New York Dispatch: Live From New York City, My First Reviews

This is coming to you live from New York, where I’m hanging out for the month of March. I decided I wanted to live like a New Yorker and take in as much arts and culture as I could in a relaxed way. I’m staying in a tiny but comfy apartment in midtown, near the theater district. It’s a neighborhood I know and public transportation is really convenient here. I’ll report on some of my arts adventures rom time to time.

Meg Hennessy as Minnie Powell and James Russell as Donal Davoren in The Shadow of a Gunman. Photo © Carol Rosegg.

The Shadow of a Gunman at Irish Rep

My first theater review was posted today on Third Coast Review, where I regularly write about theater and art. At Irish Repertory Theatre, a theater company I have admired over the years, I reviewed the first in their O’Casey Cycle, celebrating the work of Sean O’Casey. He was a nationalist and a socialist and an Irish freedom fighter–and one of Ireland’s finest playwrights. My first review is of The Shadow of a Gunman, set in 1920 Dublin, where the war for independence rages outside a tenement building. There’s a bit of comedy throughout, but as the play proceeds, reality sets in. And the opposing forces, the vicious Black and Tans, invade the neighborhood–and then the house. A valise left in the room in act one becomes a Chekhovian gun in act two. The acting and direction are excellent, as is always the case with Irish Rep.

I’ll be seeing the second O’Casey play, the more familiar Juno and the Paycock, next week. Watch for my review.

I have plays scheduled throughout the month but I have plenty of room for other activities. When nothing else demands my attention, I’ll go to the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which offers a regular schedule of new films, both international and American, retrospectives, filmmaker talks and discussions. There are two FSLC buildings on opposite sides of 65th Street near Columbus Avenue. Their screening model is similar to that of the Gene Siskel Film Center, but on a larger scale.

Cold War, a love story over the decades

The first film I saw at the Film Society was Cold War, which screened recently in Chicago. It’s the latest film from Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, whose film Ida won the 2015 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Cold War is a love story told across two decades in post-WW2 Poland and in several European cities. The film is told mostly from the viewpoint of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), an instructor and band leader, whose lover is Zula (Joanna Kulig), an engaging and ambitious singer and performer. (I felt the film overplayed Wiktor’s viewpoint and underplayed Zula’s.)  They are both members of a national musical touring company that presents Polish peasant-style works. While the company is in East Berlin for a concert, the two lovers plot to leave for the west. But only Wiktor actually escapes and thus the journey of longing begins. The film is notable for its gorgeous cinematography, shot in high contrast black and white with some glorious imagery, lighting and scenes. The story is elliptical, as Pawlikowski skims over the 20-year period in 88 minutes. Steve Prokopy reviewed Cold War recently.

In an interview screened before the film, Pawlikowski said, “The definition of art is what you leave out.” And he left out a lot, but nothing was missing. The ending is particularly beautiful—finished off with an interlude from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, “Aria.”

The Band’s Visit

I also saw this lovely play with music this week on Broadway. It’s been reviewed everywhere, so I won’t review it here. It’s called a musical but it doesn’t have egregious singing and dancing–that is, the dialogue is spoken, not sung, and dancing is done when it fits the plot. The music is performed by the musicians from the Egyptian band that visits the Israeli village and by a small pit orchestra. The play is directed by David Cromer, a Chicago theater luminary who has been highly successful in New York, both as director and actor. The Band’s Visit goes on tour this year and will be in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace in September. If you’d like to know more about the story, get a DVD of the excellent 2007 Israeli film of the same name.

And more ….

Today I’m seeing the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Whitney (Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again). My next article will cover that comprehensive exhibit. “Mr. Paradox, who never left, is back,” as Holland Cotter said in his New York Times review.

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What’s a Neighborhood? Don’t Let Rahm Emanuel Make Lincoln Yards a Corporate Theme Park

Last week, I posted my opinion about Lincoln Yards on Third Coast Review. With all the discussion and controversy about parks, soccer stadiums and TIF money, I wanted to focus on the element that’s being taken for granted. The design of Lincoln Yards is centered with a mass of high rise buildings. The area is surrounded by traditional Chicago low-rise neighborhoods and this seems like thumbing your nose at Chicago’s history and traditions. Yes, we have a wall of highrises along the lakefront and in the loop, but they do not belong in our neighborhoods. There have already been too many intrusions of this type. Here’s what I wrote.

Sterling Bay image.

We don’t have to look far for a definition of a neighborhood. Jane Jacobs, the famous architecture writer who faced down Robert Moses’ efforts to demolish part of Greenwich Village to build a highway, wrote about it. She stressed the importance of mixed uses, short blocks that added corners, sidewalks and parks, population density, and both old and new buildings. Her 1961 book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, is considered one of the most influential works in the history of town planning.

The plans so far for Lincoln Yards, one of the most important planned developments in Chicago’s history, meet none of the Jacobs definition. We had a victory last week when Alderman Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward) vetoed the part of the Sterling Bay plan that was to include a 20,000-seat soccer stadium and a massive Live Nation entertainment district. But the worst aspects of the 70-acre plan remain: The presence of 20 highrise towers ranging from 400 to 650 feet. That means roughly 40 to 60 stories. The buildings, planned for commercial and residential use, could house 24,000 workers and 5,000 residential units, and would loom incongruously over the surrounding low-rise neighborhoods of Lincoln Park and Bucktown/Wicker Park.

Lincoln Yards is located along the north branch of the Chicago River in a former industrial district; it’s the former home of Finkl Steel. It’s bounded by the Kennedy Expressway to the west, Webster Avenue to the north, Clybourn Avenue to the east and North Avenue on the south. If you’re a music lover, you will recognize immediately that the site of our beloved Hideout is within those boundaries.

As the risk to the survival of the Hideout and the damage to other music venues became clear in November, Chicago’s independent music venues organized to fight the Lincoln Yards plan. They asked the city to take time to consider all aspects of the plan, including use of TIF money, rather than rushing it through so that Mayor Emanuel can consider it part of his “legacy.”

When Alderman Hopkins was seeking input, I completed his survey and included this as my response to the single open-ended question: “The high rise residential plan is totally unacceptable. This will not be a Chicago neighborhood. Residential buildings should be two-, three- and four-story max. Also the Live Nation entertainment venue is far too large. It would be much better to encourage local venues and local art/music groups to create small, storefront spaces typical of Chicago neighborhoods.”

Blair Kamin, the Tribune architecture critic, has done an excellent job of describing and criticizing the Sterling Bay plan and its support by almost-lame-duck Mayor Emanuel. Kamin begins one article this way:

“A great urban place is more than a motley collection of tall buildings and open spaces. It has lively streets, pulsing gathering spots and buildings that talk to one another rather than sing the architectural equivalent of a shrill solo.

“Daley Plaza, with its enigmatic Picasso sculpture and powerful county courts high-rise, is a great urban place. So is the North Side’s Armitage Avenue, lined with delightful Victorian storefronts.”

My Modern Library copy of Jacobs book.

A neighborhood is a place where you can walk around at any time and see many other people walking, shopping, pushing strollers or riding bikes. There are places to stop for a coffee or a sandwich, to linger with your laptop, and benches where you can sit and people watch or read a book. There are bars where you can have a beer with a buddy or listen to music, which blares out to the street at night. And please let there be bookstores. As Jane Jacobs said, a neighborhood is for foot people, not car people.

That’s what Lincoln Yards should be. It should settle in a neighborly way amongst the surrounding neighborhoods and enable traffic back and forth across fungible neighborhood lines. It should not be, as it is set out now, a self-contained skyscraper community insulated from the rest of the city. Sterling Bay and architecture planning firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill should not be trying to foist this nightmare on Chicago. They should all be reading, or rereading, Jane Jacobs’ book.

Recommended reads:

For an excellent overview and critique of the Lincoln Yards plan, I recommend these articles by Kamin.

01/10/19: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/kamin/ct-biz-lincoln-yards-kamin-0110-story.html

12/28/18: http://graphics.chicagotribune.com/lincoln-yards-reaction-kamin/index.html

7/22/18: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/kamin/ct-biz-lincoln-yards-assessment-kamin-0722-story.html

And of course, Jane Jacobs’ book.

A second book, which I highly recommend, is The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Robert Caro’s biography describes how the unelected official built an empire and lived as an emperor under six New York governors and 11 NYC mayors, until his reputation was finally destroyed. It’s a great read.


High Anxiety: Without My Electronic Tether

Apple store, Michigan Avenue, Chicago. Photo by NSB.

To the glitzy, glassy Apple store

For iPhone repair…

Nothing serious, just a battery upgrade.

But—an hour a half, says Matt,

My Apple red-shirt guy.

(Beat.) An hour a half?

Without my phone? I don’t have my iPad … my laptop is at home.

It’s a strange feeling …

No electronic tether.

No one knows where I am

Sitting in a café on Michigan Avenue.

No one can call me or text me.

I don’t know who has answered my emails

Or sent out a plaintive call for help.

The question: Does anyone need me?

Do my sons think I’m on a cart in the ER?

Or—most likely—no one has noticed.

 

NOTE: If your old iPhone needs a new battery, Apple says it’s replacing them for $29 through 12/31/18. But prepare for the anxiety. Bring a book. Or write a poem.


Revisiting Vonnegut’s Wacky But Relevant Satire, Happy Birthday, Wanda June

Kurt Vonnegut’s best-known play didn’t get a very good review from Clive Barnes when it opened off-off Broadway in 1970. But the legendary New York Times reviewer called it “inspired idiocy” and said “There was not much I found to admire in the play, but a surprising amount to love.” Happy Birthday, Wanda June isn’t performed very often. The last evidence I can find of its staging in Chicago was a 1991 production by a company called Bad Rep Theater Company. But I had the good fortune to find it playing last week at an off-Broadway venue near Times Square called the Duke on 42nd Street. Actually, I was there before, in 2004, when Chicago Shakes transferred its bloody Rose Rage (an all-male production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, V and VI condensed and staged in a Victorian slaughterhouse) to the Duke.

Happy Birthday, Wanda June is a wacky satire on American culture and our obsessions with guns and warfare. Vonnegut was inspired to write it after rereading Homer’s Odyssey during a Great Books series. His first 1960 version was titled Penelope and he rewrote it years later with the title Happy Birthday, Wanda June. The title character appears only in dream sequences; she’s in heaven playing shuffleboard, having been run over by an ice cream truck.

While I was writing my review, I remembered a play called Penelope that riffed on the same story (warrior comes home from the wars after many years; finds his wife’s suitors hanging around) staged by Steppenwolf Theatre in 2012. The play by Irish playwright Enda Walsh and directed by Amy Morton was memorably manic. The four suitors, hanging around an empty swimming pool, all clad in Speedos (which should never be worn by men over 18), were four notable Chicago actors: Scott Jaeck, Yasen Peyankov, Tracy Letts and Ian Barford.

Through the magic of their plots, characters and language, Mr. Shakespeare and the Greek playwrights and poets remain bristlingly relevant. And so does Vonnegut. I recently reread and reviewed his early novel, Player Piano, a story about a society in which humanity had become superfluous. And although Wanda June is hardly a perfect play, you will find it rousingly roisterous and more than a little relevant. Here’s part of my review of Wanda June, which you can read in its entirety over on Third Coast Review.

  *    *    *

If you’re a Kurt Vonnegut reader, Happy Birthday, Wanda June will sound familiar. I was sure I had read it long ago when I was devouring everything he wrote. But no, I never read Wanda June. It’s not a novel; it’s one of Vonnegut’s short list of plays and the only one most people have heard of, because it also was a 1971 film.

But if you’re in New York, or can get there by November 29, you have the chance to see this wacky dark satire of American culture and America’s propensity for war and death, filtered through Vonnegut’s mad genius lens. Wheelhouse Theater Company is presenting Wanda June, smartly directed by Jeffrey Wise, at the Duke on 42nd Street, a cozy compact theater venue tucked in among the Times Square chaos.

Vonnegut’s premise, with a strong H/T to Homer’s Odyssey, is that Harold Ryan (Jason O’Connell), a warrior and big-game hunter who disappeared eight years ago while hunting for diamonds in the Amazon rain forest, returns home. Harold was declared legally dead and now his wife Penelope (Kate MacCluggage) has two suitors, much to the distress of their 12-year-old son, Paul (Finn Faulconer), who believes his father will return.

Et cetera. And so it goes, as Vonnegut would say.

Wise’s cast is uniformly strong, with O’Connell’s manic Harold standing out when he plays the Beast of Yugoslavia too. MacCluggage’s performance shows Harold how American society and the role of women have changed during his eight-year absence. Charlotte Wise is perkily smart as Wanda June; she alternates with Brie Zimmer in that role. The scenic design and sound effects are smashingly appropriate. (See full review for credits.)

Please read the full review here.


Haskell Wexler Talks About Medium Cool

As a followup to my review and comments on Haskell Wexler’s film, Medium Cool, here’s an important short film interview with Wexler, made in about 2014, the year before he died. Wexler talks about the film and his filmmaking. He describes the mood and atmosphere in Chicago at the time, his political attitudes, racism and the antiwar movement, and how Medium Cool came to be. Please enjoy.


Adventures in Filmmaking: Medium Cool, a Masterpiece 50 Years Later

Haskell Wexler, right. Image courtesy H&J.

Haskell Wexler invented a new hybrid form of filmmaking when he created Medium Cool, released in 1969. I saw the film back then, but was probably unconscious of anything but the story and its background—the antiwar protests and police action around the1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

This is the film’s 50th anniversary and I celebrated by watching the film—three times. Once by itself and twice with the excellent commentary tracks included on the DVD. (You see, Netflix, that’s why some 3 million crazy people still subscribe to your DVD service—because it’s the only way we can view foreign films and classics like this. You have 40 times that in streaming subscribers, so I hope you keep finding us profitable too.)

Theatrical film poster, 1969.

Wexler layers a fictional story of a loner TV news cameraman, a single mom and her young son over cinema-verité-style documentary footage of news events leading up to the convention (Robert Kennedy’s assassination and funeral, the arrival of the protestors in Chicago, the preparation of troops, police and Illinois National Guard) with the events inside the convention hall (the old International Amphitheatre) and in Lincoln Park, Grant Park and on Michigan Avenue.

Wexler started researching his film at least a year in advance and had tips that there would be a major protest action surrounding the convention. Because of his planning, he was able to have his characters carry out the plot against a backdrop of actual convention footage and street protests. The other innovation is Wexler’s use of quick cuts and sharp transitions. He takes you from A to C without stopping at B to explain, as Roger Ebert says in his 1969 review. That’s a technique we are used to now, but it was probably jarring 50 years ago.

Robert Forster plays John, the cameraman, and Verna Bloom plays Eileen. The most striking sequence is near the end of the film when Eileen is frantically looking for her independent-minded son, Harold (a 13-year-old untrained actor, whose performance is rough, natural and phenomenal). Harold has wandered away from their home in an Uptown slum (a poor white migrant neighborhood at the time) to go down to Grant Park with one of his buddies. Eileen follows him downtown, looking frantically through the crowds and marching along with the protestors on their way to the convention site. She’s in the middle of the actual police attack on the protesters. Wexler very cleverly had Verna wear a bright yellow dress, which meant she was easy to follow in the crowd.

Finally Eileen and John connect and get in his car to continue the search for Harold.

The film ends with a tragic accident, which happens for no reason, as accidents do. (My sister Linda died at the age of 27 in a similar car crash in January 1970, a life ended for no reason. She died at the same age and in the same year as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.)

There are plenty of other dramatic elements to the film. One interesting segment involves a fictional story about a cabdriver who found a package with $10,000 in cash in his taxi and returned it to the owner. John visits his home to interview the driver and meets all his friends. It’s 1968, remember, and the driver’s friends (the whole cast in this sequence is African-American) are artists and activists. They accuse John of being a police spy and the conversation gets racially heated. (Some of the film is scripted and much of it is improvised, including most of this scene.)

In the newsroom, there are discussions of what it means to be a journalist today. And in one scene, John finds out that the TV station has been giving his news footage to the Chicago police. He explodes and eventually loses his job over it. And there’s Harold’s fascination with his pigeons, which he cares for on the roof of the building where they live.

The cameraman and his sidekick, the sound guy, are carrying the bulky equipment of the period. It’s interesting to imagine what Wexler might do today using a smartphone. Excellent films like Tangerine (2015) and Searching for Sugar Man (2012) were shot on smartphones. The Oscar-nominated The Florida Project was shot on 35mm in 2017.

Medium Cool is brilliant because Wexler, the director/cinematographer, starts with an idea and carries it out with style and intensity. Medium Cool is a masterpiece, a landmark film that never got much attention. At the time, it was given an X rating because of some nudity in a delightful bedroom chase scene. Because of DVDs (1995), you can see it today—and I recommend that you do.

You can read Roger Ebert’s 1969 review here. Rather than reviewing the film, he focuses on Wexler’s approach and technique, for reasons he explains.


Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano: A 1952 Novel That Epitomizes 2018

This was the cover of my old copy of Player Piano, lost in the mists of time and too many moving boxes.

It’s 1952 and a debut novel by a 23-year-old writer is published by Delacorte Press. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano about a near-future society is categorized as science fiction and doesn’t get much attention.

I first read Player Piano many years ago. Probably some time soon after college, when I was devouring his other books, such as Cat’s Cradle; God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater; Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse Five. I read Player Piano then too, but my copy disappeared in one of my moves.

Recently my son Andrew mentioned that Player Piano has parallels to today’s society, made up of an elite, educated upper class and an underemployed lower class. I decided it was time to take another look at Vonnegut. I am amazed by how striking the parallels are to today’s society. And how prescient Vonnegut was, as a young writer/publicist working for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. He recreates that milieu in Player Piano as Ilium, home of the Ilium Works, “where machines hummed and whirred and clicked, and made parts for baby carriages and bottle caps, motorcycles and refrigerators, television sets and tricycles….”

The time is after the third world war, which was followed by riots, and a government clampdown on saboteurs. The machines developed in the wartime miracle now control every aspect of life and no humans are needed to operate them.

The hero of Player Piano is Dr. Paul Proteus, a brilliant engineer and head of Ilium Works. He’s mostly happy with his life as an engineer and manager and hopes for a promotion to run the Pittsburgh Works. So does his wife Anita. They’re part of the executive/engineer class who live a privileged life with high incomes and lavish homes and possessions.

The others? Since people are no longer needed to operate or control the machines, they are given the choice of serving in the Army or working for the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps—the so-called Reeks and Wrecks, who fix bridges and fill potholes. The government provides everyone with an adequate income for home, food, clothing, healthcare, education—everything a family needs to survive. Perhaps you think people are happy to have all their needs provided without doing any real work? But no, people are depressed and desperate to do real meaningful work.

As one writer said about Player Piano, “The rotten core buried under a façade of shining machines is that this society has made humanity superfluous, sucked all meaning out of the world, and replaced humanist values with a machine ethic predicated upon a new holy trinity: ‘Efficiency, Economy, and Quality.’” Sound familiar?

Even human relations are mechanized, Vonnegut thinks. Paul talks about his wife being skilled at “the mechanics of marriage.” On their phone calls, Anita ends by telling Paul she loves him and he robotically replies, “I love you, Anita.”

Paul occasionally visits a certain bar in Homestead, the area where the Reeks and Wrecks live. He becomes aware of their unhappiness as he talks to workers who have ideas and skills they’d like to contribute, even though they’re unwanted.

Kurt Vonnegut in 1972. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Nevertheless, he loves the music of his machines. “The lathe groups, the tenors…. the welders, the baritones…. the punch presses, the basses.” He has nagging doubts about his life, which he tries not to acknowledge, until some dramatic events take place at the executive retreat on an island called The Meadows. It’s the kind of event you’d expect it to be: lots of team sports, structured camaraderie, controlled drinking and tight scheduling, announced by the omnipresent loudspeaker. Paul’s future life changes as a result and he ends up joining the revolution concocted by the underground Ghost Shirt Society, a group of radicals who want to destroy key machinery and restore dignity to human work.

There’s a second thread to Player Piano. A representative of the U.S. Department of State is escorting two foreign visitors around to various American cities. The Shah of Bratpuhr and his translator express an outsider’s skepticism of the wonders of American society. It’s Vonnegut’s technique, which he uses in other books, of showing a skewed perspective on our lives.

Player Piano isn’t a diatribe against technology. It’s a critique of corporatized society, of adopting technological change without any thought for social or political change. We can have machines control everything without any human operators, so let’s just do that.

Vonnegut’s writing is a mix of satire and black humor, social and political critique. He’s hard to categorize, which probably didn’t help his reputation among critics who find it more convenient to pigeonhole artists and writers. He’s more likely to be recognized for his literary genius since his death in 2007 gave critics a reason to fully explore his life and oeuvre.

So I highly recommend a reading or rereading of Player Piano for a break from your daily news and political blather. If you’re thinking well, this sounds interesting, but I don’t like sci-fi. Player Piano isn’t sci-fi. There are no aliens with weird-shaped heads, no humans with amorphous sexual abilities, no strange worlds defined by frost and desert. This is the U.S., populated by people like you and me. Furthermore, it’s a readable 340 pages, not a doorstop tome. You can buy it here or here or borrow it from your public library.

And now, it’s time to reread Vonnegut’s acknowledged masterpiece, Slaughterhouse Five.