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.

Playwrights
  • 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.
Troupes
  • 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.
Playhouses
  • 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.
Shakespeareans
  • 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,
Elizabeth

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!

On the myths and purposes of playing in Krannert’s “Polaroid Stories”

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it makes the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others.

–  Hamlet, Hamlet

I am on my way to Idaho as I write this review, and I can’t help meditating on the striking difference between the hard reality of the cool northwestern mountains and the bizarre unreality of the corn desert that is Illinois. I mention this because I feel it is as apt a description as I can come up with for the jarring juxtaposition between a piece of theatre that has “presence,” that seems to be participating in the concerns of the time in which it is performed, and a play that does not. This sense of presence is one of the things I, and many others, love about William Shakespeare’s works: although written for and of a culturally-specific time and place, those plays seem to uniformly share an uncanny capacity to be imbued with a sense of presence.

SKINHEADboy (Ryan Leonard) and SKINHEADgirl (Kara Satokoun) contemplate their labyrinth.

I think we often confuse what I am calling presence here for “relatability,” which earlier this summer Ira Glass rather infamously accused live Shakespeare, New York’s Shakespeare in the Park no less, of lacking. Different than say exigency or presence, relatability bothers me as a rubric for aesthetic value for a couple of reasons. First, it exclusively privileges the individual subjectivity: I see a character that resembles my self on stage, and the more that character holds a mirror up to my nature, the more relatable this piece of art is. There is no way to find a communal aspect to this decadently narcissitic theory of processing a theatrical experience. And so second, this presumes an excessively shallow capacity of audiences: they either see something that looks like them and derive pleasure from the substitutional spotlighting of their identity, an identity that already exists. Thus, theatre is rendered incapable of saying anything new or illuminating, but as a form relegated to purely derivative and mimetic methods of meaning-making.

When Hamlet discusses his theory of acting, what he calls “the purpose of playing,” he speaks of a moderation and balance through which theatre is capable of showing “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Shakespeare is careful to make the distinction that theatre’s ability to mirror is not to reflect us as individual playgoers but rather the aspect and problems with which our society grapples. Another way to say this is that theatre is political in that it stages problems, sometimes offering a menu of solutions we might imagine, but doesn’t necessarily a) make claims for a single answer, nor b) simply reflects society as it already exists. By saying that a play, Shakespeare or otherwise, is successfully embued with a sense of presence is to say that we collectively as a multitude of playgoers see within its reflection a problem, tension, or debate with which our time grapples.

Orpheus (Shawn Pereira) and Eurydice (Alexis DawTyne) sing empty words of love to one another.

But why this discursus on Idaho and relatability? When trying to come up with a way of approaching a review of Illinois Theatre’s production of Polaroid Stories, all I could do was come up with a list of details and choices that I disliked that didn’t amount to anything. A list of critiques that go nowhere is the worst kind of review, at least in my opinion. I just felt so belabored as an audience member on Krannert’s opening night, watching so much effort on the part of the actors and in the set design that gave way to frustration to make a coherent sense of the action and the words in players and playgoers alike. Polaroid Stories is one of a string of plays Krannert has staged in recent years that takes mythic abstraction as its central conceit. Like medieval morality plays, characters aren’t so much versimilitudinous as they are embodiments of virtues, vices, concepts. I’m thinking here of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, O BeautifulIphigenia and Other Daughters among others. Mice and men and gods are collapsed onto the same plane of existence, but in all of these the actors have been directed to act as if individual subjects rather than as universal concepts engaging with one another. How does one uncover inner motivation for Self-Love, for example? Again, like relatability, the point is not individaul subjectivity as such, but the collision of emotions, affects, concepts and the tensions they produce.

Let me explain by way of example. In Polaroid Stories, the gods are brought down from Olympus and placed in the bodies of disaffected and self-destructive urban youth culture: sex and drugs without the rock n’ roll. Theseus and Ariadne are skinheads wandering the labyrinth of speed and cocaine: a thread of “fuck yous” leads not to a minotaur (arguably that would be the drugs themselves) but to their mutual self-destruction. Orpheus is trapped within a cage for much of the play into which a ladder descends that he never takes out. This would suggest that the play world, our world, is the hell he descended to bring back his beloved. We are then a prior damned. But why? Eurydice dances, taunts, and tramps about his cage, egging him to violence, insisting she would rather forget, insisting she would rather remain in Hades. The yarn of “I love yous” she and Orpheus weave builds only to a mutual self-destruction as well. Both love narratives imply that love is not a desire universally shared: she/we do not want rescue, but love is the only tempting (although ultimately failing) distraction from that self-annihilation.

Orpheus (Shawn Pereira) can’t help but see his beloved in every woman, including Persephone (Martasia Jones).

What are we to do with a play like this? On the one hand the direction valorizes the individual crosses we have to bear that condition subjectivity. On the other hand it wants to make claims for self-destruction as a fundamental and universal truth of the human condition: as if to say destruction, nor survival, is our basest nature. I’m not saying you can’t have your cake and eat it, too; what would be the point of cake. But theatre as a form seems fundamentally at odds with this attempt to make two claims without fully staging the problem, the tension, the source from which they derive. Is it the drug culture and the urban poverty we allow? If so, this barely registers as a concern of the play—partly because the dialogue is flat, unimaginative, full of platitudes and fuck yous. This makes me wonder who this play is for, exactly?

This weekend the MFAs are doing a table reading of Lizuka’s newest play, to which the audience was invited to get a first-hand look in on the creatve process of an up-and-coming, cutting-edge American playwright. I’ve mentioned this in several reviews of Krannert productions, but at times I think with plays like these Krannert is doing a disservice to its students actors and student audiences—its core constitutencies, at least in theory—by wanting to be a nationally-renowned theatre. The commissioning of new work through the Sullivan Project is admirable, and the performance exchanges with England and Japan indeed incorporate the actors into the production process more deeply as they expand their toolbox. But content, a content that is capable of presence, is what matters at the end of the day, I should think. It doesn’t have to be relatable theatre, but it should have the potential to be relevant, if at least cogent. At intermission in the women’s restroom the only conversations being had were “is that it?” and “do you get what’s going on?” The play, not of its own fault but perhaps rather in those who selected it, willfully ignores its context. Like Campbell attempting to render an aesthetic like Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet for classical mythology, it misses the point that the MTV generation is about to move into their 40s. What does this play present for the Millennials, accutely globalized in their interests, politcs, and consumption practices? And these college kids made it to university, even if it is wedged in the corn fields. What is the point of depicting a self-destructive urban-youth culture except to preach to their own naivete? I thought theatre was about revelation rather than making one feel like an idiot; with rampant impostor symdrome in undergradute and graduate students alike, that is an emotion we are already far too familiar with.

Eurydice (Alexis DawTyne) finds a moment of authenticity with G (David Monahan).

I feel like Artaud in the vitriolic temperament this review is taking, as when we decries “An idea of the theater has been lost. And as long as the theater limits itself to showing us intimate scenes from the lives of a few puppets, transforming the public into Peeping Toms, it is no wonder the elite abandon it and the great public looks to the movies, the music hall or the circus for violent satisfactions, whose intentions do not deceive them.” What I mean to say here is not quite so dire, is not how the play fails at its own asprations, but rather how Polaroid Stories is a symptom of a theatre culture that doesn’t know how to be present for its changing audiences as the baby boomers and octogenarian subscribers literally die out. I like a big-budget musical as much as the next person, but surely our theatrical landscapeis capabale of more than comfort food and shock treatment? Have we given up on theatre as a form of political thought? An experience in which our very presence renders up political and politicized subjects? I hope not, nor do I think this has come to pass. For one, I would turn you to my review of Sean Graney’s All Our Tragic, the 12-hour mythic marathon that has sold out in its final month and received funding for a remount in 2015. That is a work day and a half of abstractionist theatre, and midwesterners are eating it up! Without the financial motivation of having to sell seats being a university theatre, I think Illinois Theatre has become complacent in their season choices, less concerned with doing actual ideological service to ad engendering a theatre-going base regularly habituated to performance. What are they training these actors ofr anyway, if not for making a living in the theatre? Or has that aspiration gone the way of Olympus, in the clouds, as well?