Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Playing in the Woods, Part 1

This past weekend, I passed a major milestone in my life as a Chicagoan. (Or, given my move, a Chicagolandian.) I visited Wisconsin for the first time. This is something that absolutely everybody in Chicago does--it's close enough for a weekend car trip, it's cheaper than a lot of vacations, and it's gorgeous. But I had never had the chance to take advantage of it, and so felt like I was missing out on an experience common to all natives of this fine city.

But no more! Adam and I visited Wisconsin this weekend, and a particularly wonderful part thereof: The American Players Theatre near Spring Green, not far from Madison. The people of APT invited me to visit this past weekend. I saw four plays over three days, and will herein be reviewing them for you, along with the experience in general.

So what is APT? It's a classical theatre, in the middle of the Wisconsin woods. The Up The Hill Theatre--so named because it is in fact a quarter-mile hike up a hill to get there--is an open-air amphiteatre with 1148 seats and excellent acoustics. The Touchstone, which opened in 2009, is a lovely 200-seat indoor space.

APT starts with an absolutely unfair advantage: When the weather is nice (and it was absolutely perfect this weekend), the entire audience is in a great mood. Particularly for the shows I saw in the evening, I have rarely been in an audience that was happier and more excited to see a show. It certainly didn't hurt that all of the shows I saw lived up to that expectation, but the setting itself is an invaluable part of the company's success.

First, a few words on food: Picnics are part of the tradition at APT--there are tables all over the place--and with good reason. It's not a first-rate food town. There are a few places with fine-but-not-exceptional diner and pub food, and some fancy restaurants that are reportedly pretty wonderful (we didn't want to pay to find out), but the only really excellent meal that we had was at the Spring Green General Store, which has a delicious menu of salads, sandwiches, and soups, very fresh and tasty. (If you want a drink and snack, though, I highly recommend the Bird of Paradise Tea Room for some tea and pie. Oh man, that was good pie. And I'd have spent so much time picking a tea if they hadn't been about to close.) Premade picnics are available to order from the box office, and there are certainly enough grocery stores around to prepare one for yourself. If we are able to return, that's certainly what we'll do.

As for lodging: we were fortunate that the theatre put us up at the House on the Rock Resort. It's a lovely hotel (all of the rooms are suites), and certainly recommended for those who have the means, or a love of golf--the resort has 27 holes. However, there are more reasonable options available as well, though none so close to the theatre.

And if you are in the area, I recommend The House on the Rock. It's a hugely popular tourist attraction, and something that really must be seen: it's the creation of a possibly mad visionary who build a gigantic house and filled it with...stuff. There's a room that extends out hundreds of feet over open air, a giant carousel, and way more. It's unlike anything you've seen, and certainly an American original.


After The House on the Rock, we saw the first show of the weekend, Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well. It's often known as one of his problem plays, and with good reason: the plot can potentially be quite off-putting. Helena (Ally Carey, who is remarkably only a year out of her BFA and still non-equity), a commoner and the orphaned daughter of a great doctor, is the ward of the Countess of Rossillion (Tracy Michelle Arnold), and in love with her son, Bertram (Matt Schwader). When she uses her father's medicines to cure the King of France (Jonathan Smoots), previously thought terminal, he grants her any husband she wants in the kingdom. She chooses Bertram, but he's horrified at the thought of marrying someone below his station, and just after their wedding runs away to war, the marriage unconsummated. She follows him to war, and initiates a scheme to win him back.

It would make sense to play this as bitter comedy, but director John Langs goes a different route. He emphasizes the characters' humanity and the reconciliation that comes at the end. There are many laughs, but rarely at the characters' expense. (The one exception is Jim DeVita as Parolles, Bertram's big-talking hanger-on, whom the script thoroughly humiliates. However, even he sees some redemption at the end.)

And it did wonders for a play I thought I knew--this production was more moving than I thought possible. I'd always thought of it as an odd, bitter little show, and the previous versions I saw didn't change my mind. But by emphasizing the characters' humanity and their consequences, without ever judging or dismissing them, Langs and his cast have given the show uncommon depth.

The acting is strong throughout, as it was in all four shows--the rotating repertory format clearly ups the game of everyone involved, and I wish there were more of it to be found in Chicago. Carey leads the way with an assured performance, making Helena's seemingly self-destructive decisions understandable, while Schwader makes you understand both why she wants him and why he doesn't deserve it. Arnold and Smoots bring moral authority to the play's older generation, and DeVita and John Pribyl are just hilarious, without taking the audience out of the play.

Langs' production does sag a bit in the second half--there were several sections when it seemed to take far too long to get through each plot point--but he's created a funny and moving production of a Shakespeare that often doesn't get the credit it deserves.


I hope you enjoyed the first installment--check back soon for the other three productions we saw in Spring Green!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Where I've Been

Well, the answer is, not on this blog. To the people who read the blog (and I'm hoping some are left after this three-week absence), I'm sorry to have left for so long. I tend to get very tense when my favorite bloggers don't update daily, so I would judge my own three-week absence as utterly inexcusable.

However, I haven't been completely lazy. Most importantly, I've been moving. My boyfriend Adam and I have finally taken the plunge into domesticity, and have gotten an apartment together in Oak Park. Leaving the city limits initially met with some qualms from me, but Adam's job is in Naperville, and the commute from the north side would have been brutal. Also, seriously, the place is gorgeous, and my commute is virtually the same duration now as it was when I lived in Uptown. And I live right north of the main library and across from a park! Anyhow, as you can imagine, my time and brain have been largely occupied with that. Indeed, I still sometimes burst out with spasms of real-estate speak, despite the fact that we moved into the place on the 15th. It's hard to retrain your mind.

As a side note, one of the bizarre side effects of my lurches into adulthood is that I'm getting excited about things that I never imagined being excited about. The most recent example is cleaning products. It's sad to say, but Mr. Clean Magic Erasers had me almost giddy with joy this weekend. It's like a sponge, but you wet it and rub it on stains on a wall (i.e. from furniture--pretty prevalent at the old apartment) and they DISAPPEAR! It's amazing! And I can rationalize my excitement by the fact that it's not really the cleaning product that excited me so much as not having to scrub. Oy, I'm becoming mature whether I like it or not.

What time I didn't spend moving was occupied with the various theatrical ventures I'm working on, rather than writing about. The biggest time investment was DrekFest, which had three utterly delightful evenings, and presented eight fantastic plays, four of which went on to become semi-finalists. The grand loser was Jake Lindquist's hilarious Man Vs. Carp. The whole event was a whole lot of fun, despite a few mishaps along the way, and I can't wait for next year.

I also spearheaded my first major initiative as Co-Literary Manager at Stage Left: several valiant ensemble members and I slew the dragon that is our pile of script samples. It had grown far beyond the ability of one person to read and sort through them, so a bunch of us took piles of ten and decided which ones merit a further reading. It was huge--and still has to be followed by the huger task of letting the playwrights know if we want to read their plays or not. On into the breach.

Anyhow, more than enough personal nattering has happened. What of the wider world of theatre! Well, August is a pretty quiet time for it. Most of the more established companies are briefly dormant, and as I took the month off from Centerstage, I didn't get to see what the smaller ones were up to. The one show I did see that really stuck out was the remount of Red Noses at Strawdog. Overall, it was really wonderful--a defiant statement in favor of joy and laughter, even when perched on the edge of the abyss. The cast was fantastic and the awesome Matt Hawkins (Is he directing anything in the 2010-2011 season? If not, why not?) staged it with immense creativity and incredible passion and punch. I had some issues with it--there were apparently significant script cuts, and while they did wonders for the running time and sense of pacing, they sometimes left characters and relationships feeling a little sketched-out. But overall I really loved it. After this and The Good Soul of Szechuan, Strawdog is fast getting onto the list of my favorite companies in town. I'm excited to see what they have coming up.

And finally, a small note on the coverage of theatre in Chicago. Chris Jones has managed to make his blog at the Trib into what is probably the most-widely read single source of press coverage on Chicago theatre. It's doubtless where a lot of people turn first, and a rave review from him can seriously alter the fortunes of a show for the better. (Just ask Suicide, Incorporated or Harper Regan.) Some take issues with his critical skills and style, but that's an occupational hazard of the profession. Few would deny that he's one of the fiercest and most public advocates for Chicago theatre. And part of his professional project appears to be a promotion of Chicago theatre as a brand. Someone might reading his articles would probably use adjectives like smart, scrappy, gutsy, intimate, in-your-face, fearless, making up in quality what it sometimes lacks in flash. (Not that he only praises shows with this type of aesthetic, or finds them in shows that don't have them, but he certainly mentions them when they are present and promotes them as Chicagoan.) People could certainly argue over whether such qualities are more present in Chicago's thatre than in other cities'--a question I couldn't even begin to answer. But I still think the promotion of a Chicago brand is a good thing--especially for people whose ideas of theatre are limited to a narrow aesthetic. The coverage promotes Chicago's home-grown shows and hopefully creates interest in everything the city has to offer.

But, as with many concepts, this Chicago brand can be over-used. Another issue is the fact that the nebulous concept of the Chicago brand is often evoked with a simple phrase: "Chicago-Style." And that's unfortunate. I love theatre in this town, but when I read the phrase "Chicago-Style," I think of pizza. And hot dogs. And when you put "Chicago-Style" in both the headline and the final sentence of a review, it's awfully difficult to concentrate on Frost/Nixon and keep the mind off of Lou Malnati's.

I understand that space is at a premium and punchy phrases are hugely useful to getting across ideas, and I certainly am in favor of Chris Jones' work in helping to promote the brand of theatre in Chicago. It's a wonderful thing and I hope he continues. I just think this particular phrase doesn't quite work.


Monday, August 2, 2010

DrekFest Starts Tonight!

As you should know, tonight marks the first evening of DrekFest 4 at Stage Left. You really need to come. 7:30, ComedySportz at 929 W Belmont, tickets available at the door, you can bring your drinks into the theatre. And four hilariously bad new plays, not to mention the reprise of the winner from 2008. Here's tonight's program:

You Didn’t See This Coming: The play with a twist ending you won’t see coming,  by Kate Black
Untitled Brilliant Play (The Title Should Sound Very Artistic if You Have any Ideas): A True Opus Worthy of All the Greats, by James Thomson
Town Our: A Post-Structuralist Deconstruction of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, by Drekfest 2009 winner Randall Colburn
Women & Men & Women: Or, I am Totally not a Misogynist, by Robert Karol.

While the votes are tabulated, an encore reading of The Worst Play from 2008 The Frenzied Beating of the Jungle Tom-Toms Once More, Once More, by Rob Kozlowski.

Next week sees four more hilarious plays and the return of the 2009 winner, and the following sees the top two shows from each night (by popular vote), with the grand loser winning a cash prize!

Oh, and if you want to see me act, this would be a very good chance. Especially if you want to see me as a supremely egotistical and insecure playwright attempting to win his ex-girlfriend back through pretentious theatrical deconstruction. Just saying.