My theater report from Third Coast Review

3CR-LOGO_Third Coast ReviewOur new website,, has been launched by a bunch of refugees from Gapers Block, our dear, archived Chicago website. I wrote about that here a few weeks ago, but we weren’t quite ready for prime time until January 8, our official launch date. I’m editor and publisher of Third Coast Review and lead theater critic. I’m also serving as editor of the Screens page until I find someone else to take that over. We have a cadre of almost 30 writers and editors and I think we’re off to a great start. (Our logo was designed by my friend and former colleague, Linda Pompeii.)

I’ve reviewed four plays in the last week and most of them are recommended, if not must-sees. Here are the mini-reviews with links to the full reviews on 3CR.

The Mutilated at A Red Orchid Theatre

You’ve probably never heard of this Tennessee Williams play, but it’s a bizarre delight and I highly recommend it. My review says it’s a “joyous goofy Christmas” and it is, complete with bleak holiday songs written by the playwright. The acting, directing, design and sound elements are all terrific. This is an excerpt from the song that opens the play, performed by a dozen motley carolers.

I think the strange, the crazed, the queer
Will have their holiday this year
And for a while, a little while,
There will be pity for the wild
A miracle, a miracle!
A sanctuary for the wild.

The Mutilated runs through February 28 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells.

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London Wall by Griffin Theatre Company at the Den Theatre

John Van Druten’s London Wall is another rarely performed play that warrants more affection. It’s the story of the steno-typists at a London law firm in the 1930s, the era when marriage was the only escape for a working girl in a low-wage job. Robin Witt’s direction and a fine cast result in excellent performances; the script is witty and the set a beautifully done office setting. My review notes that London Wall  creates “a perfect microcosm of the pre-feminist age” and has some messages for the present as well. The Griffin Theatre production continues thru Feb. 14 at the Den Theatre, upstairs at 1333 N. Milwaukee. (And yes, an elevator is in their renovation plans for 2017, as well as a sprinkler system and a new marquee, according to owner Ryan Martin.)

Sunset Baby at Timeline Theatre

Sunset Baby by Dominique Morisseau is a family story, but a tough one, about a young woman (AnJi White as Nina) who doesn’t want to make peace with her father’s Black revolutionary past and its impact on her mother and her own childhood. She and her boyfriend are trying to save money for a new life by dealing drugs and sex. The 110-minute play (no intermission) is infused with music by Nina Simone throughout. The three-member cast is strong with a soulful performance by Edward Van Lear as Kenyatta, the father. My review. Sunset Baby runs thru April 10 at Timeline Theatre, 615 W. Wellington.

Bruise Easy at American Theater Company

This is a play with interesting ingredients, including two reunited siblings and a Greek chorus of neighborhood kids. Somehow all the pieces don’t come together in this script by Dan LeFranc. Joanie Schultz’ usually sure direction doesn’t save it, although the play has interesting moments and it’s short–about 80 minutes. Bruise Easy continues thru Feb. 14 at ATC, 1909 W. Byron. Check out my review.

2015: Not Quite a Year in Review

The last year had many exciting and interesting moments for me, but the last month has been challenging. I spent most of it mourning about and planning how to recover from the demise of Gapers Block, the website for which I’ve written for almost three years. The site is now “on hiatus.” Andrew Huff, the editor and publisher of the 12-year-old website, posted a letter to readers explaining the change. And this is how the site looks now.

Screen Shot 2016-01-01 at 3.16.51 PM

Many articles, comments and personal memories have come in to praise Gapers Block but no one has stepped in with the offer of the needed money to update the infrastructure and pay a full-time editor/publisher at least a pittance of a salary. So the site will live on as an archive, with all the existing content live, but nothing new. I couldn’t resist adding my own personal thoughts to the site, which I did late on New Year’s Eve, while waiting for the #ChicagoRising star to rise. (I can’t bring myself to call it “Chi-Town.” No real Chicagoan would use that term.)

GB staff members had known about this for several weeks and after we got over our initial distress, some of us began planning a new website to cover the Gapers Block arts and culture content. The result will be our new website, Third Coast Review, which is online now in an unofficial or “beta” way. We expect it to be official in a week or 10 days once we add more content.

What else was new and important in 2015?


Havana cityscape. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

My week in Cuba was memorable and I wrote about it at length here and here.

On another shorter trip, I spent time in New York and was lucky to get a ticket to see the smash Broadway hiphopera (as one of my fellow theater critics calls it), Hamilton, about our first treasury secretary. I wrote about that here and probably will keep writing about it. I intended to see it again later in the year but by then tickets were really impossible to get without paying a couple of months’ salary. And now Hamilton is coming to Chicago in September and will be here (at the dreadful Shubert Theatre on Monroe Street, renamed after yet another bank), so I will be able to see it a few more times.

In the meantime, I’m finally reading the insightful biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the show about our “ten-dollar founding father.” Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton is a fascinating, meticulously detailed and readable biography. I just wish it wasn’t 800 pages long.

The Phantom Collective, the pub theater group formed by my friend June Skinner Sawyers, staged several interesting literary events in 2015, including Black Dogs and Melancholy, a reading of Samuel Johnson writings. The most recent pub event was Beowulf &  Grendel, which combined Beowulf, the Old English epic poem, with Grendel, one of Beowulf’s antagonists (dramatized in John Gardner’s 1971 novel,Grendel, in which that character tells his side of the story).

Chicago Architecture Biennial. Norman Kelley, survey of Chicago windows.

Chicago Architecture Biennial. Norman Kelley, survey of Chicago windows.

Architecture: We love our buildings. The Chicago Architecture Biennial was a series of exhibits and events from October through today. The most comprehensive was the takeover of the Chicago Cultural Center by about 80 exhibits on four floors by firms and designers that asked questions about and predicted the future of architecture. I particularly liked the architectonic window treatments on the Michigan Avenue facade of the building by Norman Kelley. He clad each window in white vinyl cutouts representing Chicago window styles, mullions and dressings. The biennial as a whole was less than impressive but it was an excellent start and a learning experience for the next biennial in 2017.

Getting ready for Springsteen

Yes, I have the hardly-waits already for the January 19 concert at the United Center featuring my favorite rocker, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. And for the concert February 21 in Louisville, an excuse to visit with my friends Jeannie and John. There will be more. Springsteen is touring on the re-release of his 1980 album, The River, in the form of a large boxed set titled The Ties That Bind. No, I haven’t bought it yet.

The year in review? Not yet. 

I usually begin the new year with a list of my favorite events in pop culture for the previous year. I may still do that. For now, WordPress has created my year in review:

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,700 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


December reviews: Stage and screen

December is always a busy month but this one is busier than usual for me because I’m working on an exciting new venture. I’ll tell you about it in a few weeks. For now, I want to give you my theater and movie favorites for the month.


Photo by Johnny Knight

Fallen Angels at Remy Bumppo Theatre

This 1923 Noel Coward play is smart and funny, very funny, and slickly staged on Remy Bumppo’s space on the second floor at the Greenhouse Theater Center. The play and performance are delightful, partly because Coward does an interesting gender switch, unusual for the 1920s, with three outstanding female roles. My Gapers Block review tells all about it. Angels runs until January 10.

Ibsen’s Ghosts at Mary Arrchie Theatre

This very fine staging of the Ibsen play is a bit meta-theatrical and regularly breaks that famous fourth wall to interact with the audience. It’s hard for the audience not to feel that they’re interacting with the performers in this tiny space on second floor at Angel Island. (This is Mary Arrchie’s final season so do try to see one of their shows this year.) Ibsen’s Ghosts runs through December 20. My review begins this way:

“Mary-Arrchie Theatre’s new production of Ibsen’s Ghosts takes the great Norwegian playwright’s scandalous 1881 play, shakes it up and spits it out in a witty contemporary form. And then punches you in the gut with its ending.”


Photo by Michael Courier

Never the Sinner at Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph

Every Chicagoan knows the story of the thrill murder of young Bobby Franks by two University of Chicago students, Richard Leopold and Nathan Loeb. Victory Gardens retells the crime, its aftermath and the Leopold-Loeb trial in John  Logan’s 1986 script, written while he was a Northwestern University student. (Logan is known for his scripts for Hauptmann and Red, but has since become more famous as a screenwriter.) The two actors who play the criminals give excellent performances and veteran Chicago actor Keith Kupferer plays their attorney, Clarence Darrow, who saved them from execution. Never the Sinner closed this week. Here’s my review.

Agamemnon at Court Theatre

I liked last year’s Iphigenia in Aulis at Court Theatre, but this year’s segment in the trilogy is a little flat and disappointing. The rhythm and performances in general are not as riveting. The actors performing as the chorus, however, are excellent, but they take up too much stage time and detract from the central plot. Agamemnon has now closed.

Some quick movie reviews

 Chi-Raq is Spike Lee’s Greek satire (his adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata) designed to send a strong message about Chicago’s gun culture and gang warfare. It succeeds in dramatizing the Chicago murder crisis — more dead bodies than the deaths of special forces in Iraq. I found the two-hour film hugely entertaining, funny and wise — but messy and incoherent. It’s wildly uneven. I loved the Greek references and the dialogue in rhyming couplets. Although I liked it and will see it again, I could only gave it three stars out of five on my Letterboxd review. Chi-Raq has received some good and bad reviews, but see if for yourself. Unless you can’t handle vulgarity. Here’s the famous trailer.


Phoenix is a 98-minute film released in 2014 by German director Christian Petzold, starring Nina Hoss (the same pair responsible for the outstanding film Barbara). In Phoenix, Hoss stars as a woman disfigured in a Nazi concentration camp; she undergoes plastic surgery but looks quite different than her original self. When she finds her husband, he doesn’t recognize her but decides she looks enough like his dead wife that she can help him carry out a fraud scheme. The Kurt Weill song, “Speak Low,” is used hauntingly throughout the film and provides a stunningly perfect surprise ending. Phoenix is streaming on many services.

Inside Out, a Pixar film, is said to be suitable for children and it’s certainly not unsuitable, but it is very much a nuanced film that adults will like too. The story, briefly, is about Riley, an 11-year-old girl whose parents move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Riley’s head and heart suffer from all the pangs and pains you can think of, missing her friends, her old house and her hockey team. The emotions that fight it out are embodied as Joy, Fear, Anger, Sadness and Disgust and are voiced by a fine set of actors.

My little grandsons were mesmerized by this 100-minute film (of course, they will watch anything on a screen, as their mother says) but my son and I thought everything but the basic story probably slipped by them. Still, it’s a good family film with beautiful animation.

Suffragette, a film about the fight for women’s voting rights in early 20th century England, was rather a disappointment. Too much attention paid to the individual angst suffered by the Carrie Mulligan character and others; not enough devoted to the suffrage question. (Or maybe I wanted to see a documentary.) Mulligan’s performance is good and Helena Bonham Carter is excellent as the chemist-activist. Meryl Streep does a cameo as Emmeline Pankhurst, overshadowed by her huge hat.

Fall farrago: Cultural treats for you via stage, screen and museum

This will be a quick post before I leave for nine days of travel. When I return, I’ll have plenty of notes for my next essay. For now, here are a few things you won’t want to miss.

George Orwell’s 1984 at Steppenw0lf Theatre

This is a production of Steppenwolf for Young Adults, which basically means high-school-age youngsters. This is a heady play, very thought-provoking and extremely well done. As my review headline says, Steppenwolf recreates the dystopian past and strongly suggests dystopia still threatens us. My grandson James and I reviewed it and we both loved it. He has read the book and so was eager to see how it played out on stage. Here’s our review. The play is targeted at school groups so the weekend performance schedule is brief. I strongly encourage you to see it before it closes November 20.

Wim Wenders retrospective at the Gene Siskel Film Center

You can see some of the great films by this German master at the Siskel Film Center. The retrospective opened earlier this month but there are still some great films in store in the next few weeks, such as Wings of Desire (one of my favorite films of all time), Paris, Texas, and Until the End of the World. Here’s my preview of the retrospective.

The Siskel gallery is also showing a nice exhibit of film posters titled Wenders and the New German Cinema.

Stagestruck City exhibit at the Newberry Library

The Newberry has created a marvelous exhibit from its plentiful archives of Chicago theater history. The exhibit tells the story of Chicago theater from before the 1871 fire and brings it to the opening of the Goodman Theatre in the 1920s. I described the exhibit here. Fascinating and scholarly, not flashy and animated, the exhibit runs through December 31. Don’t miss the Newberry bookstore while you’re there; it’s one of our better bookstores, and deserves our appreciation in this era of the demise of real bookstores.

My October madness is on stage: Politics, technology, families

It’s October Madness again, that month that drives me crazy because a year’s worth of special events, festivals and conferences are scheduled and I can’t do and see everything I want to do and see. Ideas Week, Open House Chicago, Chicago Humanities Festival, Chicago Architecture Biennial (at least it continues through the rest of the year), Chicago International Film Festival (and several other film festivals). On top of all those things, this year we have baseball in October too!

Here are a few review recaps of plays I think you’ll appreciate. They’re all still on stage.

Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys at Raven Theatre thru November 14

This tragic story of nine Alabama boys who were falsely accused of a crime that was never committed is told in scalding language and vaudeville performances. The case became a cause celebre in the 1930s and was an early predictor for the civil rights movement that finally erupted 30 years later. The ironic combination of verisimilitude and satire makes for a production that is heart-wrenching, funny and sad. Each of the nine talented actors who play the Scottsboro boys also put on masks to perform as characters in the various trials that ensue. When a black actor puts on white-face, it adds a certain richness and depth to the irony.

Direct from Death Row is an important and riveting production by the always-reliable Raven Theatre. I didn’t review the production; you can see a compilation of reviews here.

No Beast So Fierce by Oracle Productions thru November 8

GB-NBSF-oracle-joe-mazza-brave-lux-GloucesterOracle Production refers to itself as public-access theater. Its tickets are always free and they rely on donors for sustenance. Oracle does excellent work, so I hope this theater model continues to work for them. Their regular performance venue is on North Broadway; this show is being staged at the Storefront Theater on Randolph Street. No Beast So Fierce is less than successful, partly because it compresses the original Shakespearean script to 90 minutes. However, it offers many tense moments and compelling performances. It’s an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III by the director, Max Truax, and it’s also notable for starring a woman as Richard. The acting is generally very good and Katherine Keberlein, who plays Richard, looks regal and delivers her lines beautifully. Keberlein plays Richard as a woman fighting for control in a male world but she lacks the fierceness and evil strength that we expect to see in actors playing Richard.

The staging and original music add a great deal to No Beast So Fierce and all in all, it’s a play worth seeing. See my full review here. 

The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence at Theater Wit thru November 14

I’m sure I will put this production on my Best-of-2015 list. It’s smart, funny, fast-moving and insightful about the impact of technology on modern life and love. Theater Wit’s production, directed by Jeremy Wechsler, si excellent and all three actors are superb. Joe Foust, who stars as four Watsons (see my review to sort that out) is absolutely terrific. The action moves so fast and the actors tear around so quickly, putting on and removing layers of costume, that your head may spin. Even if there are moments that go by so fast that you miss a line here and there, don’t fret. But do see this brilliantly written and performed play.

Love and Information at Remy Bumppo Theatre thru November 1

GB-Love-Info-PenelopeWalker,DavidDarlowLove and Information is another play that moves quickly with many short–some very short–scenes. It too reflects and builds on our technology obsessions, as well as touching our memories and paranoia. It’s one of the newest plays by the acclaimed British playwright Caryl Churchill, whose work is always interesting, but not always emotionally rich. She has been called the David Bowie of contemporary theater because she constantly reinvents her approach to playwriting. I would compare her to Richard Powers, the American novelist whose work I have praised here often. They’re both literary/intellectual writers whose work brims with challenging ideas but whose characters do not swoop you up in a paroxysm of emotion.

Nevertheless, Remy Bumppo creates an intriguing 90 minutes with this production. See my review.

Disgraced at Goodman Theatre thru October 25

Playwright Ayad Akhtar won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for this play, which generally receives excellent reviews from critics and sometimes divides audiences. My review acknowledged that award and then added, “But that doesn’t mean you won’t be squirming in your seat in mental discomfort as the 85-minute play progresses. The play tackles questions of Islamaphobia, Muslim-American identity and identity politics in general. The smartly written script offers equal-opportunity political incorrectness, something to offend everyone.”

Whether you agree with it or are offended at some point during the 80-minute play, I don’t think you’ll be bored.

East of Eden at Steppenwolf Theatre thru November 15

GB-eastofeden_production05This Frank Galati adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel is gripping, even at its three-hour length, with excellent acting and a deceptively simple but beautifully designed setting. I suspect Steppenwolf intends this play to have a second life on Broadway (as did the Galati/Steppenwolf production of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath in 1988), but the script needs work before a move east. To me, Galati tried to cram too much of the long and dense novel into the script, which means some things happen offstage or without explanation and some characters are not fully developed. I would like to see the father-sons relationship built up because it is the heart of the story and of the biblical references to the Cain and Abel story.

Those are my notes for the company. Despite that, i highly recommend this play for a fulfilling and thought-provoking theater evening. One of my Gapers Block colleagues reviewed the play.

On stage in Chicago: Mini-reviews

Some theater recommendations from my recent reviews and theater adventures in Chicago.

The Tempest at Chicago Shakespeare

CST_TEMPEST_04_Prospero,CalibanYes, you’ve seen this play before but never with such magic and music. Chicago Shakes’ new production features music by the great Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. The music is bluesy and has notes of vaudeville and medicine shows as well as early blues. The production is adapted and directed by Aaron Posner (Stupid Fucking Bird) and Teller of the magic duo Penn and Teller, and the magic is very impressive, including Ariel’s (Nate Dendy) sleight of hand and card tricks and an enchanting levitation scene. When Prospero speaks the famous line, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep,” to his daughter Miranda and her lover Ferdinand, it gains a new poetry in his reading.

See my reviews here and here. The Tempest runs until November 8.

Geneva at Shaw Chicago

GB-Geneva CastShaw Chicago produces “concert readings” of the work of the great GBS. I wouldn’t call them staged readings because they’re not blocked; the actors are at their music stands with script books. But they are costumed, made up and superbly acted by the whole cast. This production is a rarely performed Shaw set in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1939. The premise of the play is that the leaders of Spain, Germany and Italy–the dangerous buffoons who brought you World War II–are called before the International Court of Justice for crimes against humanity. The script is witty and surprisingly current. Geneva just closed, but watch for the next Shaw Chicago production. They perform at the Ruth Page Center on Dearborn Street.

See my review here.

Green Day’s American Idiot at The Hypocrites

NSB-American-IdiotCongratulations to the Hypocrites for acquiring the Chicago rights to the production based on the Green Day album about suburban teen angst after 9/11, including, of course, sex, drugs and punk rock. The New York production ran for 400+ performances in 2010-11 and got generally favorable reviews. The Hypocrites’ version is smaller scale but still powerful and uses the pop/punk music to advantage. It’s loud, raucous and fun. Jeanne Newman, one of my Gapers Block colleagues, reviewed the show and her review is here.

American Idiot runs at the Hypocrites’ new home at the Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue through October 25. If you don’t own the album, borrow or download it so you can listen to the music before you see the show. You’ll enjoy it more if you already appreciate the music–and Green Day’s lyrics.

August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at Court Theatre

This late August Wilson play, the tenth in his Century Cycle about his home neighborhood, the Hill District of Pittsburgh, is set in the earliest decade of the 20th century. It resonates with the misery of the African-Americans whose ancestors were slaves or who remembered slavery themselves and the trauma of the Middle Passage, when slaves were transported across the ocean. Goodman Theatre produced this play in its 2002-03 season and I remember having mixed feelings about it then.

This production features very strong acting, especially by Jacqueline Williams as the mystic Aunt Ester and Jerod Haynes as Citizen Barlow, a young man who wants to save himself, “cleanse his soul,” and seems to speak for Wilson. Act one is strong although it runs too long, and in act two, Aunt Ester prepares for a spiritual visit to the City of Bones (see them in the video clip).

Gem of the Ocean runs through October 11 at Court Theatre in Hyde Park.  It has had generally favorable reviews (I didn’t review it).

Photos and video clips courtesy of the theater companies.



New York Report #1: Hamilton, The Flick and a Tennessee Williams buffet

I spent a few days in New York last week, catching up on theater and museums. I’m mad about New York and love staying in the theater district, this time at the Hotel Edison on 47th, which made a cameo appearance in the film Birdman. I used to travel frequently to NY on business and I would stay at a hotel in midtown where others from my firm stayed. But I prefer to be in the theater district or on the upper west side. Both neighborhoods are convenient for public transit and offer interesting walking.

My primary goal for this trip was to see the play Hamilton, recently opened on Broadway after great success at the Public Theater in the Village. I bought my Hamilton ticket before I had a hotel room.

The three plays I saw are wildly different shows.

NSBJ-hamiltonlogoHamilton, as you’ve probably read, is a hip-hop operetta about our Founding Fathers. It’s dazzling, frenetic and fantastic—with nonstop rap and hip-hop, as well as homages to R&B, Broadway and Gilbert & Sullivan. Hamilton gives audiences a refresher on the early days of our country and insights into the personalities of the founders. It’s at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on 46th, conveniently around the corner from my hotel.

The Flick by Annie Baker is a play about three losers who work in an old movie theater that might be sold and converted to digital projection. This only bothers one of the three. It’s being staged at the Barrow Street Theatre in the Village. This play charmed and confounded me. Its use of time as a dramatic element is both naturalistic and maddening.

Desire is six short plays by six playwrights, drawn from stories by Tennessee Williams. As with other such compilations, not all are entirely successful, but they all demonstrate Williams’ connection to emotion and desire. The title could not be more appropriate. Desire just opened at 59E59, a theater operated by the Actors Company, just south of Columbus Circle.


Hamilton is loaded with historic detail woven into the pulsating beat of hip-hop, rap and other rhythms, and costumed in colonial style. The cast is almost entirely people of color—mostly African-Americans and Hispanics. This is not “blind casting,” where parts are interchangeable between actors of different races. To me, the casting sends a very specific message. The director (Thomas Kail) didn’t avoid casting white actors because white folks don’t have rhythm. In a summer when Black Lives Matter enough to become a hashtag, Hamilton demonstrates the importance of the outsider in our history. The key roles of Hamilton, Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Burr are not white dudes with powdered wigs, but dynamic, charismatic men of color. (By the way, women play several key roles (not the main political roles) and they are in uniform as Colonial soldiers as well as dancers.)

The genius who wrote book, music and lyrics—and stars as Alexander Hamilton—is Lin-Manuel Miranda, an artist of Puerto Rican background and political origins. (His father is a political consultant to New York mayors.) Miranda is a guy who went on a beach vacation to Mexico with his wife, read Ron Chernow’s doorstop biography of Hamilton, and was inspired by his achievements and outsider persona. He decided that the orphan immigrant might be a great subject for theater.

Aaron Burr (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) serves as narrator for the story. Ironic, since he’s the man who kills Hamilton in a duel. In his opening, Burr raps,

How does a bastard
Son of a whore and
A Scotsman
Dropped in
The middle of a forgotten
Spot in
The Caribbean by Providence
In squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

Daveed Diggs plays Jefferson as a boogie-woogie guy, returned from Paris after the Revolutionary War to sing, “What’d I Miss.” One of my favorite scenes is a rap battle during a Cabinet meeting. Washington (Christopher Jackson) passes a mic back and forth between Jefferson and Hamilton as they argue Hamilton’s plan to establish a national bank and assume state debt. At one point, Jefferson raps, “Look, when Britain taxed our tea, we got frisky. Imagine what can happen when you try to tax our whiskey.” And Hamilton replies, “Thomas, that was a real nice declaration. Welcome to the present. We’re running a real nation.” And later, Hamilton raps, “And another thing, Mr. Age of Enlightenment, don’t lecture me about the war, you didn’t fight in it.”

I’m afraid I’m beginning to sound like a fangirl for Hamilton and Mr. Miranda. And I guess I am. I can’t wait to get back to New York and see the play again. And right here and now, I’m predicting that the MacArthur Foundation will award Miranda one of their genius grants. It’s inevitable. He’s making American history come alive for a new generation and illuminating it in a new light for all of us.

Here’s a video of one of the first Hamiltonian appearances by Miranda at the White House in 2009, when he was thinking about a concept album about Hamilton.

Yes, Hamilton really as good as its hype. As Ben Brantley said in the New York Times when he reviewed it for a second time, “this brave new show about America’s founding fathers has been given the kind of worshipful press usually reserved for the appearances of once-in-a-lifetime comets or the births of little royal celebrities.” And it deserves it. And this from a theater writer who has said innumerable times that she hates musicals. But I make exceptions.

The Flick

Nothing much happens in The Flick and whatever happens, happens in silence. It’s odd or brilliant or maybe both. It’s funny and sad and heart-rending. And authentic. The play won a Pulitzer Prize last year for playwright Annie Baker. It runs 3 hours and 10 minutes, a half hour longer than Hamilton, and my first thought was that it could be compressed into a 90-minute one-act. (It can’t.) Its length is due to the long, seemingly directionless conversations by underpaid movie theater workers sweeping up popcorn after the show or hanging out afterwards. A comment by one is followed by a long pause before the other responds. There are long periods of silence when we hear projector noises and a film starts. (Playwrights Horizons, the first theater that staged The Flick, had to deal with subscriber revolt about the play. And when I saw it last week, a noticeable number of seats were empty after intermission.)

The very clever scene design is the seating area of a grungy old theater, with the projection booth above. We the audience see the play from the perspective of the theater screen.


Avery and Sam in “The Flick.” Image courtesy Barrow Street Theatre.

During act one, I was getting impatient with the lack of plot and direction, to say nothing of the long, however purposeful, pauses. But in act two, I began to see the three as people stuck in dead-end lives who might have a chance at happiness. Or not. Who might see love requited. Or not. Who might do the right thing for a friend. Or not.

Sam is a 30-something who has never done much with his life but yearns to be promoted to projectionist. Rose, the projectionist, is a young woman in shapeless clothes and uncertain sexuality. The character who may in fact have a life ahead of him is Avery, a geeky cinephile with emotional problems. He at least has a family with means and he’ll go back to college.

The Flick is certainly a play for film fans. The debates about the differences between celluloid and digital projection and the cinema six-degrees-of-separation game played by Sam and Avery can really be appreciated by film geeks.

If I were reviewing The Flick, I would be torn between 2, 3 and 4 stars. Did I love it, like it or hate it? I’ll get a chance to decide because Steppenwolf Theatre is staging The Flick next March and I’ll review it. I look forward to seeing it again and talking about it with friends.


NSB-59e59logoTennessee Williams was a prolific writer (kind of like A. Hamilton, who wrote 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers). I’ve seen compilations of his work before. The Hypocrites staged the Tennessee Williams Project last year, with three short plays produced in one of their last productions before they moved from the Chopin Theatre a few blocks north to the Den Theatre. In New Orleans last March, I saw a delightful version of Williams’ Hotel Plays, short plays staged in different rooms of an old French Quarter mansion.

Desire is made up of six plays by six eminent playwrights adapted from Williams’ short stories, some of them merely fragments.

Beth Henley’s play, The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin, follows Williams’ story fairly closely, while John Guare’s You Lied to Me About Centralia takes a different perspective on an old story. Williams transformed “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” into his masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie. Guare’s playlet focuses on the aftermath of the dinner attended by Tom’s friend, Jim, who describes the evening with Amanda, Tom and Laura to his fiancée.

Rebecca Gilman’s play, The Field of Blue Children, set in the present on a college campus, is the story of a sorority girl who is interested in poetry—and a poet. The scenes featuring the sorority sisters are hilarious.

Nine actors play all the roles in the six plays. One actor in particular—Derek Smith—plays three quite different roles superbly.

Desire just opened to mixed reviews. But I thought it was more successful than not. Only one of the plays—Tent Worms by Elizabeth Egloff—was a weak story with a weak ending.

New York Report #2 will describe my other adventures—to a couple of fine and obscure museums and to Battery Park. And maybe food.

August theater reviews: No summer slump in Chicago

August may mean the summer doldrums with nothing happening for Parisians and Berliners, who have to get on a train or drive south to find a beach. We lucky Chicagoans have our own built-in lake and beach, so we don’t have to go away for summer fun. There’s lots going on at the lakefront and in the theaters, both large and storefront. Here are a few theater tips from my last couple of weeks.

Assassination Theater at the Museum of Broadcast Communications

GB-AssassinationTheaterYes, this is a single production titled Assassination Theater: Chicago’s Role in the Crime of the Century, which lays out in excruciating detail how the Chicago Outfit was directly involved in the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy and also that of his brother Robert five years later. (I did wonder whether it was a new theater company to be dedicated solely to assassinations and started making a list of how many productions they could muster before they ran out of murders. It would take years, but no, this is a one-off production.)

Journalist/author Hillel Levin researched and produced this documentary production staged in a theater space at the Museum of Broadcast Communications, 360 N. State St. The ingredients are four actors, three projection screens and a minimum of props and costume changes. The story is dramatic and gripping and if you’re a fan of political conspiracy and love to immerse yourself in historical detail, you will love it. If your theater taste runs to musicals and light comedy, stay away. The show could perhaps have been cut by 15 minutes, but I usually think everything is 15 minutes too long.

My review notes that “The story line of Assassination Theater offers persuasive evidence that the JFK autopsy was falsified and the real facts covered up then and in the 1964 Warren Commission report.” The evidence of Mob involvement is not quite as persuasive but I would be willing to give it some study. You can see this show through November 7.

Things You Don’t Say Past Midnight at the Windy City Playhouse

GB-ThingsYSSPM-McClainKenyonThis is a fast-moving, funny, smartly acted and directed sex comedy at the Windy City Playhouse, a new venue in the Irving Park neighborhood that I’ve written about before. Three couples converse and romp about in three bedrooms arrayed across the large playing space. Their interests finally converge and the comedy reaches its apex in a six-way phone call. The play is clever, edgy and a little vulgar but there’s no nudity (in case you were worried or hopeful).

This new theater company is a nonprofit, but had a well-funded startup. The venue is very comfortable with good sightlines, comfy seating and an attractive bar/cafe in its lobby. The company has been bringing in established Chicago actors and directors to stage their productions and the quality is obvious.

Things You Don’t Say runs through October 4. Windy City Playhouse is at 3014 W. Irving Park Rd. Read my review.

The Jacksonian at Profiles Theatre

GB-Jacksonian2-Bowman,IselyThis is one of those plays that I really wanted to like because it has the right ingredients for a fabulous production. Honored playwright: Beth Henley (she won a Pulitzer for Crimes of the Heart and has written many other plays and films). Ingredients: Sex, drugs, murder and a sidedish of politics. Staging: By one of Chicago’s finest Equity storefront theaters. The Jacksonian is set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964 and the title is the name of the rather seedy motel where Bill Perch is staying, since both his marriage and his dental practice are in decline. The other characters are the motel bartender and waitress and the dentist’s wife and teenage daughter, who my review describes as “Cassandra in a cocoon.” The scenes flow back and forth from the December “night of the murder” to sexy bar and bedroom scenes.

The storyline is interesting and the play and characters definitely keep your interest. So even though I would say my rating is “somewhat recommended” because the nonlinear progression of scenes is a little incoherent, it’s still a worthwhile 90 minutes of theater. The Jacksonian runs through October 11 at Profiles, 4139 N. Broadway. Read my review.

Kafkapalooza at First Floor Theater 

GB-Kafka-PoseidonFirst Floor Theater’s annual Litfest, made up of eight short plays inspired by the stories of Franz Kafka, had a short run at the Flat Iron Arts Building in Wicker Park, so I’m sorry if you missed it. Sometimes when you see one of these evenings of short plays, a few of them are good and most are forgettable. But all eight of these plays, running 10-15 minutes each with one to five actors each, were interestingly written and well-performed. My review describes my favorite, titled “The Applicant,” drawn from a fragment of a story that Kafka wrote about Poseidon, bored with the paperwork required in his job as god of the seas, and wishing for a vacation.

First Floor Theater says its mission is to stage stories of individuals facing moments of radical change. I was impressed with this effort and look forward to their next outing.

Show Me a Hero on HBO

Speaking of individuals facing radical change, HBO’s current miniseries definitely fits that description. The story is based on actual events that took place in Yonkers, NY, from 1987 to 1994, when the city was trying to implement scattered-site public housing under a court order.

NSBJ-showmeaheroThe “hero” is the young mayor, Nick Wasicsko, played by Oscar Isaac, who’s elected because of his vote against a housing bill but then realizes that the city has to change. There are some great performances by actors such as Bob Balaban as the judge, Alfred Molina as a city councilman passionately opposed to the change, and Catherine Keener as a Yonkers resident bitterly opposed to the new housing that would be in her neighborhood. There are some very ugly but realistic scenes of Yonkers citizens protesting outside city hall and in council chambers. Of course, their arguments are that it’s all about property values and “lifestyle,” not racism. Uh-huh.

The characters are not all politicians and angry residents. Several subplots weave together the stories of public housing residents who will eventually be able to benefit from the new housing.

Isaac really proves his acting chops in this series, following his fine performances in A Most Violent Year and Ex Machina. Of course, I first wrote about him in 2014 when he starred in the Coen Brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, which all the critics, including me, raved about. Too bad it bombed at the box office and in awards season. I still think it’s a great film and I recommend it too.

One of my favorite things about Show Me a Hero is that it’s threaded with music by Bruce Springsteen from beginning to end. The mayor is a Springsteen fan and the songs all fit the dramatic action. Last week, in parts 3 and 4, the Springsteen songs were “Tenth Avenue Freezeout,” “Brilliant Disguise” and “Secret Garden.” Can’t wait to hear what tonight brings.

Tonight is the third and final part of the six-part production, being shown on three Sunday nights. It will be available on demand if you’re an HBO subscriber and I’m sure it will have another life streaming and on DVD soon.

Images courtesy theater companies and HBO.

Potpourri, farrago, mishmash & hot dogs–my pop culture week

Farrago, potpourri, mishmash. Whatever you call a week of variety, that was my last week. A few tidbits and capsule reviews.

Cirque du Soleil: Kurios — Cabinet of Curiosities

The kid (he’s now 17) and I went to opening night at Cirque du Soleil with some friends. The Big Top (or le grand chapiteau) is set up on the United Center parking lot. Cirque du Soleil hasn’t been in Chicago for a few years and the show has been re-created or reimagined for a new audience, as my friend Kim reported when she interviewed the director, Michel Laprise, for Gapers Block. All the amazing acrobatics and gorgeous pageantry and choreography are still there but it’s done with a “steampunk” theme, suggesting late 19th century industrial machines with a whiff of fantasy. The costuming suits the theme and the period too.

Cirque du Soleil's Kurios, Grand Chapiteau by A1 Federation - via Wikimedia Commons

Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios, Grand Chapiteau by A1 Federation – via Wikimedia Commons

We loved the Acro Net, where a giant net stretches across the stage and operates like a trampoline. The performers bounce, dance, jump and leap, sometimes all the way to the tent’s peak. The Rola Bola man balanced on a board, first atop a ball, then several balls and finally a hill of balls and spools–and still he balanced. The Invisible Circus was very clever, with all the lights and contraptions operating as if someone was using them, but not a soul was in sight–except for the circus announcer who described what was taking place. I could go on and on. It’s an amazing show. Whether or not you’ve seen Cirque du Soleil before, try to see this one. And take a kid or a kid at heart.

Hot Dog Festival at the Chicago History Museum

Next day we wandered over to the south end of Lincoln Park for the Chicago History Museum’s Hot Dog Festival. The hot dogs were great; I had a Chicago classic with all the trimmings layered in the proper order*. The kid had a dog plus fries and then went back for a Godzilla dog, which is the equivalent of two or three regular ones. We shared an ice cream because I ran out of dog dollars.


This is a perfect Chicago hot dog. Photo courtesy Vienna Beef.

In addition to great food, there were bands and a speakers stage. We got there early so we could hear Bill Savage, the Northwestern pop culture professor, discourse on “Ketchup: The Condiment of Controversy.” He discussed the nature of hot dogs (“the ultimate democratic street food”) in other locales, concluded that Chicago is rightly considered the hot dog capital of the world, and described how hot dogs and their peculiar Chicago condimentry came to be. He took a poll of his audience. Seventy percent of us agreed that ketchup on a hot dog is an abomination, but ketchup is ok for kids under 10. Bill’s conclusion was Chicago is a great democratic city and Chicagoans are free to do as we please, and if that means ketchup on a hot dog, that’s ok. I respectfully disagree.

* The layers have to be: mustard, neon green relish, chopped onions, tomato wedges, hot sport peppers, dill pickle wedges and finally celery salt.

Two nights at the theater

My two most recent reviews were (1) brilliant satire and (2) a flashy musical. Guess which one I liked best?

The Boy From Oz is the new show by Pride Films & Plays at Stage 773. It’s the story of Australian musician and entertainer Peter Allen, who was married to Liza Minnelli for a while, was a great hit as a cabaret performer, but never was a huge success in the US. At least his music was never a huge success–and since there was nothing melodic or hummable about his music, that made sense. The production is very well done, with some good performances from both the actors and the dance ensemble. Great costumes and choreography. So my review is: It’s a pleasant evening with a lot of talent and energy wasted on boring raw material. See my review here. The play runs through August 30. See it if you like gratuitous singing and dancing.

Katy Carolina Collins as Mash in SFB

Katy Carolina Collins as Mash in SFB

Stupid Fucking Bird is Aaron Posner’s play that kinda/sorta deconstructs Chekhov’s The Seagull. Sideshow Theatre is staging it now at Victory Gardens/ Biograph and you can see it through August 30. You need to see it. The script is witty and the characters are sort of based on Chekhov’s except their angst is contemporary rather than 19th century. It’s a case where A loves B who loves C who loves D who flirts with E who is the lover of F. (I’m quoting my review.) Plus there’s a playwright who wants to invent a new kind of theater and when he succeeds in getting a play produced complains that he will now have to put up with being criticized by perfect strangers in addition to family members. Some nice musical interludes throughout the play with Mash (Masha in Chekhov) on the ukulele.

Movies with musical themes

Madame Marie's booth on the boardwalk, September 2012.

Madame Marie’s booth on the boardwalk, September 2012. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Baby It’s You is a 1983 film directed by John Sayles. It’s a little indie film about Jill, a Jewish girl with dreams of college and a theater career (played by Rosanna Arquette), and her boyfriend, the Sheik (Vincent Spano), a well-dressed greaser who loves Jill and Sinatra. They are not going to walk off together into the sunset because Jill is not interested in marriage and babies and that’s the only relationship that Sheik can see for them. It’s a good film–I gave it 4 stars out of 5 on Two great things about the film are the music (plenty of Springsteen songs) and the trip that Jill and Sheik make to the Jersey shore. We see how Asbury Park looked 30 years ago when the Casino and the Palace were in much better shape; Madame Marie’s was there too and it still is. She died in 2008 but family members still tell fortunes in her booth on the boardwalk.

CBGB is a movie that I really wanted to like. It’s a 2013 docustory about the iconic punk rock club on the Bowery and its owner, Hilly Kristal (played, incongruously, by Alan Rickman). It was fun to see actors play the great bands that started there, like the Dead Boys, Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, the Ramones and Patti Smith– but the producers ruined the effect by playing polished studio recordings of those bands while the actors lip-synced. The music totally missed the raw, rough edge that it should have had. It’s not a very good movie–unless, of course, you loved the memory of CBGB.

One more thing ….

An exhibit of photos of rock star legends by Chicago photographer Paul Natkin was on display at the Ed Paschke Art Center in Jefferson Park. One Saturday afternoon, he sat surrounded by his photos and talked about his career, shooting some of the greatest musicians of our time, and how photography has changed with the digital revolution. His talk was fascinating and he was kind enough to talk to me later and answer a question about artists’ rights for one of my SCORE clients. Natkin’s work was shown in a more comprehensive exhibit a few years ago at the Chicago Cultural Center. You can check out his website.

The kids are OK: My 4-star theater reviews

This week I’ve seen and reviewed two youth ensemble theater productions. I did that with some trepidation because I didn’t want them to be dreadful. It’s one thing if an adult production is dreadful and I have to write a bad review. But I really didn’t want to write a bad review when teenagers are involved. It turned out happily because both productions are outstanding, and in totally different ways.


American Theater Company’s Greensboro: A Requiem is an example of the serious, documentary theater created by ATC’s late lamented artist director, P.J. Paparelli. This youth ensemble production presents a play by Emily Mann, which tells the story of a 1979 event in which five protestors were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi party.

Albany Park Theater Project’s Feast, originally mounted in 2010, is a lively, colorful series of scenarios about food in Chicago’s many immigrant communities, presented by a multiethnic group of 25 performers of high school age. Five just finished middle school and four will go on to college in the fall.

Both productions involve the young performers doing additional research to update or recreate the stories (in the case of Feast) or to travel to the scene of the event to interview participants and survivors. In each case, the research served to deepen the actors’ understanding of the issues portrayed in their productions.

Greensboro: A Requiem uses verbatim text from interviews, court transcripts and other documents to describe what happened on November 3, 1979, in the North Carolina city. The Communist Workers Party organized a group of mostly black textile workers to protest the Ku Klux Klan, which was then growing in influence. The protesters had a police permit for their march, but somehow the police conveniently managed to be out to lunch at the time of the march. A caravan of cars loaded with Klan and Nazi party members attacked the marchers and killed five of them.

The 11 Chicago Public High School juniors and seniors do an excellent job of creating the mood and portraying what has become known as the Greensboro massacre and its aftermath. Read about their production in my review here.

You can also read about the ensemble’s Kickstarter campaign that raised money for their travel to Greensboro.

This show runs through August 2 at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron. Tickets are free, but reservations are suggested (and a $25 donation will be requested).

Feast is a much less somber production, but underlying the joy of shopping (with a LINK card), cooking, eating and dancing are the real stories of the scarcity of food and its importance in tying the immigrant community to its home traditions. And of course food plays a glorious role in life and in family celebrations. See my review.

Feast continues in the Goodman’s Owen Theatre through August 16. The circular stage with a runway on each end is a perfect setting for the production. Music and costuming complete an authentic picture of the lives of the many immigrant communities represented.

Both of these productions provide an excellent and thought-provoking evening of theater. They will fill you with optimism about the future of Chicago and American theater.