That’s my week: The Jungle + Boyhood

On two consecutive days last weekend, I had the good fortune to be in the right place for amazing dramatic experiences. You’ve probably read a lot about one—Richard Linklater’s film, Boyhood. But probably not much about the other. Both are exceptional works.

The Jungle at Oracle Theatre

Photo by Jason Fassi.

Photo by Jason Fassi.

Matt Foss’ play is adapted from Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle. It’s set in Chicago in 1906 and focuses on the immigrant families who came here to find jobs and a better life than they could hope for in their European homelands. They found work—and a good deal more—in Chicago’s stockyards. Sinclair’s book, while focusing on the grim lives led by these immigrants, also described the conditions of the stockyards in gruesome detail. To his chagrin, it was the stockyard images that people focused on…possibly because they were appalled to think that was where their meat came from. Like other muckrakers of the time, he hoped to focus public attention on the needs of the people and bring about government action for change.

Oracle Theatre is presenting the world premiere of this play, directed by Foss, who also developed the ingenious stage design that I describe in my Gapers Block review.  The play is 100 minutes and will remind you why Chicago theater is great. In your face? Yes. Focused on a message? Absolutely. And tragically, exuberantly dramatic.

Oracle Theatre is committed to free art for all and so their tickets are free (but you should reserve a seat). I write a little about their business model at the end of my review. So far, they seem to be operating successfully with no “earned income.” They deserve your support, not because they’re free, but because they tell great stories.

Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s film about growing up

Boyhood_filmThis film is having a gradual nationwide rollout, and Chicago is in the first wave of releases. You can see this beautiful film at River East 21 or Landmark Century Centre right now. Here’s what I said in my brief Letterboxd review:

Boyhood is 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. Linklater’s felicitous choice of a 6-year-old boy who would continue to be interesting for the next 12 years is amazing. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, the boy’s divorced parents, also change over the years; they both give terrific performances.

Two years and counting

Nancy Bishop’s Journal is two years old. It’s amazing to me that I’ve continued to write regularly and at length about the things I love: Theater, film, books, music, art and design, Chicago stuff, and sometimes food. My total is 120 posts since July 2012.

I’m also writing regularly at gapersblock.com/ac/, where I’ve written 113 posts in the last 15 months—reviews of theater, art, architecture and design. You also can find my writing at culturevulture.net, an online arts magazine, where I review theater and other Chicago culture, and at theandygram.com, where I post new Chicago theater reviews.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nancy Bishop’s Journal is two years old. It’s amazing to me that I’ve continued to write regularly and at length about the things I love: Theater, film, books, music, art and design, and sometimes food. My total is 120 posts since July 2012.

I’m also writing regularly at gapersblock.com/ac/, reviewing theater and art.


Hanging out at O’Neill’s: Long Day’s Journey at the Critics Institute

Think of it as grad school in a bottle. Two weeks of 20-hour days filled with discussions, theater productions, review writing and critiquing, and never, never enough sleep. That was my recent two-week sojourn as a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut.

The Mansion at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center

The Mansion at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center

The center is located in a beautiful part of rural Connecticut, on the shore of Long Island Sound. So there were a few brief opportunities to visit the beach, or, more likely, to see it from a distance as we sat under a tree for one of our discussions. We stayed in a college dorm nearby and got shuttled back and forth to campus. The O’Neill Center is quite large, with two theaters inside and two outside. The “mansion” is home to the O’Neill’s administrative offices and the kitchen and cafeteria where everyone ate (no ratings for the food). Another large home houses more offices and meeting rooms. There’s also the favorite Blue Gene’s Pub, a cozy tavern that was busy every night. Our morning meetings (before the heat set in) were usually held in the Sunken Garden, under the trees with a view of the ocean. In the afternoons, we met in the Founders Room or another meeting room. (All photos by Nancy Bishop.)

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The Monte Cristo Cottage, O’Neill’s childhood summer home, is in New London, a short drive from the campus. The house was the setting for his masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night. We spent part of a day there, touring the house and talking about theater—and feeling some of the eerie O’Neill spirit.

Many other theater conferences were going on at the O’Neill at the same time. The National Playwrights Conference, the National Music Theater Conference, and Theatermakers (a six-week intensive for student playwrights, actors and directors). The National Puppetry Conference had just ended and the Cabaret and Performance Conference was about to begin.

Chris Jones, chief theater critic of the Chicago Tribune, is the new director of the institute, and he has added some new features to the workshop. For instance, one lovely Saturday evening, we went to Mystic, where we split up into smaller groups to have dinner (and write restaurant reviews when we got home). We saw a movie one night for the purpose of discussing the adaptation of a work from stage to screen. (See my Jersey Boys review.)

My 13 fellow Fellows were theater and arts writers and a few graduate students, mostly from the northeast but also from Dallas, Phoenix and Louisville—and three of us from Chicago.

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Our days were filled with talks by visiting theater critics and other theater experts and sessions where our reviews were critiqued by Chris, the visitors and each other. It was a fabulously invigorating experience. Our nights were spent going to the theater and then writing reviews about what we had seen, for submission by early the next morning. Did I say never, never sleep?

I’ll give you an overview of some of the sessions we had with visiting critics and theater folk.

Michael Phillips, the Chicago Tribune’s chief film critic, is a former theater critic for the Tribune and several other papers. He talked about his favorite film and theater writers and gave us some valuable insights on writing reviews. He also talked about the art of adapting a work from stage to screen.

Dan Sullivan, Jones’ predecessor as director of the NCI, was a theater critic for the LA Times and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. We read the Tennessee Williams short story (“Portrait of a Girl in Glass”) that later became the play, The Glass Menagerie, and Dan talked about the structure of the play and its first reviews in 1944.

Josh Horvath, a sound designer from Chicago, was at the O’Neill Center to handle sound design for one of the O’Neill productions. He described who handles what in the sound area during a production, and the difference between orchestration and sound.

Jeffrey Sweet, playwright, who worked for years in Chicago, is author of Flyovers, The Value of Names, The Action Against Sol Schuman and Class Dismissed. He also is author of the new history celebrating the O’Neill’s 50th anniversary—The O’Neill: The Transformation of the Modern American Theater (Yale University Press, 2014).

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Waterford Beach Park at the O’Neill Center

Matt Wolf, theater critic for the International New York Times and formerly for the International Herald-Tribune. He’s a Yank, based in London, so he regaled us with tales of the London theater scene. He also was an excellent person to work with on critiques of our reviews.

Linda Winer, theater critic for Newsday, and formerly critic for the Chicago Tribune, provided a wealth of information about the role of the critic.

William Grimes writes for the New York Times, where he was chief food critic from 1999 until 2004. He told us his personal rules for the colleagues who accompanied him on his food adventures (everyone orders something different, don’t eat slowly, make at least three visits to the restaurant) and gave us many great insights on writing—about food and other topics.

Hedy Weiss, theater and dance critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Hedy, a former dancer, had us start our session by doing stretches on the patio outside out meeting room. We watched different types of dance videos to get a sense of how to review this art that most of us were not experienced with. We also saw and reviewed the 2013 documentary—Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq—about the great ballerina who was stricken by polio at 27 and never danced again. After years of treatment and therapy, she was able to live a vibrant and active life (confined to a wheelchair) for several decades. The film was a PBS American Masters episode and had an art house release.

Nick Wyman, president of Actors Equity and an actor in one of the National Music Theater productions.

Peter Marks, theater critic for the Washington Post. Peter was a delightful and thoughtful participant in our discussions. I learned a lot from listening to him critique our reviews.

O’Neill creatives—director, playwright, composer, lyricist and scene designer—who talked about their crafts and what pisses them off about theater reviews—and reviewers.

We saw and reviewed four of the O’Neill productions in staged reading form. By agreement with O’Neill, I’m not at liberty to discuss those in any way. Playwrights live at the O’Neill for a month and work with directors and actors in rehearsals that result in public staged readings. A similar process enables several playwrights, lyricists, and composers to develop new work in a variety of music theater genres. The O’Neill provides artistic and administrative support so that the artists can explore the material with directors, musicians, and Equity performers. Even after brief rehearsal and rewriting periods, you could see that some of these productions will definitely appear on stages or screens near you some time soon.

We also took field trips around Rhode Island and Connecticut to see and review regional theater.

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At Trinity Rep in Providence

At Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, we saw an excellent production of Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind. This veteran repertory company presented a gripping version of this Shepard play. It was my favorite performance of the two weeks.

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Elvis is in the building

At the Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton, Connecticut, we saw a so-so production of All Shook Up. The cast was enthusiastic but the quality was community-theater level.

At the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, we saw a fine production of Fiddler on the Roof. I should say, I heard a fine production. Some of us were sitting in the second-row balcony just over the stage where we had almost no view of the performance. The music was great.

At Connecticut Repertory Theatre on the UConn campus in Storrs, we saw Leslie Uggams in a bizarre production of Gypsy. Bizarre because she was so miscast in the role. The theater trumpeted the production as the first time an African-American actor was cast in an Equity production of Gypsy with a multiracial cast. Many of the cast members were quite capable, but, unfortunately, Uggams was about 20 years past her time for this show. For the story to work, Mama Rose should be in her 40s or maybe early 50s but Uggams is in her 70s—and not a frisky 70. The actor who played her love interest was nearly comatose—either from shock or lack of direction.

By the end of two weeks, we were all sleep-deprived but exhilarated from the intellectual and creative experience. We worked straight through from Saturday thru Friday 14 days later, with one day off.

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Bobby B’s for a great breakfast

To make up for the relatively awful food in the campus cafeteria where we ate most of our meals, we had a few good food excursions. To Bobby B’s Deli, a short walk from our dorm, where we had amazing egg-on-bagel sandwiches. To a tavern in Ivoryton, where I had a sensational lobster roll. To Ocean Pizza in New London, for a fried scallop grinder that was mmm-mmm but too much to eat. To Azu in Mystic for some sophisticated casual food. To an Italian café in East Haddam for a pre-show dinner. And home again to eat my own cooking. Delicious.

 

 

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Jersey Boys: It could have been a rock and roll joy ride

At this moment, I’m sitting in the Providence airport, waiting for my delayed flight home after spending two weeks on the shore in Connecticut. That’s why I haven’t posted anything recently at Nancy’s Journal. While I was there, I saw and reviewed Clint Eastwood’s film Jersey Boys, an adaptation of the smash hit stage musical.  The film is showing on some Chicago screens, and here’s my review.

Jersey Boys is a jukebox musical about kids who found a way out of their deadend lives through music: a rock and roll escape route. The 1950s and ‘60s pop music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons—with songs like “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry”—makes this otherwise mediocre film a pleasurable musical experience.

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“Jersey Boys” poster courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Jersey Boys tells the story in semi-documentary style of the kids who grew up on the streets of New Jersey in towns like Newark and Belleville. There was no way out of the deadend lives their parents lived as barbers, laborers or tradesmen—unless you hooked up with the mob or became a superstar. Becoming the next Frank Sinatra was every Jersey boy’s dream in the 1950s.

Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) forms a trio (between prison stints) but the band is going nowhere, playing small clubs and banquet halls. They need a strong lead singer. Tommy finds Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young), who has a powerful falsetto voice, and asks him to join the band. Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), the bass player, rounds out the quartet.

The group plays under different names, including The Four Lovers and The Romans, but their career still flounders—until they meet Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), the songwriter and keyboard player they need. The boys rename themselves The Four Seasons.

Desperate for a record contract, they meet Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), a producer at the iconic Brill Building, where so many recording careers start. Tommy, who considers himself the band’s business manager, uses some sketchy connections to borrow the money they need for a recording session. They get help from their consigliore, Gyp DeCarlo (the marvelously eccentric Christopher Walken) and their first records are produced.

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The Brill Building. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“Sherry” is their first #1 single, followed by several more million-selling hits. Frankie Valli (who has now changed his name) and the Four Seasons play big-time clubs and venues and appear on the Ed Sullivan Show.

The boys think they are rich, but all is not well on the business front. They’ve made the mistake of letting Tommy manage the band with no advisers paying attention to the contracts they sign. (Or don’t sign. The “New Jersey contract” is a handshake.)

The Four Seasons took the same path followed by many young musicians in the days before they learned they needed lawyers and business managers who worked for them. The Chess brothers in Chicago lured Mississippi bluesmen Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to sign contracts that gave them fancy cars and minimal royalties. (Hence, the nickname for Chess Records was Cadillac Records.) Young musicians like the Beatles in the 1960s and Bruce Springsteen in the 1970s were taken advantage of by their managers, earned modest record incomes, and lost the publishing rights to their own music for decades.

Despite their recording success, the Four Seasons split up when Gaudio and Valli decide they can make more progress and better creative decisions on their own. (They formed the Four Seasons Partnership, which still controls the assets of the band.)

Family traumas and tragedies fill out the story of the band and its music. In one final scene, we see Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (aged, in badly done makeup), reunited in 1990 for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

As the film credits roll, the band members and entire cast engage in a street dancing scene, including faux curtain calls.

Director Clint Eastwood has chosen to give the film a look of faded glitter and glamour and the acting doesn’t add to the luster of the film. John Lloyd Young as Valli is wooden and generally expressionless. Piazza is livelier as Tommy and makes you believe that he might be able to talk himself out of trouble. Bergen’s Gaudio character is at first quiet and serious as a musician and he was probably the most intelligent of the four—and proved it by engineering the split and partnership with Valli.

Valli and Gaudio are among the executive producers of Jersey Boys and are reported to have had total control over the film. But they’re musicians. How could they forget to do a sound check? The sound quality of the film is below average and that spoils its best feature.

Still, the 2.25 hour film is worth seeing if you want to listen to the jukebox of the 1960s. As a rock and roll escape route, Jersey Boys can’t find its way down the New Jersey turnpike.

 

 

 

 


Theater musings: Politics and family

I’ve seen and reviewed a couple of plays and other events since last week and I have a few opinions I want to get off my mind. You won’t be hearing from me for a couple of weeks because I’m going to a very exciting writers’ program. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.

Death and the Maiden at Victory Gardens

VG-Sandra Oh, John JuddA gripping political play by Ariel Dorfman, set in a country “that is probably Chile,” in the time after the regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet.  See my brief review on Gapers Block, which links to my original detailed version on theandygram.com.

Death and the Maiden, starring Sandra Oh in a strong and nuanced performance, runs thru July 20 at Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N Lincoln Ave.

The Late Henry Moss at The Artistic Home

I tweeted a link to my review on Gapers Block, with this comment: “You think your family is obnoxious? See what a Sam Shepard family is like.” A very good production of a play that is not for the faint of heart. The Artistic Home cast is talented and the acting solid. Their productions are reliably so.

The Late Henry Moss by Sam Shepard runs until August 3 at the Artistic Home, 1376 W Grand Ave.

Charles Ives Take Me Home at Strawdog Theatre

This play, now closed, got excellent reviews. The two lead performers give fine performances and are also solid at their respective talents: music and basketball. The father, a violinist, doesn’t understand his daughter’s obsession with basketball. The daughter, a basketball player, doesn’t understand why her father thinks music is the only thing that matters in life. The conversation and interplay is entertaining, but the plot doesn’t hang together. At the end of the 80-minute play, I thought, well, ok, did I just waste an evening or what?

If I had been reviewing this play, I would have given it two stars or “somewhat recommended,” as several reviewers did. And others gave it three or four stars.

And one more thing….

Chinatownposter1Chinatown. A movie review, for your home viewing. Have you seen Roman Polanski’s Chinatown in the 40 years since you first saw it in a movie theater? This 1974 film is absolutely brilliant. Every single detail–of clothing, behavior, autos, and clues to the mystery–is perfect and perfectly positioned. And of course, superb performances by Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston make it as astonishing film.

I liked it when I first saw it, but in recent years, I’ve learned a lot about filmmaking and directing (thank you, Roger Ebert!) and I was able to get even more out of it. Chinatown is available streaming on Netflix or, of course, on DVD. Next time you’re looking for a great movie to watch, choose this one!

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Theater to feed my obsessions: Bombs, dystopia and technology

I have a few obsessions and they’re probably baffling or inscrutable to most of my friends and relatives. If you’re a rock music fan, you’ll understand my Bruce Springsteen obsession. But my obsessions with the Spanish Civil War, technology and dystopian societies, and the genius physicists who created that engine of doom, the first atomic bomb, are a little weird, I admit. I’m not going to try to explain them here. But I don’t miss a chance to read about, or see dramatizations of, those topics. And that explains why I really liked a few of the plays I’ve reviewed and seen lately.

The Half Life of Memory by Cold Basement Dramatics

GB-HalfLifeofMemoryThose genius physicists—Oppenheimer, Fermi, Einstein and Teller—do a song and dance number in this memory play now being performed by a small theater company at the city’s Storefront Theater on Randolph Street. The protagonist is a retired physicist suffering from dementia, who dreams that his memory is radioactive and will allow him to create the next huge weapon of mass destruction. Edward Teller eggs him on, while the other physicists are less sanguine about the idea.

Cold Basement Dramatics does a good job with this difficult topic. Mark Maxwell plays the protagonist in an intelligent and graceful style and the rest of the cast is very good too.

Here’s the opening of my Gapers Block review:

 “Our memories can beguile us, deceive us, even betray us. On the other hand, we also create those deceptions by repressing memories and even creating memories that never existed. The Half Life of Memory, Jason Lindner’s fascinating new work produced by Cold Basement Dramatics, is a memory play… with a bang.”

Playwright Lindner created the character based on a relative who was one of the Manhattan Project physicists. The play has some rough edges but is definitely worth your time and interest.

The Half Life of Memory runs thru June 29 at the Storefront Theatre, 66 E Randolph St. Tickets are cheap too!

Tyrant by Sideshow Theatre Company

GB-TyrantTyrant shows us how a future society has solved the problem of homelessness and unemployment. Sideshow presents a dystopian future in this world premiere play by Kathleen Akerley and they do a decent job with it. The topic and treatment are interesting, and this kind of risk-taking deserves an audience. (My rating was “somewhat recommended.”)

This is how my Gapers Block review starts:

“Here’s a solution for the problem of homelessness. Gather up the homeless and give them the choice of joining the military, leaving the country, or moving to a center for special training. The latter group is assigned to wealthy people to perform household and personal chores. In Sideshow Theatre Company’s Tyrant, Congress does that one year from now with the US Rectification Act, which allows “rectifees” to be “actualized” by the presumably well-intentioned 1 percent (or perhaps 10 percent).”

 Tyrant runs through June 29 at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont.

Ask Aunt Susan at Goodman Theatre

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Alex Stage and Marc Grapey at the Hole in the Wall Bar.

The play in Goodman’s smaller theater space is a modernized version of Nathanael West’s novella, Miss Lonelyhearts. Rather than being a 1930s newspaper advice columnist, our protagonist is a young man who creates content and code for an internet company. His boss, the funny, fiendish Steve, asks him to start giving advice online to readers who write in with their problems. This becomes a huge success almost immediately, but Aunt Susan doesn’t know how to handle his fame. Nor does his girlfriend Betty. But Steve and his partner/wife Lydia do and they move Aunt Susan to version 2.0.

Ask Aunt Susan has gotten a few negative reviews but most are in the “recommended” category, as mine was. The 90-minute play has some flaws and needs some work, but it’s great fun and asks us to question how we maintain our lives today. Plus Marc Grapey’s performance as Steve is not to be missed. Grapey is a terrific comic actor and does a four-star job in this play.

My Gapers Block review wonders:

“Ask Aunt Susan… is a smart, funny 90-minute tear through today’s era of digital connections and a cri de coeur for a slower pace and a little more humanity in our personal relationships. Or is it?”

 Ask Aunt Susan runs through June 22 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn St.

I also interviewed playwright Seth Bockley about his thinking on internet obsessions, generational differences, and how he visualizes a play while writing it. Read it here.

Vieux Carré at Raven Theatre

NSBJ-VieuxCarreThis haunting Tennessee Williams play presents many of the themes of his other works. Loneliness. Failed dreams. Artistic awakening. Poverty. Homosexuality. This is one of Williams’ late plays, written in 1977, and it addresses those themes as he did in better-known works such as The Glass Menagerie and Streetcar Named Desire. This play deserves to be better known. Vieux Carré deals with The Writer (Ty Olwin) as a young man newly arrived in New Orleans and trying to sort out his creative and romantic life, while living in a rooming house in the French Quarter. The denizens of the rooming house suffer poverty, hunger and lost love.

Raven Theatre does reliably high quality work and this play is no exception. The two-act, two-hour play directed by Cody Estle is beautifully handled. Mrs Wire (Joanne Montemurro) owns the boarding house and handles her turn from mean-spirited landlady to grieving her own loss beautifully. She tells The Writer, “There’s so much loneliness in this house that you can hear it.”

Veteran Chicago actor Will Casey plays Nightingale, a gay artist who is dying of tuberculosis and mourning his unsuccessful career. He tries to introduce the younger man to a new love and life style, which The Writer seems to resist. The relationship between the two actors ebbs and flows until its tragic end.

Vieux Carré runs at Raven Theatre Company, 6157 N Clark St, thru June 28.

And a few favorite movies

Hairy Who & the Chicago Imagists

hairywho_coverDo you remember the artists known as the Hairy Who from the ‘60s and ‘70s? They were outrageous and confrontational and their work was vividly colored and luridly graphic. You can relive your past art memories in this outstanding documentary, which I just reviewed. It’s having limited showings but you’ll be able to see it in late September at the Gene Siskel Film Center. I’m going to see it again.

Obvious Child

I saw this excellent indie film last month at the Music Box during the Chicago Critics Film Festival. And now it’s back and showing at several local theaters. It’s directed by Gillian Robespierre and stars Jenny Slate as a young woman standup comic who gets pregnant in a drunken one-night stand (that turns into a tender romance). The performances are excellent, the script is raunchy and fun. Most interesting, the concept of abortion gets rational consideration; it’s not treated as an idea that dare not be mentioned. This is the first film I’ve seen that takes this approach and it’s refreshingly natural and naturalistic. I highly recommend seeing Obvious Child.

NOTE: All photos courtesy of the theater or production companies. 


Chicago in Words and Music: Kogan to Springsteen

NSBJ-printersrowlitfestlogoA sunny Saturday afternoon at the Printers Row Lit Fest, now in its 30th year. At Center Stage on Dearborn Street (mercifully under a tent roof), Rick Kogan told meandering shaggy dog stories about Chicago neighborhoods, such as Uptown and Englewood. His stories were accompanied by Chicagoan (and émigré from Wales) Jon Langford on acoustic guitar. As a bonus, there were harmonica harmonies and more readings by Martin Billheimer, who often performs with Langford.

Kogan told about going to a Bruce Springsteen concert at the Uptown Theatre in 1980 (oh, how I wish I had joined him), which lasted oh, three, four or five hours—and about the 1907 opening of what became the Green Mill nightclub in 1909. He described the movie studios that opened on Argyle Street in 1907.

Kogan told stories about his father Herman (a Chicago newspaperman and city biographer) and Paddy Bauler. 43rd ward alderman and saloon keeper. Bauler is the guy who said, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform” in 1955 after Richard J Daley beat a “goo-goo” candidate (good government in Chicago parlance) to win his first term as mayor.

NSBJ-baulerparkI love the fact that Bauler Park at Wisconsin and Cleveland streets in his old ward is named for Matthias “Paddy” Bauler, who served 34 years in the Chicago city council.

Langford and Billheimer played a rousing version of “The Sidewalks of Chicago” and other songs. (“Sidewalks” is a song by Dave Kirby and recorded by Merle Haggard.) Billheimer read an excerpt from an essay by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano from the compilation Armitage Avenue Fundamentalists.

Kogan also told about visiting a school in Englewood a few years ago with Matt Damon, who was recording speakers for the documentary The People Speak, narrated by the late historian Howard Zinn and based on his book, A People’s History of the United States. Here’s a video of Zinn introducing and Sandra Oh reading from Emma Goldman on patriotism.

And finally, as my special treat for today, here’s a Bruce Springsteen excerpt from The People Speaks. He tells about how he came to write “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and performs the song on guitar and harmonica. (As my friends and Bruce fans say, there’s a Bruce Springsteen lyric or song that enhances any topic or occasion.)

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May mashup: My pop culture diary

Busy end-of-May at Nancy’s house. House guests, including two perfectly darling grandsons, and a family wedding at a grand venue. So I haven’t seen much theater since the last time we chatted. Still, there were a few great movies, one so-so play, and news about a new website that I’m writing for. You’ll find some TV recs too.

 First, some architecture notes 

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South Shore Cultural Center. Photo courtesy Chicago Park District

A lakefront wedding. The wedding was at the beautiful South Shore Cultural Center, right on the lakefront at 71st Street. It was originally a private country club and it’s now part of the Chicago Park District. If you haven’t been there, it is simply lovely and worth a visit. If you’re planning an event, it should be on your list of venues.

The country club, built in 1906, was designed by Marshall and Fox, who designed the Drake and Blackstone Hotels. It was expanded in 1916, also by Marshall and Fox. (Benjamin Marshall also designed the elegant Beaux Arts apartment building at 1550 N State Parkway.) The wedding ceremony was held in the beautiful solarium, looking out at the lake, and then we moved to a reception hall for champagne and greetings, and finally to the dining room. You can see some CPD photos here.

An architecture scavenger hunt. If you’re a fan of Chicago’s Loop architecture, you should sign up for the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s scavenger hunt next Saturday afternoon, June 7. The game starts and ends at the Railway Exchange Building at 224 S Michigan; there’ll be an awards reception in the grand atrium. You’ll find the details in my story on Gapers Block.

Theater notes

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Photo by Michael Brosilow.

M Butterfly at Court Theatre. The script by David Henry Hwang is marvelous, very smart and well-written. I thought the Court production left a little to be desired—it was a bit flat. The reviews were definitely mixed from “not recommended” to “highly recommended.” I imagine director Charles Newell might have taken some notes and spiffed up his production since then. The play tells the amazing story of the French diplomat who was deceived for 20 years by a male opera star posing as a female diva. Despite my review, I do recommend a trip to Hyde Park.

Here’s my review; my rating was “somewhat recommended.”

TheAndyGram.com.  This is a New York-based theater website that covers Broadway, off-Broadway, Washington, Connecticut and, now, Chicago. My first review (of Cock at Profiles Theatre) is now up on theandygram.com. See it here. It’s a terrific show and I highly recommend it. It runs until June 29; details are at the end of my review.

My headline is “… A Riveting Play That Explores All the Meanings of Its Title.” Here’s how my review begins:

Cock is a play title you very rarely find in a theater review headline. I’m hoping that’s because of fear of internet anti-obscenity filters, rather than puritanism on the part of copy editors. The play by Mike Bartlett is a comedy about sexual identity, a love triangle and a power play among three characters: John, a bisexual who is fighting to discover his identity; M and W, his lovers, who battle each other and John himself to determine the course of their lives.

Movies I loved…or at least liked

The Normal Heart. HBO’s production of Larry Kramer’s play about the early years of the AIDS epidemic is excellent. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I had read enough about the production, and the playwright’s involvement, to be optimistic that its edges wouldn’t be softened. And they weren’t. We needed to be reminded about the terror of the disease first known as “gay cancer.” And to be reminded that the war is not over. The tagline, “To win a war, you have to start one,” is an ideal descriptor.

The acting is excellent. Mark Ruffalo plays a very believable Ned Weeks (Larry Kramer) and there are terrific performances by Julia Roberts, Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer. I originally saw the play off-Broadway in about 1985 and Timeline Theatre did an excellent production last year. I highly recommend the HBO film. Here’s the trailer.

Stoker and Blue Velvet. My film group discussed Stoker last week and we’re discussing Blue Velvet soon. They are both excellent films and each is weird, creepy and outrageous in its own way.

Stoker (2013, 99 minutes) is the first English-language film by the Korean director, Chan-Wook Park. (He directed the so-called vengeance trilogy, which includes Oldboy.) His title is surely meant to remind us of Bram Stoker, who created Dracula, but Stoker is just a family name. A family whose father is killed in a mysterious auto accident, whose daughter ( Mia Wasikowska) is obsessed with hunting and saddle shoes, and whose mother (Nicole Kidman) can’t get her daughter to love her. But at the funeral, an uncle (Matthew Goode) appears out of nowhere and befriends mother and daughter. The story is a bit of a takeoff on an Alfred Hitchcock film, Shadow of a Doubt, about a young girl’s relationship with her serial-killer uncle. Stoker has lots of strange and beautiful cinematography and features a psychologically steamy piano duet of Philip Glass music.

If you stay up late or get up early or set your DVR, HBO is showing Stoker June 1 at 3:20am CT.

Blue Velvet (1986, 120 minutes) is an early David Lynch film, before Twin Peaks. The weirdness is set off when an earnest young man (Kyle MacLachlan) finds a severed human ear in a field as he’s walking home. The plot revolves around his boy detective attempts to solve a mystery with a very young Laura Dern as his co-star. Isabelle Rossellini is a nightclub singer who performs “Blue Velvet” and Dennis Hopper is her crazed tormentor, who uses a mask to breathe in gas to energize his crimes.

Roger Ebert hated this film so much that he gave it one star in 1986. He and Gene Siskel disagreed on it, however. (When it was revived 20 years later, one reviewer said it was still “a hilarious, red-hot poker to the brain.”) Here’s a clip of the “At the Movies” review from 1986. Go to 2:35 to see Roger and Gene debate the film.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction

Yes, tonight is the night that we can see the E Street Band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their frontman, Bruce Springsteen, was inducted in 1999. The induction ceremony took place in April but tonight is the three-hour-plus event, with all the honorees, along with a bunch of special guests performing. The band is being inducted in a category that used to be known as sidemen and now is called the Award for Musical Excellence.

Other inductees are Peter Gabriel, Nirvana, Hall and Oates, KISS, Linda Ronstadt and Cat Stevens. Artists are eligible for the Rock Hall 25 years after their first recording. Rock Hall members (including me) voted for a list of eligible musicians and then the panel of judges picks the inductees. My DVR is already set.


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