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.
Last week, I posted my opinion about Lincoln Yards on Third Coast Review. With all the discussion and controversy about parks, soccer stadiums and TIF money, I wanted to focus on the element that’s being taken for granted. The design of Lincoln Yards is centered with a mass of high rise buildings. The area is surrounded by traditional Chicago low-rise neighborhoods and this seems like thumbing your nose at Chicago’s history and traditions. Yes, we have a wall of highrises along the lakefront and in the loop, but they do not belong in our neighborhoods. There have already been too many intrusions of this type. Here’s what I wrote.
We don’t have to look far for a definition of a neighborhood. Jane Jacobs, the famous architecture writer who faced down Robert Moses’ efforts to demolish part of Greenwich Village to build a highway, wrote about it. She stressed the importance of mixed uses, short blocks that added corners, sidewalks and parks, population density, and both old and new buildings. Her 1961 book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, is considered one of the most influential works in the history of town planning.
The plans so far for Lincoln Yards, one of the most important planned developments in Chicago’s history, meet none of the Jacobs definition. We had a victory last week when Alderman Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward) vetoed the part of the Sterling Bay plan that was to include a 20,000-seat soccer stadium and a massive Live Nation entertainment district. But the worst aspects of the 70-acre plan remain: The presence of 20 highrise towers ranging from 400 to 650 feet. That means roughly 40 to 60 stories. The buildings, planned for commercial and residential use, could house 24,000 workers and 5,000 residential units, and would loom incongruously over the surrounding low-rise neighborhoods of Lincoln Park and Bucktown/Wicker Park.
Lincoln Yards is located along the north branch of the Chicago River in a former industrial district; it’s the former home of Finkl Steel. It’s bounded by the Kennedy Expressway to the west, Webster Avenue to the north, Clybourn Avenue to the east and North Avenue on the south. If you’re a music lover, you will recognize immediately that the site of our beloved Hideout is within those boundaries.
As the risk to the survival of the Hideout and the damage to other music venues became clear in November, Chicago’s independent music venues organized to fight the Lincoln Yards plan. They asked the city to take time to consider all aspects of the plan, including use of TIF money, rather than rushing it through so that Mayor Emanuel can consider it part of his “legacy.”
When Alderman Hopkins was seeking input, I completed his survey and included this as my response to the single open-ended question: “The high rise residential plan is totally unacceptable. This will not be a Chicago neighborhood. Residential buildings should be two-, three- and four-story max. Also the Live Nation entertainment venue is far too large. It would be much better to encourage local venues and local art/music groups to create small, storefront spaces typical of Chicago neighborhoods.”
Blair Kamin, the Tribune architecture critic, has done an excellent job of describing and criticizing the Sterling Bay plan and its support by almost-lame-duck Mayor Emanuel. Kamin begins one article this way:
“A great urban place is more than a motley collection of tall buildings and open spaces. It has lively streets, pulsing gathering spots and buildings that talk to one another rather than sing the architectural equivalent of a shrill solo.
“Daley Plaza, with its enigmatic Picasso sculpture and powerful county courts high-rise, is a great urban place. So is the North Side’s Armitage Avenue, lined with delightful Victorian storefronts.”
A neighborhood is a place where you can walk around at any time and see many other people walking, shopping, pushing strollers or riding bikes. There are places to stop for a coffee or a sandwich, to linger with your laptop, and benches where you can sit and people watch or read a book. There are bars where you can have a beer with a buddy or listen to music, which blares out to the street at night. And please let there be bookstores. As Jane Jacobs said, a neighborhood is for foot people, not car people.
That’s what Lincoln Yards should be. It should settle in a neighborly way amongst the surrounding neighborhoods and enable traffic back and forth across fungible neighborhood lines. It should not be, as it is set out now, a self-contained skyscraper community insulated from the rest of the city. Sterling Bay and architecture planning firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill should not be trying to foist this nightmare on Chicago. They should all be reading, or rereading, Jane Jacobs’ book.
For an excellent overview and critique of the Lincoln Yards plan, I recommend these articles by Kamin.
And of course, Jane Jacobs’ book.
A second book, which I highly recommend, is The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Robert Caro’s biography describes how the unelected official built an empire and lived as an emperor under six New York governors and 11 NYC mayors, until his reputation was finally destroyed. It’s a great read.
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
Songwriter and labor activist Joe Hill was executed in Salt Lake City on November 19, 1915, framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Because he didn’t “want to be found dead in Utah,” his body was transported to Chicago by the IWW (the Industrial Workers of the World or Wobblies). His last will included the famous entreaty, “Don’t Mourn But Organize.”
Some 30,000 people viewed the funeral procession and attended the lively funeral service at the West Side auditorium (Racine and Harrison) on that November 25 (Thanksgiving Day) and his body was cremated at Graceland Cemetery. What happened to his ashes? That’s another whole story.
Chicago fans of Joe Hill, a Swedish-born itinerant laborer, celebrated the anniversary of his life and music on several occasions in November. I attended two excellent events, highlighted by great performances of Joe’s music. He wrote dozens of songs that lambasted capitalism and bosses, but his most famous lyric was “You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”
The Hideout, a 19th century working men’s saloon on Wabansia, was standing room only the night of the main Joe Hill celebration. My Gapers Block story describes the agenda and list of speakers, which included a funeral oration by Larry Spivack of the Illinois Labor History Society and a rousing description of today’s IWW by Alison Olhava and Randall Jamrok. (The IWW is organizing successfully today, with branches at companies like Jimmy John’s, Starbucks and Pizza Hut. See their website for other industries and companies where the union is active.)
The evening started with a rousing set including “The Preacher and the Slave” by Bucky Halker and his amazing guitar, and closed with songs by a group including Jon Langford and Sally Timms of the Mekons and Martin Billheimer on accordion. Their closing number was “Workers of the World Awaken,” in which the crowd joined in. Psalm One and Fluffy performed a terrific hiphop version of Hill’s “Rebel Girl.”
A funeral march and procession closed the evening and Joe Hill’s coffin was carried outside by pallbearers and burned over a bonfire. The ashes were our burned notes describing why we believe Joe Hill lives today. Anyone who wanted to replicate the 1915 distribution of ashes had only to leave a self-addressed envelope. (In 1915, Joe’s ashes were divided up into a bunch of small envelopes with his picture on the front with the caption, “Murdered by the capitalist class.” The envelopes were given to IWW delegates and guests so Joe’s ashes could be scattered in every state except Utah and in other countries too.)
Bucky Halker, a singer-songwriter and PhD in labor history from the University of Minnesota, just released his new album, Anywhere But Utah: The Songs of Joe Hill, at an album release party at the Filament Theatre in the Six Corners neighborhood. Bucky played with the Big Shoulders Brass Band, featuring two saxophones, trumpet, tuba, trombone and drums. John Abbey sat in on upright bass on several numbers. Bucky and the band played two sets, including “Scissor Bill,” and concluded with a procession around the theater.
Here’s Bucky performing the Joe Hill song from the Little Red Song Book of IWW Songs.
Brand identity is a modern concept, or so it’s said. Companies, profit and nonprofit, and political campaigns devote extravagant amounts of time, money and energy to position themselves consistently—verbally and visually—with their priority audiences.
But almost a century ago, a small but creative company on the south side of Chicago developed its own distinctive brand and visual identity for an array of products designed to help its customers find beauty and romance.
Valmor Products’ advertising and packaging is the subject of a funny, provocative and eye-opening exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center. Love for Sale: The Graphic Art of Valmor Products runs until August 2 in the 4th floor north exhibit hall, just across from the not-to-be-missed exhibit of the paintings of Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist. See my Motley review for details. (All photos by Nancy Bishop.)
Valmor operated on the near south side (as the location image shows, near the intersection of Cermak Road and Indiana Avenue) from the 1920s through the 1980s. Their products were perfumes, hair pomades and straighteners, incense and a great variety of other products designed to help the individual (male or female) attract and please the opposite sex. Some of the products claimed to have mystical or magical powers.
The Cultural Center’s comprehensive exhibit is the first to show Valmor’s remarkable works of graphic design—product labels, packaging and advertising. Some of the labels were no bigger than a postage stamp, as you can see from the photo of the spilling bin of packages. (Other vintage bottles and containers are also on display.) Those tiny labels were enlarged to poster-size using modern imaging technology. The result is an exuberant display of social and cultural history as well as graphic design.
Charles Dawson, Valmor’s first designer, was a distinguished artist. His life and career are described here by the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the professional organization for design. Dawson’s unpublished autobiography is in the DuSable Museum of African American history.
The Chicago Cultural Center, as I’ve noted before, is a Chicago treasure that many people aren’t aware of. It was opened as the city’s central library in 1897, designed by the Boston architectural firm, Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge. They created a number of monumental civic structures in the Romanesque style of Henry Hobson Richardson (best known here as architect of the John Glessner House). In 1977, the building was re-created as a city cultural center. It offers many exhibits of artistic and architectural interest, concerts, films and other performing arts events–and admission is always free.
The Washington Street side has a grand Carrara marble staircase leading to Preston Bradley Hall with its beautifully restored 38-foot Tiffany glass dome. The hall was the library’s main circulation room, which is why the mosaics that line the walls display the names of authors and philosophers. (View the restoration story in the video above.) If you enter on the Randolph Street side, you’ll find a large area with tables and seating, where you can meet with a friend or client, read or do a little work. But be sure to walk up (or take the elevator) to the fourth floor, where you’ll find both the Motley and Valmor exhibits.
You’ll be pardoned if you didn’t know there was a Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. It’s been pretty low key during its short life, and so I excused myself for just discovering it in time for its fifth annual induction ceremony.
The ceremony, presided over by journalist/author Rick Kogan, brought six Chicago authors into the Literary Hall of Fame. I wrote a preview of the event for Gapers Block and decided to attend, even though it was a Saturday night in December with three other events trying to grab my attention. But I was happy I decided to be literary.
The event was held in the richly ornamented Ganz Hall at Roosevelt University. Ganz Hall, originally designed as a banquet hall, was built suspended over the Auditorium Theater space in another example of the engineering genius of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan. (All photos by Nancy S Bishop.)
The authors inducted are all dead, have a strong Chicago connection, and are considered writers of literary works. In other words, they are poets, novelists, playwrights, and occasionally one whose work extends beyond those boundaries. (Donald Evans, CLHOF founder and executive director, outlines the guidelines and history in an essay in the event program.) This year’s six honored authors were:
Margaret Anderson, who founded and edited the literary magazine, The Little Review, in 1914
David Hernandez, a street poet and unofficial poet laureate of Chicago
Edgar Lee Masters, author of The Spoon River Anthology
Willard Motley, Englewood native and author of Knock on Any Door and originator of the Bud Billiken columns in the Chicago Defender
Shel Silverstein, author of iconic books for children including The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends
Margaret Walker, whose first book of poems, For My People (1942), made her one of the youngest published black poets of the 20th century
This wasn’t one of your dry awards ceremonies with envelope openings and honorees fumbling for their speeches. (For one thing, they are all dead.) Each honoree was introduced with a remembrance about the author by a relative or literary connection, followed by a reading from the author’s work, and an acceptance speech by another relative or literary connection. Some of the readings were quite dramatic. Sandra Seaton performed an emotional reading from Margaret Walker’s For My People. Leslie Holland Pryor read a passage about the character Nick Romano from her great-grand-uncle’s novel, Knock on Any Door. Cynthia Judge performed a reading from Life Without Roses, June Sawyer’s play about Margaret Anderson.
These presentations, interspersed with comments from Kogan, made an entertaining evening that revealed Chicago literary secrets and history that should not be forgotten.
The evening also included the Rutledge Writing Awards to 13 Chicago high school student writers.
The sponsors of the CLHOF event include the Chicago Writers Association and the new American Writers Museum, which will open its new museum in 2016 on Michigan Avenue near the Art Institute of Chicago.
The new David Bowie Is exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art deserves its hype. It’s a comprehensive, expansive look at the career of a man who was a singer/songwriter, musician–and far more. David Bowie is a painter, actor, writer, designer, composer–and most important, a man who knows how to develop and maintain a brand.
Among the fascinating displays of Bowie’s art, designs, music and costumes is a large video display of his 1972 appearance on the BBC performing “Starman” wearing makeup and a colorful quilted fitted suit. His fans loved it and others were outraged–by his appearance as well as by what was seen as inappropriate behavior with his guitarist Mick Ronson. Here’s the same video. Don’t get excited. It’s not R rated, by any means. Great song, though.
Bowie hasn’t played a full concert since 2004 when he underwent emergency angioplasty after a concert in Germany. He often performed in Chicago during his touring years. One outstanding series of Bowie Chicago performances was the full month of August 1980 when he played the lead in the play, The Elephant Man, at the Blackstone Theatre. You can see a scene from that play in one exhibit area at the MCA.
Patrick Sisson’s article in the Reader tells about that month that Bowie called Chicago home…and describes some of the places he visited and people he spent time with while he was here.
Finally, here’s a video about the Bowie exhibit that’s a good visual intro. It’s an exhibit you should not miss.
A sunny Saturday afternoon at the Printers Row Lit Fest, now in its 30th year. At Center Stage on Dearborn Street (mercifully under a tent roof), Rick Kogan told meandering shaggy dog stories about Chicago neighborhoods, such as Uptown and Englewood. His stories were accompanied by Chicagoan (and émigré from Wales) Jon Langford on acoustic guitar. As a bonus, there were harmonica harmonies and more readings by Martin Billheimer, who often performs with Langford.
Kogan told about going to a Bruce Springsteen concert at the Uptown Theatre in 1980 (oh, how I wish I had joined him), which lasted oh, three, four or five hours—and about the 1907 opening of what became the Green Mill nightclub in 1909. He described the movie studios that opened on Argyle Street in 1907.
Kogan told stories about his father Herman (a Chicago newspaperman and city biographer) and Paddy Bauler. 43rd ward alderman and saloon keeper. Bauler is the guy who said, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform” in 1955 after Richard J Daley beat a “goo-goo” candidate (good government in Chicago parlance) to win his first term as mayor.
Langford and Billheimer played a rousing version of “The Sidewalks of Chicago” and other songs. (“Sidewalks” is a song by Dave Kirby and recorded by Merle Haggard.) Billheimer read an excerpt from an essay by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano from the compilation Armitage Avenue Fundamentalists.
Kogan also told about visiting a school in Englewood a few years ago with Matt Damon, who was recording speakers for the documentary The People Speak, narrated by the late historian Howard Zinn and based on his book, A People’s History of the United States. Here’s a video of Zinn introducing and Sandra Oh reading from Emma Goldman on patriotism.
And finally, as my special treat for today, here’s a Bruce Springsteen excerpt from The People Speaks. He tells about how he came to write “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and performs the song on guitar and harmonica. (As my friends and Bruce fans say, there’s a Bruce Springsteen lyric or song that enhances any topic or occasion.)
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It’s always fun to go behind the scenes at a favorite venue. I did that recently at the grand old Auditorium Theatre and yesterday I had a “backstage” tour of grand old Wrigley Field, now celebrating its 100th anniversary.
SCORE, a business nonprofit for which I volunteer, had its monthly meeting in the United Club at Wrigley. We heard from Cubs’ owner Tom Ricketts on the day his new plan for renovating Wrigley was announced. His talk was about business, but mostly the business was baseball.
He made a good case for his renovation plan. The rooftop owners are not happy with it, of course, but I have trouble being sympathetic with them. For years, people dragged lawnchairs and coolers up to their roofs to sit and watch the game. That was fun and cool. But when they started selling tickets, building “bleachers” on their roofs, and forming corporate entities, they lost my sympathy. Some even tore down old three-flats and built faux old buildings that are just an excuse for a huge seating area on the roof. Yes, they have a 2005 revenue-sharing contract with the Cubs, but it still amounts to selling a service owned by another entity. The Cubs’ position is that the contract legally permits them to make any renovations, including adding large signage, etc., as long as the city approves.
“Hey, Rooftop Owners! Shut Up, Already,” is what Al Yellon has to say about this at his website, bleedcubbieblue.com.
David, our tour guide, walked us up to the bleachers for a little history of the park and a great view of the scoreboard, one of only two manual scoreboards in the majors. (The other one is at Fenway Park, which celebrated its 100th in 2012.)
Then we walked down to the visitors’ locker room (tiny and in its original 1914 size and shape), up to the press boxes, and then back down to the stairs and corridors, lined with portraits of famous Cubs and Wrigley scenes, to the Cubs’ locker room. David provided anecdotes and history tidbits all along the way. Finally, we went out to the visitors’ dugout on the first base line and found out what it felt like to sit on that dugout bench.
The last time I was at Wrigley Field was for the Bruce Springsteen concerts in September 2012. As I stood in the lower boxes, about where I sat for the second concert, I looked out toward center field, wishing there was a concert stage there.
My first visits to Wrigley Field were when I was 7 or 8 with my mother and neighborhood moms and kids. We would go to Wrigley on Ladies’ Day, when tickets were 25 cents for “ladies” and kids were free. We rode the streetcar from our far northwest side Montclare neighborhood and took a picnic lunch. I loved the excitement of being in the ballpark and the fun of the long streetcar ride with my friends.
When I was 12, my father bought tickets for us to go to Opening Day at Wrigley Field. But it turned out he wasn’t able to take the day off after all, so Mom and I went. It was cool and drizzly but it was the first time I had a box seat and it was great. Mrs. Shannon, my seventh grade teacher, didn’t think opening day was a good excuse for my parents taking me out of school. She was snippy with me for weeks. I guess it would have been better if my mother had just sent a note saying I was sick.
I have lots of other Wrigley memories, including taking German colleagues to a game in 1988 when I was working at A.T. Kearney, the management consulting firm. They thought baseball was a very odd, slow game. Before we went to the game, I wrote an essay to orient them titled “Baseball in Chicago.” I’ve revised it over the years, and since it’s now more than 2000 words, I’ll spare you. This is part of the introduction; remember it was written in 1988.
Baseball fans in Chicago are divided geographically. The White Sox play in Comiskey Park on the south side; the Cubs play in Wrigley Field on the north side. If you live on the south side, you grow up a Sox fan; if you live on the north side, you are a Cubs fan. Any deviation is considered treasonous.
Sox fans tend to be vicious, however, while Cubs fans are generous and benevolent. A Sox fan will cheer when the Cubs lose. A Cubs fan will only cheer a Sox loss if they lose to the Cubs.
All Chicago baseball fans dream of a “subway series,” a World Series between the two Chicago teams. At any time during any season when both teams are in first place in their divisions, even if it’s only for one day, Chicago fans and sports columnists will say wistfully “this may be the year.” The two teams now play each other every season in the Crosstown Series.
I’ve seen five plays in the last two weeks. Most of them are provocative and well-produced gems from small theater companies, generically called storefronts, although they may well be in warehouses, church basements, behind restaurants or in old neighborhood centers. They’re by far the best theater bargains in Chicago and often demonstrate quality superior to the more high-profile theaters. Here are my theater picks for today.
Vatzlav at Trap Door Theatre
Yes, I’m always raving about this company, which produces plays mostly by eastern European dramatists. I like the bitter edge of these plays, their black humor and their historical references and precedents. Their current show, Vatzlav by Slawomire Mrozek, pokes fun both at capitalism and authoritarian governments. Vatzlav, a former slave, is saved from an ocean disaster when he lands on a magical island where inexplicable things happen. The inhabitants include a blind old man named Oedipus, a youth who turns into a bear, a roving ukulele player, and the rich couple who own the island. Don’t try to make sense out of it; just enjoy it. The set is simple and the costumes as usual are brilliant and colorful.
Playwright Mrozek died last August in France. He was often referred to as the Polish Ionesco and his work is compared to that of Czech playwright Vaclav Havel. Vatzlav runs thru May 24 at the Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W Cortland.
Director Beata Pilch, whose bio says she was born in the Polish district of Chicago, is founder and artistic director of Trap Door. The company has been invited to Poland to work with Teatr Witkacy and they’re raising funds for the trip. You can donate here.
The Doll’s House Project: Ibsen Is Dead at Interrobang Theatre Project
Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, published in 1879 and premiered in English in 1889, is now considered a groundbreaking piece of modern drama. It explores gender politics, scandals and marital relationships, and it brought realism to theater, when most were staging traditional costume drama. Calamity West’s new play is inspired by Ibsen’s but it’s not an adaptation. Nora in the original is the first dissatisfied housewife—84 years before Bette Friedan’s book explained the problem to us.
In the new version, Nora is a stay-at-home housewife, dominated by her successful husband Torvald, who doles out her allowance sparingly and monitors her activities. Her main job is recreational shopping. So far, like Ibsen. The new play is set in Manhattan in 1989 on the day the Berlin Wall fell. An old friend of Nora’s arrives to visit and the play veers away from the Ibsen version. The memories and tensions between Nora and Christine are the highlight of the play, while Torvald and the neighbor doctor circle around them and spar over Nora’s affections. The performers are excellent and director Jim Yost keeps the 90-minute play snapping along. The script still needs some work; there are parts that are slow and some of the dialogue seems dated.
The idea of Nora as a rich stay-at-home wife was dated in 1989, unless you moved in the circles of high-powered lawyers, financiers and consultants. In those worlds (where I worked as a marketing minion in those years), the rich stay-at-home dabbler wife was the standard. I met dozens of them at partner meetings. I couldn’t figure out how they spent their time. Recreational shopping, most likely.
The Doll’s House Project runs thru June 8 at the Athenaeum Theatre.
Cock at Profiles Theatre
Cock is a play title you very rarely find in a review headline. I’m hoping that’s because of fear over internet anti-obscenity filters, rather than puritanism on the part of copy editors. The play by Mike Bartlett is a love triangle and a power play among three characters: John, a bisexual who is fighting to discover his identity; M and W, his lovers, who battle each other and John himself to determine the course of their lives.
The setting is London in the present but the set mimics a small arena where cock-fighting might take place. The floor is covered with fake gravel; the arena is surrounded by a low iron wall. The characters frequently take positions at opposite sides, as if about to face off. In the first half, new scenes are signaled with a bell like the start of a new boxing round; after blackouts, the characters open new scenes in attack pose. The set design and the production vigorously directed by Darrell Cox make clear that the title refers to several meanings of the word, including adult male chickens and gunlocks, in addition to the male anatomy.
The actors create an intense atmosphere, which is enhanced by the intimate space. (The audience sits in tiered wooden stalls with cushions provided at the door.) The semi-comfortable seats and the tension among characters mean that 80 minutes is about the most one can tolerate of this drama that forces John to, finally, make a choice.
Cock runs thru June 29 at Profiles Theatre, 4139 N Broadway.
The Way West at Steppenwolf Theatre
Mona Mansour’s play seems to celebrate America’s pioneer spirit and our western expansion, but ends up in personal bankruptcies in 21st century Los Angeles. The family members—a mother and two daughters—have each in her own way found a way to financial ruin. Mom just quit paying her bills, is ignoring her illness, and believes everything will be ok. The older daughter has taken time off from her job in Chicago to help her mom sort thru her records and file bankruptcy. Her younger sister cares for her mother and has gone from job to job; she is in much the same financial shape as her mother. The older sister at first seems like the responsible one, but after she loses her job (learning about it by voice mail), everything falls apart for her too.
The story line is right out of 2008 and could be stronger with a more tightly edited script. The unfortunate musical interludes with western songs by the mother, accompanied by her daughters on guitars, are strange breaks in the action that just don’t work. (The wagon train and campfire projections behind the performers only increase the silliness.)
The Way West runs two hours plus intermission and can be seen thru June 8 in Steppenwolf’s downstairs theater. It’s one of the few times in my 20+ years as a Steppenwolf subscriber that I’ve been disappointed by a production.
More theater news: Expansion project for The Den Theatre and The Hypocrites
The Hypocrites, one of my favorite small theaters, will be leaving their claustrophobic basement space at Chopin Theatre and moving into a new space nearby on Milwaukee avenue that’s being taken over by The Den Theatre. The Den, another of my faves, currently has several performance spaces at 1333 N Milwaukee over a large empty retail space. They’re taking over that space and it will be the new home of The Hypocrites. It’s a great story for Chicago theater and for the Wicker Park neighborhood. You can read more about it in my article at Gapers Block.