On stage in Chicago: Dead cats and Irish playwrights

I’ve written about films and filmmakers a lot lately but I have seen a few interesting plays as well. Here are some quick reviews and links to my Gapers Block reviews.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore by Aston Rep

You can see this Martin McDonagh play through November 23. And it’s worth your time to head GB-LieutenantofInishmorenorth on Clark Street to Raven Theatre’s venue just north of Peterson. The setting is the island of Inishmore in Galway in 1993 and a little background in Irish history helps. I included some background in my review, in which I gave the play four stars—a highly recommended rating.

Here’s how my Gapers Block review begins:

“Four dead fellas, two dead cats … me hairstyle ruined! Did I miss anything?”
That’s the culmination of Martin McDonagh’s grisly black comedy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, now being crisply staged by Aston Rep at the Raven Theatre.

A Bright Room Called Day by Spartan Theatre Company

GB-Husz-Agnes-thumb-240x240-15953This early Tony Kushner play also runs through November 23 at CIC Theatre on Irving Park Road. I was eager to see this because I admire Kushner’s writing. And poetic language and intriguing political comments do illuminate this story, set in 1932-33 Berlin. It was the end of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of Hitler’s National Socialism. Unfortunately, Kushner inserts 1982 interludes in which a contemporary woman castigates the Reagan administration and compares it to the Hitler era. I’m no fan of Ronald Reagan but this was more than a little overwrought. I also thought the two-act play ran too long at 2.5 hours. All in all, I couldn’t give this production more than two stars—somewhat recommended.

Nevertheless, you may find it interesting. The Berlin scenes and the developing political awareness of the artists who populate those scenes are compelling. The devil and the ghost character plus the strident 1982 commenter…not so much.

In my review, I commented, “there are usually reasons why a rarely performed play is rarely performed. A Bright Room Called Day is such an example. Even Shakespeare wrote a few turkeys.”

The Night Alive at Steppenwolf Theatre

This Conor McPherson play runs thru this weekend at Steppenwolf. You can see it through Sunday, November 16. I’ve rhapsodized before here and here about how much I like Irish playwrights and writers. Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson are two of my favorites. The Night Alive is a shining example.

The Night Alive is a lovely play about caring for others, about both good and bad people. There’s poetic language that would seem inappropriate if it wasn’t coming from Irish characters. The play is beautifully acted and sharply directed. If you’re looking for something to do this weekend, I can recommend this highly.

I didn’t write a formal review of this, but I will be reviewing McPherson’s Shining City in early December at the Irish Theatre of Chicago (formerly Seanachai Theatre).

Don Juan in Hell at Shaw Chicago

GB-George_Bernard_Shaw_1925-NobelShaw Chicago produces “reader theater” versions of plays by another great Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, and occasionally his compatriots. Some of the productions utilize costumes and makeup but the staging is always actors with their scripts on music stands. They produced an excellent version of Don Juan in Hell, a ~90-minute excerpt from Shaw’s Man and Superman. You can check out my review here: The Devil Wore Red Sneakers.

Watch for their future productions of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Shaw’s Major Barbara.



Films and filmmakers: Surrealism and horror stories

This week this cineaste* had two outstanding film experiences. One was with one of my favorite filmmakers and the other was a Halloween horror story.

* Michael Phillips called himself a cineaste in the Tribune today, so I can too. That’s a little more pretentious that calling yourself a cinephile or movie nut, but I like it.

Guy Maddin, madman filmmaker

Wednesday night Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin was at the MCA theater in a Chicago Humanities Festival event. The packed house of film students and film fans hung on his every word and appreciated his frankness and engaging humor. I have loved his bizarre films since I first saw The Saddest Music in the World. The chance to see him in person was impossible to resist.


Coleman and Maddin at the MCA. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Maddin is probably best known for two films, The Saddest Music in the World (2003), a Depression-era story about a beer baroness with glass legs played by Isabella Rossellini, and My Winnipeg (2009), an homage and “surrealist mockumentary” to his hometown. He also has made many short films and creates film installations.

As I said in my Gapers Block article, Maddin looked like a perfectly normal and sane person, but I hoped that didn’t mean we were in for a quiet evening of intelligent discussion. Then Maddin said his major film influences were David Lynch and Luis Bunuel and my brain exploded. Bunuel, the Spanish surrealist, is one of my favorite filmmakers. In fact, I’m going to lead a discussion on his work for my film group next month. I have recently rewatched a lot of David Lynch films, including Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. The Bunuel/Lynch combination is mind-bending.

Maddin talked nonstop and was sort of interviewed by Charles Coleman from Facets. The conversation veered all over Maddin’s personal bio and film viewing and film making habits. He’s a great fan of silent films and is committed to saving or recreating lost films. Coleman showed two of Maddin’s short films, including The Heart of the World. See my Gapers Block article for more about Maddin and his work.

Maddin said he’s now reading Greek tragedies, which he thought would be boring … “but they’re like Mexican comic books!” He also lately has become obsessed with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. (Aren’t we all?)

Confession of a diarist

I went to see Guy Maddin because I like his work. I had no intention of writing about it. (Except when you’re a diarist or blogger, all of life is raw material.) I’ve been to a couple of author events lately that I fully intended to write about and the authors said nothing of interest. (I’m talking to you, Junot Diaz. And you, Thomas Dyja and Neil Steinberg.) But Maddin started strong and never stopped. I have 12 pages of scribbled notes in my notebook and I could hardly keep up with him. The evening was exhilarating.

Halloween horror story

It was Halloween night at the Symphony Center. The audience was a little different than the everyday CSO audience. Many were in costumes and weird makeup. Many were not. I wore my everyday costume of jeans and a Springsteen shirt.

NSB-DRCALIGARI-posterThe CSO was hosting one of its special movie night concerts. The film was Robert Wiene’s 1920 film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, with site-specific music performed by the punky organist Cameron Carpenter. He played a stirring score on a massive digital organ set center stage under the giant movie screen. Carpenter says he is the first concert organist to prefer the digital organ to the pipe organ. His touring instrument is a “monumental cross-genre organ” built to his own design specs.

The film, which I’ve seen several times in the past, was a marvel to see on the big screen. It’s dazzlingly expressionistic with jagged lines, angled shapes, trees with spiky leaves, tilted walls and windows. It’s black and white, of course, but tints suggest daytime or night. The distorted sets are obviously two-dimensional, rather than real sets, but the effects are remarkable for the time.

The Dr Caligari story is about madmen and murder, delusions and deception. The expressionistic visual style surely paved the way for films like Metropolis, Nosferatu and M and inspired filmmakers like Fritz Lang and F W Murnau.

There must be different cuts of the film because its length is variously listed from 50 to 67 minutes. The CSO version was about 65 minutes. This version of the film on YouTube is 51 minutes.

In researching this, I also found a valuable archive of silent films in the public domain. Check out some you’re familiar with and find new ones, maybe even some of Guy Maddin’s lost films.

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Wisconsin road trip: Art, architecture and, of course, food

It was a crisp, sunny October Friday. Three of us (all former architectural docents) gathered at a hotel parking lot in Deerfield and headed north for Racine, an epicenter for devotees of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture (in case you thought Oak Park was the only place to see his work). We had an afternoon reservation to tour the S C Johnson world headquarters, most of which was designed by Wright. We had all seen the best-known Administration Building (1939) before, but now the Research Tower (1950) and Fortaleza Hall (2010) also were open for public tours. (All photos by Nancy Bishop, except the Great Workroom photo, which is a WikiCommons image.)

Starting from Deerfield, it was only about an hour until we reached Racine. Our friend Donna had already zeroed in on a lunch spot, the Kewpee Sandwich Shop. Their specialty was plain but delicious burgers and cheeseburgers (or double versions of each) plus French fries—and best of all—real old-fashioned malteds and milkshakes. The Kewpee Sandwich Shop is a throwback, with an art-deco exterior and wall tile bannered with kewpees. Its history can be traced back to a Kewpee Hamburger chain founded in 1923. It was a great lunch.

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We were a little early for our tour so we drove around Racine hunting for a famous FLW house. We found the Thomas P Hardy house at 1319 S Main St. Wright designed it in 1905. A renovation was completed in 2013.

The tour begins at the S C Johnson tour center in the Golden Rondelle Theater, originally built as the S C Johnson pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1965-65. After the fair, the Rondelle was dismantled and shipped back to Racine, where it was redesigned by Taliesin Associates, the firm formed by Wright’s apprentices after his death.

Our tour group had a brief orientation and then walked to the Administration Building, setting of Wright’s Great Workroom, an high-ceilinged open office space furnished with Wright-designed office furniture. Our tour guide, Edsel, was well-informed and answered even our most docent-ish arcane questions. (I hate it when a tour guide makes mistakes and I have to decide whether to correct them or not.)

We then walked over to the Research Tower, designed by Wright for the Johnson R&D department to develop products like Pledge furniture polish and Off insect repellent. The building is built in floor stacks with a central utility core but hasn’t been used in many years, since changes in fire safety codes make its use impossible. The 15-storey building has only one tiny elevator so workers and visitors climb 29-inch-wide winding stairs to get to the lab floors that are open—and frozen in time, as if the Johnson chemists were on a lunch break. The office and lab supplies and papers on the desks and lab tables are as interesting as the architecture.

The final stop on the tour is Fortaleza Hall, designed by Foster & Partners (the photos on the firm’s website are spectacular). This 2010 building includes expansive space for historical exhibits about the company plus an area known as the Commons for employee amenities. In the building’s main hall is a replica of the twin-engine Sikorsky amphibian plane that Sam Johnson flew to Fortaleza, Brazil, in 1998, to find Carnauba palms for Johnson wax products.

If you go to Racine, you should also visit Wingspread, a magnificent 14,000 square-foot home that Wright designed in 1936 for H F Johnson Jr. You can book a tour at the website. We toured Wingspread on an earlier visit.

Leaving the S C Johnson area, we took a drive along the beautiful lakefront, with park and recreation areas. It’s close to the Racine Art Museum on Main Street in downtown Racine. RAM is a small museum in a modern building with well-designed exhibits and a gift shop stocked with a fine array of art and design products.

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On the second level of RAM, we toured two excellent exhibits. Wayne Higby’s ceramics have a strong southwestern feel in palette and form. I particularly liked the landscape pieces that reminded me of the mesas in southwest Colorado. Wendy Wallen Malinow’s glass sculptures have a vivid playful look.

The gift shop yielded small purchases for all of us. I’m especially fond of the clever windup toys that I know my small grandsons will enjoy. Patience, kids, I’ll be there at Thanksgiving.

It wasn’t quite time to go home yet. We had more food stops to make. We decided to head for everyone’s favorite Danish bakery, O&H Bakery, to check out the kringle. As a former Wisconsinite, I’ve had them before. (You can buy them in Chicago; Treasure Island usually carries them.) We thought buying them at the source might be great, but in fact, they were disappointing. My cream-cheese kringle was just too sweet and the pastry wasn’t flaky. The croissants were fine, however.

Last stop was the famous Brat Stop in Kenosha, to have a quick supper before heading south. And to buy some fresh bratwurst to cook at home. I did that next day, along with a small batch of the family Bohemian sauerkraut. Excellent combination.

A trip to Racine is a great day trip or an overnight stay. You can visit the S C Johnson headquarters and Wingspread as well as RAM. S C Johnson tours (limited to 20 people) are free but reservations are required. See tour information here. Note that you can take photos of the building exteriors but interior photography is not allowed.


Two men on screen at CIFF: Birdman and Algren reviews

The Chicago International Film Festival is a wealth of great and, if not so great, at least very intriguing, filmmaking from all over the world. I’m not through using my CIFF tickets this year, but here are two terrific films I wanted to tell you about.

Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, 119 minutes 

NSB-Birdman_posterI saw Birdman Saturday night, the only night it was shown at the festival.  This is sort of a preliminary review of Birdman because I’m still thinking about this very creative piece of filmmaking. Is it the film of the year? Maybe. It’s an hypnotic film, partly because of the amazing cinematography. It’s also the most wildly creative film I’ve seen in a long time. Joyous, high energy, madly manic … and sad.

I loved all the long tracking shots following actors down the backstage corridors of old theaters, mainly the St. James Theatre on 44th Street. Actually, it was probably the backstage theater nature of this film that made me like it so much. The street scenes in the theater district and from the theater roof were fabulous. In one scene, the Edison Hotel on 47th Street, where I stayed last year, makes a cameo.

The performances by Michael Keaton and Edward Norton are gnarly, gritty and masterful. (Norton’s performance made me go back and watch Fight Club again. A great film, but not a fun film. It’s one that gives you a lot to chew on.) There’s been some criticism about Birdman’s plot and about Keaton’s character, the unravelling actor whose success is in the past. But there is substance to the film in Riggan’s angst about his career and his life and how he approaches regenerating both. I don’t agree with David Edelstein that this is an “empty masterpiece” or “a triumph of vacuous virtuosity.” Most critics gave it high praise. But okay, we can say it’s not Hamlet. I do want to see it again soon. The film opens Thursday the 23rd.

Algren, directed by Michael Caplan, 87 minutes

This excellent documentary about icon of the Chicago literary underworld Nelson Algren was directed by Chicago filmmaker Michael Caplan. It’s a fine film with interviews with many interesting artists and journalists he inspired.  Ernest Hemingway, an Algren admirer, said he was second only to William Faulkner as a literary giant. The film comes alive with a treasure trove of black and white photos by Art Shay, the great Chicago freelance photographer who shot for Life, Time, Sports Illustrated and many other national magazines. Shay and Algren met in 1949 and collaborated on many projects over rhe years.  Shay took photos of Simone de Beauvoir, the French feminist writer who became Algren’s lover and spent time with him in his Wabansia Avenue apartment (when she wasn’t in Paris with Jean Paul Sartre). Among other things, we learn that Nelson and Simone “fucked in Stuart Brent’s bookstore.”

The fascinating interviews in Caplan’s film include Studs Terkel, musicians Billy Corgan and Wayne Kramer, filmmakers John Sayles, Wiliam Friedkin and Philip Kauffman, Northwestern professor Bill Savage, journalist Rick Kogan and photographer Shay.

Algren wrote Man with the Golden Arm, A Walk on the Wild Side, The Neon Wilderness and the marvelously poetic book of essays, Chicago: City on the Make. Algren never gained the reputation that his writing deserved because he wrote about bums, drunks, junkies and prostitutes–the denizens of the neighborhood he loved centered around Damen and Division streets in the mid-20th century. (I’m glad Algren isn’t around to see what that neighborhood is like now.)

The film features music and music direction by Wayne Kramer of the Detroit rock group MC5 and a closing song to “Chicago” by Billy Corgan. Check out the trailer for the film. It surely will show up at the Gene Siskel Film Center or the Music Box.



Mini-reviews from October stages

Here are brief reviews of plays I’ve seen in the last 10 days. For details and ticket information on any of them, go to theatreinchicago.com and select Review Roundup.


Both Your Houses at Remy Bumppo

By Maxwell Anderson. See it thru November 9

This Maxwell Anderson play is a political charmer, set in 1932. The shenanigans involve the House of Representatives budget committee alternatively cutting expenditures or ensuring that members’ favorite pork projects are funded. A brand new Congressman tries to change everything. Anderson wrote it in frustration with the Hoover administration and its lack of response to the Depression. Remy Bumppo’s production sparkles with terrific performances and a lovely set on the second floor mainstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Here’s their trailer.


Danny Casolaro Died for You at Timeline Theatre

By Dominic Orlando. See it thru December 21.

GB-Timeline-DannyThe names and events are vaguely familiar, if you were consuming political news in the 1980s and ’90s. Iran-contra. BCCI (“the world’s sleaziest bank,” according to a Time magazine cover). Bert Lance. The Church committee. Wackenhut Security. The CIA and Central American drug cartels. The Sandinistas. The Iran hostage crisis.

That’s how my Gapers Block review begins. The eponymous Danny is a freelance journalist who tries to put all those pieces together for a big story. The play is well acted and tensely performed. Timeline, which specializes in productions that explore history, does an excellent job, including putting the period in perspective through detailed lobby exhibits and playbill information.


Native Son at Court Theatre

By Nambi E. Kelley from the novel by Richard Wright. See it thru October 19.

nsb-nativesonNative Son, Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, is about Bigger Thomas, a young Chicago African-American man without education, money or hope. He gets a job for which he is ill-prepared, and commits murder by accident. The story is tense and disturbing. It’s also grim and depressing, because it’s describing an event 75 years in the past—and not enough change has taken place.

Nambi E. Kelley has written a spine-tingling adaptation, leaving the linear plot line of the novel behind and playing out Bigger’s story in a crisp 90-minute production. The cleverly designed setting of wooden stairs, poles and walkways by Regina Garcia really makes he play work. Seret Scott’s direction holds the story together and made me forget to miss Max, Bigger’s left-wing lawyer, whose character Kelley stripped out of her script.

Some reviewers consider Wright’s character of Bigger to be symbolic and unrealistic. I was part of a discussion group that met with playwright Kelley the night we saw the play. She told us that she had come to love and care about Bigger during the long writing process. That enabled us to care about him in her play. But the Chicago streets where black men, such as Jerod Haynes who plays Bigger, walk today are still mean streets, even though the nature of their danger has changed over the years.


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Porchlight Music Theatre

By Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. See it thru November 9.

This marvelously bloody and brilliant story never fails to delight. No sappy, sugary musical here. The new Porchlight production directed by Michael Weber at Stage 773 gets very strong performances and creative staging from this talented company. In particular, the two leads, Rebecca Finnegan as the lively Mrs. Lovett and David Girolmo as the demon barber, are superb vocally and dramatically. A very young Miles Blim plays Toby with terrific charm; he’s a high school senior in Oak Park. An excellent five-person musical group led by Doug Peck provides the Sondheim music.

The clever script is loaded with quotable lines. As Mrs. Lovett ponders what to do with the detritus of Mr. Todd’s shaving services, she thinks aloud: “Business needs a lift / Debts to be erased / Think of it as thrift, as a gift / If you get my drift. / Seems an awful waste / I mean, with the price of meat what it is.

At the end of act one, Lovett and Todd perform a delightfully homicidal “A Little Priest.” The song includes my favorite passage, which I have used in a business context to describe the M&A environment. The demon barber advises her,

“The history of the world, my sweet–
is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat!”

The recent New York Philharmonic concert presentation of Sweeney Todd uses the same Christopher Bond adaptation; it’s excellent and is available online on pbs.org. The NY Phil version is presented concert style with costuming and some props with the performers on walkways amongst the orchestra. Its highlight is Emma Thompson’s great comedic turn as Mrs. Lovett.

Here’s a trailer of the Porchlight production.


Watch on the Rhine at The Artistic Home

By Lillian Hellman. See it thru November 16.

GB-WOTRJoshua,Bodo,FannyAnother play set against an historical landscape is Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine, now on stage at The Artistic Home on Grand Avenue in Noble Square. The play, first produced in April 1941, was a warning to Americans about the growth of fascism in Europe and its potential in our own country, at a time when most Americans did not believe that. Hellman sets up a compelling pre-war conflict between two characters, both Europeans, but visiting in the US. One is a fascist and the other is an anti-fascist freedom fighter. The performances in this production are excellent and Cody Estle’s direction, including three child actors, is up to the Artistic Home standards.

See my Gapers Block review for details.



Celebrating a Springsteen Birthday: How Can This Man Be 65?

Yes, my favorite rocker has turned 65 and his Chicago-area fans celebrated with words and music last weekend at Fitzgerald’s, the blues/jazz/rock club in Berwyn. A soldout crowd of 100 filled the comfy Sidecar music room. Musicians led by guitarist Bucky Halker played solos, duets and other configurations of Springsteen music, including some rarities. But they weren’t playing covers; they were reinterpreting Springsteen’s music in interesting ways. June Sawyers and I contributed “literary” readings about Springsteen.

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Other musicians were Don Stiernberg on mandolin, Al Rose on guitar, Andrea Bunch on keyboards and guitar, John Mead on guitar, and John Abbey on upright bass. Rose did a fiery version of “Spirit in the Night” and Halker’s “Racing in the Street” and “State Trooper” were other highlights.

June read historical and profile pieces about the birthday honoree. I read* an excerpt from his SXSW keynote speech and suggested to Bruce “10 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Retire.” The group played “John Henry” as the closer.

Photos by Kaitlynn Stanger.

 * If you’re interested in receiving my readings, please leave a comment on this site with your email. Let me know which reading you want, and I’ll be happy to send it along.

Birthday tribute setlist:

State Trooper
Ghost of Tom Joad
None But the Brave
This Hard Land
Stolen Car
Growin’ Up
For You
Racing in the Street
Born to Run
Hard Times
Spirit in the Night
She’s the One
Thunder Road
Atlantic City
John Henry

“David Bowie Is” is fabulous:


Signage at the MCA gallery entrance. Photo courtesy MCA.

The new David Bowie Is exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary deserves its hype. It’s a comprehensive, expansive look at the career of a man who was a singer/songwriter, musician–and far more.  David Bowie is a painter, actor, writer, designer, composer–and most important, a man who knows how to develop and maintain a brand.

I reviewed the exhibit last week for Gapers Block, so take a look. My review also appears here on culturevulture.net.

Among the fascinating displays of Bowie’s art, designs, music and costumes is a large video display of his 1972 appearance on the BBC performing “Starman” wearing makeup and a colorful quilted fitted suit. His fans loved it and others were outraged–by his appearance as well as by what was seen as inappropriate behavior with his guitarist Mick Ronson. Here’s the same video. Don’t get excited. It’s not R rated, by any means. Great song, though.

Bowie hasn’t played a full concert since 2004 when he underwent emergency angioplasty after a concert in Germany. He often performed in Chicago during his touring years. One outstanding series of Bowie Chicago performances was the full month of August 1980 when he played the lead in the play, The Elephant Man, at the Blackstone Theatre. You can see a scene from that play in one exhibit area at the MCA.

Patrick Sisson’s article in the Reader tells about that month that Bowie called Chicago home…and describes some of the places he visited and people he spent time with while he was here.

Finally, here’s a video about the Bowie exhibit that’s a good visual intro. It’s an exhibit you should not miss.


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