March Blogroll: Illinois Theatres Edition

Dear readers,

Now that I am starting to plan a move to the Pacific Northwest (I’ve been hired!), I’ve been thinking about all the great theatre I’ve seen in Illinois in the last decade and how much I will miss its rigor and variety. From the storefronts, serious playhouses, and Broadway options of the city to the excellent community, university, and regional theatre of the plains, I’ve seen great experiments, start-ups, world premieres, and classics. I’ve also been able to see a great deal of Shakespeare’s canon, which has informed my own writing and research immensely. As the new season announcements begin to roll out this month, I offer here a list of venues, troupes, and playwrights I’ve come to love and recommend to anyone who might themselves be new and moving to the Midwest.

  • Sean Graney: As house playwright for The Hypocrites, he has been a long-time favorite of mine. I reviewed his Court Theatre production of The Comedy of Errors for Shakespeare Bulletin, as well as his award-winning All Our Tragic here on Bite Thumbnails.
  • Emily Schwartz: Emily’s taste and playfulness offers a new kind of macabre, reminiscent of something steam punk, something Beetlejuice, and something Tim Burton. The backbone of the Strange Tree Group (see more below), favorite productions of hers have been Funeral Wedding: The Alvin PlayThe Mysterious Elephant and the Terrible Tragedy of the Unlikely Addington Twins…Who Kill HimShakespeare’s King Phycus in association with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and The Three Faces of Doctor Crippen. The last was produced in association with Steppenwolf Garage Rep and later ran as part of the New York Fringe Festival.
  • Tracy LettsAs a multiple Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winner, Letts is arguably one of the most important writers and actors working in Chicago today. He is part of the prestigious Steppenwolf ensemble, and as an undergraduate I was able to see the premiere runs of his groundbreaking August: Osage County and Superior Donuts (starring John Michael Hill and Michael McKean). Despite its difficult content, his film Killer Joe (starring Matthew McConaughey), the play of which was done at UIUC around when I first arrived as a graduate student, is just as brilliant as August.
Two of the ladies at the heart of Strange Tree’s Doctor Crippen, Kate Nawrocki and Delia Baseman.
  • The Strange Tree GroupAs mentioned, Strange Tree is the product of several Indiana theatre students who came to the big city with a very unique perspective. While I list my favorite productions above, you can see my review of The Three Faces of Doctor Crippen, their most successful staging, as well as my personal favorite, Shakespeare’s King Phycus, on the blog.
  • The Q BrothersThe ad-rap-tations have been one of my favorite discoveries while living in Illinois. These two brothers have found a way to transfer the sense of speed, exigency, and rhythm of Shakespeare’s texts to a modern audience, using instead the conventions of rap rather than iambic pentameter. It’s a brilliant multi-modal approach, balancing a playfulness with a serious tenor perhaps best conveyed today for audiences. I’ve seen their Funk It Up About Nothin’ in its several iterations, last summer got a glimpse of their Two Gents, and perhaps will get a chance to check out their Othello: The Remix this summer, which premiered first at the Globe theatre in London.
  • Redmoon: We were all immensely distraught when Redmoon had to shutter its doors last year. Their productions rethought how space and scale alters theatrical experience, making them part of the grand opening of Millennium Park and taking them to the White House. I encountered them during their outdoor summer spectacle, as well in their amazing theatre collaborations Cyrano and Tempest. (The cover image of this post comes from one of their summer spectacles.)
The Q Brothers are bringing back their Othello: The Remix this spring at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.
  • Steppenwolf Theatre CompanyThese were the plays I saved up all my waitressing tips for. These were the plays that I had to walk home rather than hop the Halsted bus because I needed space to cry for several city blocks. The last thing I saw, Good People, was no exception.
  • Court Theatre at the University of Chicago: While I have reviewed two production at the Court—The Comedy of Errors and Porgy and Bess—it was several years prior that two other productions fundamentally changed how I experienced theatre. A January 2008 Titus Andronicus, silently framed as a elite club initiation rite, rattled my sense of where reality and play diverge. In November of 2008 there was Radio Macbeth, which melted my heart. I apologize for the hyperbole, but it remains nevertheless true.
  • Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre: Some of the first theatre I paid for as an undergraduate was at Victory Gardens. It was a few blocks from campus, and I saw my first Sarah Ruhl play, Eurydice, there. It also has the honor of abutting the alley where John Dillinger was shot (and the site where the Jonny Depp film was also shot).
Titus (Timothy E Kane) attempts to console Lavinia (Elizabeth Ledo) in the Court production of Titus Andronicus–a production that fundamentally changed how I thought about this early Shakespeare play.
Training Spaces
  • Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois: Krannert has been my home base for regular theatre for more than six years now. I have subscribed to the drama season since I first got to UIUC as a graduate student. It has exposed me to a great many texts I would not have otherwise sought out, dynamic ways to think about dramaturgy and stage design, and of course informed my teaching. I have reviewed a great deal of the MFA productions on the blog, but some personal favorites include Killer Joe, The African Company Presents Richard IIIClybourne Park, The Tempest, The Normal HeartThe Table‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and Brooklyn Babylon.
  • Merle Reskin Theatre at DePaul University: Having once been a music student, I made many friends in the Chicago theatre community quickly. Some of those initial friendships and exposure happened at the Merle Reskin. Later, when I worked as a residential advisor, the Reskin routinely gave me free tickets to share with my residents for bonding events.
  • Athenaeum TheatreWhile the Reskin was my official university base, I think I saw more productions at the Athenaeum than anywhere else in Chicago as an undergraduate. The space isn’t one theatre, but many small blackboxes spread across multiple floors. The productions were often original, experimental, and inexpensive. I saw my first Will Eno play, Flu Season, there and now almost always teach it in my Studies in Drama course.
The Athenaeum performance space on Chicago’s north side.
  • Back Room Shakespeare Project: The project is doing something that I think, like the Q Brothers, recovers the kind of experience Elizabethans had when they attended playhouses in the sixteenth century. No director, one rehearsal, and in a bar (not unlike the inn-yard performances of early modern London), these are thoughtful and risky productions as I explain in my review of their Julius Caesar for Shakespeare Bulletin.
  • The Improvised Shakespeare Company at IO: These guys are everywhere, going on tour across the state, in Chicago and in New York using Shakespeare’s verse as a improv comedy tool. It is the thing I recommend most often to people visiting the city for only a few days; you get a taste of Chicago’s rich improv and Shakespeare traditions all in one bite.
  • The What You Will Shakespeare Company at the University of Illinois: As a graduate student studying early modern theatre, I have always felt lucky to have a entirely student-run troupe doing Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Producing between two and four productions each semester, the company gave me the idea for this blog, and was one of the first things I reviewed, an As You Like ItSome other favorites include a MUSE-inspired HamletThe Country WifeMacbeth, and last summer’s rather brilliant Othello.
  • The Shakespeare Project of Chicago: This company does professional Shakespeare by the book. By that I mean no costumes and a bare stage along with prompters. In doing so, this company provides smart text-oriented interpretations, while finding clever ways to turn those prompters into props and costumes themselves. They perform across the Chicagoland area, but I have always seen them at their 10:00AM Newberry Library performances. I’ve reviewed them professionally (here) and am planning on attending their performance of Cardenio in a few weeks.
  • Chicago Shakespeare Theatre at Navy Pier: I have a vexed relationship with this theatre. It produces high-quality Shakespeare in a Blackfriars-esque performance space. Their casting problematically tends toward the coasts rather than drawing on local talent. And yet one of my favorite memories is of Sean Graney’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II back in 2008. (Apparently that was an important year for my relationship with Bill.) I am excited to be reviewing a couple productions as part of the City Desk initiative later this summer. Can’t wait? Two notable productions of late include the rarely-staged Pericles and a fabulous import of Hamlet.
  • Illinois Shakespeare Festival at Illinois State University: The festival has been a regular thing for several years now, where I have attended at least one production with two friends of mine, a theatre PhD and a librarian, every summer. Festival Shakespeare is a unique kind of theatrical experience, and while I will be sad to part with Bloomington, I look forward to adopting another festival in Ashland, Oregon.

I moved to Chicago from a small cow town in Hawai’i to study jazz. I had played in ensembles and as a pit musician starting in middle school. My mother, a flautist, would often let me hide inside the pit as a little kid so I could hang out and watch dress rehearsals for community theatre. So I came to the city to study music, but couldn’t seem to stay out of any kind of theatre, musical or otherwise. I changed majors, pursued other passions and eventually a doctorate. Illinois’ theatres have been with me all the while. They have been the back-bone of my performance education, and not the least of the things I am concerned to leave behind as I head west for a new adventure. I feel so grateful for all these theatres and artists working in the Midwest.

With many thanks,

P.S. It may go without saying, but any recommendations you have for theatre and Shakespeare (professional or otherwise) in the Portland area are most welcome!

The Court’s smart and safe “Porgy and Bess”

The Court Theatre concludes its 2010-2011 season with an adaptation of operatic proportions with a newly-developed stage version of the Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. This work is significant if only by virtue of the feat of acquiring the licensing agreements, but also grappling with its fraught history on the stage and in film. As a genre adaptation—a form gaining greater prestige as a unique kind of creative act—it required a lot of condensing and reshaping in terms of the libretto and orchestrations by Music Director Doug Peck in order to maintain the essence of the work for the small stage, ensuring that this production is no small experience.

Because of the difficulty of actually seeing a production of Porgy, this musical primarily exists in the American imaginary via song. The versions of “Summertime” and “I Loves You Porgy” are incandescent, and yet their operatic voicing doesn’t overwhelm the intimate Hyde Park space. The best performance is Bethany Thomas’ “My Man’s Gone Now” as Serena: she seems to sing with the very tips of her fingers in this rendition, heart-wrenching in its desperation and emotional intensity. At times, however, the songs lean heavily on the emotional intensity of the arrangements as the libretto is pretty-much unintelligible. (This may be in part due to my own un-trained ear for operatic phrasing. If you are unfamiliar with the plot, I recommend reading the synopsis so that you can allow for the music to wash over you and not be concerned with actually attempting to make out sung dialogue.) The orchestra was downsized, like everything else in the production, to a trim half-dozen that still manages to present the illusion of the operatic wall of sound without the pressure.

The ensemble is arranged around the central platform that contains the performers, subtly re-emphasizing that the focus of the production is in its sounds. The set and staging also underscored the musicality by essentially whitewashing the material elements of the play. John Culbert’s minimalist set design, filled with sharp angles and semi-transparent partitions, is nicely set off by a large bell with pull-chord used by the players to interject at moments of tension. The award-winning Jacqueline Firkins deploys textured pure-white costumes, making the production seem sanitized.

I am torn by these design decisions: the white distances the action from reality and the naturalized qualities of the Gullah culture it evokes, but at the same time that culture is quite distant from the typical contemporary Chicagoan’s reality. It depicts a time and place we hope has faded with the racism and classicism that helped shape it–whether or not that is true. The choreographed free movement around the small platform, brimming with a dozen actors or more at a time, plays up this paradox between the grit of a heart-breaking cultural reality and its distanced place in the American cultural ethos.

In the promotional materials and playbill for Porgy much is made of the fact that it is now widely considered the first American opera, one that speaks to the fraught relationship the country has had with diversity. That the Court lies in the center of a neighborhood where members of the highest and lowest income brackets of the black communities live in close proximity (Garfield Park and President Obama’s Chicago home are both within walking distance) is definitely part of the life of this play. And yet, despite all of this foregrounding, the racial tensions felt somewhat smoothed away by the productions’ homogeneity: with all of the white costumes and set pieces only one white actor is used to represent many characters from the original book collapsed together in a role so brief that by sneezing you might miss it.

This is not to mention that the play participates in the flattening of disability issues not often raised concerning this work. While Todd M. Kryger’s Porgy is clearly putting himself through the ringer to move around the space, no one else on stage really responds to his difficulty aside from absent-mindedly bringing him a crutch or cart. Porgy as a hardship for the community is thus made unclear, which unfortunately leads to understating the importance of his rising up to bring the community together after a difficult death. These presentational choices feel odd for a work so invested in cultural authenticity as a subject.

And while no successful production team—and certainly not one as experienced as Charles Newell and his staff—is easily persuaded to the publicity of controversy for its own sake, I am not altogether sure about what kind of statement this re-visioning of Porgy stands in relation to the legacy of Catfish Row. It just doesn’t seem concerned about where it stands in the current social justice milieu, and I suppose it does not have to. The rarity and quality of this production is not one to miss, this is certain. Bess (Alexis J. Rogers) is vivacious and pert; her dynamism with Crown (James Earl Jones II) is kinetic. The production on the whole is beautiful and otherworldly, sweeping you up and into the Gershwins’ rhythms made so palatable that there is no sense of any rules being broken—and hearts neither.

  • The Court Theatre‘s production of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess has added sixteen more performances to its run at the Abelson Auditorium in Chicago, playing until 3 July 2011.
  • The Court has released most of its 2011-2012 season, entirely made up of adaptation projects building on similar project successes this season.

UPDATE 31 May 2011: This production was recently featured in Cultural Connections segment on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight. The segment includes a live performance by Bethany Thomas with Music Director Doug Peck on piano, and excerpt of which is included here.