What I Did on My Winter Vacation, Pt. 1
You might have noticed that I didn't post a mack attack last week, and honestly, I've got a good excuse: I've been in Chicago for almost a week, enjoying an extended milestone birthday (none of your business) celebration. Of course, that celebration, when it didn't involve drinking or eating, involved lots of theater, most of which I chronicled in condensed form via Twitter, but here's a recap:
Couldn't hit town without partaking in a bit of the Goodman Theatre's "O'Neill in the 21st Century" festival, so I made the difficult decision to forego their heavy-hitter Desire Under the Elms, with Brian Denehy and Carla Gugino, for The Hypocrites' production of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape. Why? I guess I just like rooting for the underdog. And also, while a straightforward production of a straightforward play, with marquee names, has its place, I was really looking for Chicago to bring its A-game and impress the hell out of me with something new.
Well, it did and it didn't. Props to the Goodman for committing to realizing up-and-comers The Hypocrites' singular vision. And by committing, I don't mean they tossed some money around. Apparently the Goodman tore out permanent fixtures to accommodate director Sean Graney, so good on them. But was it all worthwhile? Since I'm not reviewing the show in any official capacity, I'll just say that while Tom Burch's shipboard set design--reversing the house and staging the action on several tiers of what would normally be audience seating--was pretty ingenious, and Chris Sullivan's Yank gave a powerhouse of a performance, Graney's direction was all over the place, with cadres of disco dancers and cavorting bakers robbing the script and Graney's own ideas of their strength. However, I'm still wondering if bathing Yank in flour and dotting his nose with red icing was just what it looked like--an attempt to make him look like a clown--or a conscious answer to The Wooster Group's blackface Emperor Jones. Or both. Anyone?
Next up was Craig Wright's The Unseen, at the tiny A Red Orchid Theatre, birthplace of Tracy Letts' itchy, twitchy Bug. The play, a parable in which two prisoners at a secret correctional outpost attempt to remain sane after years of torture and isolation, doesn't sound like much of a treat. But I guess that all depends on your perspective. Wright's script and Dado's direction have their surprisingly funny moments; funny, as in, funny ha ha, not funny weird. I'm not saying that it's a riot by any means, or even that you'd have an unfettered chuckle. But still, under the circumstances, any funny at all is a feat. Which is the point, I guess, or one of them, anyway, that humanity somehow survives even under the most suffocating conditions. A fellow critic who loved a recent production of Wright's Orange Flower Water here in Philly attended a staged reading of Unseen and said he thought the writing was iffy. I could see how with the wrong cast that might be the case, but here it wasn't, certainly not in this company's capable, empathic production.
I hit Second City, for their new mainstage show America: All Better, which, like most sketch comedy, was hit or miss. A cute running gag about mini-badass-hottie Rahm Emmanuel, some relationship skits, a few digs at postracialism, it's all good. But just good, not great.
Ok, I could have seen The Seafarer, but since the Arden Theatre is also producing it this season, I don't know, I felt kind of like I wanted to be loyal and give them the benefit of the first impression. So I'm provincial, sue me.
Anyway, I'd somehow never gotten around to seeing Yazmina Reza's three-ham-hander wank about a painting and everyone's feelings. And I know some of you out there must really enjoy it, because like Count Dracula, it refuses to die, and keeps returning to suck anything resembling real emotion out of a room. But I didn't enjoy it, not even with a two-thirds good cast, and a couple of cocktails beforehand to dull my natural edge. (I was off-duty, remember?) Sorry, I guess I'm just a bitch. And I'm not really sorry.
So thanks Chicago, for showing a gal a good time. After all, getting riled up about something I didn't like is still better than no theater at all, and a town that takes its theater as seriously as Chicago does--no sooner had I arrived than the League of Chicago Theatres' Communications Director Ben Thiem started following me on Twitter and offered to take me out--is better than most cities, period.