The worst in Chicago theater 2011

December 27, 2011

Last week, just in time for Christmas, my colleagues Kelly Kleiman and Laura Molzahn and I posted our “best-of” theater and dance lists of the year. It seems apt, therefore, that one of us should conclude the year with a review of some of the season’s disappointments.

Since I’m the curmudgeon of the group, and I’m the one who hasn’t left town for The Holidays, the duty falls to me. Thing to keep in mind is that there usually is a reason a show is not successful; something identifiable, something upon which you can put your finger. It’s not as simple as a show being badly produced or poorly acted; in fact, that often is not the case at all.

With that as prologue, here’s some of the recent past in Chicago theater.

Right out of the 2011 gate last January, Halcyon Theatre offered the world premiere of Trickster, written and staged by company artistic director Tony Adams. Sprawling and far-too-long, Trickster attempted to create a universal myth inspired, in part, by Native American (or pseudo-Native American) animism. However, the cloudy tale quickly lost focus as it transitioned into a dark, violent and misogynistic human story. Especially with a new work, the jobs of playwright and director need to be separate and full-time. Even Noel Coward wasn’t as good as he though at being both at the same time. One hopes that Tony Adams learned a lesson.

Following in February was something called Starship, a musical produced by an internet phenom from Michigan (now based in Chicago) called Team StarKid. The idea was to perform a live show in front of an audience, digitally recording it to be doled out in 10-minute segments to online subscribers. The tale was of a planet populated by sentient insects, one of whom wants to be human. Starship was a big production, but it offered a childish story, tepid pop music, a flaccid pace and grade school pageant scenery. I’m certain it looks much better in its edited online version, but its straight-from-university creators have a great deal to learn about writing for theater vs. marketing, which they already seem to know.

In March, Harold Pinter died again in Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company’s production of The Homecoming, in which company founder Richard Cotovsky—a rightly-esteemed member of Chicago’s theater community—simply was out of his element in the crucial role of Max, neither old enough (Max is 70+) nor master of the East End London accent nor menacing enough as directed by Geoff Button. Much of the work was good, but all the pieces didn’t fall into place. Cotovsky seemed as uncomfortable performing the role as I felt watching him.

Also in March, a ton of money, talent and promotional savvy were poured into White Noise, a Broadway-bound rock musical, which stopped at the Royal George Theatre and didn’t go any further. Classic case of book problems: not nearly enough time spent developing truthful characters, or making any of several subplots plausible in this semi-satirical tale (which not everyone understood) of an unscrupulous music producer who promotes both a white supremacy rock act and Black rapping brothers. There were several terrific songs and a gifted cast, but a show needs more than production values to sustain it.

Finally, late in the summer, Mortar Theatre at the Storefront Theatre stumbled with the world premiere of Corazon de Manzana (meaning apple core or, literally, “apple heart”) by Dana Lynn Formby. It was beautifully produced with elements of music and dance and imaginative design, but Formby’s use of surreal or fairytale elements to tell a real political story was confusing and a mistake. Her sincerity was obvious, but not what she actually was trying to convey, which has to do with the mass killings of women and girls in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. This potent story needed to be artistically real rather than artsy.

The typical Chicago theater season offers over 800 productions every year, of which I personally see perhaps 200, meaning my five disappointments make up less than 3% of what I saw and less than 1% of Chicago’s total production volume. May it be so little again in 2012, a year in which Chicago theater will continue to flourish in spite of me.