Even though it was 16 degrees outside, I just couldn’t make another trip to Chicago without a visit to the Steppenwolf Theatre. Nearly since high school I’ve dreamed of performing at this venue, and you'd better believe I’m not giving up yet. In the meantime, as long as I'm in the neighborhood, I wouldn’t think of passing up a performance there. This is arguably one of the best theaters in the country and their bookstore leaves me salivating. Such incredible, moving art has been made in this place.
An hour before the performance, I had a very happy reunion with Ally, my top dog underdog of the Chicago theatre community, my Chicago theatre nerd, main slice and confidante on all things related to theatre and our frustration with men. Someday we will have an offshoot theatre company in Chicago (The 5th Wall) of my theatre company in LA (BAE Theatre). This woman is really a dynamic presence in the community (Probably Chicago’s next Martha Lavey) and wonderful friend of mine. So I was more than delighted to catch a cocktail with her at Steppenwolf’s fairly new Front Bar before the show. We also ran into an old friend of hers, funny enough, a Hypocrite’s Theatre Company member who will be performing in their famous interpretation of The Pirates of Penzance at the Pasadena Playhouse in early 2018. “Oh my gosh, I was just talking to Danny Feldman about that show,” (I wasn’t) “And I’ll be at opening and see you there!” (I will) I told Mario. I am looking forward to that production and the innovative programming coming up at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2018. It will be neat to see Mario again, this time in action on stage, really partying down for this truly outside the box production of an old classic.
See, LA Theatre finds me even in Chicago. But back to Steppenwolf. Ally had already seen the production of Tracy Lett's The Minutes I was about to watch which is why shortly after our drinks she departed for a quasi-date* to a sold-out Andrew Bird concert. But before she headed out into the cold, dark Chicago night, I asked her what she had thought of the show.
"It's really good. But the ending is bizarre."
Hmm. This resonated with me, as I have a great amount of respect for Ally's well-read/practiced/studied opinions on theatre. Endings are challenging. But this point, I'd say Letts is a veteran contemporary American Playwright. I'd just have to see for myself!
After Ally left, I had another happy reunion inside the theatre with my friend from high school, Missy. Missy is a Chicago native and talented culinary artist, currently brainstorming a concept for a line of inventive ice cream sandwiches. I'd told her I'd be more than happy to test any prototypes on one of my summer visits. I hadn’t seen her for at least two years, so it was not only a positive reunion, but an inspiring one as we renewed inspiration in each other for projects we’re working on in the new year. Our meet up also proved for a fresh voices on the topic of the show: theatre nerd and culinary nerd. Passion is passion baby!
I am not a big fan of Tracy Lett's style, however he is a true champion of the American Theatre that I really look up to in a MAJOR way. He's an underdog who really worked his way to the top, with patience and diligence. And even though I don't really "love" most of his plays like I do some other playwrights, I honor that he has honed his style and claimed it as his own. That's something I dream of accomplishing as a writer and an artist. So if you want to read my senior year research project on him...which pretty much ended up becoming an ode to Tracy Letts...because I could find no fault in him in the public research I was able to uncover...so my professor gave me a B because it was pretty much a one-sided argument...email me and I can send it to you!
In the case of The Minutes, I had to say that I agreed with Ally's succinct but direct impression of this show. It's clever, it has some excellent humor, it makes an impression, it delivers a message and the performances were strong. Cliff Chamberlain's performance as the unassuming protagonist Mr. Peel was played with clear choices and honest dedication to the comedy of the piece. I couldn't help but imagine Paul Dano in this role as well. But maybe that's just because I'm obsessed with Paul Dano.
But that ending though!
I won't go deep into my qualm with the ending in order to keep it special for those that have not yet seen the show. I'm not so dense that I can't imagine its significance, as we contemplated at the public post show conversation. However after such a compelling body of text, I felt that it could have landed more powerfully, in a way that could be a bit clearer for the general Chicago theatre-going audience. I am definitely a fan of director Anna Shapiro's work, however I also wrote in my notes that I would be interested to see how the ending of the play was expressed on the page versus how it was presented, just out of my own curiosity. Also, not the absolute worst case of this I have ever seen, but I would have liked a little more substance from the female roles in the play. They represented 27% of the cast, which in this case I would argue could be an accurate representation of a group like this, in certain communities.
"What kind of community do you want to live in?"
Now when I see shows I also ask myself if they could be performed on a community theatre level. I don’t know why, but I do. And this is one of them. The set can be somewhat easily created on a community theatre budget, although Tony Award-winning set designer David Zinn certainly did a lovey job, especially with the relation of the curved high ceilings to the roles the characters in the play are trying to fulfill. For a play it's a generally big cast, where everyone is on stage for most of the play. And it would be interesting to see how actors in community theatre communities may even lend themselves to these roles based upon their own roles in the community.
As a theatre-goer I would encourage you to check out all of Tracy Lett's work, so don't miss out. Especially for the issues this play raises on the topic of appropriation, ownership and who gets credit for writing our history. I'm sorry to my LA Theatre community but The Minutes runs through January 7th at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood. Check it out if you can, however I wouldn't be surprised to find this at the Mark Taper Forum in the future. It seems to fit the vibe of the venue.
*quasi-date in this use of the word refers to going out on a date-type situation with a man you have been friends with for years, yet it is clear you have always been mutually attracted to each other, while his girlfriend is studying abroad in Paris.