I’m very thrilled to report that, despite the continuous doom and gloom naysaying of glass-half-empty-watchers, Chicago’s storefront theater scene is vibrant, busy, alive and kicking. New theater companies, making the most out of limited finances but abundant soul and artistic aspiration, continue to sprout all over the place. I was very excited to spend the previous weekend going to see the sophomore productions of two theater companies that are just a year old, but who’ve been having much-sought after buzz swirling around them: the New Colony, which focuses on original work, is staging Producing Director Evan Linder’s site-specific new work Frat, about, well, southern fraternities and fratboys, in the meeting hall of Dank Haus, the German cultural center in Lincoln Square, while Theater Mir, which deals with globally-oriented work, is running British playwright Robin Soan’s play about the political-socio-cultural climate of the West Bank as refracted through it’s citizens’ cooking and eating practices, The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, at the Storefront Theater. Although, I personally feel there’s room for improvement in both, I think they are very strong productions and bode well for the future of storefront theater in Chicago, economic crises notwithstanding.
I would as much seek to drink a plastic cup full of PBR as I would try and swim with tiger sharks, but PBR is the one beverage that fits the milieu of Frat perfectly. So there I was on a Saturday evening, delicately nursing my plastic cup of PBR, while scenes of fraternity life played out in all nooks and crannies of Dank Haus’ large rec room. Playwright Evan Linder was a member of a college fraternity and he distills his experience in this story about four fraternity pledges who we follow from their initial “meet and greet” with their future fraternity brothers to final initiation rites. Did I think the story told us anything new about fraternities (so, it’s party all the time during the times pledges weren’t being brutally and gleefully hazed, but we already knew that from Animal House)? Uhmm, no. Did I think, though, that Frat was a terrific example of youthful, raw, blistering, ferocious, hungrily-acted and directed Chicago storefront theater? Absolutely. Just like the other site-specific work from a new theater company that I recently saw (the fantastic And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers from the Right Brain Project), Frat demonstrates how a risk-taking, obstacle-course-hurdling young director like Andrew Hobgood, if freed from the safety nets and corporate-like concerns of many other Chicago theater companies, can come up with thrilling, memorable work in places we would never have thought about. I think the Dank Haus setting with its low-brow, cheesy ambience, complete with a musty trophy wall, is a perfect complement to the play. I think having several scenes play out simultaneously in different parts of the room is inspired. I think the lighting design, making use of flashlights and various size and shapes of lamps around the room, is novel but not distracting. And most importantly, I feel that the strong ensemble, acting their brains out as if there is no tomorrow, from the gut, epitomizes the brand of Chicago acting that our other famed ensembles put the city on the map for, but, which, unfortunately, over the course of the years, seem to be a scarcely-seen breed. Although the entire male cast is fine, it’s a very funny Meg Johns, one of the three females in the cast, who steals the show as a bawdy, airheaded girlfriend. The script could have been tightened up in some places; I would have wanted to see more of some of the themes that are glazed over (such as the closeted homosexual activities that go on in the frat house); and crowd control for the promenade style staging could be better (hey guys contact the Hypocrites and Sean Graney who have mastered this theatrical device), but Frat is youthful, fresh, interesting theater. By the way, I LOVE the fact that, as part of their “green” approach to the production, the company doesn’t hand out playbills but ask the audience to look at the website on randomly-placed laptops across the room while waiting for the performance to begin.
I’ve begun to work with Theater Mir as part of my volunteer consulting activities with the Arts and Business Council, so I was curious to see its production of The Arab-Israeli Cookbook. Robin Soans wrote the play after spending three weeks in the West Bank and other parts of Israel, interviewing both Israeli and Arab subjects alike. The interviewees primarily talk about their culinary history and practices, but these topics, of course, cannot be separated from their daily experience of life living in a conflict-ridden zone. So as the characters talk about making traditional food from scratch, or hosting dinner parties, or the best kind of hummus, or grocery shopping, they also eventually recount their experiences with suicide bombers, war, immigration, discrimination, cultural barriers, the uneasy, frustrating search for peace. It’s powerful stuff, and director Rob Chambers’ streamlined, even-keeled production clearly illuminates lives caught in the crossfire of things and ideologies bigger than themselves. The acting is very, very good, with the actors playing multiple roles, although sometimes the accents seem either inconsistent or unrecognizable. This is important, relevant theater, which I wish more of our storefronts are doing, instead of traditional stagings of Chekhov or insipid New York City-set urban dramas.
Frat is at Dank Haus, 4740 N. Western, until April 4. The Arab-Israeli Cookbook is at the Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St., until the following day, April 5.