Indefinite Hiatus

In case it wasn’t obvious, I’ve not been able to meet my original goal of seeing and writing about a show every week. I just haven’t had time. I’d like to apologize to all involved in two productions that I saw with every intention of writing about:

I’m leaving up the reviews already on this site, because, why not?

Anyway, thank you for reading! If you want to keep up with other things I’m writing, you can follow my regular blog, to compete with phrasemongers… I currently am a writing fellow with Createquity, and have blogged a little about financial decision-making in theaters at 2AMt. You can also find me trolling the #2amt thread on Twitter and inserting my soul-searing words of wisdom on a semi-regular basis.

PARTY TONITE for ANYONE who wants to CHANGE: Cherrywood at Mary-Arrchie

We are told quite early on in Kirk Lynn’s Cherrywood: The Modern Comparable that CHANGE is we’re in for (the play was written in 2004). And in we are, 50 audience members tucked neatly in against all four walls of a dilapidated flophouse or loft, waiting for 49 cast members to arrive and party their inhibitions off.

But as the play begins, there seem to be meager rations, little party, little likelihood of change, and little chance that these intensely anxious folks will ever experience something not completely in their heads. It explains a lot that these alienated, distracted, news-hating adult children are drinking ersatz wolf milk all night, half-joking/half-wistfully-hoping that they will become strong werewolves impervious to human pains. And for a while, that’s really all you get. Emotionally fragile but intelligent people argue about whether there has ever been a good rock band whose name begins with A, and argue about whether this is a cool party or not, and argue about whether it is cool to argue or not; but look at the door with birdlike apprehension everytime the doorbell rings to let in someone new.

Lynn’s structural experiment in Cherrywood is that none of the lines in the script are assigned to particular characters. It was up to director David Cromer and his massive cast to weave characters out of meager threads and snatches of conversations and the occasional rambling monologue. In the expert hands of Cromer and these 49 actors, this is legible rather than chaotic. Legible, but not linear. While one can follow all the threads with a little concentration, it requires multi-tasking. It reminded me of following several discussions on Twitter at once. Response is followed by non-sequiter is followed by contrarian comment.

So, the play starts with anxious young adults, unprepared for the big world, carrying on parallel self-conscious conversation snippets (just like at a party) that wander all over the place. It’s entertaining, particularly because all the eclectic characters remind us of most of the house parties we’ve ever attended. But thankfully, Cherrywood doesn’t wallow in this for 90 minutes. It just marinates in it for a bit before plopping everybody on the grill. There is something decidedly post-ironic at play here, as nearly every partier seems distinctly bored of being bored with everything; even bored with witty sniping rejoinders. And they’ve shown up at this party, perhaps seeking change, and they are going to get it.

If, like me, you like theater that surprises you, stop reading now to avoid the spoilers. Just go ahead and go see it. There are seven more performances between now and August 28th. There are way too many actors and designers and other creatives to mention in this blog, but you can see the online program here. With ticket prices as low as $13 for students and seniors, $18 general admission, Cherrywood is really one of the better theater values in town. And after you see it (or if you already have), tell us what you think in the comments.

On with the spoilers.

The navel gazing stops when that weird old guy that shows up at every party is shot in the hand, somehow, by nobody we can make out. A whodunnit unfolds, but it’s far more than a mystery. The gunshot catalyzes order out of chaos. Most of the party’s attendees are apparently unrooted, alienated, tribeless, and yet leadership must emerge if the mystery is to be solved. That emerging leadership, and willingness to be led, turn out to be far more important than the actual crime. Exits are closed and legal structures are invented, ad hoc, with mixed success. After a gun is found, a clever shell game of cardboard boxes both stows the gun away and redistributes power among all the party-goers.

Shortly, the inevitable pizza guy shows up. He’s a bit of a travelling revival preacher and charismatic cult leader, regaling rapt partiers with his story of advising the governor (on change, of course), doing miracles, and demanding disciples. And he gets them when he starts helping them pull their dreams out of boxes. This unexpected magical realism was great, because it surprised and delighted me. You can’t say that every time you see some magical realism in the theater. At the same time, the pizza guy has enough menace to make us wonder if he’s the pied piper here to steal the children or lead the lemmings off the cliff. Most of the kids are willing to jump, I think.

The emotional strain of these events is released in fantastic catharsis in some of Cherrywood‘s best moments, including a group dance that you really want to join. There are other moments like this, when you kind of wonder whether an audience member will interject and what will happen then. After 90 minutes of sitting less than an arm’s length from the actors, the line between them and us gets a little blurry. That couldn’t happen if there weren’t 49 actors squeezed onstage, squeezing us against the four walls.

This minor violation of the audience’s own space (or the audience’s violation of the acting space) wouldn’t work quite the same way without such a large cast. Likewise, the emerging community of characters, which still could become a Jim Jones style wolf-milk cult, seems more vital and relevant when they fill the room. They really need to burst out of their insular flophouse, and become the change they want to see in the world.

Hard to keep up

If you’re following this blog, then I’m sorry. It hasn’t been as easy to keep up with this as I’d hoped. Sort of like having sex every day, seeing a play every week sounds awesome until you try it, and realize how much dedication is required.

So, I’ve posted my comments on Killer Joe, weeks after we saw it. I really liked it, but read that entry for more detail.

Other productions we’ve seen, but I’ve not yet written about, include Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby at BackStage Theatre CompanyWelcome to Arroyo’s by (Pulitzer finalist) Kristoffer Diaz at American Theater Company, Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan at Strawdog, and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men at Oak Park Festival Theatre. I have friends who were/are in each of those productions, so I’m not an unbiased critic, but that’s no excuse. I’ll try to get caught up with these while still seeing more, and while we’re out of town for various family and holiday events.

Killer Joe by Profiles Theatre, in the Royal George Cabaret

Tracy Letts is a genius. While Killer Joe is not the rich and sympathetic tour de force (sorry for that cliché) that August: Osage County is, it absolutely crackles with energy, uninhibited joy, reckless contempt, and a complete obliviousness to more sensitive audience members that is bracing, astonishing and thrilling. It seems that Letts has no objection to emotionally raping us, but like Joe in one of his more generous moments, he’s willing to let us off the hook with comedy. The humor is vicious, and gives us every opportunity to mock these low-class strivers as they foolishly scheme for the big payoff.

Our amusement, dependent on our perceived cultural superiority, is one example of Letts distillation of the Classical (with a capital C) comedic forms. It’s almost textbook. You have low-class buffoons, concocting a ridiculous plan to rise above their station. Of course, they get over their heads very quickly. We know from the beginning that this crew will be outsmarted at every turn, and end up in as bad or worse a place then when they started (hint: it’s a worse place).

As the stand-in for a comedic protagonist, Joe (Darrell W. Cox in a Jeff-winning performance) breaks the classical mold. One of the most amazing things about this production of Killer Joe is how sympathetic this sociopath becomes, how we connect with him as charismatic leader, despite his brutality. It is hard to imagine liking the first Joe, Michael Shannon, in this role as much as we like Cox. Don’t take that the wrong way…

As for the buffoons, Letts isn’t satisfied to simply give us a Launcelot Gobbo to chuckle at. Instead, he pulls in themes of opera and epic poetry. To set us up for absolutely anything, the play begins with a matricide plot hatched by Chris (Kevin Bigley), and readily assented to by his father, Ansel (Howie Johnson), and Ansel’s girlfriend, Sharla (Somer Benson). From that initial and seemingly ultimate betrayal, we spiral deeper along shrinking concentric rings of family dysfunction, cowardice, and more betrayal. Or perhaps the rings are just a spring, winding tighter and tenser each moment, taunting us until it snaps.

As in Dante, betrayal is the most hideous sin. The greater the traitor, the greater the punishment. Letts (and director Rick Snyder) might go too far with the punishment, but as Dante will tell you, the vilest traitors must spend eternity in Satan’s mouth. Joe makes a pretty good Satan, all in all, and we know before the second act begins that nobody is escaping his maw.

What is left to incorporate into this post-structural amalgam of classical forms? We need a little redemption, and we get it from the sacrificial lamb, Dottie (Claire Wellin). This all melds into a surprisingly moral play by the end, but not quite a morality play. Redemption here is not simple, and it is certainly not cheap, and we leave uncertain as to whether it is going to be enough to save any sinner among us.

Killer Joe is playing in the Royal George Cabaret, by far the best space in that theater. Killer Joe is on sale through July 18th. If you have enough tolerance for graphic violence, physical, emotional and sexual, then I recommend it. This production was a big winner at the Non-Equity Jeff Awards this year, taking the awards for Outstanding Production, Outstanding Director, and Outstanding Actor in a Principle Role, all in the “Play” category.

Feast by the Albany Park Theater Project

Yeah, this is late. I know.

I previously lamented missing out on Feast by Albany Park Theater Project, but I did get on the mailing list. Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, they added a show! So I quickly purchased my ticket for the added show, and feeling felicitous, made my way to the Eugene Field Park building, which houses the Laura Wiley Theater, on a Wednesday night.

This was my first time at APTP, and I was not really expecting high production values and beautiful set. Shame on me for assuming that theater developed with and by kids is going to be cheap. That’s an extremely unhelpful assumption, and I’m glad to have been wrong. This is high grade storefront theater, created by obviously dedicated teenagers, directed and coached by experienced theater professionals.

Feast is vibrant and moving. This is not surprising, given the premise. A multicultural teenage cast interviewed denizens of Chicago’s diverse north-side Albany Park neighborhood, learning their culinary traditions and recording their reminiscences, and brought them to the stage with the full energy of their youth. A story of catching fish in the river near one’s boyhood home connects me to my father’s stories of growing up on a Wisconsin lake, only the boyhood home on this stage was in the Philippines. Sacred culinary tradition is upheld in the ritualistic cadences of a halal butcher, taking over the family business with pride so his Lebanese grandfather can retire. The sacred is contrasted by the joyfully corporeal inheritance of a traditional tamale recipe (don’t be stingy with the manteca!), which saves the sidewalk food cart business of two immigrants.

The performance style is less varied than the cultural tapestry. Most of the performance is monologue-based, and very heavy on stylized movement, occasionally distracting, often with other cast members supporting the monologist with choreographed movement or dance. Three breaks from this convention standout.

As a boy tells his story of raising the family cow, destined for the market, he is accompanied by four cast members serving as Foley artists. This is the funniest scene, very charming and engaging. The considerable energy of the young cast is most effectively channeled here. It feels very improvisational, as though the Foley artists and the actor on stage are trying to catch each other.

Three monologues are interwoven in a scene surrounding Illinois’ LINK card, a theoretically more dignified and efficient modern version of food stamps. As a child, my family received food stamps, and my mother used them to buy as much healthy food as she could, so it was with a cringe of concern that I watched one of these three monologues herald a bacchanal of junk food afforded by the LINK on the first day of the month. In a city with food deserts in some poor neighborhoods, it is strange to see such celebration of non-nutritive consumption. But Feast is sharing stories with us, not preaching to us or asking to be preached at, so I guess I can own my self-righteous cultural chauvinism and just deal with it. The young woman who tells this story makes such a platform of her shopping cart–climbing, jumping, twirling and dancing in, on and around it–that at one point there were gasps of alarm from the audience. Another LINK card monologue centers around a young Latina girl completing the government forms for her non-English speaking mother, unaware of the rules and ramifications. I connected most, though, with a third story woven through these two: that of a young man desperate to hide his family’s use of the LINK card from his friends. I can recall his shame from my own childhood, and can certainly empathize a little with his selfish demands that his mother buy name brand groceries for him, while the rest of the family eats generic breakfast cereal sold in bags, not boxes.

Another break from the monologue format was a little disturbing. A group of girls, dressed as gothed-up Victorian dolls, sang stilted and dissonant schoolyard rhymes about feeding and serving a husband and family someday. The rhymes are all vaguely familiar–I had heard many of them on playgrounds–but I hadn’t noticed their insidious potential for socialization of girls towards subservience until I saw them this way.

In all, the show is a terrific collage of the sacred, the profane, pride, shame, nostalgia, tradition, self-actualization, social oppression, frustration and optimism. And it’s all about food! You can’t watch Feast without getting hungry. And you can still see it! More on that at the end. I paid full price: $18 plus Brown Paper Tickets processing charges (which are low and reasonable, unlike with those Ticketmaster bastards).

A friend of mine compared Albany Park Theater Project to El Sistema, and I certainly see where he’s coming from. El Sistema is the Venezuelan program (official name: Fundación del Estado para el Sistema Nacional de las Orquestas Juveniles e Infantiles de Venezuela, or FESNOJIV) wherein children and teens of limited opportunities are taught to play an instrument in an orchestra, or even conduct. El Sistema’s most currently famous alum, Gustavo Dudamel, is the new Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and last year he conducted the U.S. tour of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, made up of the best musicians from El Sistema. El Sistema not only provides a constructive outlet, and helps young people from poor neighborhoods find an artistic voice, it also demands dedication and excellence. I see APTP doing the same. Their program book also makes it clear that there is a successful college counseling component to what they do, by the way.

Feast will be remounted on July 20th, for one performance only, as part of the Goodman Latino Theatre Festival this summer. Tickets are $18, and I highly encourage you to get yours now. I want to take all of my friends who are educators or theater practitioners.

A family secret from BackStage Theatre Company

I’m on the Board of BackStage Theatre Company. Our BackStage family has a little secret. Would you like to know what it is? Click here and we’ll whisper it to you.

Music: Over The Rhine at SPACE in Evanston

This is a guest post by my lovely wife, Amy, of the April 28th Over The Rhine concert at SPACE in Evanston.

Greetings! I’m excited to be a guest blogger here, though my late posting date might not adequately reflect my enthusiasm. Aaron and I have a hard time learning how not to be busy. I’m actually writing this from my in-laws’ home in South Carolina, over a week past the show date. While I consider myself a big Over the Rhine fan, and I will admit to weeping on my first listen to their last studio album, The Trumpet Child, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this concert. I saw them tour on this album two years ago & feared a repeat performance. At the same time, I lamented having missed them on their last few trips through Chicago and was pleased with the venue. SPACE (The Society for the Preservation of Arts and Culture in Evanston) offers a great backdrop for music; its exposed brick, alternating sheer and velvet curtains and overhead lamps (which resemble nothing so much as the exposed gills of a mushroom cap’s underskirt) give a relaxed and comfortable, not too ritzy, feel.

Lucy Wainwright-Roche started the show, and though I initially wished for reprieve from an opening act (your dear writer struggles with a late school night), she quickly won me over with her dulcet voice and self-deprecating humor. The Bruce Springsteen cover “Everybody’s Got a Hungry Heart” which turned into a sing-a-long didn’t hurt either. I love a cover and a sing-a-long, as evidenced when I forced Aaron to attend one in Door County a few years ago on our vacation. Who can ever get enough of wholesome good times round the piano? To clarify, Ms. Roche played the guitar, not the piano, and her singer-songwriter fare, tales of the road and of heartbreak, was a far cry from a Door County meeting hall filled with 80 year old war veterans and scores of Scandinavians singing patriotic hymns. But we take our pleasure where we can.

The show was fantastic and further cemented this act as my favorite band. Over the Rhine, the husband and wife duet of Linford Detweiler (keyboard & back up vocals) and Karin Berquist (guitar, lead vocals, keyboard) took the stage joined by Jake Bradley (upright bass, electric bass and electric guitar) and Kenny Hudson (mandolin, dobro, pedal steel and lap steel). This was my first time seeing Hudson and his soulful feel provided complementary country warmth to Berquist’s vocals. While I had some trepidation about experiencing this show as “same old”, I was thrilled to find that OTR’s songs, instead of sounding more rehearsed, sounded simultaneously raw and beautifully broken in. The thirteen song set, followed by a three number encore drew from The Trumpet Child, Drunkard’s Prayer, Ohio (featuring Karin for two songs at the keyboard) and Good Dog Bad Dog (“All I Need is Everything”).

Several new songs were introduced, and they did not disappoint. Detweiler and Berquist are up front about an increased awareness of mortality in the wake of their parents’ illnesses and death. This is reflected in new songs like “Johnny & June” which asks ‘who’s gonna bury who,’ and “Only God”, a let’s-laugh-or-we’ll-cry look at the characters inhabiting the nursing home shared by Berquist’s mother following her stroke. Detweiler joins in for some duet vocals in the new songs and the connection between this couple is evident. That’s part of the appeal of this band. It feels like the songs they write are lived-in and true; their yearning for love and the divine permeates. Their new song “Infamous Love Song” (Aaron’s favorite) illustrates this perfectly, beginning, ‘I sing the bebop apocalypse / I lean in to you, God’s hands on my hips,’ and moving towards a chorus of, ‘Baby, our love song will survive.’ For someone raised with both tradition and taboo, this mix up of God and sex is magnetic. It obviously had a strong pull on the rest of the crowd too, as they were drawn to their feet twice in appreciation of the night’s offering.

If you’re not familiar with OTR’s music, check them out at Letters, tour dates and sweet graphics now sit alongside Karin and Linford’s invitation to fund a new album, giving a uniquely authentic slant to the term “indie music”. They’re headed to the west coast to record and, in return for your financial support, you’ll receive advance shipping on the album, recognition on the website & other perks depending upon how generous you can afford to be. (For example, I’m already enjoying demos of nine new songs!) Regarding Aaron’s pricing rules: this show was $40 each as we sprung for secured table seating. This means that a few weeks back, we didn’t see any performance at all to save up. We also paid $4.50 fees per person to buy tickets online. Thanks to Aaron for the opportunity to guest write & for stealing a set list post-show!