Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year In Review 2008

I counted up my reviews for Centerstage and this blog, which add up to over 30, plus at least another 20-25 shows I saw as a civilian, in Chicago, New York, Connecticut, and Cleveland--at least a play a week this year, probably more. I didn't see nearly as much as some did, and I missed some of the best theatre of the year, but here is my personal list of some of the most memorable things I saw this year in Chicago. These are all Chicago shows, and leave out shows or companies with which I was affiliated--so nothing from Stage Left or Northlight, though they produced some exceptional stuff this year. Here, arranged alphabetically, are some of the best things I've seen this year.

Production (Play)

Edward II (Chicago Shakespeare)--Sean Graney's promenade staging in Chicago Shakespeare's Upstairs space, with the audience and the actors sharing the same place and scenes erupting all over the place, may not have been a purist rendering of Christopher Marlowe's script (about half of which was missing). However, since I wasn't familiar with the play, I was swept up in the show's intensity and theatricality. The production lacked subtlety, but it packed a punch, and I'll never look at a pair of garden shears the same way again.

Ruined (Goodman Theatre)--Lynn Nottage's new play took on a grisly subject--sexual violence against women in the Congo--and made it gripping and sympathetic. This was no lecture, it was a play full of vibrant life and hope. As Kate Whoriskey's production moves to the Manhattan Theatre Club, I hope that it continues to reach audiences as it did in Chicago.

A Steady Rain (Chicago Dramatists)--I caught this play from fall 2007 in its run at the Royal George this spring. Simple, powerful stuff, about two cops in a downward spiral. No formal fireworks, but a simple story that packed a wallop. It's great to see something so serious have a real financial success.

Superior Donuts (Steppenwolf)--For his followup to August: Osage County, Tracy Letts went in a completely different direction, for this comedy set in an Uptown doughnut shop. It lacked the scope and intensity of its Pulitzer-winning forerunner, but it featured a real depth of feeling and a keen eye of the issues facing Chicago (and many other cities) today. Tina Landau's production was bursting with warmth and life.

Titus Andronicus (Court Theatre)--Wrenching. This revisionist production wildly divided people, but I found its stark look at how groups slide into violence extraordinary. It may not quite have held together, but I can't argue with the fact that I was almost sick after seeing the show. Some of the images still haven't left my head.

Production (Musical)

Caroline, Or Change (Court Theatre)--Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's profound meditation on race, religion, civil rights, family, and change made its belated Chicago debut, five years after its scandalously brief Broadway run. It was worth the wait. Charles Newell's gloriously simple staging let the play's intense emotional and intellectual impact come through. Gorgeous playing and singing didn't hurt. The audience was left devastated and cheering, and a serious, dark musical managed to sell out an extended run.

Carousel (Court Theatre)--Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote an extremely dark play, and this production played up the desolation in Billy and Julie's lives--how the complete lack of economic opportunities drove them to self-destructive behavior. The singing was inconsistent, and some missed the color and romance, but I was wiping away tears by the last scene.

Nine (Porchlight)--Maury Yeston's gorgeous score was given a highly entertaining, exceptionally well-sung production. What a pleasure to hear such amazing female voices given the chance to wrap themselves around such powerful songs.

The Threepenny Opera (The Hypocrites)--Sean Graney used the entire Steppenwolf Garage space for this galvanizing production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's extraordinarily difficult show. They nailed both Brecht's social point and his wicked sense of fun, and Weill's gorgeous tunes were well-served. An orchestra would have been nice, but it was still electrifying.

New Script

10 Virgins (Chicago Dramatists)--Laura Jacqmin's play was not completely successful, but it made for a fascinating exploration of the place of gender in fairy tales. A real mind-teaser, but theatrically vivid as well.

Ruined (Goodman Theatre)--Lynn Nottage has crafted a play that succeeds both in raising awareness of a real problem and bringing us deeply into the lives of the characters. We'll see more of this play.

A Steady Rain (Chicago Dramatists)--Intense and moving, and proof that sometimes, all you need is a good story told well.

Superior Donuts (Steppenwolf)--Warm, funny, moving, and socially acute. The success of August: Osage County caused people to underrate it, but I think it will eventually find wider respect than it has now.

Performance (Play)

Celebrity Row (American Theatre Company)--Itamar Moses extraordinary, though as yet unrealized, play got a scorching production in the hands of four actors playing four of the most notorious criminals in recent history, along with one actress as the idealistic lawyer who got caught up in their games. Their performances made even the script's slack sections riveting.

The Misanthrope (Greasy Joan)--The production of Moliere's comedy was inconsistent and sometimes puzzling, but Kevin Cox as the title character was a marvel. He was a comic whirlwind, the proverbial bull in the china shop, and took the play to dizzying comic heights.

Superior Donuts (Steppenwolf)--The word "incandescent" was created for Jon Hill. As young doughnut shop employee Franco Wicks, he lit up the stage whenever he appeared. It was impossible to take your eyes from him. He more than justified having been chosen as a Steppenwolf Ensemble member as soon as he graduated college.

The Trip To Bountiful (Goodman Theatre)--Realism at its finest, in the extraordinary performances of Lois Smith and Hallie Foote, daughter of playwright Horton Foote. Rarely have I seen performances that seemed so effortlessly lived, rather than acted.

Performance (Musical)

Caroline, Or Change (Court Theatre)--The titanic E. Faye Butler, in the title role, led the way, but the women of this production all stood out, with Melanie Brezill, Jacqueline Williams, and Kate Fry being only the most amazing. What a combination of fiercely committed acting and gorgeous voices.

Forbidden Broadway (Royal George Theatre)--Unsurprisingly, the cast proved extraordinarily adept at skewering a wide variety of Broadway personalities, but Valerie Fagan, with a dangerous glint in her eye, stood out.

Nine (Porchlight)--With a commanding and delightful lead performance by Jeff Parker and one of the most diverse and impressive groups of women I've ever seen on stage, this was first-class musical theatre performing.

Sweeney Todd (Broadway in Chicago)--In John Doyle's fascinating production, Judy Kaye gave an exceptional performance as Mrs. Lovett. By performing the play rather than her own private show, Kaye significantly improved on Patti LuPone's work and made the entire production look much better.


David Cromer--While I sadly missed his acclaimed productions of Our Town and Picnic, his crystalline work on Celebrity Row made it eminently clear why Cromer has suddenly, after a 20 year career, become a celebrity, and will be making his Broadway directing debut in the fall on 2009.

Sean Graney--He can certainly be accused of flash, but every one of Graney's productions I've seen has been vivid and involving. Edward II and The Threepenny Opera were two of the most pulse-pounding productions I've seen in a long time, though perhaps better if viewed as Graney's plays rather than classics.

Charles Newell--I have yet to not love one of Newells productions. All three shows he directed this year were among the best I saw--Titus Andronicus, Carousel,  and Caroline, or Change. His stagings divide many, but count me among his fans.

Kate Whoriskey--The sense of a world fully lived in that she created with the exceptional cast of Ruined is hard to forget. I went from knowing little about the Congo to feeling like I'd visited.


10 Virgins (Chicago Dramatists)--Five of the ten sisters depicted in the play are portrayed by puppets, and Allison Daniel's designs made them full parts of the production, as well-characterized as the flesh and blood actresses. They were invaluable in telling the story.

The Birthday Party (Signal Ensemble Theatre)--Harold Pinter's play shows a seemingly ordinary world where menace slowly undermines everything the characters and audience think they know. Julie E. Ballard's lighting slyly and subtly helped to bring this atmosphere to disturbing life.

Cadillac (Chicago Dramatists)--While I had problems with Bill Jepsen's script, he and set designer Kevin Depinet worked together to create a pitch-perfect evocation of the used car lot where it was set.

Termen Vox Machina (Oracle Theatre)--I didn't like the confusing script or the production concept of live actors lip-synching to a pre-recorded soundtrack at all. However, I can't get Tyler Burke's set, made from layers plastic curtains, out of my head. If the entire play had been as intriguing as the set, I would have been hooked.

Biggest Disappointments

Bernarda Alba (Bohemian Theatre Ensemble)--In adapting Federico Garcia Lorca's extraordinary play, Michael John LaChiusa added some gorgeous music. Unfortunately, he also sapped the play of its dramatic vitality and tension. Boho's production put some exceptional voices onstage, but a miniscule stage and some bizarre miscasting undercut the power of their production. Possibly the year's saddest case of a potentially amazing piece of theatre constantly undercutting itself.

Jersey Boys (Broadway in Chicago)--While I'm no great fan of the music of The Four Seasons, I was led to expect that Jersey Boys would be an interesting story told in an exciting and entertaining way. Instead I found a script that was a laughable concoction of cliche and sentimentality. This is what has sold out everywhere it has played? Oy.

Saint Joan (The Shaw Festival at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre)--Ever since I appeared in a production of it, George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan has been among my very favorite plays, and in the may years I have been lucky to attend it, Canada's Shaw Festival has proved itself among the best theatres on the planet. So what a disappointment to find this production too polite and lacking in fire. Perhaps the saddest disappointment of the year.

Pure Pleasure

A Commedia Christmas Carol (Chicago dell'Arte)--In their adaptation of A Christmas Carol, the expert clowns of Chicago dell'Arte resurrect the 16th Century Italian art of commedia dell'arte in deliriously funny fashion. Completely ridiculous and utterly delightful.

Los Desaparecidos (The Vanished) (Babes With Blades)--Barbara Lhota's new play, set in 16th-Century Spain, may have stretched credulity with an improbable plot and the characters somehow maintaining gay and interracial relationships against the odds. But if you were willing to let go, it made for a thoroughly delightful evening, full of laughs, thrills, and exceptional stage combat.

What a year! Hapy New Year, and here's to a 2009 that's just as exciting!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Dale Wasserman Dies at 94

Dale Wasserman, who wrote the stage version of One Flew Over The Cukoo's Nest and wrote the book for Man of La Mancha has died at 94. The obit has some very interesting tidbits about him. He lived a full life, that's for sure, and creating two of the most popular plays of the twentieth century was only part of it.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Harold Pinter, 1930-2008

Harold Pinter has died, at the age of 78, after a lengthy illness. He was first diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2002. The New York Times has an excellent obituary here. (In a macabre touch, since obituaries are often drafted long before their subject dies, this one was co-written by Times culture writer Mel Gussow--who himself died in 2005.)

The Times also has an excellent page filled with reviews of Pinter's plays and films, and a wide variety of articles about him. It's an excellent way to get a deeper view of his work, and it can be found here.

Pinter was one of the great playwrights of our time--something which was recognized by the Nobel committee, which made Pinter only the ninth playwright awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (previous ones included George Bernard Shaw, Luigi Pirandello, Eugene O'Neill, and Samuel Beckett). 

I've had a few wonderful Pinter experiences, including seeing an absolutely terrifying Old Times at Northwestern, The Hothouse, his earliest play, at London's National Theatre, and The Birthday Party, here in Chicago at Signal Ensemble Theatre. Old Times had me gasping when a woman lit a cigarette, The Hothouse, though written before Pinter had really found his voice and taking place in a theatre somewhat too large for the script's claustrophobia, was still a fascinating and frightening look into darkness, and The Birthday Party exposed my boyfriend, who didn't know Pinter's work, to one of his most disturbing and bizarre plays. I'm still not sure he's forgiven me.

I also had the opportunity to work on his plays in acting class my senior year at Northwestern. Doing the Lenny-Ruth scene from The Homecoming is about as much fun as I've ever had in acting class. As cryptic as the language is, it's incredibly alive, practically electric, and unbelievably fun to speak.

So let's remember Pinter--How many other playwrights have inspired adjectives?--insert mysterious pauses into our conversation, and look for "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet," as Pinter described his own works. There won't be another like him, but what riches he has given!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

New Review Posted: A Commedia Christmas Carol

Over at Centerstage, they've posted my review of Chicago dell'Arte's A Commedia Christmas Carol, playing at the Boho theatre in the Heartland Studio through 12/31. It's totally delightful, and a great use of $15 for anyone who wants 90 minutes of guilt-free laughter. I highly recommend a visit, and I certainly plan to check out whatever they do next.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Personal Announcement

I just wanted to let you all know that I have been invited to join the ensemble of Stage Left Theatre in Chicago. I am already dramaturging their upcoming production, the world premiere of David Alan Moore's The Day of Knowledge, and I will continue to work in a mostly literary/dramaturgy capacity, along with the usual duties of load-in, box office, and more. I'm incredibly excited to get the chance to work more with the people at Stage Left, who I think are pretty wonderful. It's also amazing to be in an ensemble 18 months out of college--especially of a company that has been around for so long--since 1982, which is an eternity in Chicago. We've produced some exceptional work over the years, and I am sure we will do more in the future.

And those of you who act or write political plays: Submit your material! I promise nothing, but I'd love for some of you to come along for the ride--and we do a few full productions and plenty of workshops and readings over the course of the season.

I can't wait to see you all at 3408 N Sheffield!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tempest in a Teapot of the Day

Snobbishness goes in all directions.

In a recent article in the New York Times about the difficulty Broadway producers are having finding capitalization for their shows, and the increasing number of shows closing in January, Nancy Coyne, head of the PR firm Serino Coyne made a remark that one might politely call really dumb:

“The good news is that so many straight plays are now coming in the spring, and I think New Yorkers will come out for them once the tourists go away,” Ms. Coyne said. “We’re horrible snobs. We hate tourists from Cleveland.”

The Times has a piece about the ensuing flap here. Predictably, the focus has mostly been on the last sentence--regarding the opinion of Clevelanders--and not the second to last, in which Coyne admits New Yorker's snobbishness. Tony Brown's writeup of the incident in the Plain Dealer has elicited the expected barbs towards 1) Nasty, wealthy, elitist New Yorkers who have no interest in the rest of the country and 2) Theatre, which on Broadway consists of nothing but frothy musicals, and which no real person cares about. Who says New Yorkers are the only ones with  judgmental views of those outside of their world?

I am a Clevelander who has frequently visited New York. I like to think that my tastes are not those of the stereotypical tourist (how many 16 year olds see Ibsen and Strindberg on one trip?) but I can not deny the lure of Broadway. To a certain extent this is because I, like many, grew up loving big Broadway musicals, and never have (and hopefully never will) gotten over that love. When done well, nothing is better.

Also, people in any major city can get tough, experimental shows at home. In Cleveland, Dobama, CPT, and many other places produce exceptional work that pushes all of the boundaries. What Cleveland doesn't have in the same degree is big stuff--yes, there are the touring Broadway shows, but in my experience those are generally poor substitutes for the real thing. Touring theatres are generally much larger than those on Broadway, and it makes a difference in the experience--being one of 1,000 in the audience of New York's Spring Awakening is certainly different from being one of 2,500 in Cleveland.

However, having observed a lot of tourists in New York, I can say that the criticism of them is sometimes valid: walking slowly and blocking pedestrian traffic, treating the city like a garbage can, and generally being inconsiderate is enough to drive the most patient person mad. And New York is not an environment that breeds patience. However, those who live in New York would be well advised to remember that tourism is a major part of the city's economy, and, especially these days, it might be wise to do everything you can to make the city welcoming to those few who can still afford to be tourists.

As for Broadway: yes, there is a lot of crap there, but it doesn't take much work to find stuff that is serious and interesting. Just among currently running shows August: Osage County, Avenue Q, Boeing-Boeing, Dividing the Estate, Equus, In The Heights, Pal Joey, South Pacific, Speed the Plow, Spring Awakening, The 39 Steps, and The Seagull all have something more than flash to recommend them. When you add in Off-Broadway, there is plenty to engage an audience with good taste.

Also, a word in favor of snobbishness: it sometimes just means someone who really cares about something and has trouble with the disrespect so many people have for the art. Looking at what is and is not successful in the world of theatre, I am not ashamed to be a snob.

Besides, I live in Chicago, which is obviously vastly superior to either Cleveland or New York.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Scientologist Kids and Robert Prosky

So there's this great new website called Decider Chicago, which is wonderful for several reasons:

1) It is a city guide-type website from the people behind The Onion and The A.V. Club, two of my favorite media institutions.

2) I've been taken on by them as a freelancer, and will be writing occasional pieces for them, which will be a whole lot of fun. I'm really excited to start pitching and start writing.

However, whatever I write will have trouble competing, in weirdness and hilarity, with their most recent theatre article: an interview with the kids in the cast of A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant at A Red Orchid Theatre. The show is, as the title suggests, a Christmas pageant, starring actual preteens, that tells the story of scientology. It got a great response in New York, and if the show is anywhere near as funny as the article,  it's going to be great in Chicago too. I'm hoping to see it soon, and will let you know when I do. Whether or not you can make it to the show, do read the article--preteens having a serious discussion about religion is about as strange and hysterical a thing as you're going to encounter.

I also read with some sadness this week about the death of Robert Prosky, at age 77. Prosky was one of those consummate character actor--the New York Times obituary described him as having appeared in 220 plays, 38 movies, and hundreds of television shows--best known to theatre fans for his performance as Shelley Levene in the original Glengarry Glen Ross and to TV watchers as the desk sergeant in the later seasons of Hill Street Blues. I think that he epitomized the ideal of the working actor, and wish I'd gotten the chance to see him on stage.