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.

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.



Reviews from the Chicago theater scene: The good and not so good

It’s been a busy theater week for me. I’ve seen two excellent plays, one very good one and two others that need work.

Tom Stoppard’s Travesties at Remy Bumppo Theatre

NSB_travestiesRemy Bumppo performs excellent work on its second floor mainstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Their production of Stoppard’s Travesties is simply brilliant and I recommend it strongly. The premise is that there is a moment in time when James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Vladimir Lenin were all in Zurich, Switzerland. It’s also a moment when the world is on the brink of change. Europe is at war, revolutions loom, and decades of other wars are ahead. The era of modernism in art and culture is emerging, represented by the novels of Joyce (especially Ulysses) and the deconstructionist poetry of Tzara, the founder of the Dadaist movement. Lenin sits in the Zurich Public Library, writing and waiting.

These three geniuses may or may not have met and conversed or debated in Zurich at that time, but no matter, Stoppard makes the premise work. The character who holds the plot together is Henry Carr, an English diplomat with a substantial ego and insubstantial intellect.

Nick Sandys’ direction is spot on. The dialogue is dazzling, the entire cast is excellent, and the costuming is ravishing. Travesties runs until May 2; don’t miss it. You may see me there again.

My review in Gapers Block has also been posted on and on

End Days by Deborah Zoe Laufer at the Windy City Playhouse

GB-EndDaysYes, End Days is about the biblical belief in the end of days, but don’t worry, it doesn’t happen. And the story is much broader than the one character who thinks the world will end on Wednesday. (Yes, she is followed around by Jesus, but . . . no, never mind.) The script is well written and the cast is very good. The production is entertaining and thought-provoking. Direction by Henry Godinez makes all the parts gel.

The best reason to see this play is to visit this new theater venue in the Irving Park neighborhood (3014 W Irving Park Rd). End Days is the first production for the Windy City Playhouse, a theater space with an excellent bar and lobby, and best of all, super-comfy seating. Really, seating is not the only reason to go but it certainly adds to the theater experience.

See my Gapers Block review of End Days and read more about the theater itself. End Days runs through Apr 26. I’m looking forward to their next production.

La Bête by David Hirson at Trap Door Theatre

NSB-trapdoorLaBeteThe talented Trap Door troupe does a fabulous job with this witty satire of theater, commerce and mediocrity. La Bête was first produced on Broadway in 1991—running 25 performances before closing. It was revived successfully in 2010 and then transferred to London.

The scene is 17th century Paris and involves the competition at court between the playwright Elomire (an anagram for Moliere) and a verbose newcomer actor/playwright named Valere. The script is written in rhyming couplets and the cast knows how to deliver the lines, thanks to superb direction by Kay Martinovich. Kevin Cox as Valere is simply outstanding. His electrifying act-one monologue is one of the treats of this theater season.

Some of Trap Door’s productions are minimal in design but the costuming and makeup in La Bête is lavish.

La Bête runs two hours, including one intermission, and you will enjoy every minute of the wordplay. It has just been extended to May 2. The tickets are cheap ($10 plus a small fee). Trap Door is located on Cortland and Paulina in Bucktown, at what was the very northern edge of the city at the time of the Great Fire of 1871. Just walk down that narrow gangway to a great theater experience. And put a few bucks in the actors’ box because these performers work for nothing. And that’s a travesty.

The Upstairs Concierge by Kristoffer Diaz at Goodman Theatre

GB-UpstairsConciergeAfter describing a theater company that does brilliant work on pennies, we come to a well-funded theater company that puts on lavish productions that are turkeys. That would be Goodman Theatre and although Goodman’s productions often are excellent, they are capable of wasting a lot of money that would have funded several storefront theaters.

The Upstairs Concierge is a perfect example. The set is beautiful. The production has been workshopped and fussed over for several years, but the script is dreadful. As I said in my Gapers Block review, “The Upstairs Concierge is a farce but the witty part is missing.” My review generously gave it two stars* (Somewhat Recommended) but other reviewers gave it one star (Not Recommended). See it at your peril.

* The websites I write for don’t use stars, although the two Chicago dailies do., a website that compiles reviews and information for Chicago-area productions, uses a rating system, so my reviews appear there with a rating based on a one-to-four star system or Not Recommended to Highly Recommended.

The Good Book by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson at Court Theatre

This is the same playwriting team that created the masterful An Iliad, which Court mounted twice and I found epic and moving both times. This play is an ambitious attempt to explore the roots of the Bible, its authors, sources and gender issues. It also threads two contemporary stories through the overly long performance.

The production has received mixed reviews, from somewhat to highly recommended. The friends I attended with liked the play better than I did. I felt the parts did not hold together well and one of the modern threads would have been better eliminated. One story is that of a nonbeliever, a biblical scholar and professor played by Hollis Resnik. The other is about a teenager played by Alex Weisman, committed to becoming a priest, who over time discovers that he’s gay and comes to grips with both his faith and his sexuality. The two stories don’t mesh and the latter story, in particular, doesn’t relate to the overall ambition of exploring the roots of the bible.

The Good Book runs through April 19 at Court Theatre. I didn’t review it, but check out the reviews here and decide for yourself if you want to see it.

And also…. 

In March, I saw The Apple Family Plays: Sorry and The Hopey Changey Thing by Richard Nelson. These two plays are running in repertory at Timeline Theatre through April 19. They’re both well written and performed. The plays are about politics and family but the underlying theme in both is deciding how to deal with an aging relative who may not be able to live at home much longer. The second play is particularly sad as they come to grips with the issue. It is a chance to see Chicago’s fine actor, Mike Nussbaum, on stage. At 91, he’s a dynamic performer.

 All photos courtesy of the theater companies. 

Reviews: Theater for thought and laughter

I always say I prefer my theater (and films) to be grim and depressing. No happy-go-lucky musicals with egregious singing and dancing for me. But this week I’ve seen three marvelous plays that made me laugh and made me think. And what could be a better combination for an evening of theater with thoughtful friends?

The Rose Tattoo by Shattered Globe at Theater Wit

GB-TheRoseTattoo-1Tennessee Williams’ play about an insular Sicilian-American community on the Gulf Coast is melodramatic, tragic and funny. The rose tattoo of the title is an actual tattoo on the chest of Rosario, the husband of seamstress Serafina. We never meet Rosario because Serafina is widowed early in the play. She mourns him and prays to a statue of Mary and his ashes while trying to keep her teenaged daughter from growing up too fast. Shattered Globe’s production is performed in a small space at Theater Wit, but director Greg Vinkler and his actors make the most of the space and of Williams’ passionate plot and language.

My review for Gapers Block gave it four stars or “highly recommended” for the Theatre in Chicago site. The production runs until Feb. 28.

Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play at Theater Wit

PragueThis could be described as a play about The Simpsons, now in its 26th TV season. But it’s really about the world we may have to look forward to, if we don’t rebuild our infrastructure to protect the electric grid. Yes, it’s a post-electric play, taking place in a world of the future that you don’t even want to think about. The three acts show us a vision of the near future, seven years later and 75 years after that. My review appears in Gapers Block and also on Culture Vulture.

Yes, The Simpsons’ plots and characters tie the dystopian epic together. The clever storyline follows the episode from season 5, “Cape Feare,” which satirized the two film versions of Cape Fear in 1962 (Robert Mitchum) and 1991 (Robert De Niro).

The acting, scene design and costuming are all well done, with great creativity in the use of materials and funky lighting when there is no electricity. Jeremy Wechsler’s direction is spot on and the eight actors move from character to character with ease. The production is funny and thought-provoking. However, if you’re not at least a casual Simpsons viewer, you may be in the dark. You can see this until March 1.

Waiting for Godot at Court Theatre

This Samuel Beckett play is one of my very favorites and I never grow tired of seeing it reinterpreted by a new director and cast. Court Theatre’s production, directed by Ron OJ Parsons, is one of the best I’ve seen. One interesting aspect is that it’s performed by an all-African-American cast.

You remember the story. Two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon (Didi and Gogo), a bleak landscape, a leafless tree. They’re hanging out, waiting, of course, for Godot, who never appears and is never explained. In mid-first-act, along comes Pozzo, the plutocrat, and his silent slave Lucky, who is roped by the neck and occasionally whipped by Pozzo.

All four actors are outstanding and among Chicago’s finest. But Allen Gilmore, who plays Vladimir, is so graceful, verbally and physically, that he simply outshines the others. Also Anthony Lee Irons, who plays Lucky, is a joy to see perform his “thinking” monologue. He is brilliantly agile as the philosophical gibberish rolls off his tongue.

Here’s a video clip from the current Court production.

This production is perhaps a bit more physical than some I have seen. It’s a lively performance (lively isn’t usually a word I’d apply to Beckett). The play is about the significance and insignificance of life, about tomorrow and about hope. But it is also a music hall piece with a great deal of humor. And Beckett fully intended it to be funny. He loved vaudeville and silent film comedy and supposedly considered casting Buster Keaton as Gogo and Charlie Chaplin as Didi.

Brian Dennehy was once quoted as saying: “Godot is the greatest thing you can do in theater. It’s incredibly philosophical and deep and significant—and very, very funny.”

Some of the acting pairs who have played Didi and Gogo in the past make me yearn to see their performances. Robin Williams and Steve Martin. Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (with Billy Crudup as Lucky!).

Here’s a wonderful video that shows clips of Stewart and McKellen’s 2013 performance plus the two of them speaking about the play in an interview.


And one more thing: The Humans at American Theater Co.

I saw this play a month ago but haven’t had a chance to write about it here. The Humans by Stephen Karam is a world premiere and another excellent ATC production that lets us observe a family Thanksgiving dinner in real time, including crudités from Costco. The characters—adult children, parents, grandmother—all have a story. Love and lost love, laughter, illness, disability and aging issues. The production received almost unanimous four-star reviews, although I would have given it three stars if I had reviewed it. It runs through Sunday, Feb. 1, with two performances on each weekend day—so it would be a good alternative to that football thing on Sunday.


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Mini-reviews from October stages

Here are brief reviews of plays I’ve seen in the last 10 days. For details and ticket information on any of them, go to and select Review Roundup.


Both Your Houses at Remy Bumppo

By Maxwell Anderson. See it thru November 9

This Maxwell Anderson play is a political charmer, set in 1932. The shenanigans involve the House of Representatives budget committee alternatively cutting expenditures or ensuring that members’ favorite pork projects are funded. A brand new Congressman tries to change everything. Anderson wrote it in frustration with the Hoover administration and its lack of response to the Depression. Remy Bumppo’s production sparkles with terrific performances and a lovely set on the second floor mainstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Here’s their trailer.


Danny Casolaro Died for You at Timeline Theatre

By Dominic Orlando. See it thru December 21.

GB-Timeline-DannyThe names and events are vaguely familiar, if you were consuming political news in the 1980s and ’90s. Iran-contra. BCCI (“the world’s sleaziest bank,” according to a Time magazine cover). Bert Lance. The Church committee. Wackenhut Security. The CIA and Central American drug cartels. The Sandinistas. The Iran hostage crisis.

That’s how my Gapers Block review begins. The eponymous Danny is a freelance journalist who tries to put all those pieces together for a big story. The play is well acted and tensely performed. Timeline, which specializes in productions that explore history, does an excellent job, including putting the period in perspective through detailed lobby exhibits and playbill information.


Native Son at Court Theatre

By Nambi E. Kelley from the novel by Richard Wright. See it thru October 19.

nsb-nativesonNative Son, Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, is about Bigger Thomas, a young Chicago African-American man without education, money or hope. He gets a job for which he is ill-prepared, and commits murder by accident. The story is tense and disturbing. It’s also grim and depressing, because it’s describing an event 75 years in the past—and not enough change has taken place.

Nambi E. Kelley has written a spine-tingling adaptation, leaving the linear plot line of the novel behind and playing out Bigger’s story in a crisp 90-minute production. The cleverly designed setting of wooden stairs, poles and walkways by Regina Garcia really makes he play work. Seret Scott’s direction holds the story together and made me forget to miss Max, Bigger’s left-wing lawyer, whose character Kelley stripped out of her script.

Some reviewers consider Wright’s character of Bigger to be symbolic and unrealistic. I was part of a discussion group that met with playwright Kelley the night we saw the play. She told us that she had come to love and care about Bigger during the long writing process. That enabled us to care about him in her play. But the Chicago streets where black men, such as Jerod Haynes who plays Bigger, walk today are still mean streets, even though the nature of their danger has changed over the years.


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Porchlight Music Theatre

By Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. See it thru November 9.

This marvelously bloody and brilliant story never fails to delight. No sappy, sugary musical here. The new Porchlight production directed by Michael Weber at Stage 773 gets very strong performances and creative staging from this talented company. In particular, the two leads, Rebecca Finnegan as the lively Mrs. Lovett and David Girolmo as the demon barber, are superb vocally and dramatically. A very young Miles Blim plays Toby with terrific charm; he’s a high school senior in Oak Park. An excellent five-person musical group led by Doug Peck provides the Sondheim music.

The clever script is loaded with quotable lines. As Mrs. Lovett ponders what to do with the detritus of Mr. Todd’s shaving services, she thinks aloud: “Business needs a lift / Debts to be erased / Think of it as thrift, as a gift / If you get my drift. / Seems an awful waste / I mean, with the price of meat what it is.

At the end of act one, Lovett and Todd perform a delightfully homicidal “A Little Priest.” The song includes my favorite passage, which I have used in a business context to describe the M&A environment. The demon barber advises her,

“The history of the world, my sweet–
is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat!”

The recent New York Philharmonic concert presentation of Sweeney Todd uses the same Christopher Bond adaptation; it’s excellent and is available online on The NY Phil version is presented concert style with costuming and some props with the performers on walkways amongst the orchestra. Its highlight is Emma Thompson’s great comedic turn as Mrs. Lovett.

Here’s a trailer of the Porchlight production.


Watch on the Rhine at The Artistic Home

By Lillian Hellman. See it thru November 16.

GB-WOTRJoshua,Bodo,FannyAnother play set against an historical landscape is Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine, now on stage at The Artistic Home on Grand Avenue in Noble Square. The play, first produced in April 1941, was a warning to Americans about the growth of fascism in Europe and its potential in our own country, at a time when most Americans did not believe that. Hellman sets up a compelling pre-war conflict between two characters, both Europeans, but visiting in the US. One is a fascist and the other is an anti-fascist freedom fighter. The performances in this production are excellent and Cody Estle’s direction, including three child actors, is up to the Artistic Home standards.

See my Gapers Block review for details.



May mashup: My pop culture diary

Busy end-of-May at Nancy’s house. House guests, including two perfectly darling grandsons, and a family wedding at a grand venue. So I haven’t seen much theater since the last time we chatted. Still, there were a few great movies, one so-so play, and news about a new website that I’m writing for. You’ll find some TV recs too.

 First, some architecture notes 


South Shore Cultural Center. Photo courtesy Chicago Park District

A lakefront wedding. The wedding was at the beautiful South Shore Cultural Center, right on the lakefront at 71st Street. It was originally a private country club and it’s now part of the Chicago Park District. If you haven’t been there, it is simply lovely and worth a visit. If you’re planning an event, it should be on your list of venues.

The country club, built in 1906, was designed by Marshall and Fox, who designed the Drake and Blackstone Hotels. It was expanded in 1916, also by Marshall and Fox. (Benjamin Marshall also designed the elegant Beaux Arts apartment building at 1550 N State Parkway.) The wedding ceremony was held in the beautiful solarium, looking out at the lake, and then we moved to a reception hall for champagne and greetings, and finally to the dining room. You can see some CPD photos here.

An architecture scavenger hunt. If you’re a fan of Chicago’s Loop architecture, you should sign up for the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s scavenger hunt next Saturday afternoon, June 7. The game starts and ends at the Railway Exchange Building at 224 S Michigan; there’ll be an awards reception in the grand atrium. You’ll find the details in my story on Gapers Block.

Theater notes


Photo by Michael Brosilow.

M Butterfly at Court Theatre. The script by David Henry Hwang is marvelous, very smart and well-written. I thought the Court production left a little to be desired—it was a bit flat. The reviews were definitely mixed from “not recommended” to “highly recommended.” I imagine director Charles Newell might have taken some notes and spiffed up his production since then. The play tells the amazing story of the French diplomat who was deceived for 20 years by a male opera star posing as a female diva. Despite my review, I do recommend a trip to Hyde Park.

Here’s my review; my rating was “somewhat recommended.”  This is a New York-based theater website that covers Broadway, off-Broadway, Washington, Connecticut and, now, Chicago. My first review (of Cock at Profiles Theatre) is now up on See it here. It’s a terrific show and I highly recommend it. It runs until June 29; details are at the end of my review.

My headline is “… A Riveting Play That Explores All the Meanings of Its Title.” Here’s how my review begins:

Cock is a play title you very rarely find in a theater review headline. I’m hoping that’s because of fear of internet anti-obscenity filters, rather than puritanism on the part of copy editors. The play by Mike Bartlett is a comedy about sexual identity, a love triangle and a power play among three characters: John, a bisexual who is fighting to discover his identity; M and W, his lovers, who battle each other and John himself to determine the course of their lives.

Movies I loved…or at least liked

The Normal Heart. HBO’s production of Larry Kramer’s play about the early years of the AIDS epidemic is excellent. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I had read enough about the production, and the playwright’s involvement, to be optimistic that its edges wouldn’t be softened. And they weren’t. We needed to be reminded about the terror of the disease first known as “gay cancer.” And to be reminded that the war is not over. The tagline, “To win a war, you have to start one,” is an ideal descriptor.

The acting is excellent. Mark Ruffalo plays a very believable Ned Weeks (Larry Kramer) and there are terrific performances by Julia Roberts, Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer. I originally saw the play off-Broadway in about 1985 and Timeline Theatre did an excellent production last year. I highly recommend the HBO film. Here’s the trailer.

Stoker and Blue Velvet. My film group discussed Stoker last week and we’re discussing Blue Velvet soon. They are both excellent films and each is weird, creepy and outrageous in its own way.

Stoker (2013, 99 minutes) is the first English-language film by the Korean director, Chan-Wook Park. (He directed the so-called vengeance trilogy, which includes Oldboy.) His title is surely meant to remind us of Bram Stoker, who created Dracula, but Stoker is just a family name. A family whose father is killed in a mysterious auto accident, whose daughter ( Mia Wasikowska) is obsessed with hunting and saddle shoes, and whose mother (Nicole Kidman) can’t get her daughter to love her. But at the funeral, an uncle (Matthew Goode) appears out of nowhere and befriends mother and daughter. The story is a bit of a takeoff on an Alfred Hitchcock film, Shadow of a Doubt, about a young girl’s relationship with her serial-killer uncle. Stoker has lots of strange and beautiful cinematography and features a psychologically steamy piano duet of Philip Glass music.

If you stay up late or get up early or set your DVR, HBO is showing Stoker June 1 at 3:20am CT.

Blue Velvet (1986, 120 minutes) is an early David Lynch film, before Twin Peaks. The weirdness is set off when an earnest young man (Kyle MacLachlan) finds a severed human ear in a field as he’s walking home. The plot revolves around his boy detective attempts to solve a mystery with a very young Laura Dern as his co-star. Isabelle Rossellini is a nightclub singer who performs “Blue Velvet” and Dennis Hopper is her crazed tormentor, who uses a mask to breathe in gas to energize his crimes.

Roger Ebert hated this film so much that he gave it one star in 1986. He and Gene Siskel disagreed on it, however. (When it was revived 20 years later, one reviewer said it was still “a hilarious, red-hot poker to the brain.”) Here’s a clip of the “At the Movies” review from 1986. Go to 2:35 to see Roger and Gene debate the film.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction

Yes, tonight is the night that we can see the E Street Band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their frontman, Bruce Springsteen, was inducted in 1999. The induction ceremony took place in April but tonight is the three-hour-plus event, with all the honorees, along with a bunch of special guests performing. The band is being inducted in a category that used to be known as sidemen and now is called the Award for Musical Excellence.

Other inductees are Peter Gabriel, Nirvana, Hall and Oates, KISS, Linda Ronstadt and Cat Stevens. Artists are eligible for the Rock Hall 25 years after their first recording. Rock Hall members (including me) voted for a list of eligible musicians and then the panel of judges picks the inductees. My DVR is already set.

Lotsa theater in Chicago: Part 2

A few days ago, I posted an article compiling several plays I’ve seen recently. However, I’ve been busy lately, so here’s another bunch. Don’t miss the trailer below for Arguendo, the March production by Elevator Repair Service at the MCA Stage. It’s gone, but still being staged in other cities. You might want to chase it down after you see this.

Water by the Spoonful at Court Theatre

water-spoonfulQuiara Alegría Hudes’ play tells several stories of lost souls seeking to find themselves, find redemption or simply a cure for a crack habit. Three of the characters are family members: Elliott, an Iraq war veteran; his cousin, Yazmin, who has an adjunct academic job and seems to speak with the author’s voice; and Odessa, his estranged mother. Odessa moderates a global chat room for recovering addicts.

The chat room concept made the play seem very ‘90s although I know chat rooms still exist. When I tried to find some, they all seemed to be about sex, so the chat room vehicle seemed a little weak. But those scenes demonstrate the value for troubled souls being able to reach out and talk to others without recriminations.

Water is directed by Henry Godinez. Scene and projection design is by the very talented John Boesche, whose projections have embellished Chicago productions for many years. But the jagged hole in the front center of the stage was a little too literal in creating the abyss into which characters might fall.

Water by the Spoonful is touching, thought-provoking and beautifully staged. Its run ends April 6.

Russian Transport at Steppenwolf Theatre

russian-transportThe tough comedy/drama Russian Transport is directed by Yasen Peyankov, who has been one of my favorite Chicago theater artists since I first saw him in shows at the late great European Repertory Company in the 1980s and ’90s. I still get chills thinking about their production of Steven Berkoff’s Agamemnon.

Russian Transport is the story of a Russian immigrant family in Brooklyn who work hard to get along and are joined by Boris, a relative who arrives from Russia. Misha, the father, runs a fairly successful car service out of his home office. His wife Diana (Boris’ sister) keeps tight control on the family cash. Alex and Mira are their children; Mira is still in high school; Alex goes to college part-time, and works a couple of part-time jobs, including driving for his father. They think Boris will need help finding a job and getting set up in America, but it turns out Boris already has a thriving business—which involves young women arriving from eastern Europe. He is by turns friendly, charming and menacing to his niece and nephew. Steppenwolf ensemble members Tim Hopper as Boris and Mariann Mayberry as Diana play roles quite different from their usual style. Both are excellent as are the other three actors.

The play has had mixed reviews but my friends and I thought it was excellent and worth your time and thought. It runs through May 11 in Steppenwolf’s upstairs theater.

More on European Rep. As an aside, this 1987 article from the Chicago Reader is a good overview of European Rep as well as an indictment for the lack of funding for theater in Chicago and the US.

 Thinner Than Water at The Gift Theatre

gift-storefrontThe headline for my Gapers Block review of this fine play is “not just another dysfunctional family.” Here’s an excerpt from the opening of my review:

“Is blood thinner than water, rather than, as the proverb would have it, thicker? Gift Theatre’s new play Thinner Than Water by Melissa Ross makes us ponder this question as water washes over the family members metaphorically as well as realistically…. So many opportunities for family dissension. But the recipe for a hyper-dysfunctional family might start like this: Take one distant and unloving father and three mothers–and add one child from each. As Thinner Than Water opens, the three half-siblings are arguing about who will handle details of their father’s terminal illness.”

Thinner Than Water has strong performances from all its cast members and John Gawlik’s direction makes it the high-quality production we have come to expect from Gift Theatre. You can catch it at this Jefferson Park storefront until May 25. See my complete review here.

Brahman/i at Silk Road Rising + About Face Theatre

Brahmani360pxBrahman/i is an unusual production—part standup comedy, part lesson in the history (and mystery) of sexual ambiguity. Its subtitle is “A One- Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show.” As a co-production of Silk Road and About Face, it involves both storytelling from South Asia and questions of sexual identity. Brahman/i, the sole character, is played by Fawzia Mirza, who has performed at many other Chicago theaters. Brahman/i is an hijra or intersex person, who is considered to be both male and female. (I’m working very hard not to use personal pronouns here.) During the performance, the actor changes from male garb to female with sari and jewelry. A guitarist provides occasional accompaniment and comments.

The story told is interesting and complex and tells us bits and pieces of history and mythology as well as stories of Brahman/i’s middle school and her opinionated auntie. We learn lessons from Odysseus and Galileo and see erotic Tantric images from the temples at Khajuraho. The almost-two-hour show is truly a stand-up comedy performance, not a play, although the stories are engaging and humorous; Mirza’s performance is charismatic and energetic. Brahman/i runs until April 27 at Silk Road Rising’s theater in the Chicago Temple on Washington Street.

 Arguendo by Elevator Repair Service

This play was staged at the MCA Stage for just one weekend in March, but the Elevator Repair Service production of Arguendo was one of the best things I’ve seen lately. I suppose not everyone would be attracted by a theatrical performance of a Supreme Court case, but this New York theater company is smart and innovative and made the lines sing. Barnes vs Glen Theatre Inc. was a 1991 Indiana case questioning the constitutionality of the Indiana law requiring performers to wear something—pasties and a g string, shall we say—rather than performing nude. The suit was brought by the Kitty Kat Lounge and Glen Theatre, Inc., of South Bend, Indiana. The Barnes in the case title was Michael Barnes, then St. Joseph County Prosecuting Attorney.

The show begins with a reporter scrum outside the SCOTUS building as exotic dancer arrives to observe the trial. Then we move to the courtroom where three justices are seated on a raised area above the stage. Proceedings begin in a dignified manner with opening arguments by petitioner and respondent. Shortly, we realize the justices’ chairs are on casters as they come careening down the ramps on either side of the stage. From then on, the scene changes moment by moment as justices and attorneys wheel around the stage to face each other or the audience. The three actors portraying the justices change voice and physical style to mimic the various justices.

The actor portraying Bruce Ennis, the ACLU attorney for the respondents (the dancers et al) argued on First Amendment grounds that the right to nude dancing was an element of free expression. His energetic arguments began to result in his gradual disrobing—first jacket, then trousers, then shirt, then undershirt and shorts—until he was down to a thong. And soon the thong came off too. He completed his arguments as naked as the day he was born.

Unfortunately, the SCOTUS decision, delivered by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, didn’t agree with the First Amendment arguments—and the exotic dancers lost their case.

The 80-minute play was followed by a fascinating discussion and Q&A by director John Collins with Nancy Marder of the Jury Center at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. Other experts joined Collins at other performances.

I first saw the great work of Elevator Repair Service in 2008, when they performed a full staged reading of Gatz, F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. The 8.5-hour production, with meal breaks, was also held at the MCA theater. It was one of those incredible arts experiences that can’t be matched. Except maybe by a terrific rock and roll concert.

 Coming up tonight: Bruce Springsteen on HBO

For fans of Bruce Springsteen and rock and roll: The 30-minute documentary, Bruce Springsteen’s High Hopes, will premier on HBO at 8:30pm tonight (my DVR is set). The making-of film was edited and directed by Thom Zimny, so it will be well done. The new album, High Hopes, was released in January.

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Theater reviews and reveries

Chicago theaters are opening new shows in January and February, so after a slow December, I’ll be reviewing lots of theater again. Here are a few current highlights.

Our Country’s Good

OCG-4This play by Shattered Globe Theatre is being presented at Theater Wit on Belmont. The historical subject matter of the play—prisoners and their English soldier-captors in the new Australian penal colony in 1788—is fascinating. The play by British playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker also involves a play within a play performed by the convicts. Many interesting possibilities, but the play ultimately is a bit flat. I was disappointed because Shattered Globe usually does sterling work. My Gapers Block review notes some of the problems.

It’s possible that the director could take notes from some of the reviews and snap up the production, however. The show runs thru February 22, so if the subject matter interests you, check it out. (Image courtesy Shattered Globe Theatre.)

Mr Shaw Goes to Hollywood

This is a smart, funny play with lots of celebrity name-dropping and appearances by GBS and Clark Gable. I haven’t posted my Gapers Block review yet, so I won’t go into more reviewer details here. But I will tell you it’s by MadKap Productions at the second floor studio at the Greenhouse Theater Center thru February 16.

Update:  here’s my Gapers Block review.  I gave it a Recommended rating for

Blood on the Cat’s Neck

blood-on-the-cat_tThis was another sparkling production by Trap Door Theatre, pulling out crazy visual magic on their tiny stage. The play is closed now, but I will only say: Watch for the next Trap Door production. They do plays mainly by European playwrights and they always have a political/social edge reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht and Max Frisch.

Blood on the Cat’s Neck is by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a German film innovator who died of a drug overdose at 36 in 1982, ten years after writing this play. Blood plays out in three parts; it’s part monologue, part short scenes, and it ends with a mad party scene. The character we follow with most interest is Phoebe Zeitgeist (played by Simina Contras), a vampire from another planet. She’s completely naked throughout, except for a hat, gloves, heels and glittery red lipstick. She has a fixed smile and repeats the other characters’ slogans and complaints, without seeming to know what they mean. The party scene ends with Phoebe doing what vampires do – to each character in turn. (Image courtesy Trap Door Theatre.)

Invisible Man at Court Theatre and on the page

imagesCourt Theatre presented Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man two years ago. The play was marvelous, compelling but confusing. I left feeling dissatisfied, wishing I had read the book before seeing the play. Now I’ve read the book (my book group had an excellent discussion on it) and I would love to see the play again. I think it would be more dramatic and meaningful.

Ellison is a lyrical writer, influenced by jazz as a musical form. He tells the story of a nameless young man who leaves a Southern black college to go to New York where he experiences northern racism and bigotry in the course of making a living and making human contact. He is a talented, even charismatic, speaker and becomes a spokesman for a white-led political organization called the Brotherhood where he is tasked to recruit in Harlem. Ellison was a Marxist for a while so the Brotherhood is probably patterned after the Communist party. The character makes us understand why he is invisible and how social and political racism affect him. The book is structured episodically and sometimes requires flipping back to reread an earlier section. Ellison’s writing is rewarding, however, and the book is a wonderful read.

Theatre in Chicago website

I want to recommend this website as a resource for Chicago theater-goers. It’s a very good way to find out what plays are showing now and what reviewers are saying. To see the compilations of reviews, go to the home page and select Review Round-Up in the left-hand column. My Gapers Block reviews are now appearing there.

There are sister sites in other cities: Minneapolis, Boston, DC, Seattle, LA, Atlanta and San Francisco. You can find links to those pages in the footer at

Related posts

Read about the two plays I recommend hereThe Seafarer runs until February 1.  An Inspector Calls just closed.

A/C report: An Iliad, some Tiffany + goodbye Lou

A/C. That’s art and culture in Chicago. Your intrepid blogger is here to report on two items that you should consider adding to your calendar. Plus: what a way to say goodbye! To Lou Reed, the legendary punk rock musician who died last month.

 An Iliad at Court Theatre: The poet reports


Photo courtesy Court Theatre

Court Theatre has remounted An Iliad two years after it was first produced. I was blown away the first time by the power of the story, the language and the acting. Timothy Peter Kane, a very talented Chicago actor, performs a tour de force one-man show as the poet or observer of this classic blood and glory story set at the end of the Trojan War.

The remounting, which runs until December 14, is perhaps even more powerful than the original. Is it because we all, including Kane, have seen two more years of the endless US war in the Middle East? He seems to be sadder, more traumatized and distraught by the many deaths around him. The single most gripping scene is his three-minute soliloquy of wars through history, beginning with the conquest of Sumer and ending, this year, with Libya and Syria. I was in tears at the end of it. Here’s a clip of that speech from the 2011 play.

The play, adapted from the Robert Fagles translation of Homer’s long poem, was written by Denis O’Hare, another masterful Chicago actor, and Lisa Peterson, a director at the New York Theatre Workshop.

An extravaganza of Tiffany at the Driehaus Museum


Photo by Nancy Bishop

Richard Driehaus, a successful investment banker, is an important supporter of the arts and historic preservation in Chicago. He purchased the Samuel Nickerson mansion (1883, Burling & Whitehouse, architects) at 40 E Erie St and restored it to its ornately decorated, Gilded Age form. In 2007, it was opened as the Richard H Driehaus Museum of Decorative Arts and it’s worth visiting on its own, but even more so now. Sixty pieces from Driehaus’ large collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany are on exhibit on the second floor of the museum until June 29, 2014.  The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday until 5pm and you can take a docent-led tour or meander through on your own.

I went with three of my ex-CAF docent friends and, as always, we create our own tour. The four of us have a combined treasure of knowledge on architecture, art and design and we love doing these tours collaboratively.

The photo at left is one of the Tiffany windows, beautifully displayed, in the exhibit.

Goodbye Lou

What a great way to say farewell to an iconic musician like Lou Reed. Just his music, played Lou_Reedat the appropriate volume (that is, loud) in a grove of trees near Lincoln Center. It was one of those days I wish I lived in New York…or at least had the wherewithal to fly there on a whim for a landmark event.

Lou Reed, known as a solo musician, guitarist, songwriter and founder of the Velvet Underground, the preeminent punk rock group, died at 71 on October 27.

See Greg Mitchell’s site here for three videos from the event. My favorite is “Walk on the Wild Side.” It’s wonderful to see people communing over music, many singing along, others dancing, all paying tribute to Reed’s music.

The photo is Lou Reed performing at the Hop Farm Music Festival on Saturday, July 2, 2011, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Molière to Levon on stage & screen

More theater suggestions, one from a Gapers Block review, plus two music films. My rock and roll and film commentary is coming back. I’m working on something now about rock lyrics — and an essay on art and fashion is on the horizon.

Molière in Hyde Park

Not only is the Court Theatre’s new play showing in Hyde Park, Court’s home territory. Director Charles Newell has set this new production of Molière’s marvelous Tartuffe in modern dress in Hyde Park/Kenwood. (His name was really Jean-Baptiste Poquelin; Molière was his stage name.) The delicious touch is that Newell has cast the same ensemble of actors, mostly African-American, to play Tartuffe as performed The Misanthrope, the first play in the Court Molière Festival. Tartuffe is the religious fanatic hypocrite who almost takes over Orgon’s family and wealth.

The acting is superb and the cast does a splendid job with Moliere’s witty dialogue. The mansion setting and contemporary costuming are beautiful … with the possible exception of Mariane’s and Valère’s outfits. Mariane, Orgon’s daughter, wears some silly-looking pink frocks (to emphasize her youth?) while Valère, her love interest, wears shorts he would never wear on the streets of Hyde Park and a White Sox cap that doesn’t know where to go.

The two-hour-plus-intermission play is immensely entertaining. The translation by poet Richard Wilbur is the gold standard and isn’t hurt by some modern interpolations. The Tartuffe run ends this weekend.

Beaten at The Artistic Home

Beaten is a new play by Scott Woldman at The Artistic Home, a storefront on Grand Avenue. It’s a family drama about three generations of women living in the same home and provides meaty roles for Kathy Scambiatterra, Kristin Collins and Kathryn Acosta as grandmother, mother and daughter.

Beaten-GBMy review begins:

“Put three generations of women in a house together and you’re sure to have an eruption of personalities; eventually, long-kept secrets slip out and lies are undone. Beaten, a world premiere drama by Scott Woldman, gives the Artistic Home actors a searing and emotionally charged script, and they all come through with fine performances.”

I also noted that the play “was inspired by a 2009 workshop at Chicago Dramatists where female actors expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of challenging parts for women; when asked to name their dream roles, all named parts written for men. Playwright Woldman listened.”  (Photo courtesy of The Artistic Home; Scambiatterra and Acosta.)

The play runs at The Artistic Home, 1376 W Grand Ave, until August 11.

Read the complete review here.

Two new music documentary films

20 Feet From Stardom is about the mostly anonymous female backup singers behind some of the greatest bands of the 20th century. The 90-minute film directed by Morgan Neville features singers such as Darlene Love, Merry Clayton and Claudia Lennear, plus interviews with some of the musicians they performed with. It’s at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema now but it’s probably one of those films that will disappear from theaters after a short run.

levonhelmfilmAin’t In It for My Health is a film about Levon Helm, the late great drummer and singer with The Band. You’ve heard him on songs like “The Weight” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Levon died last year of throat cancer and was a musician until the end although he lost his voice in 1998. His Midnight Rambles at his home and studio in Woodstock, NY, were famous. The Levon film had three showings at the Music Box last month and I missed all of them so now I have to find it elsewhere or wait for the DVD to be released.

You can find Levon’s music on and if you want to see him in top form, watch the 1978 documentary The Last Waltz, directed by Martin Scorcese.