Small and Intimate make Theatre Better
12/29/2009, PerformINK, by Nina Metz
Theatre is meant to be an intimate experience, and 2009 offered some compelling evidence of how size and scale can affect a show.
Let’s say this up front: larger, plusher venues have their perks. But they also have a way of diluting immediacy. The Steppenwolf and Goodman may be downright cozy compared to the Oriental, and yet all but the most compact fringe venues are predicated on a physical distance between actors and audience: You’re over there, we’re over here.
The main casualty of this in 2009 was Charles Newell’s problematic staging of The Wild Duck for Court Theatre at the cavernous MCA—a nice space certainly, but one that feels like a parking garage all the same. Tina Landau’s fussy, throw-everything-at-the-wall interpretation of The Tempest for the Steppenwolf also suffered from a serious case of too-muchness.
The shows I responded to this year understood that they were small, and used this quality to their advantage, including Kimberly Senior’s out-of-the-ordinary staging of The Pillowman at Redtwist (extended through February.) Her methodology—keep things up-close and personal—is a bold choice that turns the theatre’s lack of space into its biggest asset. She didn’t need a lot of money to do it, either.
(2009 was the year of Kimberly Senior, by the way, with stellar productions of Cherry Orchard at Strawdog and All My Sons for Timeline, as well.)
Theater Oobleck took a similar tack with its revival of Mickle Maher’s wickedly smart and funny play, An Apology For the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening. Prowling a narrow path across the Chopin Theatre ’s basement—just a few feet away from his audience at any given moment—Colm O’Reilly’s portrayal was endlessly complex and watchable. The production used only a small portion of the Chopin’s square footage, creating the illusion of that all-important smallness. (The Steppenwolf would have been smart to offer its garage space for a transfer.)
These are the kinds of shows, I think, that can reprogram audience expectations about what small theatre can offer. Small is good, and while small doesn’t guarantee quality (small shows can suck, too) reducing things down in size tends to create a more potent experience.
I would argue that Craig Wright’s Mistakes Were Made would not have been half as interesting if it weren’t in the tight confines of A Red Orchid, all the better to see Michael Shannon’s sweaty meltdown in fine detail. In the same way, the shows produced by Theo Ubique stand out (especially last fall’s goofily punk-goth version of The Taming of the Shrew) precisely because of the No Exit Café setup, with everyone packed-in tight, dinner-theatre-style.
Small is what traps emotions in so that nothing gets lost or neutralized. Small is what makes these shows work. Small can be incredibly sophisticated, especially when compared to some of the bloated fare we saw this year. Small, incidentally, charges a helluva lot less for tickets.
Victory Gardens is anything but small, but I would argue that The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity—one of the most unexpected and entertaining productions all year—was staged with a small theatre ethos directly attributable to Teatro Vista ’s collaboration (Edward Torres directing and actor Desmin Borges in the lead).
Sean Graney was busier than ever this year (and working with substantial budgets, including his production of The Mystery of Irma Vep for Court) but I preferred his down-and-dirty environmental staging of Oedipus for the Hypocrites, which turned the Building Stage into a mini garbage dump, with the audience plopped down in the middle. Again, intimacy was the name of the game.
The company that really broke through this year was The New Colony , with three strong shows in a row: Frat, Tupperware and In the Blood. (It’s actually four, if you count A Domestic Disturbance at Little Fat Charlie’s Seventh Birthday Party, the company’s hilarious contribution to last year’s Sketchbook festival.) Frat was by far the winner—the production had a lot things going for it, including a terrific group of actors and a director (Andrew Hobgood) who welcomed close proximity between cast and audience.
Concerning Landau’s aforementioned Tempest at Steppenwolf, I’m aware that I’m in the minority. But for me, the real accomplishment was BoHo Theatre’s version of the same play (directed by Peter Robel, working with far less money and a much smaller cast), re-imagined as a Shakespearean fever dream set in a 1940s psyche ward, with an ingenious, perspective-challenging set by John Zuiker.
Strawdog, after a prolonged spate of mediocre shows, had fine year, as well, topping out with “Red Noses.” I thought Gift Theatre turned out some impressive work this season as well, with “Talk Radio” and “The Ruby Sunrise.”
Second City celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009, and you know the joint wasn’t going to let the milestone go by without a huge blowout. Brad Morris, who performs on the mainstage, recently told the New York Times he was drawn to Second City for its “renegade, anti-establishment attitude.”
I like and respect Morris quite a lot as a performer, but I have to disagree. Second City serves an important role in Chicago—probably more for the training and opportunities it offers its performers than anything else.
Second City is a safe bet when you have visitors in town, but the really intriguing comedy—comedy that hasn’t had its edges buffed down—tends to happen elsewhere, including i.O. (where those same Second City cast members frequently perform after hours).
And pound for pound, Impress These Apes is still the show the beat in terms of originality and offbeat humor.
And, a few extra thoughts on other shows, performances and moments from 2009 that still linger in the mind:
Griffin Theatre ’s production of The Robber Bridegroom (genuinely funny and twisted); the wistful cinematic prologue to Michael Menendian’s production of Death of a Salesman for Raven (summing up Willy Loman’s solitary life on the road in just a few short minutes); Brian Sidney Bembridge’s intricately detailed, blow-out-the-lobby set design for Timeline’s History Boys; playwright William Nedved’s Kid (staged as images glimpsed through an old view-master for Collaboraction ’s Sketchbook); Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Marriot (I had forgotten how much fun this musical could be); actors Sadie Rogers and Kristina Johnson gabbing up a passive-aggressive storm in The Rocks at the Side Project (nicely directed by Anna C. Bahow); the surprisingly intense and entertaining noir that was Dead Wrong at Factory; Rollin’ Outta Here Naked: A Big Lebowski Burlesque (the title says it all); Lori McClain as a ball-busting Patti Blagojevich in Second City ’s Rod Blagojevich Superstar; Dan Granata’s extended opening monologue in Touch for New Leaf; Kirsten Fitzgerald blowing everyone out of the water in Pumpgirl at AROT; Molly Brennan’s golden retriever-like performance of Harpo in Animal Crackers at the Goodman; and Usman Ally jive-talking like nobody’s business in Chad Deity.
Nina Metz reviews theatre for the Chicago Tribune and Newcity.