The Power of Music: John Hammond, Robert Johnson and Bruce Springsteen

You may never have heard of John Hammond. But if you’re a music fan or a civil rights supporter, you know he’s a major figure of the 20th century. Radiolab, the WNYC program, did a show this week titled “The Power of Music” and almost half of it was devoted to the work of Hammond, the civil rights activist and A&R executive (artists and repertoire or talent scout) for Columbia Records. During the course of his long career, Hammond, who came from a wealthy family (he had a Vanderbilt in his past), discovered and launched the careers of musicians like Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. And dozens more.

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Hammond was instrumental in bringing the music of African-American performers out of the “race music” ghetto they languished in for decades. Early in his career, he organized the first Carnegie Hall concert to feature black musicians—in December 1938. One of the musicians he wanted to feature was Robert Johnson, the legendary backwoods Mississippi blues master. When he learned that Johnson had died recently, he played some of his music by hooking up a turntable to the Carnegie Hall sound system. The Radiolab segment titled “Letting the Devil Tune Your Guitar” explores the legend about Hammond and Robert Johnson and the story that Johnson sold his soul to the devil to become a great guitarist. Radiolab comes to the spooky conclusion that there might have been more than one Robert Johnson. It’s a compelling piece of radio.

Robert Johnson died at 27 in about 1938 (or 1939 or 1941). His music inspired musicians like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an influencer at its first induction in 1986. He’s often credited as the songwriter of “Sweet Home Chicago.”

440px-Bruce_Springsteen_-_Roskilde_Festival_2012This weekend I watched an old documentary about that New Jersey musician who Hammond signed to Columbia in 1972. Blood Brothers: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was made in 1995 when the band got together in a studio in New York to record a Greatest Hits album. Seeing the band 20 years younger was a visual shock. Their current personas are indelibly imprinted on my brain because I saw them so many times during recent tours. Today, yes, they’re older, grayer, balder, but they seem to be more fit and energized. Many of the band members in ’95 look a little pudgy and scruffy. Even Bruce, who today looks trim, even skinny, in tight black jeans, was a bit fleshy. And the beards make a huge difference. At first I didn’t recognize some of the band members under their hirsuteness. Garry Tallent, the bass player, and Roy Bittan, the pianist, looked very different. And so did Bruce.

The reunion was the first time the band had played together in 11 years and you could see how happy and excited they were to be together again. The power of music took them to great heights in recording the 18 songs for the album. The film shows the effort and creativity involved in getting the album made. Producer Chuck Plotkin and manager Jon Landau work closely together. Bruce is rewriting lyrics on a yellow pad and taking votes for the photo on the CD cover. Nils Lofgren and Max Weinberg are writing lyrics or notations or arrangements, as they’re getting ready to record.

The songs “Blood Brothers,” “Secret Garden,” “Murder Incorporated” and “This Hard Land” are some of the new tracks on that album. The film shows each of them being worked out with instrumentation changing until Bruce, the perfectionist, is satisfied. The final section shows the music video of “Murder” (directed by Jonathan Demme) being filmed in front of an audience of fans at Tramps in New York.

If you’re interested in learning more about John Hammond, there are several biographies. This book by Dunstan Prial looks like a good choice and I’m going to read it soon. For more info on Robert Johnson, I recommend Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.


Three reviews: Classic (or neo) works on stage and screen

car washIt’s spring! I knew that for sure today when I decided to get the salt washed off the Beetle and had to wait in line around the block from Bert’s Car Wash on Grand Avenue. It’s a beautiful day and I didn’t mind sitting in the car, listening to a Springsteen album. And now the Beetle is clean. (Of course, to be realistic, it could snow again. And again.)

 

Despite the weather, I’ve reviewed some excellent plays recently, two of them of classic origin. And I’ve spent time mulling over a remarkable 1949 film, The Third Man. Here’s a recap.

Endgame at The Hypocrites

GB-Endgame-hamm,clov,nellSamuel Beckett’s midcentury play, Endgame, is said to represent the theater of the absurd. And it is absurd. Non-linear, plotless. Very funny in a black humor sort of way. The Hypocrites do a great job of staging it so that the dialog gains meaning and connects to our circumstances today. Here’s how I ended my Gapers Block review:

The 90-minute play is skillfully directed by Halena Kays, carefully following Beckett’s stage directions–to which the playwright demanded full compliance. The performances by all four actors are superb. The festive cabaret atmosphere of the venue makes the black absurdity of the play more profound.

You can see Endgame at The Hypocrites’ new space at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue through April 4.

Antigonick at Sideshow Theatre Company

GB-Antigonick-1Non-classic or neo-classic? Anne Carson’s contemporary translation or reimagining of Sophocles’ Antigone is witty and the casting is gender-bending. The way double casting is used brings fresh insights to the age-old story of Antigone, her two slain brothers, and King Kreon’s refusal to allow proper burial rites for one of them. Antigone’s opposition to that ruling is dramatized by the words of the Chorus and of Teiresias, the blind prophet. When she tries to get her sister Ismene to help, Ismene reminds her of the tragic family history.

 “Wherever we are, think, Sister — father’s daughter. Daughter’s brother. Sister’s mother. Mother’s son. His mother and his wife were one. Our family is double, triple degraded and dirty in every direction. Moreover, we two are alone and we are girls. Girls cannot force their way against men.” And Antigone responds, “Yet I will.”

And the 75-minute production is timed and measured by Nick, a servant who is busy on stage—but wordless—throughout the play.

Staging and performances are excellent in Sideshow’s interpretation of a classic story. You can see it at the Victory Gardens’ upstairs studio theater through April 5. See my review for details.

The Third Man, preferably on a big screen

Carol Reed’s The Third Man is set in Vienna just after the end of World War II. Many critics have called it one of the greatest films ever made and, after watching it half a dozen times recently, and considering all the ingredients that make up a masterpiece, I agree.

The film is noteworthy for its stars—Joseph Cotten, Orson Welles, Alida Valli and Trevor Howard. The plot and characterizations are fascinating but the element that makes it a masterpiece, in my mind, is the black-and-white cinematography and the night-time exteriors of war-torn Vienna. The film is simply gorgeous and I urge you to see it on the biggest screen possible. Do not watch it on your phone! I have a friend who has an eight-foot screen in his living room and that was the best screening I can imagine, short of seeing it on a big screen at an arthouse.

The theme of Chicago Literati‘s current issue is “Cinematique: The Movie Issue.” I submitted an essay on The Third Man, which you can now see on the magazine’s site. I’ll bet that even if you don’t remember the film, you’ll remember the zither music.

Related posts

It’s Oscar time. Love the art, if not the artist. The best films of 2014, according to me, and why it doesn’t matter if you like the character or not.

Foreign films including one featuring The Talking Heads. (Yes, one of my favorite bands.)

A classic play on screen: Ibsen’s The Master Builder translated brilliantly.


Big art questions: What is art and who gets to make it?

CV-TIMA_MULcrewMy review of This Is Modern Art, the new Steppenwolf for Young Adults play, went live on Gapers Block Monday night, soon after the scathing reviews by the two daily newspaper critics had been posted or published. I was surprised at the level of criticism in the two reviews—not criticism of the play itself, but of the theater for producing it at all.

This Is Modern Art (based on true events) is the story of the crew of young graffiti writers who decide they need to define “modern art” on their own terms and so they paint a “piece” (short for masterpiece) on the east wall of the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute. The event actually took place five years ago. In the play, the artists are shown at a party where an art student brags about attending the opening of the Modern Wing and seeing all the masterpieces plus “everybody in the art world.” Clearly Seven (the leader of the crew) knows his art history, but he says “We only paint everywhere else, because they won’t let us paint inside.”

The play acknowledges the illegality of graffiti writing—and also distinguishes between gang graffiti (usually tags) and the street art created by the graffiti writers. Among the criticisms of the play is that it sends the wrong messages to young people. This is a really offensive argument for young people, who do not see themselves as naïve and malleable to suggestion. As my grandson said, “Yeah, I liked the play a lot but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go out and buy spray paint and write on walls.”

GB-TIMA_Production04In my review, I commented, “Was what happened an act of vandalism or important artistic commentary? The question deserves to be addressed. The script and the characters acknowledge that they are committing an illegal act. But the important message the play articulates is that art shouldn’t be confined to elite galleries and museums with $18 admission tickets. The graffiti writers are artists shouting to be seen and heard. They demand visibility in a society that decrees them invisible–as artists and as individuals.

Twitter commenters noted, “If you see a Shakespeare or McDonagh drama, do you criticize the artists for glorifying/condoning murder?” And “Does anyone try to ban the Netflix series ‘House of Cards’ because Francis Underwood commits murder to get ahead?” The reviews by the Tribune and Sun-Times critics received their share of Twitter snark. Trust me. It wasn’t pretty.

I have written frequently about street art and post-street art (see Related Posts below) and I find the genre fascinating and vibrant. I wouldn’t want to shut it down. But I agree that I wouldn’t want to wake up one morning and find my house (if I had a house) covered with graffiti. The play also differentiates between “permission walls,” where an owner or a community invites artists to write on or paint walls. This would cover some of the paintings in highway and railroad underpasses that have been sponsored by local communities. Some graffers are happy to be able to show their art on permission walls, while to others, the risk is the drug that fuels their creativity. In any case, I believe they ought to be able to paint public walls and abandoned spaces.

And the Art Institute should have left the “modern art” masterpiece on its east wall for a few days instead of immediately calling in the graffiti blasting crew. And most importantly, Steppenwolf should have commissioned a “piece” for the south wall of their building, to be displayed at least during the run of this thought-provoking play. That would have been a meaningful way for the theater to make a statement supporting their production.

See my review of This Is Modern Art and go to Twitter and search #thisismodernart or @kevincoval to see the commentary about the play.

Let me know what you think about this issue. Who gets to make art and where should it be shown? Please comment below.

 Related posts

Art in the gallery and out in the street.

Out in the street: street art and post-street art

New wall mural in Old Irving Park 


February reviews: Everything has a music theme

February is supposed to be a slow month, especially when the average temps are 20 degrees below average, but I’ve been pretty busy lately. So here’s a recap of my recent gallivants. (Yes, I know that’s not a noun, but I’m making it one.) The theme, it seems, is music, for everything I’ve done lately.

Greil Marcus at the Old Town School

GB-marcuscover-10songsNot only Greil Marcus, the legendary music writer, but Jon Langford and Sally Timms to sing and play along with his literary musings. It was a night of legends. Marcus was there to tell us about his new book, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs–which isn’t exactly a history in any formal sense. But it is a fine book of his commentary about 10 songs that may or may not have defined rock and roll. He’s an elegant writer, one of the best in any genre, and a charming conversationalist, so it was a pleasure to hear him talk about his book and read some selections. The music by Langford and Timms was superb, as I describe in my Gapers Block review of the evening. Maurer Hall at the Old Town School (it’s in the older building on the west side of Lincoln) is a fine venue with perfect sightlines, great acoustics and comfy seats.

Four plays explore music, each in its own way

Norma and the Maniac by the Orchard Theatre

GB-NormaManiac425pxA new playwright, his first full-length play. When I was asked to review it, I hesitated until I read that it has to do with a musician who played in a metal band. How could I resist? I was so hoping it wouldn’t be dreadful–and I was delighted to find out that it’s actually very good. The play is Norma and the Maniac, by Ray Nelson, and it’s being performed by the new Orchard Theatre as a guest company at Redtwist Theatre on Bryn Mawr. Alexander St. John is director and sound designer and he does a fine job, as do the two actors, Amy Gorelow and Noor Hamdi. The play isn’t a musical, even though one of the two characters is a headbanger. The music–punk and metal selections–plays before the show and between scenes. And there’s a country music touch too–see the YouTube video in my review. It’s a well-written play that tells us how two losers end up finding happiness. You can see Norma and the Maniac through March 30.

Accidentally Like a Martyr at Red Orchid

This excellent play by Grant James Varjas runs through March 15 at the redoubtable Red Orchid Theatre on Wells Street. The work they do in their tiny space is amazing and I have seen theatrical masterpieces many times over the years. Accidentally Like a Martyr may not be a masterpiece, but it’s a superb show that drifts between two recent eras in a New York gay dive bar. The six main characters are beautifully acted by a fine ensemble directed by Shade Murray. The show title is the title of one of my favorite songs by the late Warren Zevon (from his 1978 album Excitable Boy) so I was excited that there would be  Zevon music in the show. And there was, although I had to wait until the end of the 90-minute play to hear it. “Accidentally” plays over the bar sound system as two lovers embrace to the music.

My homage to Warren Zevon. Warren Zevon was a songwriter and rock musician with a dark and bizarre sense of humor, which he never failed to display in his music. The album Excitable Boy is probably his best known. In addition to “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” that album includes the title track plus “Werewolves of London,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” and “Lawyers,Guns and Money,” a cold war satire. He died in 2003 from inoperable mesothelioma. His last album, The Wind, featured some of his own compositions, a duet with Bruce Springsteen on “Disorder in the House,” and my favorite rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”  Check out some of his songs.

Music Hall at Tuta Theatre

Music Hall is a funny, sad play by the late French playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce about three cabaret performers–the kind who traveled from town to town to perform for smaller and smaller audiences. The Artiste is played by Jeffrey Binder, accompanied by the two Boys who assist and perform with him, or her. This is a stunningly acted and staged play and deserves the acclaim it’s receiving. It runs through March 8 at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee, then it goes to New York, where it will be staged at 59E59, a just off-Broadway house. See my review.

Airline Highway at Steppenwolf

CV-AirlineHwyahprodThis wonderful, ebullient, full-of-life show set in New Orleans is closed now at Steppenwolf, but it too is going to New York, where it will open at the Samuel Friedman Theatre on Broadway in April. The play takes place at one of those nondescript motels you pass on the way in from the airport to your fancy hotel in the French Quarter. The people who live at the Hummingbird Motel are the hookers, the strippers, the musicians, the taxi drivers, the janitors, the almost penniless and almost homeless who hang on to happiness by their fingernails. I reviewed it for CultureVulture; you can read it here.

Related posts

Visions of music: Steve Schapiro and Richard Powers. Music in photography and literature. Never too much music.

Chicago in Words and Music. This report noted another Jon Langford appearance, plus there’s a Springsteen video treat.


David Carr: His caper ended way too soon

This has been a tough week for journalism. Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show. Brian Williams’ whole career is under investigation. CBS correspondent Bob Simon is killed in a Manhattan car crash, after surviving dozens of combat assignments. And now, David Carr has died, for no discernible medical reason, other than his checkered health past. It makes you ask, WTF anyway?

Photo courtesy sxsw.com.

Photo courtesy sxsw.com.

As I was coming home from the theater last night, I realized I hadn’t turned my phone on. A shocking headline popped up on the screen: David Carr, New York Times media columnist, is dead at 58.

What? How could this be? I just read his article on Jon Stewart and Brian Williams today. I started looking for information and there wasn’t much available yet. The Times had a brief obituary, which was expanded over the next couple of hours to become a meaningful overview of Carr’s career.

However, Twitter was on fire with news about Carr’s death and comments about his life and work. I tweeted and retweeted about a dozen times last night alone.

 

  • Someone tweeted a link to the Carr archive on nytimes.com: a total of 1,776 articles.
  • I tweeted a link to his last column about Stewart and Williams, both of whom grew up in New Jersey (and are both Springsteen fans):

@nsbishop: Last column by @carr2n. He was a Jersey boy too (but first a Minnesota boy). http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/12/business/media/brian-williamss-and-jon-stewarts-common-ground.html?ref=topics …

  • Several people reminded us of his advice for writers:

“Keep typing until it turns into writing.”

Last night Carr had just moderated a panel discussion about the film Citizenfour with its principal subject, Edward J. Snowden; the film’s director, Laura Poitras; and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Just before 9pmET, he collapsed in his office and was taken to the hospital, where he died. That headline about him flashed on my phone at 9:30pmCT.

When I decided to write my own appreciation of Carr today, I started making notes and realized how much I had bonded with his writing over the years. First, I want to summarize David Carr’s odyssey. (He would hate seeing that word applied to his life.)

Midwesterner to Jersey boy

Carr grew up in a Minneapolis suburb, graduated from the University of Minnesota and worked as editor of the Twin Cities Reader, an alternative paper. During this time, he became an alcoholic, began using cocaine and became a crack addict. He and his girlfriend had twin girls and Carr raised them alone on welfare. A single dad crack addict. He kicked the crack habit and later suffered from cancer (Hodgkin’s lymphoma), which required a lot of radiation to his mouth and throat. He said in a radio interview: “I’ve had a very medicalized life. I have no spleen. I have one kidney. I have no gallbladder. I have half a pancreas.” He said his notably raspy voice was the result of many factors, including smoking tobacco and crack, radiation, and working on the pile covering firemen at the 9/11 site. It was during that time, he said, that he noticed his voice changing.

He left Minnesota for DC to become editor of the Washington City Paper, later moving to New York, where he wrote as a freelancer for publications including The Atlantic Monthly and New York magazine. He joined the Times in 2002 as a business reporter covering magazine publishing. He expanded that beat to include new media, and generally, the web and all media. He remarried and he and his wife have three children and a home in New Jersey.

Carr wrote a memoir of his life as a crack addict, Night of the Gun, published in 2008. He didn’t just write it as others write memoirs—from memory. He decided he had forgotten too much and attacked the project like a reporter, gathering documents and interviewing about 60 people.

“Me and My Girls,” a long excerpt from that memoir, was published in July 2008 in the NY Times Magazine. You can read it here.

My favorite quote of Carr’s, from the conclusion of his memoir, has been cited often today.

“I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth

feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope

the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”

Carr was  my favorite journalist. He was voracious in his interests, which ranged all over the media and pop culture spectrum from ownership and management to the way new media affect the artists and their livelihoods. He was interested in music, pop and otherwise, movies, books, magazines and web culture. He wrote long features on artists such as Neil Young and Woody Harrelson, on South Park, and on Murdoch vs. Bloomberg.

Carr Live

The one time I saw Carr live was during the 2011 Chicago Humanities Festival, when he and Clara Jeffrey, coeditor of Mother Jones magazine, discussed “New Frontiers in Journalism.” It was Wednesday, November 9, 2011, on the stage at Francis Parker School. I was excited to be able to see him and listen to him talk in an informal format. I didn’t take notes that evening, for some reason. However, there’s this video ….

Page One documentary

Carr also is the star of an excellent documentary about modern journalism: Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times. In the 2011 film, Carr is shown working on one of his best stories, his takedown of Sam Zell’s Chicago Tribune and its frat house culture.

The Sweet Spot

Carr and A.O. Scott, the Times’ film critic, had a web series for a while titled “The Sweet Spot.” The two writers would sit in what looks like the Times employee cafeteria in their shirtsleeves talking about some cultural phenomenon that interests them. These 5-6 minutes videos are always fun. You can see a bunch of them here on the Times video channel. The series ended in 2013.

Monday mornings

Every Monday, Carr had a Media Equation column in the Times business section. Every Monday morning, I would first read Paul Krugman on the economy and then Carr, filling myself full of juicy news concepts.

Mondays are not going to be the same.

But in the meantime, I’ll keep typing until it turns into writing.

 

Postscript on 02/15/15: The medical examiner’s autopsy showed Carr died of metastatic lung cancer, with heart disease a contributing factor.

 

 


It’s Oscar time: Love the art, if not the artist

I’ve seen most of the Academy Award nominee films this year and talked to friends about them often. My friends know I’m a movie geek and that I occasionally write about films so they like to know what I think or tell me why they disagree with my opinions. (I’m not naming my Oscar winners here, but I may let something slip in this essay.)

Most of these films I’ve seen with friends and their reactions are often quite interesting. If they find the major characters unappealing or boring, they decide they don’t like the film, no matter how excellent it is in every way (including the performance of the disliked character). This puzzles me.

Mr. Turner

NSBJ-Mr_Turner_posterFor instance, in the late 2014 film Mr. Turner, JMW Turner is depicted from mid-career on as he becomes recognized for his magical, almost mystical, seascapes and landscapes. He’s not upper class, he’s a man of the middle class at best. His father, a former barber, acts as his assistant in the studio. Timothy Spall portrays Turner as crude and rough, both in speech and actions. He’s unkind to his employees and probably not pleasant company. But his paintings are gorgeous and the Mike Leigh film is insightful and beautifully made. It received outstanding reviews and a Metascore of 94 out of 100 on metacritic.com.

The friend I saw the film with hated the Turner character and didn’t care for the film much either.

Boyhood

Boyhood_filmAnother film I loved (and have seen twice) is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. After I first saw it in July, I wrote that it’s “a beautifully edited story of a boy growing into a young man. That’s all. Just life, compressed into 164 minutes. The transitions of age and family change are done so smoothly that sometimes you miss them. The film is rich in conversation (that often seems improvised, although it isn’t) about life, its meaning and potential.”

A friend who also saw the movie thought it was boring. She found the boy unappealing and none of the characters interesting.

In the first place, I don’t agree with that view of Boyhood. And I don’t think whether you happen to “like” the characters has anything to do with the nature, quality and excellence of the film.

Whiplash

In Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, JK Simmons plays a jazz band coach, who is blunt, unkind, even physically brutal to the teenaged musicians. A despicable character, surely? But that doesn’t mean the film and Simmons’ performance aren’t Oscar-worthy. (Whiplash received an 88 Metascore.) Take a look at Simmons with the teenaged drummer played by Miles Teller.

Birdman

NSB-Birdman_posterBirdman was another brilliant film, directed by Alejandro Iñárritu. Although it’s nominated (and may well win) best film and has received excellent reviews (88 on Metacritic), it seems to really divide viewers. Many people I talked to about Birdman said they hated it and hated Michael Keaton and his character. I just don’t understand what that has to do with your opinion of a film. The premise and plot of Birdman is brilliantly creative, the acting is superb and it’s astute about ego and aging—plus the cinematography is outstanding. (Yes, I would be happy if it wins best film.)

The Third Man. I just watched The Third Man, the 1949 Carol Reed film starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton, for the fifth or sixth time. (I’ll write about this gorgeous early noir film in a later post.) Harry Lime (Welles) is a thoroughly despicable character and Holly Martin (Cotton) is an ineffectual American writer in Vienna just after World War II. Neither of them is likable or admirable. But how could that possibly change your view of this epic film?

The art is what it is

I’ve written about this topic before: Love the art even if you don’t love the artist. My point is that the work of art deserves to be viewed on its own, separately from the artist. In April, I wrote about the documentary on photographer Vivian Maier, which depicts her (through interviews) as controlling and mean to the children she cared for. I said that I don’t care about that. I appreciate her work for what it is. Brilliant, engaging images of humanity.

And I added a comment about Woody Allen, who some believe is a horrible, perverted, child-abuser. And he may be that. Or not. Either way, that doesn’t affect the nature of his films or whether I want to see them or appreciate them. The art is what it is.

And finally, there’s Bruce

Of course, there’s a Bruce Springsteen corollary. (Isn’t there always?) Springsteen does not hide his political views; he’s a committed blue-collar liberal. He expresses his views in his songs (especially in his recent albums, Magic and Wrecking Ball). In every concert he takes a few minutes for what he calls his PSA, where he criticizes the current administration (especially under Bush 43), demands punishment for those who caused the financial crisis and help for those who are in need. This drives his conservative fans crazy. (I know because I’ve gone to plenty of concerts with some of them. And I love them anyway.) But those fans love his music—his stories, his lyrics, his melodies, his performance, his band. They appreciate his art for what it is.

Here’s Bruce singing about “Death to My Hometown,” brought about by the banksters. “Send the robber barons straight to hell,” he sings, to the cheers of this huge crowd at the Isle of Wight festival in 2012.


Reviews: Theater for thought and laughter

I always say I prefer my theater (and films) to be grim and depressing. No happy-go-lucky musicals with egregious singing and dancing for me. But this week I’ve seen three marvelous plays that made me laugh and made me think. And what could be a better combination for an evening of theater with thoughtful friends?

The Rose Tattoo by Shattered Globe at Theater Wit

GB-TheRoseTattoo-1Tennessee Williams’ play about an insular Sicilian-American community on the Gulf Coast is melodramatic, tragic and funny. The rose tattoo of the title is an actual tattoo on the chest of Rosario, the husband of seamstress Serafina. We never meet Rosario because Serafina is widowed early in the play. She mourns him and prays to a statue of Mary and his ashes while trying to keep her teenaged daughter from growing up too fast. Shattered Globe’s production is performed in a small space at Theater Wit, but director Greg Vinkler and his actors make the most of the space and of Williams’ passionate plot and language.

My review for Gapers Block gave it four stars or “highly recommended” for the Theatre in Chicago site. The production runs until Feb. 28.

Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play at Theater Wit

PragueThis could be described as a play about The Simpsons, now in its 26th TV season. But it’s really about the world we may have to look forward to, if we don’t rebuild our infrastructure to protect the electric grid. Yes, it’s a post-electric play, taking place in a world of the future that you don’t even want to think about. The three acts show us a vision of the near future, seven years later and 75 years after that. My review appears in Gapers Block and also on Culture Vulture.

Yes, The Simpsons’ plots and characters tie the dystopian epic together. The clever storyline follows the episode from season 5, “Cape Feare,” which satirized the two film versions of Cape Fear in 1962 (Robert Mitchum) and 1991 (Robert De Niro).

The acting, scene design and costuming are all well done, with great creativity in the use of materials and funky lighting when there is no electricity. Jeremy Wechsler’s direction is spot on and the eight actors move from character to character with ease. The production is funny and thought-provoking. However, if you’re not at least a casual Simpsons viewer, you may be in the dark. You can see this until March 1.

Waiting for Godot at Court Theatre

This Samuel Beckett play is one of my very favorites and I never grow tired of seeing it reinterpreted by a new director and cast. Court Theatre’s production, directed by Ron OJ Parsons, is one of the best I’ve seen. One interesting aspect is that it’s performed by an all-African-American cast.

You remember the story. Two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon (Didi and Gogo), a bleak landscape, a leafless tree. They’re hanging out, waiting, of course, for Godot, who never appears and is never explained. In mid-first-act, along comes Pozzo, the plutocrat, and his silent slave Lucky, who is roped by the neck and occasionally whipped by Pozzo.

All four actors are outstanding and among Chicago’s finest. But Allen Gilmore, who plays Vladimir, is so graceful, verbally and physically, that he simply outshines the others. Also Anthony Lee Irons, who plays Lucky, is a joy to see perform his “thinking” monologue. He is brilliantly agile as the philosophical gibberish rolls off his tongue.

Here’s a video clip from the current Court production.

This production is perhaps a bit more physical than some I have seen. It’s a lively performance (lively isn’t usually a word I’d apply to Beckett). The play is about the significance and insignificance of life, about tomorrow and about hope. But it is also a music hall piece with a great deal of humor. And Beckett fully intended it to be funny. He loved vaudeville and silent film comedy and supposedly considered casting Buster Keaton as Gogo and Charlie Chaplin as Didi.

Brian Dennehy was once quoted as saying: “Godot is the greatest thing you can do in theater. It’s incredibly philosophical and deep and significant—and very, very funny.”

Some of the acting pairs who have played Didi and Gogo in the past make me yearn to see their performances. Robin Williams and Steve Martin. Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (with Billy Crudup as Lucky!).

Here’s a wonderful video that shows clips of Stewart and McKellen’s 2013 performance plus the two of them speaking about the play in an interview.

 

And one more thing: The Humans at American Theater Co.

I saw this play a month ago but haven’t had a chance to write about it here. The Humans by Stephen Karam is a world premiere and another excellent ATC production that lets us observe a family Thanksgiving dinner in real time, including crudités from Costco. The characters—adult children, parents, grandmother—all have a story. Love and lost love, laughter, illness, disability and aging issues. The production received almost unanimous four-star reviews, although I would have given it three stars if I had reviewed it. It runs through Sunday, Feb. 1, with two performances on each weekend day—so it would be a good alternative to that football thing on Sunday.

 

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