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bailiwick mahalAs I said in my previous post, Chicago’s summer stages are as hot and sizzling as the 104 degree heat index we’ve been experiencing this past week. And of course, it’s just about the time that I get truly frenzied in my day job (which then leads to times when I daydream of being in France working 35 hours a week and then getting July and August off to take languorous vacations with a Romain Duris intellectual-hunk-a-like, but I digress).  Having been a long-term theatergoer and active theater supporter in the city, I’ve been surprised by the generous bounty of summer offerings this year, so much so that I haven’t made plans to hightail it to my usual hot weather distraction, National Pastime Theater’s Naked July Theater Festival, where the Living Canvas puts on an annual show you’ll never see anywhere else (and with audiences you don’t want to see anywhere else too after having seen more of them than you need to! Check out my post from a couple of years ago).  There’s just so much stuff to see other than naked people!  But being a long-term theatergoer and theater supporter also means that I have relationships with theaters and theater artists that may, to a certain extent, inhibit a truly objective blog post on the merits and demerits of a specific show.  Below then are my short observations on Steppenwolf Theater’s Chicago premiere of Amy Herzog’s Belleville, and Bailiwick Chicago’s world premiere of Danny Bernardo’s Mahal.

As long-time readers know, I’ve always been transparent about my support for Steppenwolf Theater, having recently served as President of its young professionals’ board and sat on its Board of Trustees during my term. I’m still currently an Executive Committee member of the Auxiliary Council. So you gotta know that I’m unwavering in my pride in and embrace of Steppenwolf’s artistic programming, highs and misses, risks and triumphs, alike.  But I really want to write about Belleville, and hope to convince people to go see a compelling, unconventionally-written play from one of the country’s ascendant playwrights, Amy Herzog. The play is about a twenty-something American married couple living in Paris’ immigrant-heavy Belleville neighborhood; Abby, an aspiring actress who moonlights as a yoga teacher, and Zack, a doctor who has taken a posting with Medecins sans Frontieres. The show starts off as a quirky domestic drama about an entitled millennial couple squabbling and then making love like many couples do in TV and movies. But this isn’t Girls Midnight in Paris, since as the show unfolds, Herzog meticulously, craftily, insightfully builds a rich, highly-nuanced piece that asks the following questions: what is the basis of a relationship? How do you truly know who your partner is? What kind of values does the millennial generation have and how did they acquire them? Do they actually even have defined values?  More importantly, I think Herzog takes on a larger, more intriguing theme: what is the place of Americans of this generation in a world of porous borders, immigration, and multi-culturalism? And without a set of defining values, how can they measure up in this world?  Anne Kauffman’s precise direction is a great match for Herzog’s terrific writing, and the magnificent duo of Kate Arrington as Abby (needy, fearful, somewhat naïve) and Cliff Chamberlain as Zack (charming, subtly conniving, cards held close to the chest) navigate all the moral dilemmas of Herzog’s writing with unsurpassable ferociousness.

I went to an early workshop reading of Danny Bernardo’s Mahal last year and was just beyond delighted. In my 15 years as a Chicago theatergoer, I can sadly count on the fingers of one hand the number of plays that actually told a story about Filipinos. So as a Filipino, Mahal is a pretty significant theatrical work for me. And more so as a Filipino immigrant, since Bernardo’s fresh, watchable play about an immigrant Filipino family in Chicago tackles themes around identity, assimilation, and the ties that bind one to the motherland, even if he or she was not born there.  Some of Chicago’s theatrical pundits have openly complained from their pulpits (uhmm, Twitter) about the lack of new works and the lack of stories about other minorities (we have  Latino stories being told by groups like Teatro Vista and Teatro Luna, but we hardly have any Asian stories onstage) in Chicago.  Mahal is both a new work and a story about a theatrically overlooked minority, so pundit or not, you should go. But this is not some unfamiliar, ethnographic theatrical exercise;  Bailiwick Chicago’s clear-eyed production includes fast-paced, uncluttered direction from Erica Weiss and some stellar performances, especially Joseph Foronda as the grieving patriarch Roberto and  Kate Garrasino as the strong-willed, family-focused only daughter, Mari, which help communicate the universal nature of Bernardo’s writing.  I do have reservations about some of this writing: I think some of the characterizations are less well-rounded than others (the eldest brother Jun comes to mind despite admirable work from Karmann Bajuyo); the switch in tone from sad domestic drama to blazing telenovela melodrama is pretty abrupt; the ending too easily resolves the main conflicts (although in most Filipino movies and TV, that’s what happens!).  Overall all, though, and transcending my Filipino bias for the material, I think Mahal is time well-spent at the theater.

Belleville is running at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, until August 25. Mahal, however, only has three weeks left at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. It closes on August 2.

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