In a Forest of Comments, Dark and Deep

Well, that was interesting. As you may have seen on Facebook, one of my quickie posts promoting my latest theater review on Centerstage caught the eye of the playwright for that show. Neil LaBute, a nationally known playwright, screenwriter, and film director, somehow found my personal blog and responded to my criticism of his characterization of women in his works. (I was able to confirm with someone who knows his email address that it really was him writing in, and not a random Internet LaButist.)

I know this isn’t an original thought, but what a strange place the Internet is! Connecting people who would never meet in real life, and allowing for real-time interaction. Usually when I have an “oh, Internet!” moment, I’m smiling at a friend of a friend offering travel advice, or a total stranger sharing an experience that relates to one of mine. Having an “oh, Internet!” moment when a major contemporary playwright is sniping away at me is quite a different thing.

He’s done this before, with another young woman critic. He wrote a frame for Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s 2010 Taming of the Shrew, and Caitlin Montanye Parrish reviewed it for Time Out Chicago. He took to the comments with great gusto, others joined in, and it was quite a long thread. Sadly, TOC seems to have taken down the comments on that post, which is way too bad. Still, there is evidence out there of the storm, and one blog post even copy/pasted the comment that started it all.

Now, before I get in trouble for writing another “hyperbolic” (LaBute’s term for my writing) sentence, let me say that I was going to point out that his misogyny continues apace because he only tore down my (lady) review and not anyone else’s (dude) review. But no worries, he hates all the haters, not just women. Such growth! (Or maybe he continues to hate TOC after that 2010 dustup, I don’t know.)

So okay, he goes after all his critics because, like many artists, he sees critics as the enemy. Some critics are dicks, sure, just like some artists are dicks. But most of us work real hard to be thoughtful in our reviews. As I mentioned in the comments of that post, the post-show conversation is a place for productive conversation, not petty bickering.

LaBute didn’t fight fair–pretty much every comment was undermining and defensive, rather than engaged and interested in the other commenters’ positions. That’s too bad, because the discussion could have been a lot more interesting for everyone involved. But he picked a fight on the Internet, and that’s a losing proposition. So I let him have the last word–on every thread–since that seemed to be really important to him.

It was a funny little interlude in the life of this blog and a reminder that people with Google Alerts on their name can turn up where you least expect them.

New Centerstage Review Up

Ugh, Neil LaBute, ugh. He’s often described as “edgy” or “controversial,” and as is often true with other artists described in those terms, that translates to “nasty” and “boring.” I didn’t intend to take on the American premiere of his latest, In a Forest, Dark and Deep, but I didn’t read my editor’s schedule closely enough and found myself reviewing it last Thursday. (I should add that I did my best to go in with an open mind and see this production for what it was, rather than what I expected it to be.) There’s no question that LaBute can write decent dialogue and quickly take an audience to new depths of discomfort, and that’s a talent. But to do so without once writing a convincing female character is hackish. And to claim that you want to explore issues of truth and intimacy in your play, but then making your play clearly take sides and pass moral judgments, is dishonest.

Here’s an excerpt from my play review:

Cox is wonderful as a man who knows his place in the world and likes to opine on how others should live in it. Lowe is good too, but she has much less to work with, and there’s the crux of the problem. Betty is an incoherent character, a cheap assemblage of all the things men hate women for supposedly being: snobbish, slutty, unfaithful, bitchy, ambitious.

You can read the rest of the review here. I’m in the minority here in the theater world; LaBute is still quite the popular figure. Chris Jones loves him (although I think Jones and I have had opposite reactions to every single play we’ve both happened to review, so that’s not too surprising).

It’s too bad Profiles is so enamored of LaBute as to make him a resident playwright, because they have a talented group of people working there who could spend their time on plays that explore the breadth and depth of the human condition rather than LaBute’s sour misanthropy disguised as controversial profundity.

New Centerstage Review Up

I was thrilled to find that Steep Theatre’s The Receptionist was a reasonable 75 minutes with no intermission. I have a friend who works as a stage manager, and she’s said that she doesn’t understand plays that have intermissions. The actors don’t need them, the crew doesn’t need them, and she doesn’t think the audience does either. I agree! For the most part, playwrights can say what they need to say in an intermission-less 80 minutes or less. Far too often, the energy dissipates completely by the time it picks back up, and that’s a huge loss.

Anyway, this was a great ensemble piece, although I appreciated Caroline Neff a little more than the other actors, as usual. She’s so good! Here’s an excerpt of my play review:

“The mood is set before the show even starts: Muzak versions of Top 40 hits play while the audience settles in, and the perfect set design (Stephen Harold Carmody) replicates every small office lobby in the country, effectively establishing a sense of malaise with a few inspirational posters and a sad potted plant. Then the titular receptionist enters and starts transferring calls to voicemail while chatting with the staff, and office workers in the audience might wonder if they went to the theater or just never left work for the day.”

You can read the rest of the review here. The play is definitely worth a trip up to Andersonville.

New Centerstage Review Up

I’ve had this problem before–what do I say in a review when the play was fine, was okay? Especially when much of the fault lies with the script rather than with the performances. Last week I saw The Sea at Theater Wit, and most of the performances were spot-on, and the sound effects were good, and the direction had it rolling along nicely. But the script wants to be about nine different things and only partially succeeds at two of them. Here’s an excerpt of my play review:

The artistic notes on Theater Mir’s “The Sea,” as well as those on the original production from 1973, make much of the play’s examination of the dangers of xenophobia and fearing the unknown, and while that is an interesting subject, it doesn’t seem to be the actual focus of the play. This confusion shows on stage, as the play is never sure if it wants to be a comedy or a drama, and the actors are forced to walk that shaky line with uneven results.

You can read the rest of the review here. Also, I couldn’t tell how much of it was the part and how much of it was the actor, but Brett Schneider could have played an actual alien for all the sense he made as a character.

So no, I probably wouldn’t recommend it if you only have room in your budget for one play this month, but I’m not sorry I saw it. And the bit with the ladies rehearsing for their theatrical presentation was great stuff.

New Centerstage Review Up

Here’s a fun one: Pulp Fiction as told in Shakespearean verse. Well, only sometimes in verse, but always in olde tyme language, which makes for some great moments of recognition when the audience hears an infamous Tarantino line translated into Jacobean vocabulary. Here’s an excerpt of my play review:

Zagoren’s Vincenzio has a good amount of John Travolta’s take on the character, but he adds a wonderful hangdog quality that bounces off King’s angry Julius well. Christopher Kidder’s direction is fast-paced, and the production finds a rhythm that suits both the prince of pop culture and the true Bard.

You can read the rest of the review here. It definitely needs to be shorter, and do we need the whole offstage rape scene? I think we do not.

But otherwise, it’s a good romp. Tarantino’s films are talky anyway, so moving this to the stage didn’t lose much in visual terms. And then there are the little touches: The guy doing Butch’s dad has Christopher Walken’s cadence down pat. Pumpkin, the guy who robs the diner with his girlfriend, wears a Hawaiian shirt–with leather laces down the middle, just like men’s blouses of old.

It’s fun. Grab a drink (looks like you can have them in the theater), settle in for the first half, and frankly, skip out on the second half to make your own bard-inspired mischief.

Hometown Tourist: The Lyric Opera

Hometown Tourist is a series that hears that chipper tip, “be a tourist in your hometown!” and says, “Okay!” When friends come to visit, I like to show them a combination of standard tourist spots and the neighborhood places they’d never know to look for. Why not write about all those places? If you have suggestions on Chicago places you’d like to see covered for Hometown Tourist, add it in the comments.

For the inaugural Hometown Tourist post, I thought I’d start classy: the Lyric Opera. “Ugh, Lisa,” I hear you all groan. “How boring! And overpriced!” But dearest fellow travelers, let me assure you that it is not boring! And it doesn’t have to be too expensive! I’ve seen three operas at the Lyric over the past five years, and I’ve never spent more than $75 on a ticket. That’s no pocket change, sure, but it’s maybe twice what you’d pay for a show at The Riv, and no one will be spilling beer on you or elbowing past for a better view of the stage here.

The Civic Opera House in Chicago

As to the boring part: I was raised on a lot of different kinds of music, but opera wasn’t one of them, so it’s not like I have an ear for it. But the tunes are stirring and the singing is powerful stuff. When I saw Aida on Tuesday, there were a few moments during Hui He’s solos that actually caused me to catch my breath, they were so lovely. The stories are never too hard to follow, so even when they’re told in Italian or German, they’re easy enough to follow. The emotions expressed onstage would be overblown if they were spoken in a play, but they take on more gravity in song form, and it becomes clear that the only way to truly express love or heartbreak is to devote an aria to it.

Right, so: opera can be riveting stuff, and it can be enjoyed without breaking the bank. Where do you go to see opera? In Chicago, there are a few companies that put on shows, but the biggest, most established one is the Lyric Opera. They have their own building on the Chicago River, and it is beautiful. It was built in 1929, and when they renovated it from 1993 to 1996, they kept the Art Deco style. This means that not only are you classing it up by going to the opera, you are classing it up flapper-style. What more could you ask for?

The theater seats almost 3,600 people, and when my friend Hannah and I were there on Tuesday, it looked to be just about sold out. On a Tuesday night! That’s a lot of music and theater lovers in Chicago, which warms my artsy heart.

That's a lot of aria appreciators

Where is it: Civic Opera House, 20 North Wacker Drive, on the northwest corner of Madison and Wacker

When to go: Weekday shows are cheaper, straight up. If you have a job that isn’t 9-5, they even have matinees, which are much cheaper. The season runs October through April, and show runs overlap.

What to see: Whatever your heart desires! If you wait past opening night, you can read reviews and see if something sounds particularly good. For example, Show Boat is getting raves this year. The only downside to this strategy is that tickets will be few and far between by the time the show run starts.

Cost: Tickets range from $35 to $200. Full-time students can get $20 tickets to some shows.

Some practical tips:

  • Unless you are an opera buff, you probably aren’t familiar with the various shows. (I definitely am not.) Do a little research beforehand; I always thought of opera as solos alternating with big choral numbers, so I was disappointed that Tristan und Isolde never had more than six people on stage at once. I listened to clips of operas before buying tickets this season, and found that Aida had a lot of choruses, so I went with that one. (And it did not disappoint. There were easily over 100 people on stage at one point on Tuesday, including dancers who really livened things up during the instrumental portions of the show.)
  • They are obsessive about starting on time here, so do not be late! The ushers will shut you out until intermission if you are late, so give yourself enough time to float elegantly up the stairs to your seat.
  • Speaking of seating, unless you’re shelling out, you’re probably going to be in either the First or the Upper Balcony. Try to get a seat closer to the front of the balcony, because it can get pretty claustrophobic at the back, with the balcony above crowding in on you and the rows of people in front of you partially obstructing your view of the stage. In fact, the Upper Balcony is less claustrophobic, so if you are looking at seats in the back of the Upper Balcony versus seats in the back of the First Balcony, I’d recommend going against instinct and choosing the Upper Balcony seats. You’ll get a clearer view and save money, too!

Oh look, I made a 30-second video of Tuesday’s trip to the opera.

Image 1. Image 2.

New Centerstage Review Up

I’m glad I got to see a mainstage Strawdog Theatre Company play. They’ve been around for ages, which means they have more latitude than younger companies to dust off older scripts and see what they can do with them. That seems to be what they did with The Petrified Forest (see also their Duchess of Malfi coming this spring). I enjoyed the show, especially Caroline Neff, who always seems to contain about 2.5 times more energy and emotion than normal humans. Here’s an excerpt of my play review:

Squire looks at her pictures and asks her to read poetry, and next thing she knows, Gabby’s in love. The timing is inconvenient, since the end of the second act sees the infamous Duke Mantee (Jamie Vann) and his henchmen using the café as a rest stop on their escape from the law after a massacre in Oklahoma.

You can read the rest of the review here. It’s an enjoyable show, but not an earth-shattering one. A pleasant way to pass a couple hours in Lakeview.

New Centerstage Review Up

Last week I saw South Pacific at the Cadillac Palace downtown, and I have to say, I don’t think that musical has aged well. Or at least, the production I saw certainly hasn’t. Here’s an excerpt of my play review:

Aside from a few well choreographed numbers (“Dame,” “Honey Bun”), almost all the songs are sung hands at the side, staring straight ahead. Characters sit down randomly in the middle of songs, as if they’re too tired to make it through the whole number on their feet. The overall effect is of a tired and uninspired production.

You can read the rest here. I also wonder if it played as well as people remember when it first came out, because there are a lot of slow songs. The ratio of slow songs to fast is just way too high to stay entertaining for a full three hours of Broadway entertainment. Rodgers and Hammerstein definitely got the ratio better with Cinderella and The Sound of Music.

If you’re planning to see a touring Broadway production in Chicago this year, I’d say wait for another one. This isn’t the one to drop your hard-earned cash on.

New Centerstage Review Up

And in the center ring, we have another play review. (Last week was a busy Centerstage week for me, and tonight I see South Pacific, so you can expect even more.) Quest Theatre has been putting on FREE shows for ten years, which is an impressive feat in this town. I saw Barnum, a musical that was originally staged in 1980, and is just as much fun today. Quest does a lot of family-friendly shows, and their call-outs to kids in the audience and fun puppetry does aim for them, but this isn’t just for kids (I mean, there’s a story about an extramarital affair and some hurdy-gurdy dancing from a 160-year-old woman).

Here’s an excerpt of my play review:

In a funny recurring bit, Barnum lets the audience in on various kinds of humbug, like the marriage humbug or the patriotic humbug. There are all kinds of ways to reach people and persuade them to your point of view, and Barnum used them all in his endeavors.

You can read the rest of the review here.

New Centerstage Review Up

Just in time for Valentine’s Day comes a tale of love gone horribly wrong: The Gingerbread House at Red Tape Theatre in Lakeview. Here’s an excerpt of my play review:

Imagine the story of Hansel and Gretel, but instead of following the children down the path of breadcrumbs, we follow the parents into their own increasingly dark forest. That’s the premise of Mark Schultz’s “The Gingerbread House.” Money is tight and life is miserable for Brian (Mike Tepeli) and Stacey (Meghan Reardon), so they decide to make all their problems disappear by doing the unthinkable: they sell their kids.

Yep, it’s quite the premise, and it holds promise for the first half hour. But it goes on too long (two hours, with an intermission) and loses the intensity that was so compelling at first. Still, the set, direction, sound, and acting is all good–all the elements are there except for a tight script. I will want to see another show by this company to see what else they can do.