Who said theater was dead in the summer? Chicago’s theaters, storefront, midsize and large, have active summer seasons. These are some of the plays I’ve seen and reviewed in the last few weeks. They’re all still running, so you have time to see something wonderful.
Hir at Steppenwolf Theatre
Taylor Mac’s script for Hir (pronounced “here”) is brilliant, wordy and fast-moving. It’s a startling play, as I said in my headline, because the publicity makes you think it’s all about sexuality and gender identity. But it’s about much more than that. Terrific acting and a set that will make you happy to go home to your relatively neat living room. Director Hallie Gordon has some of Chicago’s finest actors to work with and she takes full advantage of their talent in the pacing and mood of this play. Runs through 8/20; running time 2 hours.
Megastasis by Eclipse Theatre at the Athenaeum
Megastasis‘ title is odd and never really explained well in the script, but ignore that, because this play is terrific, terrifying and informative. Yes, really informative. The playwright takes the time to have characters explain what’s happening to young black men because of mandatory minimum sentencing, changes in drug laws, asset forfeiture, and parole restrictions. The story is about Tray, a young man trying hard to make a life for himself and his baby daughter, while living with his grandfather. A couple of small mistakes (like buying a few joints) get him in trouble that results in a long prison term. It’s a wonderful and disturbing human story. My review. Runs through 8/20; running time 2 hours, one intermission.
Lela & Co. at Steep Theatre
Lela is a woman disrupted and betrayed by the men in her life. It’s an unsettling and searing performance by Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel, in a play that the playwright calls a monologue. But the men keep appearing to interrupt her and change the course of her difficult life in an eastern European war zone. Read my review and see this show before it closes on 8/19; running time is 100 minutes, no intermission.
At the Table by Broken Nose Theatre at the Den Theatre
My review of At the Table mentions that it might remind you superficially of The Big Chill, but the conversation goes much deeper than that 1983 film. Act one is chatty, sometimes contentious, as we get acquainted with the diverse group of friends. Then, “scene two of act one breaks the play open. Perlman’s smart writing has lulled us into thinking we are seeing a contemporary comedy of manners, set in a rustic weekend house … while lurking in the bushes are today’s racial and identity collisions.” You can see At the Table–and you should see it–through 8/26. Running time is 2.5 hours with one intermission.
How to Be a Rock Critic (From the Writings of Lester Bangs) at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre
This is a terrific one-man show where Erik Jensen takes on the persona of iconic rock music critic Lester Bangs and invites us into his messy, drug- and cough-syrup ridden musical nightmare life. I reviewed this with one of my colleagues and we had fun with it. Jensen and his wife, Jessica Blank, are co-playwrights in this adaptation; she’s the director. They are a formidable pair. Runs only through Saturday 7/29; running time 90 minutes.
There’s a lot of silly burlesque comedy plus bubbly dancing girls in The Nance, but there’s substance too, as my review notes. The story is about a middle-aged gay man who performs “the nance act” at a 1930s New York burlesque theater at a time when the same activity in real life would put him in jail for illegal homosexual activity. It’s a time of change in burlesque theater and the playwright doesn’t hesitate to tell us about the actions of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and his licensing commissioner–and the response of the theater community. Runs through August 13; running time 2.5 hours.
We Chicagoans may think we own most of the work of genius architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed homes that populate the Chicago area, focusing on a concentration of houses in Oak Park and River Forest. But of course Wright designed homes and public structures all over the country.
Some of my dearest friends are former docents for the Chicago Architecture foundation. We all went through the CAF’s rigorous docent training together, studied and cooked together, and have gone on architectural adventures to many locations to see famous buildings, with an emphasis on Frank Lloyd Wright. Besides the Oak Park and River Forest locations, we’ve been to Hyde Park and Beverly to see the Robie House and other Wright homes. We’ve flown to Pittsburgh to see the magnificent Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa. We’ve driven to Columbus, Ind., to see the superb collection of buildings by famous architects in that small gem of a city. We’ve been to Racine, Wis., several times to see Wright’s Johnson Wax headquarters and the house named Wingspread. We’ve been to Springfield to see the Dana-Thomas house and visited Wright’s Beth Sholom synagogue in Elkins Park, near Philadelphia..
We took another Wright adventure recently: a 2-plus hour drive to West Lafayette, Ind., to see a small, perfectly finished and preserved Wright home that was lived in by its original owner for almost 60 years, until his recent death. Samara house was named by Wright when he was working with his owner/clients, John and Catherine Christian.
Samara is one of Wright’s Usonian houses, affordable homes for middle-income families. There are about 60 of these houses in the U.S. and they are smaller and less grand than some of the famous Wright Prairie-style mansions like the Robie house or the Avery Coonley house in Riverside. But they are no less uniquely Wrightian and feature the architect’s special touches in design and functionality.
The Christian house is about 2200 square feet and sits on an acre of beautifully landscaped property in West Lafayette, Indiana. The Christians worked very closely with Wright in designing and furnishing the house and they and their heirs have been meticulous in maintaining Wright purity in design and furnishings. The house is furnished with mostly Wright designed furniture, built by local artisans.
Samara means “winged seed,” and Wright used that motif throughout the house in structure, furnishings and ornament.
Our tour group met in the lounge or living area of the house for a briefing and discussion by associate curator Linda Eales, a knowledgeable and engaging tour leader. She began by asking the 25-plus visitors where we were from and how many Wright houses we had visited. It turned out that we were with a group of Wright aficionados, many of whom had traveled great distances to see Samara.
Eales described the long process that the Christians went through with Wright to build the house within their small budget. The process went on for more than five years and the house was finished in 1956. Some of the rooms were closed during our visit; the rooms we viewed were the large lounge or living room, dining area, kitchen and guest room, as well as the arboretum.
The Christians occupied the house until 2015, when Mr. Christian died. His wife preceded him in death. Samara is a National Historic Landmark.
Tours of Samara house are available by reservation April 1 through late November. The tours last about two hours and cost $10. The house is located at 1301 W. Woodland Ave., West Lafayette, a few miles from U.S. 65. To make a tour reservation, call 765-409-5522 or email info AT samara-house DOT org.
Slideshow photos by Nancy Bishop. This article previously appeared on Third Coast Review.
I had the pleasure of seeing a fine concert at the Symphony Center last Friday and it took me back to my time working at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Louisville in the 1980s–one of my favorite jobs ever. My main job was handling press relations for the company. Distributing press releases, arranging interviews and handling the many queries that came in from reporters all over the world about our products and stores. But my very favorite part of the job–and probably the most fun I ever had working–was the annual KFC Bluegrass Music Festival.
The first time I wrote about that here was in an essay titled “The Day I Discovered Bluegrass.” I wrote then: “I worked at KFC less than two years but returned to work at the bluegrass festival for several years thereafter. (Unfortunately, the festival didn’t survive the merger of KFC’s parent company with another giant corporation.) The festival was a highlight of my year – spending several days on the riverfront hanging out with music press and musicians, talking to festival attendees, and listening to music, music, music.”
Abigail’s clog dancing reminded me of the many clog dancers who performed at the festivals–earnest young people dressed in their Sunday best and wearing clunky clogging shoes. And I remembered the night that heavy rain shut down the festival and we spent the evening inside the adjacent hotel, drinking beer, listening to music and, yes, clog dancing, or just dancing. Friday night at the Symphony Center brought it all back.
My review of the Friday concert ran today in Third Coast Review. Here it is.
The Symphony Center is a different place when the program veers away from classical. Few suits and ties, no designer dresses or jewelry. Plenty of jeans and khakis, checks and plaids, t-shirts with lettering, a bolo tie or two, boots and hoodies. It’s a different audience vibe when the music is bluegrass. And so it was last Friday when Bela Fleck, the banjo virtuoso, and his multitalented wife, Abigail Washburn (vocals and clawhammer banjo) took the stage for a one-hour set.
They were followed by the Del McCoury band, a traditional bluegrass band made up of guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and upright bass. And all five musicians did wear suits and ties, as traditional bluegrass players do.
When Bela and Abbie came on the CSO stage, they looked around at the beautiful auditorium and Bela said, admiringly, “Looks like this place needs some banjo playing.” And so they did.
Bela Fleck is gray-haired now and a little heavier than when I met him 30-odd years ago at a KFC Bluegrass Music festival in Louisville. He was playing then with a progressive bluegrass band called New Grass Revival, featuring mandolin player Sam Bush. I was doing press relations for KFC corporate, and so I got the bluegrass festival assignment. Three full September days of bluegrass, morning to night, on the riverfront plaza. I worked for KFC for less than two years, but went back several years after that to work at the festival.
Fleck and Washburn released an eponymously titled debut album, which won a 2016 Grammy for Best Folk Album and they’re working on a new album. Fleck is a superbly talented banjo player, focused totally on his instrument. Washburn’s effervescent personality, sassy commentary and song stylings bring energy and charm to their duo act.
Many of the songs they played were their own compositions, but they opened with a traditional folk song, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” with a vocal by Abigail. They performed a song in Chinese, built on Abigail’s many tours to China and her fluency in Mandarin.
Another number performed with great feeling was “Come All Ye Coal Miners,” an eastern Kentucky labor protest song by Sarah Ogan Gunning, from a coal mining family. They also played a Carter Family song, “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
Their most powerful performance was on “Harland, Kentucky,” a song they composed together. Abigail, whose vocals started out sweetly and became more robust as the set progressed, announced that she was going to do something during this song that she had never done before. And she accompanied the powerful lyrics with an excellent display of Appalachian clog dancing, her heels providing percussion and punctuation for the lyrics and Bela’s picking.
The pair switched instruments frequently, with Bela occasionally playing a small ukulele banjo as well as a baritone banjo.
At one point, the pair described and demonstrated the differences in their playing styles. Abigail plays clawhammer banjo, sometimes called frailing, a rhythmic strumming style of playing. The banjo and that style of playing were brought from West Africa by the blacks who became slaves in the south.
Bela plays bluegrass banjo, notable for its fast three-finger picking, made famous by Earl Scruggs.
The clawhammer banjo has an open back, while the bluegrass banjo has a resonator back to enhance its sound. But the main difference between the two styles is picking vs strumming.
The Del McCoury Band came on for the second set, led by the bluegrass veteran Del McCoury on guitar and lead vocals. His two sons, Ronnie and Rob, play mandolin and banjo. Jason Carter plays a fabulous fiddle and Alan Bartram is on upright bass. The band performs close harmony on traditional bluegrass songs such as “Kentucky Waltz” and more contemporary tracks such as “Nashville Cats” by John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful.
The Del McCoury Band has been playing more or less in its current form since 1992. They have won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award nine times. They record now on their own label—McCoury Music.
The first time I heard of Brian Doyle or his book, Chicago: A Novel, was when I read a review on my own website, Third Coast Review. I have read a lot of Chicago history and lore, and my first thought was, how did I not know about this book? I bought a copy right away.
I fell in love with the book from the first page.
“On the last day of summer, in the year I graduated from college, I moved to Chicago, that middle knuckle in our national fist, and rented a small apartment on the north side of the city, on the lake. I wanted to be as near the lake as possible, because Lake Michigan is no lake at all, but a tremendous inland sea, and something about its vast blue sheen, and tumultuous weathers … appealed to me greatly.”
wasI’ve been reading the book in small sips, before I go to sleep at night. The reason is, it’s only 300 pages and I don’t want it to be over. When I started writing this essay, I had only 20 pages left to read and I was sad.
Chicago: A Novel is really more the memoir of an unnamed protagonist’s year-plus spent living and working in Chicago in about 1979-80. (It’s Doyle’s history and his story.) For the most part it’s a realistic story of the characters (especially the residents in his apartment building and the dudes from the Latin Kings and the Latin Eagles he plays basketball with on a nearby school playground) and places, such as Comiskey Park (he and his neighbors were Sox fans despite living a few blocks from Wrigley), blues and jazz clubs and places to buy empanadas and gyros. Near the end, there’s the story of John the Mailman, a student of dragonflies.
It’s the story of a guy just out of college with his first real job, working for a Catholic magazine at a Loop office. We travel with him on his bus rides to work on the Sound Asleep Bus and on his long walks exploring the city or dribbling his shiny old basketball along the lakefront. What keeps it from being a real memoir and makes it novelistic is the addition of bits of magical realism. The most important is Edward, an amazing dog of an indeterminate breed, who collects stamps and speeches by Abraham Lincoln. Then there’s the detective who—when the opening day trip to Comiskey has to be canceled because of an illness—tells the entire game, play by play, picking up the action from some radio waves in the air unheard by anyone else.
Doyle’s book is well written and full of Chicagoness. He places major and minor places in their exact places on the city map like the way “Broadway bends between Roscoe and Aldine streets” and a wonderful gyro shop over on Washtenaw. It’s hard to believe it was written by a guy who lived here less than two years.
When I was about midway through the book, I learned that Doyle, who now lives in Portland and is editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland and a widely published author, is now suffering from brain cancer. He had surgery for what he called “a big. honkin’ brain tumor” last November and also has been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. There’s a Doyle family GoFundMe page to help with his expenses.
Chicago: A Novel is a love letter to the city I love. I marked so many quotable passages in the book. Here’s one of my favorites.
“Sometimes, even now, years later and far away, on steel-gray days when the wind whips and I am near large waters, I feel a bolt of what I can only call Chicagoness, and I remember, I remember … what? A certain Chicago of the mind, I suppose. And sometimes then I sit by a fire, and I remember aloud…. about the way buildings crowded the streets and the sidewalks were narrow and buckled in the oldest parts of the city, and how stores and shops leaned in eagerly toward the street…. And the swirl of snow along the lake, eddying and whirling and composing drifts deep enough to hide a horse. … And the bone-chilling cold, and shuffle of boots leery and weary of ice…. And the smell of sausages and kielbasa and onions and beer at games and carnivals and festivals and street fairs…. Perhaps this is true of every city, but it was certainly true of mine then, that what the world saw … was not at all the real city, and was only the gloss and sheen of a rough grace that was the actual bone and music of the place.”
Susannah Pratt, who wrote the review I mentioned, observes, “Doyle’s book is a balm. While not shying away from Chicago’s ruthless side, the book is also a reminder of the real people and food and stories and music and resilience that continue to exist here. Those of us living here know these things; what a relief to read it coming from somewhere outside.”
I finished the book last night. I didn’t want to finish it because I knew the ending—when the protagonist drove south along the lake, “past the ragged glories of the South Side … over the Calumet River and onto the interstate highway and over the Illinois border into Indiana”—would make me cry. And it did.
I’ve been writing a lot for Third Coast Review and neglecting my personal website. But a note to readers: Check out the Stages page of Third Coast Review for the latest reviews by our talented theater reviewers, as well as me. We don’t cover everything. We’re all volunteers so we have to measure out our time carefully. But you’ll see a wide range of reviews by writers with varied writing styles.
If you’ve followed my blog or my reviews, you’ll know that I like to see and review dramas that are serious and thought-provoking–or comedies that deal in black humor. However, other Third Coast Review writers like to cover the musicals and lighthearted comedies that I avoid. So come on over to Third Coast Review if you’d like a broader view of the theater world. Also Steve Prokopy, our lead film reviewer, reviews major releases as well as obscure, foreign films and arthouse releases every week. Check out Steve’s reviews on the Screens page.
You can get a recap of the week’s posts in our weekly newsletter, 3CR Highlights, which arrives in your mailbox every Thursday morning. Sign up in the lefthand column here to get your own copy or just let me know by email or comment below that you’d like to sign up.
Here are some of my favorite recent theater experiences.
An Experiment with an Air Pump at Timelime Theatre
This TimePieces Play Reading was a single-night offering this week by Timeline Theatre. The 1998 play by Shelagh Stephenson concerns science and reason and their conflict with intuition, set in two time periods 200 years apart. It reminded many of us of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. These free readings are open to subscribers and the public, so watch for the next one.
A world premiere play by Chicago playwright Ike Holter, this is a thriller set in Chicago. The play addresses police and community issues. It’s the story of a Latino man who is beaten up by an off-duty cop–and tells his story to a TV reporter. See my full review. The Wolf runs thru March 5 at Victory Gardens Theater.
The Nether at A Red Orchid Theatres
Jennifer Haley’s new play is set in a virtual world of the near future. It’s about a wealthy man who sets up a special “realm” called the Hideaway in the virtual world to entertain visitors with peculiar sexual interests. It’s well-written and directed with some good performances–marred a bit by peculiar staging. My review says it’s worth your time and thought. The Nether runs at A Red Orchid on Wells Street thru March 12.
Straight White Men at Steppenwolf Theatre
I just saw this and haven’t finished my review yet. But I can tell you it’s an excellent production, very well-written, performed and staged. And it will leave you with plenty to discuss. Playwright Young Jean Lee also directs this production, which runs until March 19.
You’ve probably heard about Gloria by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins. It has received lots of publicity, lots of hype. The New York production was picked up and dropped as a package on to the Goodman stage. Gloria is a dark comedy about the publishing world and the ambition of its denizens. It may shock you. Actually, it should shock you. But it’s an engaging and provocative evening of theater, sure to generate conversation. Gloria continues thru February 19. My review.
A Disappearing Number at Timeline Theatre
This is how my review of this excellent play opens: “A Disappearing Number is a multi-layered, complex story of love and math over the course of a century. Timeline Theatre’s new production of the script by Complicité is mesmerizing, sometimes mystifying, and definitely worth your time and attention. Even if the math makes your head hurt. It is a joyous intellectual brain-teaser.”
The play is set in two time periods, 100 years apart, and the main thread is the story of the brilliant Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan. His story is also told in the recent film, The Man Who Knew Infinity, which was a decent, if uninspired, film. You’ll find the play much more provocative and challenging. It runs thru April 9.
I’ve become a big fan of the writing of Mike Bartlett, who wrote King Charles III and Cock, both staged recently in Chicago, as well as Earthquakes in London. This is a chaotic, immersive play built around issues of climate change, as well as family relationships. Jonathan Berry’s direction and staging make great use of video projections and pop music. And there’s a robot and a polar bear. I strongly recommend this and you have until March 4 to see it for yourself.
Paterson, the fine new film by Jim Jarmusch, has finally opened in Chicago. And it’s getting some of the attention it deserves. It’s a beautiful film about nothing much. The life of a bus driver named Paterson, in Paterson, New Jersey, who observes the life around him on his bus and in the city. And he writes poetry in his spare moments. On the bus, while eating his lunch at Paterson’s Great Falls of the Passaic River. His wife, played by a delightful and funny actor named Golshifteh Farahani, stays at home and makes art…and yearns to be a country singer. Oh, and there’s a dog too.
I saw this film last fall at the Chicago International Film Festival and it’s been haunting me ever since. I wrote about it then and also included in my list of A Few Things About 2016 That Didn’t Suck.
Paterson is showing now at Chicago theaters, including Century City Cinema. Here’s the review by Steve Prokopy from Third Coast Review. His comments perfectly encapsulate why this is such a wonderful film.
The poems that Paterson writes in the film are by Ron Padgett, a poet whose work I wasn’t familiar with. I’ve now read a lot of his poems online and just ordered two of his books. Jeffrey Brown interviewed Padgett and filmmaker Jarmusch last night on the PBS Newshour.
w/ HT to @anamariecox on 11/18/16
It’s been six weeks since I’ve written a post for Nancy Bishop’s Journal. 2016 has been the year that sucked in so many ways. I probably would not consider it this dismal were it not for the coup d’état we called an election. We now have the prospect of a leader for four years who is a racist, misogynist, uncurious and uninformed buffoon or “an unformed pliable piece of clay,” as Frank Bruni called him in the New York Times. I am firmly in the “Not My President” camp.
This dreadful year started with the death of David Bowie and brought the loss of so many talented artists and musicians. The death of Leonard Cohen last month was one more cruel blow.
But at least there are these few good things about this rotten year.
The Cubs. I’ve been a Cubs fan since my father taught me how to keep a scorecard when I was 12. He and my late sister were dedicated Cubs fans. I wish they could have been here to enjoy 2016 with us.
Third Coast Review. I’m grateful for all the great contributions from so many writers and editors for our new arts and culture website, launched January 8. Our previous website, Gapers Block, went on hiatus as of January 1. We scrambled to get a new website started so we could continue to write about Chicago arts and culture and now we’re almost at our one-year anniversary. So my thanks to Emma, Kim, Sarah, Miriam and Jeanne for helping us get started and to Zach, Julian, Steve, Marielle, Justin, Stephanie, Colin, Brent, Andrea, Elif, Chris, Louis, James, Karin, and all the other writers who helped us plug the hole left by GB.
Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run. A readable, memorable story of his life and music, told in his own voice and not papering over the dark places. Seeing him in concert three times this year—twice in Chicago and once in Louisville—made the year come alive.
Leonard Cohen’s new album, You Want It Darker. Speaking of dark places, this last album by the great poet and songwriter is very dark and moody and a marvelous set of farewell tracks. Similar to the way David Bowie said farewell in his final work, Blackstar, and especially in the song, “Lazarus.”
Two Jim Jarmusch films, Paterson and Gimme Danger. Many great films this year, but these two Jarmusch films are unique. Paterson (release date 12/28) is a small film about a bus driver and poet named Paterson. Not much happens but poetry and love. The city of Paterson, New Jersey, is a character in the film too, as Paterson drives his bus route around the old industrial city. Gimme Danger is Jarmusch’s documentary on Iggy Pop and the Stooges, with Iggy starring as an articulate, reflective older version of himself. While it’s not one of the best films of the year, it’s an interesting doc and shows Jarmusch’s talent and versatility.
My two favorite books of the year were Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, which really is about a railroad, and Ian McEwan’s novella, Nutshell, told in the voice of a fetus that may turn out to be Hamlet. Through Whitehead’s book, you’ll get a visceral feeling for what slavery was like as well as some elements of history and magical realism. Nutshell is deliciously gossipy, charming and Shakespearean.
Kill Your Darlings, the live lit and improv series, cosponsored by Third Coast Review, was seven weeks of hard work and great fun. I wrote my own story for each of the seven nights of readings, based on the seven cultural categories on Third Coast Review.
The most memorable evening was when I read a poem titled “City Lady Blues,” accompanied by my son Steve on tenor sax. You can listen to the podcast. But I also loved telling my story about the Spanish Civil War in my dreams.
So much art, so little time. Some of my favorite exhibits of the year were at the Art Institute. The current exhibit of work by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy is fabulous in curation and organization and in the way it displays the curiosity and versatility of Moholy. The exhibit of Aaron Siskind’s Abstractions at the Art Institute was also memorable. Van Gogh’s Bedrooms was on the surface a modest exhibit but a brilliant way to illustrate the mind that created the bedroom paintings.
Other fine exhibits were the Strandbeests: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen at the Chicago Cultural Center and the exhibit of illustrations from Puck, the 19th century magazine of politics and humor at the Driehaus Museum.
Finally, I spent a memorable hour or two at the Art Institute following poet Stuart Dybek around the Modern Wing as he talked about art and poetry and read poems by various poets, including himself, dedicated to some of his favorite paintings.
Nights of great theater. I see 150-200 plays a year, as a reviewer and some as plain audience member. These were some of my favorites from this year, not listed in rank order. I’m going to reprise this list with commentary in a “best of 2016” post at thirdcoastreview.com. (And I did. See our Best of 2016: On Stage in Chicago.)
Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys at Raven Theatre
Haymarket: The Anarchists’ Songbook at Underscore Theater Company
Life Sucks at Lookingglass Theatre
Man in the Ring at Court Theatre
The Weir, Spinning and In a Little World of Our Own at Irish Theatre of Chicago
2666 at Goodman Theatre
The Flick at Steppenwolf Theatre
American Buffalo at Mary-Arrchie Theatre
The Hairy Ape at Oracle Productions