I feel guilty about neglecting this personal blog, but as I’ve said before, I’m doing all my writing over at Third Coast Review, mostly on the Stages page, but also in Lit (new review of a Chicago novel about the early days of Chicago electric blues) and Art (a couple of posts like this one on the Century of Progress homes on the beach in Indiana).
The article below is a recap of my visit to New York last week—mainly for a theater critics conference. The schedule provided plenty of time for great theater, and I took advantage of that by seeing four interesting off-Broadway productions. But no Broadway musicals. If you’re interested in Dear Evan Hanson or Come From Away, you’ll have to go elsewhere. But I did have one Broadway regret.
That was the show I didn’t see. I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan—I’ve seen him in concert dozens of times, but I thought the tickets to his Springsteen on Broadway show were too expensive. I was able to buy tickets for those off-Broadway plays and pay for dinner too for the price of one Springsteen ticket. (The Walter Kerr Theetre where Springsteen is performing was right around the corner from my hotel.)
Here’s a recap of my theater week, highlighted by two excellent dramas at Lincoln Center, a madcap take on Shakespeare, and a thoughtful new play about mother-son relations. And I even squeezed in a delightful children’s theater production.
After the Blast by Zoe Kazan at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center
After the Blast, directed by Lila Neugebauer, is a dystopian tale of a world after environmental catastrophe. Everything is frozen. It’s nuclear winter. The characters are mostly scientists, who talk matter of factly about when they will get to go “upstairs”—that is, above ground, again. (The answer is not very damn soon.) Their work is finding ways to sustain humanity below ground as well as to prepare for “rehabitation” of the earth at some distant future time. (One of the scientists admits that they let it leak that rehabitation might be sooner to give people some hope.)
Oliver (William Jackson Harper) and Anna (Cristin Milioti) are settled in below ground. Their contemporary home is Ikea-store simple and well-designed, but their only connection to nature is through images on a projection screen that becomes a “window” in their apartment. People use substances like marijuana to help them cope. They also can “sim”—simulate experiences above ground. If you want to visit the mountains or seashore or see penguins in a zoo, you can “sim” it.
Their friends Carrie (Eboni Booth) and Sam (Davis Pegram) are having a baby and Oliver and Anna yearn to have a child too. Propagation is tightly controlled and Anna is preparing to apply for her fertility treatment, but she has been rejected before, partly because of her depressed state of mind.
Oliver brings home a helper robot to help her prepare for her next fertility interview. Anna’s role is to train the robot in movement and speech, so that the robot can be assigned later to a disabled person who needs support. At first Anna rejects the robot, but gradually she gives in and begins to work with it. The robot responds, becomes Arthur, and Arthur and Anna develop a strong, affectionate relationship. Milioti’s performance as friend and mentor to Arthur is sweet and believable. (Arthur and Oliver even have a conversation about Anna.) Anna passes her next interview and Oliver and Anna may be on the road to becoming parents.Or not. (I pondered whether there is some parallel between training a robot and raising a child.)
After the Blast is s warm, humane story that is terrifying in its implications. The nuanced direction and performances are excellent. It continues at the Claire Tow Theater (Lincoln Center’s “greenhouse”) through November 19.
Measure for Measure by Elevator Repair Service at the Public Theater
Perhaps you’ve seen Elevator Repair Service in Chicago. They performed their six-hour masterpiece reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—in a play titled Gatz—in 2006 at the MCA theater. More recently, they brought their dramedy of a Supreme Court case titled Arguendo to the MCA theater in 2014.
Measure for Measure is less successful than the other two ERS plays, but it is refreshing in its approach to the Shakespearean canon. The play is done in modern dress, set at some indeterminate modern time and performed on a set furnished with several rectangular office tables and a dozen chairs—plus six or eight early 1900s-era “candlestick” telephones. The action proceeds at breakneck speed, with actors often speaking so fast you can’t understand them. But most often, the text itself is rolling up the wall and across the ceiling of the set. (It’s performed in the Public’s third-floor LuEsther Theater and runs through November 12.)
Scott Shepherd, who played the lead in Gatz, is cast as the Duke (and masquerades as a friar). The bad guy, Angelo, who takes over the kingdom when the Duke departs, is wickedly played by Pete Simpson. Claudio (Greig Sargeant) is wrongfully imprisoned and his sister Isabella (Rinne Groff) pleads with Angelo for his release. She becomes entangled in two different tricks that are part of the play’s intricate plot. The “bed trick,” wherein Angelo is fooled into thinking he has slept with Isabella, and the “head trick,” wherein the head of the wrong prisoner is brought to Angelo as proof of execution. Various actors portray jailers, executioners and other functionaries in madcap fashion and sometimes silly costumes.
Measure for Measure (or M4M) is considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem” plays and it isn’t often performed. My brief description of the plot indicates why. I’ve read MFM and I have seen it at least once. I think that going to see M4M without any knowledge of the play might make it hard to follow. But I applaud ERS and the Public Theater for commissioning the play. And I definitely look forward to the next production by Elevator Repair Service.
Junk by Ayad Akhtar at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center
Junk is Akhtar’s latest play, which opened last week at Lincoln Center. I saw the play in its last preview performance. It is spectacularly staged and performed, on a set divided into six to eight honey-combed cells on two levels. The scenes are short and the dialogue is smart and snappy. I’m sure we’ll see it in Chicago soon. One of Akhtar’s plays, The Invisible Hand, is currently running in an outstanding production at Steep Theatre. Goodman Theatre presented Akhtar’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Disgraced in 2015.
Junk refers to the 1980s high-yielding junk bonds used in the practice of corporate raiders taking over companies, often by using the company’s own assets to do so, then stripping the company of its remaining financial, real estate and equipment assets, and firing employees to make the company more profitable—and sometimes to just plain kill it. The plot and characters closely resemble the Michael Milken/Ivan Boesky scandal, although of course, the playbill specifies that the play is a fictionalized account and the characters are “stitched together and never anything other than fiction.”
The Milken-type character is Robert Merkin, played a little too blandly by Steven Pasquale. The large cast is made up of an array of investors, lawyers, an ambitious journalist, a Guiliani-type prosecutor who runs for mayor, and the doomed president of an old manufacturing company targeted by Merkin. The Boesky-type investor character is believably fleshed out by Joey Slotnick, a Chicago actor and member of the Lookingglass ensemble.
The story may remind you of a Chicago production of Other People’s Money, staged by Shattered Globe in 2013. Instead of Robert Merkin, we had Larry the Liquidator, played here by Ben Werling and in the 1991 film by Danny DeVito. The plot is similar but Junk is much more sophisticated, both in staging and script.
The Junk production was first staged in Los Angeles and the New York set is identical to the LA version. Director Doug Hughes and scenic designer John Lee Beatty moved the LA production to New York. My question: will a certain Chicago theater pick up the production and move it unchanged to a Chicago stage? That has happened recently with a couple of successful New York productions. Junk is scheduled to run at the Beaumont until January 7. I’d bet we’ll see it here in the 2018-19 theater season.
The Treasurer by Max Posner at Playwrights Horizon
David Cromer directs this rather low-key story about a middle-aged man, The Son (Peter Friedman) and his widowed mother Ida (the great Chicago actress Deanna Dunagan), who has spent all her funds and is inching toward dementia. The Treasurer is so designated by his two brothers, who ask him to watch out for their mother’s finances, while they fund her move to a luxury retirement center, rather than a more modest home in keeping with her financial status. “But I’m a Beaverbrook person,” she says. “That’s where all my friends are.”
The story is carried out mostly by telephone conversation. Son with brothers, son with mother. We see Ida reaching out for human contact in scenes with retail store clerks as she tries to buy purple pants, new pillows ($700 each or two for $1200) and a new smartphone.
Posner uses a narrative technique where the character narrates what he is doing to us, the audience, without physically doing it. The play opens with a monologue by The Son (the Treasurer) who tells us he is riding his bike and knows that he will go to hell. That prediction ties in to the ending of the play, but I didn’t think the ending fit with the whole tenor of the play.
The set is designed with angled walls, so often a character is unseen (in another room or space), represented by a disembodied voice. I like the way scene changes are handled in this 90-minute play. Crew members simply walk on stage with a new prop or piece of furniture. While other action is proceeding, they get ready for the next scene. It’s naturalistic and practical and fits with the style of the play. The Treasurer closed November 5.
My Perfect Pet by Jeff Eisenberg at the Playroom Theater
This original play is about a young girl who hopes to get a puppy for her 10th birthday. It takes a while for her to prove to her parents that she really is ready for a puppy but when the puppy does arrives, it’s a perfect surprise. Two college students portray the two sisters and a new graduate portrays their friend Josh (and the puppy). The parents are portrayed by two talented actors.
My Perfect Pet is perfectly adorable and runs just over an hour. The many small children in the audience (recommended for ages 4 to 9) were delighted too and bounced around in their seats to the tuneful music. My Perfect Pet runs on Saturdays through November 18.
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.
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.
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
So you didn’t get tickets to the great behemoth from Broadway…or you have to wait five or six months to use your tickets? If you’re a theater fan, take advantage of all the great shows that have recently opened on stages large and small. I’ve been having a great time checking out the new productions. Here are my favorites so far.
The Last Wife at Timeline Theatre
This is the story of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, Katherine Parr. Wait, don’t check her Wikipedia page yet. The new Timeline production will give you some insights, both fact and fantasy, into her life as a feminist before her time. Kate was a woman of intellect and strength who carried out a sort of “school for queens” in Henry’s household. She was grooming his two daughters, Mary and Bess, for their ascensions to the throne. That’s right. Bloody Mary and the Virgin Queen.
The play by Kate Hennig, a Canadian theater artist and playwright, premiered last year at Stratford, Ontario, and this is its first US production. It’s a very good production indeed with fine acting and a crisp, smart script, plus modern dress and decidedly modern language. The Last Wife runs into December. Here’s my review.
Man in the Ring at Court Theatre
Don’t avoid this play because you think it’s about boxing and you hate boxing. Well, yes, it is about boxing but so much more. It’s about one moment that changed the life of the great Emile Griffith, a talented hat designer, entertainer, bisexual and an impressive fighter. You won’t see any punches in this play. Charles Newell’s direction, plus stage design and lighting, reimagine the fight scenes. Body percussion is used very cleverly to simulate fights and create tension. But brain damage and “dementia pugilistica” are part of the story.
Man in the Ring is a moving, even haunting journey through the life of one man, played as his older self by Allen Gilmore, one of Chicago’s finest actors, and as the young fighter by Kamal Angelo Bolden.
The play has a very short run for some reason. It just opened last weekend and closes October 16. Check out my review and then call the box office.
Life Sucks at Lookingglass Theatre
Yes, this is another reinterpretation of Uncle Vanya. It’s getting so Chekhov is reimagined almost as often as Shakespeare (and the Russian’s oeuvre is much smaller, so how far can this go?). This is Aaron Posner’s retelling of the Uncle Vanya story in modern dress and language, set at someone’s country home somewhere east of here. If you saw Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird at Sideshow Theatre last year, you will immediately want to see this too. Bird was a retelling of The Seagull and it was delightfully smart and funny (my 2015 review). Life Sucks (an accurate summary of any Chekhov play) is warmer and sweeter but equally delightful.
My review describes the play like this.
Life Sucks is Posner’s sort-of adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, that often-performed masterpiece in which members of the rural bourgeoisie loll about, falling in love with the wrong people and longing to change their miserable lives. What is the play about? Love, longing and loss, as the characters tell us in their prologue. The basic elements of the human condition.
The Lookingglass production and staging are excellent and the performances are terrific, especially those by Chicago favorites such as Philip R. Smith, Barbara Robertson plus Eddie Jemison, Penelope Walker and Chaon Cross. The play runs thru November 6.
True West at Shattered Globe Theatre
Sam Shepard is one of my favorite playwrights and Steppenwolf Theatre has staged some masterful productions of his work, including their seminal production of True West, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. I remember that production vividly so I went into this performance with some trepidation. But Shattered Globe does an excellent job in staging this violent and vivid play and almost grabs the Shepard dynamite. Lee is the older, bolder, meaner brother and Austin is the quieter writer — and then both brothers change.
The story of two brothers of course reminded me of my own two sons. There’s a different dynamic in a family, I think, when there are more than two brothers. So my review begins this way.
Anyone who had rowdy brothers or raised a pair of sons will feel a chill of recognition at some point during Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of True West, Sam Shepard’s classic play of brotherly rivalry.
The duality of emotion lies in wait in every aspect of our tense two hours with brothers Lee (Joseph Wiens) and Austin (Kevin Viol). They compete and collaborate, love and hate, drink and work, reminisce and prevaricate.
True West runs until October 22 at Theater Wit on Belmont.
This essay was adapted from one of my readings at Kill Your Darlings, our live lit and improv series. This was from the night celebrated as Art (one of the cultural categories on thirdcoastreview.com).
How do you define art? This question has always plagued me.
I know what art is. It’s a visual representation of life or some emotion or some experience. Not exactly tangible. That’s why it’s hard to define art.
There are dictionary definitions. “Something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or expresses important ideas or feelings.“ But that’s crazy because art doesn’t have to be beautiful.
Then there are people who think only they can define art. The know-nothings who say, “That’s not art” or “My kid could have done that with his crayons (or clay)” about any piece of art that isn’t representational. Or that they don’t understand.
If a sculpture isn’t a man on a horse, then it’s not art.
If a painting isn’t fruit on a table, or people dressed up and posing, then it’s not art.
Public art is very often the object of this opinion: That’s not art.
When our Picasso was unveiled in Daley Center in 1967, it was met with jokes, nicknames and worse. And this was before the internet. The late columnist Mike Royko said people could see
“it was nothing but a big, homely metal thing. Some soaring lines, yes. Interesting design, I’m sure. But the fact is, it has a long stupid face and looks like a giant insect that is about to eat a smaller, weaker insect. It has eyes that are pitiless, cold, mean.
“But why not? Everybody said it had the spirit of Chicago.
“Up there in that ugly face is the spirit of Al Capone, the police scandals, the settlers who took the Indians but good. Its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner to make it all possible.”
Royko concludes this way. “It is all there in that Picasso thing. The I Will spirit of Chicago. The I will get you before you will get me spirit.”
People insisted on knowing that the Picasso looked like something. Anything. A woman. A dog. Something real. Don’t show me that abstract crap.
Now we love it, however. You can believe the Picasso will be wearing a Cubs cap soon – if the Cubs get into the World Series.
There have been similar reactions to other abstract public art.
There was “Tilted Arc,” the Richard Serra sculpture on the Federal Plaza in New York.
The sculpture was a massive arc of steel that bisected the plaza. Serra attributed meaning to it in the context of the government agencies and workers in that public building. People hated it. They hated the way it looked. They hated the way it slashed through the plaza and made them detour around it on their way to their offices.
I had a similar artistic experience last weekend when I was visiting Greensboro, North Carolina.
There’s a new piece of public art in a new downtown city park. It’s called “Where We Met” by Janet Echelman. It’s made of net and wire and is meant to honor the local textile industry and its workers and the networks of roads and rails that supported the industry for the many years it thrived.
While I was hanging around taking photos and watching my grandsons play, I heard people’s comments. “Huh? Why is that art?” “It’s just a bunch of net. The city paid a million bucks for that?”
And so it goes. The Picasso survives and thrives. The Serra was the subject of such controversy that it was removed from the plaza, despite the artist’s objections. We’ll see how the Echelman survives in Greensboro.
Yasmina Reza wrote a play that sums up the whole question. It’s titled, appropriately, “Art.” It’s about three friends. Serge buys a very expensive painting by a fashionable artist and invites Marc and Yvan over to see it. It’s a large canvas, painted completely white with white diagonal lines.
The friends’ reactions—laughter, anger, sarcasm—affect their relationships with each other. It ends up (spoiler alert) with Serge offering Marc a bright blue marker and inviting him to draw on the “canvas.” Marc draws a blue diagonal and then a little skier with a woolly hat. In the final scene, the two of them are carefully cleaning the painting.
An old friend of mine used to say, “Art is what the artist says it is.” And I believe he’s right.
If I define myself as an artist, then what I create is art. If I pile garbage in the middle of a gallery, it’s an installation. And there’s a label on it that says it’s art. If I smear the garbage on a canvas, it’s a painting. It’s art because I’m an artist and I say it’s art. And when I’m well known, people will pay big money for that painting. Because I’m an artist and I say it’s art.
And that’s the best answer to my question: What is art?
Kill Your Darlings, a traditional piece of writing advice*, is the title of the live lit series I’m participating in, along with other Third Coast Review colleagues and a crew of other writers and performers. We’re having a great time with it – and it’s consuming a huge amount of my time.
Kill Your Darlings: A Live Lit/Improv Mashup is the full title and we’re performing for the next six Wednesday nights at ComedySportz Theater on Belmont. We have writers and actors who read their own stories, plus improv players and sometimes live music. Each night has a theme based on one of our website’s cultural categories. And we’ll have a celebrity guest reader each week.
Kill Your Darlings: A Live Lit/Improv Mashup
7pm Wednesday, August 10, is Food Night
Csz Theater, 929 W. Belmont
Hear me read a story about potato pancakes
and my Jewish/non-Jewish heritage
I hope you’ll come out and see us this Wednesday and any Wednesday thru September 14. For each night, I’m writing a new personal story (something like a blog essay), baring my soul in some cases, editing, refining, rehearsing and refining it. I mention this as sort of an explanation why I haven’t been writing for Nancy Bishop’s Journal very much lately.
(Of course, I’m still editor in chief and theater critic for Third Coast Review. Check out my recent reviews on the Stages page. I’ve recently reviewed War Paint; Between Riverside and Crazy; Byhalia, Mississippi; Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys; and Einstein’s Gift. I also enjoyed interviewing and writing a feature on Ron Keaton, the actor who starred in Churchill and, along with Kurt Johns, has formed a new theater company, SoloChicago.)
* What does “kill your darlings” mean? Slate magazine tried to track down the original source a few years ago when a film of the same title came out about Allen Ginsberg as a young writer. Basically, the advice means “get rid of your most precious and especially self-indulgent passages for the greater good of your literary work.”
So the idea for this live-lit series is that we each resurrect various darlings we’ve killed in the past and turn them into new, sharply written stories. And a few of mine actually do include or were inspired by something I wrote in the past but never published.
Here are the stories I’ll be telling for the next six weeks. Opening night was last Wednesday and I told the story about my film addiction and my favorite film directors, focusing on Guy Maddin, the Canadian film director who made films you never heard of. The Darlings, our improv team, performed along with me. I was on a DVD and they paused me now and then to comment on my “lecture.”
- August 10. The theme is Food. My story is “Potato Pancakes—and Why They’re Not Latkes.” Monica Eng, the WBEZ food editor, will be guest reader.
- August 17, Music Night. My story is “How I Became a Bruce Springsteen Fan and How It Governs My Life.” My friend, June Sawyers, who has written a couple of dozen books on pop music topics, will be the guest reader.
- August 24. The theme is Stages and I’m curating the night. The concept will be how social media and the comment community are affecting theater reviews. My story will be about the uproar around the Steppenwolf for Young Adults play, This Is Modern Art, which I reviewed last year with my 17-year-old grandson. Kerry Reid, theater critic for the Tribune, will be the guest reader.
- August 31. The theme is Beyond, beyond now, beginnings and endings. My story for this night is about my divorcee love life — it includes a long poem. My son Steve will accompany me with an improvised solo on the tenor saxophone. The guest reader will be Ian Belknap of the Write Club.
- September 7 is Art night. I haven’t decided what I’m going to write for this night yet. I may even skip the reading, but of course I’ll attend.
- September 14 is Lit night and appropriately, it will be set in a Chicago saloon. NU prof Bill Savage, the guest reader, will critique our readings in real time. My story is about my obsession with the Spanish Civil War.
Perhaps life will get back to normal after that. Although I’m not sure what my normal is any more.