Chicago had two days of almost-spring with temps above 40 last week but now winter is back in force. I just spent a few days in North Carolina, where their eight inches of snow melted very quickly. While I was there, we had three 60-degree/no-jacket days. Meanwhile, there have been lots of theater openings recently. Here are a few plays I’ve seen that you might enjoy too
In the Matter of J Robert Oppenheimer at Saint Sebastian Players
Yes, it’s talky and intellectual and it makes you think. Thinking might warm up your head. This three-hour play by the German writer Heinar Kipphardt leads us thru the Atomic Energy Commission hearing that resulted in Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” being stripped of his security clearance. This production by the Saint Sebastian Players is very good, despite some actorly flaws. The main characters are portrayed very well and the pace is engrossing. The play runs until March 9. See my Gapers Block review here, along with ticket and location details.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Porchlight Music Theatre
In the mood for some stride piano playing, lively singing and dancing by five charismatic performers to the music of Thomas “Fats” Waller? Ain’t Misbehavin’, a musical revue by Porchlight Music Theatre, is terrific and I don’t even like musicals. It’s sure to win plenty of Jeff awards.
My Gapers Block review noted that this is Porchlight’s contribution to Black History Month: a musical revue and tribute to the music of Thomas “Fats” Waller and the Harlem Renaissance. “Fats himself would be proud of this production, performed at Stage 773 with an excellent live band led by über-pianist Austin Cook.” See my review for all the logistics and production details.
Crime and Punishment at Mary-Arrchie Theatre
If you never managed to finish the Dostoyevsky book in high school or college, here’s your chance to gain a new appreciation for the character Raskolnikov and the theme of crime and guilt. Here’s how my Gapers Block review started: “Mary-Arrchie Theatre takes on a difficult task in staging this 2003 adaptation of the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel, Crime and Punishment. But with intelligent direction by Richard Cotovsky, this talented and respected off-Loop theater gives the audience a gripping 90 minutes. We meet Raskolnikov (a strong performance by Ed Porter), the poor, sickly, arrogant former law student who commits the crime, suffers guilt and psychological trauma and, finally, punishment.”
The script is the same one presented in 2003 by Writers Theatre in Glencoe on their tiny back-of-the-bookstore stage, with Scott Parkinson doing a superb job playing Raskolnikov. The novel was adapted into a play by two Chicago playwrights–Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus. The Mary-Arrchie play runs until March 16.
Judith: A Parting of the Body at Trap Door Theatre
Trap Door’s excellent production of Judith: A Parting of the Body by Howard Barker is a revisionist take on the biblical story of the Israelite widow who goes to the enemy camp to seduce General Holofernes. The language is poetic and sometimes vulgar. The three actors each play out their stories in an engrossing way.
You’ll remember the image, even if the story is not familiar. There are many famous versions of the painting often titled “Judith with the Head of Holofernes”; the one by Artemisia Gentileschi may be best known. But I have always liked the Caravaggio version best. You can see it on this Wikipedia page.
Judith has been extended so you can see it at Trap Door, the little theater space at the end of a gangway at 1650 W Cortland, until March 8.
Tribes at Steppenwolf Theatre
Tribes by Nina Raine recently ended its run at Steppenwolf. We saw it near the end of the run since we had to change our tickets from one of the deep-freeze days. The reviews of this play were mixed, varying from “somewhat ” to “highly recommended.” The story is about a family with one deaf son, who leaves the family cocoon and discovers the outside world and the deaf community. The theme isn’t new—the controversy over the benefits of sign language vs. lip-reading for the deaf–and it still demands our attention. I really wanted to like the play, but I found most of the characters unlikable and the play failed to keep me from checking my watch to see when I could leave.
And also . . . .
A film recommendation. In case you, like me, were disappointed in the reviews for The Monuments Men and decided not to see it, I’d like to recommend a good documentary that tells the story and even includes some of the real Monuments Men. The Rape of Europa, 2006, was written and directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham, with narration by Joan Allen. 117 minutes. Streaming on Netflix.
The film is drawn from the book of the same title by Lynn H Nicholas, who appears in the film; her book won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1994. One of the co-producers is Robert M Edsel, the author of the book The Monuments Men, from which the current film is adapted.
An example of transitivity. Did you know that the song, “The St Louis Blues” got its name from a street, not from the Missouri city? Ann K Powers, the NPR music critic, posted a photo on her Facebook page of a memorial plaque in Bessemer, Alabama. The W C Handy song, “Pipeshop Blues” was also known as the “St Louis Blues” for St Louis Avenue, the street that ran through the Howard-Harrison Steel Company of Bessemer.
When I shared the image on my Facebook timeline, my economist son observed that this is an example of the mathematical concept of transitivity, which is
A relation among three elements. If it holds between the first and second elements and it also holds between the second and third, it must necessarily hold between the first and third.
Could this be four-part transitivity? The song was named after a street, which was named after a city, which was named after a French king and saint, Saint Louis himself, King Louis IX of France. So song, street, city, saint.
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When I’m out in the street
I walk the way I wanna walk
When I’m out in the street
I talk the way I wanna talk
When I’m out in the street
When I’m out in the street
Baby, out in the street I don’t feel sad or blue
Baby, out in the street I’ll be waiting for you
–Bruce Springsteen, “Out in the Street” from The River, 1980
How could I resist an opportunity to start an essay with a piece of Springsteen art? It fits because I’ve recently seen two fascinating exhibits of street art and post-street art. What is post-street art? I’ll get to that in a minute.
Chicago Street Art
The street art exhibit was Paint Paste Sticker: Chicago Street Art, shown at the Chicago Cultural Center from November thru January. I stopped in to spend some time there one day and I was struck by the creativity and vibrant use of materials. There was plenty of tagging, of course, and lots of image-based art created in many media. The fact that the exhibit was housed in a city building was interesting because not too long ago, the mayor had graffiti blasters out cleaning up such creativity all over the city.
The exhibit legend noted that graffiti writing proliferated in the ‘70s with improvements in spray-can technology and moved into image-based art in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The exhibit is a “multi-ethnic, intergenerational gathering of Chicago artists, many of whom were first connected by the ‘L,’ and whose disciplines are Graffiti and Street Art.” Some of the artists whose work I noted were Zore, Traz, Thor, Risk, G.P., The Champ, Capser, Nick Adam and Flex. We may not have heard of them but they’re well known in the street art community.
Not long after that, I spent time at an exhibit of “post-street art” at the Maxwell Colette Gallery on Ashland Avenue in the Noble Square neighborhood.
Gallery director Oliver Hind defined post-street art as art that has come off the street into galleries and collections; it has almost become mainstream. I interviewed him for my Gapers Block review and we had a fascinating conversation about the art and some of the events that brought about the acceptance of street art by the gallery community. I mention these in my review: The 2008 use of a street artist’s portrait of Barack Obama as the official campaign portrait, and the 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop about the work of street artists.
The current exhibit at Maxwell Colette is the work of two post-street artists: Peeta, an internationally known painter whose beautiful crystalline work is based on letterforms; and Alecks Cruz, a Chicago artist who creates tag-like sculptures out of corrugated boxes.
The art in the two exhibits is for sale and Hild has more interesting street art for sale in his gallery and online. My heart beat faster for several of them.
You can view The Maxwell Colette exhibit through March 1. Hours are 12-6pm Wednesday through Saturday. More information in my review.
Out in the Street
The Springsteen song I quoted above has been adapted into a street ballet but so far I can’t find it online. I haven’t given up, however. I was transfixed by it at a Springsteen symposium in 2009. In place of that, as today’s treat, here’s a video of a young Bruce Springsteen singing “Out in the Street” in Paris in 1985. This is the period when he was touring on his album Born in the USA. The video includes his red-haired future wife, Patti Scialfa (they were married in 1991), and the late great Clarence Clemons in white.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s private funeral is being held today at a church in Manhattan. There will be a memorial service later. Hoffman died February 2 of a drug overdose at the age of 46.
Pete Seeger’s memorial service was held in Beacon, NY, where he lived—on the day Hoffman died. The service was a moment of quiet reflection about Seeger’s life along with plenty of his songs. He died at 94 on January 27 after being hospitalized for a few days.
I can’t help but think of the contrast between the two lives. Seeger was a singer, songwriter, political and environmental activist for more than 70 years. At 17, he joined the Young Communist League and later the Communist Party; he severed his CP ties in 1949. He started singing with the Almanac Singers in 1941; their work included antiwar and other leftwing political songs. Over the years, he was investigated by HUAC and blacklisted; sang on public television and on college campuses and coffeehouses when he couldn’t get more commercial gigs because of the blacklist. But he never quit songwriting, performing and political activism. He has a huge repertoire of songs and recordings and is considered a national treasure by the public and a role model by many current musicians, including Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello.
Hoffman was a brilliant, prolific actor with some 50 movies plus TV shows and stage performances on his resume. Recently he played Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. In 2000 he and John C Reilly performed Sam Shepard’s ultimate sibling-rivalry play, True West, switching roles occasionally thru the run. My favorite Hoffman films are probably Synecdoche, New York, and Capote.
Many writers have commented in the last week about his talent and how he fully inhabited every role. A.O. Scott said he “made unhappiness a joy to watch.” He lived only half the life that Pete Seeger lived. Think how many amazing movie experiences we are going to miss because of the drug habit he kicked and then kicked him back.
We can’t possibly know what demons tortured Hoffman and made him rely on prescription drugs and heroin. But the loss of his life is a loss to us as well as to his family and friends.
There are many unfinished lives in the literary, music and entertainment businesses, and in everyday life. This is a topic that interests me, as I’ll explain below.
Buddy Holly, the early rock and roll musician, died at 23 in a wintry plane crash 55 years ago last week.
John Kennedy Toole, the bizarrely comic novelist and author of The Confederacy of Dunces, died at 32 in 1969.
Janis Joplin, the great blues and rock singer/songwriter, died at 27 in 1970.
Jimi Hendrix, perhaps the world’s best guitarist (and left-handed too) died at 27 in 1970.
John Millington Synge, the Irish playwright and author of Playboy of the Western World, died at 37 in 1909.
John Wellborn Root, the Chicago architect and design partner of Daniel Burnham’s firm, Burnham & Root, died at 41 in 1891. The house where he lived is a block away on my street.
And my sister Lynda died at 27 in 1970 when a drunken driver crashed into the passenger side of the family car, killing her and her 3-month-old baby. Even after four decades, I find it difficult to talk about her death, so few of my friends know the details. Some day I’ll dedicate stories of unfinished lives to Lynda.
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Nancy Bishop’s Journal: My 100th post
This is my 100th post. When I started this blog in July 2012, I wasn’t even sure what I was doing or where I was going. Since then, I’ve become much more focused on writing about the things I love—movies, theater, music, books, art and Chicago stories. It’s been more fun than I thought possible. I feel as if after all those decades of business writing, I’ve finally become a writer.
Those 100 posts average 800-900 words each, so in the last 18 months, I’ve written about 85,000 words, the equivalent of a book, a substantial book at that. In addition, since May 2013, I’ve written 80 stories—mostly theater and art reviews—for Gapers Block, the Chicago-centric website. That’s another ~40,000 words, in case we’re counting. So in ~20 months, I’ve written the equivalent of two books. That’s not bad productivity.
A little of this. A little of that. It’s January. It’s cold and snowy. Have fun while you’re hibernating but don’t stay inside and mope.
True Detective on HBO
This new HBO series has a dark, ominous atmosphere, clued by the opening theme music and visuals. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are detectives with the state CID in rural Louisiana near the town of Erath. Harrelson plays Martin Hart, the senior guy, and McConaughey plays his partner Rustin Cohle, a moody, sometimes poetic detective. (This is another step in the McConaissance, as Tribune writer Christopher Borrelli termed it. McConaughey, who spent years playing in romantic comedies, has now turned into a serious actor. I personally think the change started with his 2011 performance in Killer Joe, the Tracy Letts script that started as a stage play.)
True Detective (in the Sunday night quality TV ghetto) starts out in 1995 like a police procedural when they find the first evidence of a serial killer who performs ritual murders. It’s also a character study of the two detectives, who are seen in 2012, testifying in separate internal investigations about the case.
The show is intense and the plot will keep your attention. But the best thing about the program is the writing. I’ve watched the first three shows and each time I hear several lines I want to write down, usually spoken by McConaughey’s character, who has been through a failed marriage and lost a child in an accident. He’s cynical, brooding and critical of religion. He often offends his partner, who represents the traditional small-town milieu in which they operate.
“Time is a flat circle. Everything we ever done or will do we’ll do over and over and over again.”
“This place is like someone’s faded memory of a town, and the memory’s fading…like there was never anything here but jungle.”
“I think human consciousness was a tragic misstep in evolution. We’ve become too self-aware.”
The screenwriter is Nic Pizzolatto, a former lit and writing teacher at the UofC and DePauw University in Indiana. He left teaching for Hollywood and worked on the AMC show, The Killing, before this. The Tribune article I noted above is a good overview and interview with Pizzolatto. (Registration required to access article.)
The Grammys have become more of a variety show than an awards program since most awards are presented off-camera. But the musical performances are often absorbing collaborations between performers you would not often see together on a stage. The most publicized teamups this year were Daft Punk with Pharrell Williams and Stevie Wonder and the super-hot opener by Beyonce and Jay Z. But my favorite was the classical pianist Lang Lang with Metallica. They performed the Metallica song “One,” which was inspired by the Dalton Trumbo book and film, Johnny Got His Gun, a horrifying war story. Footage from the 1971 film formed the backdrop for the Grammys performance. It was a song you had to pay attention to.
Pete Seeger, “a heart of gold and a spine of steel”
You have to love a radical folk singer who never gives up his activist ideas and activities into his 90s. Pete Seeger was a national treasure and role model and leaves us with so many memories. Like his performance with Bruce Springsteen at the 2009 inaugural concert. (The description of Seeger above is from Springsteen’s New York Times comments on January 29.) And his performances of children’s programs on educational TV when he was banned from the commercial networks. After Pete’s death on Tuesday, a testament to his grittiness surfaced: the transcript of his testimony before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1955. He never took the Fifth Amendment; he persisted in saying the committee had no right to ask him questions about what he belonged to or for whom he played and so he wasn’t answering. He would talk about his songs and that was it. Great reading.
Rosanne Cash’s new album, The River and the Thread
I’ve had Rosanne Cash’s album The List on my iPod for a long time—and full confession: I bought it because she does a duet with Bruce Springsteen on “Sea of Heartbreak.” It’s a fine album and now I have her newest as well. It’s The River and the Thread, an excellent album of original songs by Cash and a few collaborators including her producer husband John Leventhal. The thread follows the towns along highway 61, the main highway from Memphis to New Orleans, also famous as a musical route because of the many songs written about it, including Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” Most of the songs have road references and a strong sense of place. So far, my favorites are “Modern Blue” and “World of Strange Design.” There are many layers of culture and memory in these songs, plus the sound and the beat are more vibrant than her previous work. Rosanne Cash is worth a listen.
ON STAGE: The Golden Dragon by Sideshow Theatre
This is a short, fast-moving, sometimes puzzling play that I called a dark fairy tale. Here’s how my Gapers Block review begins:
“The Golden Dragon by German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig is a fanciful story presented by Sideshow Theatre Company. It’s a sort of dark fairy tale about the workers, residents and guests at a Thai/Chinese/Vietnamese fast food restaurant in a warehouse building in a certain global city. We are not sure where, but it doesn’t matter. The play is made up of the intertwined stories of 15 or 20 characters, played by five actors who quickly move from role to role without regard to gender, nationality or costume.“
I puzzled over it before writing my review, but it is really a fun and adventurous outing by Sideshow and displays the versatile acting chops of the five performers. The Golden Dragon runs until February 23 at Victory Gardens’ Richard Christiansen Theater.
The Little Prince by Lookingglass Theatre
The Little Prince is adapted from the beloved story by Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Lookingglass gives the wonderful story its due with a terrific production. I’ve loved this story forever and enjoyed reading it with my children as well as reading it in Spanish and French when I was studying those languages.
The play is produced by Lookingglass with the Actors Gymnasium, so there is plenty of flying, zooming and energetic action on the deceptively simple set. The play is poetic, visually beautiful and emotionally satisfying. It’s extended until March 16 at Lookingglass’ Old Water Tower space.
Tennessee Williams Project by The Hypocrites
The Hypocrites is doing a trilogy of mostly unproduced Tennessee Williams plays at their space in the Chopin Theatre. The first—Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens—is set in the rather baroque lobby area in the downstairs space. For the second—The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame Le Monde—the audience moves into a creepy London boarding house set—and finally to a St. Louis hospital ward for The Big Game.
Director Matt Hawkins takes the same cast thru each transformation. The first play is the longest and the most successful. Patrick Gannon plays a wealthy transvestite who brings home a sailor, played by Joseph Wiens. The drinking, seduction and interaction is quite intense and well performed by the two actors. The second play seemed most unlike any Tennessee Williams play I have ever seen and had a strong Brechtian flavor—and for a moment, took a Sweeney Todd turn. It was, I can only say, odd. The third play is about a young man with congenital heart disease and his two roommates, one a football player on his way to the titular game, the other with a severe brain disease. The play is fraught with disease and death, as are many of Williams’ plays.
The trilogy is an interesting, if uneven, evening of theater. The Tennessee Williams Project runs until March 2.
And et cetera….
I’ve seen a bunch of movies lately too, but I wrote about Movies, Movies, Movies last week, so I’ll save these for my next film fix: The Wolf of Wall Street, Princess Mononoke, Captain Phillips and Like Father, Like Son. And probably more.
As I’ve confessed before, I’m a movie geek. I love quirky, obscure films as well as the critics’ darlings. I revel in the technical, behind-the-scenes details about filmmaking. That’s why I enjoy the discussions at my Meetup film group. People like Al, Brad, Julie, Celine, Rebecca, Rui, Peter, Marisa and Kristine bring new insights to our discussions.
Here’s my perspective on some of the current batch of award winners and nominees, as well as some that should have made it but didn’t.
But first, something completely different….
The Kevin Smith trilogy: Clerks, Chasing Amy and Dogma
The film group had a rousing discussion of Kevin Smith’s work recently, focused on these three films. I watched them all again and discovered new things about each. If you think Smith’s films are goofy and sophomoric, I would like to disabuse you of that idea.
Clerks (1994) is about two convenience and video store clerks, Dante and Randal, trying to get by and figure life out. Best line: “This job would be great if it weren’t for the fucking customers.” Jay and Silent Bob appear as two stoners. Dante and Randal occasionally engage in philosophical musings about life and love. It’s shot in black and white on a very low budget and filmed in and around Monmouth County, New Jersey. Scene cards announce mood changes like Syntax, Purgation, Catharsis and Denouement.
Chasing Amy (1997) has more plotline and higher production values as it follows two friends and partners who have created a popular comic book series, Bluntman and Chronic. Their Holdup Studios is in Red Bank, NJ. The main plot concerns Holden (Ben Affleck) falling in love with a bisexual woman who turns out to prefer girls, much to Holden’s distress. Jason Lee is terrific as his partner. Jay and Silent Bob play pivotal roles when Silent Bob finally speaks and explains to Holden about why he’s still “chasing Amy” and why Holden should recognize his mistake and deal with it.
Dogma ((1999) is on my all-time favorite film list. I will tell you just a snippet of the story: Two fallen angels (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) want to return to heaven and think they have found a theological loophole that will get them back in. The cast is amazing (Chris Rock, George Carlin, Alan Rickman, Selma Hayek, plus Jay and Silent Bob.). I have always thought of Dogma with glee as an anti-religious film and that suits my irreligious attitudes. But it is really a film by a disappointed Catholic who wishes his church would do better. Well, I still love it.
Dogma opens on the boardwalk in Asbury Park and continues to a church in Red Bank. It’s set in Springsteen country, the geographic soulmate to Chicago.
The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)
This film has already won the Golden Globes’ award for best foreign language film. As I wrote in my letterboxd.com diary, this is a gorgeous film meditation on love, life and death, written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Toni Servillo plays Jep, an Italian journalist who would be called a flaneur in 19th century Paris. He’s a party animal, but after his glorious 65th birthday party near the beginning of the film, he begins to reflect on his life … and what lies ahead. Rome has never looked so beautiful with this splendid cinematography and amazing tracking shots. The film is poetic, sad and very funny as Sorrentino takes witty jabs at the church, journalism and anti-aging techniques. The film is often compared to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, but I think that comparison is superficial. Jep is a much more self-aware person than Fellini’s Marcello.
Sorrentino also wrote and directed one of my favorites (a possible cult film?) of 2013: This Must Be the Place (2011). I wrote about it here.
Two documentaries: The Act of Killing and 20 Feet from Stardom
The Act of Killing is a stupefyingly chilling film about the men who led the death squads that killed more than a million people in Indonesia in the 1970s and are celebrated as heroes. Director Joshua Oppenheimer gets them to reenact their deeds in whatever dramatic genre they choose, in costume and makeup. The result is goofy and horrendous.
20 Feet from Stardom celebrates the backup singers (almost all women) who give rock and roll stars the sound we love. Several singers are profiled in the film, as are many of the musicians they worked with, including Bruce Springsteen. The singers nearly all worked in the background for their entire careers, as my review describes. But nevertheless it’s a great, happy film and now is available on DVD.
Five best-picture nominees (I won’t pick winners)
Nebraska, directed by Alexander Payne. How often do you see a film in black and white? It takes some audacity to do that in a straightforward way. The film is partly striking road movie and partly wrenching human story. Excellent performances by Bruce Dern, Will Forte and June Squibb.
American Hustle, directed by David O Russell, has been called homage to a wig factory. The re-creation of ‘70s hair and fashion is outstanding and cringe-inducing. Did we really dress like that? American Hustle has a great, witty script and a joyous set of plot twists and turns. A lot of great acting, but Christian Bale’s personal transformation is amazing. His extra 40 pounds and the elaborate comb-over make him unrecognizable. For two other films—The Machinist and The Fighter—he lost so much weight that he looked near death. The physical changes almost make you overlook the acting, which is superb.
Her by Spike Jonze. I’ve written about this and compared the “Her” story to that of the Richard Powers novel, Galatea 2.2. This is an excellent film and really thought-provoking, both about our attachment to technology (mea culpa) and our difficulties with personal relationships. It deserves a lot of awards–for the film, for Joaquin Phoenix as the lead, and for the original script. Her has generated much online discussion, about the film and its implications, including this insightful article about Spike Jonze in Paste Magazine.
Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron, who directed two of my favorite films ever—Children of Men (2006) and Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001). I saw Gravity in 3D at an Imax theater and the physical effects are simply breathtaking. Sandra Bullock’s performance is very good. But I don’t think this film in any way deserves the best-film award. It’s simply too much bells and whistles, too little drama, plot and character development.
12 Years a Slave by Steve McQueen is also breathtaking in a different way. It’s a shocking slap in the face to those who forgot what slavery was like—the human condition that the United States enabled for so many decades. At least two excellent performances—by the leading actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o as supporting actress. 12 Years won the Golden Globe for best film and it may be the sentimental favorite to win the Oscar.
Three films that deserved more attention
Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ film about Greenwich Village in 1961 was one of my favorites of the year and many critics placed it in their top five or ten for best film. But it didn’t get much Oscar love. Just a couple of nominations for technical awards. I acknowledge my own bias—the film is about the music business and lets me reminisce about life in the sixties. But I still think it deserved better. If not best film, then for directing and original screenplay.
Blue Jasmine, an excellent film by Woody Allen, may earn a well-deserved best-actress award for Cate Blanchett. There are other fine performances in this film—Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Carnevale and Andrew Dice Clay (yes, really!), as well as an excellent, thought-provoking script.
Blue is the Warmest Color by Abdellatif Kechiche was shockingly neglected in every category. I was surprised that it wasn’t nominated in the best foreign language film section. It did win some regional film awards in that category, including France’s Lumiere Award and the Palme d’Or. And the young lead–Adèle Exarchopoulos—received several regional acting awards.
I reviewed Blue here briefly in December and said: This controversial film about a young woman and her older woman lover in Lille, France, is beautifully filmed and to my mind, too long at three hours plus. The much-discussed sex scenes are quite beautiful and almost painterly in their composition. Most importantly, the film raises issues of male viewpoint, social class and life choice between the two lovers and their friends and families; those issues are fruitful discussion topics.
It was a good year for films, in my opinion. Perhaps that’s why some of my favorites were neglected.
Samantha vs. Galatea. My review of Spike Jonze’s fanciful and fascinating film, Her.
Reliving the Sixties: My review of Inside Llewyn Davis, in which I compare Llewyn Davis’ story to Bruce Springsteen’s–only with a better ending. Imagine how happy I was to hear Bruce say exactly that in his long interview with Ann Powers, NPR’s pop music editor. Bruce says: “My life was, it was Inside Llewyn Davis with a happy ending, you know. I was, you know, I was that guy. I was the guy sleeping on the couch in midtown and taking the subway to Greenwich Village.”
Chicago theaters are opening new shows in January and February, so after a slow December, I’ll be reviewing lots of theater again. Here are a few current highlights.
Our Country’s Good
This play by Shattered Globe Theatre is being presented at Theater Wit on Belmont. The historical subject matter of the play—prisoners and their English soldier-captors in the new Australian penal colony in 1788—is fascinating. The play by British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker also involves a play within a play performed by the convicts. Many interesting possibilities, but the play ultimately is a bit flat. I was disappointed because Shattered Globe usually does sterling work. My Gapers Block review notes some of the problems.
It’s possible that the director could take notes from some of the reviews and snap up the production, however. The show runs thru February 22, so if the subject matter interests you, check it out. (Image courtesy Shattered Globe Theatre.)
Mr Shaw Goes to Hollywood
This is a smart, funny play with lots of celebrity name-dropping and appearances by GBS and Clark Gable. I haven’t posted my Gapers Block review yet, so I won’t go into more reviewer details here. But I will tell you it’s by MadKap Productions at the second floor studio at the Greenhouse Theater Center thru February 16.
Update: here’s my Gapers Block review. I gave it a Recommended rating for theatreinchicago.com.
Blood on the Cat’s Neck
This was another sparkling production by Trap Door Theatre, pulling out crazy visual magic on their tiny stage. The play is closed now, but I will only say: Watch for the next Trap Door production. They do plays mainly by European playwrights and they always have a political/social edge reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht and Max Frisch.
Blood on the Cat’s Neck is by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a German film innovator who died of a drug overdose at 36 in 1982, ten years after writing this play. Blood plays out in three parts; it’s part monologue, part short scenes, and it ends with a mad party scene. The character we follow with most interest is Phoebe Zeitgeist (played by Simina Contras), a vampire from another planet. She’s completely naked throughout, except for a hat, gloves, heels and glittery red lipstick. She has a fixed smile and repeats the other characters’ slogans and complaints, without seeming to know what they mean. The party scene ends with Phoebe doing what vampires do – to each character in turn. (Image courtesy Trap Door Theatre.)
Invisible Man at Court Theatre and on the page
Court Theatre presented Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man two years ago. The play was marvelous, compelling but confusing. I left feeling dissatisfied, wishing I had read the book before seeing the play. Now I’ve read the book (my book group had an excellent discussion on it) and I would love to see the play again. I think it would be more dramatic and meaningful.
Ellison is a lyrical writer, influenced by jazz as a musical form. He tells the story of a nameless young man who leaves a Southern black college to go to New York where he experiences northern racism and bigotry in the course of making a living and making human contact. He is a talented, even charismatic, speaker and becomes a spokesman for a white-led political organization called the Brotherhood where he is tasked to recruit in Harlem. Ellison was a Marxist for a while so the Brotherhood is probably patterned after the Communist party. The character makes us understand why he is invisible and how social and political racism affect him. The book is structured episodically and sometimes requires flipping back to reread an earlier section. Ellison’s writing is rewarding, however, and the book is a wonderful read.
Theatre in Chicago website
I want to recommend this website as a resource for Chicago theater-goers. It’s a very good way to find out what plays are showing now and what reviewers are saying. To see the compilations of reviews, go to the home page and select Review Round-Up in the left-hand column. My Gapers Block reviews are now appearing there.
There are sister sites in other cities: Minneapolis, Boston, DC, Seattle, LA, Atlanta and San Francisco. You can find links to those pages in the footer at theatreinchicago.com.
Read about the two plays I recommend here: The Seafarer runs until February 1. An Inspector Calls just closed.
Spike Jonze’s new film Her is a charming, tender love story with a soulful 21st century edge. I loved the film, but the story was familiar. In Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a writer who falls in love with a computer operating system. In 1995, Richard Powers wrote Galatea 2.2, a novel about a writer who loves a neural network that he teaches to know and understand literature and the world. In both stories, the computer companion turns away from the lover and shuts down.
Jonze’s film is visually delightful with sterling performances from Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson as Samantha, the voice of the OS. Phoenix plays a likable character for a change; he’s lonely after a recent divorce and opens an account with a new operating system (its logo is an infinity sign) that promises companionship. That’s how he meets his new OS, who chooses the name Samantha. She says she has intuition and that’s how her personality will continue to develop. “I continuously evolve,” she says.
At first Samantha is a friendly assistant, waking up Theodore, sorting his emails, alerting him to appointments. But as she evolves, she becomes more of a companion and eventually a lover. The brilliant thing about both actors’ performances is that they are so convincing despite their physical restrictions: Theodore has only a voice to react to. Samantha is only a voice with no corporeal presence. Both performances should receive award nominations.
The film is set in the not-too-distant future in a Los Angeles that looks something like Shanghai. Theodore is a writer who creates computer-generated analog love letters for clients at a company called BeautifulLetters.com.
Tbeodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) is also going through a divorce. She’s a video game developer and Theodore tests her perfect-mom game, which takes away points for poor-mom performance. Amy has some great lines. “The past is just a story we tell ourselves” and, best of all:
“Love is a form of socially acceptable insanity.”
Theodore lives well in a modern LA high-rise. The color palette, mainly of his wardrobe, is rich in orange, red and gold. The office of BeautifulLetters is primarily pinks, fuchsias and deep reds. I kept trying to decide what the designer was trying to tell me with those emotionally charged colors. Technology is not cold and inhuman? In addition, the film features music by Arcade Fire, one of today’s great indie rock bands.
When I first read about the film and in the days since I saw it, I keep thinking of the excellent Powers novel. Powers is one of my favorite authors; I think of him as the Tom Stoppard of novelists. Like Stoppard’s plays, his books combine science or technology topics with music, literature, character and plot. He was very prescient in writing Galatea 2.2 almost 20 years ago—before smartphones, apps or Siri. The leading character (who happens to be named Richard Powers and shares some features of Powers’ biography) is working as a sort of humanist in residence at the University of Illinois in a center for advanced sciences. His project is to teach a neural network (an artificial intelligence device) to understand and interpret the great works of literature as well as “geography, math, physics, a smattering of biology, music, history, psychology, economics.” Richard and the scientists create a device named Helen, a funny, smart, charming personage with whom Richard develops a strong personal relationship. The goal of the project is for Helen and a human graduate student to take a Turing test, which examines a computer’s ability to show intelligent behavior equivalent to a human’s. Unfortunately, Helen loses the Turing test and at the end of it says “Take care, Richard. See everything for me.” The politics and meanness of the world cause Helen to implode and shut down.
At the end of Her, Samantha has expanded her OS clients, while Theodore thought he was her only lover. He asks Samantha how many others she has a relationship with. She answers “8,316.” How many are you in love with? he asks. “641.” She explains “The heart is not a box that gets filled up. It expands (as we live).” At the end, Theodore logs on and learns his operating system is not available.
Galatea, of course, is the name of the statue carved by Pygmalion of Cyprus in mythology; the statue comes to life and George Bernard Shaw adapted that story into his play Pygmalion. Later someone decided it needed singing and dancing and it became the musical My Fair Lady. (I never prefer a musical.)
More on Richard Powers
If you enjoy literary fiction, I strongly recommend you check out Powers’ work. Besides Galatea 2.2, my favorites of his many novels are:
- The Gold Bug Variations (which combines genetics, Bach’s music, computer science and Poe’s stories).
- Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, about an historic photograph and a technology editor who becomes obsessed with it.
- The EchoMaker, about an accident victim who suffers a brain injury known as Capgras syndrome, which won the National Book Award in 2006.
Powers holds a chair in English at the University of Illinois. His undergrad and graduate education is in physics and literature. Early in his career, he worked as a computer programmer. He was named a MacArthur Fellow (the “genius grant”) in 1989. And he graduated from DeKalb High School, a year or two before my older son.