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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Ten Plays to Watch in Chicago this Fall

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The biggest laugh I had over the weekend (more so than the bellyaching guffaws I tried hard to suppress while watching pseudo-hipsters pretend to look impressed by some atrocious art during the West Loop gallery openings last Friday, but that’s a topic for another blog post) was over New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood’s almost sheepish admission – in print, for everyone to read -that New York theater, specifically Broadway, should be considered the east side of Chicago, given the number of Chicago-originating productions and artists currently on stage in New York.  Thank you, Mr. Isherwood, but our fair city already has an east side, so we don’t really need to annex New York City.  It was still pretty hilarious, though, to finally see the snobbish, self-promoting, out-of-touch Times theater section admit what many of us passionate theater aficionados have known for a while now – that the vital center of American theater has already migrated from the Big Apple to the City of Broad Shoulders.  So while one-step-behind New Yorkers will be drooling over chi-town exports Superior Donuts, A Steady Rain, and David Cromer (making his Broadway directing debut with revivals of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound, running in repertory) this fall, theater-forward Chicago audiences will be immersing ourselves in some of the best theater this side of the Atlantic.  I’ve compiled below my annual list of the ten must-see theatrical events in Chicago this fall, most of them world premieres, never been seen anywhere; hopefully I’ll bump into many of you in some of them.  You never know, but that obscure, low-key, storefront production you paid twenty bucks for may be next year’s frenzy-inducing hot ticket in New York (exhibit A:  A Steady Rain). 

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Bye Bye Blackbird

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blackbird-at-victory-gardens.jpgHaving lived in Chicago for more than ten years now, summer in this city is all about the lakefront, outdoor festivals such as Ravinia and the Grant Park Music Festival, slow, lazy afternoons grilling with friends and sipping Coronas.  The major arts groups in the city are either on hiatus, wrapping up their seasons, or putting on light, easy-on-the-eyes-and-on-the-brain fare.  I don’t think there has been a recent summer where one of the big arts and culture news is all about the fact that one of the city’s major cultural institutions is presenting a provocative, complex, deeply uncomfortable but undeniably memorable work.  Part of it is probably because a lot of people (especially the ones who aren’t familiar with his gritty, pre-stardom work in Chicago’s burgeoning off-loop theater scene in the 1970s) have been caught off-guard that CSI superstar William Petersen will take on material that goes to a very dark place, with surprising, and to some, disturbing, overtones of moral ambiguity.  But I think most of it is due to the fact that we haven’t seen material as brilliant, as complicated, as gnawing as David Harrower’s Blackbird, winner of the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award, the British theater’s equivalent of the Tony Awards, Best New Play (besting a heavyweight group comprised of Tom Stoppard’s Rock’n'Roll, Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon, and Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer), on a Chicago stage in a while.  If there is one thing that should pull you away from summer’s airy distractions, it is to see Blackbird at Victory Gardens Theatre, assuredly directed by Artistic Director Dennis Zacek, the best local production I have seen so far this year.  If for some inexcusable reason you are not able to see it, consider yourself culturally and artistically malnourished.

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