Take Two

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Sometimes going to the theater in this arts-savvy town requires having no expectations whatsoever. Over the weekend I went to two different plays with two different mindsets and came out disappointed from one, and surprisingly joyous from the other.  I had been a huge admirer of The Right Brain Project’s savvy and ambition through the years and I thought its productions of And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers and The Modern Prometheus were two of the best examples of the formidable can-do attitude of Chicago’s storefront theater scene.  So when I heard it was mounting Peter Weiss’ famously challenging play Marat/Sade (my dear blog readers you can look up the official, lengthier title on your own, which also tells you in essence what the show is about), I thought I couldn’t miss this one (I sat out some of its confounding recent new work outings).  I would put The Right Brain Project in the very shortlist of theaters which I though could wrestle Marat/Sade to the ground and come up with something truly interesting.  However, expectations are indeed meant to be shattered.  On the other hand, I had no expectation going into Filament Theatre Ensemble’s Hank Williams: Lost Highway, the Chicago premiere of Randal Myler and Mark Harelik’s musical biography of the country music legend.  All I hoped for was getting through 2 hours of country-western music (and I figured if Gwyneth Paltrow could embrace her inner Reba, so could I).  So I was wonderfully surprised when I came out of Hank Williams: Lost Highway humming “Jambalaya” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, the effect of a truly mesmerizing, enjoyable evening at the theater.

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Viewing List

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In the spirit of constructive feedback, my friend Joel suggested I add a blog section listing any upcoming performances I’m attending, so folks like you, my dear, devoted readers, could decide whether you would want to attend the same shows or performances, as well.  That’s probably not going to happen any time soon, since my preciously scarce blog real estate is already quite packed with Twitter feeds, blog rolls, and a listing of shows I had recently attended (which provides a general indication of what potentially would be content for upcoming postings).   However, I do listen to my friends suggestions, even if they’re delivered a little curmudgeonly (and I say that lovingly, Joel!), so here then are some of the performances I’m planning to go to this month.  February in all its cold, snowy glory is always seen as the “dead zone” of the Chicago winter season, but if you judge by the number of intriguing, lively, potentially can’t-miss shows, it’s probably more equivalent to July in Maui, arts-wise.

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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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Runner Stumbles

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No one can be on their “A-game” all the time.  After the dreamy, profound, incandescent Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola makes the indulgent, unfocused Marie Antoinette.  For every astounding dazzler such as a late 1990s Balkan War-set King Lear, the Goodman comes up with astounding mediocrity such as Turn of the Century and Ghostwritten.  So my pragmatic self is very much willing to see the undeniable misfire that is Put My Finger In Your Mouth, such a painful disappointment coming after the stunning And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers, one of the best shows I’ve seen in Chicago in the early part of 2009, as a blip, as a recoverable stumble, in the ascendancy of the terrific storefront theater company, The Right Brain Project.  I’m sure there was some logical reasoning behind the company’s decision to stage this original work from Bob Fisher as their summer show. Unfortunately both my friends and I failed to grasp the raison d’etre behind putting on an incoherent, underwritten, seemingly under-rehearsed play about two sisters, so different in the way they approach life (one’s a responsible homemaker, the other an unfocused club kid), but who ultimately realize that family are the strongest ties that bind.  As I sweated it out, as if trapped in a Turkish hammam, at the RBP Rorschach, the group’s tiny blackbox theater on the third floor of a warehouse building by the metra tracks at Irving Park and Ravenswood, I wondered, have I totally lost my sense of humor at the theater?  Was I just not getting this play?  Was this a serious attempt to comment on our contemporary times, increasingly marked by drugs, sex, irresponsibility, and familial disaffection?  Was this a parable about the dangers of barebacking (yeah, I didn’t really know where I got that; oh, maybe from the line repeated several times in the play- the girls’ mother’s exhortation when they were little to “play, but play safe”, which sounded like a Steamworks poster to me?!?)?  Or was this just a theater company wanting to not take itself so seriously during the warm weather, having a grand time nudging, winking, in-joking with and at itself, in preparation for a strong, serious season in the fall? Otherwise, how could I explain the perplexing role of the Boxman, who may or may not be the girls’ father (and no clear message was actually telegraphed by the playwright to the audience)?  Why would there be a painfully amateurish American Idol-like group song and dance number incongruously plopped in the middle of the play like whipped cream on a burger patty?  Why did a fight scene occur with actors wearing gigantic rabbit heads and other animal masks?  Who were these animal people? Why were the performances directed to come off like tweens playing dress-up in front of their parent’s bedroom mirror? And why the hell was everyone wanting to suck on club owner The Snailman’s finger?  Other than some woozy ooh-aahhing, no one really made it clear what all this finger-sucking gave to the suckees.   Director Nathan Robbel, also Artistic Director of The Right Brain Project, continued the interesting experimentation with lighting design that he demonstrated in Handcuffs, but other than that, there really wasn’t anything in Put Your Finger that I found striking or memorable.  I’m still up for the theater’s October show, because I know what they’re capable of; I’m chalking up this summer show to warm weather light-headedness.