It’s almost the end of the year and I don’t want you to miss these three plays now on stage in Chicago. Plus notes on a fourth play and a film recommendation.
The Clean House by Remy Bumppo Theatre
You may have seen Sarah Ruhl’s smart, funny play The Clean House in its first production at the Goodman Theatre in 2006. Even if you did, you might want to see it again by Remy Bumppo, a theater company that always thrills me with its attention to language and diction. In this case, some of the language is Portuguese and Spanish (which I understand un poquito), but the actors always help you along with the sense of what they’re saying in another language.
This play is about cleaning houses, and a lot more than that. It’s a commentary on how we love and care for each other and Ann Filmer’s direction enhances its great humor and charm.
Running time is 100 minutes with one intermission; thru January 11.
Pericles by Chicago Shakespeare
Pericles is one of Shakespeare’s plays that isn’t produced often, but Chicago Shakes has done a great job in staging it to bring out its best parts and subdue its lesser aspects. David Bell’s direction is excellent and the staging, costumes and music are superb. My Gapers Block review calls it a “lush, celebratory production.”
The play has a fine crew of actors, led by Canada’s Ben Carlson in the lead with grand support from Chicago stalwarts Sean Fortunato, Kevin Gudahl, Lisa Berry, Ora Jones and the always delightful Ross Lehman.
It runs 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission. My review notes that the first act is too long, but the production is worth your time. You can see it thru January 18.
Shining City by the Irish Theatre Company
This is one of those minimalist, slightly claustrophobic productions that makes you feel that you’re peering over the shoulders of the characters whose life traumas you’re watching. The staging of this Conor McPherson play in the small Den Theatre space enhances that mood. It’s set in the office of an ex-priest, now-therapist, who is feeling his way through his own life as well as that of his patient.
Beautifully acted, with a special performance by Brad Armacost in the role of John, the patient. In his long monologue, he unburdens his soul and guilt to the therapist. You will be on the edge of your seat, lest you miss a word. Warning: there are ghosts in this play.
This 100-minute, five-scene production runs thru January 4. See my review.
Iphigenia in Aulis at Court Theatre
This was a rather low-key production by Court Theatre of the tale of Agamemnon, who sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia so that the winds would blow and send his fleet to attack Troy and bring back “that whore, Helen.” My review of this quote and of the play, which is now closed. Those bloody tales in which human fates rest on the whims of the gods and goddesses never fail to be interesting. However, this play has nowhere near the power of Court’s production, twice mounted, of An Iliad, which I noted in my review.
And on screen: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya at the Gene Siskel Film Center
This is a new and exquisite entry in the collection of superb work by Japan’s Studio Ghibli, known for its beautiful hand-drawn animated films. I mentioned the work of Studio Ghibli when I reviewed The Wind Rises by Hayao Miyazaki last spring. This new film is by Isao Takahata, drawn in subtle, almost water-color delicacy and black brush-stroke detail. It tells the story of a tiny baby girl adopted by a woodcutter and his wife when he finds her in a bamboo plant. She is an enchanted child and the film, based on a 10th century Japanese folk tale, tells the story of her growth, love and loss.
Runs thru December 30 at the Siskel Film Center–137 minutes. You can see it with Japanese subtitles (my preference) or voiced in English; the Siskel schedule tells which showings are which.
(All photos courtesy of the theater companies.)
I spent Thanksgiving weekend in North Carolina and loved being able to relax and visit with friends and relatives. My older son has lived there for 25 years so I’ve visited dozens of times. We got to meet the new baby cousin in the family; he slept through all the excitement. And I spent time with my two darling and precocious grandsons.
Birthdays and storytelling
The 2-year-old loves to read stories, to which he adds his own interpretations as I’m reading to him. One of our outings was to a birthday party for one of his friends from “school” (day-care). Mom and the two boys and I went to The Little Gym where kid birthday parties are staged. An hour of jumping, bouncing and games, supervised by Mr. DJ and Miss Bethany, then time for cake and birthday treats. If you haven’t been involved with small ones lately, you would be amazed at the birthday party industry that has built up. I’ve been to several play-party venues like this for kid birthday parties, including those for the two grandsons. Birthday parties aren’t held at home any more.
The almost-7-year-old likes to build with Legos and write stories. He has a future as an entrepreneur, I believe. He frequently writes stories, by hand and with colored illustrations. He begged me to “publish” his stories and wanted me to take a photo of a magazine cover so he could put it on his book. I explained copyright infringement. We discussed the nature of e-books and the dilemma of print vs. online. I told him he needs a website, after he asked me how he would get people to buy his book. I can’t wait to see what we’ll discuss next time I see him.
Snow Queen at Triad Stage
The grownups went to the theater one night to see Snow Queen, based on the Hans Christian Anderson story, at Triad Stage in Greensboro. The play, developed for that theater in 2013, was well done with an original folk music score and script. Costuming of the Snow Queen and other fairy tale characters was beautiful and the staging, with large animal puppets, was very creative. This is a professional theater company and most of the actors are Equity. The show featured live musicians on acoustic string instruments. The play is set in Appalachia, which explains the accents of the actors.
Here’s a sneak peek at the play with comments from writer/director Preston Lane. If you’re in the Triad region (Greensboro/Winston Salem/High Point) before December 22, you have a chance to see this production.
Also in performance . . . .
My other treat was watching my son teach a university economics class in time-series analysis—used in statistics and forecasting. (It was the day of my departure and I tagged along with him.) There were six graduate students in the class, so I sat in the last row of the small classroom and tried to be inconspicuous. Of course, my son wasn’t going to let that happen. He introduced me to the class and occasionally asked my opinion.
The class was discussing things like ACF (autocorrelation function) and the ARIMA methodology (autoregressive integrated moving average) and my son’s white board formulas included characters that aren’t on my keyboard. This is an image of a time series showing random data points. It’s cool-looking and I like the colors.
With the help of Wikipedia, I followed along superficially and I did perk up when he got to the chi-squared test. I remembered that from my brush with communications research as a grad student. The chi-squared (X²) test is used to determine whether there’s a significant difference between the expected and observed frequencies in categories.
The class also had two interesting stats. Of the six students, three were left handed. And of the eight people in the room, four were left handed, including me, of course. Statistically unlikely since ~10 percent of the population is left handed. And all six students were male, also defying the stats, since 50 percent of the population is female. That may be a comment on the fact that fewer women are involved in STEM courses.
It’s a sad fact that this results in a “yawning imbalance . . . even though they make up 47 percent of the total U.S. workforce, women hold only 24 percent of STEM jobs, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce study.” Those STEM jobs typically offer higher salaries and better career prospects.
I realize the irony of this comment coming from me. I took only the required STEM courses in college and I spent my career in decidedly non-STEM jobs. I’ve had a successful and happy life and I wouldn’t have changed it. But I would advise young women to consider all their career options and not let themselves be pushed into non-STEM courses and careers.
Anyway, it was fun to watch my son teach and then we had a late lunch. Then to the airport and home.
PTI (the Piedmont-Triad International Airport) has free wifi, as do many other airports. Why don’t O’Hare and Midway have free wifi? OK, they do have those rotating toilet seat covers that make you think you’re sitting on a clean surface. But no free wifi? It’s a tossup as to which is more important.
Sculpture: Carved, Cast, Crumpled at the Smart Museum
The Smart Museum of Art in Hyde Park has dedicated its entire space to a sculpture exhibit that spans the eras from ancient to contemporary. Carved, Cast, Crumpled: Sculpture All Ways is well displayed and organized by historical era. There are works by modern masters like August Rodin, Jacques Lipschitz and Henry Moore, Asian religious figures, classic European bronzes, and neon, metal and fabric sculptures from the modern era. My slideshow will give you a quick overview of the diversity of the exhibit, which is open through December 21.
The Smart Museum is small and a two-hour visit will give you plenty of time to appreciate the entire exhibit plus have a snack in the café, which serves coffee, pastries and light lunch items. It’s popular with students so tables are scarce during the lunch hour. The museum is nestled behind Court Theatre at 5550 S. Greenwood on the University of Chicago campus. (All photos by Nancy Bishop.)
Out in the street: Banksy Does New York
Why do I love street art? I’m particularly fond of it because it takes art out of the elite realm and puts it out for everyone to enjoy. No admission fee, no checking your bag, no waiting in line. I also like it because it is part of the cycle of people’s art that encompasses comic books and graphic novels, pop art, the Chicago Imagists and the Hairy Who, and today’s post-street art.
Banksy is the famous and elusive British street artist who produced the delightful 2010 documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. In October 2013, Banksy took up a “residency” in New York. Every day of the month, he installed a piece of street art somewhere in New York and started a frenzy of art lovers and hipsters seeking out each day’s work. Banksy would post a tease on his website each morning, suggesting something about the art, but not identifying the location.
HBO Documentaries has produced a 90-minute film, directed by Chris Moukarbel, about this month of street art adventures, titled Banksy Does New York. It’s been running on HBO channels and it’s available on HBO on demand as well.
The installations are varied in form, materials and message. They range from stenciled figures and balloons to a crumbling sphinx to a slaughterhouse truck filled with squealing animal puppets that parked in front of various meat markets throughout the day.
Art on screen: National Gallery
National Gallery is a Frederick Wiseman documentary profile of London’s National Gallery. It’s running through December 4 at the Gene Siskel Film Center and although it’s almost three hours long, I highly recommend it. It’s a magnificent look at this immense art museum and its visitors, staff members and, most of all, its collection. There’s no narrative voiceover, no background music, just the museum and its denizens—and sometimes silence. The trailer will give you an idea of its charm.
As I said in my Gapers Block review, my favorite aspect of the film is the faces. Faces looking at faces. All manner of expression in the visitors and all manner of people portrayed on the walls.
The Chicago Imagists and the Hairy Who as influencers. http://gapersblock.com/ac/2014/10/01/the-hairy-who-returns–to-the-siskel-film-center/
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 north 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
This 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
Shaw 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.
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.
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.
The 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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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.
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.
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.
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
I 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.