Thursday, January 15, 2009

Chicago Theater

When we were in Chicago over Christmas, we went to see my friend Joe Dempsey in a play. Joe is a well-known and accomplished Chicago actor. After years of doing commercial work, in the last several years he's focused almost entirely on being on stage. Basically, he reached the point where he had to go to Hollywood and start trying out for pilots and films, stick to commercials, or try to find some meaningful life as an actor in Chicago. His wife Paula, truly one of my best friends in life, is a librarian at DePaul University. They have a great apartment in the Andersonville neighborhood, family and friends close by, and committed to stay put.

I started going to theater in Chicago when I moved there in 1993, and most of what I saw was in one school of theater: Angry Homeless Guy Absurdism. It's work that idolizes Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter and has as its aim to make the audience as uncomfortable as possible using two blunt instruments: volume and angst. This is the town of Gary Sinese and John Malkovich, who founded Steppenwolf Theater. It's aggressive and masculine and in the end, I didn't like much of what I saw. But something happened in the mid-90s in theater in Chicago, the rise of a few really interesting theater groups and playwrights who began to make a different kind of theater, what I'd call the Theater of Spectacle. Among the most well known of this group is Mary Zimmerman, whose Metamorphoses went eventually to Broadway. The set is a pool of water and the characters, enacting myths from Ovid's epic poem, change costume and shape as a narrator tells the stories. I didn't see her production; I'd left Chicago by then, but I saw it on the stage at Fullerton College where I taught English from 2002-05. It is perfect for school groups, if you can build the pool, because there is a large cast.

My favorite production was Dear, by a theater company called Doorika, who also eventually moved to New York City. The production was based on the work of Chris Ware, a Chicago cartoonist. At the time he had this elaborately drawn and colored serial in the Chicago alternative newspaper New City. I looked forward to it every week, and immediately bought the collection of the strips in book form, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, when it came out. I also have several small books by Ware that you could buy at a funky record store in Wicker Park and through the mail from the publisher in Portland or Seattle. What I really wanted was an original piece, but I couldn't figure out how to get one, and I knew by the time I did figure it out he'd be too famous for me to be able to afford them. Sure enough, soon he was doing covers for the New Yorker. The Doorika production had this box on wheels on stage, meant to suggest a panel in a cartoon. The actors wore drab olive and mustard clothing, and acted out little vignettes. They also spoke through microphones attached to speaker boxes that they wore around their necks. The effect was amazing, and I can't say I got it, but I was mesmerized by it all-- the visuals, the language, the set and lighting. Chris Ware hated it.

There was also Redmoon Theater, which was run in the early days by Blair Thomas and Jimmy Lasko. Blair was a genius as far as I'm concerned, a genius puppeteer. The first time I heard of them was after Redmoon's production of Moby Dick had closed. It was not a narrative so much as a series of tellings of the basic Moby Dick story with puppets of various sizes on various stages. Think marionettes, shadow puppets, larger puppets, and then full-size papier mache models operated by multiple people. It's hard to describe the surprise of those early spectacles, and even after Blair left, though there were fewer puppets, the spectacles the company created were wonderful, very handmade but with a high level of artistry. Now they have lots of money, though they're still committed to free art in public spaces. But here's a link to a Youtube video that shows the kind of thing they do now.

Visiting Chicago from California in 2004, Paula and Joe picked me up at the airport and we went straight to a park along the river in Chinatown. Redmoon was putting on a grand, daylong spectacle called Sink, Sank, Sunk that did include a sort of nonsense romance play at the center of it. There were wheeled contraptions, bands and jugglers and "vendors" walking around before the actual show, and as the sun set and moon rose, they assembled in the middle of the park between one set of railroad tracks (Amtrak) and the El. There they put on a girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-finds-new-boy, old-boy-competes-for-girl, boy-gets-girl plot. And if I remember correctly, it ended with spurned-boy-kills-himself and is floated down the river in a flotilla of fanciful makeshift boats with lanterns attached. The plot doesn't really matter. There were lots of goofy props and sets, and during the wooing scene one of the suitors brought in the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus to sing. We saw Jimmy Lasko after the show and asked how he managed to get permission from the City of Chicago to unroll a mesh blanket of kerosene lamps over the side of a bridge, making basically a wall of fire. He said he probably didn't technically have a permit to do that, but he had so many permits for so many things, if anyone confronted him he'd just start shuffling through them until they gave up.

Joe Dempsey wasn't in either of these productions. However, he has a good deal of acrobatic talent, and I saw him in a production of Baron in the Trees once that was amazing. The play we saw was The Marriage of Figaro by Remy Bummpo Theater Company at a theater in Lincoln Park. Joe found us free parking, which was a thrill. The tickets were double what I ever remember paying for theater on that size stage in Chicago, and it was nearly sold out in its last weekend. The production was fun, with a great deal of theatricality, stylized and comic. The play itself was so anachronistic in its premises that it's hard to see how it could have "worked." (The count is entitled to sleep with his servant and we're supposed to see it as a huge act of magnanimity that he won't? He's a rat but we're supposed to believe that no one can do anything to stop him except trick him into rendevous-ing with his wife in error?) But Chicago Theater, at least as I know it, is not really about the story. It was very well-acted, with some standout comic performances (but unfortunately the female lead was not very good). It was meticulously well-choreographed and the costumes were marvelous. It was set in an indeterminate era where Swingers ruled (but men still played tennis in knickers? A hybrid of the '20s and '50s).

Still, when I thought about the plays of Joe Dempsey after we left the theater, I had to say my favorite is still a straight-up production of Mister Roberts, where he took the role back from Jack Lemmon, which I thought couldn't be done.

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