22 June 2010

No Exit, by The Hypocrites

Although The Hypocrites are among my favorite Chicago theater companies, I went to this performance of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit with some trepidation. It's a play I read and loved in high school as the profoundest thing ever; and like many things I found profound in high school, its profundity has worn off. 

("Hell is other people" no longer feels like a dagger in the heart.)

But The Hypocrites have done a splendid job with this staging, which leverages a hot-pink set, a room with walls angled so that you feel claustrophobic on the actors' behalf before the play even begins. The production toys beautifully with preconceptions of hell; even as the valet assures the room's first inmate, Garcin, that there are no torture chambers, both their faces are drenched with sweat from what we can only imagine are hellfires.

This is not a play with a happy ending, but the performers attack their roles with such energy and humor that you walk out grinning. 

An excellent show.

Baal, by TUTA Chicago

TUTA Chicago has been devoted to Bertolt Brecht this year, with an excellent production of The Wedding a few months ago, and, now playing, Baal.  TUTA is one of my favorite Chicago companies for its exuberant, inventive stagings of classic and sometimes difficult plays (from Romeo and Juliet to Uncle Vanya) as well as its spirited approach to contemporary material (such as Huddersfield).  TUTA's production of Baal incorporates music by Josh Schmidt, whose score for the Writer's Theatre's  A Minister's Wife we loved so much.

The production is everything I expect from TUTA: ambitious, creative, musically surprising, and full of committed performances.  But I'm afraid I did not enjoy Baal that much--a difficult play--Brecht's first--centered on a supremely unlikeable character. Knowing it was a parody of German Expressionism--from reading the dramaturge's precis--was helpful; the actors don't play it like parody, though.  Doubtless quite right, but it makes the evening hard to bear.

Northerly Island, Rediscovered

The first time I was on Northerly Island, it was 2004 and I was lost. Victor and I were trying to take the lakefront bike path south, and somehow got sidetracked onto this narrow peninsula. We didn't know that it used to be an airport. We just knew we couldn't get where we wanted to go from there, and it was a windy day and we were tired. We ended up surrendering the attempt to bike south of the Museum Campus that day; we didn't try again for a few years. (Now we have a hard time imagining how we could have lost our way.)

On foot, I have returned to the mainland edge of Northerly Island a couple of times in the past few years to eavesdrop on concerts, but only ventured there by bike for the first time (since that 2004 confusion) as part of a Chicago Architecture Foundation tour. The tour had its drawbacks (rather long and slow and continuing right through lunchtime--enough to make anybody cranky), but I am grateful for the re-introduction to Northerly Island, which has become a stunning natural area with well-paved bike/walking paths and amazing views.

I went back to Northerly Island on my own yesterday morning and was thrilled to glimpse my first Dickcissel--a beautiful and persistent singer. I would have loved to linger and confirm the sighting, but the skies were dark and thunder rumbled; I headed home to avoid the storm.

This morning, with hardly a cloud in sight, I rode my bike there again, and this time looped the "island" three times, in my delight at being in such a gorgeous environment, full of wildflowers, bunnies, and birdsong. I easily confirmed the Dickcissel and added my first really positive identification of the Savannah Sparrow--I may well have seen one before, but now I'm sure I have. They were all over the peninsula, trilling from perches on bare branches, tall grasses, and even from mowed ground.

It was hard to make myself leave. Northerly Island has become one of my favorite places in Chicago, offering beauty, nature, tranquility, and views.

10 June 2010

Clueless in the NYTBR

Find myself mildly annoyed by Jay McInerney's Sunday review of Ann Beattie's latest novel, Walks with Men.  The book, which I have not read yet, is apparently a coming-of-age-and-beyond story of a young woman who attaches herself to an older, prosperous man who promises to teach her things about men (secret things, things she needs to know), if only she promises not to attribute to him what she has learned. She leaves him when she learns he is married, and then marries him herself. 

My annoyance is that McInerney faults the book for insufficiently explaining why an intelligent, attractive young woman would stay with such a man:
...the maddening thing is that the narrator begins to see through her Henry Higgins early on, and is certainly wised-up to him as her narrating older self, and yet still allows herself to be Svengalied.

Could he be more clueless? You'd have to look long and hard for a Galatea who does not see through her Pygmalion.

They should have had a woman write the review.

01 June 2010

Taming of the Shrew @ Chicago Shakespeare Theater

I had some trepidation about this show, since learning that new material for a "frame" had been written by playwright Neil LaBute.  While I have not seen his plays, I know them by reputation--they're famous for their nastiness, particularly in terms of relations between the sexes.

But in fact the frame story works beautifully: a contemporary company putting on The Taming of the Shrew features a female star who is bridling against the personal and artistic control of the director, who is also her lover. This conflict provides a terrific counterpoint to Shakespeare's drama of control (or taming); the conclusion is both startling and perfect.

It is wonderful when you go to see a play you think you know very well (after all, the story of the shrew transformed by forceful love into obedient beauty is told and retold throughout our culture) and wind up enthralled, surprised, and thrilled by new discoveries.  The performances were all terrific--and it was great to recognize some of the actors from other wonderful productions we had seen--but they did not draw attention to themselves so much as to the material. 

We walked out pondering, and we continue to ponder.