Mad Men

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timeline danny casolaroActually, I’m probably the mad man as I try to fit in as many theater and arts events before all of my waking time (well outside of working and eating) is taken up by the exciting 50th edition of the Chicago International Film Festival which begins today (read blog posts about it in the next couple of weeks!).  It’s been a busy fall theater season; although I wouldn’t say it’s been an extremely striking or memorable one. Many of the season openers I’ve seen so far have been lackluster, to put it mildly.  The trend continues with two shows I saw over the past couple of weeks, both, surprisingly, with all-male casts: Timeline Theatre’s Danny Casolaro Died For You has an intriguing true-to-life premise but is bogged down by  Dominic Orlando’s perplexing, inconsistent writing; the production of Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, one of my favorite plays of the ‘naughts, from a new storefront theater called Eclectic Full Contact Theatre is saddled by tepid, unbelievable performances, and by my old age realization that Greenberg’s writing, which I loved back in the play’s Public Theater and Broadway productions, has a discomfiting whiff of condescension.

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Rarities

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juno timelineI’ve been run ragged by my consecutive three-play weekends (hmm, dear readers, although it seems like I’m at a theater all the time, I do have a normal, regular day job to go to during the week), but who am I to complain? This Chicago theater season has been extraordinary, with several notable productions and world premieres. But our intrepid theater companies have also unearthed several rarities- shows that are not performed regularly in this city or have never been performed here at all.  A couple of weekends ago, I was able to catch Timeline Theatre’s handsome, respectful but distancing production of Joseph Stein’s and Marc Blitzstein’s Juno, the musical adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s classic drama Juno and the Paycock. Timeline’s production of the 1959 musical is its first ever Chicago production – it is so rarely produced (the last New York production was a 2008 semi-staged Encores! production; before that a 1992 off-Broadway remount) that Wall Street Journal drama critic Terry Teachout, who logs more air miles than anyone to see shows across the US, tweeted from Timeline that finally he saw a fully-staged production of Juno.  Last weekend, I was over at Raven Theatre to see its brakes-free production of Tennessee Williams’ lurid, hysterical melodrama Vieux Carre, which surprisingly (or maybe not, see below) is infrequently staged in a city so in love with Williams’ Southern tales of decadence and heartbreak that we had four The Glass Menageries a couple of seasons back.  Following are my thoughts on these two shows.

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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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I’m Coming Out

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timeline normal heartAs a gay man who grew up in the 1980s, there are very few theatrical works, heck, cultural pieces as a whole, that are as important and as resonant to me as Larry Kramer’s 1985 call to arms to address the AIDs crisis, The Normal Heart. I ran to see the 2011 Broadway revival that won Tonys for best revival of a play and best featured actress for a surprisingly feisty, emotionally-sucker-punching performance from Ellen Barkin.  And I cried copious tears, not just because of the tragic history of suffering and death among my people, but also at the perception and treatment of gays at that time, vestiges of which continue to this day (and despite the fact in the previous week my home state of Illinois became the 15th state in the union to recognize same-sex marriages, there are still 35 other states that don’t).  Last weekend, I saw Timeline Theater’s equally blistering, heartbreaking production of The Normal Heart, and I cried so much more, and so much longer. Definitely because of the same reasons, but also because the intimacy of the staging not hindered by a Broadway house’s size and proscenium, and the visceral acting of Chicago actors not accessorized by movie star glow, more powerfully convey the multitude of emotions-grief, injustice, helplessness, loss- that Kramer intricately explores.

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Tribes

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timeline blood and giftsBack in 2010, I caught the Tricycle Theater’s ambitious, staggering, and nearly eight hour production of The Great Game:  Afghanistan in Washington DC during its US tour.  Comprised of 12 mini-plays from a wide range of playwrights tackling the history of Afghanistan from its colonial British roots to its recent fraught history, it contained a contribution from American playwright Lee Blessing about the relationship between the CIA and the Afghan warlords in the early 1980s which ironically contributed to laying the groundwork for the Taliban’s rise to power in that county.  I later learned that Blessing’s contribution replaced the original piece that another American playwright wrote – J.T. Rogers had expanded his original vignette to a full-length play which premiered ahead of The Great Game.  And I’m sure, despite Rogers’ exceptional playwriting powers, the complex, conflicting perspectives in that unsettling episode of both US and Afghan history could not have been given its due in eight minutes, so I’m glad he wrote a real  two and a half hour play about the topic instead.  And I am so glad that Timeline Theatre Company, clearly becoming one of the most essential arts companies in Chicago, has given that play Blood and Gifts an exciting, suspenseful, magnificently acted and directed Chicago premiere.  It is the most vital theatrical experience  I’ve had this year  so far– rich, provocative, intellectually and emotionally fascinating, it will leave you gobsmacked in the middle of Lakeview, wishing the play continued on for another two and a half hours .

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Boys 2 Men

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After a flurry of blogposts in September and October, this month has been quiet. Yep, dear avid blog readers, you know I’m back on the business travel grind and this time it’s a weekly commute to the Pacific Time zone.  A four hour plane trip immediately followed by 15 hours in a windowless conference room has wrecked my lower back, my soul, and my ability to string together a coherent sentence that doesn’t begin with “Get me back to Chicago.”  So blogposts have taken a back seat to well, frantic attempts to regain mental health (and a functioning lower skeleton).  Fortunately, there has been a noticeable slowdown in notable Chicago theater openings, so it’s been easy to just stay at home, sink into my couch, and catch up on episodes of Revenge before I get on my next flight back to California. Over the past couple of weekends though, I’ve been able to catch two worthwhile arts events: the world premiere of Susan Felder’s Wasteland at Timeline Theatre, and the final workshop production of Chicago Opera Vanguard’s The Suitcase Opera Project, performed on the Pritzker Pavilion stage with a breathtaking view of Millennium Park and the Chicago skyline framing the performance. What’s particularly notable about both is that they each feature exciting, star-making performances from our city’s deep bench of young male performers.

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