I Love This Town!

Music, Theater Add comments

chicago.jpgThere’s probably no other city in North America, other than New York City, that is like Chicago in terms of the staggering number of arts and culture events that you can go to at any given day. There’s music, theater, dance, film, visual arts, even glassmaking, pottery-making, tattoo art demonstrations- you name it you can find it here, in rickety schoolrooms converted into theaters, in cavernous loft warehouse spaces, in parks and botanical gardens, in gleaming, acoustically-perfect music pavilions, in art galleries and antique shops. There’s high-art and low-art, spectacular extravaganzas and intimate chamber performances, world-class productions and artists and brazen “hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show-in-the-barn” performances. And you have a pick of them at any given day of the week. Last Saturday was one of those days when I felt truly lucky to be living in the arts vortex that is Chicago. I started the evening off with a marvelous, perfectly put-together Gershwin tribute concert (for free!) with acclaimed Broadway stars, and a brilliant up-and-coming Russian pianist, framed by a skyline glowing in the sunset at Millennium Park’s stunning Pritzker Pavilion, and ended it after midnight at a dark, dank, perspiration-inducing storefront in Uptown where the bathrooms were scarier than the Blair Witch Project, but where the whole air was tingling with artistic ambition treading on a high-wire without a safety net. Man, this is why I love living in this city!

After years of going to Ravinia during the summer, I have recently shifted my allegiance to its rival, the Grant Park Music Festival, once it found a new home in the Pritzker Pavilion. I’ll still go to Ravinia, but it would have to be for the major draws (such as last summer’s brilliant Philip Glass/Leonard Cohen concert collaboration, Book of Longing), and only if I have Pavilion or Martin theater seats. Call me curmudgeonly in my old age, but I’d rather boil and can durian fruit then be shoved and pushed by more-than-slightly-tipsy riders and drenched with dripping water from ice coolers on the train ride to and from, and bitten by, gulp, suburban mosquitoes on the lawn while not being able to see the performers, or even, to be honest, hear them well (the acoustics at Ravinia don’t stack up well against the Pritzker Pavilion acoustics at all). Plus, I can always go see the Chicago Symphony at their real home, Symphony Center, in the city, during the regular season. At the Grant Park Festival in the Pritzker Pavilion, on the other hand, you have the benefit of universally-acclaimed acoustics where you can soar with every clearly-transmitted musical note. You have a choice of having a picnic on the lawn, just like Ravinia (and you don‘t have to pay ten bucks to get on this lawn), or getting free seats where you have a good sightline to the performers on stage.  You’re surrounded by the ineffable urban magic of a global capital.  And if you’re bitten by mosquitoes or any other flying fauna, at least you know they’re city born and bred.

There were no mosquitoes last Saturday night as I sat with BFF Sydney and her husband Mark, and our friend Kimber with her visiting friend Bill, enraptured by the wonderful music of George Gershwin. The concert was world-class, with the Grant Park Orchestra conducted by Kevin Stites, and Broadway stars Marin Mazzie (who I have loved for years, and who originated the role of Clara in Sondheim’s Passion on Broadway); her husband Jason Danieley, who was most recently on Broadway with David Hyde-Pierce in Curtains, and who I saw, ahem, a lot of, years ago in the original Broadway production of The Full Monty; Norm Lewis, who was Javert in last year’s Broadway revival of Les Miserables; and Harolyn Blackwell, who had sung in both operas and Broadway musicals (such as the 1997 Broadway revival of Bernstein’s Candide).  High-caliber musical theater stars all- and we didn’t have to pay anything to see and hear them perform! Everyone was uniformly excellent, but I especially loved the Porgy and Bess selections that Lewis and Blackwell performed – the singing was heartfelt, mesmerizing, and crystal-clear. Towards the end of the show, Russian pianist Kirill Gerstein played a show-stopping version of Rhapsody in Blue, and boy, was it magnificent. People were on their feet (well, at least those who did not have to adjust their hip replacements, or reach for their walkers, or tug at their oxygen tanks; let’s just say that there weren’t a danger of having Ravinia-style tipsiness last Saturday at the concert, since many of the audience members’ drink of choice would probably be, uhmmm, liquefied Geritol) heartily applauding. My friends stayed for the Playback portion of the concert where Gerstein played several more Gershwin solos. I had to hightail it back to the Northside, since an arts blogger’s work was never finished. I had a The Living Canvas performance to catch.

I’ve heard of The Living Canvas before but had never been able to catch any of its productions. It was started by a photographer, Pete Guither, who staged a production way back in 2001 where he projected his photographs on nude actors who were performing “symphonic-like movements”. Interesting concept, and pretty abstract until you actually go and see a production. The Living Canvas is currently staging Unsex Me Here, a very loose abbreviation of Macbeth, at the National Pastime Theater on Broadway and Buena. The last time I was at the National Pastime (which specializes in late night productions), I was at an atrocity called The Sultan’s Bride, which had an all-male cast, was set in a Turkish prison…uhmmm, you get the drift- it was sort of like Midnight Express meets Oz-without-Christopher-Meloni meets a Brazilian capoeira tournament, with yes, all the requisite homoeroticism and full frontal nudity. The theater is very interesting, it has a really small performing space (yes, BFFs, all those full-frontals are literally in-your-face), with lots of eye-catching architectural detailing on the ceiling, a decrepit, world-weary air about it, and scary bathrooms (if you’re claustrophobic, you probably want to keep bladder movement to a minimum).

I don’t really know what to call Unsex Me Here. It’s definitely not Shakespearian theater, that I’m sure of. It had some of Macbeth’s famous soliloquies (such as the “Unsex Me Here” one and the “Is this a dagger that I see?” one) performed out of sequence and out of context, but it also had lots of highly physical movement (the cast hung from steel bars and jumped from platforms), an interminable “knock, knock, who’s there?” improv type segment, modern dance incorporating martial arts and breakdancing, rave-type music, and stunning digital graphics and photographs projected on the actors’ naked bodies. I didn’t know what I attended, but it was definitely one of the most courageous, most creatively uninhibited, most theatrical boundary-pushing events that I saw this year in the city. According to the production notes, The Living Canvas productions “unflinchingly explore themes of self-esteem, body acceptance, and the breaking down of societal barriers regarding the human form…”, and I have to really commend them, they’ve impressively succeeded. I loved the fact that movement was explored to tell a story, and yes, I admired and was very, very impressed, by the risk-taking that the actors, the director, Vanessa Passini, and Artistic Director Guither took. It was a unique, breathtaking production. I didn’t think they served the text well (Macbeth has very complex themes around ambition, political will, and the darkness of human relationships, that cannot be reduced to a “love story” as Passini said in her Director’s Notes), but I also didn’t think Unsex Me Here was really about Macbeth, the play, more than it was about movement-based performance art intermingling with highly conceptual visual design. One of the most memorable and impactful images of the year for me would be the cast standing on various levels of the industrial set with crisscrossing black and white lines on their faces and their naked bodies which blended with the same pattern on the theater’s back wall. Surreal and jaw-dropping. Well, my jaw dropping to my flipflopped feet didn’t stop there, by the way. On Saturday night, the actors playing the three witches suddenly asked for, hold your breath, audience volunteers to join them onstage and perform some of the movements. Well, volunteering to be a Living Canvas is not like volunteering to participate in a Second City skit. Uhmmm, you actually have to get up there and take off your clothes. Seven people from the jampacked audience (to pre-empt my readers’ questions:  there were six males and one female who volunteered; and no, I wasn’t one of them, geez) doffed their clothes (and any hope that they would ever go unrecognized in their Craigslist ads) and joined the actors in performance. I loved it- it was chutzpah of the highest order! Of course my jaw stayed at my feet when one of the volunteer audience members (I guess he used to be a Living Canvas performer) decided to go back to his seat and sit out the rest of the show, ummm, au naturel. The looks on his seatmates’ faces, not to mention the entire theater, were priceless. From Rhapsody in Blue to nude audiences in one night – I love this town!

The Grant Park Music Festival goes all the way to August 16 at the Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park.  Unsex Me Here plays at 11:00 pm on Friday and Saturday nights at the National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway, until August 16 too.

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