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misanthrope-greasy-joan.jpgOne of the first projects I did as a newly-minted Business Volunteer for the Arts (BVA) for the Arts and Business Council of Chicago several years back was a strategic planning exercise for GreasyJoan & Co., a storefront theater that, at that time, I have never heard of.  Before beginning the project, I went to see their production of Sophocles’ Antigone, expecting the usual highly-stylized, intensely dramatic production given to many Greek classics, but instead was blown away by a modern, very strongly feminist staging (I was pleasantly surprised by the non-traditional portrayal of Creon as a conflicted, put-upon, pseudo-leader and the use of a multi-cultural, all-female Greek chorus).  Over the years I have been a strong supporter of GreasyJoan, and I do firmly believe that it is one Chicago storefront theater that should-that deserves to-grow and endure, given its very clear point of view (“Classic Theatre.  Contemporary Edge.”)  and its always ambitious and never appealing-to-the-least-common-denominator programming (and as can be expected from having strong vision and ambition in anything, success may not be within reach all the time- for every enthralling Sueno, there was a head scratching Woyzeck).  I also feel that Julieanne Ehre, GreasyJoan’s Artistic Director, has one of the more sophisticated artistic palettes in the city’s theatrical community, able to draw from and balance diverse influences and references, from 19th century Russian fiction to the Japanese Butoh dance movement to current events.  With their season opener, an invigorating, hilarious, sexy, hip and hoppin’ version of Moliere’s The Misanthrope (directed by company member Libby Ford), GreasyJoan, for this particular audience member and theater supporter at least, finally comes into its own, not only deeply imbuing its mission of presenting the classics with a contemporary spin, but also clearly demonstrating why classic theater is universal, timeless theater that demands the attention and enthusiasm of new audiences.

After seeing the over-the-top, unsettling, radically deconstructed New York Theater Workshop production directed by the controversial European avant-garde director, Ivo Von Hove last fall, I really thought that I would find any subsequent productions of Moliere’s most famous play to pale in comparison with Von Hove’s theatrical boundary-pushing.  I went to Saturday’s benefit performance with a little bit of trepidation, since what do I say to GreasyJoan’s artistic staff and Board members, many of whom I know and admire, when they ask my opinion- uhmmm, it’s good, but not as good as Von Hove’s New York production?  Will I even be allowed to get my free drink at the post-performance party?  Well, I got my free drink (and some) and gulped it proudly, because this Chicago production of The Misanthrope, in its own way, and within its own scope and intentions, is every bit as thrilling a night at the theater as Von Hove’s.  Von Hove obsessively deconstructed Moliere’s text to oblivion in order to emphasize the darker, more pessimistic aspects of the play.  Libby Ford, who is quite the director to watch, clarifies Moliere’s text beautifully and makes it accessible to modern audiences, and in the process really makes what is intrinsically humorous in the piece even funnier, and hit even closer to home, since we can clearly see in many of Moliere’s characters our own pretensions, insecurities, and unquestioning acquiescence to social conventions.  Her fast-paced, animated direction; the vivid costumes; the shabby chic-meets-artsy-bomb-shelter set all bring to colorful life and with undeniable relevance to us today the pointed criticism that Moliere hurled against the hypocrisy, power-grabbing, and conniving of 17th century French aristocracy. 

Libby and Moliere are immensely aided not only by Ranjit Bolt’s new, fresh, of-the-moment translation, but also more spectacularly, by a sparkling cast of young Chicago actors who have crafted distinct characterizations and have a ball acting them out, but also underneath it all, seem to be very much in tuned with and respectful of The Misanthrope‘s place in the classical repertory.  The cast is uniformly terrific, but I must single out two of them.  Kevin Cox, in the lead role of Alceste, smolders and seethes beautifully as a man who convinces himself that he is the only righteous and honest man in a community of social vipers (and Cox in his performance is fantastic in bringing out the ironic, contradictory nature of the character- he is repelled by the pretense around him but is also insanely drawn to Celimene who epitomizes that pretense).  Carlo Lorenzo Garcia, who in the past has played these tortured, tragic leading men in GreasyJoan’s productions of Woyzeck and Sueno (and played them well), puts out all the stops in a crazy, bawdy, sensationally preening, swish-redefining performance as Acaste, one of Celimene’s suitors. 

I’d love to have my avid blog readers and their friends pack the Atheneum’s tiny second floor theater every weekend night to see how classic theater can continue to entrance and affect a 21st century audience.  I have been very perturbed about the fact that many people in my demographic and maybe half a generation after me seem to equate “classic theater” with boring, with static, with obtuse verse, with Victorian hoop gowns and Greek columns, with anything that’s old-fashioned and irrelevant. So they’d rather go see the latest adolescent angst fairy tale from the House Theater versus going to see Shakespeare or Ibsen or Christopher Marlowe or a Greek tragedy.  But there is a reason why classic theater is called “classic”- it has endured through the centuries because great playwriting transcends eras and trends; great playwriting resonates widely because it touches nerves and emotions in what it means to be fundamentally human.  And classic theater given fresh vitality by imaginative and risk-taking directors and theater companies provides the same level of excitement and thrill at the theater as any new work can. 

Please run and give the classics a chance- see The Misanthrope at the Atheneum Theater, 2936 N. Southport Avenue.  You won’t be disappointed!  And it beats sitting at some bar for two hours drinking Sierra Nevada and eating stale chips.

5 Responses to “Invigorated”

  1. Kevin Cox Says:

    Francis! Thanks so much for writing this great piece helping out the wonderful folks at Greasy Joan & Co.! It was wonderful to meet you at the benefit those weeks back! If you have an opportunity, please come back and check out GJ’s current production of Macbeth. We just opened and it’s on til May 25. We will not disappoint you! Thanks Again!

  2. francis Says:

    Hi Kevin. I knew it! Sooner or later, the folks I write about will find my blog. :) I actually saw Macbeth yesterday and was at the opening reception to celebrate with Julianne and crew. And Mr. Cox you gave another superb performance as Macduff. Congratulations!

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