Three princes, an unfulfilled promise and an unexpected pleasure

DBH and I have been hanging around theaters in Chicago again.  Even in the summer, there is much to be seen and admired.  Now that we have senior CTA passes (1/2 fare) and the street parking fees have doubled ($4 an hour in the "off-loop" area where theaters would be and a 2 hour maximum), we CTA to just about venues.  


First the princes.  Blood and Gifts by J. T. Rogers presented by TimeLine Theater Company focuses on US, Afghan and British political scheming between 1981 and 1991.  It's the story of "blowback" or the law of unintended consequences.  All the good intentions of the US and cynical facilitating of the British left the Afghans well armed militant Islamists.  The script is tight and TimeLine delivered a flawless performance.


Death and Harry Houdini, written by Nathan Allan and presented by the House Theater of Chicago, leaves you breathless.  OK, it's a magic show.  But the theater seats about 100 people, so you are literally on top of the performers.  And, they do all the big Houdini stunts.  Ensemble member Dennis Watkins has been performing as Houdini since 2001, so this production has had plenty of time to mature.  Watkins saws a man in half, eats and disgorges razor blades, performs card tricks, magic hat slight of hand and even the famous water torture cell.  What a show for children - they can even learn a bit about immigrant German Jews.


Belleville, written by Amy Hertzog and produced by Steppenwolf, fits the full Steppenwolf criteria - screams, blood, nudity and good drama.  Amy was crafty in constructing this play; four actors, a white couple and a black couple, and one set, so fairly inexpensive to produce.  Best of all, the good guys are the blacks and the baddies (or saddies) are the whites.  What more could American theater goers ask for?  It's also one act which is appealing now that getting eight hours horizontal is important.  It's no August, Osage County, but good theater. 


The unfulfilled promise is The Jungle Book, written and directed by Mary Zimmerman and produced at The Goodman Theater.  This play is funded by Disney.  They are looking for another hit for their Broadway theater.  Last February, I applauded and cried at the end of Zimmerman's Metamorphoses, one of my most memorable theater experiences.  Jungle Book just leaves you wanting a story to wrap around the music, most of which comes from the Disney animated movie.  The song and dance numbers are fun and pulsating, colorful and entrancing.  The costumes are splendid; the character actors (snake, tiger, bear) are perfect.  There is just no heart.  Even the boy playing Mowgli was well cast, naive and believable.  I've just downloaded the two books of The Jungle Book and plan to read them in Peru.  I hope Mary Zimmerman is doing the same.  The play goes from here to Boston and supposedly there will be considerable rework before opening there.

Another aspect of The Jungle Book that left me perturbed is the use of African-American jazz and swing music.  It's all from the Disney movie and beautifully performed, but this is the Indian jungle, not African.  So when Andre DeShields' showstopping King Louie, the head of the monkey pack, singsI Want to Be Like You, meaning like a man, I wondered, "Will someone play the race card over this?".  But I didn't really feel the same way about Kevin Carolan who played a overweight, intellectually challenged Baloo the Bear, though some doughy white men might.  I'd like to see some African-American theater goers weight in on this. 


Finally, an unexpected pleasure.  DBH and I are author  Salman Rushdie fans.  We plow through the good, bad and in-between because he is so imaginative and we always learn about more about Indian culture.  Midnight's Children is Rushdie's seminal work about the independence of India, the separation of India from Pakistan and Pakistan from Bangladesh.  Magical realism is not my favorite genre, but it serves the plot well.  And, the history of India's birth and development is hardly realistic anyway.   Well, they made a movie of it!  And it isn't awful.  The first half swept me back to the book and the great story of children born at the stroke of midnight when India was granted independence from Great Britain - all of whom can magically communicate with one another.  The balance of the movie deals mostly with the devastation of the subsequent wars - not an easy history lesson to condense into less than an hour. 

If you really want to dip into Rushdie, try The Satanic Verses, the book for which the Ayatollah of Iran put a fatwa on Rushdie and forced him into hiding for many years.