Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Co-Ed Prison Sluts

Mick Napier's Chicago classic doesn't require any commentary from me, so I'll stick with this:

"Shit, motherfucker,
Fuck you, you cunt or a prick!
Bloooooooow job...

Suck my dick!"

You know what I'm talking about. If not, there's one quick way to find out.


You know what I'm seeing this weekend? Nothing! Happy New Year, all; I'll see you on the other side of '09.


Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Christmas Carol/A Very Neo-Futurist Christmas Carol

As I settled down in the warmth of the Indiana Repertory Theatre and got ready for A Christmas Carol on a frigid Sunday night, I realized that I have very little experience with the story. I'd never seen it on stage, I don't know that I've ever actually read it, and my film experience is limited to some late 70s/early 80s animation (After some online research, I think my mind might be creating some odd mash-up memories based on Mickey's Christmas Carol and The Stingiest Man In Town.) and two minutes of Scrooged -- the part where he wants to staple antlers on mice or something like that. Somehow I managed to grow up in rural Americana and still escape much of the media saturation of holiday sentimentality. (Admission of guilt: I've also never seen It's A Wonderful Life and have only seen A Christmas Story once, well over a dozen years ago. I'm telling you, if it wasn't animated, lil' Paul didn't have much to do with it.)

Yet I have managed to pick up the distaste for the idea of A Christmas Carol -- the sickly sweet sound of a crippled boy raining blessings upon every one that seems to peal across stage and screen this time of year. So I was determined, going into my first experience, to at least try to find the lasting appeal beneath the sentimental; this is Dickens, after all, there's gotta be more than just happy sappy life lessons. Turns out I picked a good production to start out that train of thought -- IRT's Christmas Carol, while telling the traditional Dickens tale, does so in a way that emphasizes the theatricality of the production, rather than opting for the good ol' sawhorse of realism. Set on a field of snow, set pieces are wheeled in and out, dropped from the flies, and are pulled up from under the snow or a number of trap doors. It creates a very ensemble heavy show, a virtue that allows the storytelling to take center stage. And Dickens being Dickens, the storytelling is, of course, where the real redemption lies.

I had forgotten that this is a story about a man. Not of life lessons and behavioral 180s and god blessing the top to the bottom (although those things each play their part), but of one man and the very particular reasons that have brought him to the point of detachment that he now embodies. As we look on, Dickens shows us Scrooge not ruing the decisions he has made, but actually acknowledging and taking stock of them -- in many cases seemingly for the first time. At the IRT, this is well served by Charles Goad, who provides a bit of humor to pre-ghost Scrooge. Yes, he's a crabby old man, but he's a crabby old man who we need to feel an attachment for, and Goad's slightly relaxed clip gives us that entry point.

It is A Christmas Carol, which means it is a moneymaker, which means it is an audience piece, so the whole thing played out more or less as expected (within the inventive adaptation, of course), but it was nice to know that I could come out of one of the biggest chestnuts of all without wanting to tear my hair, and it was a good refresher course on the original (who knew that Mickey was leaving bits out -- Ignorance and Want, the whole Sister Fan death thing -- actually, everyone but me probably knew....), a reminder that there's a reason this story has stuck around for a while, no matter what it may have become in some instances.


It was a good thing I had that refresher course, too, because the Neo-Futurists weren't waiting for no stragglers. A Very Neo-Futurist Christmas Carol holds few ties to Dickens original story and those present are frequently tenuous. I suppose that is exactly what I should have expected from the Neo-Futurists, but not having a long history with the story, I was desperately hanging on for even the most fleeting recognition for a while at the beginning. Once I gave up and let go, things got much easier. I still, shame of shames, haven't been to Too Much Light, but this was something that, in my head, looks similar to TML: Holiday Edition. Which is cool and all, there were some great bits: a flour/water/dance Christmas Past piece that had me wavering between joy and tears, some bracingly honest on stage audience Q & A, a send-up of the Christmas goose tradition. But when Bilal Dardai towards the close of the show explains that the real undercurrent is that Scrooge could have learned the lessons he learned at any time during the year, I was on board -- there was the appeal I was looking for. There was the way in to this whole Christmas Carol phenomenon. But things swerved giddily back to overdone and larger than life Christmas immediately after, and by that time I was left wondering what the bother was. Of course, that was the whole point of what the Neos were doing, but that awareness didn't make the gaudiness of contemporary Christmas any less empty.


Here's the rest of the line-up for '08, so's you all know what you got coming to ya. Friday was Annoyance's Co-Ed Prison Sluts (now there's a holiday classic) and Saturday was Remy Bumppo's The Marriage Of Figaro. Next week, I've got Writer's The Maids on Monday and Chicago dell'Arte's A Commedia Christmas Carol on Tuesday. Hope everyone had a Merry Christmas! I'll be back before the New Year to spread some more good cheer.


Saturday, December 27, 2008

Last to go...

"These damn silences and pauses are all to do with what's going on … and if they don't make any sense, then I always say cut them. I think they've been taken much too far these silences and pauses in my plays. I've really been extremely depressed when I've seen productions in which a silence happens because it says silence or a pause happens because it says pause. And it's totally artificial and meaningless.

When I myself act in my own plays, which I have occasionally, I've cut half of them, actually."

-Harold Pinter

No witty en memoriam "pause" quips from me. Thank you for your words, Mr. Pinter, that's how I'll remember you.


Man: Yes, it was the 'Evening News' was the last to go tonight.

Barman: Not always the last though, is it, though?

Man: No. Oh no. I mean sometimes it's the 'News'. Other times it's one of the others. No way of telling beforehand. Until you've got your last one left, of course. Then you can tell which one it's going to be.

Barman: Yes.


Man: Oh yes.


I think he must have left the area.

- The final lines of "Last To Go"

Rest in peace.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Our Bad Magnet/A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant

Douglas Maxwell's Our Bad Magnet, running now at Mary Arrchie, ends on a uplifting moment of floral sentimentality. After weaving in and out of three decades with a quartet of young Scottish pals and being hinted everywhere from ghost story to detective tale to sobering domestic abuse fable, Maxwell kicks open the trap door beneath our emotions, dropping us directly in front of the light at the end of the nostalgic tunnel. I left the theatre with a warm feeling that lasted a good hour or so, which was about the point I really started thinking about the play again and notice just how little finality we're given despite the "Everything's Gonna Be Okay" tinged ending.

The story revolves around three friends meeting up at their hometown at the age of 29 largely because of some dealings regarding a odd duck storyteller fourth who they befriended at the age of 9 and who may or may not have killed himself at 19. As scenes from all three ages intermingle, we pick up bits and pieces of the bigger picture: harrowing home lives, deeper connections, intra- and extramarital affairs, shady business dealings. It's a great set up for a cubist exploration of the transition from young to young adult and on again to adult and the building and breaking of relationships that progress necessitates. But Maxwell has his heart on telling a story, dammit, and sets himself across the poles from his storyteller protagonist of sorts by insisting that the story of Our Bad Magnet bow up all nice and pretty at the end.

Of course, it doesn't, or rather shouldn't, and even though the playwright has the perfect bow picked out and placed on top, it only serves to cheapen an otherwise intricately explored world. It also goes to show that honest/earnest performances (as this cast puts in across the board) can only mask disingenuity in writing for so long before the foundation falters.


A Red Orchid's A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant is the type of show begging to fall into half a dozen different pitfalls and yet this production manages to sidestep almost all of them without a second glance. There's no false advertising here; a group of ten youngsters are really going on nightly in a theatre whose usual bill of fare is one of the least likely in Chicago to come under the heading 'child-friendly'. These kids are all at that age of full ripeness -- that junior highish phase where humans learn to lie, cheat, and steal but aren't yet bitter enough to hide their enthusiasm for it -- and through their self-awareness threaten to render every inch of this show another inch for them to grab attention. But co-directors Lance Baker and Steve Wilson perform nothing short of the impossible in herding them to effectivity. Instead of attempting to stifle these kids into the square hole of theatre, Baker and Wilson utilize each individual Look At Me tendency smoothly towards the show's purpose (let the muggers mug, let the straight (wo)men go unfliched, let the girl with the Heelys wheel, etc.).

And as a result, instead of child actor hell in which focus is drawn so many directions it snaps, we get a show that understands that, yes, poking fun at L. Ron Hubbard is a good time, but the success of the evening relies on the fact that, the kids ARE the focus, and lets the jokes serve them rather than the other way around. We all know the punchlines and we all know where this game is headed (although, in the reverse of Our Bad Magnet, Very Merry Scientology adds a last minute turn of emotion that sits very nicely), but we don't know where these little punks are going to go to get us there. It's a lot of fun finding out.


Busy weekend -- Six Degrees of Separation and Soiree DADA are both closing Saturday night, and on Sunday I'm driving to Indianapolis to see my once roommate in Indiana Repertory's A Christmas Carol. Also on the pre-Christmas planner: in celebration of the day of my birth, on Tuesday the 23rd I'm catching closing night of The Neo-Futurists' A Very Neo-Futurist Christmas Carol and then hopping around the block to Konak for a birthday bash with the tiny smattering of folk still in town despite the holiday. Feel free to stop by, I'd love to have you!


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cut To The Quick

I'll be perfectly honest: when the side project announced they were doing a season of short play programs, I was a little bummed. I've seen (and participated in) enough one act and ten minute play festivals that were nothing more than a cheap way to promote interest and make a buck. Save a killing on royalties, save on tech by requiring something minimal enough to work for all the shows, guarantee heavy ticket sales simply by volume of people involved (meaning lots of friends and lots of families), there's all kinds of practical reasons to tackle the short play route. And, primarily because they've been done for practical reasons, every one I sit through, be it as an audience member, writer, director, or actor, is tremendously painful -- one, maybe two pieces of worth drowning in a sea of half-assedness. Of course, I know a good chunk of the gang up at the side project, and should have known better than to make this assumption about their Cut To The Quick festival -- especially with Artistic Director Adam Webster at the helm. What I found way up on Jarvis was beyond a pleasant surprise. Cut To The Quick, and all three programs at that, renewed my enthusiasm for the short form, an enthusiasm I know I once had but don't remember quite when it went away.

The most exciting part about the prospect of the short festival is the sheer amount of talent potentially on display. Within these three programs are the work of 18 playwrights, 16 directors, and 38 actors, leaving the audience scrambling between shows or at intermission to dig through their program to confirm artist names or find out who's done what. The wow factor is that on target here. So many of these shows work and work well, and even the ones not firing on all cylinders somebody or something to grab your attention and keep you connected. And then, every once and a while, a flash of genius comes out of the blue and just rivets you to your seat. Whether it's an actor (Otis Fine, a tragedy of vulnerability in the dueling monologue piece Three Hymns of Apathy), a director (Anna C. Bahow, whose ability to leave well enough alone and faith enough to sustain that decision turns What Happened When from uncomfortable confessional to voyeuristic cleansing), or a writer (Brett Neveu, working the ten-minute play to its inconclusive best in Ethnic Cleansing Day), you find yourself initially sad that their work is over so quickly, but upon discovering that this isn't an isolated incident, it makes every play a new thrill of possibility.

And when all cylinders happen to fire at exactly the same time, the result is theatre as strong as you'll find anywhere in the city condensed into five to twenty minutes of magnified, edge of your seat, unable to blink magic. It happened thrice in the day for me: Joseph Talarico's Dead Weight, proving that the apocalyptic teen girl downer comedy is a far underemployed genre, coaxed belly laughs (in a festival surprisingly full of drama) while simultaneously slicing me up for having the gall to laugh at the horror of it all; Brian Golden's Not That (But Something Else)'s self-fulfilling full cast achievement through denial brought everyone one rung closer to each other; and, by far my favorite of the festival, Matthew Ira Swaye's One Lucky Duck was a short, simple one woman burst of subconscious energy that director Gina LoPiccolo tamed down to allow actress Lisa Stevens to build back up. It might have been one of the shortest pieces of the festival -- it certainly felt like it -- but I couldn't move for fear of interrupting the unfiltered thought process unwinding itself in front of me. And then it was done. And then it moved on. (Sway's moot, also a part of the festival, helped launch him to the front of my artist to watch list, even if that one was far less served by the performers.)

I think the biggest sign of the side project's success, however, isn't the shows I liked, but those I didn't. After spending a good seven hours up in Rogers Park on a cold Sunday afternoon and taking in a grand total of 19 shows, only two at any point lost my interest: the busily written and clumsily directed Agony In The Gardens and Wilderness Sarchild's Slave Day, which acts as an illustrated guide through all of the annoying and preachy aspects of the social consciousness play. But when most short work festivals manage to find one or two moments of clarity in a sea of drek, to find one with only one or two missteps is just this side of miraculous. Congratulations to every one of the many, many, many people involved on this massive undertaking. Cut to the Quick is a benchmark for how this type of theatre should be presented


Also, I've stumbled across a new playwright to share. Go read you some Robert Pinget. If Beckett had a fraternal twin, it would be Pinget. I just read About Mortin and The Hypothesis and am beginning Clope. Hella good stuff all around.


Monday, December 8, 2008

The Thugs/Romeo And Juliet

Goodness me, it's college night at Profiles, and it shows...

Adam Bock's Obie winning The Thugs is running now (soon to be closing) and it's peppered with an office of newly twenty-something temps. Not that age is problem for this production, but experience might be proving to be so. Bock's script is a compilation of verbal spurts -- machine gun repetition, ellipses and interrupting hyphens abound, and nary a finished sentence in the bunch. No one in this script is willing to actually finish a thought, which is plenty all right because no one is willing to let any one else finish a though, either. It's a bit on the gimmick end of the stylistic stick (or at least becomes such when presented in a rapid fire manner, as here), but it's a gimmick that at least holds some interest, when done well.

Unfortunately, it rarely is this time at Profiles. In what I have a strong urge to chalk up to mistakes of the learning variety, the show runs along on half-sentences treated with a period, upward inflection in preparation of being cut off, and very little actual cutting off. The show, revolving around mysterious deaths in an office building (with an entirely superficial domestic violence subplot being tossed thematically on when Bock finds it convenient) loses all its thrill and, what the hell, mystery when the characters seem to have a ten second foresight on all conversation. The chaos and terror in this situation (in most situations, for that matter) is a result of the unexpected and the unbelieved and yet the terribly real. These characters are sympathetic because, like us, they ain't got the foggiest about what's really going on. And in this production, everyone is playing to their next line, or, even worse, to the next time they get to stop talking.

There's a couple of redeemers in the crowd: Bob Pries brings something nearing a lilt to Bock's verbal quickstep that is both odd and surprisingly welcome and Annie Slivinski's Mary, when she finally gets something to do, is charmingly underspoken in a nutjob sorta way. Oh, and the 'working' elevator set piece is a wonderful sort of low-budget magic to lend a little gravitas to the tiny Profiles space. But the nagging question is for director Joe Jahraus. Joe, you're the Artistic Director of a pretty darn respected little storefront that sees dozens of up and comers through its doors each year through the ubiquitous Profiles classes, to be found on resumes from here to eternity. How did you allow the entire young portion of this cast to slide so sloppily through?


Meanwhile, over at the Chopin an old favorite is being done in a... well, it's being done, period, I guess. I wasn't sure exactly what I was expecting from TUTA's Romeo and Juliet, but I know I was expecting something. Between my past experience with the company and the (in hindsight, disjointed) marketing campaign for this show -- the haunting hindered romance Magritte poster, the heavy focus on violence in synopses, the Graney/Shakes copping use of the entire title of the play -- I assumed that I was going to get something unexpected, or at least something with a view askance. Wrong on all accounts.

This Romeo and Juliet is a 95% standard fare edition of the show, which in itself isn't a bad thing. I'm certainly an apologist for the occasional chestnut. But I think at this point in time, especially if we're talking about perhaps the most widely known play in nation and beyond, it should be understood that if you're going to tackle it and tackle it concept free, you better have your shit fucking down. What's on stage at the Chopin isn't awful. It isn't even bad. Heck, it even feels a decent amount shorter than its three hour running time. But it's nothing special, and with a play this well known, nothing special is damnation enough.

As I go into more detail, I feel the need to throw out the disclaimer that Romeo and Juliet is a play very, very close to my heart (it's number seven in The Nine) and that I maintain a unique -- not left field, but unique -- reading of it. Zeljko Djukich's production for TUTA, as with most traditional productions of this show, makes a lot of choices that I very firmly disagree with. I tried my damnedest here, as I was during the show, to isolate and remove those personal complaints from complaints that I think hurt the show as TUTA was trying to portray it. I think I did a pretty good job, but be forewarned.

Martin Andrew's scaffold based semicircle set looks fantastic and, when being climbed all over works fantastic as well, but in the Chopin's mainstage space, which has been deepened about as far as it can go here, the set leaves center stage a gigantic void, sucking away any sense of location. During moments of repeated use, the show gains an open mic feeling, as Friar Laurence or whoever strolls off while Juliet runs in (it always seems to be Juliet running in) to be the next to grab the center spot. Keith Parham's ultra-dim lighting design, easy to reason and, again, effective when not being swallowed by the black hole center, only serves to deaden the mood even further in those moments.

The actors almost uniformly suffer the same 'not bad, it'll do' diagnosis as the rest of the production. Matthew Holzfeind's Romeo and Alice Wedoff's Juliet do having a shining moment or two apiece (all apart from each other, and primarily in the second half, which does pick up some slack), and Dan Cox's hilarious turn as Peter is one big exception, even if his Prince is incredibly ineffective... most likely an interpretive complaint. Even Peter DeFaria, who is a talent to no end, seems to be relatively passing through. I actually thought I was going to have a lot to say about the performances, but looking back, almost all of my major complaints (of which there are quite a few) are complaints in the interpretation. The one that I do think severely hurts this show on TUTAs terms as well is Aaron Holland's tendency to deliver Mercutio's words (especially the Queen Mab speech) more akin to soliloquies than monologues. All of Mercutio's power and influence flies out the window when he is presented as distracted rather than driving, to the point where it's almost a little jarring when he suddenly gains presence as he is dying, as if it's unexpected for him to be at all a real part of this corporeal world.

There is, of course, the much touted silent final scene, which is a bold choice, and a strong one, too. It's one that had my fists clenched in interpretive anger, but it is bold and strong, I won't deny that. It feels a little more intriguing than it actually ends up being, because after two hours and forty something minutes of straight up Shakes, anything new is going to seem otherworldly. That's probably the most disappointing part: that the only strong choice made in the show had to wait until fifteen minutes before the curtain. If Djukich could have taken those moments and found a way to carry that intrigue through the rest of the show, he would have had something special. As is, he's got the same thing we've all known about since our ratty paperback copies of R & J in high school.


This weekend is kicking off on Friday with an ultra super mega turbo DADA [g]nimbus at Soiree DADA. There's not actually going to be anything more ultra, super, mega, or turbo about him than usual, but I thought I might try the Power Ranger approach for once. You should come visit him either way. Saturday is Mary Arrchie's Our Bad Magnet and Sunday is JASC Tsukasa Taiko's Taiko Legacy 5 program. Right now? Right now I'm gearing up for a Butoh workshop tomorrow. Big ol' hecky yeah to that.


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Midsummer Night's Dream/Radio Macbeth/The Unconquered

A three-way! Today spans a pretty wide range while keeping a foot firmly buried in sound.

It was the last of the three that I saw, but I wanna get this out of the way first, before the ADHD readers get restless: get your ass down to Navy Pier and see A Midsummer Night's Dream before it closes this Sunday. If you're under 35, they've got $20 tickets, which is less than some Storefronts charge, and they're not shoving you in the balcony with those, either. I was on the side of the thrust, but still arm's length from the action.

For those who haven't been paying attention, this production of Midsummer is part of the World's Stage series. Comprised of an Indian and Sri Lankan cast, the show is performed in a weaving of eight languages: English, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali, Sanskrit, and Sinhala. It also incorporates elements of dance, aerial gymnastics and martial arts all on a sand-floored stage. Thirdly, it's the most vibrant, heart-warming, absolutely bursting with life production of Midsummer I've ever been partial to. Less a fleeting comedy than a celebration of all facets of love and sex and the mischief in between, there are moments of pure violence and moments of pure sensuality and moments of pure ridiculousness. But it's mainly purely rapturous.

One thing that has become a point of contention with the show for some is Chicago Shakes' decision to produce the show without translation. The production literally weaves the dialogue among languages: performers switch tongues mid-line and perform some entire scenes of dialogue speaking different languages than each other. If you don't know the story and are looking for a straight and informed narrative experience, I suppose I can understand the frustration. But (and maybe this is a little unfair because I am familiar with the play) I couldn't be farther from it. In fact, the few moments that I was a little less than impressed were the moments, particularly during the beginning, where the show remained in English for an extended period of time. It was during those points that it seemed like I was watching just another mostly faithful rendition of Shakespeare, and that's not what anyone in the audience bought their ticket to see. All the same, using that knowledge, I can't fathom the complaint that it was hard to understand what was happening on stage. Doing a show in a foreign language without translation is one of the many ideas I have long been (and currently am) toying with, and what I saw was very encouraging in confirming what I had suspected -- allowing yourself to fall into the fact that you don't know exactly what is being said transforms the theatrical experience from verbal to musical. And theatre shouldn't be a primarily verbal exercise, or at least it shouldn't have to default to a primarily verbal exercise.

Especially when it is as evident as here that the verbal is not always necessary to get the point and purpose across. Some of the most entrancing and effecting moments in Midsummer have no English involved. P R Jijoy as Theseus and Oberon speaks primarily in Malayalam and Sanskrit with the rarest of English and can't help but draw all eyes every time he is on stage. There are a couple of times when a large group breaks out into traditional song (although music is the universal language) that draw one into the community being constantly shared by this cast. And as M Palani's Demetrius declares his love for Helena in front of everyone the morning after -- and in Tamil -- I unexpectedly snapped out of my trance to realize just how fully locked into the show I was. This was mainly because of the second universal language: Archana Ramaswamy, who plays Hippolyta and Titania. Archana is a vision to behold (she's the one in all of the marketing material you've been seeing) and is always and utterly emotionally turned on during the show. She speaks in English throughout her role, but conveys twice as much simply through a glance here or a little eye contact there. Demetrius' ode to Helena is a perfect example. As I'm listening to this speech, normally a nice little "let's tie up these ends" moment, I glanced at Hippolyta to find a tear-streaked face. And not just a dab. Over a smile to make pulses race, tears were openly flowing down her cheeks. I watched tears drip, drip, drip onto her chest during a scene that is otherwise often a little glossed over in a language that I know nothing about and I was smitten. This is a woman that I want to forget everything and fall in love with. It's just one more on a long list of things about this show that go beyond understanding.


Meanwhile, down in Hyde Park, Court's brought in SITI Company's Radio Macbeth, another visiting Shakespeare production that either requires working knowledge of the source play or a willingness to give in to experience over narrative. This Anne Bogart directed piece is as much a concert as it is a theatrical experience. Set on sparsely furnished bare stage with four or five microphones scattered throughout, Bogart has cut Mackers down to ninety minutes and forged those ninety with a firm sense of musical abstraction. While still technically a telling (actually very much literally so) of the story, Radio Macbeth at its finest moments is a physicalization of Shakespeare's musicality. I'm a firm believer in revisionism and the power of new interpretation when it comes to the classics -- as unpopular as the idea may be, I don't know that the Folio and meter are the sacred cattle that they have become. Important to be aware of and only to be ignored with a purpose, perhaps, but certainly to be ignored from time to time. However, even as I look on from that stance, what Bogart has done is an honor to the placement of these words. If you are going to treat Shakespeare as the poetry that it is, this is what it should sound like. The nightmare soundscape of the Act IV witches/apparitions/kings horror and the absolute percussion of Lady Macbeth's insanity are perfect examples -- words and sounds intertwined to the point that you want to close your eyes on occasion, just to appreciate them.

In the lobby afterwards, I heard a student explaining to his family the plot of Macbeth and how the very loose narrative conceit of Radio Macbeth correlates. I felt bad for them; all of the magic was slowly being drained from the piece in an attempt to gain the upper hand on the ephemera of the show through knowledge and detail. Sometimes theatre isn't only about What Happened in the play. Sometimes, and these are some of the times I find most glorious, it's primarily about What Is Happening on stage.


I'm throwing The Unconquered, currently running at Trap Door, on here as well. It's a bit of an oddball in the grouping, but did you expect any less from Trap Door? With The Unconquered, playwright Torben Betts has reached some sort of odd symbiosis between Beckett, Kane, and Seuss. It's a lazy comparison on my part, but the show does defy easy explanation. In a 50s/60s sitcom world in the midst a revolution, Betts, through extensive repetition, uncomfortable imagery, and rapid fire slash overlapping dialogue, has created a work that pounds your skull into submission politically without ever truly giving an innocent to root for. It's a bleak work, offset by the sunshine of its world, where nothing bad really honestly happens, because even when it does, there's always a little canned laughter to save the day. Even the glimpses of the death and destruction waiting outside are provided to us through live vocal (and thus gleefully underdramatic) sound effects as performed by Kevin Lucero Less as Soldier, a performance that initially provides the vigor for the show but slowly crosses the fence from absurdist to self-parodic. It's kind of a running theme. Everything starts fiercely real in an anti-naturalistic setting and then ever so steadily becomes more and more painfully chosen for absurdity rather than allowed to be absurd, to the point where video footage of Soldier as a Max Headroom/Lounge Singer wannabe blares as Mother and Father do the theatrical robot (because they become incorporated into the machine works that are The System, understand?), while god knows what is exactly happening for the sake of the show. And while a vicious moment of stillness at the end begins the way to redemption, Beata Pilch (who pulls double duty as director and Mother) let the unruliness of the piece to often outweigh the reigns she held. When Soldier enters at a mile a minute making ricochet noises all the way, we're in it. When he becomes vaguely Eurotrash and sings, we're not sure, but we'll play along. And by the time he's a dozen different things, none of them identifiable, we don't know what we're supposed to be listening for or looking at and there's far too much of it with too little interest to even sit back and enjoy the ride.


So, I got my O'Neill Festival tickets in the mail yesterday and apparently this means I'm a Goodman Subscriber for 2008/2009? My Subscriber Benefits book (which only served to confuse me more) and Patron cards were included in the envelope, which I find unusual because I've never actually paid any money to the Goodman for a Goodman production -- I only bought tickets for the Festival shows, not Desire Under The Elms. I'm a little uncertain about what this all means (i.e. what perks do I get?), but also in the envelope were a pair of tickets for last Sunday's matinee of A Christmas Carol purchased by some lady from Glen Ellyn (oops!), so I'm not putting too much stock in anything I get from the Goodman. Don't worry, they were shitty and overpriced seats for Christmas Carol, anyway...

As you probably guessed, last night was Chicago Shakes' A Midsummer Night's Dream. Also on the schedule for the week: tonight is Profiles' The Thugs, Thursday I'm working box for Signal's Six Degrees Of Separation (which you should totally come see -- you can get in free on Thursday if you e-mail me for details), Friday is TUTA's Romeo and Juliet (for real this time), Saturday DADA [g]nimbus is coming out to play at Soiree DADA (which you should also totally come see), and Sunday is the side project's Cut To The Quick festival (I'm going for the whole shebang in one day: Static/Cling, Splinters And Shrapnel, and Splayed Verbiage). As Bokonon might say: busy, busy, busy.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Party Of One/The Ox-Herder's Tale

Kinda got a good news/bad news thing going on today...

It's good to know there's balance in the universe, I suppose. I keep finding things I feel confident in putting in my Best of the Best section, but at the same time, it seems to be a landmark year for unapologetically bad theatre as well, to the point where it's almost tempting to keep a running Hall of Shame going for all the shit-ass work that I keep seeing.

The latest on the list is Noel Williams' Party Of One, which luckily enough closed on Monday night. It's a one-woman clown show, which is an instant draw for me thanks to the really inspiring lessons I've taken from the little bit of clown training and work that I have done. Unfortunately, I tend to forget that, much like the improv world, good clown work is hidden deep beneath a bunch of yahoos who throw on a red nose and expect people to automatically pony up some cash to listen to their jokes or attempts there at. Noel Williams is apparently a Pochinko trained clown, which I was unfamiliar with, but after some quick research, it would appear that the Pochinko technique is not laid out as 'talk really fast and move your hands a lot', so I'd question how much of the training stuck.

Williams has created a piece about love. The finding and losing of it, the uncomfortable points in between, the whole kit and caboodle. It's a piece begging to be filled with vulnerability, and there's no vulnerability like clown vulnerability. But instead, every human self-defense mechanism Williams would ideally be commenting on through reveal she ends up using as a performer as well. Not as much laughter as you expected? Repeat, repeat, repeat! And try it faster! Oh, and if you move really fast too, everyone will assume you're entertaining them! But it's not enough that Williams runs through every 'look at me' trick in the book (hint: it's a one-woman show, you don't have to get our attention, only keep it). This also happens to be a show with audience interaction! And it's the most one-sided audience interaction I've ever seen. There could have been two dozen hat stands sitting there instead of us and Williams would have treated them the same. If you ask an audience member a question, rhetorical or not, Yes it absolutely does matter how they respond. Choose the script over the reality at your own peril.

This was never better illustrated than during an utterly random religious interlude in which she shamed the audience for being uncomfortable around the idea of Christianity on stage. The idea of Christianity on stage being her repeating "Jesus Bible" over and over until it is 'funny' (a word losing its meaning more rapidly as the minutes tick by). 'Cept we weren't uncomfortable. A third of the audience was laughing with her and I can only assume the rest were, like me, trying to figure out how the hell she segued into this from a midgetized non-sequitur version of Gone With The Wind, a bit (and nothing more, believe me) that she also pulled out of an increasingly puzzling nowhere that was beginning to look startlingly close to stand-up comedy. But we weren't uncomfortable. I say that confidently because I don't remember the last time I've met someone who took offence at the utterance of the words 'Jesus Bible'. No commentary on them, just the words themselves -- it's the Not Even Trying technique of clowning. Williams' response? "JesusBibleJesusBibleJesusBibleJesusBible", laugh, and bewilderingly move on.

But I knew the show was dead, buried and rotting for me when she Williams chose to up and tackle my biggest dealbreaker: shitty music design. Keep in mind, this is a show with a sound design that consisted of nothing more than train noises in the first five minutes and an onstage fan that irritatingly remained on without being used for the last third of the show, providing a taunting, sleep-inducing white noise. And suddenly, ten or fifteen minutes from the end, Williams begins some sort of equally uninduced crypto-religious flying/death/love/heaven segment, and who fades in? Get ready for a ride on the Obvious Express: David Bowie. Space Oddity. Yes, she totally went there. And it wasn't even curtain music, which is an equally bad, but understandable choice. This was apparently just the one segment of the show that needed accompaniment -- you know, just in case the ball peen hammer she was using to drive the imagery into your head wasn't quite heavy enough.

Nothing. I have nothing good to say about this show. Her suitcases put in a decent performance. I suppose I didn't have an epiliptic fit at any point. Is that positive? It's about the best I can come up with.


Now, to redeem myself in the eyes of those who are faint of heart at negativity, a good show!

I've seen two shows by Blair Thomas & Co. in the last month or so, and they've got a helluva track record so far. The Ox-Herder's Tale revealed itself to me much the same way as Cabaret Of Desire. I'm not a big puppetry guy -- it's a fascinating art form and I'm in awe at those who do it well (as Blair Thomas as well as Co. do), but I tend to have an initial reaction (as I did with both Cabaret and Ox-Herder's) of questioning the purpose. When the goal is realism with the puppets, how is it any more than a parlor trick -- you certainly won't get more expression from a puppet than a human and only the best even approach equal amounts, so what drives the decision to use puppetry, other than a sense of Look What I Can Do? I understand Henson and the Muppets and other forms that bring the fantastical or otherwise unrealizable into the picture (it's also why I was a little quicker to get into the surreal Cabaret than the contemplative Ox-Herder's), but I have occasional difficulty with the reasoning behind having puppets do what humans could be doing just as well.

And yet, as a huge credit to Thomas, after 15-20 minutes, I'm completely hooked, at one point watching a puppet sit alone in the lotus position on stage with a mix of fear and desire that it's going to stand up by itself. The show revolves around an extended dance/movement piece between the bunrakued titular puppet and a stiltwalker dressed as an ox. A dance/movement piece that did to me for stilts what Cirque de Soleil did for the Wheel of Death, i.e. "I could totally do that! I wanna do that! Why am I not doing that?" And then, just as it seemed the show was going to go for a whole lotta spectacle with a little bit of meditative thematic content (which I would have been fine with), it sat down and went utterly Zen -- ending on a ten minute or so meditation on a sky blue to blood red back screen to the hypnotic improvised drumming of Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang. Depending on who you ask, it was either transcendent or torture. Count me among the former.


As I mentioned, tonight is SITI's Radio Macbeth at Court. As for this weekend, I'm DADAing up on Friday night (Come meet [g]nimbus, he hasn't been known to bite. Yet.) and then hitting Trap Door's The Unconquered on Saturday and TUTA's Romeo and Juliet on Sunday.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Six Degrees Of Separation

Duality's the name of the game in Six Degrees. It's an obvious thematic thread -- the double-sided Kandinsky, the two (plus) faces of Paul -- the whole show revolves around people putting on airs. To mount this show successfully requires an almost two-faced approach: a Side A/Side B contrast that doesn't exist to comment on itself, but to provide the piece with a commonality to Paul, a link between us and him. Because Paul does not succeed at being a con man -- he gets very little money and spends it almost instantly, he returns to the same 'victims' repeatedly, he hasn't much desire to actually get away with anything. No, Paul is only a con man by definition. What he (and the same went for his real life counterpart) succeeds at so well is being an intrigue, which is his bottom line goal. To be among people who put stars in your eyes and to have them all wanting to look only at you -- if that's not a cornerstone of the American Dream, I don't know what is. Paul's seemingly unorthodox method is to put on a different persona to wow whoever needs wowing. This, of course, is actually quite standard issue, a literalization of the palm greasing we each do on a daily basis. And the strongest way to open this direct line to the audience to me seems to be an equally multi-fac(et)ed experience -- a show that provides multiple things for multiple people, if at the expense of a core One Truth to stand on.

There are any number of ways this multiplicity could be approached, and I think Signal's hooked onto something good in their caged-in dancefloor of a stage in the round. The in the round approach, complemented by a box seats setup, slightly raised stage, and low clearance lighting, places the performers on the defensive, trapped in our sights try to intrigue their own way to acceptance. It's one level of duality -- fourth wall vs. no. When speaking to us, the cast (and particularly Jon Steinhagen and Susie Griffith as the Kittredges) aren't relaying events, they are telling a story: embellishing at points, making jokes -- at times at the expense of the other, a bevy of tactics intended to wow us, the mute and judging witnesses. Build that fourth wall back up and the show becomes Paul's game, a man so far on the defensive that it works all the way back around again to offensive. Or perhaps more fittingly, Paul is playing the game so much more vigorously than anyone else that they don't even recognize it. But we do -- even if we don't see the meta- in our place as the Kittredges of the larger scale.

The other big duality pulled out by director Ronan Marra is the level of intimacy. This particular production feeds on a lifeblood of minimalism. The soft moments -- Eric Lindahl's Trent having true human contact pried from him and then, in rapid succession, denied again; the silence in Steinhagen's eyes after he uncharacteristically lashes out at his wife; most any of the hushed light, pacing animal monologues -- are the theatrical equivalent of hook, line, and sinker. It's the maximal moments that become a little sloppy. Not that they certainly aren't a true counterpoint, but compared to the knife's edge precision of the little moments, the big ones (a three family parent/child powwow; the opening bumrush of snap snap snap exposition) seem to stumble over their own feet a little. Which is unfortunate, because the one moment where they collide -- Aaron Snook's monologue as Rick, which starts without a fourth wall and builds one up brick by desolate brick -- shows just how much power is contained in the match.

And yet, when I look back, the line that truly, truly sticks with me is one that could easily become a throwaway in other hands. After being harangued by his ex-wife by way of his son, Dr. Fine turns to the audience and says, good-natured but with a sense of lost hope, "There are two sides to every story." It's the line I'm most interested in because it's the side I never get to hear. And it's what makes the show (Guare's and Signal's) work -- the most intriguing story is the one you don't know, the one you only know of. In Six Degrees, even the characters we know most about, the ones who try their hardest to explain themselves to us, only explain away the things they think we want to hear. And for us, as it is with Paul for them, the most interesting part is that we may never know the most interesting part.


P.S. the Goodman chick lied to me -- O'Neill Festival tickets are on sale now. But thanks to my obssesive compulsive internet tendencies, I uncovered this info sooner than later. I've got my O'Neill Explorer pass, when are you getting yours? I don't care whether or not you support the Goodman, but let's support the Goodman supporting experimental theatre, eh?


Friday, November 21, 2008

The Brothers Karamazov/Gatz

If you had told me months ago that two of the best theatre experiences I would have thus far this season would be epic literary adaptations (of Dostoevsky and Fitzgerald, no less), I would have told you that you obviously didn't know where my tastes lie. Consider my hypothetical foot firmly in my hypothetical mouth. Last week I spent close to 11 hours in two shows within one block of each other right off Michigan Ave., and never once checked my watch.

I can't think of a more fittingly named/themed company than Lookingglass. Not to belabor the allusion, but the place truly is a wonderland, and one of their biggest strengths as a company is the ability to use the theatre and its surprises judiciously. Whereas other spectacular companies build shows up to the big gravity-defying cliche of a flying climax, Lookingglass (and in this particular case, adapter/director Heidi Stillman) moves ahead with pared down, black box, minimalism punctuated by pitch perfect head-turning moments of surprise -- little things: characters climbing ladders to nowhere, honest to god grave sites, a dog -- that in the grand scheme of things aren't all that tremendously high-tech, but wow all that much more because we didn't imagine them going into the moment.

The Brothers Karamazov is a perfectly executed example of this. I'll warn you now that I have no idea how this production compares to the novel or to Dostoevsky as a whole because (here's where I show my cultural pygmy side) I've never read any of his works. It's part of the reason I was not expecting to terribly enjoy the show -- I've always attached Russian lit. and 'boring' at the hip, perhaps unfairly, but nonetheless...

What I can tell you is that this thing blisters. Starting with the Gogol Bordello-esque (Was it Gogol, anyone? I'm not familiar enough to know.) pre-show music, part of Ray Nardelli's evocative music design, the show tilts between action a little too big for its britches and silence with tension of the high-wire variety. The reason it works so well is not because the show rides that fence, but that it regularly hops on either side. Joe Sikora's Dmitri is a little too high stakes, Philip R. Smith's Ivan a little too sarcastically smarm, and Doug Hara's Alyosha a little too unflappable, all three of which set us up perfectly for the Act Three inversion. But then, by the same token, the reenactment of the Grand Inquisitor dream and the Ivan/Alyosha philosophical discussion leading up to it were breathless -- a marvelous example of Still Theatre that maintains a tight audience grip.

And in the end, it's the little tweaks that make the whole big ol' thing worthwhile. Be it a revolving house or a ringing bell or a sparky supporting turn (Eva Barr, Lawrence Grimm, and Steve Key in particular), the whole thing adds up to three plus hours surprisingly quickly.

Nothing quite compares to seven and a half hours, though, to which my invisible hat goes off to Elevator Repair Service for transforming a reading of the Great American Novel into the Great American Reenactment. Because, as much of a maven as I am for the experimental and the avant-garde, the reason Gatz works for almost an entire workday is not the concept or the individuality. This is damn well-executed theatre right down to the meat and potatoes of it. I'm not even going to attempting the hopeless task of singling out any one particular aspect; every last inch of heart that went into every inch of this show is completely visible. If every show could uphold that level interest on the part of the performers (on and back and prestage) for even an hour and a half, we wouldn't have to worry about running anybody out of town, high noon or otherwise. When artists are able to recognize that what happens onstage can't hold a candle to the idea that it really is happening to those involved, that's when the magic happens. That's when things really are the Best of the Best, and both of these shows very much belong there.

This week it was Signal's Six Degrees Of Separation on Thursday and then opening a muthafucking DADA soiree! Thank god for short work weeks -- I'm gonna need one after this. Also, leading into the T-giving, I'm filling my plate as full as I can (get it?). Monday is Noel Williams' Party Of One, Tuesday is Blair Thomas & Co.'s The Ox-Herder's Tale and Wednesday is SITI Company's Radio Macbeth. And then a lot of eatin's. Hooray!


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Oh, snap!

So, there's a very interesting conversation at Tony's place about content with asides as to how content-driven discussion begs for honesty over beating around the bush. And in the midst of that talk, I stumbled across Randy Hardwick's review of La Costa's The Devil's Daughter. It's one of the rarely seen Not Recommended reviews (the show has been taking a hit elsewhere as well), and it closes with this sentence:

"[Director Jonathan] Hymen, who is also La Costa’s artistic director, has taken this once promising, now struggling company a giant leap further down the role [sic] to hell with this choice."

Oh, damn! Randy went there! $64,000 question: Is that striking, honest criticism or just a dagger in La Costa's side?

The caveats: 1) I make it no secret that I take issue with, Tom Williams' little compendium of Why I Liked This Show, from time to time. However, Hardwick is far and away the best contributor to the site, so I'm approaching this review as actual, credible criticism.

2) I have never been to a La Costa production, largely because their programming is the sort that makes me want to never go to a La Costa production. True story: upon reading the promo material for Stuck, their last show (Six people! One subway car! Stuck! Now they sing and dance!), I turned to my roommate and requested that he shoot me in the face if I ever wrote or conceived anything even remotely similar. I'm holding him to that. The Devil's Daughter, if the reviews are to be believed (personal aside: I'm believing them), is a half-assed magic show with a quarter-assed script crumpled up and tossed on top.

So, here's the conversation starter: Should bad theatre be run out of town at high noon? If we are to improve as an artistic community, do we build or do we burn or can we do both? Do we owe it to each other as fellow artists and humans to find the silver lining so that our own silver lining will hopefully be seen on our lesser days? Is it our responsibility to call out bad theatre or do we let the audiences learn for themselves at the risk of losing a couple?

I'm a rabblerouser, I'm sure it's no surprise where I stand. But I am curious to see the if we can make the content discussion already happening a little more content-based.


Monday, November 10, 2008


Kinda disappointed with Arrangements. (I saw a preview performance. Don't know what that's worth to you, I just know that people like being told about these things.) As is probably evident from the number of mentions it's received on this blog, Pavement Group's Lipstick Traces secured them a high spot on my 'companies to watch' list. Unfortunately, my second go 'round with them wasn't nearly so fruitful. Another experience that left me with very little to think about after, thus, very little to talk about here. Part of the problem was Ken Weitzman's script, which revolves around five intertwined folk who live out their extreme neuroses in some sort of vacuum-sealed bizarro Charlie Brown world (aside from an unresolved red herring of a homeless man, any ancillary characters are piped in from offstage like so many Peanuts adults). These characters saunter between platitudes and sitcom dialogue in relationships that make sense only to the extent of that's how Weitzman wrote it, so deal.

The only way I can see this play even remotely landing is through absurdity, absurdity, absurdity. And that's where I thought director Meghan Beals McCarthy was going when Heidi Koling came out in a fat suit to portray the morbidly obese Donna. But no sirree, she emoted right through that thing, as did everyone else in a production full of silence and emotional pause for characters that for the most part are so out there that we can only wonder at whether they truly feel anything.

Which makes me wonder the reason for the fat suit. I don't remember Weitzman calling for it in the script (but please, correct me if I'm wrong), and if it's not to be used as a distancing device, only a couple of other options pop in my mind immediately: either there's some sort of moral behind it (which, if so, was entirely lost on me -- I'd also pin some of that on Weitzman's jerky structuring) or it's a way to allow an actress to play a part she's not the right size for (which, with major ongoing conversations on gender and race equality on stage and behind the scenes, seems to be a somewhat foolhardy choice in today's society of everybody gets some). Plus, it's a fat suit in a small non-eq production. While it was well-achieved, this isn't a Big Momma's House budget we're talking; everyone's gonna know and be focused on the fact that it is, in fact, a suit. Much the same way I've spent so much time talking about it -- it's what stands out, sucking focus from everything else.

Eddie Murphy has done for the fat suit what Mike Myers did for bad British accents, but can anyone think of any straight-laced dramatic uses of the fat suit that were worthwhile? I'm not saying there aren't any, just that I sure can't think of them.


This week is Lookingglass' The Brothers Karamazov on Wednesday, Elevator Repair Service's Gatz on Friday and Factory's Bustin' Out Of The Hell on Saturday. How's that for a mix? Also, Signal Ensemble opens John Guare's Six Degrees Of Separation next Monday. I sat in for their first run-through a week or two back, and if that's any indication, you're in for a treat. As usual, if this is the first you've heard about it, you're probably too late for opening night tix, but that's all the more reason to grab tickets for another performance now before someone else grabs 'em for you.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Obligatory Post-Election Post

Actually, I'm gonna try and kill as many birds as possible with one blog entry, but we'll start with the political angle.

Through a number of conversations with friends this week I discovered that I was a little off the mark with my views of how the political process has become disheveled. I also came to understand a little better exactly why it is I am a non-voter.

I take back all I may have said online or off about the election becoming a spectator sport and the equivalent to a college football rivalry. The media coverage of the event most certainly has regressed into that sort of loyalty-baiting, crashing helmets imagery, but, from what I witnessed Tuesday night, this sort of branding has not been able to infect the greater public. What I witnessed as the night went on and in the days after was, for the most part, not reactionary, bragging rights-driven competition for the sake of beating the other guy. Granted, there are a few idiots out there who get swept up in the excitement of it all and can't see past the red state/blue state map and percentage reporting signs, but you're gonna have those people anywhere. And yeah, the next day, there were a few morons out there who couldn't help but start every conversation with, "Boy, I wonder how the Republicans feel right now", but those people are bound to show up to the party, too. What I mostly saw was, for a word that has been tossed around offhandedly for the last few months, genuine hope.

I am very much an individualist. Mixed in with that individualism is a healthy dose of idealism. This results in an unerring sense of 'it'll all work out', but with a lot more immediacy than that mindset usually presents. The idealist side of me is convinced that things will be okay, and the individualist side knows that things will be okay because if they are not, I will do what I need to do to make them so. For the record, I also stand by the fact that, to this point, the view has completely worked. I'm in a very happy place right now because of the sometimes very large and less than certain decisions that I have made while in situations that were much less happy. And to me, this is an approach that is universally appropriate. No matter the sociopolitical landscape, my ability to enjoy the world that I live in is far and away most directly connected to the choices I make for myself. It's in the realization and taking charge of that fact that I place myself in the observer role in the political process. As I said to a friend on Tuesday night, the man in the Oval Office has no effect on what I achieve; only on how I go about achieving it.

But something sunk in while I watched footage of thousands and thousands of tear-streaked Americans in Grant Park on Tuesday night. For most of these people, Obama was the only possibility for hope they had in this thing. That, rather than "it'll all work out", for millions of Americans, Obama in office was the only representation they could find for the faith that they had lost in the potential for true optimism for our society. That, for many of my friends and for hundreds of thousands of people who flocked downtown just to be near this singular happening, President-Elect Obama was the signifier that things can be okay. And while this makes no effect in my decision to be a non-voter -- in my vision, it is in my power to make things some sort of okay for myself no matter the man in office -- it does rekindle the awareness that to a lot of people, and a growing number at that, the election and the President who emerges is not (as the media coverage would have me believe) just another contest, another opportunity to gloat over your fellow man. For a massive number of people, our President-Elect is the hinge on which their future lies, which isn't a mindset I am able to tap into necessarily, but it certainly is a beautiful thing to watch.

McCain in office would have had the potential to present many more obstacles to my contentment, but by the same token, I appreciate little more than a good challenge. However, as much beauty can be found in hardship and necessity and people working through them, there nothing that quite compares to seeing the people I love and cherish truly happy. I was in a room full of them on Tuesday night, and as much as I could have reacted equally to the cold, hard results of the election either way, there was only one direction I wanted the warmth and fraternity of the atmosphere to take, and that was cheering, tears of joy, wide grins, and a crashing tide of hope.

I did not vote. I still have no desire to have cast a ballot in this election or to do so in the future. Things would have worked out and the world would have moved on either way, as it was bound to do, and I would much rather observe. But I am tremendously glad that Obama won, for the sake of those I hold dear.


It's pretty safe to say that the Edward II/Cabaret Of Desire entry has been lost to other topics. Here's the short version that may come up in other conversations or future entries:

I really enjoyed Edward, but it got me thinking a lot about the promenade style and how it is most effective. There seemed to be two schools of thought running parallel in one show: the Hypocrites/Sean Graney 'bring the audience into the play' self-awareness and the Chicago Shakes/Jeffrey Carlson 'create a new 360 degree fourth wall' traditionalism. Both work (though not perhaps at the same time), but there are a lot of interesting questions about how, when, and why each approach works. I tend to think the fourth wall approach works a little better in this situation, in which the audience is still very removed from the period and language presented. It's also, I believe, why The Hypocrites' Miss Julie didn't quite work for me. I love the execution, but there's a certain distance from the actual events taking place that make it really hard for an audience to feel as though they are truly implicit in the work. There has to be either an entry point of familiarity for us or a conceit, such as As Told By The Vivian Girls' paper doll masks, to assist us in bridging the gap.

As you can tell by its standing over in The Best of The Best, I really enjoyed Cabaret Of Desire. Blair Thomas & Co. have truly embraced the surrealism of Lorca's work and have presented it as is, rather than trying to imbue explanation. It's a gorgeous work and it got me thinking about the fine line between dada and surrealism and how much of it boils down not to symbology or meaning so much as the idea behind whether or not such symbology is present. Whereas dada freely exercises the fact that there is no meaning, surrealism thrives not on the meaning itself, but the notion that somewhere, deep inside, some idea of meaning is lying dormant. The show closes this weekend, so get out and see it.

Also interesting was my decision to list Cabaret but not Edward in The Best of The Best. My enjoyment of them was about the same, and I hemmed and hawed about whether I was going to include Edward as well, but in the end it came down to the fact that, while I enjoyed Edward in execution despite a few theoretical glitches, I enjoyed Cabaret in execution despite a few performance glitches (Chimera, one of the first pieces, really had me worried that I was in for a long evening). I guess that means I hold theoretical achievement a little higher than technical achievement. What that means in a wider scale, I have no idea, but it struck me as an observation worth acknowledging.


Best news of the week:

The calendar for Goodman's O'Neill Festival is officially set, and, despite the fact that I will be rehearsing/teching/opening ...And They Put Handcuffs On The Flowers with The Right Brain Project during that time and also the fact that some of these productions are running as few as three performances, I will be able to make it to all seven of the visiting shows. Ironically, I'm still undecided if I'm actually going to take in the Goodman production of the Festival. There is very, very little that I have been as excited for this year as this line-up. Tickets go on sale December 5th, and you better believe I will be one of the first to have some.

Also, I received a flyer for Chicago Shakes' World's Stage shows and they seem to be continuing the tradition of a slate of shows that sound mostly interesting but not much more capped by a piece that looks to blow my socks off. This, my friends, is going to rock.


And last but certainly not least, D-Hall tagged me for a meme (EDIT: Laura got me, too!), so I may as well play along.

Seven random and/or weird facts about myself:

1. I am a Christmas baby. I was born on December 23rd, and yes, it sucks. However, you are all invited plenty in advance to my 34th birthday blowout bash from Dec. 23-25, 2016. In honor of surviving longer than Jesus, I will be postponing our annual birthday competition and celebrating only my birth with three days of debauchery. And gifts. Birthday gifts. Not Christmas gifts and definitely not one gift to celebrate both occasions. We hate that shit.

2. I will eat pretty much anything you place in front of me. The only three foods that really give me pause are pumpkin pie, cranberries, and sweet potatoes. Thanksgiving is not my holiday.

3. My mother was in the army before I was born. She acheived a Sharpshooter rating with a rifle and an Expert rating with a hand grenade. It's an unsettling feeling to occasionally have to remind yourself that your mother could efficiently end your life with a number of implements of destruction.

4. Among the places I have been streaking: Homecoming at the University of Northern Iowa, a haunted house, for a full half-mile down a rural Iowa highway, and across Lake Shore Drive at Belmont on a relatively traffic heavy Friday night.

5. Despite my apparent propensity for being au natural, I have never been nude on stage. This is about to change in February with ...And They Put Handcuffs On The Flowers, which, for those of you not familiar with the play is kind of what people mean when they say, "If you're going to go, go all out." I expect all of you to be clamoring for tickets if only for a chance to view the P.Rekk goodies.

6. We used to play a game in Northwest Iowa called Blotting. I'm not supposed to tell you what Blotting is until you are preparing to play it with me, but since I doubt I will ever play in Chicago, what the hell. In Blotting, every player is given some sort of small processed snack cake, usually Twinkies, but I have also played with Hostess Fruit Pies. We would then find a street that wasn't particularly busy (maybe a car every minute or two) and place our Twinkies on the street where we felt they were in the line of traffic. As cars would pass by, we would keep adjusting the Twinkies until everyone's had finally been run over. After the last person's Twinkie had been smashed, everyone rushed out into the street and had to eat their Twinkie without using their hands. The first person to finish wins. There are pictures in existence of me eating a squished Twinkie off of asphalt.

7. I have become typecast as mute. I don't know how this happened exactly, but for three shows running I have played a mute or silent character in some aspect. The frightening part is how accustomed I have become to communicating on stage without words, to the point where DADA [g]nimbus has to actively remind himself to speak sometimes.

Yeah, I'm not tagging anyone. It's there if you want it. Call me the Scrooge of memes.


There! Look at all the topics I addressed! It's a light, light week this week -- just Pavement Group's Arrangements on Friday night -- so hopefully I can stay on track. But a light, light week typically means a week so heavy elsewhere that I can't squeeze any more theatre in, so I make no promises. Nor should you believe me if I ever do.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Obligatory Election Day Post

I'm not gonna go all Rex Winsome on you and tell you that you shouldn't vote, I'm just going to say this:

As everyone is demanding that you go cast your ballot today, don't forget that choosing not to vote is exactly that: a choice. If you have considered the issues and the candidates and the political landscape and for whatever reason have made the decision not to vote, do so with as much confidence as any McCain or Obama supporter. Anyone, from either side, who places less importance on your decision than their own is part of the problem.

I'll be watching with everyone else tonight, eager to see what goes down. I will not have made myself complicit in it.


Friday, October 31, 2008

A pause for inspiration

There's an Edward II/Cabaret Of Desire entry brewing, but in the meantime:

I was browsing YouTube while prepping my Iggy Pop costume, taking in some of the man himself, and I ran across this, which amazingly enough I had not seen before:

Now tell me, when is the last time you've seen a performer who was that swept up in their art on a theatrical stage? And more importantly, when's the last time you as an artist have been that swept up in your art?

I love that place. If I had to give up all pleasures but one for the rest of my life, I would keep dancing around with my jeans around my knees in front of thousands of people. Or repeating a nonsensical syllable to an audience member over and over and urgently over again until I am red in the face and doubled over, out of breath. Or writhing silently because I am an amoeba and I don't have limbs, dammit! Or hoisting a sweaty half-naked Israeli man in a trash barrel. That is to say, I would keep the ability to unhinge my soul and place it in the driver's seat.

Does this happen in traditional theatre? I see it (and feel it) there so rarely, yet I've found it readily available in clown, in DADA, in butoh, etc.... This is what brings people to the fringe. The fringe is where you don't have to worry about normal, thus where you can allow your reality to come out. Nothing normal is real, or perhaps nothing real is normal. Regardless, outsider art is where the soul is vindicated. Where the individuals have gone to maintain themselves. And as I prepare to ask how that can be brought to traditional theatre, I realize the answer is that it can't. We can bring glimpses over -- bits here and pieces there. But this is the sort of thing that you do in your bathroom when no one is watching and in front of an arena of tens of thousands of people and in both situations it looks and feels exactly the same. This is Art For Me. Art that is a piece of me. Art that is a piece of me that I do not release. This is not temporal, this is the unleashing of a hidden constancy. It's borderline insanity, the sort of work that you wonder how long you could sustain before completely draining yourself. Art that makes you throw things and remove clothing and disregard your body and sometimes just curl up in a little ball. This is true realism.

This is why I am an artist.


Monday, October 27, 2008

The Man Who Pictured Space From His Apartment/Quills

Y'all missed something special with Cupola Bobber. Leastways, I'm assuming you did, as their recent two-weekend run of The Man Who Pictured Space From His Apartment probably had a total capacity of 75-80 people. Keep in mind, that's the capacity of the entire run I'm talking about, not per show.

The brainchild of SAIC grads Stephen Fiehn and Tyler B. Myers, Cupola Bobber provides performance art cum clown show with the underlying tone of master's thesis. The Man Who Pictured Space From His Apartment is the lowest of low budget, created from worklights and cardboard and a touch of papier mache. It's repetitive and at times tedious or soporific. It doesn't give any answers and doesn't even ask all that many questions, for that matter. And it's utterly breathtaking. It's a perfect example of how to do much with little or nothing at all, and thus a very inspiring example as well. The secret of their success seems to come back around to investment. Which makes sense; every penny that was not (available to be) invested in this show financially was doubled or tripled mentally, emotionally, and physically. And it shows -- from Myers carrying Fiehn on his back for much of the first half of the show to an extended and ultimately painful dance sequence to Myers, silent for most of the show, suddenly get lost in the sheer wall of words and ideas available for expression and on into Fiehn's spoken-word starlit lullaby of sorts, these guys mean it, whatever you may discover it to be.

There are no punches pulled in this show, which strikes me even as I write it as a very unusual phrase for an evening so imbued with stillness. But somehow, even in monotone, Fiehn conveys the staggering momentum of everyday life; and some way, even while only seeing his hands grab at his pant legs for support, we understand Myers' struggle to keep Fiehn perched on his back, afloat and dreaming. Because the momentum and the struggle are really happening; we just happen to be witnessing. And whether it cost ten or ten million dollars, watching something really happen is about as good as it gets.

Cupola Bobber are preparing for a UK tour as I write this, but will be back at Links Hall in April to debut a new show. Do yourself a favor and take this time to get acquainted with them. You'll want to be in the know when they return.


On the other end of the low budget spectrum lies Quills, the inaugural production by The Shadowmen. Quills is the sort of low budget that parades around as if it weren't. And, knowing the prohibitive costs of performance space in the city, Quills, running at Trap Door, is working on a much, much larger budget than Cupola Bobber. And yet, by forging onward, making every decision a Real Theatre is supposed to make, The Shadowmen appear that much more ramshackle and that much less creative. The set is highlighted by a six or seven foot tall rib cage, which, as far as I could tell, serves no purpose other than eating up all of the time and resources allotted for the scenic design (or visual concept design, as the program deigns it, which confuses the hell out of me because visually the only thing approaching a concept that I saw was a big, useless rib cage). And so, we end up with a gigantic white version of the tree from A Charlie Brown Christmas -- ignored, bare, and shoved in a corner. Annnnd.... scenic design. Costumes? Bland and serviceable. Lights? Well, they came up and went down alright. Sound? I honestly don't remember if there was any. Not that any of these things need to be flash and dash to make for a good show, but don't kid yourself. There are so many fascinating and creative things you can do with a low budget, even more when you are required by a low budget. But please, own up to it, don't act like it isn't there.

But these are all minor complaints for this production. The big complaint is the elephant in the room that apparently not a single person working on this show is willing to acknowledge: the humor. The charm and appeal of the Marquis de Sade, the reason that his name has lived in infamy for centuries is not the dark and ribald material that he came up with, it was the glee and laughter that he injected into it. No one has successfully bashed in the line between funny and disturbing nearly as well as the Marquis. The key to telling his tale, and not just Quills, but any Sadean work, is going against every humane instinct and enjoying the fuck out of it. Errol McLendon's Sade goes from everyday molestor to pitiful victim at the drop of a hat and sulks and pleads and wails the rest of the way through. And it's not just Sade; almost everyone in this show seems to be drowning in a vat of the overly dramatic. The only hint of, dare I say, Sadean qualities comes from Kate Bailey's Muse, a silent character director Scott McKinsey has added to the show. And it's a shame, because the only glimmer of evil in this tale full of debauchery is stuck playing a character with about as much purpose as the gigantic set piece she spends most of her time in front of.


It's a relatively light week this, but certainly in the Halloween spirit. Thursday is Blair Thomas & Co.'s Cabaret Of Desire and Saturday is Annoyance's Splatter Theater. I know I've already been burnt by one over-the-top Halloween show this year, but Splatter has history on its side. And this time I'll be dressed for chance wayward stage blood instead of being shoehorned into it.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Young Ladies Of.../The Further Adventures Of Hedda Gabler

The (tenuous) topic of the day: Overplaying.

It hit me sitting in the almost empty Center On Halsted Wednesday night that maybe Taylor Mac isn't as widely known as I assumed. In fact, I don't know where it was that I first discovered Mac. I think it may have been from one of the NY bloggers, which, come to think of it, is a horrible judge of widespread popularity (that's a comment on bloggers in general, not just the NYers). Nevertheless, I was surprised that my excitement at About Face pulling in Taylor Mac for a full run was not remotely shared by the rest of Chicago.

Mac is a self-proclaimed pastiche artist, performing in deconstructed drag, all heavy makeup and sparkles and glitter and bras as thongs and so on and so forth. His latest show, The Young Ladies Of..., is a love/hate letter to his deceased Texas redneck father and, by association, to all those who are diametrically opposed to the sorts of artists who perform in deconstructed drag, all heavy makeup and sparkles and glitter and bras as thongs. Mac, it goes without saying, is the type that overplays.

The world Mac imbues onstage is gigantic in tactic -- the ukulele playing, the puppetry, the seemingly endless (and apparently ever-growing) unopened envelope setpieces, the Taylor Mac. Everything is much larger than it need be, except for the revelations and realizations. These peek out from Mac's overly-glittered eyes, sinking home that the division between us (whoever us may be) and them (ditto) is tragic because it is insurmountable because it is unknowable. And when he leads the audience in a chorus of "What's the use of wond'rin?" from Carousel, it's silly, because it's Taylor Mac in dirty white dress and Shirley Temple wig leading a sing along. And then it's beautiful, because we are all one and the same with Taylor Mac in our grasping for answers we'll never find. And then it's tragic, because... well, because we never will find the answers to gulf the gap between us and others, despite the fact that that is all we really want.

But then, just as all hope is lost, as the audience continues to question the use of wond'rin, now solo, the next revelation worms its way out from Mac's affable but slightly weary visage. The use of wond'rin, his sparkling eyes share, is that even if we can't meet halfway, both sides wandering unfamiliarly trying to find halfway is where the glory of humanity lies. The tragic and the comedic collide in the person who has thrown everything comfortable to the side in hopes that the uncomfortable is where the undiscovered bridge between us lies. And it is probable that we will never find it. But we find something, and that's closer than we were.

It's a tremendously delicate discovery. A tiny flash of light that means nothing to anyone not looking for it. That it lies couched in an explosion of charm and shine, the fantastic and the overplayed, makes it all the more precious. And it leaves Chicago on Monday. You should probably go.


I dig Dog & Pony's rag 'n bone aesthetic. I really, really dig it. But the approach lacks a certain sense of... perhaps subtlety is the right word? It's the same sort of plane as Taylor Mac, where the nuance becomes a little diamond in the rough. And it has rarely been more of a gem than in D&P's As Told By The Vivian Girls last spring. But The Further Adventures Of Hedda Gabler just can't quite find it, and not for lack of trying.

A large part of the problem is that the entire production is withering away in the cavernous Viaduct main stage. It's a great space -- if you need a cavern. Hedda Gabler doesn't and this production seems horribly out of place in the theatre. The set is drowing in unused space, the canned noise is distant, and the cast forces themselves to play wide and deep and still come up short.

Co-directors Devin de Mayo and Daniel Stermer do their best to push the cast to inflate to meet the space, but it comes at a cost. (A cost called overplaying -- you see how I [tenuously] tie this all together?) For every Matthew Sherbach, who steals most every scene he's in with loads of humor and a little pathos, and Jeannette Blackwell, whose Mammy is time and time again more earnest and human than any Mammy should comfortably be, there is a Laura Mahler or a Mildred Langford, making the Viaduct even more cavernous by incessantly chewing what little scenery there is.

But the biggest void is an inability to provide the audience their role. This is a script fully aware of its own fiction, yet, aside from a couple of key 'speak to the audience' moments (and even during a couple of them), the cast plays at their characters as if they were going about their lives unobserved when the crux of the play's conflict is that the only lives they can lead are the ones that we (and that's a very direct 'we', no abstraction here) continue to observe. It's too much motive, not enough meta.

And maybe that's the real connection with Taylor Mac; maybe overplaying is only the means to a similar end in this instance. The end being audience discovery: both the discovery of the nature of the audience by the performers and the audience's discovery of their own implicitness in the piece.

What's the use of wond'rin? It's that even in the act of wond'rin, we are changing the world directly in front of our eyes. Taylor Mac let us do so. Dog & Pony told us we were and tried to move forward anyway.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Renew and Refresh

He's back! Now that Drac has closed, I appear to have a new lease on life and blog. It turns out that planning for/working on three projects plus however many little tangents is my limit. Once that fourth one hits, it's timeout for Paul. But I'm back to three and am rearing and ready to go. (It also didn't hurt to find out that people actually read this thing and notice when I slack... odd, that vanity thing.) So I'm gearing up this week for About Face's The Young Ladies Of... on Wednesday, Dog and Pony's The Further Adventures Of Hedda Gabler on Thursday, Cupola Bobber's The Man Who Pictured Space From His Apartment on Friday, and a double bill of Chicago Shakes' Edward II and The Shadowmen's Quills on Saturday. Yup, the ol' Rekk is back.

In the meantime, This American Wife didn't hold the title of Worst Show I've Seen This Year for long -- New Millennium's The Texas Chainsaw Musical swept in last Friday and stole that sacred spot handily. The two shows are about on par (lack of) quality-wise, but New Millennium wins simply by managing to actually have a premise chock full of humor and then proceeding to leave 98% of that humor wasting away in the What Coulda Been bin. It also doesn't help that I'm still hoping that I can get the stage blood out of my khaki coat and one of my favorite pairs of jeans because, for some god-only-knows reason, this motherfucker is selling out and I got stuck in the 'Blood Seats'. Just a thought: when every single seat in the house is full before a single Blood Seat is occupied, maybe you've got a one-trick pony on your hands that needs to be cut. Obviously the audience isn't into it. Or at least sell that shit separately so the drunken frat boy in front of me can get his kicks without me having to go through laundry woes. After paying fifteen bucks. For a load of shit. That even BYOB couldn't overcome.



Monday, October 13, 2008

Jeebus Christ!

Been a while, eh? Anyone remember when I pulled the disappearing act last year around this time, too? Yeah, so do I.

Apologies to all, especially to the Escanaba In Love/R.U.R. entry still lingering half-finished on my desktop; and to The Picture Of Dorian Gray, which gave me lots of interesting thoughts on Wilde the playwright vs. Wilde the novelist; and to Dog In A Manger, which is a brilliant fucking adaptation, even if only about half the cast can get close to pulling it off; and to Nicole LeGette, who provided my official formal introduction to Butoh, both in performance and workshop form (I'm still a little sore and I love it); and to The Threepenny Opera, which would have been on my Best of the Best if I had gone before the closing performance; and to the Steppenwolf Garage, to which I had never been and which is the absolutely, god-damned, hands-down, perfect space for my take on SubUrbia, the opening play of The Nine, and which I am now bound and determined to get in there, no matter the amount of wining and dining, proposal writing, and gussying myself up as professional yet edgy (or edgy yet professional) I have to do. So take note, any Steppen-ssociates who may be reading...

So I apologize, but I may continue to be sparse for a while. You see, it's a really exciting time -- I hit what Tony might refer to as my tide. Dracula is closing next weekend (so come see it); DADA is just gearing up and I've been stretching my poor anarchy brain cells, which had begun to atrophy, in order to get some DADA writing done; we'll be starting to have informal get-togethers for the Right Brain Project's production of Fernando Arrabal's ...And They Put Handcuffs On The Flowers this weekend, because even though it goes up in February, we'll need to be that comfortable with each other -- and if you don't know what I'm talking about, please, please hunt down some Arrabal. Hell, please, please do it anyway.; I'm crunching hard on The Nine, especially on Number Five, an original piece by yours truly entitled BlueGrass; I've been doing a lot of completely unstructured, completely unpublic physical movement work that I really have no idea what it is, but I love it and would like to find a way to make it a little less unpublic (butoh only amplified this); and while I'm seeing less shows than I was, the ones I am seeing are tremendously exciting -- it seems to be a watershed time for rock-and-roll, let's fucking do this, kick you in the teeth theatre: Threepenny rocked my beggar's socks off; Red Tape's Dog In A Manger script is a-freaking-mazing, I'm not even kidding; I've already got my tix for Kafka on the Shore and Edward II, which both look from these eyes to be playin' exactly how they wanna play and fuck the rest of y'all; the MCA's got me hooked up with Cie Heddy Maalem and GATZ on the way; and there's all this other stuff that I hope to get to and I hope is half as cool as it looks: Cabaret of Desire, The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, The Young Ladies Of..., The Brothers Karamazov, Radio Macbeth; and then there's the long-term exciting stuff: lots more MCA, Jimmy McDermott does The Maids, the sweet-christ-on-a-bike O'Neill Festival line-up; Lieutenant of Inishmore.

Good god damn. It's an exciting time to be a theatre artist in Chicago. So you'll pardon me if I take some to enjoy and add to that myself while stopping in here occasionally. I'll be back. I always am.

And I'll return to link everybody later. I gots Our Town tix that I gotta go enjoy.