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Theater Review
by Rick Reed

Theater District

Although Theater District has gay characters and has gay themes, it's really a universal story about family and coming to grips with one's own identity. That's what makes About Face's premiere show of the fall season so refreshing; it's also what makes it moving, entertaining, and a work of art.

This world premiere production marks About Face's move from its comfortable home at the intersection of Broadway and Belmont to Steppenwolf's studio space ( About Face will produce shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Goodman later in the season ) . It also marks the first time Steppenwolf has worked with a company completely dedicated to exploring the best in gay and lesbian theater. Another first: Theater District is a world premiere from Richard Kramer, known for his writing on such television shows as thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, and Once and Again. And finally, this marks Kramer's first work written for the stage. If Theater District is any evidence, we have just heard from a powerful new voice in American theater.

Theater District is the story of a gay couple, George ( Tom Aulino ) , a restaurant manager, and his lover, Kenny ( Reed Bowman ) , an attorney passionate about gay causes. The two have given a home to Kenny's 15-year-old son, Wesley ( James McKay ) . Wesley has a high school friend who has just come out and his best friend's revelation causes the boy to question his father and his partner more intently than before, asking the typical questions: "Is being gay a choice?" "When did you first know?" Wesley's friend, Theo ( Michael Stahl-David ) is actually the impetus for the family crisis that fills one very eventful day in the lives of Wesley and his family. Wesley's friendship with Theo causes other questions to arise, including his mother's ( Mary Beth Fisher ) suspicions about the boys' relationship and what kind of family dynamics exist between Wesley, his father, and his father's boyfriend. It's a bittersweet, touching tale, one that's accessible, yet never simplistic.

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Director Eric Rosen has brought together a talented ensemble to bring the story to life. As George, the boyfriend of Wesley's father, Tom Aulino's gives a richly textured, sympathetic performance. He shows us how this character is really the only father Wesley has, even though the role isn't borne out by biology. As Wesley, James McKay is perfect: a credible portrait of teenage angst and wiles. His Wesley is often much smarter than the adults around him.

Rosen has staged the show well, too, using a simple, but elegant, two-tiered set by Brenda Sabatka that lets the emotional component of the show shine through. Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman's sound design is unobtrusive, yet evocative, especially with the simple, but very effective, aural markers they've placed to show shifts in time and perspective.

About Face has begun the climb in a new direction with an amazing start. This production, along with their history of innovation and creativity, demonstrates their capacity for greatness.

Pan And Boone

The Spanish word is "vacilar"—a verb superficially resembling ours for "wandering aimlessly." But a traveler engaged in this activity lacks neither direction nor goal. What distinguishes his progress is his preference for savoring the many surprises, sensations and side-trips to be discovered in the course of his quest. Playwright Jeff Carey is just such a vacilador. And if he often appears to be taking us the long way round in Pan And Boone, he never loses sight of where our journey ends, or the requirement that it be worthy of the undertaking.

The play opens on the road with two wayfarers—not tramps waiting for Godot, but two boys, the older brother dressed as Daniel Boone and the younger as Peter Pan. They are hiking to the ranch owned by one C.W. ( who might be their grandfather ) , bolstering their morale with memories of their father's stories. En route, they will encounter both sire and grandsire, along with a truck-driving Cowboy ( complete with bovine snout ) , an Eagle scout leader ( ditto feathers ) , and other assorted manifestations of turbulent imaginations. But their food has run out, Pan's sleeping bag is falling to pieces, and adulthood looms dangerously close to their fraternal innocence.

For this world premiere production, Running With Scissors director Kim Rubinstein and her cast deftly navigate Carey's intertwining metaphors and deceptively casual wordplay as if to the idiom born. Kurt Brocker and Matt McTighe—respectively, Pan and Boone—project just the right balance of naive complacency and pubertal curiosity. Playing the array of fantastical creatures they encounter, Kent Reed retains his dignity even when rigged out in anthropomorphic drag. ( His portrayal of our national bird all but steals the show, thanks to Ann Boyd's movement instruction. )

Likewise reflecting childhood's cosmological confusion is Joseph Fosco's score of soothing cattle-drive ballads and Robbie Hayes' wraparound set, its decor extending the proscenium arch to swaddle us in gentle nostalgia—that is, when mysterious objects are not literally dropping from the sky. Carey's tale is a far more densely complex yarn than last season's Tulsa Lovechild, but for those with the patience and diligence to follow its threads, the results are every bit as rewarding.

Awake and Sing!

Timeline Theatre's revival of Awake and Sing!, Clifford Odets' 1935 family tragic-comedy with Marxist tinges, is an appealing season opener that uses every inch of person and space available. Under Louis Contey's direction, the charming cast sinks into the membership of Odets' Berger family as smoothly as milk into a glass.

Awake and Sing! is a drama of one Jewish family dealing with the never-ending battles of Depression-era New York City, from brown water coming from the tap to the increasing oppression of Poles and Jews. Odets sneaked most of his social commentary through Jacob, the grandfather who spends his days finding the truth in both Marx and opera. Rich Baker is a charming Jacob, and both steals a few laughs and serves up some of Odets' most blatant calls for revolution with the seriousness of an old man who aches to be heard.

Odets' strength was his ability to write political plays that no one realized were political. The family part of this family drama holds up brilliantly. Isabel Liss and Whit Spurgeon give just enough as the original prototype matriarch and hen-pecked husband. And David Parkes, alternately wooing and spurning the bright-eyed but fading-fast daughter played by the captivating Beth Lacke, seems to have been plucked directly from 1935, from his John Waters mustache to his rat-a-tat delivery.

The dialogue is as quick and layered as Thanksgiving at an orphanage in this play, and Contey's cast storms through it with courage and confidence. Most of the family scenes have everyone arguing at once and these actors know how to stay on target.

One of the stars of this show, however, and a joy to see, is Noelle C.K. Hathaway's complete transformation of the Timeline stage into an accurate 1930's tenement flat. From the scratchy radio in the corner to the curtains that sometimes serve to block off the dining room ( yes, they fit a dining room in there ) , Hathaway's set is a fine platform for this production. Timeline has brought us a moving and honest revival that kicks off a promising season they've designed, dedicated to exploring the 1930's. For fans of Odets, or newcomers to his work, this production is a splendid chance to see this play as close to its roots as anyone could hope to see on a 2002 Chicago stage.

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