Thursday, February 26, 2009


I'm beat, y'all. Tonight is the seventh performance of Handcuffs in eight days and those of you who've seen it can understand just how daunting of a task that is. Those who haven't will after you make your reservations (right now!) and attend one of the last five performances. I've seen a few things, some good (Hairy Ape, Five Days In March), some bad (How I Became An Interesting Person) and some in between (Desire Under The Elms), but nothing has sat me down and made me its bitch -- at least not to the point that I've felt the need to pull myself from my weariness to write about it. I've got stuff coming up as well -- Rouw Siert Electra (Mourning Becomes Electra), Stupid Kids, and Xanadu (yes, Xanadu) this weekend -- but we start rehearsals for The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie on Monday, so I will also be living in that horrifying two show overlap for a week, and barring any earth shattering (which may well happen in that lineup), I may not be back to write about those next week, either.

I'm around, y'all know how to reach me; and if you don't it's Do that. I've got a lot of real world things going on right now; I'd love to have some real world interaction with all of your pretty faces as well.


While I am here, though, a quick Handcuffs mid-mortem. I am astounded, literally astounded at the word of mouth response this show has received. I have stories of people overhearing strangers on the street discussing the show, audience members going home and immediately updating their Facebook status imploring others to see the show (that's the exact wording one person used), strangers who had heard the buzz jumping into conversations I've been having about the show, and repeatedly hearing friends tell me the vast number of otherwise unrelated people who had brought Handcuffs up in conversation. As I mentioned previously, we got one traditional review (which, to be fair, has also been a big help... we've been a TO:C critic's pick for three weeks running) and some good blog press, but this show more than any other I've been involved in is showing me just what good word of mouth looks like and can do.

I'm immensely proud of what we have onstage, but I've also been immensely proud of other shows in Chicago that haven't created this kind of street buzz, and in trying to analyze that I've come to some realizations about the relatively few (as few as two or three) group headings that you can lump successful theatre into: of course, there's the big name stuff (BiC, GoodShakesenWolf) that sells on reputation alone, but among the small guys, there seems to be a strong division of work between traditional and non-traditional.

I don't want to shoehorn this into a classicism vs. experimental argument, because that's not what I mean by traditional at all; rather an idea of embracing what theatre (classic or experimental) looks like vs. embracing what theatre has not looked like yet. And I play both games -- Signal is a prime example of the former. Companies like Signal, Raven, Strawdog, Eclipse, etc. provide theatre that is as theatre does. And the recipe for success in that formula is pure craft. The ideas are infallible, so the X factor in the equation becomes the talent and the execution. And when all cylinders fire, the success is most visible in critical response. Traditional tickets sell through traditional outlets. Certainly word of mouth is an influence, but it takes the form of laundry lists of show responses. You share the good word on a traditional show in coversations that take the form of "Oh, have you seen anything good lately? I hear that X and Y are solid, maybe I should check those out." Then again, traditional tickets sell to traditional audiences, and for traditional audiences, theatre is an evening out. This sort of discourse is how you discover which show would be best to spend your designated Saturday evening theatre trip at. Success in this model is acheived through pure good effing theatre.

The other end of the spectrum, call it theatre is as theatre doesn't, is an idea-based model. The forefront goal isn't technical flawlessness, because any idea interesting enough to embody the sort of response desired has very few if any kindred ideas close enough to provide any sort of precedent as to what flawless looks like. And that's really part of the point as well as the appeal. Non-traditional work excites a crowd because it does things in an unfamiliar manner while treating that manner as an old friend. And this is the type of work that breeds on word of mouth. It's less effective for traditional critics, not because the critics are lacking, but because the best of this work has no benchmark to line it up to. On the other hand, street conversations don't fall prey to that limitation. Something exciting happens, and we want to share it, no matter how large our inability to express the experience in words. And, if we can't express it in words, that in itself is a valid selling point that critics can rarely, if ever, tap. Anytime someone banks on something new and it rolls into a large success (As Told By The Vivian Girls, the process of both the Hypocrites and the Neo-Futurists becoming the established forces they are today), it comes from a growing murmer in the streets, not a declaration from the trusted sources.

As an artist, I see and enjoy the value of both. I have no desire to note this as a division between two warring fronts, merely two different approaches, both a delight to create. Variety is the spice of life. But as an audience member, it's that murmer that gets my little heart a-beating. And the idea that we are that murmer for a growing number of Chicagoans puts a great big smile on my face. So hey, there are five left... come and see that murmer for yourself.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

True West/Topdog/Underdog

I don't know if it was simply a misunderstanding on my part or some late stage decision making on their part (hey, it's not uncommon at ATC), but up until about a week or two before ATC and Congo Square's collaboration on True West and topdog/underdog opened, I was under the impression that four different versions of each show would be running in rep: a black cast, a white cast, and two separate interracial casts. It's an extremely audacious and foolhardy idea, which is part of the reason I was so all 'bout it. It turns out the reality of the situation is a much more feasible two versions per show -- traditional and inverted race. After taking in both of the racially inverted versions, I wish two things: 1) that I had been able to see the traditional casts, and 2) that ATC and Congo Square had gone balls to the wall with at least one interracial version of each show.

I wish the first simply because it would be nice to have some point of reference as to how each director worked with or past the idea of race in each show and the second to have some point of reference as to how each script can work with or past the idea of race, because this is really the sort of experiment that can only truly succeed through comparison and contrast.

Within isolation, True West, the less racially driven of the two scripts, becomes the more racially self-aware of the two productions. Director PJ Paparelli, embracing the change, allows Anthony Irons to use the character of Lee to transform Shepard's heatstroke surrealism into country-fried ghetto. It's a transformation that is astonishingly seamless and Irons nails it to great effect. The unfortunate result is the highlighting of the evening's lack of a sense of purpose. Once we settle into the fact of the racial switch (and Irons allows his white hot repartee to lose a little steam), that dreaded three letter word seems to loom over the room: why? And I'm not trying to reason the need here. I hate that question more than most artists I know, so it doesn't take much for me to forgo it, but I'm stuck on True West.

It'd be one thing if the answer were a simple making this play equally effective with color-blind casting (this is the case with topdog, which is hamstrung by an entirely different matter, but more on that in a bit). I'd have been cool with that, but Paparelli's direction is most definitely aware that the race of these characters is not the race as written. But any underlying racial relevance that Paparelli finds in Shepard is impotent if even intentional, resulting in show that is standard on all counts as it announces that, look, Sam Shepard can be performed black, too! Fair enough, but Shepard's not the biggest hurdle if that's the gig. Pull the same trick with Noel Coward and maybe I'll look twice.

topdog/underdog, on the other hand, should have been a knockout. Director Derrick Sanders blows past the gimmick to focus on the work at hand. It's a true testament to Sanders' ability that I stuck around for the second act, because he's being sabotaged something fierce by Matthew Brumlow, whose Lincoln is disgracefully performative. In a role that hinges on internal conflict, Brumlow turns in an impressionistic Marlon Brando caricature straight out of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. This is the type of performance so calculated that you could set your watch by each flick of the nose, each head tilt, each jaw clench. And Sanders and Stephen Louis Grush as the rage against the wind Booth do everything in their power to maintain a strong foundation, but this is a two-hander; it's all or nothing. And while there is so much, so much promise here, it's all for naught in the presence of Brumlow's black hole Lincoln.

Which, looking back, is the biggest reason I wish they had gone with the eight show repertory. Sure, the audacity of it all is enticing, but as I'm going over the permutations in my program, the possibility comes up of a Derrick Sanders-directed topdog/underdog starring Anthony Irons and Stephen Louis Grush. And that would have fucking rocked. That would have made the experiment worthwhile. A-game work with disregard to race: To me, that's a good enough 'why?' for the idea -- but I need it in each show rather than spread too thin across the both.


Time for a little post-opening Handcuffs review round-up! But before I stroll into that, a few of my very own thoughts: based on the immediate response I've been part and partial to, this may be the type of show that gives an idea of what the other side looks like in all of these 'dwindling arts media coverage' conversations. Between critics no-showing (a certain publication twice in one weekend!) and other publications generally paying no nevermind, we had a whopping one traditional arts media outlet show up on opening weekend (although, if I had to pick only one to have, it'd be Time Out). On the flip side, we already have two in-depth alternative coverage reviews, another brief mention, and a fourth still potentially to come. Now, I understand the reasoning behind this: we're talking about an obscure experimental play by an obscure absurdist playwright being produced as a free show by a young company in a brand new, non-traditional space. If I were an arts editor, it wouldn't be the top of my list, either; you gotta go with the choices likely to fall in line with the largest swath of your readers, and it's easier to err on the side of normal. Although, looking at the astounding amount of unstellar reviews that normal rendered this week alone in the Reader, I have to wonder at its efficacy.

Handcuffs is going to thrive on the alternatives. Blogs, word of mouth, the fringe of not only Chicago theatre, but Chicago arts will be the glut of the reasons for this show's success. I fully expect a slow second weekend followed by an explosive end of the run as the grapevine machine works its magic. (I mention this for three reasons: 1. If you're still deciding when to come, this weekend might be a good time. 2. If you aren't coming until later, you better make sure you've already got your reservation. 3. Pure egotism.)

Now, to let some other people sell it: Piatt mostly enjoyed the show, and while his complaints are understandable -- these are some divisive devices we're employing -- I do feel compelled to point out that the pregame prison-dungeon hoo-ha is courtesy Arrabal. Nathan gets rode a little hard for ideas he followed through on rather than devised. Also in the review is a comparison that caught me off guard in the most positive way:

"Still, this grotesque spectacle in miniature is in many ways a smaller but ballsier and more confidently acted companion piece to last year’s monstrous Henry Darger installation play As Told by the Vivian Girls."

Vivian Girls was my absolute favorite show of 2008 and to warrant a comparison that positive makes me smile all over. It also, mehopes, opens a window of reason for anyone still on the fence about Handcuffs to go ahead and make that reservation. It's a helluva compliment.

All kinds of good words abound from Don and Francis, as well, particularly these choice bits to sum up exactly why people are spreading the good word:

"Given that And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers premiered in 1969, it's not a leap to assume the play contains a fair amount of both overt sexuality and revolutionary political screed. If you were to make those assumptions, you'd be right on the money with this RBP production.What you might not expect are the solid performances at a FREE show, the excellent space design, the highly creative lighting effects, awesome sound design, and the imaginative and inspired staging choices." - Don Hall

"For me, this production is what makes the Chicago storefront scene explosive: staged for hardly any money, not expecting to make any (the play is free with suggested donations), comprised of innovative, can-do directorial fervor, bravely naked (both literally and emotionally) acting, and yes, challenging, material that will provoke a variety of reactions from the audience, from repulsion, attraction, discomfort, admiration, inspiration." - Francis Sadac

We've got a verified somethin' on our hands, and whatever else you might be compelled to call it (perhaps an "environmentally tricked-out new clusterfuck staging", one of my favorite descriptions of any show I've ever worked on), it's somethin' special. And somethin' special you need reservations for, so pick up that phone!


Now that the show is open, my theatregoing is slowing itself to matinees and off-nights, but I'm making the best due I can: this week is Chicago Dramatists' How I Became An Interesting Person on Sunday, Goodman's Desire Under The Elms on Tuesday, and About Face's Stupid Kids on Wednesday. Maybe I'll see you there! Or, even better, at Handcuffs! Rock and roll, darlings.


Sunday, February 1, 2009

Lotsa Stuff

You'll have to pardon my absence and the subsequent brief follow-up... we're in tech for Handcuffs, so my rec time has gone the way of the extinction for the present. And speaking of which, let's get to that brief follow-up first.

If there are only two things that you take from this entire post, let it be these two:

1) Due to the massive amount of talent and general kickassery involved, you must come see The Right Brain Project's production of Fernando Arrabal's ...And They Put Handcuffs On The Flowers, which opens this Thursday.
2) The show is freaking free. Not "suggested donation of $12 which means you owe us $12" free, but "if you want to donate, we'll love you all the more, but if not, we'll still love you and the show is still free" free.
And, 3) (because I'm sure you can handle an unexpected third, dear friends) You need to make reservations now. They are required, because the show is free and it's a very, very intimate space. Just pull out your planner, mark off a performance date before March 7 ( for more details) and call 773-750-2033 or e-mail to say what date you are coming. It's that easy. You'll be done in five minutes and not have to worry about showing up for nothing because our small house filled up faster than you anticipated. Trust me on this.

The show kicks much ass and is working in a stylistic and atmospheric manner that I can honestly say I've never witnessed before, and I go see a lot of stuff. I think you'll like it a lot, and even on the off chance that I'm wrong, it's not like you threw your money away.

Again, go to or e-mail me for more details. And let me know when you're coming -- we'll grab a drink after and it'll be fab.


So, you know who rocks? Companhia Triptal rocks. The weekend before last their Long Voyage Home would have joined The Maids on my current Best of the Best list had I not been at the closing show, and Bound East For Cardiff -- the only show I made it to this past weekend -- was also quite breathtaking. I say that I've never witnessed anything stylistically or atmospherically like Handcuffs, but Triptal is one of the closest things that comes to mind. Their three week run was something nearing a complete theatrical experience -- either a world of paradoxes or entirely vacillating. Intimate and grandiose, overblown in its subtlety, packed with lo-fi spectacle, Triptal's Sea Plays were the perfect example of theatre without doubt. There were a number of elements (particularly in Long Voyage Home, my favorite of the three) that, in all common sense, should not have meshed well. And yet, performed with such fervor and stride - not to mention so damn well - it all seems so front of your face. Suddenly the question isn't "Why can't this be done?", but "Why aren't more people doing this?"

Cardiff marked the halfway point in my O'Neill Festival experience and I have to say, even if I hate every second of the last four shows (and I don't see that happening in any reality), this is the theatrical event of '09 to beat. The Goodman deserves three times the accolades they are getting for curating this festival, and I for one hope they continue on this track. They've got in me a new lifetime subscriber to any widescale Festival they put up from here on out.


On the same page, but much less exciting for me was the latest entry in Chicago Shakes' World's Stage series. Rwandan company Urwintore's The Investigation left me underwhelmed. This is partly because it's a soft piece that relies on the intricacies of delivery that a performer can provide; intricacies that don't translate through supertitles. Of course, this isn't a fault of the production so much as my inability to fully take the show in. But despite that fact, the idea remains that the Holocaust Artwork is on the verge of becoming ineffective through saturation (moreso through reverent saturation). The contemporization that I was expecting through the unspoken presence of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide didn't hit me primarily because it remained so unspoken. Remembrance is great -- remembrance is necessary, but after 50+ years, remembrance is a game for museums. Art works much better if it is willing to speak on it's own, which Weiss' play was doing in 1964. Urwintore, on the other hand, let Weiss speak for them in 2009, and it isn't much to their benefit.


Speaking on a different cultural removal, Steep's In Arabia We'd All Be Kings addresses the Disneyfication of NYC. The piece runs a danger of becoming a parade of stereotypes, primarily because living so close in date to the shift, a good number of people continue to see Giuliani's cleaning of the gutters as a fully positive change. But director Joanie Schultz guides the show directly where it needs to be: a full acknowledgement of the danger and filth that thrived in Manhattan pre-clean, but also a portrait of the humanity of those that were so easily branded as trash to be swept aside.


The one other thing on my docket this past weekend was the Chicago Fringe Artists Networking Night (CFANN), hosted by the fine folks at Red Tape Theatre. The evening appeared on all counts to be a hit, which is very exciting for a fringe artist event. The turnout was fantastic, and while the performances were far from batting 1.000, the ones that shone, really shone... (and, for a fringe event, I would expect no less than a wide degree of variance; in some cases, it's more exciting that everything doesn't work)


So there you go. It was brief update, but at least I'm caught up just in time to jump right back into tech. I'm not seeing anything this weekend (because I'm opening a show, fools!), but am making up for the slack immediately thereafter with the racially inverted casts of ATC and Congo Square's True West and topdog/underdog next Monday and The Hypocrites' The Hairy Ape at the Goodman next Tuesday.

In the meantime, make your reservation to come see Handcuffs this weekend or soon thereafter. Opening night is now officially sold out (I guess 'reserved out', technically speaking), but you should still be able to get in on Friday or Saturday. Hooray! I'll see you soon!