Retired critic Richard Christiansen has published his highly anticipated history and memoir of Chicago theater, A Theater of Our Own: 1,001 Nights in Chicago (Northwestern University Press, paperback). The well-researched, warm-hearted book offers a detailed but breezy history of Chicago theater from 1837 to 2004, and becomes more of a personal memoir from the mid-1950s onward, when Christiansen started his journalism career. Christiansen worked for 46 years as a reporter, theater critic, and arts editor at the old Chicago Daily News (ceased publication in 1978) and then the Chicago Tribune. He retired in 2002. Ibsen's A Doll House, L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs's Grease, and John Guare's Bosoms and Neglect are a few of the many shows that received their world premiere productions in Chicago, as Christiansen's book points out.
Dublin's famed Abbey Theatre, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, has made a rare stop in Chicago, through December 12, with its new interpretation of Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. Abbey artistic director Ben Barnes has staged the play.
Chicago has experienced a small explosion of Asian-centered theater troupes in the last two years with such new companies as dueEast, the Silk Road Theatre Project, and Rasaka Theatre Company joining existing organizations such as the Pintig Cultural Group and the sketch comedy troupe Stir-Friday Night. Most of the companies are pan-Asian, but a few are keyed to a particular Asian ethnicity. Rasaka, for instance, speaks to a South Asian (Indian) audience. In recognition of this growing creative force, the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs is presenting the Saving Face Festival, the City's first gathering of Asian American Theater artists and companies. The two-day event, December 4-5, at the Cultural Center Studio Theater will offer staged readings and performances by seven companies. "Saving Face" will showcase Asian musicians, too, and offer several workshops.
The Department of Cultural Affairs scores another first in December, too: The Great Chicago Fire Sale on eBay. The December 2-16 event is the first online eBay charitable auction organized by a municipality. The several hundred items up for bids include many that are rare or unique, such as a complete 1960s Playboy Bunny costume. Among the theater-related items are a walk-on role in Goodman Theatre's production of A Christmas Carol, a banner from the 2003 inaugural of the Harris Music and Dance Theater, two tickets to Steppenwolf Theatre Company's annual gala (performance by John Malkovich, dinner and dancing to Gary Sinise's garage band), and a chance to sing "Over the Rainbow" at a gala concert honoring the birth of composer Harold Arlen. Complete details on items are at www.thegreatchicagofiresale.org. Click on any item, and you'll be linked to eBay.
If dinner with Malkovich and Sinise proves to be too rich for your blood, a cheaper stocking-stuffer would be Play Money, the gift certificate program offered by the League of Chicago Theatres. Play Money comes in $25 increments, is good for one year, and can be exchanged for tickets at the box offices of scores of Chicago-area theaters. Full information about Play Money, and a secure order form, can be found online at Chicagoplays.com. Click on the Play Money icon.
Of course, December means that several dozen Chicago theaters take a break from serious business to offer holiday-themed shows, and there certainly is a range of them. Among the standards are at least a half-dozen versions each of A Christmas Carol (the biggest and oldest is at the Goodman Theatre) and The Nutcracker (the biggest is by the Joffrey Ballet at the Auditorium Theatre). Among the not-so-standard oddities are Rudolph, the Red-Hosed Reindeer (transvestite reindeer, Hell in a Handbag Productions), A Dysfunctional Dixie Christmas (Royal George Theatre, inspired by the plays of Tennessee Williams), A Merry Jewish Christmas (Bailiwick Repertory), and Roasting Chestnuts (Noble Fool Theatre, a parody of a 1970s TV holiday special). One of our favorites, however, is American Theatre Company's adaptation of It's A Wonderful Life, done as a live radio play, with actors taking several roles each, live sound effects and even 1930s-style commercials.
Merry and Happy to all!