Poem: But I Am (Half) Jewish

A companion to my earlier poem, “I’m Not Irish.”                                                                    

Israel and Rachel Birnbaum arrived from Galicia, Poland, in 1870.

Fred and Magdalena Schelker in 1866

From the Alpine peaks of Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland.

And that’s how my American story begins.

Half Ashkenazi Jew, half Swiss Reformed.

They settled, first in New York and then in Illinois

Israel, in Chicago, was a glazier and Fred, in Elgin, a farmer 

Who later worked for the watch company.

Neither was rich or exceptional to my knowledge.

Both had children and grandchildren.

And then one day in 1924, the two branches came together.

Fred’s grandson, Ernest, a stationery salesman,

Made a call at a downtown office.

An attractive brunette secretary named Muriel caught his eye.

After a few more sales calls, there was a dinner date.

And then more dates and perhaps a movie now and then.

And an engagement.


Muriel took Ernest, son of Methodist parents,

Home to meet her Jewish family.

This did not go well.

I only know the story as told by my Uncle Mort

He was a teenager

He and his younger brother hid in a bedroom

When the screaming and yelling started.

It seemed the Jewish family didn’t welcome

The earnest young man who wanted to marry their daughter.

Ernest and Muriel married anyway in September 1924.

They both worked and saved

So they could invest

In a small commercial printing business in the West Loop

Named Colonial Process Printing Company.

My dad owned and operated that business

And went to “the shop” five or six days a week for forty years.

They wanted a family but it was eleven years

Before I was born in October 1935

And almost seven years more

When my sister Lynda was born in March 1942.

My parents’ greatest joys were golf and bowling.

Reading and culture not so much.

My dad was an enthusiastic hunter

With a rack of rifles and shotguns

Mounted in our knotty pine basement

On Rutherford Avenue

In the Italian urban suburbia named Montclare.


Every year he hunted big game with friends

In Canada or the Dakotas

And came home with his share of the large animals

They shot and had butchered and packaged

As roasts, steaks and stews.

Deer, elk, moose.

My mother learned to cook game

And sometimes canned it.

I remember canned moose stew

On the basement fruit cellar shelves.

Brown chunks of meat and gravy packed

Into Mason jars

Next to the peaches and tomatoes.

The peaches were luscious bits of summer.

I can’t remember if we ever ate the canned moose stew.


Religion was not important to my dad.

He insisted he didn’t need it

To be a good man.

And he always resented Judaism (and his in-laws)

From that day in 1924.

He was a man who knew

How to hold a grudge.

Mom left Judaism behind

When she married my dad.

She loved two Protestant churches

She sang in their choirs.

Mom was the only one of the four of us

Who could sing.

She had a beautiful alto voice.

First, she sang at a Lutheran Church—

The Church of the Good Shepherd.

She liked the pastor and sent me

To Sunday school there

(After her Jewish mother died).

Then the Montclare Congregational Church

Where both my sister and I were married.

To two religiously nondescript men

Of earnest and hard-working heritage.


My husband and I had two sons.

Religion was a debating point.

Should we send them to some neutral non-Catholic, non-Jewish

(We never even considered Jewish, to be honest)

House of religion

On Sundays?

Do they need to know about religion

To decide if they want to practice it later?

Most important.

Can we just send them off or do we have to go too?

The house was divided.

We both wanted to send them.

I didn’t want to go.

The boys had an occasional taste of religion.

A Methodist one here

Because the pastor was an ACLU friend.

A Congregational bit there

For a similar reason.

Really not much.


Years later, older son mentioned

Going to temple.

Really? I thought.

Probably to meet women.

He was newly divorced.

But he was serious about the Jewish part.

Learned Hebrew, made his adult bar mitzvah.

Taught bar mitzvah kids.

Became a temple officer.

Married a woman of partial Jewish heritage

Sort of like his own.

Younger son seems more indifferent.

Occasionally goes to a neutral church.

Unitarian Universalist.

Where he admires the Prairie architecture and structure.


I remain militantly non-religious.

Not an atheist.

That demands too much commitment.

Just indifferent.

Older son says,

“Mom, they all think you’re Jewish anyway.”

I roll my eyes.

And remember my one drop of Irish blood.


Photo caption : Nancy, Muriel, Lynda. Summer 1957. Family photo.

Book Review: A Striking Biography of a Rebel Theater Artist and Feminist

My latest theater review is a book review, not a stage production. Author Alexis Greene, who has written many works on theater, has published a fascinating and well-researched book on Emily Mann, director and playwright. Born in Boston, Mann grew up in Chicago, where her historian father was on the faculty at the University of Chicago. It was there, as a student at the UofC Lab School, that young Emily learned to love theater, which consumed her life from that time on.

Her achievements as a playwright are most notable. Her “theater of testimony,” based on real-life events and extensive interviews with participants, as well as mountains of other research on those stories, has become an important theater genre. Many of her works have been produced in Chicago; my review notes many of them, including those I have reviewed.

Mann began her directing career at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in the 1970s. I lived in western Wisconsin during those years and my husband and I were subscribers and fans of the Guthrie, but I was unaware that the Guthrie was a highly patriarchal organization. Very few plays by women had ever been produced there and Mann was the first woman to direct a play on the Guthrie mainstage. Greene’s description of this phase of Mann’s work includes the anecdote of an artistic director pushing Mann up against a wall and telling her she really wanted to be a housewife, not a director.

See my full review of Greene’s book.

Hamlet and Me: I’m Still Mad About the Dane After All These Years

Hamlet at the Gift Theatre, Casey Morris as Horatio, Daniel Kyri as Hamlet and Alexander Lane as Marcellus. Photo by Claire Demos.




The Danish prince and I go way back. As I was writing a review of a moving and well-acted performance of that great play last week, I started thinking about all the varieties of Hamlet that I have seen over decades of theater-going.

I saw college productions—and I read Hamlet in a memorable Shakespeare course at one of my alma maters, Harvard on the Rocks—the two-year University of Illinois in Chicago at Navy Pier. (Later it became a four-year university and moved to its current campus.)

The first Hamlet production that I remember vividly was during the 1963 opening season of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. We lived then in western Wisconsin and splurged to subscribe to the Guthrie for a number of seasons, until we moved to Illinois in 1969. That first season opened in the new semi-arena theater, directed by Tyrone Guthrie himself. George Grizzard was featured as Hamlet. Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, was played by Jessica Tandy. Horatio, his loyal friend, was played by Graham Brown, a Black actor and original member of the Negro Ensemble Company. That was 58 years ago and that casting was not considered remarkable.

Done in modern dress and “despite the tennis rackets and umbrellas,“ Guthrie’s version was, in critic Dan Sullivan’s view, “in the best, nonacademic sense of the word, a traditional performance.” And it was memorable for a young theatergoer.

Since then, I’ve seen many Hamlets, both memorable and not-so memorable. These are some of the memorable ones.

The Wisdom Bridge production directed by Robert Falls, starring Aidan Quinn, was remounted at the Civic Opera Theatre in 1985. Falls’ Hamlet opened at Wisdom Bridge’s Evanston theater and moved downtown for a briefer second run. The production was notable for its modernistic touches, such as the use of technology and Quinn’s Hamlet spraying “To be or not to be” as graffiti on a wall. The late Del Close, a Chicago comedy icon, played Polonius.

The Stratford Festival in Canada staged Hamlet in 1994 in the arena-like theater space it used then for its more modestly staged productions. It was done in modern dress in a starkly minimalist style.

At Invictus Theatre, the fight begins. Laertes (Michael Lewis) vs. Hamlet (Charles Askenaizer), as Claudius (Joseph Beal) and Gertrude (Diane Sintich) watch. Photo by Brian McConkey.

Kenneth Branagh’s filmed Hamlet in 1997 was screened at the now departed Fine Arts Theatre. Filmed on 70mm stock, it was the only complete Hamlet ever filmed and ran four hours with an intermission. It was set in the 19th century and was otherwise a traditional take on Hamlet.

At the Public Theater’s Newman Theater in New York in January 2000, director Andrei Serhan staged a controversial production, which included Hamlet over-imbibing and vomiting on stage. Liev Schreiber was a really effective Hamlet, because of or despite the director. I was sitting in an aisle seat midway up in the sharply raked theater. The most thrilling moment during the whole play came when Schreiber, meandering up the theater steps, sat down on the stair next to me to deliver a monologue. I didn’t breathe for a few minutes.

Another Hamlet film in 2000, directed by Michael Almereyda, didn’t win as much praise as Branagh’s did. But I liked the director’s concept and staging. Ethan Hawke played Hamlet, a film student; I remember him wearing a knit cap in many scenes. The setting is modern-day Manhattan and the battle is over the Denmark Corp., taken over by Hamlet’s uncle after doing away with his brother. Hotel Elsinore is the castle.

Court Theatre produced what director Charles Newell called an experimental Hamlet in February 2002  with Guy Adkins playing Hamlet. It was an odd and minimalist production with some quirky staging and design choices. Newell made major cuts in the script; running time was about half the full length.

Writers Theatre staged Hamlet at its Tudor Court space in 2012 with Scott Parkinson as Hamlet. Parkinson always seemed to me to fully inhabit his roles and he was stunning as the Dane in this modernist production.

The Gift Theatre, a tiny storefront in Jefferson Park, staged a stripped-down version of Hamlet in 2018, directed by Monty Cole. The production has “suggestions of classic elegance but contemporary hipster dress and props,” I wrote. Cole focused on Shakespeare’s language in his interpretation of the play.

Chicago Shakespeare produced Hamlet in May 2019. It was a beautifully acted and staged modern-dress Hamlet. Along with a fine cast, Larry Yando played Polonius. Any play where you get to see Larry Yando is worth seeing.

Invictus Theatre, fall 2021. This terrific storefront production was the one that that got me started writing about my Hamlet journey.

What is it about Hamlet that makes this play so endlessly fascinating? Shakespeare wrote many other interesting plays—tragedies, comedies and history plays—that a theater fan can love. Hamlet is special because of the character himself. He is, as the late literary scholar Harold Bloom described, one of the first self-aware theatrical characters. Hamlet and the Falstaff of Henry IV, Bloom said, are the invention of the human, “the inauguration of personality as we have come to recognize it.” Their “inwardness becomes the heart of light and of darkness” in ways that were more radical than any found in literature before Shakespeare. Bloom also observed that Hamlet was as ancient and important a hero as Achilles or Oedipus.

Not all today’s literary scholars agree with Bloom, of course. He was too dismissive of the need for diversity and moving beyond the Western canon of literature created by white men. But he deserves to be valued for his intense and thoughtful consideration of Shakespeare, in particular in his 1998 book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, in which he considers all 38 of the Bard’s plays and names 24 of them as masterpieces. In 2003, Bloom published Hamlet: A Poem Unlimited, in which he updated some of his observations on Hamlet from his Invention of the Human book.

That’s eleven Hamlets that I can remember and a lot of reading about Hamlet. In addition to Harold Bloom, I mentioned two interesting fictional takes on Hamlet in my recent review. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is the story of William Shakespeare’s family and his son, Hamnet, who died at the age of 11, most likely from the bubonic plague. Nutshell, by Ian McEwan, is told from a more peculiar viewpoint: that of the fetus in Gertrude’s (Trudy’s) womb as she and her husband’s brother Claude plot a murder. Nutshell is short and mischievously clever.

Now I can only sit back and wonder: When and where will my next Hamlet be? And what creative techniques and concepts will the next director use to shed new light on this immortal story?

See Noir at Its Best: Style and Shadows in the Vienna of The Third Man

The nighttime streets are dark and shadowy, elegant in rubble and 19th century buildings. Cobblestones glisten in the light from street lamps. Carol Reed’s 1949 film, The Third Man, shows us a visually stunning Vienna, a masterpiece of the noir realm, and probably one of the greatest films of all time.

The black-and-white film is a thriller, starring Joseph Cotten, Trevor Howard, Alida Valli, and, of course, Orson Welles as the elusive Harry Lime. Welles only appears in the last third of the film, but steals the show and becomes the lead…although not the hero. He’s one of those evil but charismatic characters, whose 21st century counterparts are Tony Soprano, Walter White (“Breaking Bad”) and yes, Don Draper (”Mad Men”).

Graham Greene wrote the screenplay for The Third Man after visiting Vienna, finding it atmospheric, and meeting a man in a bar who told him a story about a crime similar to Harry Lime’s. Greene wrote a novella as a source text—and then turned it into the screenplay. The story takes place in Vienna, soon after the end of World War II. Wartime rubble is everywhere. The city is divided into four zones by the Allies—the British, French, Americans and Russians. Some scenes were actually filmed in London, when Welles refused to go back to Vienna for filming.

The film opens with the arrival in Vienna of an American writer of western pulp fiction, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), who has come because his childhood friend, Harry Lime, promised him a job and a room. Martins learns that Lime died a few days earlier after being hit by a speeding car on the street. Martins meets a British officer at the cemetery and also sees an intriguing woman (Anna Schmidt, played by Valli). He begins to think the facts of Lime’s death are suspicious and demands that the officer (Lt. Calloway, played by Trevor Howard) investigate. Calloway tries to get Martins to leave Vienna but Martins stays, meets (and falls in love with) Anna and tries to learn what happened to Harry. Martins eventually learns more about Lime from Calloway, including crimes Lime has committed. In one of the film’s famous scenes (with an essential cat), Martins discovers that Lime is still alive. The Ferris wheel scene and the iconic chase through Vienna’s sewers cap off the film.

The other characters in The Third Man are key to the noir nature of the film. Baron Kurtz (a weaselly character played by Ernst Deutsch), Harry’s doctor, Dr. Winkel (Erich Ponto) and of course, the mysterious Mr. Popescu (Siegfried Breuer) are strong hints that all is not as it seems in Vienna.

The expressionistic cinematography in The Third Man makes Vienna another character in the film. Robert Krasker, the cinematographer, used wide-angle lenses and skewed framing so that exteriors seem off balance. Nighttime chase scenes through the streets and rubble of Vienna are simply gorgeous in their noir shadows, always suggesting danger is just around the next caryatid. Late in the film, Martins goes to visit someone in the Soviet zone and behind him, you see workers on the pile of rubble that used to be the Gestapo headquarters in Vienna.

The musical composition, “The Third Man Theme,” performed on the zither by Anton Karas, is heard throughout the film, sometimes sad, sometimes jaunty or jangly, sometimes melodramatic, but always a key element. The song became famous separately from the film and topped the music charts in 1950, making Karas famous.

The final scene, where Holly waits for Anna at the side of a road and she walks toward him, past him and out of the scene without looking at him, is shot with a very wide angle, making for a long and suspenseful tracking shot.

Two elements of Vienna take on extreme importance in the film. The complex sewer system below the streets where the final chase takes place is dark and wet with many twists and turns. You don’t have to use your imagination to know how it smells. The wiener riesenrad or giant Ferris wheel (212 feet tall) near the entrance to the Prater amusement park is where Martin and Lime finally meet. The famous scene in the cab of the Ferris wheel was filmed at Shepperton Studios in London, where the cab (and some of the sewer system) were reconstructed. When Martins and Lime get off the Ferris wheel, Lime makes his famous “cuckoo clock” speech, comparing Italy and Switzerland.

Possibly as a way to increase the feeling of misdirection throughout the film, people are called by the wrong names. Anna calls Holly Harry several times. Holly calls Calloway Callahan. (“I’m English, not Irish.”) Holly mispronounces Dr. Winkel’s name (“It’s Vinkel.”)

If you can find them, there are two documentaries about the film. Who Was the Third Man? is a 30-minute film made by the city of Vienna in 2000 with interviews with cast and crew. Shadowing “The Third Man” (2005), is a 90-minute story of the making of the film.

The Third Man is being screened this week at the Music Box Theatre as part of the Noir Across the Atlantic series. You can find it streaming on YouTube or Amazon Prime for $3.99.

This review was previously published in Third Coast Review. Image courtesy Music Box Theatre.

Poem: I’m Not Irish       

Shankill Road, Belfast, during the Troubles. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

My bones, my genes, my blood aren’t Irish.

They’re rooted in the fields, towns and ghettoes

Of Central Europe.

They‘re called German, Swiss, Polish, Ashkenazi Jew.


But there’s a sliver of my ancestry from the British Isles.

That’s where my soul comes from

The lyrical language, drama and poetics

Of my certain Irish ancestors….

May they be called Yeats, O’Casey, Joyce, Wilde, Beckett or Heaney

Who wrote of love, war, death and the human spirit.


My Irish is in politics too.

The separation of the Irish into two parts,

And the decades of the Troubles

That divide Northern Ireland

With bombs, guns, touts and hunger strikes

All because of two religions at war

For centuries.

That religious war only interests me

Because of the signs, banners and the shadow of a gunman.


I’ll take no religion, thank you,

But if I was Irish, I’d be IRA,

Not Unionist, RUC or UDA.

The Troubles were only the latest

In the forever war for independence

By Ireland from its brutal English overlords.


No, I’m not Irish except for that 3 percent sliver of my genetic heritage

But my heart and soul are drawn and quartered

By the poetry and politics of both my Irelands.


NOTE: Just trying out a poem from a planned new collection for 2022. Hope you find it interesting. 

Can You Spare a Buck or Ten to Help #SaveChicagoMedia?

Dear readers and friends: I’m writing today on behalf of all Chicago’s small, local, quirky, indie media, and for my own online arts magazine, Third Coast Review. We are only three days away from the deadline for the 2021 Chicago Independent Media Alliance #SaveChicagoMedia fundraiser. If you’re not a regular reader of Chicago indie media, you can still support us–and definitely find a way to support your own local indie media.

Our goal for this year’s campaign is $50,000, and as of yesterday we raised just over $38,000. As you can see, we still have quite a ways to go—but with your help, we can still get there.

Right now, any donations you make to an individual outlet of your choice at www.savechicagomedia.org will be tripled, thanks to a generous matching grant from the Feinberg Foundation and McCormick Foundation. That means your $20 donation to Third Coast Review becomes $60, and a $100 donation will be turned into $300 in our pocket.

But you may be wondering, what does $100 actually mean to a local Chicago media outlet?

A hundred dollars means different things for different outlets, but for a Chicago arts magazine like New City, $100 covers the cost of writing and editing one arts feature. A $100 donation will help Sixty Inches from Center bring on a new photographer and writer. For various other outlets, $100 means a freelance reporter will be compensated for their time. Even just $20 means filling the gas tank of Inside Publication’s delivery van. $20 will also give Paseo Podcast the ability to record monthly interviews. And $20 will pay for 20 minutes of audio transcription for any one outlet.

But most importantly, your donation will help get Chicago independent media back on its feet after the Covid-19 pandemic, and ensure our city’s diverse, eclectic media scene can survive. That’s more important than ever today, when major media are consolidating and being taken over by private equity investors with no interest in our community.

A donation of any amount will help. Donate today at www.savechicagomedia.org to have your donation tripled. Thank you.

Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Poem, “The Hill We Climb”

Amanda Gorman recites her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. (DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)

Eight years ago, I wrote a post about Richard Blanco’s poem, “One Today,” presented by the poet at Barack Obama’s second inaugural. I was so moved by Amanda Gorman’s poem for Joe Biden’s inaugural this week, I wanted to read her poem for myself, by myself. I thought you might want to do that too. Gorman, the Youth Poet Laureate, delivered her poem vividly and dramatically. She was a sophisticated and stylish slam poet.

You can find the transcript here and you also might want to check out this site, where you can find all  the inaugural poems. You might be surprised to find out that all the presidents who have invited inaugural poets have been Democrats. (Explain that to me, please.) The first was in 1961, by Robert Frost for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

In Gorman’s poem, I have added stanza breaks for easier reading, since the transcript is a single long text. If I find Gorman’s original text, I will replace this version.

The Hill We Climb

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions
of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice

Read the rest of this entry »

Theater Memories: Revisiting Stoppard’s Brilliant The Coast of Utopia 14 Years Later

The full cast of The Coast of Utopia, including playwright Tom Stoppard, center, in brown coat, and director Jack O’Brien, in glasses. Credit…Paul Kolnik.

This week I had a chance to revisit the most spectacular theater experience I’ve ever had. It took place on a weekend in February 2007. Over the course of two days, I saw all nine hours of The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard’s trilogy on 19th century Russian intellectuals and revolutionaries. My New York friend Patricia and I hung around the new Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle and visited neighborhood cafes in between going to the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center for many glorious hours of theater. This week Lincoln Center Theaters celebrated that monumental theatrical achievement.

I flew to New York after work on Friday and met Patricia for an early lunch on Saturday, saw Voyage, part one, then had an early dinner and saw Shipwreck, part 2. On Sunday, we saw a matinee of Salvage, part 3. We had a final dinner, at which we both were almost too exhausted to talk. I had bought copies of the scripts and read Voyage on the way home on Monday morning. I saved the playbill on my bookshelf along with the three volumes of scripts.

The trilogy was also done as a marathon on a few Saturdays when you could see all three plays in one day, from 11am to 11pm.

I’ve never forgotten that weekend and like most memorable theater experiences, the visuals are imprinted in my brain, to be brought out when some tangential memory nudges them. That’s what happened this week.

Lincoln Center Theaters celebrated the 14th anniversary of The Coast of Utopia’s U.S. premiere in November 2006 with a virtual discussion that was open to theater fans. Director Jack O’Brien, four cast members—and—in person from London—the playwright himself. I was on a Zoom call with Tom Stoppard! No, he didn’t know I was there—only the participants were on the Zoom screen. But it was an exhilarating moment.

My copy of the Utopia playbill from 2007.

The play has more than 70 characters, performed by 40 actors in the New York production. The cast size and complexity of the story explain why this magnificent historical work has been produced only three times: in London in 2002, in New York in 2006-07, Moscow in 2007 and Tokyo in 2009. (This article describes the daunting nature of the production.)

Scenic design for the trilogy was by Bob Crowley and Scott Pask with costumes by Catherine Zuber. The gorgeous musical score, very much like a film score, was by Michael Bennett.

The actors participating in the discussion were Jennifer Ehle and Martha Plimpton, who played Liubov and Varenka Bakunin, two sisters, in Voyage; Ethan Hawke, as their brother Michael Bakunin, a writer and student of philosophy; and Billy Crudup, who played Vissarion Belinsky, a noted literary critic and radical.

The actors discussed the production experience, which involved a year’s commitment, starting with nine months of rehearsal. (The typical rehearsal time for a modern play is four to six weeks). Cast members prepared by studying Russian history and literature and four of the actors (including Plimpton) made a trip to Russia. “We did endless research…. We had books, piles of books, and notebooks where we noted reactions and questions,” one of the actors commented.

Before seeing The Coast of Utopia, I had been preparing too by reading Russian history and cultural history (Ivan Turgenev, Alexander Pushkin and Karl Marx are among the characters in Utopia). Many of the characters, including Belinsky and Alexander Herzen, are drawn from history. The play’s title comes from a chapter in Avrahm Yarmolinsky’s book, Road to Revolution: A Century of Russian Radicalism (1959), which is on my to-be-read list.

The cast compared the production—especially the occasional Saturday marathon performances—like going to camp. Meals were brought in and there were dressing rooms available for naps, Plimpton said. The intense rehearsal and performance schedule meant they spent almost all of their waking hours together at Lincoln Center Theaters for a year.

One experience they all vividly remembered was when actor Richard Easton, who played Alexander Bakunin, the father of the Bakunin siblings, “died on stage” for seven minutes. It wasn’t part of the script, but the audience didn’t realize that at first. During a preview performance, Easton spoke a final line (it was “That is my last word” after an argument with Michael) and started to exit, only to crumple in a heap at side stage. He had a heart attack. When Hawke realized that the fall was serious, he asked the audience the classic question, “Is there a doctor in the house?” But a stagehand performed CPR. Easton was revived in the ambulance and underwent a procedure to fix a heart arrhythmia. The opening date was briefly delayed because Easton’s character was a pivotal part of Voyage.

Hawke remembered that Easton asked him to come to his hospital room to run lines. After that, Hawke said, “we were all in service to something larger than ourselves.”

The play begins in a Chekhovian way; Voyage is set at Premukhino, the Bakunin country estate 150 miles northwest of Moscow. The sisters and brother Michael all long to escape to the city. At one point, in the middle of Voyage, Michael, who is in Berlin studying philosophy and translating a history, is asked to come back to the estate because Alexander wants him to study “agriculture,” for which he has no fondness.

The storyline concerns philosophical and literary debates in pre-revolutionary Russia (and in Berlin and Paris) between 1833 and 1866. The actual Russian revolution, of course, was another half century in the future, but that didn’t hinder discussions about liberty and censorship. Shipwreck takes place in Russia, then in Germany and France; and Salvage is set among the intellectual and revolutionary community in Paris.

The most important character in the radical/intellectual theme is Alexander Herzen, who Stoppard defines as a “would-be revolutionary,” but is an important historical figure. One of the most moving scenes in Shipwreck is about an actual shipwreck on which Herzen’s young son, Kolya, was lost. His wife is eagerly awaiting the arrival of her mother-in-law who has taken her grandson Kolya on a trip to Paris. The scene where Herzen has to tell Natalie, his wife, that Kolya is not returning, is devastating.

Stoppard was asked what inspired him to write on the subject of the Russian intellectuals and radicals. He said he was moved by the status of the critic Belinsky in Paris, “where you could write anything you wanted and no one cared” whereas in Russia, “one could only read work like this at midnight.”

My copies of the three Utopia scripts plus Stoppard’s latest, Leopoldstadt.

Stoppard was also asked when he knew he was writing three plays. It happened when I was writing the first, he said. And commenting on his own experience working with the Lincoln Center Theaters team, that nine months “was the most binding and bonding theater I’ve ever done.”

An audience member asked Stoppard whether we can learn anything for today from his work on radicals and revolutionaries. He responded that the strongest ideas in The Coast of Utopia are about families. That is the case also in his latest play, Leopoldstadt, about a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna going through another type of wrenching political change in the first half of the 20th century. The family had escaped the pogroms in the East but the fates of the generations are impacted by communism and fascism over the years.

I recently read the script of Leopoldstadt (I had to draw a family tree chart to keep track of the family branches). So far it has been produced only in London in January 2020. Had it not been for the coronavirus, it most likely would be on stage in New York by now and scheduled for Chicago in a coming season. It is a profound and moving play with nearly 40 characters over distinct time periods from December 1899 to 1955. I look forward to seeing Leopoldstadt performed on stage, perhaps in 2022.

Near the end of the discussion, director O’Brien summed up our mutual yearning for an end to our life of physical distancing. “Here’s what the theater does. You have to be there…. You’re in a room of people who are giving their heart and soul to you. We have survived pandemics since Aeschylus and we’ll survive this.”

Update: You can now watch The Coast of Utopia discussion on YouTube but only through January 10.

This article was previously posted in Third Coast Review. 

Published! Chicago Girl: Essays on the Arts, Politics and Life

Chicago Girl is the title of my new book and indeed I am a Chicago girl. I’ve lived here most of my life, with occasional and sometimes lengthy forays to Missouri, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and Kentucky. But I’ve been back to my home base for 35 years and I’m not going anywhere.

My new book of essays is part memoir but mostly a series of reviews and observations on theater, music,film, books, writing, politics, technology and a bunch of other subjects that I obsess about.

The cover is a view that may be familiar to you if you’re a Chicagoan. I took it from the Chess Pavilion at North Avenue Beach, looking south toward Navy Pier.

Many of the essays are adapted from reviews and articles I’ve written over the last eight years. But there are anomalies, like a timeline of my life in technology, starting with my acquisition of a certain special fountain pen at the age of 12. And there’s a long poem titled “City Lady Blues” about why I never wanted to move to the suburbs, despite the temptations offered by a certain gentleman. “Can’t you see I’m a city lady? Don’t wanna be a country girl.” I performed that poem one evening with my son Steve playing background blues on his tenor sax. And the oldest essay in the book is “The Story of Max: The World’s Greatest Cat,” written in 1987.

The ironic aspect of my book’s publication now is that the pandemic enabled me to finish it. In normal times, I would be seeing and reviewing three or four plays a week, but that activity was shut down along with most of the rest of our lives. So I decided to focus on finally finishing the book of essays I had fiddled with for a few years. I wrote about that in “Poem for a Pandemic: A Nightmare and a Blessing” in April..

If you’re interested in learning more about my book, both the personal stories and the arts commentary, check it out here and on the publisher’s website. Right now, you’ll find the  print version but the e-book will be available soon.

No News: Watching Old Movies for the Sake of My Sanity

The news is driving me nuts. I’ve tried to avoid watching it the last few days. I’m at heart a news junkie but the obsessive attention to this presidential race is making me crazy. And still is, the morning after. I usually have the TV on while I’m working or doing stuff around home. But this week I’ve been listening to music (especially the new Bruce Springsteen album, Letter to You) or one of my playlists on Spotify or Pandora or even music on the radio!

Maria Dizzia in the Chicago staging of What the Constitution Means to Me

In the evening, I’ve been reading books (I’m in the middle of Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies: A Novel and just started Augustus by John Williams). And watching movies or a few great examples of virtual theater (Irish Repertory’s The Touch of a Poet was superb and I loved seeing What the Constitution Means to Me again).

Most rewarding has been seeing old movies, some for the first time. For years while I was a Netflix DVD subscriber, I had The Garden of the Finzi-Continis in my saved queue forever. Apparently it wasn’t on DVD until recently. I read about it being part of the UK Jewish Film Festival. I was going to sign up for that (just to see that film) when I discovered it was streaming on YouTube with very legible English subtitles. 

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is set in Ferrara in northern Italy in the late 1930s. The Finzi-Continis are wealthy, sophisticated Italian Jews. Wealthy enough to have a huge walled estate with miles of garden (or forest) and tennis courts in addition to their palatial mansion. Middle-class Jews in Ferrara think the Finzi-Continis are not real Jews, or that they don’t think they are Jews. But in the end, of course, they are all Jews.

The film is directed by Vittorio de Sica (Bicycle Thief and Shoeshine) and it’s truly beautifully filmed with gorgeous settings and glamorous people. It’s a non-love story about Micol (tall, blonde daughter of the F-Cs) and Giorgio, a handsome scholarly Jewish man who has been in love with Micol since their school days. He pines for her but she considers him a dear friend and nothing more. There’s much more to the story than that, and it’s played out against the background of Mussolini’s dominance in Italy and increasing restrictions against Jews in Ferrara.

Another old film I watched while avoiding the news is the 1987 docudrama, Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8, available on Amazon Prime Video. It features actors playing the roles of the leading figures in the trial with film clips inserted from interviews with the actual people. So we have Robert Loggia playing William Kunstler and Kunstler himself opining on the trial occasionally. The film was made for cable TV and it’s based on trial transcripts so there is a lot of real-life dialog and events (such as the horrific gagging and chaining of Bobby Seale). 

It’s basically a 33-year-old version of the new Aaron Sorkin film, The Trial of the Chicago 7, which I also strongly recommend. The Sorkin film has snappier dialogue but the outrageous and outraged characters (Hoffman, Rubin, Davis, Dellinger) are just as wildly manic and adorable in the older version. The 1987 film is set entirely in the courtroom while the new film is also set in other locations and makes use of news footage from 1968. The Sorkin film is available on Netflix and currently screening live in some cinemas (Landmark Century Centre in Chicago). 

While scrolling through my list on Amazon Prime Video, I discovered What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael. This is a great documentary about the brilliant movie critic. It made me appreciate her as much more than an insightful critic and writer. She fought fiercely for years to be recognized as a female critic and get a paying job in what was traditionally a white man’s world. Same old, same old, right? But she persisted–and so we know her today as the plainspoken, spiky, often iconoclastic film critic for the New Yorker. The 2018 film runs about 100 minutes.  

Another old film I watched recently is The Pianist, a WWII-era film (made in 2002) about the pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman, a Holocaust survivor, who lived through the war years hiding out in various places in the Warsaw ghetto.  It’s a great film with a fine performance by Adrian Brody and direction by Roman Polanski. (it was on Netflix until recently but you can rent it for $3.99 now on YouTube). The film was adapted from Szpilman’s book titled The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45, which he wrote soon after his survival. The book was published in Poland in 1946 and then suppressed. German and English translations were finally published in 1998 and 1999. Both the film and the book are worth your time for the author’s first-person accounts of seeing his family members being loaded on trains and sent off to Treblinka and his own survival, helped by friends and strangers and finally by a sympathetic and music-loving German officer.