Ain’t Amour

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chicago shakes king learI’m back! It was a hectic summer where I was literally everywhere, from San Diego to Sao Paulo, from New York City to San Francisco.  But I’m staying put in Chicago for the next several weeks since the fall arts and culture season has begun with its usual loud, notable bang (and for the nth year I’ve thought about finally hiring that cute, virile, foot-massaging male assistant to manage my calendar of show openings and cultural events). All of the major houses have opened their first plays for the season and in the past couple of weeks I was able to catch Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new, Sinatra-inspired take on King Lear and Victory Garden Theater’s Chicago premiere of newly-minted MacArthur Genius grantee Samuel D. Hunter’s Rest. Intriguingly and coincidentally both shows revolve around the themes of age, aging, and the elderly, and both feature some notable performances from Chicago’s veteran theater actors. Unfortunately both also fall short in treating these important, less-portrayed topics with the power, poignancy, and relatability that they deserve.

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Starry Night

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victory gardens death and the maidenWith the number of nationally-anticipated/written-up/reviewed theater productions this summer in Chicago, you’d expect there to be more people coming into town to see a show than to go eat a turkey leg at the Taste of Chicago. Broadway in Chicago has the world premiere of Sting’s first foray into musical theater, The Last Ship, set to transfer to New York this fall. Over at Steppenwolf,  Michael  Cera, a major name for the millennial audiences that arts organizations covet, is headlining another production scheduled for a Broadway run in the fall, Kenneth Lonergan’s This is Our Youth. At the Goodman, a major revival of Brigadoon, with a revised book and the active collaboration of Alan Jay Lerner’s daughter Lisa, is running.  And at Victory Gardens Theater, a revival of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden stars Sandra Oh in her first project after her celebrated though much-lamented departure from the TV hit Grey’s Anatomy. As an Asian theatergoer this production is probably the most notable for me since it gives me an opportunity to see in live performance the most successful Asian actor of my generation.  And Oh, riveting and emotionally committed, doesn’t disappoint, powerfully anchoring a play that has so many internal logic questions that the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief, so integral in good theater, is continuously challenged throughout the ninety minute running time.

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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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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 »

The Smartest Men in the Room

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As you my dear readers know, despite my penchant for outsized theatricality, I am also a sucker for brainy plays (cue Tom Stoppard, Frank Galati’s adaptations of Haruki Murakami).  I love navigating through intricately-constructed narratives, subtext-filled dialogue, dense themes, and clever meta-theater. Admittedly however, I also, at times, can find some wordplay-heavy and idea-laden theater to be distancing. Ultimately, I want my theater to hit me as much and as forcefully in the gut and in the heart as it does in the noggin. Two really smart plays from two very smart playwrights have opened over the past couple of weeks in Chicago:  Remy Bumppo’s revival of Edward Albee’s 1975 Pulitzer-prize winning play, Seascape, directed by new Artistic Director Nick Sandys, and Victory Gardens’ Chicago premiere of Bill Cain’s recent work, Equivocation, directed by the indispensable Sean Graney.  Both are intellectually interesting plays, and the playwrights have intriguing things to say…and say them non-stop.  Both are talky, heady work, but both have also been enlivened and given a lot of heart by superlative acting. In my opinion, Seascape, because of a dominant, remarkable performance by Annabel Armour, is the more successful in transforming the work from one that is chilly and removed from the audience, a trap that Equivocation does not fully escape from.

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Vital

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Like many other savvy theatergoers in the city, I was breathlessly anticipating Chay Yew’s first season as Artistic Director of Victory Gardens Theater, which despite being one of the best-funded theater companies in the city and winner of a Regional Tony Award, was also known for years as one of the most conservative and most risk-averse, with an audience demographic that looked and behaved like a Florida retirement community.  Yew was going to re-invigorate a theater that audience members like me had avoided because, frankly, the plays were boring and irrelevant, but which its core audience didn’t seem to mind. And like the good theater aficionado that I am, supporter of change and bold artistic visions, I bought tickets for all four shows of the season, then had mixed feelings about the first three: Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play, despite its potentially provocative subject matter felt more of the same old Victory Gardens; the Universes’ Ameriville was spirited and contemporary, but exhaustingly appealed to much of the same liberal white guilt agenda that we see over and over again in Bill Maher’s show or MSNBC; and Jackie Sibblie Drury’s world premiere We are Proud to Present a Presentation… had a pretentiously long title, a somewhat contrived premise, and despite intriguing writing in parts, a sense of needing two more drafts before it could be called a final version.  But with the final play, Yew’s production of Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey, a transposition of the Oedipus Greek tragedy to the gangs of South Central LA that is smoldering, courageous, urgent, one of the best plays to literally hit the Chicago stage this year with a monster firecracker bang, this first season from Victory Garden’s new AD has fulfilled all the admittedly staggering audience expectations.  I, for one, can’t wait for next season!

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