Music Flicks for a Summer Night: Hank, Miles and Chet

I’ve been watching music biopics this week. Three of them. They’re stories of individual musicians and each film is flawed yet satisfying in its depiction of some part of a musician’s life and struggle. The films are recent and all available on DVD—or you may be able to find them on a streaming service.

I Saw the Light (2015, 123 minutes)

This is the weakest of the three films in its portrayal of the life and career of the great Hank Williams, who died at the age of 29 after a short but brilliant career beset by addiction to alcohol and drugs. The film is worth seeing for Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal and performances of Hank Williams’ songs. He seems to become Williams physically and his voice is close to the tone and style of the original. (I listened to some original Hank Williams after watching the film and Hiddleston’s voice is more silky smooth than Williams’ voice.) Even so, Hiddleston never gets beneath the surface of what made Williams tick. And neither does the film.

Elizabeth Olsen plays his first wife Audrey, who had delusions of being a country singer herself despite no talent. Cherry Jones has some great scenes as Hank’s mother, Lillie.

My objection to the approach taken by the director Marc Abraham is that it doesn’t show any of Williams’ early musical inspirations in black gospel music or anything about Rufus Payne, the black street musician who taught him to play the guitar. The play Lost Highway staged by American Blues Theater in 2015 and 2016 did a better job of showing Williams’ life and influences and included Rufus “Tee-tot” Payne as one of the characters important in Williams’ life.

So I’m still waiting for a good film about the great Hank Williams. The Last Ride (2012) directed by Harry Thomason was even less satisfying. Henry Thomas plays the Hank Williams character who hires a local kid to drive his own blue Cadillac to his last gigs in late December 1952. That was indeed the last ride; Williams died in the car on New Year’s Day 1953.

And I don’t even want to watch Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964) again. I remember it as dreadful. Directed by Gene Nelson, it features George Hamilton lip-synching (badly) as Williams.

Miles Ahead (2015, 100 minutes)

Another film about a great musician, Miles Ahead also takes a segment of that life. The film portrays trumpeter Miles Davis during the five-year stretch that he took off from playing or composing. Don Cheadle is the best part of this film. He wrote, directed and plays Davis, very believably. Cheadle bears some slight resemblance to Davis (as Hiddleston does to Williams) so that helps. The late 1970s scenes are intercut with earlier scenes when Davis was performing with his band in the top jazz clubs around the world and celebrated as a brilliant performer. His first wife, Frances Taylor, is beautifully played by  Emayatzy Corinealdi, a dancer who gives up her career for Davis.

The plot suggests some events that happened or might have happened in Davis’ life and uses the plot device of a Rolling Stone reporter (Ewan McGregor) who is trying to write a profile of Davis. (Echoes of End of the Tour, about a reporter’s relationship with David Foster Wallace, among other films.) There’s also a storyline about Davis trying to get back the session tapes he believes he owns from his recording company.

Some famous and talented musicians play members of Davis’ band. Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Gary Clark Jr. and Esperanza Spalding add a lot to the musical performance scenes. Cheadle did learn to play the trumpet for the film but the music we hear is usually the trumpet work of contemporary jazz trumpeter Keyon Harrold who recorded over Cheadle’s playing. The rest of the trumpet work is that of Miles Davis himself, pulled from old recordings.

Some of the plot devices—like fist fights and a car chase punctuated with shooting—just seem silly and don’t add to the film’s quality.

After I watched Miles Ahead, I got out my Miles CDs and listened to Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain, my two personal jazz favorites.

Born to be Blue (2016, 97 minutes)

Another film about a jazz trumpeter—Chet Baker—features a really fine performance by Ethan Hawke as the troubled musician. I think this is the best of the three music films I’m reviewing here.

The story, directed by Robert Budreau, is a “reimagining” of the musician’s life in mid-career. Baker, a white West Coast musician who played the cool West Coast style jazz of the ‘50s and ‘60s, wanted to play at Birdland in New York and be accepted by the black jazz musicians of the bebop and cool genre. (At one point, Miles Davis tells him “Come back after you’ve done some livin’.”) He does eventually play at Birdland but the story is primarily about his battle with heroin and recovery from a brutal attack (possibly by a drug dealer) that severely cut his lips, knocked out his front teeth and ruined his embouchure. He wasn’t able to play the trumpet comfortably for months.

Like Don Cheadle in Miles Ahead, Hawke learned to play the trumpet for his role—so he could look like he knew how to play the trumpet. The music he plays was recorded by another musician—Kevin Turcotte. Baker also often sang in concert and on his albums—in a wispy, reedy soft voice—and Hawke does the vocals himself in a couple of scenes.

Carmen Ejogo is terrific as Jane, sort of an amalgam of the various women in Baker’s live over the years. There’s a real chemistry between them and the interracial relationship works. There’s a film within a film story going on but the main plotline is about Baker’s recovery from the attack, and his efforts to stay off heroin and thus out of jail.

Ultimately (and here’s a spoiler), he decides he loves heroin and the way it allows him to play too much to give it up. At one point, he explains to his manager (Callum Rennie) why. “It gives me confidence,” he explains. “Time gets wider, not just longer, and I can get inside every note.”

Baker spent most of the last decades of his life in Europe as a musician and heroin addict. He died at 58 in Amsterdam in 1988.


Kill Your Darlings: I’m Baring My Soul in Stories and Improv

 

KYD-typewriterKill Your Darlings, a traditional piece of writing advice*, is the title of the live lit series I’m participating in, along with other Third Coast Review colleagues and a crew of other writers and performers. We’re having a great time with it – and it’s consuming a huge amount of my time.

Kill Your Darlings: A Live Lit/Improv Mashup is the full title and we’re performing for the next six Wednesday nights at ComedySportz Theater on Belmont. We have writers and actors who read their own stories, plus improv players and sometimes live music. Each night has a theme based on one of our website’s cultural categories. And we’ll have a celebrity guest reader each week.

Kill Your Darlings: A Live Lit/Improv Mashup
7pm Wednesday, August 10, is Food Night
Csz Theater, 929 W. Belmont

Hear me read a story about potato pancakes
and my Jewish/non-Jewish heritage

I hope you’ll come out and see us this Wednesday and any Wednesday thru September 14. For each night, I’m writing a new personal story (something like a blog essay), baring my soul in some cases, editing, refining, rehearsing and refining it. I mention this as sort of an explanation why I haven’t been writing for Nancy Bishop’s Journal very much lately.

(Of course, I’m still editor in chief and theater critic for Third Coast Review. Check out my recent reviews on the Stages page. I’ve recently reviewed War Paint; Between Riverside and Crazy; Byhalia, Mississippi; Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys; and Einstein’s Gift. I also enjoyed interviewing and writing a feature on Ron Keaton, the actor who starred in Churchill and, along with Kurt Johns, has formed a new theater company, SoloChicago.)

* What does “kill your darlings” mean? Slate magazine tried to track down the original source a few years ago when a film of the same title came out about Allen Ginsberg as a young writer. Basically, the advice means “get rid of your most precious and especially self-indulgent passages for the greater good of your literary work.”

So the idea for this live-lit series is that we each resurrect various darlings we’ve killed in the past and turn them into new, sharply written stories. And a few of mine actually do include or were inspired by something I wrote in the past but never published.

The Kill Your Darlings team.

The Kill Your Darlings team.

Here are the stories I’ll be telling for the next six weeks. Opening night was last Wednesday and I told the story about my film addiction and my favorite film directors, focusing on Guy Maddin, the Canadian film director who made films you never heard of. The Darlings, our improv team, performed along with me. I was on a DVD and they paused me now and then to comment on my “lecture.”

  • August 10. The theme is Food. My story is “Potato Pancakes—and Why They’re Not Latkes.” Monica Eng, the WBEZ food editor, will be guest reader.
  • August 17, Music Night. My story is “How I Became a Bruce Springsteen Fan and How It Governs My Life.” My friend, June Sawyers, who has written a couple of dozen books on pop music topics, will be the guest reader.
  • August 24. The theme is Stages and I’m curating the night. The concept will be how social media and the comment community are affecting theater reviews. My story will be about the uproar around the Steppenwolf for Young Adults play, This Is Modern Art, which I reviewed last year with my 17-year-old grandson. Kerry Reid, theater critic for the Tribune, will be the guest reader.
  • August 31. The theme is Beyond, beyond now, beginnings and endings. My story for this night is about my divorcee love life — it includes a long poem. My son Steve will accompany me with an improvised solo on the tenor saxophone. The guest reader will be Ian Belknap of the Write Club.
  • September 7 is Art night. I haven’t decided what I’m going to write for this night yet. I may even skip the reading, but of course I’ll attend.
  • September 14 is Lit night and appropriately, it will be set in a Chicago saloon. NU prof Bill Savage, the guest reader, will critique our readings in real time. My story is about my obsession with the Spanish Civil War.

Perhaps life will get back to normal after that. Although I’m not sure what my normal is any more.


Abstract expressionism and political satire: Two exhibits + a bridge

Chicago has two don’t-miss exhibits this summer that are a little off the beaten path and I’m going to share my reviews with you. Actually we have dozens of amazing exhibits of art, architecture, history and science at any given moment. Keeping up with Chicago’s museums could be a full-time occupation. But I don’t want you to miss these.

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Siskind, New York 2, 1951.

Aaron Siskind: Abstractions is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago thru August 14. The Art Institute has a large collection of Siskind’s work and this exhibit shows 100 of them, many shot in the 1940s and ’50s.

His work is so painterly that you would think at first glance that they are paintings or prints. Siskind’s practice was to focus in closely on elements of everyday materials such as pavement, broken windows and seaweed, creating abstractions from concrete reality.

My review also describes the conversation about Siskind by three of his former students, which added their personal insights to the exhibit.

With a Wink and a Nod: Cartoonists of the Gilded Age at the Driehaus Museum, 40 E. Erie St. This exhibit presents 74 original illustrations from Puck Magazine, the first successful humor magazine, published in the 1870s thru 1918.

Read my detailed review here.

An early Puck masthead.

An early Puck masthead.

The exhibit is beautifully organized around half a dozen themes about politics, society and human nature. You can see the framed original drawings plus the magazines where they actually were published. There’s also an exhibit describing the early chromolithographic printing process that was used to print color covers and centerspreads in the magazines.

The exhibit gives you the opportunity to also appreciate the Driehaus Museum itself, a magnificent 19th century mansion built for the family of Chicago banker Samuel Nickerson. The exhibit runs until January 2017.

And the bridge, as promised

Last weekend I watched the 2000 film, High Fidelity, again, for the umpteenth time. It’s a great film and I especially love it for two reasons: It’s shot in Chicago and I mean really filmed in Chicago, not pretend-filmed as many TV shows are. (They’ll film a scene under the L tracks and one on the Michigan Avenue bridge and think they’ve captured Chicago.)

Oh, and the other reason I love it is that Bruce Springsteen makes a cameo appearance. The film is about Rob (John Cusack), who owns a vinyl record store in Wicker Park, before it got gentrified. Read my Letterboxd recap.

One of my favorite scenes is Rob, philosophizing about his life and loves, on the Kinzie Street bridge. Here’s a great photo from the website itsfilmedthere.com. They get the photo credit too.

nsbj-kinziestbridge-highfidelity


Did you miss me? I’m back with five theater reviews and a recap of my life

If you’ve been following my blog, you might have noticed that I’m not posting as frequently as in the past, when I was pretty reliable about posting an essay once a week. My new job as editor and publisher of Third Coast Review is taking up more of my time than I thought it would. That’s not a complaint–because it’s fun and it’s gratifying to see our site grow with so many terrific writers contributing. I’m writing theater reviews there, of course, as well as spending time on editing and admin duties. In addition, we have great articles under Music, Food, Lit, Art and Screens. To pick just a few:

We review 826Chi’s new children’s book, The Monster Gasped, OMG!

How chicken wings changed Julia’s life and made her decide to be a chef.

Caravan Palace at the House of Blues: It’s a blend of swing, gypsy jazz and electronic music.

Whether I’m reviewing or not, I’m an inveterate theatergoer. I’ve seen several good shows recently and I wanted to let you know about them so you can catch them too.

Constellations at Steppenwolf Theatre thru July 3

This is a beautifully written and performed play, a love story about an unlikely pair of lovers. Nick Payne’s Constellations is told in bits and pieces, brief scenes that roll out, double back and repeat themselves, sometimes in the same information and the same language, sometimes not. It shows the power of memory and miscommunication in our relationships. It’s a very nonlinear story that gels into a sweet and poignant story. To make it even more interesting, one of the pair is a theoretical physicist and the other a beekeeper. So some of the dialogue detours into discussions of time, atoms and space, and the lives of bees. The play runs 80 minutes. Check out my review.

Spinning by Irish Theatre thru July 3

Deirdre Kinahan’s play Spinning at Irish Theatre Company is the story of how one man grasped for happiness, had it and lost it but finds it difficult to understand how or why his actions were involved. Dan Waller, a fine Chicago actor, plays this role in a compelling fashion, along with three women in his life (four actually, but his child does not appear on stage). My review comments that the struggles of single parenthood and the dread  of losing a child are what cause the worlds of Conor (Waller) and Susan (Jodi Kingsley) to spin out of control. The play runs 75 minutes at the Den Theatre.

Both of these productions are the currently fashionable under-90-minute variety and are staged with minimal scenic designs and no props.

Hauptmann at City Lit Theater thru July 10

Bruno Richard Hauptmann tells his own story with a supporting cast of six actors playing multiple parts in Hauptmann at City Lit Theater in Edgewater. It’s the other “trial of the century” (the first one being the Leopold-Loeb trial in Chicago in the 1920s). An excellent production, it’s the 30th anniversary staging of this play by John Logan, which originated in the same location and was directed by the same director. My review says “Although you know the outcome of the play before it starts, director Terry McCabe creates a tense and engrossing version of the story of the man who may have been executed for a crime he did not commit. Hauptmann, a German immigrant, was almost certainly denied a fair trial in 1930s America, between two wars against Germany.” Hauptmann runs thru July 10 and I recommend it.

Tapped, a Treasonous Musical Comedy by Forth Story Productions thru July 3

I rarely see a play that’s really bad and that’s mostly because I screen out the ones I suspect will be amateurish. I often see great theater at our huge array of storefront theaters–often as good or better than what you can see at the big Equity houses. With that as a preface, I’ll have to say that Tapped was bad. Amateurish, yes; clichéd and stereotyped, yes; and way too long, yes! To be fair, there are some funny lines, an occasional clever song and at least one great dancer. But all in all, it’s a play that should never have been staged at Theater Wit. I wanted biting political satire on our surveillance society and I got this. My review.

Haymarket, the Anarchist’s Songbook at Underscore Theatre

This was a terrific production (and I hope it’s remounted) drawn from Chicago history with original music performed by talented actor/musicians. It tells the story leading up to the Haymarket riot when Chicago working men and women rallied to call for an eight-hour workday and better working conditions at Haymarket Square at Desplaines and Randolph streets. I’m sorry to say that the play, staged at the new Edge Theatre in Edgewater, closed last weekend. My review.


Art and the poetry of solitude: Stuart Dybek and Edward Hopper

 

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Stuart Dybek at the Art Institute. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Last week I spent an hour wandering around the Art Institute’s Modern Wing with Chicago poet Stuart Dybek and a bunch of other poetry fans. As I described in my article on Third Coast Review, the Pop-Up Poetry event was designed for a poet to discuss works of art that influenced him—and how they related to the writing to be discussed.

Dybek talked about a period in his life when he was interviewing for jobs and used the Art Institute as a place to hang out between interviews. Its pluses were that it had phone booths and clean rest rooms, but it also had light—light streaming in from skylights, but also the light glowing from the paintings of the Impressionists. He read a section from his book of short stories, The Coast of Chicago, called “Killing Time” about that experience.

He talked about standing in front of those paintings and feeling that he could walk into them. He wrote, “I wanted to be somewhere else, to be a dark blur waiting to board the Normandy train in the smoke-smudged Saint-Lazare station; I wanted a ticket out of my life, to be riding a train whose windows slid past a landscape of grain stacks in winter fields.”

But he would always end up standing in front of Edward Hopper’s iconic “Nighthawks,” because he felt he needed the darkness to balance the light of the Impressionists.

While talking about Hopper, he mentioned a book I was not familiar with. It’s The Poetry of Solitude: A Tribute to Edward Hopper, with poems collected and introduced by Gail Levin. He mentioned that the works of many well-known as well as obscure poets created word paintings that brought new meanings to Hopper’s imagery.

Hopper’s work is quiet, even when several people are in the space within the picture frame. Are they lonely? Not necessarily. Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean loneliness. Lovely solitude.

NSBJ-HopperbookThe book sounded fascinating and I looked it up when I got home. Nope, it was not in any bookstore I could find. Since it was published in 1995, I was afraid it would be out of print. But not so amazingly, I found it on amazon.com, for sale from one of the Amazon Marketplace vendors. I’ve had very good luck buying quirky, hard-to-find books that way, so I immediately ordered a copy that was described as being in very good condition. I was thrilled to find it in my mailbox yesterday and it is a treasure. It’s hard cover, a slim 80 pages, with a dust jacket. The size is 7.5 x 7.5 inches.

Levin’s introduction is a lovely essay on the themes of poetry and solitude and the public awareness and appreciation for Hopper’s work. (The Art Institute’s 2008 exhibition of his work was beautifully curated with thought-provoking legends about his life and his work.)

In The Poetry of Solitude, poet Larry Levis tells a story about the woman in the 1931 painting titled “Hotel Room.” He suggests she has just finished arranging her mother’s funeral and her small estate.

Her face, in shadow,
Is more silent than this painting, or any
Painting … .
You sell the house and auction off each thing
Inside the house, until
You have a satchel, a pair of black acceptable
Shoes and one good flowered dress. There is a check
Between your hands and your bare knees for all of it —
The land and the wheat that never cared who
Touched it , or why ….

Four poets reflect upon the 1942 painting, “Nighthawks,” and the stories of the four people in the painting. Joyce Carol Oates writes,

The three men are fully clothed, long sleeves,
even hats, though it’s indoors, and brightly lit,
and there’s a woman. The woman is wearing
a short-sleeved red dress cut to expose her arms,
a curve of her creamy chest, she’s contemplating
a cigarette in her right hand thinking
her companion has finally left his wife but
can she trust him?

Of the 1930 painting, “Early Sunday Morning,” showing a row of storefronts, John Stone writes,

Somewhere in the next block
someone may be practicing the flute
but not here

Where the entrances
to four stores are dark
the awnings rolled in

Nothing open for business
Across the second story
ten faceless windows

In the foreground
a barber pole, a fire hydrant,
as if there could ever again

Be hair to cut
fire to burn ….

As I described in my post about my hour spent with Stuart Dybek, he read his own poems and the work of other poets and reflected on the nature of words and images. The book gives even broader meaning to the relationship of words and images, narrative and abstraction.

A note on the paintings mentioned here. You can see “Nighthawks” at the Art Institute. “Early Sunday Morning” is at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. “Hotel Room” is at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.

If you do a search for “Edward Hopper paintings” online, you can see and enlarge thumbnails of all of them.

 

 


Chicago stages: Perspectives of the past, comic and tragic

It’s finally spring and it’s only May. We still have plenty of theater openings and I’m reviewing some films too. Here are a few of the current storefront stage offerings, providing perspectives on historical events. They’re all interesting for various reasons, even when they’re not four-star productions.

A Splintered Soul by Arla Productions at Stage 773 thru May 29

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The rabbi (Craig Spidle) with two survivors.

This is the emotional story of Polish Holocaust survivors in 1947 San Francisco. They were able to survive the death camps by doing what was necessary and now live with survivors’ guilt and other traumas. The play revolves around a rabbi, who was a freedom fighter in Poland, and now meets with survivors to help them deal with their memories and to persuade the local Jewish community that those memories should not be forgotten. The rabbi is forcefully played by Craig Spidle, a veteran Chicago actor. This play is beautifully staged, with fine directing and acting. It’s two-plus hours of good theater, except the script really goes too far in trying to include some bizarre and unlikely events. My review makes clear that the production wasn’t able to overcome the flaws in the plotline.

The House of Blue Leaves at Raven Theatre thru June 18

John Guare’s play about Pope Paul VI’s 1965 visit to New York is a sweet, sometimes silly, and ultimately tragic play. It’s a fine production by the always reliable Raven Theatre. The plot revolves around Artie Shaughnessy, a would-be singer-songwriter who works at the Bronx Zoo but has grand ambitions. The rest of the cast includes his depressed wife, his ditsy girlfriend, three nuns, a movie star, a movie producer and plenty of funny and explosive moments. My review says, “the circle of friends and family surrounding Artie immerses him in a series of ever more ridiculous events. Joann Montemurro’s skillful direction manages to keep the action credible, the accents believable, and the doom unpredictable.”

The Lion in Winter by Promethean Theatre Ensemble at the Athenaeum thru May 22

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Henry’s three sons.

Promethean’s minimalist production of the James Goldman play about Henry II, his three sons, and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, may sound familiar. It’s best known as the 1968 film starring Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn as the royal pair. The dialogue is lively and witty and the plot hits contemporary notes, as well as reminding us of the Shakespearean dilemma where a king must divide up his property among three siblings. A fine production by a small theater company. My review.

How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients at Trap Door Theatre 

This play by Matei Visniec is a great example of Trap Door’s serious and slyly bizarre productions that pick at the nonsensical scabs of politics and contemporary thought. The staging makes use of colorful, angular perspectives and highly physical performances to make this a delightful 75 minutes of theater. Set in 1953 before Stalin’s death, the famous writer Yuri Petrovski (who always is called by his full name, as in Russian literature) arrives at a mental hospital with the goal of using his stories to educate the mental patients about the glories of Communism. The story is played out in a ses\ries of scenarios that fall far short of being a linear storyline. No matter; you’re seeing a brilliant critique of Communism by a Romanian dissident who has lived most of his life as political refugee in France. The play closed April 30.

Bloody Haymarket at the Irish American Heritage Center thru May 28

Bloody Haymarket is a new production that portrays the dramatic events of May 1886, when speakers at a May Day rally in Haymarket Square demanded an eight-hour day and an end to the concentration of wealth in a few hands. A bomb went off during the rally and eight policemen were killed. Eight of the speakers were arrested and four of them were executed by hanging. The issues, of course, resonate today. The production dramatizes the participants, their stories, trial and public reaction with a cast of 21. I recommend this to you if you’re particularly interested in the Haymarket history, but I can’t recommend the quality of the production. Performances are on Saturday nights thru May 28.

For more info, listen to Third Coast Rewind, the first of our new podcast series, featuring interviews with the actors and creative team for Bloody Haymarket.


Chaos to classics: Theater mini-reviews

These days I’m doing most of my writing over at Third Coast Review. Check out our new site if you haven’t been there lately and sign up for our weekly newsletter (in the lefthand column) or the new-post feed (below the Events column on the right). We have lots of good content on the Chicago arts and culture scene. Even though I’m spending a lot of time as editor and publisher of Third Coast Review, I intend to maintain Nancy Bishop’s Journal as my personal blog, so forgive my occasional delays in posting. Today I want to tell you about some terrific theater that’s going on in Chicago right now–and a few that I want to remember.

Arcadia at Writers Theatre thru May 1

3CR-arcadia-oldTom Stoppard’s masterpiece of conversation and complexity about chaos theory, Fermat’s Last Theorem and English gardens. The play is an excellent choice for Writers to open their new theater venue in Glencoe, designed by Studio Gang Architects. My review comments: “Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play that tracks characters from two eras, sometimes in the same scene at the same time, is a complex play interlaced with many intellectual games. The story, not a linear narrative, involves the clash between the rational and the romantic in art and science, as well as in life. Also important is the design of gardens, specifically the gardens of Sidley Park, the country house in Derbyshire, where the play is set.”

The new theater is stunning on the outside but disappointingly bland inside. That may change as more funds are spent on its completion. The main theater space is much larger than the previous venue and has excellent sightlines. But there was one problem. Several people I’ve talked to who attended the opening or another performance complained, as I did, about acoustics. When actors were performing with their backs to us, it was often difficult to hear them. It’s not clear whether this is a problem with the actors, which the director can address, or the acoustics of the venue itself.

The Life of Galileo at  Remy Bumppo Theatre thru May 1

Another intellectual tour de force, Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo is set in the past but foretells the contemporary debates over faith and science. Shawn Douglass, who plays Galileo, my review notes, “convinces us he is a real man of pluses and minuses, not a cardboard historical figure. We live with him through the wrenching changes in his life, through his delight at making discoveries and teaching about them, his conflicts with the church about the Ptolemaic vs. Copernican views of the universe; and his miseries as an underpaid teacher. Most painfully, we watch him recant his beliefs in scientific truth so that he can continue his work, even though circumscribed by the edicts of the church. (He was found guilty of heresy and sentenced to house arrest.)”

It’s beautifully acted, staged and directed, I highly recommend this Remy Bumppo production.

Mary Page Marlowe at Steppenwolf Theatre thru May 29

This new play by Tracy Letts explores the life of one sort-of ordinary woman by showing scenes from her life played by six different actors. Letts’ concept is based on the fact that each of us sees ourselves as different people throughout our lives. My review is not quite finished but I’ll add a link here when it’s posted over at thirdcoastreview.com.

Updated 4/20: My review of Mary Page Marlowe is live now. My summary is not as positive as most others. I gave it a “somewhat recommended” on theatreinchicago.com. The play is well written with smart dialogue; many of the 11 scenes are successful. But the parts don’t add up to a gesamtkunstwerk, as my German-born art history professor used to say. It’s not a coherent, successful total work of art. It’s still worth seeing, however, because a Tracy Letts play is always worth seeing. I still can’t help it wonder if it would have worked better with a single actor playing the adult versions of MPM. If you see it, tell me what you think..

New Country by Fair Trade Productions at The Den Theatre thru May 14 

3CR-newcountry-justin,unclejimNot a classic theater masterpiece, but a helluva lot of fun, this fast-paced comedy shows us a few hours in the life of a famous country music star and his retinue. To quote my review:  “The play is set in a Nashville hotel room on the night of the bachelor party for country music star Justin (played by Michael Monroe Goodman, a musician-actor who starred in the Johnny Cash musical, Ring of Fire, and in Million Dollar Quartet). Justin is young, successful and arrogant and he doesn’t hesitate to let his managers know who’s boss. His beloved pig-farmer Uncle Jim arrives to join the celebration, full of country jokes, and accompanied by his blow-up sex toy, Wanda June.” You dan see whe this is going.

Blood Wedding at Lookingglass Theatre thru April 24

Director Daniel Ostling’s staging of Federico Garcia Lorca’s play has a few good performances but overall the production does not capture the mood that I think Lorca intended. This is partly because, as my review notes, “The original setting for Lorca’s script is rural Spain and his characters include mysterious figures such as the Moon and Death. Ostling’s decision to set his production in the more-realistic Depression-era U.S. diminishes the mythic nature of Lorca’s story. The subdued presentation, quite different from Lookingglass’ usual physical dramas, does not redeem it.” Nevertheless, this play is not often produced, so if you like Lorca’s writing, you still have a weekend to catch this show.

Gone, but not forgotten:

Long Day’s Journey Into Night at Court Theatre

3CR-LongDay-FisherYulinEugene O’Neill wrote this sad and beautiful drama, modeled after his own family drama, in the 1940s but it was not published or produced until after his death in 1953. My review commented: “If O’Neill is the master of dysfunctional family plays, then Long Day’s Journey Into Night is the masterpiece of the genre. Recognized as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, the play won the Tony for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1957.” The Court production was beautifully acted and staged. Mary Beth Fisher and Harris Yulin played Mr. and Mrs. Tyrone. If you attended, your 3.5 hours was well spent theater time.

In a Little World of Our Own by Irish Theatre

The Gary Mitchell script is a political thriller, a day and night in the life of a Protestant family in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The play is set in the late 1990s, just before the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998, when an uneasy peace reigned in Belfast. Behind the family drama of three brothers is the political story of the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) fighters against the advocates of nonviolence. Matthew Isler gave an outstanding performance as a UDA hard man, always ready for a fight.

A Loss of Roses at Raven Theatre

William Inge’s play is not as  sensually exciting as Picnic or as emotionally riveting as Come Back, Little Sheba, but the playwright does have a way of writing about solitary female characters. Raven’s production was well acted and directed, a quiet story of small town America in the 1930s, as my review said.

All photos courtesy of the respective theater companies.


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