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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Two men on screen at CIFF: Birdman and Algren reviews

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

Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, 119 minutes 

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

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

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

Algren, directed by Michael Caplan, 87 minutes

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

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

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

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

 

 


Mini-reviews from October stages

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

 

Both Your Houses at Remy Bumppo

By Maxwell Anderson. See it thru November 9

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

 

Danny Casolaro Died for You at Timeline Theatre

By Dominic Orlando. See it thru December 21.

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

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

 

Native Son at Court Theatre

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a trailer of the Porchlight production.

 

Watch on the Rhine at The Artistic Home

By Lillian Hellman. See it thru November 16.

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

See my Gapers Block review for details.

 

 


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

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

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

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

Photos by Kaitlynn Stanger.

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

Birthday tribute setlist:

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


“David Bowie Is” is fabulous:

MCA-DavidBowiesignage

Signage at the MCA gallery entrance. Photo courtesy MCA.

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

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

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

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

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

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


September dramas: Serious, smart and sublime

Here are recaps of three plays I’ve seen in the last 10 days. They’re all recommended and all still running so you have time to see them. I’ve been focused on the David Bowie Is exhibit this week and I’ll post my review of that soon.

King Lear at Chicago Shakespeare

GB-CST-KingLear

Ross Lehman and Larry Yando. Photo by Liz Lauren.

A four-star production of this Shakespearean masterpiece. The most four-star part of it is the performance by Larry Yando as King Lear. He’s one of Chicago’s finest actors and this is a performance that has “Jeff award” all over it. Here’s how my Gapers Block review begins.

“King Lear, perhaps William Shakespeare’s most-revered play, is an existential tragedy. It’s a story of power and family lost, mind and health destroyed. But it’s also a retirement story and a family tragedy. It’s amazing how deeply and warmly current issues are treated in this 400-year-old masterpiece.

“Fathers mourn relationships with their children. Siblings fight over the estate before the parent dies. Old men suffer the tears and trauma of aging. And most profoundly, we see the onset of dementia in someone who has been a brilliant and powerful leader.”

Lear runs until November 9 at Chicago Shakes’ theater on Navy Pier.

Isaac’s Eye at Writers Theatre

NSBJ-IsaacsEye

Hooper and Grapey. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Isaac’s Eye by Lucas Hnath is a smart, funny exercise in what-if. What if a young Isaac Newton and the older and less well-known scientist, the brilliant Robert Hooke, met and discovered they had similar and conflicting interests in color and light? The result is a mesmerizing two-hour play at Writers Theatre’s back-of-the-bookstore location in Glencoe. In this tiny space, you are literally right at the feet of the two great men as they bicker and compete, in modern dress and language. It’s a fascinating post-modern drama.

One of my favorite Chicago actors and old friends, Marc Grapey, plays Hooke with the right amount of antipathy and snark. And Jürgen Hooper plays Newton, with geeky naivete matched by seething ambition. Elizabeth Ledo gives a smart performance as Newton’s girlfriend. The compelling addition to the play is LaShawn Banks as a narrator and dying man, who agrees to undergo Newton’s eye test. He is a constant and energizing presence on the tiny set, keeping the mood dynamic even when he is sort of “offstage.”

Isaac’s Eye runs until December 7 at Writers Theatre. I didn’t review it formally but I’m glad I didn’t miss it. You shouldn’t either.

Season on the Line at the House Theatre

GB-HouseTheatreSeasonontheLine

The man in the white suit is the critic. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

I have to confess. I loved this play. This is the headline for my review: “House Theatre Plants a Big Wet Kiss on the Theater Industry.” It is loaded with theater jargon and literary references and the opening night audience of reviewers, Jeff Committee members, friends and relatives clearly loved it as much as I did.

Season on the Line, smartly written by House ensemble member Shawn Pfautsch,  is the story of a struggling mid-size theater company that decides to produce a new and inventive production of Melville’s Moby Dick as the culmination of an important season. We are treated to production meetings, rehearsals, after-parties and backstage gossip as the company gets ready to present its first show, The Great Gatsby (a success), and second show, Balm in Gilead (not a success). All the while, the artistic director, played with great intensity and possibly obsession by Thomas J Cox, is focused only on the great white whale. Yes, he’s Captain Ahab. He believes if he can produce a show that wins a four-star review from the influential theater critic, he will save the theater company.

The House Theatre, always an inventive and creative bunch, obviously has great fun with this. They advertise it as an “epic love letter to the American theater.” And it is. If you love theater, you’ll love it. It’s not for amateur theater-goers, however.

Season on the Line, which runs until October 26, is a 3-hour whale, plus two intermissions. That’s right, you’ll be in the theater for 3.5 hours. I loved every minute of it and if you read this far, you will too.

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Capsule reviews from Chicago stages

Theater season never really ends in Chicago but there’s always a flurry of openings in September. Here are a few plays I’ve seen recently and recommend for your consideration.

Churchill by SoloChicago

Ronald Keaton, a journeyman Chicago actor, turns himself into the great British leader for this one-man show that’s continuing at the Greenhouse Theater Center. The run is so successful that it’s moving into the large downstairs mainstage space.

Keaton has been a successful Chicago actor for years, performing comedy, drama and musicals, at suburban and city theaters, large and small. But he rarely has performed the leading or “hero” role, until now. He has created his own role, his own show and his own production company, as Chris Jones describes in this article about Keaton.

The show is excellent and Keaton takes us through Churchill’s life from childhood through his period as prime minister during World War II. The 135-minute show, performed with one intermission, runs through Sept. 21 and then Oct 3 to Nov. 9. Here’s a video clip of Keaton as Churchill.

The Whaleship Essex by Shattered Globe Theatre

Shattered Globe, which has a long and solid history among Chicago storefront and midsize theaters, is now staging a stirring tale of shipwreck and survival, based on an actual event that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Here’s how my Gapers Block review starts.GB-WhaleshipEssex-1

“Tales of the whale–the commercial treasure and leviathan of the sea–and the sailors who set out in wooden ships to hunt them, are endlessly fascinating. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick stands as one of the great adventure tales of world literature.

“A story that inspired Melville is being staged now by Shattered Globe Theatre in the exciting adventure/survival play, The Whaleship Essex by ensemble member Joe Forbrich. The two-hour-plus drama is staged with meticulous attention to nautical detail through the use of lighting, projections and simple wooden benches that serve as the whaleboats in which the whalemen leave the ship to capture whales. Or survive a shipwreck, as the case may be.”

There’s some excellent acting by this large cast, directed by Lou Contey. The acting and creative staging persuade us that the crew is indeed fighting to survive an attack by an enraged whale. Fortunately, a few seamen survived to write accounts of the Essex disaster. The Whaleship Essex continues at Theater Wit on Belmont through October 11.

The Arsonists at Strawdog Theatre

TheArsonistsMax Frisch’s 1953 radio play, The Fire Raisers, was adapted for the stage in 1958 and was understood as a metaphor for the rise of the Nazi Party and citizens’ inability to recognize evil. This 2007 adaptation by Alistair Beaton keeps the chilling symbolism of the arsonists who intend to start fires, political or residential.

Director Matt Hawkins does a fine job with Strawdog’s small cast, performing on a two-level stage in their second-storey venue. The chorus of firefighters serves to warn us of coming events as well as fight them when they occur. Time and place are ambiguous in The Arsonists, but it should set off warning bells for all sorts of evil occurrences or political skullduggery in the 21st century.

The Arsonists, 90 minutes with no intermission, runs through Sept. 27 at Strawdog on Broadway near Grace. And here’s a dining tip. Tutto Fresco Trattoria at 3829 N Broadway is a neighborhood jewel and just steps away from the theater.

King Lear at Chicago Shakes

I’m reviewing Chicago Shakespeare’s new production of King Lear, starring Larry Yando. Tonight is opening night, so I’ll post my review later this week.

 

 

 

 


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