Theater 2008: The good, the bad and the ugly / by R. Sheth

December 31, 2008
By Jonathan Abarbanel
Theater Editor

Stage Door Jonny steps out of retirement to join his Windy City Times colleagues in assessing 2008 Chicago theater. We'll start with the good; it's far less interesting than the bad and/or the ugly, so it needs the fillip of going first.

The good:

—Balancing equal measures of brutality and tenderness, Shattered Globe Theatre Company made Rod Serling's 1950s drama Requiem for a Heavyweight utterly honest, real and compelling. The tale of the washed-up boxer was the powerhouse play of the year.

—Julia Cho's Durango, presented by Silk Road Theatre Project, addressed gay themes in an intimate family drama concerning conflicts between first- and second-generation Korean Americans; the pressure to succeed; and the emotional damage of living in the closet for both a father and a son.

—Midsummer saw Dancing at Lughnasa, a story of five sisters with unbreakable bonds of love, given a compassionate and full-blooded production by the Festival Theatre in Oak Park, where the outdoor location perfectly fit Brian Friel's bittersweet elegy to 1930s rural Irish life.

—The musical triumph of the year was Caroline, or Change, presented by Court Theatre with a superb veteran cast lead by E. Faye Butler. Court Theatre delivered a splendid rendition of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's challenging pop opera about race, religion and changing times in 1963 New Orleans.

—Finally, several shows made splendid use of environmental designs or site-specific productions supporting literate but non-traditional scripts. Kudos to The Mysterious Elephant presented by The Strange Tree Group, to Oracle Productions' Termen Vox Machina and to the Neo-Futurists' swimming pool production, Fake Lake.

The bad and the ugly:

—"Ya gotta know the territory!" declare a gaggle of salesmen in The Music Man. Yet every year, out-of-town producers come to Chicago with a hit from Miami or Los Angeles or even New York and think it will be a hit here. They are wrong, and they pay the price. Among this year's deserved failures were the Danny Kaye bio-musical, The Kid from Brooklyn, the pseudo-1960s Shout! and the off-Broadway success Gutenberg, The Musical.

—Infamous Commonwealth Theatre Company presented the endless, aimless, American political allegory Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates by the pretentious, portentous, tendentious author Robert Schenkkan. Watching it was like the scene in The Mummy where the scarabs crawl inside you and you know you're going to die.

—Actor/director Frank Galati makes few mistakes, but sometimes his head is turned by literature. Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore is a fascinating and challenging read, but Galati's Steppenwolf Theatre Company adaptation was impenetrable and unfathomable, far too metaphoric and/or allegoric. How long can you watch a work of kinetic sculpture?

—After five years in a noisy storefront, feisty little Steep Theatre Company moved to better digs. They celebrated the event with Seven Days, an original, company-developed piece which combined the worst elements of Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates and Kafka on the Shore. Think scarabs under your skin and chalk squeaking on a blackboard.

—Finally, when Johnny Galecki flashed his substantial dick for three seconds on Broadway, it sold tickets to Douglas Carter Beane's The Little Dog Laughed. But for its Chicago premiere at About Face Theatre, the play's brief nudity was cut. Beane was not amused, forcing director Eric Rosen to publish an embarrassing public apology. Ever fastidious about avoiding sexploitation charges, Rosen bent over too far backwards, thereby making a big thing out of a little thing ( no matter how big it is ) .