On stage in Chicago: My winter favorites

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.

 

3cr-teatrovista1The Wolf at the End of the Block by Teatro Vista

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.

 

3cr-gloria-1Gloria at Goodman Theatre

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.

 

3cr-earthquakes-robotEarthquakes in London at Steep Theatre

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.

 

 


A Few Things About 2016 That Didn’t Suck

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Waveland Avenue wall at Wrigley Field, November 7, 2016. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

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


Don’t cry over Hamilton. Lots of great theater in Chicago

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

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AnJi White as Kate and Caroline Heffernan as Bess.

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

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Gilmore (center) and ensemble.

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

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Smith and Walker.

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.

Wiens and Viol in True West.

Wiens and Viol in True West.

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.


An essay in which I ponder the meaning of art

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.

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Richard Serra, Tilted Arc.

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.

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Janet Echelman, Where We Met.

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.

kyd-art-nancy-arttheplay-coverFinally, Marc stands in front of the completely white painting and says, “It represents a man who moves across a space, then disappears.” He is now satisfied with his definition of art.

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: I’m Baring My Soul in Stories and Improv

 

KYD-typewriterKill 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.

The Kill Your Darlings team.

The Kill Your Darlings team.

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.


Did you miss me? I’m back with five theater reviews and a recap of my life

If you’ve been following my blog, you might have noticed that I’m not posting as frequently as in the past, when I was pretty reliable about posting an essay once a week. My new job as editor and publisher of Third Coast Review is taking up more of my time than I thought it would. That’s not a complaint–because it’s fun and it’s gratifying to see our site grow with so many terrific writers contributing. I’m writing theater reviews there, of course, as well as spending time on editing and admin duties. In addition, we have great articles under Music, Food, Lit, Art and Screens. To pick just a few:

We review 826Chi’s new children’s book, The Monster Gasped, OMG!

How chicken wings changed Julia’s life and made her decide to be a chef.

Caravan Palace at the House of Blues: It’s a blend of swing, gypsy jazz and electronic music.

Whether I’m reviewing or not, I’m an inveterate theatergoer. I’ve seen several good shows recently and I wanted to let you know about them so you can catch them too.

Constellations at Steppenwolf Theatre thru July 3

This is a beautifully written and performed play, a love story about an unlikely pair of lovers. Nick Payne’s Constellations is told in bits and pieces, brief scenes that roll out, double back and repeat themselves, sometimes in the same information and the same language, sometimes not. It shows the power of memory and miscommunication in our relationships. It’s a very nonlinear story that gels into a sweet and poignant story. To make it even more interesting, one of the pair is a theoretical physicist and the other a beekeeper. So some of the dialogue detours into discussions of time, atoms and space, and the lives of bees. The play runs 80 minutes. Check out my review.

Spinning by Irish Theatre thru July 3

Deirdre Kinahan’s play Spinning at Irish Theatre Company is the story of how one man grasped for happiness, had it and lost it but finds it difficult to understand how or why his actions were involved. Dan Waller, a fine Chicago actor, plays this role in a compelling fashion, along with three women in his life (four actually, but his child does not appear on stage). My review comments that the struggles of single parenthood and the dread  of losing a child are what cause the worlds of Conor (Waller) and Susan (Jodi Kingsley) to spin out of control. The play runs 75 minutes at the Den Theatre.

Both of these productions are the currently fashionable under-90-minute variety and are staged with minimal scenic designs and no props.

Hauptmann at City Lit Theater thru July 10

Bruno Richard Hauptmann tells his own story with a supporting cast of six actors playing multiple parts in Hauptmann at City Lit Theater in Edgewater. It’s the other “trial of the century” (the first one being the Leopold-Loeb trial in Chicago in the 1920s). An excellent production, it’s the 30th anniversary staging of this play by John Logan, which originated in the same location and was directed by the same director. My review says “Although you know the outcome of the play before it starts, director Terry McCabe creates a tense and engrossing version of the story of the man who may have been executed for a crime he did not commit. Hauptmann, a German immigrant, was almost certainly denied a fair trial in 1930s America, between two wars against Germany.” Hauptmann runs thru July 10 and I recommend it.

Tapped, a Treasonous Musical Comedy by Forth Story Productions thru July 3

I rarely see a play that’s really bad and that’s mostly because I screen out the ones I suspect will be amateurish. I often see great theater at our huge array of storefront theaters–often as good or better than what you can see at the big Equity houses. With that as a preface, I’ll have to say that Tapped was bad. Amateurish, yes; clichéd and stereotyped, yes; and way too long, yes! To be fair, there are some funny lines, an occasional clever song and at least one great dancer. But all in all, it’s a play that should never have been staged at Theater Wit. I wanted biting political satire on our surveillance society and I got this. My review.

Haymarket, the Anarchist’s Songbook at Underscore Theatre

This was a terrific production (and I hope it’s remounted) drawn from Chicago history with original music performed by talented actor/musicians. It tells the story leading up to the Haymarket riot when Chicago working men and women rallied to call for an eight-hour workday and better working conditions at Haymarket Square at Desplaines and Randolph streets. I’m sorry to say that the play, staged at the new Edge Theatre in Edgewater, closed last weekend. My review.


Chicago stages: Perspectives of the past, comic and tragic

It’s finally spring and it’s only May. We still have plenty of theater openings and I’m reviewing some films too. Here are a few of the current storefront stage offerings, providing perspectives on historical events. They’re all interesting for various reasons, even when they’re not four-star productions.

A Splintered Soul by Arla Productions at Stage 773 thru May 29

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The rabbi (Craig Spidle) with two survivors.

This is the emotional story of Polish Holocaust survivors in 1947 San Francisco. They were able to survive the death camps by doing what was necessary and now live with survivors’ guilt and other traumas. The play revolves around a rabbi, who was a freedom fighter in Poland, and now meets with survivors to help them deal with their memories and to persuade the local Jewish community that those memories should not be forgotten. The rabbi is forcefully played by Craig Spidle, a veteran Chicago actor. This play is beautifully staged, with fine directing and acting. It’s two-plus hours of good theater, except the script really goes too far in trying to include some bizarre and unlikely events. My review makes clear that the production wasn’t able to overcome the flaws in the plotline.

The House of Blue Leaves at Raven Theatre thru June 18

John Guare’s play about Pope Paul VI’s 1965 visit to New York is a sweet, sometimes silly, and ultimately tragic play. It’s a fine production by the always reliable Raven Theatre. The plot revolves around Artie Shaughnessy, a would-be singer-songwriter who works at the Bronx Zoo but has grand ambitions. The rest of the cast includes his depressed wife, his ditsy girlfriend, three nuns, a movie star, a movie producer and plenty of funny and explosive moments. My review says, “the circle of friends and family surrounding Artie immerses him in a series of ever more ridiculous events. Joann Montemurro’s skillful direction manages to keep the action credible, the accents believable, and the doom unpredictable.”

The Lion in Winter by Promethean Theatre Ensemble at the Athenaeum thru May 22

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Henry’s three sons.

Promethean’s minimalist production of the James Goldman play about Henry II, his three sons, and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, may sound familiar. It’s best known as the 1968 film starring Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn as the royal pair. The dialogue is lively and witty and the plot hits contemporary notes, as well as reminding us of the Shakespearean dilemma where a king must divide up his property among three siblings. A fine production by a small theater company. My review.

How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients at Trap Door Theatre 

This play by Matei Visniec is a great example of Trap Door’s serious and slyly bizarre productions that pick at the nonsensical scabs of politics and contemporary thought. The staging makes use of colorful, angular perspectives and highly physical performances to make this a delightful 75 minutes of theater. Set in 1953 before Stalin’s death, the famous writer Yuri Petrovski (who always is called by his full name, as in Russian literature) arrives at a mental hospital with the goal of using his stories to educate the mental patients about the glories of Communism. The story is played out in a ses\ries of scenarios that fall far short of being a linear storyline. No matter; you’re seeing a brilliant critique of Communism by a Romanian dissident who has lived most of his life as political refugee in France. The play closed April 30.

Bloody Haymarket at the Irish American Heritage Center thru May 28

Bloody Haymarket is a new production that portrays the dramatic events of May 1886, when speakers at a May Day rally in Haymarket Square demanded an eight-hour day and an end to the concentration of wealth in a few hands. A bomb went off during the rally and eight policemen were killed. Eight of the speakers were arrested and four of them were executed by hanging. The issues, of course, resonate today. The production dramatizes the participants, their stories, trial and public reaction with a cast of 21. I recommend this to you if you’re particularly interested in the Haymarket history, but I can’t recommend the quality of the production. Performances are on Saturday nights thru May 28.

For more info, listen to Third Coast Rewind, the first of our new podcast series, featuring interviews with the actors and creative team for Bloody Haymarket.