that their latest production, the original rock-musical Rise of the Numberless, in collaboration with another stalwart of the storefront scene, Bailiwick Chicago, is possibly one of the most ill-advised shows I’ve seen in the past twelve months. Just like the hipsters that throng the Bucktown cross-streets of the Flat Iron Arts Building where it is being performed, Rise of the Numberless is calculatedly-styled, with every pulsating song, fake-angry choreography, and meticulously-set-designed grime strategically placed to evoke a hip-cool-glam-cutting-edge-(insert other buzz words here)-production.  And just like these Bucktown/Wicker Park hipsters (and many of them will probably be flocking to the show because it sounds and looks, oh, so cool), the production feels hollow and superficial, with none of the “blistering” and “heart-breaking” qualities that I found with the theater’s early shows which I loved.

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Storefront Summer

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The big theater news of the 2011 summer have centered around the critical and popular success of the world premieres of About Face’s The Homosexuals and the Goodman’s Broadway-bound Chinglish, two shows that I admired but felt ambivalent about, and the polarized reaction to the Chicago debut of Will Eno’s quirky, moving Middletown at Steppenwolf which I liked a lot (and in the spirit of full disclosure, I am President of the theater’s junior board and a Trustee).  But the storefront theater scene is hot and hopping as well; over the long holiday weekend I managed to catch the latest productions from two theater companies I’ve raved about on this blog over the years:  I’ve followed The New Colony since their Frat days and way before they won Broadway in Chicago’s Emerging Theater Award, and have always loved their fearless, bungee-jumping-adrenalin-infused approach to new work;  Redtwist Theatre gave me one of my most indelible theatrical productions of the past two years with their searing and claustrophobic The Pillowman5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche from The New Colony and That Face from Redtwist Theatre, although I have some reservations on both, should be welcome alternatives to the usual Chicago summer diversions of Ravinia lawn picnics, Lake Michigan sailboat cruises, indistinguishable street fairs, and endless rooftop deck partying.

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2009′s Theatrical Treasures

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cchad-deity-2.jpgI’m not a theater critic, nor a theater practitioner.  I’m just a regular, passionate theater aficionado who writes a blog (and who pays for most shows that I go to see).  And it was wonderful to be a regular, passionate theater aficionado who wrote a blog in 2009 in Chicago, when great-not merely good, not just serviceable-theater was available every weekend night.  2009 began with the Goodman Theatre‘s Eugene O’Neill Festival, a singular, unsurpassable program of theatrical bravado that I will always remember, and which even long time Chicago residents marveled at.  But 2009, for me, was also a year of getting a thrilling first look at world premieres; of seeing plays in random places, whether it was in a warehouse in Ravenswood, inside the rehearsal hall of the Goodman theater, or on the actual stage of the MCA; of discovering new theater companies putting on plays with so much impressive, balls-out fierceness; of finally being validated in my very firm, vocal belief that it is Chicago, not New York City or any other self-proclaiming town, that is the theater capital of the US. 

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On the Ascent

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calls-to-blood.jpgI’m always surprised when I’m talking to people at dinner or cocktail parties who proclaim that they’re avid Chicago theatergoers and most of the plays they’ve seen in the past couple of years were at the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare, or Lookingglass (but I politely excuse myself and seek out another vodka tonic when they say Broadway in Chicago, shudder!).  As you all know I have been a fan of many, many productions in these theaters (and in the spirit of repetitive full disclosure, I am a member of Steppenwolf’s young professionals board), so I think they’re absolutely indispensable to the city’s vibrant cultural life.  However, I want to vigorously shake these self-styled culturatis’ awake, because by limiting their theatergoing to the large, established theaters, they’re undeniably missing much of what makes Chicago such an indisputably great town for theater.  One of the pleasures of writing this blog is continuously rediscovering the ever-fluid, ever-dynamic storefront theater scene, and over the past year, I’ve been eagerly watching the ascendance of two young, energetic, impassioned theater companies:  I was bowled over by the Right Brain Project (RBP)’s imaginative and meticulous And They Put Handcuffs On The Flowers earlier this year (but disappointed by their messy Put My Finger In Your Mouth this summer) and I was intrigued by the New Colony‘s audacious but somewhat flawed Frat during the spring.  So there was absolutely no second-guessing or hemming and hawing in deciding to go and see these two theater companies’ season openers:  RBP’s and author Brad Lawrence’s retelling of the Frankenstein story, The Modern Prometheus, and the New Colony’s contemporary relationship drama with a twist, written by co-founder James Asmus, Calls to Blood.   And I’m very pleased to report there was no disappointment this time around:  both RBP and the New Colony, with these productions, confirm without a doubt, that they’re doing some of the most exciting, most courageous, most distinctive theater in the city.  Even greater things should be ahead for both; and in cocktail and dinner parties two years hence, I’m pretty sure the same self-styled culturatis will be talking about these theaters, and I can enthusiastically say I knew them when.

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