Theaterhopping in 2013

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the whale best of 2013I slowed down writing on this blog this year. I started a new job, I travelled a lot more for leisure rather than business, and decided, after six years, that I just wanted to write if something compelled me, either for good or for bad, in order to get back some of that writing mojo I felt like I’ve lost from feverishly putting up a blog entry about every show I watched over the years.  I still saw a lot of theater this year, mostly in Chicago, some in other cities, but I just didn’t write about all of them.  This was probably a good year to slow done on the writing though, since I felt like Chicago theater lost some of its own mojo – 2013 for me was the most disappointing year for theater audiences in recent memory.

I’m still trying to figure out what made 2013 such a lackluster year for theatergoing in Chicago. There were a lot of perplexing productions this year, from a Measure for Measure with an illogical ending that infuriatingly threw Shakespeare out on his ass to a lifeless world premiere adaptation of a highly-sensual Marguerite Duras novel.  There were so many tired musical warhorses trotted out you’d think Chicago was the new Catskills (I enjoy it, but how many productions of The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee can you have in a year in the same city? I counted at least 4 in Chicago this year). There were lots of playwrights premiering their work in the city, but did anyone do audiences a favor with Noah Haidle’s Smokefall (other than those who wanted to see twin fetuses do a vaudeville act in their mother’s womb) or Martin Casella’s Directions for Restoring the Apparently Dead (other than those who wanted to see another clichéd straight guy-gay guy play about unrequited love)?  Could Chicago theater practitioners be opting for the safe and the tried and true to keep bringing back in those sizable audiences they’ve enjoyed in the last few years? And could Chicago theater audiences have become less discerning and less demanding in their tastes? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

I can only pick seven shows that I really liked this year in Chicago. The other three on my best theater list of the year are plays that I saw in other cities (although one of them is coming to the MCA Stage in 2014). Here then are my top ten theatrical experiences for 2013:

In Chicago

1.  The Whale (Victory Gardens Theater)
. Samuel J. Hunter’s fresh, incisive, luminous new play about a dying 500 pound gay man and the redemption and remembrance he sought from the people around him (his estranged wife and daughter, his smothering gal pal, a Mormon missionary running from his past) was first among equals this year, heartbreakingly yet exquisitely delving into themes of identity, family, and acceptance. Joannie Schultz’s production was clear-eyed and compassionate, anchored by a magnificent performance, a marvel of both emotional and physical complexity, from Dale Calandra as the overweight Charlie. Read my original post

2.  Roadkill (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre World Stage production). Urgent, brutalizing, ultimately devastating, Cora Bissett’s acclaimed production about human-trafficking imported directly from the Edinborough Fringe Festival was one of my most unforgettably singular theater experiences in recent memory.   Roadkill’s meticulously- designed environmental staging, which literally took audiences on a shuttle bus from Navy Pier to a nondescript apartment building in the city’s Northwest-side, was impressive and drove home, unflinchingly hard, how this global issue affected us as Chicagoans. More importantly, Mercy Ojelade as the 14 year old victim and Adura Onashile as Mary’s captor-cum-madam gave committed, shattering performances that grounded this important issue in human-ness. Read my original post.

3Belleville (Steppenwolf Theater).  Chatter about Amy Herzog as the next great American playwright among theater geeks is deafening. Belleville, a new Steppenwolf production confidently and intricately directed by Anne Kaufmann who also directed the New York premiere, proved that where there was smoke, there was likely a blazing creative conflagration behind it.  This was one of the most unconventional plays I’d seen in the past few years and deepened my admiration for Herzog’s work – seemingly starting out as one play (a low-key domestic drama about entitled, drifting American twentysomethings in Paris), it ended up as another (a startling, layered examination of generational values and America’s continuing place in a highly complex, borderless world). Although already brilliantly written, the play was still immensely helped by the searing performances from Kate Arrington and Cliff Chamberlain as the young couple. Read my original post.

4.  Blood and Gifts (Timeline Theater).   Blood and Gifts was great political playwriting; J.T. Rogers’ dizzying, intelligent chronicle of the US’s involvement in 1980s Afghanistan and how that role shaped the post-9/11t Afghan conflict was a doozy. Timeline and director Nick Bowling gave it the production it deserved: vital, engaging, suspenseful. And Rogers’ riveting narrative was told by one of the best ensemble casts of 2013 which included Timothy Patrick Kane as the morally-conflicted CIA contact; Kareem Bandealy as a complicated Afghan warlord, and most especially, Raymond Fox as the hysterical, unpredictable, alcoholic British intelligence contact who ultimately had the best call on the situation. Read my original post.

5.  9 Circles (Sideshow Theatre Company).  There were a lot of shows dealing with the aftermath of the Iraq war both on country and citizen, but Sideshow’s blistering production of Bill Cain’s powder keg of a script about a 19 year old Marine accused of killing an Iraqi family and raping the daughter was the best of them.  Marti Lyons’ sure-handed, tightly-controlled direction impressively blended the harsh naturalism of the subject matter and the sometimes-stylized nature of Cain’s storytelling. But the show could not be half as good as it was without the exciting, sensational star-making performance of Andrew Goetten as Private Reeves, both child-like and cruel.  Read my original post.

6.  The Normal Heart (Timeline Theater).  Timeline is truly becoming one of Chicago’s most essential arts companies. It had another artistic success with The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s diatribe about the beginnings of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Long perceived as dated, the talented Nick Bowling gave this play, still full of Kramer’s fulminations, both vitriolic and insightful, the immediacy and resonance it deserved. I saw the acclaimed Broadway revival in 2011, but I was more devastated by this Timeline production not only because of the more intimate setting, but more importantly because of the emotional honesty of the Chicago acting ensemble led by David Cromer with a more intellectualized take on Ned Weeks, Mary Beth Fisher as the passionate Dr. Brookner, the only voice in the AIDS wilderness of the time, and Stephen Rader as an angry yet pragmatic gay activist. Read my original post.

7.  Appropriate (Victory Gardens).  Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ imperfect play was striking, funny, shocking, and unstinting in its exhortation to the audience to critically assess our dysfunction as families and our dysfunction as a nation. Ostensibly writing a family squabble drama, Jacobs-Jenkins had fresh, interesting, multi-layered things to say about how we look at the past, especially at a past like America’s that included so much racial prejudice, division, and cruelty.  If I had an issue with the play it was that the characters needed more emotional lives.  Gary Griffin’s direction impressively balanced dark comedy and darker cultural examinations; his cast was for the most part excellent, with MVP honors going to Kirsten Fitzgerald as the temperamental older sister, vitriolic, scary, self-pitying, delusional.

Everywhere else

1.  Here Lies Love (The Public Theater, New York City).  If there was one show this year I both dreaded and eagerly anticipated seeing, it was Here Lies Love, David Byrne’s disco musical about the life of Imelda Marcos. As a Filipino who lived through the Marcos regime and the People Power revolution that overthrew it, I found a play, not to mention a musical, about Imelda Marcos as welcome as diving into a septic tank. But despite my continuing ambivalence about the subject matter, I thought Here Lies Love was theatrical brilliance: Byrne’s lyrics and music, memorable, tightly-constructed, and powerfully-written; Alex Timber’s immersive staging complete with video projections, rotating stages and an audience line dance was spectacular.  The play was as complex, as mesmerizing, as outrageous as its subject matter. But unlike Imelda, it didn’t get intoxicated with itself.  Read my original post.

2. El ano en que naci/The Year I Was Born (Devised by Lola Arias, TBA Festival, Portland).  This was theater like no other, bringing together both the personal and the political in an emotionally haunting manner. Argentinian director Lola Arias assembled a group of both actors and non-professionals to tell the story of life leading up to and during the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.  There was a twist however- this acting ensemble had parents who were either in the Pinochet administration (as generals or government civil servants) or were victims of the despot (journalists, murdered activists, rivals). It was riveting meta-theater, part history lesson, part personal storytelling, part socio-cultural indictment.  And it was all brilliant. Update: El ano en que naci/The Year I Was Born is part of the 2014 MCA Stage season. Read my original post.

3.  Twelfth Night/Taming of the Shrew  (Propeller, Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis).   Edward Hall’s Propeller, one of the most acclaimed British theater companies, made only two American stops this year: at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) and at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater. Chicagoans loss was Minnesotan’s gain: Propeller’s emotionally rich, meticulously mined productions of Twelfth Night and Taming of the Shrew were two of the best Shakespeare productions I had seen recently. Hall unraveled the darker nuances of Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare’s most beloved comedies, focusing on people’s underlying impulses that drove duplicity and cruelty; he transformed Taming of the Shrew from a stomach churning anti-woman fantasy to a fable of the triumph of the human will.  All this without cutting a word in the text. He was immensely helped by an all-male ensemble giving carefully calibrated cross-dressing performances; meaningful staging; and everyone’s respect for Shakespeare’s language, a respect that maybe some Chicago theater practitioners could learn from.

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