Chicago storefronts: Great new theater

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

NSBvatzlav_webYes, 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 I like the bitter edge of these plays, their black humor and their historical references and precedents.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

NSB-IbsenHenrik 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

NSBslide_cocksCock 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

NSBwaywest_large_nowplaying2Mona 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.

Beauties and beasts: A mixed bag of culture

Kind of a Chinese menu of a post today. A little theater, a little film, a little TV and some fine music.

Jean Cocteau on stage

The Artistic Home has mounted a riproaring family sex story at its venue on Grand Avenue. This Jean Cocteau farce is Les Parents Terribles—it’s two hours-plus of high-speed theater. Very funny, very well acted. My Gapers Block review is here. The play runs until April 13.

In the course of writing the review, I thought about Cocteau’s other work. His 1946 film, La Belle et La Bête, is unforgettable and visually arresting. Here’s the trailer so you can check it out. It happens that the lobby of my apartment building has a giant framed poster of Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête, so I am reminded of it every day.

Wondrous Japanese animation

thewindrisesAnimated film has not been one of my interests, since I always connected it with dreadful cute animals. But recently I’ve been educated in the beauty and sophistication of animated film and I’ve seen three films lately by the Japanese master, Hayao Miyazaki.

My film group had a discussion on Miyazaki this week and it was fascinating because several of the members are anime, animation and Miyazaki experts. His current (and final, he says) film is The Wind Rises, which just opened in local cinemas. His work is always beautiful, rich in hand-drawn detail, and sophisticated in its use of Japanese history and mythology (most of which I probably miss because of my own education gap).

His other films are mostly works that would be of family interest, but The Wind Rises is quite adult in plot and character. The leading character is Jiro, who is enchanted with flight and idolizes an Italian aviation engineer. He grows up wanting to design beautiful airplanes that carry people—but he ultimately designs the planes that are used in World War II, specifically to bomb Pearl Harbor. (There’s kind of an Oppenheimer effect at work here. Oppenhemer and the other Manhattan Project physicists designed the atomic bomb and then were chagrined at the results.)

War is an underlying theme in the film but not the main topic. In addition to Jiro’s engineering work, there’s a love story; his fiancée suffers from tuberculosis. The film is beautiful and gets many four-star reviews. (Seeing the “rising sun” logo on the airplanes was slightly unsettling for me, a child of that wartime period.)

I recommend this film highly and would also recommend Spirited Away (2001) and Princess Mononoke (1997) as two of his more typical films. He uses strong female characters and in each case blends in Japanese history and mythological symbols. His films are enchanting and I have a list of four or five more on my list to see.

Women of Letters

The Australian literary salon known as Women of Letters is bringing its project to revive the lost art of letter-writing to Chicago. Women of Letters will be performed with local writers and artists on Friday, March 21, at the Mayne Stage. Here’s my Gapers Block preview. Sounds like good literary fun and I’ll report on it back here.

 Chicagoland: My favorite city on TV

CNN, apparently trying to become something more than just another cable news outlet, has just started an eight-part series called Chicagoland (Thursdays at 9pm CT, with several reruns). The first episode ran last night and so far Mayor Emanuel looks good—perhaps a little too good. However, given the principals involved, I believe the series will be fair and well done—and I hope I’m not wrong. The production has the Sundance/Robert Redford imprint so I’m expecting quality.

The first episode had some great footage of Chicago but the story was depressing. The reporting focused on murders and gang activity (with an emphasis on Fenger High School) and the city’s closing of 50 public grammar schools, almost all of them in African-American and Latino neighborhoods. We saw parents and teachers protesting the closings and CTU president Karen Lewis telling us what she thinks of Rahm Emanuel.

Of course, I’ll watch the other episodes, even though I know the story probably doesn’t have a happy ending. But to make up for that, I have a special Chicago musical treat for you, even though someone who shall be nameless remembers it as a song “I used to listen to in college while stoned.”

The song is “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliota-Haynes-Jeremiah. It was a big hit in 1975 and rereleased on CD in 1998. If you love the song, you can download it on iTunes and put it on your iPod, so it’s always with you, despite what the person quoted above calls “a jarring piano line.” If you’re not a Chicagoan, you may think that the LSD mentioned in the lyrics and shown in the visuals refers to a drug …. but to Chicagoans it refers to the drive that runs along the lakefront from Hollywood Avenue to 66th Street. The Lake Shore Drive Wikipedia page is a nice history of its construction, use and appearances in popular culture.

And now for some related posts….

On the subject of animation: One of the five sort of obscure movies I recommend is Richard Linklater’s 2001 Waking Life, an amazing approach to animation–and philosophy.

For some thoughts on J. Robert Oppenheimer, see my review of the current play being mounted by Saint Sebastian Players.

Labor Day agenda: Food, art and street signs

A few things on my mind today, some of which you might want to think about too.

Bakery love

I’m fond of the fruits and vegetables from the farmers’ market but I’m also a superfan of good bakeries. I discovered logoa new one today and you should try it. It’s Blue Sky Bakery at 3720 N Lincoln, just north of the Addison stop on the Brown line. Street parking should be pretty easy too. I bought some delicious berry scones and an apple-brie croissant baked in a muffin cup.  Mmmm-mmm. Lots of delicious-looking cookies and cakes too.

There’s another reason why you should visit Blue Sky Bakery.  They provide employment and training for homeless and at-risk youth.  So those deliriously luscious baked goods are also helping bring about social change.  CBS Channel 2 did a story on Blue Sky recently. Check it out.

Borders at Solti Park

I wrote about these intriguing figures earlier this week in my Art Around Town roundup.  Here’s another photo.


Photo by Nancy Bishop

Theater pick

Simpatico by Sam Shepard runs until September 15 at A Red Orchid Theatre. It’s a terrific show with a gripping first act so get a ticket if you possibly can.  That may not be easy because (1) the play has gotten four-star reviews and (2) it’s showing in the tiny A Red Orchid Theatre on Wells Street. The theater describes it like this:  “High society meets low life in the slippery netherworld of thoroughbred racing. This tragic-comedy explodes when a simple phone call threatens to undo years of blackmail and false identities.” The small tough cast features Michael Shannon and Guy Van Swearingen. It’s sold out but a standby ticket line forms one hour before each performance.

Reading list

The Mexican Girl by Jack Kerouac.  I confess that every once in a while I look at the obituary page if I’m reading an actual newspaper, to see if anyone interesting or important died.  One day last week, there was a gem of an obit.  The woman who inspired the character Teresa or Terry in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road died at 92. The wonderful part is that she didn’t know the identity of the young man with whom she had a brief affair in 1947.

The short story, The Mexican Girl, was excerpted from the manuscript of On the Road and first published in The Paris Review in 1955.  The review paid Kerouac $50 for the story.  It was a big hit and resulted in the whole book being published by Viking Press in 1957. I thoroughly enjoyed rereading the story–it starts on page 74 of my edition of On the Road.  If you can’t find yours, you can listen to an audio version of the story recorded in 2003.

Chicago street signs

Chicago has a lot of weird and amazing engineering achievements. Reversing the flow of the Chicago River, sending it downstate rather than into Lake Michigan. Raising the grade of the city and all its buildings by five feet to lift the city above the mud and sludge of the unpaved streets.  My favorite bit of reengineering, however, happened in 1909, when all the streets in the city were renumbered with State and Madison as the zero point.  State Street became zero for east-west streets and Madison for north-south streets.


Hear that, Manhattan? In Chicago, you know exactly where an address is going to be because you have memorized the arterial streets in each direction. Every good Chicagoan does that.  You know if you are going to the 2700 block of Halsted Street that it will be a block south of Diversey, which is 2800.  In New York, you have to ask what the cross street is because streets are haphazardly numbered as they were built in centuries past.

Patrick Reardon did a nice story on this in the Tribune this week.  The story marked the occasion of officially naming the corner of State and Madison streets as Edward Brennan Way, in honor of the private citizen who devised the plan and fought for its acceptance by the City Council.

This weekend: Chicago

Summer in Chicago is drawing to an end, but there are great outdoor and indoor activities in my city this weekend.

Festa Italiana

bg-1-141469Summer is the time for street and neighborhood festivals.  This is one of my favorites.  It’s in little Italy, the old Italian neighborhood near the UIC campus. Festa Italiana runs through Sunday on Taylor Street between Racine and Ashland. There’s food from all the great Taylor Street restaurants and entertainment ranging from Italian-surnamed crooners to new bands such as This Must Be the Band, Acoustic Generation and my favorite band name, Inbound Kennedy.

The highlight of the festival, for some, will be the meatball-eating contest.  Personally, I’m grossed out by food-gorging displays.  The winner will be the person who eats eight meatball-slider sandwiches in two minutes. (That is disgusting.)

Lill Street Art Festival

The Lill Street Art Center (which started out on Lill Street) is celebrating its 10th year in its Ravenswood location, at the corner of Ravenswood and Montrose. The opening reception tonight will celebrate Best Served Hot: Ceramics for the Coffee Ritual, cosponsored by Intelligentsia Coffee. Saturday will include an open house and block party.  Lill Street Art Center offers classes, a gallery and studio space for artists in ceramics, metalsmithing and jewelry, painting and drawing, printmaking, textiles, glass,  digital arts and photography.  I treasure a few pieces of ceramic jewelry from Lill Street.


smalldvdIn honor of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, you should watch the documentary about Bayard Rustin, the strategist and activist who organized the march.  He was a key adviser to MLK until he was asked to leave (or was pushed out) because of his political past (socialist) and sexual orientation (gay). The film is Brother Outsider (available on DVD and streaming). It’s an excellent view of Rustin’s background, leadership and his activist life after 1963.  President Obama will award a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rustin posthumously.  It’s bloody well time.

The Huffington Post has a good article on Rustin by Peter Dreier, E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College.

Anna Karenina, the gorgeous Joe Wright version of Tolstoy’s tragic  novel with a script by Tom Stoppard, is showing occasionally on HBO right now.  If you haven’t seen it, do.  It’s creatively staged–and staged is the right word because much of it is set in an old theater.  The railroad scenes, as ice-encased trains arrive in Moscow or St. Petersburg, are not to be missed.


Have you been to Big & Little’s? It’s a fine place to stop for a fish taco, a fried oyster or shrimp po’ boy (my favorite) and many varieties of  burger and sandwich choices.  Also foie gras & fries or truffle fries.  Yum. Delish. Not fancy.  Big & Little’s is at 860 N Orleans, just north of Chicago Avenue. There’s a tiny parking lot and you can sit inside or outside (as I did today) or carry out.  Cash only.  It’s been featured on the Food Network’s Triple-D (Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives) and on Chicago’s Best on WGN and on Check Please on WTTW.

Wish I was at the Jersey Shore

brucenoir_bkgnd_only250I often wish that and I occasionally go to that neighborhood we call Springsteenville: Freehold, Asbury Park and West Long Branch, New Jersey. This is one of those weekends. There’s a Bruce Noir Film Festival in Asbury Park. The five films being shown are those he’s mentioned in interviews or in songs.

Since I can’t be there, I’ll find another way to watch them. The films are:

        — Gun Crazy (1950; on which Springsteen based his song “Highway 29” from the Nebraska  album)

— Badlands (1973; based on the Charles Starkweather murder spree story, which Springsteen tells in the song “Nebraska”)

— Out of the Past (1947; a Robert Mitchum film about a private eye)

— Atlantic City (1980; a Louis Malle film with script by playwright John Guare, starring Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon)

— Thunder Road (1958; Robert Mitchum plays a bootlegger trying to save the family moonshine business from big-city gangsters; lots of great road footage as Mitchum drives a “tanker,” a car modified to carry alcohol in the fuel tank)

Weekend focus: Chicago

It’s Air and Water Show weekend

8_14_2008Chicagoist_airshowI can hear the airplane acrobats flying very very close to my roof.  If you come to the lakefront for the show, take public transportation.  Traffic will be bad before and horrible after the show each day. And parking is impossible in that neighborhood. Trust me.  It’s my neighborhood and I know.

Photo by Runaway Wind from  For five reasons to go even without the  Blue Angels, see


The Act of Killing. This is a new documentary about the genocide in Indonesia in the late 1960s. It’s not your standard-issue genocide doc.  No blood.  But it’s a very surreal, gripping film — I’ll write more about it later.  It’s showing at the Music Box for a few days.  This film will generate lots of buzz, heated conversation, and certain award nominations

Twenty Feet from Stardom. This great music doc about female backup singers is showing at Landmark Century Centre for at least another week.  I wrote about it recently.  It’s a grand, joyful story about these terrific performers whose voices made all the difference for many big-name musicians. But they never really got the credit or success they deserved.  This film showcases their personalities and their voices.

Picasso Baby. Another plug for this intriguing performance video by Jay Z.  It will only take 12 minutes of your time to find it and view it.  And it will make you think about performance art and celebrity.


Invasion is showing at Silk Road Rising in the Methodist Temple building on Washington and Clark.  It’s an imperfect but thought-provoking play about Arab-American identity and assimilation.


Don’t miss the Peter Maass article on Edward Snowden and how documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras “helped Snowden spill his secrets.” As she went about her work, she was subjected to incredible surveillance by the US government. The article is in tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine and has been available online for several days.  It’s an excellent article with examples of how journalists are pressured by their own governments. Poitras has been working with Glenn Greenwald, who broke the Snowden story in The Guardian.

Weekend focus: Chicago

What’s better than a gorgeous summer weekend? Here are some things I’m checking out and you can too.

imagesFarmers markets on Saturday.  Corn,  tomatoes and peaches, yes.

Movies. Lots of things in theaters, but if you’re staying home, I strongly recommend two political films that are streaming on Netflix and Amazon.  Brother Outsider: The Story of Bayard Rustin, is a biopic about the little-known civil rights and gay activist who was a force in  organizing the MLK 1963 March on Washington. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing still holds up as a story about race relations and attitudes in Brooklyn. My film group discussed it this week (Hi, CFLXers!) and found it still very potent.

Community events. Ginza Festival at Midwest Buddhist Temple.  Japanese food (grilled teriyaki chicken is a specialty), artisans and entertainers (taiko drummers, classical and folk dance). Saturday and Sunday.

Theater.  I recommend Slow Girl at Steppenwolf — a thought-provoking, quiet play with terrific performances by William Petersen and Rae Gray.  Also Inventing Van Gogh at Strange Bedfellows.  Here’s my review of the latter.  And I recommend Rooms: A Rock Romance at Broken Nose Theatre.  I loved that one.

I don’t recommend Belleville at Steppenwolf.  I know it got great reviews, but to me it was tedious. And the knife thing?  Really.  That was Chekhovian overkill.

Want to argue with me about anything?  Come on.  You must disagree with some of my opinions.  Comments, please!

The art of fashion: Punk, Impressionism, Ebony

Three important exhibits this summer are threading art, fashion and social issues into fascinating museum experiences. I keep trying to decide that one or another is my favorite but each one is equally discerning and compelling in its own way.

Punk rules

I wrote recently about seeing the exhibit Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Of course, I’m tempted to say this is my favorite of the three because I love punk rock and its alienated, disruptive, DIY and disheveled nature. Punk, especially Brit punk, was critiquing the evils of society in the 1970s—the ones that we see even more vividly today. Poverty, economic and educational inequality, and the evils of the establishment.

cbgbbathroom2Most especially, one of my favorite bands of all time, The Clash, is represented in the exhibit by a quote from its late lamented frontman Joe Strummer, explaining what the band wore: “We didn’t have the backing of the Sex boutique (like the Sex Pistols) so we rented a warehouse in Camden Town and painted it. We got all covered in paint….”

Some of my favorite things about the exhibit were the facsimile of the bathroom at CBGB, the famous punk club on the Bowery; and the DIY Bricolage section, which used trash materials in costuming. The exhibit was intended as an immersive experience with almost-loud music, music videos and other multimedia examples of the period. (Photo copyright Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

From punk to Paris

Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity at the Art Institute of Chicago is an elegant tour of the fashions and social customs of the late 19th century as displayed in impressionist paintings from the collections of the Art Institute, the Metropolitan Museum and Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the three museums that organized the exhibit. The exhibit is highlighted with gowns similar to those worn in the paintings displayed and properly accessorized with footwear, gloves and chapeaus. The exhibit takes us from the elaborate, fussy, long-trained gowns that required corsets and cautious walking to day gowns and walking ensembles that freed the 19th-century woman from some of the strictures of corset, bustle and fabric. (Photo courtesy Art Institute of Chicago.)

The-Parisienne_360Museum legends and signage describe the changes in styles and social customs that accompanied and, indeed, enabled the fashion changes. Other displays show period examples of accessories such as fans, lorgnettes, jewelry, hats and footwear.

We can also see examples of fashion magazines and catalogs with announcements of the openings of important new fashion emporiums in Paris, including Le Bon Marché, La Samaritaine and Printemps.

The Art Institute has an ongoing series of lectures (some are members-only) about the exhibit and the period. They are free and provide invaluable insights to enhance your enjoyment of the exhibit. See the Art Institute calendar for information.

The world’s largest traveling fashion show

Chicago has another stunning exhibit of art and fashion at the Chicago History Museum. Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of the Ebony Fashion Fair runs until January 5, 2014.

feature-exhibitionI reviewed this exhibit for Gapers Block and you can read my article here. The exhibit is a gorgeous display of almost 70 of the 8,000 gowns and ensembles from the costume collection of the Johnson Publishing Company.

The Ebony Fashion Fair exhibit presents the history and style of the traveling fashion show that began in 1958, brought visibility to African-American designers and models, and helped Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company reach larger audiences.

It’s a stunning exhibit of fashion and history and shows how the fashion fair recognized and encouraged changes in socioeconomic and elite status for African-American women. The fashion fair was produced and directed by Eunice Johnson, whose husband was John H Johnson, the visionary founder of Johnson Publishing, publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines.

The exhibit shows the original garments by designers such as Yves St. Laurent, Oscar de la Renta, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Lacroix, and Patrick Kelly, on stunning African-American mannequins. The garments are sleek, dramatic, vibrantly colorful and often exotic. The exhibit also tells the story of Eunice Johnson’s persistence in gaining access to the fashions she wanted to show (cash helps) and how she brought high fashion events to African-American audiences. More than 5,000 fashion shows in 180 cities all over the US were produced as charitable events, raising more than $55 million for civil rights projects and scholarships.

While you’re at the history museum, you can also still see the Vivian Maier exhibit that I wrote about here. It runs through January 5, 2014.

Storefront theaters shine in Chicago

I’ve been seeing a lot of theater lately and I wanted to post my last three reviews for Gapers Block.  Two of these shows close in the next week, so hurry up and see them. We have an unbelievable wealth of theater talent in Chicago. These plays are worth your time – and these small theaters will appreciate your support.

My next post will get out of Chicago and report on my visit to New York, featuring one off- and one on-Broadway show.

Mahal at Bailiwick Chicago: It’s a Family Affair

Mahal by Danny Bernardo is a story about a Chicago Filipino family, the first play with that ethnic focus, to my knowledge. Bailiwick Chicago is presenting it at Stage 773 at 1225 W Belmont, formerly the Theater Building. The Stage 773 owners have upgraded the space, especially the entrance and lobby area, to be very attractive and contemporary—a great improvement.

Mahal-2My review begins:

Mahal is a family story. A Filipino family with strong roots in the Philippines adjusts to life, love and loss in its new country. The family members – father, two sons and a daughter – are each recovering in their own way from the recent death of their mother. (Some family members call the mother’s phone number to hear her voicemail greeting – and leave messages for her until the mailbox fills up.)”

Bailiwick Chicago presents Mahal until August 2 at Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Ave. Read the review here.   Photo of Kevin Keyes and Jillian Jocson by Michael Brosilow.

The Casuals at Jackalope Theatre: Exploring Life in the Atomic Era 

The Casuals is set in 1955 Nevada and involves personal as well as political issues. It’s a new play by Jackalope Theatre Company with script by Chance Bone and Andrew Burden Swanson, and direction by Jonathan Berry. Here’s how my review starts:

TheCasuals-GB“Some things about The Casuals might make you uncomfortable–nuclear testing, for instance. Government agencies that hide the truth (and insist you don’t ask questions). Stories that may be lies or truth. A mother who tells her son how his father died a hero. An uncle who tells his nephew’s wife how his brother really died.”

The Casuals runs until July 28 at DCASE Storefront Theater, 66 E Randolph St. Tickets are cheap: $10-$15.

Read the review here.  Photo by Alex Hand: Watching an atomic test.

Rooms: A Rock Romance at Broken Nose Theatre

I hardly ever get to indulge my love for rock and roll at the theater. So I was very excited to get to review this show, which includes a scene set at CBGB, the famous New York rock club. Rooms features a talented live band and some straight-up rock as well as a little punk.  My review starts this way:

IanGuitar-Rooms-GB“The sign outside the theater says, “This is a rock musical. It will be loud.” And it starts loud with a four-piece rock band playing preshow music including the classic ‘Seven Nights to Rock.’

“Rooms: A Rock Romance is a fairly traditional musical, punctuated by some great rock and punk rock songs performed on stage with a band. It is, at its heart, a love story about two people with different visions of life. Monica (Hillary Marren) wants to be a rock star, to travel and perform all over the world and Ian (Matt Deitchman) is a musician who prefers to stay at home in his own room with his guitar.”

Broken Nose Theatre will present Rooms until August 11 at the Collaboraction Pentagon space in the Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Read my review here. Photo of Matt Deitchman by Taryn Goodge.

Broken Nose Theatre, by the way, takes its name from the way Nelson Algren describes my favorite city in his book, Chicago: City on the Make.

“Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”

On stage: Memories, heads, apocalypse prep

Comments on a few plays I’ve seen recently, including one full review.

 The Burden of Not Having a Tail: Apocalypse When?

burden-11x17Sideshow Theatre is presenting this one-woman show at Chicago Dramatists. It’s an entertaining 70 minutes about the prospects of an apocalypse. Woman, the lone character, is a “prepper” and the audience (that would be us) is there to learn from her experience to prepare ourselves.  There’s a sad thread to it (besides the grim one) about the death of her baby daughter.

All in all, the play fails to hold together as a play but I have to give the actor (Karie Miller), playwright (Carrie Barrett) and director (Megan Smith) props for a good try. It’s not easy to tell a dramatic story and hold a one-character play together. The successful ones I have seen are about the lives of riveting characters such as Clarence Darrow (by David Rintels from the Irving Stone biography) or Charlotte van Mahlsdorf (her story, I Am My Own Wife, was produced at Goodman Theatre in 2005). Or brilliantly written one-man plays, like Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett.

Read my review of The Burden of Not Having a Tail on Gapers Block. You can see it until August 4.

Big Lake, Big City: Chicago noir

If you think “comic noir” is not an oxymoron, then you’ll love the new play by Keith Huff at Lookingglass Theatre. Huff wrote the gripping two-character cop play, A Steady Rain, which was a hit here at Chicago Dramatists and then went to New York where Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman starred in it. That earned Huff his writing cred and he’s been writing for great TV dramas such as Mad Men and House of Cards, the recent Netflix streaming series that I wrote about in February.


David Schwimmer directs this play about Chicago crime, with two hard-bitten police detectives (Philip R Smith and Danny Goldring), a guy who wants to go to Disneyland with a screwdriver embedded in his head (that’s right, he doesn’t make it through the metal detectors at O’Hare), and two morgue doctors who play golf with severed heads. Actually, heads get a lot of attention in this play and you can decide whether that’s symbolic or not. I left out the two corpses burned to a crisp while in flagrante delicto in a Lincoln Avenue motel and a dozen other delicious incidents.

The play has a lot of characters, a lot of plot threads and is probably more suited to TV, as a couple of critics have observed. Smith and Goldring are terrific as the two cops, and the acting and timing is very good. I suppose it’s not wholly successful as a theatrical exercise. However it’s really entertaining and stuffed with great Chicago jokes and references. My favorite scenic device is the Navy Pier Ferris wheel cab that I kept watching above me; it finally descended in one of the last scenes.

I recommend Big Lake Big City, although maybe not for out-of-town visitors. It runs until August 11 at Lookingglass Theatre at the Water Tower Water Works.

The Glass Menagerie: Memories in shards of glass

Mary Arrchie Theatre is presenting its distinctive version of the Tennessee Williams memory play in an extension at Theater Wit. It’s beautifully done and the acting makes you really appreciate Williams’ poetic language.

Tom, the poet, is played as a homeless man by Hans Fleischmann, who also directs. Tom wanders barefoot through a setting covered in glass shards. He’s the brother of delicate Laura and the son of Amanda (the southern belle who can’t believe the poverty of her current existence). There was something odd that I can’t quite put my finger on about Tom being played as a homeless man. The glass shards, of course, are reminiscent of Laura’s life with her glass menagerie and symbolic of their shattered lives. Basically, no one in the play accepts the reality of their own existence.

The play has a beautiful original score by Daniel Knox, which really enhanced the atmosphere.

I have seen The Glass Menagerie many times. My favorite still is the Court Theatre’s 2006 version, performed on an elevated set, mostly on the fire escape outside the Wingfield family flat in St. Louis. It captured the mood of Williams’ memory play beautifully, with fine acting in a minimalist setting. Jay Whittaker, an excellent Chicago actor who has left for other pastures, was a poetic Tom, longing for escape.

The Glass Menagerie runs until July 28 at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont.

Chicago as Brigadoon & other stories

I’m a student of Chicago history and have been ever since I started reading Mike Royko’s columns in the Chicago Daily News (RIP) and discovered Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play Front Page. I learned more in a Chicago history course at Steinmetz High School and a lot more in docent training from the Chicago Architecture Foundation. I’ve been collecting books and anecdotes about my favorite city ever since. When John Hodgman said that Chicago is a fictional city like Brigadoon, I knew this had to be added to my library.  Bill Savage and Paul Durica obliged with another Chicago yarn.

John Hodgman discovers Chicago

hodgmanJohn Hodgman, the Daily Show resident expert and occasional “deranged millionaire,” was in Chicago recently for the Just for Laughs Festival.  The Chicagoist interviewed him and he made an astounding statement, which we Chicago lovers must not forget.

“As you know, I, John Hodgman, have always maintained Chicago is a fable, a fictional city like Brigadoon.”

Hodgman had predicted the end of civilization and possibly the end of the world on December 21, 2012, in accord with the Mayan prediction. So he swallowed and walked that back a bit. Here are some snippets from the Chicagoist interview by Samantha Abernethy.

C: Are you concerned that the world could end before you appear in Chicago next week?

JOHN HODGMAN: No, but what I’m saying is that another one of my prophecies that came true is that Chicago became, Chicago emerged from the swamp next to the lake and became real. Because as you know I, John Hodgman, have always maintained Chicago is a fable, a fictional city like Brigadoon.

C: And why is that?

JOHN HODGMAN: Well you know, for those of us in New York, we would meet these travelers who had come to New York, and they would tell these stories about this amazing utopia called Chicago where rents were still reasonable and newspapers still thrived, and old-time bars still served boilermakers and the rivers were green with beer. I was like, “I’m sorry but you’re insane. There is no such place. If there were, why did you leave it?” And that’s how I came to believe that there was a mythical city called Chicago, a legend of folklore. There was this great city of wide shoulders in the middle of the country, but of course it’s patently false. Or it was, anyway.

I would come and visit quote-unquote Chicago for meetings and public appearances and lectures and comedy and so forth, and it was really amazing the lengths to which the so-called Chicagoans would go to maintain this fantasy. They’d build a great papier-mache city, a great white city* just to fool me and themselves that it was Chicago. I’m pretty sure as soon as I left the rain would wash it all away back into the lake. And now there is a real city called Chicago. It happened. It materialized, like magically. I’m looking forward to coming back to it.

C: And when did that happen?

JOHN HODGMAN: I would have to go back through my notes. Sometime in the fall of 2012…. In all seriousness, I love Chicago whether or not it was ever real. I’m glad now that for sure that it exists, because I love it so much.

You can read the whole interview here.

Chicago by Day and Night – or a Pocket Guide to Hell**

Paul Durica and Bill Savage, two Chicago writers, have published a new edition of Chicago by Day and Night: The Pleasure Seeker’s Guide to the Paris of America. They recently did a joint reading of excerpts from the book at the Newberry Library.

ChgoDayNightSavage teaches Chicago literature, history and culture at Northwestern University and the Newberry.  Durica is a writer and the founder of Pocket Guide to Hell Tours and Reenactments.

The book was originally published in 1892 for visitors attending the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.  It advises such “wayfarers” where to find dining, amenities and proper entertainment while avoiding “the free and easy shows, gambling hells, barrel-house saloons, massage parlors and other dens of iniquity that beset our great city.” In so doing, of course, it makes the dens of iniquity seem very alluring.

The two writers wrote a new introduction and extensive notes for this edition. They tried to “strike a balance between recreating the book as it originally appeared and making it modern.” The entire book was reset in type, but the authors retained elements of the design, including the cover and most of the illustrations.  The original book was meant to be vest pocket size.  It’s 7×4.5 inches. Without the introduction and 65 pages of notes, it might still fit in a vest pocket.

The book was just published by Northwestern University Press; cover price is $16.95. While perhaps not a good reference for today’s tourist, it’s funny and engaging with many delectable quotes for a lover of Chicago history and trivia.


* “… a great papier-mache city, a great white city”: This might be a reference to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, built on Chicago’s south lakefront and known as the White City. All but two of the buildings were meant to be temporary and were demolished after the fair. The Beaux Arts structures were built of “a mixture of plaster, cement and jute fiber called staff.” Erik Larson’s book, Devil in the White City, gives many details of the fair’s construction.

** “Chicago is a pocket edition of hell.” “Hell is a pocket edition of Chicago.” According to legend (located in a footnote in Jack London’s 1907 novel The Iron Heel), a famous English labor leader named John Burns visited Chicago. When asked his opinion of the city, he said, “Chicago is a pocket edition of hell.” Later, as he departed for England, he was asked if he had changed his opinion of Chicago. “Yes, I have. My present opinion is that hell is a pocket edition of Chicago.”  Thanks to Chicago Weekly; see more here.