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.

On paper, Wasteland doesn’t sound terribly exciting or fresh: during the Vietnam War, two US soldiers, one a conservative Texan, Riley; the other a gay Northeasterner, Joe, are held in adjoining underground jail cells by the Vietcong over a span of several years, in which they argue, reminisce, deal with boredom, and cope with the uncertainty of potentially never being released.  There is a lot of talk; there doesn’t seem to be any conflict or action. But William Brown’s production makes the script theatrically riveting by having only Joe visible to us in the audience, while Riley is performed as a disembodied voice coming from offstage. It’s a conceit, but it works – Joe becomes the stand in for the (predominantly) liberal Chicago audience, and as he tries to understand and reconcile Riley’s views with his own, he takes us on the journey with him.  It’s a tough assignment for the actor playing Riley, but Steve Haggard creates a fully-fleshed out character that is part bigoted hillbilly, part Alpha male fratjock, part regular guy desperately wanting warmth, compassion, and human connection. It’s an impressively towering performance not the least because he is required to bring out Riley’s character shadings only through the use of his voice.

Equally impressive is Nate Burger as Joe, who has the even tougher assignment of keeping the audience riveted all throughout Wasteland’s actionless, intermissionless 100 minutes. It’s a breathtakingly committed performance, both physically and emotionally. Burger physically demonstrates Joe’s suffocation and boredom at his confined surroundings (he keeps pacing, crawling, and digging around Kevin Depinet’s awe-inspiringly realistic set) and the literal disorientation that happens when you’re in those surroundings for years.  But he also heartbreakingly and beautifully captures Joe’s loneliness, his grief at losing his “best friend” a fellow soldier and Vietcong captive, his conflicted feelings in dealing with the bigoted Riley, all of these in subtle shifts of mood and tone. Burger, in my opinion, gives one of the best performances in this Chicago theatrical year, one insanely packed with top-notch performances.

I think Brown’s pacing can be tightened (there are some interminably monotonous moments which may be his way of getting us into the dry daily routine of the prisoners), and I’m not sure I fully love Felder’s script. I think there’s some interesting applicability to today’s “Red States/Blue States” divisiveness of the country, but I don’t think her contrast between Joe and Riley’s beliefs and perspectives is potently written enough.  But despite the material, Burger and Haggard are transporting.

The basis for Chicago Opera Vanguard’s The Suitcase Opera Project is probably one of the quirkiest, most intriguing source materials I’ve encountered in recent years: Monologist David Kodeski buys a suitcase full of old letters, photos, and assorted knicknacks for $100 from ebay and comes across a vivid portrayal of gay life in post-war New York City, seen through the eyes of the letter-writer, a twentysomething ex-Marine. Kodeski has written the libretto for the opera, with music by Chicago Opera Vanguard’s Eric Reda.  Since the performance I saw last weekend was the final workshop (Chicago Opera Vanguard will premiere the completed piece sometime in 2013), I’m not going to talk about it in-depth.  But from what I saw in the workshop, I’m really excited to see the full production, and I think it’s going to be one of the major cultural events in the city next year. The Suitcase Opera Project’s an intriguing work, with Kodeski’s crisp, worldly, yet thoughtful monologues woven into a thrilling contemporary opera that pays homage to musical styles that defined the period it is set in (late 1940s) – samba, Broadway, jazz. Last week’s performance also featured a showstopping, star-making performance by Pavi Procsko as Jimmy, the letter-writer. Procsko marvelously captured Jimmy’s unapologetically manipulative sexual charm, his superficiality, his snobbishness, but also his melancholy and apprehension at being a young gay man in a big, brawling, world-weary city like New York right after World War II.  I think the opera still needs some polishing: the role of the Chorus could be better defined (sometimes they were speaking Jimmy’s thoughts, sometimes they were speaking the color commentary – shifts in point of view are fine,  but they would need to be understandable, in my opinion); the Soloist, which I presumed was Jimmy’s alter-ego, also could be written with a clearer, starker contrast (was the Soloist the real Jimmy and the Jimmy we saw an image crafted through the letters?); and the use of film and projections might need to be thought through further.  But The Suitcase Opera Project was nearly primetime ready, and in it’s current form, already enthralling new work.

Wasteland runs December 30 at Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave. Check out Chicago Opera Vanguard’s website for the actual production announcement of The Suitcase Opera Project in 2013.

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