February reviews: Everything has a music theme

February is supposed to be a slow month, especially when the average temps are 20 degrees below average, but I’ve been pretty busy lately. So here’s a recap of my recent gallivants. (Yes, I know that’s not a noun, but I’m making it one.) The theme, it seems, is music, for everything I’ve done lately.

Greil Marcus at the Old Town School

GB-marcuscover-10songsNot only Greil Marcus, the legendary music writer, but Jon Langford and Sally Timms to sing and play along with his literary musings. It was a night of legends. Marcus was there to tell us about his new book, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs–which isn’t exactly a history in any formal sense. But it is a fine book of his commentary about 10 songs that may or may not have defined rock and roll. He’s an elegant writer, one of the best in any genre, and a charming conversationalist, so it was a pleasure to hear him talk about his book and read some selections. The music by Langford and Timms was superb, as I describe in my Gapers Block review of the evening. Maurer Hall at the Old Town School (it’s in the older building on the west side of Lincoln) is a fine venue with perfect sightlines, great acoustics and comfy seats.

Four plays explore music, each in its own way

Norma and the Maniac by the Orchard Theatre

GB-NormaManiac425pxA new playwright, his first full-length play. When I was asked to review it, I hesitated until I read that it has to do with a musician who played in a metal band. How could I resist? I was so hoping it wouldn’t be dreadful–and I was delighted to find out that it’s actually very good. The play is Norma and the Maniac, by Ray Nelson, and it’s being performed by the new Orchard Theatre as a guest company at Redtwist Theatre on Bryn Mawr. Alexander St. John is director and sound designer and he does a fine job, as do the two actors, Amy Gorelow and Noor Hamdi. The play isn’t a musical, even though one of the two characters is a headbanger. The music–punk and metal selections–plays before the show and between scenes. And there’s a country music touch too–see the YouTube video in my review. It’s a well-written play that tells us how two losers end up finding happiness. You can see Norma and the Maniac through March 30.

Accidentally Like a Martyr at Red Orchid

This excellent play by Grant James Varjas runs through March 15 at the redoubtable Red Orchid Theatre on Wells Street. The work they do in their tiny space is amazing and I have seen theatrical masterpieces many times over the years. Accidentally Like a Martyr may not be a masterpiece, but it’s a superb show that drifts between two recent eras in a New York gay dive bar. The six main characters are beautifully acted by a fine ensemble directed by Shade Murray. The show title is the title of one of my favorite songs by the late Warren Zevon (from his 1978 album Excitable Boy) so I was excited that there would be  Zevon music in the show. And there was, although I had to wait until the end of the 90-minute play to hear it. “Accidentally” plays over the bar sound system as two lovers embrace to the music.

My homage to Warren Zevon. Warren Zevon was a songwriter and rock musician with a dark and bizarre sense of humor, which he never failed to display in his music. The album Excitable Boy is probably his best known. In addition to “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” that album includes the title track plus “Werewolves of London,” “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,” and “Lawyers,Guns and Money,” a cold war satire. He died in 2003 from inoperable mesothelioma. His last album, The Wind, featured some of his own compositions, a duet with Bruce Springsteen on “Disorder in the House,” and my favorite rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”  Check out some of his songs.

Music Hall at Tuta Theatre

Music Hall is a funny, sad play by the late French playwright Jean-Luc Lagarce about three cabaret performers–the kind who traveled from town to town to perform for smaller and smaller audiences. The Artiste is played by Jeffrey Binder, accompanied by the two Boys who assist and perform with him, or her. This is a stunningly acted and staged play and deserves the acclaim it’s receiving. It runs through March 8 at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee, then it goes to New York, where it will be staged at 59E59, a just off-Broadway house. See my review.

Airline Highway at Steppenwolf

CV-AirlineHwyahprodThis wonderful, ebullient, full-of-life show set in New Orleans is closed now at Steppenwolf, but it too is going to New York, where it will open at the Samuel Friedman Theatre on Broadway in April. The play takes place at one of those nondescript motels you pass on the way in from the airport to your fancy hotel in the French Quarter. The people who live at the Hummingbird Motel are the hookers, the strippers, the musicians, the taxi drivers, the janitors, the almost penniless and almost homeless who hang on to happiness by their fingernails. I reviewed it for CultureVulture; you can read it here.

Related posts

Visions of music: Steve Schapiro and Richard Powers. Music in photography and literature. Never too much music.

Chicago in Words and Music. This report noted another Jon Langford appearance, plus there’s a Springsteen video treat.


David Carr: His caper ended way too soon

This has been a tough week for journalism. Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show. Brian Williams’ whole career is under investigation. CBS correspondent Bob Simon is killed in a Manhattan car crash, after surviving dozens of combat assignments. And now, David Carr has died, for no discernible medical reason, other than his checkered health past. It makes you ask, WTF anyway?

Photo courtesy sxsw.com.

Photo courtesy sxsw.com.

As I was coming home from the theater last night, I realized I hadn’t turned my phone on. A shocking headline popped up on the screen: David Carr, New York Times media columnist, is dead at 58.

What? How could this be? I just read his article on Jon Stewart and Brian Williams today. I started looking for information and there wasn’t much available yet. The Times had a brief obituary, which was expanded over the next couple of hours to become a meaningful overview of Carr’s career.

However, Twitter was on fire with news about Carr’s death and comments about his life and work. I tweeted and retweeted about a dozen times last night alone.

 

  • Someone tweeted a link to the Carr archive on nytimes.com: a total of 1,776 articles.
  • I tweeted a link to his last column about Stewart and Williams, both of whom grew up in New Jersey (and are both Springsteen fans):

@nsbishop: Last column by @carr2n. He was a Jersey boy too (but first a Minnesota boy). http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/12/business/media/brian-williamss-and-jon-stewarts-common-ground.html?ref=topics …

  • Several people reminded us of his advice for writers:

“Keep typing until it turns into writing.”

Last night Carr had just moderated a panel discussion about the film Citizenfour with its principal subject, Edward J. Snowden; the film’s director, Laura Poitras; and journalist Glenn Greenwald. Just before 9pmET, he collapsed in his office and was taken to the hospital, where he died. That headline about him flashed on my phone at 9:30pmCT.

When I decided to write my own appreciation of Carr today, I started making notes and realized how much I had bonded with his writing over the years. First, I want to summarize David Carr’s odyssey. (He would hate seeing that word applied to his life.)

Midwesterner to Jersey boy

Carr grew up in a Minneapolis suburb, graduated from the University of Minnesota and worked as editor of the Twin Cities Reader, an alternative paper. During this time, he became an alcoholic, began using cocaine and became a crack addict. He and his girlfriend had twin girls and Carr raised them alone on welfare. A single dad crack addict. He kicked the crack habit and later suffered from cancer (Hodgkin’s lymphoma), which required a lot of radiation to his mouth and throat. He said in a radio interview: “I’ve had a very medicalized life. I have no spleen. I have one kidney. I have no gallbladder. I have half a pancreas.” He said his notably raspy voice was the result of many factors, including smoking tobacco and crack, radiation, and working on the pile covering firemen at the 9/11 site. It was during that time, he said, that he noticed his voice changing.

He left Minnesota for DC to become editor of the Washington City Paper, later moving to New York, where he wrote as a freelancer for publications including The Atlantic Monthly and New York magazine. He joined the Times in 2002 as a business reporter covering magazine publishing. He expanded that beat to include new media, and generally, the web and all media. He remarried and he and his wife have three children and a home in New Jersey.

Carr wrote a memoir of his life as a crack addict, Night of the Gun, published in 2008. He didn’t just write it as others write memoirs—from memory. He decided he had forgotten too much and attacked the project like a reporter, gathering documents and interviewing about 60 people.

“Me and My Girls,” a long excerpt from that memoir, was published in July 2008 in the NY Times Magazine. You can read it here.

My favorite quote of Carr’s, from the conclusion of his memoir, has been cited often today.

“I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth

feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope

the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”

Carr was  my favorite journalist. He was voracious in his interests, which ranged all over the media and pop culture spectrum from ownership and management to the way new media affect the artists and their livelihoods. He was interested in music, pop and otherwise, movies, books, magazines and web culture. He wrote long features on artists such as Neil Young and Woody Harrelson, on South Park, and on Murdoch vs. Bloomberg.

Carr Live

The one time I saw Carr live was during the 2011 Chicago Humanities Festival, when he and Clara Jeffrey, coeditor of Mother Jones magazine, discussed “New Frontiers in Journalism.” It was Wednesday, November 9, 2011, on the stage at Francis Parker School. I was excited to be able to see him and listen to him talk in an informal format. I didn’t take notes that evening, for some reason. However, there’s this video ….

Page One documentary

Carr also is the star of an excellent documentary about modern journalism: Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times. In the 2011 film, Carr is shown working on one of his best stories, his takedown of Sam Zell’s Chicago Tribune and its frat house culture.

The Sweet Spot

Carr and A.O. Scott, the Times’ film critic, had a web series for a while titled “The Sweet Spot.” The two writers would sit in what looks like the Times employee cafeteria in their shirtsleeves talking about some cultural phenomenon that interests them. These 5-6 minutes videos are always fun. You can see a bunch of them here on the Times video channel. The series ended in 2013.

Monday mornings

Every Monday, Carr had a Media Equation column in the Times business section. Every Monday morning, I would first read Paul Krugman on the economy and then Carr, filling myself full of juicy news concepts.

Mondays are not going to be the same.

But in the meantime, I’ll keep typing until it turns into writing.

 

Postscript on 02/15/15: The medical examiner’s autopsy showed Carr died of metastatic lung cancer, with heart disease a contributing factor.

 

 


It’s Oscar time: Love the art, if not the artist

I’ve seen most of the Academy Award nominee films this year and talked to friends about them often. My friends know I’m a movie geek and that I occasionally write about films so they like to know what I think or tell me why they disagree with my opinions. (I’m not naming my Oscar winners here, but I may let something slip in this essay.)

Most of these films I’ve seen with friends and their reactions are often quite interesting. If they find the major characters unappealing or boring, they decide they don’t like the film, no matter how excellent it is in every way (including the performance of the disliked character). This puzzles me.

Mr. Turner

NSBJ-Mr_Turner_posterFor instance, in the late 2014 film Mr. Turner, JMW Turner is depicted from mid-career on as he becomes recognized for his magical, almost mystical, seascapes and landscapes. He’s not upper class, he’s a man of the middle class at best. His father, a former barber, acts as his assistant in the studio. Timothy Spall portrays Turner as crude and rough, both in speech and actions. He’s unkind to his employees and probably not pleasant company. But his paintings are gorgeous and the Mike Leigh film is insightful and beautifully made. It received outstanding reviews and a Metascore of 94 out of 100 on metacritic.com.

The friend I saw the film with hated the Turner character and didn’t care for the film much either.

Boyhood

Boyhood_filmAnother film I loved (and have seen twice) is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. After I first saw it in July, I wrote that it’s “a beautifully edited story of a boy growing into a young man. That’s all. Just life, compressed into 164 minutes. The transitions of age and family change are done so smoothly that sometimes you miss them. The film is rich in conversation (that often seems improvised, although it isn’t) about life, its meaning and potential.”

A friend who also saw the movie thought it was boring. She found the boy unappealing and none of the characters interesting.

In the first place, I don’t agree with that view of Boyhood. And I don’t think whether you happen to “like” the characters has anything to do with the nature, quality and excellence of the film.

Whiplash

In Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, JK Simmons plays a jazz band coach, who is blunt, unkind, even physically brutal to the teenaged musicians. A despicable character, surely? But that doesn’t mean the film and Simmons’ performance aren’t Oscar-worthy. (Whiplash received an 88 Metascore.) Take a look at Simmons with the teenaged drummer played by Miles Teller.

Birdman

NSB-Birdman_posterBirdman was another brilliant film, directed by Alejandro Iñárritu. Although it’s nominated (and may well win) best film and has received excellent reviews (88 on Metacritic), it seems to really divide viewers. Many people I talked to about Birdman said they hated it and hated Michael Keaton and his character. I just don’t understand what that has to do with your opinion of a film. The premise and plot of Birdman is brilliantly creative, the acting is superb and it’s astute about ego and aging—plus the cinematography is outstanding. (Yes, I would be happy if it wins best film.)

The Third Man. I just watched The Third Man, the 1949 Carol Reed film starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton, for the fifth or sixth time. (I’ll write about this gorgeous early noir film in a later post.) Harry Lime (Welles) is a thoroughly despicable character and Holly Martin (Cotton) is an ineffectual American writer in Vienna just after World War II. Neither of them is likable or admirable. But how could that possibly change your view of this epic film?

The art is what it is

I’ve written about this topic before: Love the art even if you don’t love the artist. My point is that the work of art deserves to be viewed on its own, separately from the artist. In April, I wrote about the documentary on photographer Vivian Maier, which depicts her (through interviews) as controlling and mean to the children she cared for. I said that I don’t care about that. I appreciate her work for what it is. Brilliant, engaging images of humanity.

And I added a comment about Woody Allen, who some believe is a horrible, perverted, child-abuser. And he may be that. Or not. Either way, that doesn’t affect the nature of his films or whether I want to see them or appreciate them. The art is what it is.

And finally, there’s Bruce

Of course, there’s a Bruce Springsteen corollary. (Isn’t there always?) Springsteen does not hide his political views; he’s a committed blue-collar liberal. He expresses his views in his songs (especially in his recent albums, Magic and Wrecking Ball). In every concert he takes a few minutes for what he calls his PSA, where he criticizes the current administration (especially under Bush 43), demands punishment for those who caused the financial crisis and help for those who are in need. This drives his conservative fans crazy. (I know because I’ve gone to plenty of concerts with some of them. And I love them anyway.) But those fans love his music—his stories, his lyrics, his melodies, his performance, his band. They appreciate his art for what it is.

Here’s Bruce singing about “Death to My Hometown,” brought about by the banksters. “Send the robber barons straight to hell,” he sings, to the cheers of this huge crowd at the Isle of Wight festival in 2012.


Reviews: Theater for thought and laughter

I always say I prefer my theater (and films) to be grim and depressing. No happy-go-lucky musicals with egregious singing and dancing for me. But this week I’ve seen three marvelous plays that made me laugh and made me think. And what could be a better combination for an evening of theater with thoughtful friends?

The Rose Tattoo by Shattered Globe at Theater Wit

GB-TheRoseTattoo-1Tennessee Williams’ play about an insular Sicilian-American community on the Gulf Coast is melodramatic, tragic and funny. The rose tattoo of the title is an actual tattoo on the chest of Rosario, the husband of seamstress Serafina. We never meet Rosario because Serafina is widowed early in the play. She mourns him and prays to a statue of Mary and his ashes while trying to keep her teenaged daughter from growing up too fast. Shattered Globe’s production is performed in a small space at Theater Wit, but director Greg Vinkler and his actors make the most of the space and of Williams’ passionate plot and language.

My review for Gapers Block gave it four stars or “highly recommended” for the Theatre in Chicago site. The production runs until Feb. 28.

Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play at Theater Wit

PragueThis could be described as a play about The Simpsons, now in its 26th TV season. But it’s really about the world we may have to look forward to, if we don’t rebuild our infrastructure to protect the electric grid. Yes, it’s a post-electric play, taking place in a world of the future that you don’t even want to think about. The three acts show us a vision of the near future, seven years later and 75 years after that. My review appears in Gapers Block and also on Culture Vulture.

Yes, The Simpsons’ plots and characters tie the dystopian epic together. The clever storyline follows the episode from season 5, “Cape Feare,” which satirized the two film versions of Cape Fear in 1962 (Robert Mitchum) and 1991 (Robert De Niro).

The acting, scene design and costuming are all well done, with great creativity in the use of materials and funky lighting when there is no electricity. Jeremy Wechsler’s direction is spot on and the eight actors move from character to character with ease. The production is funny and thought-provoking. However, if you’re not at least a casual Simpsons viewer, you may be in the dark. You can see this until March 1.

Waiting for Godot at Court Theatre

This Samuel Beckett play is one of my very favorites and I never grow tired of seeing it reinterpreted by a new director and cast. Court Theatre’s production, directed by Ron OJ Parsons, is one of the best I’ve seen. One interesting aspect is that it’s performed by an all-African-American cast.

You remember the story. Two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon (Didi and Gogo), a bleak landscape, a leafless tree. They’re hanging out, waiting, of course, for Godot, who never appears and is never explained. In mid-first-act, along comes Pozzo, the plutocrat, and his silent slave Lucky, who is roped by the neck and occasionally whipped by Pozzo.

All four actors are outstanding and among Chicago’s finest. But Allen Gilmore, who plays Vladimir, is so graceful, verbally and physically, that he simply outshines the others. Also Anthony Lee Irons, who plays Lucky, is a joy to see perform his “thinking” monologue. He is brilliantly agile as the philosophical gibberish rolls off his tongue.

Here’s a video clip from the current Court production.

This production is perhaps a bit more physical than some I have seen. It’s a lively performance (lively isn’t usually a word I’d apply to Beckett). The play is about the significance and insignificance of life, about tomorrow and about hope. But it is also a music hall piece with a great deal of humor. And Beckett fully intended it to be funny. He loved vaudeville and silent film comedy and supposedly considered casting Buster Keaton as Gogo and Charlie Chaplin as Didi.

Brian Dennehy was once quoted as saying: “Godot is the greatest thing you can do in theater. It’s incredibly philosophical and deep and significant—and very, very funny.”

Some of the acting pairs who have played Didi and Gogo in the past make me yearn to see their performances. Robin Williams and Steve Martin. Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (with Billy Crudup as Lucky!).

Here’s a wonderful video that shows clips of Stewart and McKellen’s 2013 performance plus the two of them speaking about the play in an interview.

 

And one more thing: The Humans at American Theater Co.

I saw this play a month ago but haven’t had a chance to write about it here. The Humans by Stephen Karam is a world premiere and another excellent ATC production that lets us observe a family Thanksgiving dinner in real time, including crudités from Costco. The characters—adult children, parents, grandmother—all have a story. Love and lost love, laughter, illness, disability and aging issues. The production received almost unanimous four-star reviews, although I would have given it three stars if I had reviewed it. It runs through Sunday, Feb. 1, with two performances on each weekend day—so it would be a good alternative to that football thing on Sunday.

 

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Visions of music: Steve Schapiro and Richard Powers

Music is a subject I love to burrow into, visually as well as aurally. Two recent cultural experiences enhanced my appreciation for the medium and its messages.

Steve Schapiro: Warhol, Reed and Bowie

Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground and Nico. Photo by Steve Schapiro.

Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground and Nico. Photo by Steve Schapiro.

Steve Schapiro is a photographer whose masterful work over almost five decades has spanned punk rock and movie masterpieces. His exhibit of photos of Andy Warhol, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and David Bowie closed last weekend at the Ed Paschke Art Center. The exhibit featured a couple of dozen iconic black and white photos of these music legends.

The art center also showed a 30-minute video about Schapiro with many examples of his earlier work, shooting movie set photos during films such as Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Chinatown. There also are scenes from a recent conversation between Schapiro and Dustin Hoffman as the actor reminisced about photos Schapiro took during those movie set years.

Schapiro, now 80, lives and works in Chicago. He began taking photos when he was 9 and discovered the magic of the darkroom at summer camp. He’s currently shooting photos for several books and other projects, which you can read about in this interview.

Richard Powers: Orfeo, and a dog named Fidelio

I’ve written about Richard Powers before, most notably in my review of the 2013 Spike Jonze film, Her, which I compared to Powers’ 1995 novel, Galatea 2.2. (It drew about 200 readers to my blog last year, more than any other post; it still continues to draw).

Powers can be an acquired taste.  I’ve read all his work and I acknowledge this fondness is something like my affinity for the late Portuguese writer, Jose Saramago. Powers is cerebral, mixes science and technology subjects with the arts, and his characters do not always come across as living, breathing humans.

orfeo-coverOrfeo is his latest novel and I think his best. You grow to care about his leading character and his quests in music and science. Powers displays breathtaking knowledge of ancient music, experimental music and composition. One long section of the book is about the composition of Quartet for the End of Time, composed in 1941 in a German prison camp by French composer Olivier Messiaen.

Yesterday I had the luxury of a really immersive reading experience. About four hours of sitting around the Greensboro airport and the plane ride home. I realized that too often my reading is episodic—an hour in the afternoon when I finish work or a short session of reading in bed. I don’t know if it was the immersive reading or the nature of Powers’ book, but I found myself really caring about the people in Orfeo.

Peter Els, the leading character, is a 70-year-old retired professor, whose passions are avant-garde music and home genetic experiments. The novel opens with the death of his dog Fidelio, a 14-year-old golden retriever who loved music. “Music launched her into ecstasies. She loved long, held intervals, preferably seconds, major or minor. When any human sustained a pitch for more than a heartbeat, she couldn’t help joining in.”

The novel is about Els’ long history as an avant-garde composer and the lovers and friends he connects with in that passion. In retirement, he offers classes in music at a retirement center and is working with a bacterial human pathogen in his tricked-out home laboratory, where he’s trying to record his own compositions in bacterial DNA.

This unfortunately attracts the attention of the Department of Homeland Security and people in hazmat suits arrive. Els flees and the story threads back and forth through his musical and romantic life to his current period of flight.

A good portion of Orfeo is set in Champaign/Urbana, where Powers was an undergraduate and now is professor of English. (Powers went to DeKalb High School and one of his early books is set in DeKalb.)

Els is inspired by John Cage and participates in “Musicircus,” an exuberant 1968 extravaganza in Champaign, where Cage was in residence from 1967 to 1969.

Powers’ Wikipedia page lists and describes his novels. I recommend dipping a toe into the Powers oeuvre. You might start with The Time of Our Singing (2003), which combines music and physics. And then move on to Orfeo and its musical magic.

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Literary lions: Chicago authors celebrate their own hall of fame

You’ll be pardoned if you didn’t know there was a Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. It’s been pretty low key during its short life, and so I excused myself for just discovering it in time for its fifth annual induction ceremony.

The ceremony, presided over by journalist/author Rick Kogan, brought six Chicago authors into the Literary Hall of Fame. I wrote a preview of the event for Gapers Block and decided to attend, even though it was a Saturday night in December with three other events trying to grab my attention. But I was happy I decided to be literary.

The event was held in the richly ornamented Ganz Hall at Roosevelt University. Ganz Hall, originally designed as a banquet hall, was built suspended over the Auditorium Theater space in another example of the engineering genius of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. (All photos by Nancy S Bishop.)

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The authors inducted are all dead, have a strong Chicago connection, and are considered writers of literary works. In other words, they are poets, novelists, playwrights, and occasionally one whose work extends beyond those boundaries. (Donald Evans, CLHOF founder and executive director, outlines the guidelines and history in an essay in the event program.) This year’s six honored authors were:

Margaret Anderson, who founded and edited the literary magazine, The Little Review, in 1914

David Hernandez, a street poet and unofficial poet laureate of Chicago

Edgar Lee Masters, author of The Spoon River Anthology

Willard Motley, Englewood native and author of Knock on Any Door and originator of the Bud Billiken columns in the Chicago Defender

Shel Silverstein, author of iconic books for children including The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends

Margaret Walker, whose first book of poems, For My People (1942), made her one of the youngest published black poets of the 20th century

This wasn’t one of your dry awards ceremonies with envelope openings and honorees fumbling for their speeches. (For one thing, they are all dead.) Each honoree was introduced with a remembrance about the author by a relative or literary connection, followed by a reading from the author’s work, and an acceptance speech by another relative or literary connection. Some of the readings were quite dramatic. Sandra Seaton performed an emotional reading from Margaret Walker’s For My People. Leslie Holland Pryor read a passage about the character Nick Romano from her great-grand-uncle’s novel, Knock on Any Door. Cynthia Judge performed a reading from Life Without Roses, June Sawyer’s play about Margaret Anderson.

These presentations, interspersed with comments from Kogan, made an entertaining evening that revealed Chicago literary secrets and history that should not be forgotten.

The evening also included the Rutledge Writing Awards to 13 Chicago high school student writers.

The sponsors of the CLHOF event include the Chicago Writers Association and the new American Writers Museum, which will open its new museum in 2016 on Michigan Avenue near the Art Institute of Chicago.

 

 


2014: My pop culture memories

It’s the beginning of a new year and time to reflect on the pop culture year just ended. Critics did their top 10 lists of everything, but I’m going to do my list of 2014 favorites. Some of these are clearly eccentric choices–not necessarily “the best.”  I’ve written about most of them during the year – either here or at Gapers Block or Culture Vulture.

Professionally….

Critics at work in the Sunken Garden

Critics at work in the Sunken Garden

My favorite professional experience – my two weeks at the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. It was a fabulous and enriching two weeks, complete with inspiration from colleagues and visiting experts, lots of plays to review, and sleep deprivation.

The institute strengthened my ability to write theater criticism and I did a lot of it this year. I wrote about 60 reviews—mostly theater but also reviews of art exhibits—for gapersblock.com and about 20 for culturevulture.net, a national arts website.

For Nancy Bishop’s Journal, I wrote 46 essays, which drew 4500 visitors from 86 countries—mostly the US, UK and Brazil. The two essays that drew the most visitors were:

GalateaPowers– My review of Spike Jonze’s film Her, which I compared to Richard Powers’ novel Galatea 2.2.

— An article demanding freedom for Oscar Lopez Rivera, a political prisoner in the US for 33 years.

Theater

My favorite experiences as a theater critic and theatergoer aren’t necessarily the plays on other top 10 lists, but they are shows that I found thrilling.

The Hypocrites’ All Our Tragic. This play was a masterful combination of all 32 extant Greek plays by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, written by Sean Graney. The 12 hours flew by, with plenty of breaks for food and conversation.

Oracle’s The jungle was a searing theater experience; a big story in the smallest space imaginable. My review commented, “Your Chicago ancestors may have greeted the Pilgrims, arrived on the Mayflower or a slave ship, or come in through Ellis Island. Whatever their origin, they’re part of our history. You can relive it in this stirring drama.”

A fabulous visiting production of Arguendo, a dramatization of a Supreme Court First Amendment case, directly from the transcript, by the Elevator Repair Service, the inventive New York theater company. Scroll down in this long post to see my review of Arguendo. The choreography of the justices on office chairs was priceless. Here’s the trailer:

Elevator Repair Service presented Gatz, a word-for-word reading of The Great Gatsby, at the MCA theater in 2006. Here’s a video sample of Gatz.

Also among my 2014 favorites: Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England at Theater Wit; a fine production of Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore at Aston Rep; and Chicago Shakes’ King Lear highlighted by Larry Yando’s moving performance in the title role. My reviews of The Lieutenant and Lear.

Films

Picking my favorite films of 2014 was really difficult, but here’s my try:

NSB-Birdman_posterBirdman, because it’s wildly inventive, sadly realistic, and beautiful to behold—especially if you love the backstage areas of old New York theaters. I’ve seen it twice and loved it both times.

Boyhood, because Richard Linklater, who is obviously fascinated with the concept of time (re his “Before” film trilogy), took the time to see a boy and his family grow and change over 12 years.

The Imitation Game. I could nitpick at plot points but the story is fascinating and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance is award-worthy.

The Grand Budapest Hotel. Yes, I know this is kind of sweet and quirky or “twee” as Greg Mitchell tweeted. I just saw it for the second time and still enjoyed Wes Anderson’s visual fun and games.

Favorite movie viewing experience: The Cabinet of Dr Caligari with a live organ performance at the Symphony Center on Halloween night.

Plus two exceptional art documentaries:

National Gallery, a Frederick Wiseman documentary profile of London’s National Gallery, done in his fly-on-the-wall style with no narration or background music.

The Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists, about which I wrote two different pieces—first when it was shown here briefly in June and then when the Gene Siskel Film Center showed it in the fall.

Television

truedetective– True Detective, the weird, creepy, gothic HBO series starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConnaughey. True Detective will come again this year with a different cast and story line, but I doubt it will compare to year 1.

— The 2013 MusiCares Tribute to Bruce Springsteen, which was finally televised by PBS this fall. Many great performers cover his songs, finding new ways to interpret them, while Springsteen sat in the audience and watched. But he finally got to the stage to give his acceptance speech and play a few of his own songs.

Sonic Highways, Dave Grohl’s tribute to American music, illustrated with the music and musicians of eight cities on HBO. The Chicago segment was episode 1. You can still view it on demand, if you subscribe to HBO.

Music

At Bridgestone Arena, waiting for The Boss. Photo by Brad Paulsen.

Bridgestone Arena, waiting for The Boss. Brad Paulsen photo.

— Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Nashville. No, he didn’t come to Chicago, so we took a road trip.

— The Bruce Springsteen 65th birthday bash at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn, organized by my friend, June Sawyers. In addition to the music, June and I read literary and not-so-literary commentary on Mr Springsteen.

Biggest musical disappointment: The October concert at the Symphony Center by Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer. The music and the performances were quiet, indistinguishable and without passion. I knew they weren’t going to rock out, but I did expect some enthusiasm.

Favorite album release: Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems. The opening track, “Almost Like the Blues,” is especially fine. As the Pitchfork reviewer said, his music “sounds slick, but slightly off-kilter.” Springsteen’s High Hopes was also released in 2014, and of course I’ve listened to it many times.

Visual art

My favorite art and museum exhibits:

MCA-DavidBowiesignage– David Bowie Is, which closes this weekend at the MCA. It’s an excellent exhibit and illuminates the genius of a musician who is ever conscious of his identity. My review.

Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, at the Art Institute. My comments.

— The new Ed Paschke Art Center in Jefferson Park opened this summer and I was there.

Mecca Flat Blues, an amazing exhibit of one of the many places where Chicago’s architecture and civic life collide, at the Chicago Cultural Center. This was my personal favorite article of the year. Chicago Magazine named it one of the must-reads of the week in April. I reprised it on my blog with added memories of Mies.

Books and authors

— Hilary Mantel’s short stories, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. I had only read Mantel’s first book about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, which won the Man Booker Award. Her short stories are wildly different.

Tennessee Mech F2-23 May 14.indd– John Lahr’s biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. I reviewed it and his appearance onstage at Steppenwolf.

Stoner, the 1965 novel by John Edward Williams that was recently rediscovered. Julian Barnes declared it the must-read novel of 2013. Stoner was a farm boy who went to college to study agriculture and discovered the world of literature. One reason I loved its quiet prose about a life of disappointments is that it’s mostly set on the campus of the University of Missouri; it was lovely to read Williams’ descriptions of the place where I spent two years.


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