August may mean the summer doldrums with nothing happening for Parisians and Berliners, who have to get on a train or drive south to find a beach. We lucky Chicagoans have our own built-in lake and beach, so we don’t have to go away for summer fun. There’s lots going on at the lakefront and in the theaters, both large and storefront. Here are a few theater tips from my last couple of weeks.
Assassination Theater at the Museum of Broadcast Communications
Yes, this is a single production titled Assassination Theater: Chicago’s Role in the Crime of the Century, which lays out in excruciating detail how the Chicago Outfit was directly involved in the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy and also that of his brother Robert five years later. (I did wonder whether it was a new theater company to be dedicated solely to assassinations and started making a list of how many productions they could muster before they ran out of murders. It would take years, but no, this is a one-off production.)
Journalist/author Hillel Levin researched and produced this documentary production staged in a theater space at the Museum of Broadcast Communications, 360 N. State St. The ingredients are four actors, three projection screens and a minimum of props and costume changes. The story is dramatic and gripping and if you’re a fan of political conspiracy and love to immerse yourself in historical detail, you will love it. If your theater taste runs to musicals and light comedy, stay away. The show could perhaps have been cut by 15 minutes, but I usually think everything is 15 minutes too long.
My review notes that “The story line of Assassination Theater offers persuasive evidence that the JFK autopsy was falsified and the real facts covered up then and in the 1964 Warren Commission report.” The evidence of Mob involvement is not quite as persuasive but I would be willing to give it some study. You can see this show through November 7.
Things You Don’t Say Past Midnight at the Windy City Playhouse
This is a fast-moving, funny, smartly acted and directed sex comedy at the Windy City Playhouse, a new venue in the Irving Park neighborhood that I’ve written about before. Three couples converse and romp about in three bedrooms arrayed across the large playing space. Their interests finally converge and the comedy reaches its apex in a six-way phone call. The play is clever, edgy and a little vulgar but there’s no nudity (in case you were worried or hopeful).
This new theater company is a nonprofit, but had a well-funded startup. The venue is very comfortable with good sightlines, comfy seating and an attractive bar/cafe in its lobby. The company has been bringing in established Chicago actors and directors to stage their productions and the quality is obvious.
Things You Don’t Say runs through October 4. Windy City Playhouse is at 3014 W. Irving Park Rd. Read my review.
The Jacksonian at Profiles Theatre
This is one of those plays that I really wanted to like because it has the right ingredients for a fabulous production. Honored playwright: Beth Henley (she won a Pulitzer for Crimes of the Heart and has written many other plays and films). Ingredients: Sex, drugs, murder and a sidedish of politics. Staging: By one of Chicago’s finest Equity storefront theaters. The Jacksonian is set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964 and the title is the name of the rather seedy motel where Bill Perch is staying, since both his marriage and his dental practice are in decline. The other characters are the motel bartender and waitress and the dentist’s wife and teenage daughter, who my review describes as “Cassandra in a cocoon.” The scenes flow back and forth from the December “night of the murder” to sexy bar and bedroom scenes.
The storyline is interesting and the play and characters definitely keep your interest. So even though I would say my rating is “somewhat recommended” because the nonlinear progression of scenes is a little incoherent, it’s still a worthwhile 90 minutes of theater. The Jacksonian runs through October 11 at Profiles, 4139 N. Broadway. Read my review.
Kafkapalooza at First Floor Theater
First Floor Theater’s annual Litfest, made up of eight short plays inspired by the stories of Franz Kafka, had a short run at the Flat Iron Arts Building in Wicker Park, so I’m sorry if you missed it. Sometimes when you see one of these evenings of short plays, a few of them are good and most are forgettable. But all eight of these plays, running 10-15 minutes each with one to five actors each, were interestingly written and well-performed. My review describes my favorite, titled “The Applicant,” drawn from a fragment of a story that Kafka wrote about Poseidon, bored with the paperwork required in his job as god of the seas, and wishing for a vacation.
First Floor Theater says its mission is to stage stories of individuals facing moments of radical change. I was impressed with this effort and look forward to their next outing.
Show Me a Hero on HBO
Speaking of individuals facing radical change, HBO’s current miniseries definitely fits that description. The story is based on actual events that took place in Yonkers, NY, from 1987 to 1994, when the city was trying to implement scattered-site public housing under a court order.
The “hero” is the young mayor, Nick Wasicsko, played by Oscar Isaac, who’s elected because of his vote against a housing bill but then realizes that the city has to change. There are some great performances by actors such as Bob Balaban as the judge, Alfred Molina as a city councilman passionately opposed to the change, and Catherine Keener as a Yonkers resident bitterly opposed to the new housing that would be in her neighborhood. There are some very ugly but realistic scenes of Yonkers citizens protesting outside city hall and in council chambers. Of course, their arguments are that it’s all about property values and “lifestyle,” not racism. Uh-huh.
The characters are not all politicians and angry residents. Several subplots weave together the stories of public housing residents who will eventually be able to benefit from the new housing.
Isaac really proves his acting chops in this series, following his fine performances in A Most Violent Year and Ex Machina. Of course, I first wrote about him in 2014 when he starred in the Coen Brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, which all the critics, including me, raved about. Too bad it bombed at the box office and in awards season. I still think it’s a great film and I recommend it too.
One of my favorite things about Show Me a Hero is that it’s threaded with music by Bruce Springsteen from beginning to end. The mayor is a Springsteen fan and the songs all fit the dramatic action. Last week, in parts 3 and 4, the Springsteen songs were “Tenth Avenue Freezeout,” “Brilliant Disguise” and “Secret Garden.” Can’t wait to hear what tonight brings.
Tonight is the third and final part of the six-part production, being shown on three Sunday nights. It will be available on demand if you’re an HBO subscriber and I’m sure it will have another life streaming and on DVD soon.
Images courtesy theater companies and HBO.
The stunning sculpture exhibit currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago is one of those quiet landmarks that art critics will talk about for years. The difference between this and some of the mass exhibits like Monet or Van Gogh is that you don’t have to sign up for a time slot, pay an extra fee or wade through masses of humanity to glimpse the work. Charles Ray is a major artist and one of our most important contemporary artists and this is your only opportunity to see this exhibit in the U.S. Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997-2014 is on display in the Modern Wing through October 4.
The works are all fascinating in their attention to detail (car parts, toes and veins). The figurative ones have an eerie sentience, as I said in my review. They are all modeled on or copied from an actual person and it seems that Ray has captured the essence of the person in each work.
The 19 pieces in the main exhibit (two others are elsewhere in the museum and outside in the South Garden) are simply and elegantly displayed in three galleries. Each figure lives in its own ample space so you can walk around and muse about what it’s saying to you. And I guarantee, some of them will speak to you.
Two of the pieces have controversial backstories. See my review to learn why the Whitney Museum rejected “Huck and Jim” for its new location near the High Line.
(If you think you’ve read about this before, it may be that you saw my Gapers Block review posted on Facebook and Twitter. You can also read my review on berkshirefinearts.com. All photos by Nancy Bishop, except as noted.)
Farrago, potpourri, mishmash. Whatever you call a week of variety, that was my last week. A few tidbits and capsule reviews.
Cirque du Soleil: Kurios — Cabinet of Curiosities
The kid (he’s now 17) and I went to opening night at Cirque du Soleil with some friends. The Big Top (or le grand chapiteau) is set up on the United Center parking lot. Cirque du Soleil hasn’t been in Chicago for a few years and the show has been re-created or reimagined for a new audience, as my friend Kim reported when she interviewed the director, Michel Laprise, for Gapers Block. All the amazing acrobatics and gorgeous pageantry and choreography are still there but it’s done with a “steampunk” theme, suggesting late 19th century industrial machines with a whiff of fantasy. The costuming suits the theme and the period too.
We loved the Acro Net, where a giant net stretches across the stage and operates like a trampoline. The performers bounce, dance, jump and leap, sometimes all the way to the tent’s peak. The Rola Bola man balanced on a board, first atop a ball, then several balls and finally a hill of balls and spools–and still he balanced. The Invisible Circus was very clever, with all the lights and contraptions operating as if someone was using them, but not a soul was in sight–except for the circus announcer who described what was taking place. I could go on and on. It’s an amazing show. Whether or not you’ve seen Cirque du Soleil before, try to see this one. And take a kid or a kid at heart.
Hot Dog Festival at the Chicago History Museum
Next day we wandered over to the south end of Lincoln Park for the Chicago History Museum’s Hot Dog Festival. The hot dogs were great; I had a Chicago classic with all the trimmings layered in the proper order*. The kid had a dog plus fries and then went back for a Godzilla dog, which is the equivalent of two or three regular ones. We shared an ice cream because I ran out of dog dollars.
In addition to great food, there were bands and a speakers stage. We got there early so we could hear Bill Savage, the Northwestern pop culture professor, discourse on “Ketchup: The Condiment of Controversy.” He discussed the nature of hot dogs (“the ultimate democratic street food”) in other locales, concluded that Chicago is rightly considered the hot dog capital of the world, and described how hot dogs and their peculiar Chicago condimentry came to be. He took a poll of his audience. Seventy percent of us agreed that ketchup on a hot dog is an abomination, but ketchup is ok for kids under 10. Bill’s conclusion was Chicago is a great democratic city and Chicagoans are free to do as we please, and if that means ketchup on a hot dog, that’s ok. I respectfully disagree.
* The layers have to be: mustard, neon green relish, chopped onions, tomato wedges, hot sport peppers, dill pickle wedges and finally celery salt.
Two nights at the theater
My two most recent reviews were (1) brilliant satire and (2) a flashy musical. Guess which one I liked best?
The Boy From Oz is the new show by Pride Films & Plays at Stage 773. It’s the story of Australian musician and entertainer Peter Allen, who was married to Liza Minnelli for a while, was a great hit as a cabaret performer, but never was a huge success in the US. At least his music was never a huge success–and since there was nothing melodic or hummable about his music, that made sense. The production is very well done, with some good performances from both the actors and the dance ensemble. Great costumes and choreography. So my review is: It’s a pleasant evening with a lot of talent and energy wasted on boring raw material. See my review here. The play runs through August 30. See it if you like gratuitous singing and dancing.
Stupid Fucking Bird is Aaron Posner’s play that kinda/sorta deconstructs Chekhov’s The Seagull. Sideshow Theatre is staging it now at Victory Gardens/ Biograph and you can see it through August 30. You need to see it. The script is witty and the characters are sort of based on Chekhov’s except their angst is contemporary rather than 19th century. It’s a case where A loves B who loves C who loves D who flirts with E who is the lover of F. (I’m quoting my review.) Plus there’s a playwright who wants to invent a new kind of theater and when he succeeds in getting a play produced complains that he will now have to put up with being criticized by perfect strangers in addition to family members. Some nice musical interludes throughout the play with Mash (Masha in Chekhov) on the ukulele.
Movies with musical themes
Baby It’s You is a 1983 film directed by John Sayles. It’s a little indie film about Jill, a Jewish girl with dreams of college and a theater career (played by Rosanna Arquette), and her boyfriend, the Sheik (Vincent Spano), a well-dressed greaser who loves Jill and Sinatra. They are not going to walk off together into the sunset because Jill is not interested in marriage and babies and that’s the only relationship that Sheik can see for them. It’s a good film–I gave it 4 stars out of 5 on letterboxd.com. Two great things about the film are the music (plenty of Springsteen songs) and the trip that Jill and Sheik make to the Jersey shore. We see how Asbury Park looked 30 years ago when the Casino and the Palace were in much better shape; Madame Marie’s was there too and it still is. She died in 2008 but family members still tell fortunes in her booth on the boardwalk.
CBGB is a movie that I really wanted to like. It’s a 2013 docustory about the iconic punk rock club on the Bowery and its owner, Hilly Kristal (played, incongruously, by Alan Rickman). It was fun to see actors play the great bands that started there, like the Dead Boys, Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, the Ramones and Patti Smith– but the producers ruined the effect by playing polished studio recordings of those bands while the actors lip-synced. The music totally missed the raw, rough edge that it should have had. It’s not a very good movie–unless, of course, you loved the memory of CBGB.
One more thing ….
An exhibit of photos of rock star legends by Chicago photographer Paul Natkin was on display at the Ed Paschke Art Center in Jefferson Park. One Saturday afternoon, he sat surrounded by his photos and talked about his career, shooting some of the greatest musicians of our time, and how photography has changed with the digital revolution. His talk was fascinating and he was kind enough to talk to me later and answer a question about artists’ rights for one of my SCORE clients. Natkin’s work was shown in a more comprehensive exhibit a few years ago at the Chicago Cultural Center. You can check out his website.
This week I’ve seen and reviewed two youth ensemble theater productions. I did that with some trepidation because I didn’t want them to be dreadful. It’s one thing if an adult production is dreadful and I have to write a bad review. But I really didn’t want to write a bad review when teenagers are involved. It turned out happily because both productions are outstanding, and in totally different ways.
American Theater Company’s Greensboro: A Requiem is an example of the serious, documentary theater created by ATC’s late lamented artist director, P.J. Paparelli. This youth ensemble production presents a play by Emily Mann, which tells the story of a 1979 event in which five protestors were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi party.
Albany Park Theater Project’s Feast, originally mounted in 2010, is a lively, colorful series of scenarios about food in Chicago’s many immigrant communities, presented by a multiethnic group of 25 performers of high school age. Five just finished middle school and four will go on to college in the fall.
Both productions involve the young performers doing additional research to update or recreate the stories (in the case of Feast) or to travel to the scene of the event to interview participants and survivors. In each case, the research served to deepen the actors’ understanding of the issues portrayed in their productions.
Greensboro: A Requiem uses verbatim text from interviews, court transcripts and other documents to describe what happened on November 3, 1979, in the North Carolina city. The Communist Workers Party organized a group of mostly black textile workers to protest the Ku Klux Klan, which was then growing in influence. The protesters had a police permit for their march, but somehow the police conveniently managed to be out to lunch at the time of the march. A caravan of cars loaded with Klan and Nazi party members attacked the marchers and killed five of them.
The 11 Chicago Public High School juniors and seniors do an excellent job of creating the mood and portraying what has become known as the Greensboro massacre and its aftermath. Read about their production in my review here.
You can also read about the ensemble’s Kickstarter campaign that raised money for their travel to Greensboro.
This show runs through August 2 at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron. Tickets are free, but reservations are suggested (and a $25 donation will be requested).
Feast is a much less somber production, but underlying the joy of shopping (with a LINK card), cooking, eating and dancing are the real stories of the scarcity of food and its importance in tying the immigrant community to its home traditions. And of course food plays a glorious role in life and in family celebrations. See my review.
Feast continues in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre through August 16. The circular stage with a runway on each end is a perfect setting for the production. Music and costuming complete an authentic picture of the lives of the many immigrant communities represented.
Both of these productions provide an excellent and thought-provoking evening of theater. They will fill you with optimism about the future of Chicago and American theater.
The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now. That’s the title of the new exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s a euphonious blend of the visual and the aural. It celebrates 50 years of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a group always dedicated to progressive sounds.
I’m glad to see the MCA continuing their exploration of the confluence of art and music, as they did with the exciting David Bowie Is exhibit last fall. This exhibit is a little more low-key but it displays paintings and photographs that represent the visualization of jazz and depictions of AACM from its beginnings to now.
In addition to two-dimensional art, there are exciting sculptural exhibits, such as the stage set showing the huge range of instruments, especially percussion, that the AACM played. Two of the original AACM members collaborated with a sound designer to create “Rio Negro II,” a roomful of bamboo and rain sticks, chimes and robotic instruments. It’s a sight and sound to behold and enjoy.
You’ll also see archival materials such as record jackets, posters and brochures. I especially liked the display, “Speak Louder,” Sound Suits created by Nick Cave (no, not the Australian rocker–this one is the artist and fashion designer). They’re beautiful and functional.
The title of the exhibit is drawn from a book by Chicago music writer John Litweiler. My reviews are here and here. The exhibit price is included with the cost of admission. Musical performances are scheduled for some dates during the exhibit, which runs until Nov. 22. It’s an intriguing and well-curated exhibit, so support your local art museum!
Recently I reviewed the new Goodman Theatre production of Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a play with many Chekhovian and other theatrical references. I thought it was very good but regretted the fact that Goodman has been promoting it as a slaphappy summer comedy. That means the audience members think they have to be entertained and therefore find every line absolutely hilarious. As I said in my review:
“Durang’s treatment certainly contains much wit and draws the fine line between comedy and tragedy, but the opening night audience’s raucous laughter throughout both acts weakened the poignancy of the characters’ stories. Really, this isn’t the Marx Brothers.”
The Goodman publicity team was offering actor interviews and I was asked if I would like to interview one of the lead actors. After seeing the play, I said, “No, I want to interview the actor who played Cassandra. I want to hear her story about how she created her character.” And so one morning last week, I went back to the Goodman Theatre with my tape recorder (my iPhone actually) and a set of questions to ask E. Faye Butler.
I don’t do interviews often, because they’re time consuming and can end up being bland if the subject is afraid of sounding undignified. But E Faye was fabulous. She’s a classically trained actor who also sings and has a powerful voice and a magnetic persona. She is smart, articulate and funny and was absolutely the best interview I’ve done. Turning her recorded interview into an interesting story was easy. At least I think it’s interesting and I hope you do.
Review: Brilliant Adventures at Steep Theatre
Last week I reviewed the new gritty British drama at Steep Theatre. It’s a US premiere of a play by Alistair McDowall, a new English playwright. Excellent play, directed by Robin Witt, with a group of six fine actors. The fascinating thing about Brilliant Adventures is that it starts out like one of those 1970s British working class films, but then devolves into sci-fi and fantasy. Really, it’s fascinating and it works.
As I said in my review, “It is a deeply classist play that explores the lives of those who live in Middlesbrough, a failed industrial city on the River Tees in northeast England.” The Steep playbill and the lobby exhibits do a good job of acquainting you with the environment and language of Middlesbrough.
Brilliant Adventures is an outstanding two hours of theater and I recommend it. You can see it through August 15. Steep is located on Berwyn, just east of the Berwyn Red Line station. You can also see my review here.
Review: Ring of Fire at the Mercury Theatre
I also had a chance to review the Johnny Cash musical tribute in its extension through the end of August. (I missed it when it first opened this spring.) I went with friends who are music lovers like me and fans of rock, blues, bluegrass and country). June Sawyers has written dozens of books about music and musicians. It was a treat to see the show with two music fans and discuss the music at intermission and afterwards.
We all agreed it’s a great piece of entertainment but we thought it lacked the depth that the tortured story of Johnny Cash’s life would have added. But no, it’s strictly a jukebox musical with about 30 songs by Cash and other songwriters performed by a talented group of seven musicians.
Here’s a song from the show that was often performed by Johnny Cash but it was written by Geoff Mack (an Australian) and Hank Snow (who wrote the North American lyrics). I describe the lyrics as a tongue-twister travel itinerary. This is a Hank Snow version from 1965.
The Mercury Theatre is a comfortable venue with an excellent sound system. Ring of Fire is a pleasant evening of entertainment in the same way that Million Dollar Quartet is. But even that play is built around some narrative elements.
My Gapers Block review is posted now. You can read it here.
Fourth of July may be my favorite holiday. Parades and fireworks! What could be better. And there’s nothing like a small town Fourth of July. I loved the Fourth when we lived in small college towns and this year I spent the holiday in a medium-sized city in North Carolina. Greensboro is something over a quarter million people but they still have a July Fourth parade down main street. Greene Street, actually—named for Nathanael Greene, the Revolutionary War general who forced the British troops to leave the Carolinas. The decisive battle was the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in 1781, near what is now Greensboro.
Since July 3 was a First Friday, the galleries and artisan shops on Elm Street were open and we walked around and looked at many creative endeavors. One of the places we visited was Elsewhere, an experimental venue of art, music and salvaged art (or junk, if you wish).
The Saturday parade featured a few bands, motorcycles and classic cars, fire engines, Uncle Sam on stilts and lots of politicians. Costumed paraders walked along the route tossing candy to the crowd and handing out small flags. My grandsons loved the candy and the fire engines. There was a block party and street festival downtown on both July 3 and 4.
Saturday night the Fourth we were invited to a skybox at the stadium to watch the Greensboro Grasshoppers play the Hickory Crawdads. (The Hoppers are a Class A team in the South Atlantic League, and a farm team of the Miami Marlins.) I won’t report the score to avoid embarrassing the Hoppers. The kids were delighted when the team mascot, Guilford Grasshopper, visited our skybox. He took pictures with everyone and gave me a hug. The evening ended with an excellent fireworks display, one of many around town that night.
Silent movies: Chaplin and Keaton
One quiet afternoon the 7-year-old and I went to a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 film, The Circus, at the aptly named Geeksboro Coffee Cinema. The coffee house caters to gaming geeks and the downstairs cinema shows weekly films. They also have Lawn Chair Movie Nights outside on weekends.
Meyer and I and about 20 other film geeks saw Chaplin’s silent film, in which the owner of a traveling circus hires the Little Tramp because he’s accidentally funny. There are all kinds of wonderful sight gags, like a pickpocket sequence, the Tramp locked in a cage with a lion and performing a high wire act beset by five monkeys.
The film ends as the circus pulls up stakes and leaves town. The Little Tramp walks off across the field in a tracking shot framed by an iris lens.
Meyer, who just finished first grade and is a great reader, could read all the title cards. He sat on the edge of his seat through most of the 71-minute film. What fun to take a child to such an entertaining old classic and discover it with him!
Here’s the lion cage clip from The Circus.
My film group discussed two Buster Keaton films last night, so I had a chance to watch two more silent films, both of them available for streaming. It was a chance to compare the talents of Chaplin and Keaton and I was surprised to discover that I found Keaton more subtle and interesting. The two Keaton films (both of which are often on best-film lists) are The General (1926) and Sherlock Jr. (1924), in which Keaton is a film projectionist who also cleans up the cinema after the show. He’s in love with a pretty girl and longs to be a detective. He carries around a pocketsize manual, How to Be a Detective. In one scene, Keaton appears to walk onto the screen and become part of the film. (The film runs 45 minutes.)
I think The General (78 minutes) is the better of the two films. The film (adapted from a book titled The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger) is set in the South during the Civil War and Keaton is Johnnie Gray, a railroad engineer in love with Annabelle Lee. He wants to enlist, but is rejected, and ends up being a daring hero as the engineer of the Confederate train (titled General) that helps prevent the Northern Army’s supply trains from advancing into the South. The film has lots of amazing footage that was carried out in real time, including the train chase and a scene where a bridge collapses and one train falls into the gorge below. It was a very expensive film to produce and Keaton’s career suffered as a result.
Keaton is always calm, serious and practical about the situation he’s in, even while he’s performing amazing physical feats as he keeps the General running, finding wood, chopping it and tossing it into the firebox. He doesn’t mug for the camera or overact as most silent film stars (including Chaplin) did. Keaton’s deadpan expression earned him the nickname The Great Stone Face.
In the last 15 minutes of the film, however, it was pretty horrifying to realize that I was cheering for Johnnie Gray and the South, especially when the Southern troops appeared carrying the Confederate battle flag.
You can watch The General in full online, probably because Keaton let the copyright expire and it became public domain.
Here’s a classic Keaton scene from his 1920 short film, The Scarecrow, in which dining is an efficiency exercise.
One more movie: Love & Mercy
This Brian Wilson biopic is an excellent film that shows Wilson at two different times of his life, played by two different actors. Paul Dano is Wilson as a young man, frontman for the Beach Boys and orchestrator of Pet Sounds. The older Wilson, ~30 years later and suffering from serious emotional problems, is played by John Cusack. The two times of his life are shown seamlessly, with the early scenes paving the way for his later decline. The older Wilson was in such bad shape (“Lonely. Scared. Frightened,” he writes on a card he hands to a young woman he has just met) that he allows himself to be totally controlled by the venal Dr. Eugene Landy, vigorously played by Paul Giamatti.
The best scenes, to my mind, are those where Dano as Wilson is directing the development of Pet Sounds with the studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew. He walks around the studio, perfecting the sound of each instrument, and adding sound effects. (The fact that the Beach Boys themselves were not the backing musicians caused a serious rift in the band.)
Love & Mercy runs two hours and is showing now at theaters in Chicago and Evanston.