The power of performance in two Lillian Hellman plays

Last week I saw two masterpieces of 20th century theater by Lillian Hellman, the great playwright and leftwing political activist. (I‘m a fan on both counts.) The two shows were extremely different in production values but demonstrated the power of performance.

GB-LittleFoxes

Goodman Theatre image.

I attended Goodman Theatre’s The Little Foxes on opening night and reviewed it for Gapers Block. (My review also appears on culturevulture.net and berkshirefinearts.com, by the way.) It was an excellent production with a sumptuous set and gorgeous, richly detailed costuming, especially the women’s gowns. As I said in my review, the production “stars a galaxy of Chicago’s finest actors and surely resonates with some of the current discussions about racism, sexism, domestic abuse and income inequality.”

The venal Hubbard siblings (Regina, Oscar and Ben) who fight over the family legacy and the spoils of a new cotton mill are played by Shannon Cochran, Steve Pickering and Larry Yando. John Judd plays Horace, Regina’s husband, and Mary Beth Fisher plays Oscar’s sweet and abused wife Birdie. The rest of the cast is equally excellent. The nearly three-hour play (with two intermissions) is not only a visual treat; it’s gripping from beginning to end.

On Saturday afternoon, the Goodman presented an amazing one-time only event; a free performance of a reading of Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest, the prequel to The Little Foxes, which is set in 1900 and was first produced in 1939. Another Part of the Forest is set in 1880 and was written in 1946. Both are set in a town in rural Alabama and are based on Hellman’s own family story.

Courtesy Wikimedia.

Courtesy Wikimedia.

The reading was held in a rehearsal room on the second floor of the theater and held probably 60 or 70 seats at the most. (Needless to say, it was a capacity crowd.)

It was a plain vanilla reading, not a staged reading where there is some blocking and action. The actors all had their scripts on paper and usually stood at music stands at the front of the stage area. When they weren’t reading, they sat on folding chairs at the rear.

The most significant thing about the reading is that the 12-member cast was fully equivalent to that in the fully staged production. The acting was superb with attention to accents, vocal intonations, gestures and expressions. Some of Chicago’s finest actors were here too (none of them from the cast of The Little Foxes). Deanna Dunagan (you saw her as the mother in August: Osage County) plays Lavinia Hubbard, the siblings’ mother, whose fading memory comes through in the end. The always superb Larry Neumann Jr. read the part of Marcus Hubbard, the father who made a lot of money during the recent war, trading with the enemy (the Union forces). That’s the real source of the siblings’ later wealth. Neumann is one of those character actors who you’ve seen many times. He played the doctor in the legendary Famous Door production of the two-part Cider House Rules, Richard Nickel in Lookingglass’ production of They All Fell Down: The Richard Nickel Story; and Samuel Finkelbaum in Writers Theatre’s The Puppetmaster of Lodz.

John Hoogenakker gave an excellent reading as Ben, the younger version of the character played by Larry Yando. (You may have seen Hoogenakker on TV in Chicago Fire or Empire or in Goodman’s The Iceman Cometh or Other Desert Cities. Steppenwolf’s Tim Hopper (Marie Antoinette, The Night Alive, Russian Transport) played John Bagtry, Birdie’s brother and the young Regina’s sweetheart.

I thought perhaps Goodman would abbreviate Another Part of the Forest, but no, the full script was performed: almost three hours with two intermissions. The story was gripping from beginning to end and proved that great actors make you forget what they’re wearing or what the scenery behind them looks like.

The Little Foxes continues at the Goodman Theatre until June 7. Sorry you missed the prequel. Also you can find 1940s film versions of both plays.

Lillian Hellman’s South—It’s really about the economy

Image courtesy southernliterarytraiil.org.

Image courtesy southernliterarytraiil.org.

Hellman based these two plays on the stories of her southern family, so there are some economic parallels. My published review of The Little Foxes emphasizes the economic aspects of the story, which make the play richer than just a family melodrama, as it’s usually characterized. I wrote:

Hellman’s play is set in 1900 “when the South was dying after the failure of Reconstruction, whose planners had hoped that the region would turn into a new industrial power. That didn’t happen. (In fact, slavery was detrimental to the southern economy. It inhibited manufacturing and technological innovation as well as the growth of cities.) And Hellman wrote the play in 1939 when the impact of the Depression on people and society was much on the mind of Hellman and her audience members.”

Now I’m not an economist, but I do have one on call. However, as a resource here I’m going to call on a poet instead. Stephen Vincent Benet wrote John Brown’s Body, the stirring book-length verse narrative of the Civil War (or the War Between the States, as the Hubbards would call it). Benet’s poem, published in 1927, characterizes the war as preparing the South for its future as part of industrial America, but his prediction is about 75 years off. After 372 pages of the romantic saga of the war, its soldiers, victims, fictional characters, and Abraham Lincoln’s death, Benet wrote this in his optimistic conclusion:

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave.
Bury the South together with this man,
Bury the bygone South.
Bury the minstrel with the honey mouth,
Bury the unmachined, the planters’ pride,
Bury the whip, bury the branding bars,
….
And with these things, bury the purple dream
Of the America we have not been,
The last foray of aristocracy
Based not on dollars or initiative
Or any blood for what the blood was worth
But on a certain code, a manner of birth.
….
Out of his body grows revolving steel,
Out of his body grows the spinning wheel,
Made up of wheels, the new, mechanic birth
No longer bound by toil
To the unsparing soil
….
Out of John Brown’s strong sinews the tall skyscrapers grow,
Out of his heart the chanting buildings rise,
Rivet and girder, motor and dynamo,
Pillar of smoke by day and fire by night,
The steel-faced cities reaching at the skies,
The whole enormous and rotating cage
Hung with hard jewels of electric light….

Benet’s book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929. It’s not really great literature, because it’s rather uneven and not a little melodramatic. But it’s a great way to read the Civil War story. The book is out of print, but you can buy copies online.

 


Theater treats in Chicago: Six mini-reviews

Going to the theater is a treat that never grows old for me. Here are some of the plays I’ve seen recently, most of which were excellent.

The Drowning Girls at Signal Ensemble Theatre

GB-Signal_TheDrowningGirls-teapartyThis is a captivating production and a perfect example of the rich quality of Chicago storefront theater. Great direction, great acting, great staging. It’s a 70-minute play and you will enjoy every minute. Here’s how my review begins:

“The stage is set. Three claw-footed bathtubs. The kind your grandmother had. Props: Three scrub buckets, newspapers and a tea set. Costumes: Bridal gowns and veils, usually sopping wet.

“If this doesn’t sound like a promising start for a night at the theater, The Drowning Girls at Signal Ensemble Theatre will quickly change your mind. The play is a beautifully performed, balletic story of an English serial killer in the 19th century, who swindled from and then drowned his three wives. Actually, it’s the entrancing story of the three wives, who perform all the parts in the play from the brides submerged in their tubs to the husband(s), parents, lawyers, judge, reporters and scrubwomen.”

You can see The Drowning Girls through June 6. Signal is at 1802 W. Berenice, near the intersection of Irving Park and Ravenswood. See my review for details.

Three Sisters at The Hypocrites

Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters gets an excellent production from the always-interesting Hypocrites. It’s a fairly traditional staging except the color palette is used in a very inventive way. Director Geoff Button adapted the script to use more contemporary language without trivializing it. My review describes the story this way:

GB-HYPOCRITESThreeSisters-trio“The eponymous Prosorov sisters lead the excellent 14-person cast in a story that progresses over several years in a provincial Russian town at the turn of the 20th century. The sisters, all in their 20s, yearn to move back to Moscow, which they left 11 years ago when their father assumed the command of a brigade in the rural area. Now their father is dead and the town (and their social life) is dominated by the presence of the military base and its officers.”

The play is 2 hours, 20 minutes, and runs through June 6 in the Hypocrites’ new space at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park.

 Side Man at American Blues Theater

GB-American_Blues_Side_Man3This is a fine production of Warren Leight’s Tony-award winning play, Side Man. It was first produced at Steppenwolf in the 1999-2000 season and I tried to keep that excellent production out of my thoughts and not let it affect my review of this production. This is a memory play about the jazz musicians—trumpet players—who were riding high in the 1940s and ‘50s before the rise of rock and roll. The story focuses on the career and family of one particular side man. His son takes us back and forth in time from the moment his parents met through their present difficult period.

Side Man runs two hours and continues through May 24 at American Blues Theater, staged at the Greenhouse Theater Center on Lincoln Avenue. There’s live jazz played on stage before the performance begins.

Between You, Me and the Lampshade at Teatro Vista

GB-TeatroVista-1This new play about immigration and family issues by Raul Castillo runs through this Sunday at Victory Gardens/Biograph Richard Christiansen Theater (the upstairs space at VG). The 100-minute play (with one intermission) is well written with lively dialogue. My Gapers Block review says:

Between You, Me and the Lampshade is an entertaining and poignant story told by an excellent cast under the capable direction of artistic director Ricardo Gutierrez. Original music and sound design by Victoria Deiorio create an authentic sound landscape for the story. Jose Manuel Diaz-Soto’s scene design is very much an aging trailer interior, including the turquoise kitchen.”

I recommend it. Take Mom on Sunday. Or take yourself.

Ghost Gardens at Chicago Dramatists

Ghost Gardens, a new play by Steven Simoncic, explores “how people in a dying community fight to overcome grief, illness, hopelessness, and air poisoned by a giant local corporation.” The play, set in Detroit, has certain charms and a couple of good performances, but it can’t overcome the fact that the script is rambling and disjointed. I wish I could recommend it. My Gapers Block review is here.

Ghost Gardens continues through May 31 at Chicago Dramatists on Chicago Avenue near Milwaukee.

The Herd at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

The Herd by Rory Kinnear is a story about several generations of an English suburban family who have a severely disabled child. The play looks at how different generations deal with the issues of parenthood and disability. Frank Galati directs an excellent cast of mostly Steppenwolf ensemble members, including John Mahoney, Lois Smith, Molly Regan and Francis Guinan. The writing is witty and tender and gets to the heart of these family matters. I didn’t review this, but you can check out other reviews here.

Running time for The Herd is 100 minutes. You can see it—and you should—until June 7.

 

 


Movie reviews: Two great rock docs (+ two more films)

First of all, two music documentaries, The Wrecking Crew and Muscle Shoals, both about the stories behind the music you see on stage or hear on a recording. And both great movies. (But then, you know I love rock docs.)

The Wrecking Crew, 2015, 100 minutes

The Wrecking Crew, directed by Denny Tedesco, is the glorious story of the session musicians who backed up many of the hits you love from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s (even though you might have come to love that music only recently). The group of 20 or so musicians played in varying combinations behind the hits recorded by the Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, Sam Cooke, the Mamas and the Papas, the Crystals, the Ronettes, the Monkees and many more. They made Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound sound like a wall of sound.

The group dubbed The Wrecking Crew played on all these hits: “Be My Baby,” “California Girls,” “Strangers in the Night,” “Mrs. Robinson;” “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin,’“ “Up, Up and Away;” “Viva Las Vegas” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Six years in a row in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the Grammy for Record of the Year went to Wrecking Crew member recordings.

Some of the musicians, like Glen Campbell, went on to perform in their own names and become famous. But most were talented musicians you never heard of, such as drummer Hall Blaine, tenor player Plas Johnson (you hear his saxophone on the theme song from The Pink Panther); guitarist Barney Kessel; pianist Don Randi; and electric bass player Carol Kaye.

And the late guitarist Tommy Tedesco, father of the director and the inspiration for the film. Tedesco senior was a fabulous musician and the film shows him in many stages of his life, playing many different kinds of music. Seeing how he earned his living (a very good living) as an almost-anonymous but essential musician, inspired his son to record the story of the Wrecking Crew, the name they gave themselves after people said they were wrecking the music business.

It was great to see Carol Kaye, known as one of the greatest bass players in the world at the time, in interviews and performance, both then and now. She said a lot of women were playing in jazz and music clubs in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. Sometimes she would play many gigs in one day. And she proves she still rocks in the solos she plays in the film.

wreckingcrewlogoMany of the musicians came out of jazz and learned to play rock and roll on the job. Rock and roll was a dirty word then, but there was little money to be made playing jazz.

The Wrecking Crew was a Los Angeles-based group. Up until then, the music business was considered to be based in New York in the iconic Brill Building. But the Wrecking Crew pulled the business west.

The film is made up of music clips from the time and interviews with musicians then and now, plus interviews with figures such as the late Dick Clark, Frank Zappa, Cher, Nancy Sinatra and Leon Russell.

The Wrecking Crew was actually finished in 2008 and shown on festival circuits. But it couldn’t be shown commercially until Tedesco raised a pile of money to pay for licensing 100 hit songs used in the film. He finally succeeded with a Kickstarter campaign in which 4,245 backers pledged $313,157.

The film is running at least through next week at Landmark Century Centre. If you’re a music lover get to the theater now because it may not run much longer. There were a lot of musicians in the theater the day I saw it. I could tell by the jokes they laughed at.

Muscle Shoals, 2013, 110 minutes

What is Muscle Shoals? It’s just a little village on the Alabama border. But so much great music came out of it. No one can exactly explain why. Jimmy Cliff said, “At certain points in time on this planet, the are places where there’s a field of energy. At this time, there was Muscle Shoals.” Muscle Shoals is a 2013 documentary about FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

There was a certain Muscle Shoals sound. It was its own kind of R&B, different than Detroit, different than Memphis. U2’s Bono gives the river the credit. There’s the Mersey sound in Liverpool, then there’s the Mississippi and the Delta blues. Here it’s the Tennessee River. Bono thinks it must be that the sound comes out of the mud. But there was also something about the sound of the room that made it magical. (Dave Grohl says the same thing about the room they recorded in at Sound City, in his documentary of the same name.)

Director Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier describes the sound as a “funky, soulful, propulsive kind of groove.” Some of the musicians who recorded there were Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Simon and Garfunkel, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Gregg Allman, Alicia Keys and Steve Winwood.

Rick Hall was the founder of FAME Studios who overcame the poverty of the area in the 1970s to establish the recording studio with a house band known as the Swampers. It was the Muscle Shoals rhythm section—guitar, bass guitar, keyboard and drums. In the heart of Alabama during the Jim Crow era, Hall established Muscle Shoals as an integrated musical operation with no color distinctions between black and white musicians.

It’s an inspiring musical story and like The Wrecking Crew, features interviews with musicians as well as a chance to hear the music they made.

The film Muscle Shoals is available on DVD and it’s streaming on Netflix.

And two other films of interest

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (99 minutes) is a film that has gotten some buzz as “an Iranian vampire western.” Well, okay, it is about a vampire but she only attacks men who mistreat women. It’s really a very fine film, directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, and set in a fictional Iranian ghost town known as Bad City. (It’s shot in Bakersfield, Calif.) The cast is Iranian-American actors speaking Farsi. There’s a sweet love story about two lonely people, one of whom happens to be the hijab-wearing vampire, beautifully played by Sheila Vand. Her boyfriend is played by Arash Marandi, on whom I developed a crush by the end of the film. The cinematography is high-contrast black-and-white, mostly shot at night in industrial-type settings. The story is engrossing and I will probably watch it again. If I was giving stars, I’d give it 4 out of 5.

Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language (70 minutes) is a 3D film that should be seen in 3D. It’s currently streaming on Netflix and I strongly recommend you don’t watch it that way. I missed it when it was showing in 3D at the Gene Siskel Center and I’m sorry I did. I watched it last night on my lovely big TV screen. Don’t repeat my mistake. The film is experimental and kind of nonlinear and just looks strange in 2D. But at least it’s short.


Art you don’t want to miss: Archibald Motley, Jazz Age Modernist

The Chicago Cultural Center at 78 E. Washington St. is an under-appreciated gem of our city. The building is home to many interesting and often spectacular exhibits and events. Like concerts under the beautifully restored dome of Preston Bradley Hall. Art exhibits in the Sidney Yates Gallery and in smaller galleries around the building. There’s a comfortable seating area with tables in case you need a spot to rest or get some work done on the Randolph Street side of the building. Too bad the coffee bar is gone, but you can bring your own coffee in.

Motley, Blues, 1929

Motley, Blues, 1929

Right now the Sidney Yates Gallery is home to a fabulous exhibit of the art of Archibald Motley Jr., an African-American artist who studied painting at the School of the Art Institute from 1914 to 1918, whose work was exhibited all over the world and who won many honors. He lived in Paris for a time and traveled widely but he always called Chicago home.

The exhibit–Archibald Motley, Jazz Age Modernist—is here through August 31, then it moves to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, opening October 2. That will be the new Whitney, which opens next month. (The new building in the meatpacking district at 99 Gansevoort St. replaces the Marcel Breuer-designed building on the Upper East Side at 75th and Madison. (The Metropolitan Museum will take over the old Whitney, which is good news for preservationists. Some people don’t like the Brutalist-style Breuer building, but I do.)

 

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The exhibit at the Cultural Center is informative and well-organized and includes a substantial section on Motley’s early work. He’s best known for colorful urban scenes but his early portraits (like the one titled Mulatress with Figurine) are insightful glimpses into African-American life of the time. You’ll see portraits of his grandmother and of his wife, Edith Granzo. Motley was born in New Orleans in 1891 and his family moved to Chicago in 1894. He grew up in Englewood, then a German/Irish/Swedish neighborhood, but his social life and artistic inspiration was in Bronzeville. You’ll find exhibits on Motley, his life, thoughts and art in the corridor leading into the Yates gallery.

See my review in Gapers Block for more descriptions of the exhibit and of Motley’s work.

 

 


Reviews from the Chicago theater scene: The good and not so good

It’s been a busy theater week for me. I’ve seen two excellent plays, one very good one and two others that need work.

Tom Stoppard’s Travesties at Remy Bumppo Theatre

NSB_travestiesRemy Bumppo performs excellent work on its second floor mainstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Their production of Stoppard’s Travesties is simply brilliant and I recommend it strongly. The premise is that there is a moment in time when James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Vladimir Lenin were all in Zurich, Switzerland. It’s also a moment when the world is on the brink of change. Europe is at war, revolutions loom, and decades of other wars are ahead. The era of modernism in art and culture is emerging, represented by the novels of Joyce (especially Ulysses) and the deconstructionist poetry of Tzara, the founder of the Dadaist movement. Lenin sits in the Zurich Public Library, writing and waiting.

These three geniuses may or may not have met and conversed or debated in Zurich at that time, but no matter, Stoppard makes the premise work. The character who holds the plot together is Henry Carr, an English diplomat with a substantial ego and insubstantial intellect.

Nick Sandys’ direction is spot on. The dialogue is dazzling, the entire cast is excellent, and the costuming is ravishing. Travesties runs until May 2; don’t miss it. You may see me there again.

My review in Gapers Block has also been posted on culturevulture.net and on berkshirefinearts.com.

End Days by Deborah Zoe Laufer at the Windy City Playhouse

GB-EndDaysYes, End Days is about the biblical belief in the end of days, but don’t worry, it doesn’t happen. And the story is much broader than the one character who thinks the world will end on Wednesday. (Yes, she is followed around by Jesus, but . . . no, never mind.) The script is well written and the cast is very good. The production is entertaining and thought-provoking. Direction by Henry Godinez makes all the parts gel.

The best reason to see this play is to visit this new theater venue in the Irving Park neighborhood (3014 W Irving Park Rd). End Days is the first production for the Windy City Playhouse, a theater space with an excellent bar and lobby, and best of all, super-comfy seating. Really, seating is not the only reason to go but it certainly adds to the theater experience.

See my Gapers Block review of End Days and read more about the theater itself. End Days runs through Apr 26. I’m looking forward to their next production.

La Bête by David Hirson at Trap Door Theatre

NSB-trapdoorLaBeteThe talented Trap Door troupe does a fabulous job with this witty satire of theater, commerce and mediocrity. La Bête was first produced on Broadway in 1991—running 25 performances before closing. It was revived successfully in 2010 and then transferred to London.

The scene is 17th century Paris and involves the competition at court between the playwright Elomire (an anagram for Moliere) and a verbose newcomer actor/playwright named Valere. The script is written in rhyming couplets and the cast knows how to deliver the lines, thanks to superb direction by Kay Martinovich. Kevin Cox as Valere is simply outstanding. His electrifying act-one monologue is one of the treats of this theater season.

Some of Trap Door’s productions are minimal in design but the costuming and makeup in La Bête is lavish.

La Bête runs two hours, including one intermission, and you will enjoy every minute of the wordplay. It has just been extended to May 2. The tickets are cheap ($10 plus a small fee). Trap Door is located on Cortland and Paulina in Bucktown, at what was the very northern edge of the city at the time of the Great Fire of 1871. Just walk down that narrow gangway to a great theater experience. And put a few bucks in the actors’ box because these performers work for nothing. And that’s a travesty.

The Upstairs Concierge by Kristoffer Diaz at Goodman Theatre

GB-UpstairsConciergeAfter describing a theater company that does brilliant work on pennies, we come to a well-funded theater company that puts on lavish productions that are turkeys. That would be Goodman Theatre and although Goodman’s productions often are excellent, they are capable of wasting a lot of money that would have funded several storefront theaters.

The Upstairs Concierge is a perfect example. The set is beautiful. The production has been workshopped and fussed over for several years, but the script is dreadful. As I said in my Gapers Block review, “The Upstairs Concierge is a farce but the witty part is missing.” My review generously gave it two stars* (Somewhat Recommended) but other reviewers gave it one star (Not Recommended). See it at your peril.

* The websites I write for don’t use stars, although the two Chicago dailies do. Theatreinchicago.com, a website that compiles reviews and information for Chicago-area productions, uses a rating system, so my reviews appear there with a rating based on a one-to-four star system or Not Recommended to Highly Recommended.

The Good Book by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson at Court Theatre

This is the same playwriting team that created the masterful An Iliad, which Court mounted twice and I found epic and moving both times. This play is an ambitious attempt to explore the roots of the Bible, its authors, sources and gender issues. It also threads two contemporary stories through the overly long performance.

The production has received mixed reviews, from somewhat to highly recommended. The friends I attended with liked the play better than I did. I felt the parts did not hold together well and one of the modern threads would have been better eliminated. One story is that of a nonbeliever, a biblical scholar and professor played by Hollis Resnik. The other is about a teenager played by Alex Weisman, committed to becoming a priest, who over time discovers that he’s gay and comes to grips with both his faith and his sexuality. The two stories don’t mesh and the latter story, in particular, doesn’t relate to the overall ambition of exploring the roots of the bible.

The Good Book runs through April 19 at Court Theatre. I didn’t review it, but check out the reviews here and decide for yourself if you want to see it.

And also…. 

In March, I saw The Apple Family Plays: Sorry and The Hopey Changey Thing by Richard Nelson. These two plays are running in repertory at Timeline Theatre through April 19. They’re both well written and performed. The plays are about politics and family but the underlying theme in both is deciding how to deal with an aging relative who may not be able to live at home much longer. The second play is particularly sad as they come to grips with the issue. It is a chance to see Chicago’s fine actor, Mike Nussbaum, on stage. At 91, he’s a dynamic performer.

 All photos courtesy of the theater companies. 


Feasting on drama & lit in Tennessee Williams’ New Orleans

Tennessee Williams, one of our greatest 20th century playwrights*, moved to New Orleans in 1939 and spent time there off and on for much of his life. The funky, colorful, bohemian spirit of NOLA suited Williams’ lifestyle, once he overcame the rigidity and religious upbringing of his family. John Lahr details Williams’ life and work in his biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which I wrote about last fall.

*I would have said “the greatest,” but Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller also belong in the greatest category.

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Last week the American Theatre Critics Association met in New Orleans and our five-day agenda included many forays into the New Orleans that Williams loved. The 29th annual Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival was being held at the same time, so we participated in some of the many events. Our hotel was conveniently located at the edge of the French Quarter, so we walked to many venues.

Williams, of course, in known for such iconic plays as The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Rose Tattoo, Night of the Iguana, Summer and Smoke, Camino Real, and Vieux Carré. But you may not know that he wrote dozens of other plays, both long and short, teleplays and screenplays, novels, poems, and letters. Hundreds of letters. Lahr says Williams was a compulsive writer. He stayed sane by writing.

One rainy afternoon, we walked through the French Quarter to the historic Hermann-Grima house to see four of Williams’ “hotel plays.” He often set plays in hotel rooms and boarding houses, which he considered “way stations between life and death.” Each play took place in a single room, with 25 or 30 of us gathered around—and sometimes on the “set.” I asked one of the actors later if he found it distracting to have to walk over an audience member during a monologue but he said, “no, I’m used to it and it doesn’t bother me.” The plays performed were:

  • The Last of My Solid Gold Watches, about Mr. Charlie, an aging traveling shoe salesman, “the last of the Delta drummers.”
  • Lord Byron’s Love Letter, in which two midwestern tourists visit a spinster’s historic southern home. It seems she has inherited a love letter written by Lord Byron to her grandmother and she finally agrees to read it. Actor Christine McMurdo-Wallis handles this reading exquisitely (as she does several other roles during the festival).
  • Lady of Larkspur Lotion and Mister Paradise, two short plays performed back to back in a larger room. The first play features Mrs. Wire, the boarding house landlady who appears later in Vieux Carré. Mister Paradise, a poet who appears in both plays, prefers to avoid the limelight despite the protestations of an admiring young woman.

There were dramatic and musical intervals between the plays, as audience groups moved up and down stairs, from space to space. Clyde Shelby, a talented pianist, played for us in the first floor corridor and the Lagniappe Brass Band also performed.

A Friday night treat was Blue Devils and Better Angels, Tennessee Williams Tribute Reading held in a tented space at the old Ursulines convent in the French Quarter. It was a perfect space for this series of readings from and about Williams by actors and writers including director John Waters, playwright John Patrick Shanley (who read from his upcoming play, Prodigal Son), British thriller writer Rebecca Chance, and “Ask Amy” columnist Amy Dickinson.

Southern Rep Theatre, one of the few Equity companies in New Orleans, is staging Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer at the Ashé Powerhouse, a renovated venue in the old Jewish neighborhood. We saw the production Saturday afternoon. The performance was marred by poor sound quality (abetted by the constant hum of the AC system) but it was staged beautifully. The dramatic monologue by Catherine (played by Beth Bartley) about her cousin Sebastian’s shockingly bloody death was very well done.

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That evening, we walked over to the Monteleone Hotel, just around the corner from our hotel, to see a reading of I Never Get Dressed Till After Dark on Sundays, part of the TWNOLF schedule. This Williams one-act contains fragments that evolved into Vieux Carré, a 1973 play that Raven Theatre produced so memorably last year. This short play involves two ongoing arguments. Jane, a former Yankee society girl, and her boyfriend Tye, a stripjoint barker with an easy manner that attracts ladies, argue about their life together and apart. And the director, writer and stage manager bicker comically about the development of the script. The play is a bit disjointed but it helped to have seen Vieux Carré. You can appreciate how the relationship between Jane and Tye evolves.

Vieux Carré, by the way, is set in the house at 722 Toulouse Street, between Royal and Bourbon streets, where Williams lived. An historic plaque now commemorates that. Williams also famously spent time in Key West, which I wrote about in 2013.

The ATCA conference closed with two excellent discussions on our final morning, also part of the literary festival.

nola-johnlahrThe first featured John Lahr, author of the recent Williams biography, noted above, and Robert Bray, editor of the Tennessee Williams Review and an English professor at Middle Tennessee State University. I had seen Lahr before when he and Martha Lavey discussed his book at Steppenwolf Theatre. This was a much more intense discussion on the writing of the book itself and generated many memorable quotes. Lahr described how his narrative challenge was to cover the public man, the private man and the plays and illustrate how those elements were woven together. Since Williams’ death in 1983, more than 40 books have been published about him. (Most theatrical biographies, Lahr said, involve “a lot of typing and very little writing.”)

The plays were “the interior landscape of my soul,” Williams said. His plays are all ghost stories: spectral and haunted. In his final play, A House Not Meant to Stand, Williams says goodbye to his “repertory company,” made up of his family, his friends and lovers, and himself. The play was produced in 1981-82 at the Goodman Theatre, directed by Gregory Mosher, who tried unsuccessfully to move it to Lincoln Center.

nola-shanleyThe second Sunday morning discussion was Playwrights from Page to Stage featuring New Orleans native John Biguenet; Dr. Femi Euba, a native of Nigeria whose recent plays have addressed issues related to Hurricane Katrina; and playwright John Patrick Shanley. Moderator Thomas Keith asked each playwright to talk about how his works took shape on paper and then were transformed to the stage. The comments were wide-ranging, humorous and fascinating. Shanley, in particular, is an articulate and charming commentator on his own work and the act and art of writing.

We saw two other plays (neither memorable for different reasons) and some interesting conference sessions. Bryan Batt, New Orleans native, Broadway actor, and formerly Sal Romano in AMC’s Mad Men, talked one day about his life and theater. He now lives and owns a business in New Orleans. Hedy Weiss, theater and dance critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, gave an insightful and well-received keynote address on “Perspectives in Criticism.”

And there was outstanding music, food (including that NOLA special, cold-brewed iced coffee), scenery and people-watching. New Orleans is an amazing city. I’ve been there half a dozen times over the last 25 years for business, vacation and the Jazz and Heritage Festival. I always fall in love with its color and charm all over again.

Photos by Nancy Bishop except where noted.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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