December Diary: My reviews of theater, art, movies

Two theater recommendations

seafarer_250The Seafarer is a Christmas play by an Irish playwright. Given that, you know that there may not be a happy ending or a lot of tra-la-la. And there most likely will be consumption of alcohol. I hate stereotypes, but there you are. The Seafarer, by Conor McPherson, is a terrific production by Seanachai Theatre Company at The Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue. My Gapers Block review gives all the details. The play is running until January 5. I gave it a “highly recommended” for, as did all the other reviewers.

That website,, is a great resource for theatergoers. It compiles reviews of all current plays on Chicago, along with their ratings. Go to the website and click on Review Roundup in the left-hand column.

An Inspector Calls at Remy Bumppo Theatre seems at first like a smart drawing-room comedy. But J.B. Priestley’s play, written in 1945 for an English audience, soon turns into a tale about the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent. The 1 percent is the Birling family, wealthy through their manufacturing business. The 99 percent is represented by a young working woman who comes to a sad ending through actions, ultimately, taken by all the family members. (That’s a bit of a spoiler, so forget I said it.)

The Remy Bumppo cast is excellent and the production very gripping. Nick Sandys, as the mysterious inspector, plays the role very coolly. Calmly and without bluster, he terrorizes the Birlings in their dining room. Priestley was raised in a socialist family and was a writer of social conscience. As David Darlow says in his director’s note, Priestley “calls out to us to be accountable and responsible for our behavior and actions.” The play runs through January 12 in the upstairs mainstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center on Lincoln Ave.

Linguistic whine. Why can’t theater/theatre companies settle on one spelling, preferably the standard American spelling of theater, rather than the pretentious Anglified theatre. When I’m writing reviews for Gapers Block, it makes me crazy, going back and forth between the spellings, depending on whether I’m naming a theater company that persists in using that spelling (see above) or using the word generically as part of a sentence. Grrrrr.

Art with a message


Small Change by Richard Laurent; image courtesy of the curator.

The Art of Influence: Breaking Criminal Traditions. There’s a very interesting exhibit of art with a message at the IIT Chicago-Kent College of law, 565 W Adams St. I know, that’s an unusual place for an art exhibit, but it works. The exhibit is made up of 38 works in various media by 13 local and regional artists and represents metaphorically — in ways both beautiful and horrifying — the crimes perpetrated on women and girls in countries where those actions are considered part of the culture, rather than crimes. The purpose of the exhibit is to make an impact on those who may be influential in the future to help change the legal processes in those countries. My review for Gapers Block gives all the details and shows four images that illustrate the range of the work.

Films, live and DVDd

Blue Is the Warmest Color, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche. This controversial film about a young woman and her older woman lover in Lille, France, is beautifully filmed and to my mind, too long at 3 hours plus. The much-discussed sex scenes are quite beautiful and almost painterly in their composition. Most importantly, the film raises issues of male viewpoint, social class and life choice between the two lovers and their friends and families; those issues are fruitful discussion topics. The film is currently on view at local theaters.

A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes (DVD). This very thorough documentary of Cassavetes’ work is well worth your time as an illustration of the auteur approach to independent filmmaking. It’s almost 3.5 hours long and no, this film wasn’t too long, although I did watch it in two sittings. It was made in 2000, about 11 years after his death at 59. The doc includes interviews with many of the actors he worked with: his wife Gena Rowland, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Jon Voight and Seymour Cassel. The actors and others talked about his creativity, his honesty, and his lack of concern about making money. Many long film clips and film of scenes during the shooting process really bring Cassavetes’ approach to life.

 My favorite Cassavetes quote: A reporter asks him if he’ll ever make a musical. He says he really wants to make only one musical, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  My kind of guy.

gondry-chomskyIs the Man Who Is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky. Yes, I said Noam Chomsky. But this is the avuncular linguistics professor, not the radical political activist (though just a hint of that Chomsky shows occasionally). French director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) created this animated documentary from interviews with Chomsky. He animates and illustrates Chomsky’s ideas by scrawling clever cartoons and charts.

The film title is taken from a sentence that Chomsky diagrams near the end of the film to show how children learn to use language.

The film runs at the Gene Siskel Film Center through tomorrow. I’ll watch it again on DVD when it’s available. There are places where I wanted to say, “Wait, let me replay that last bit because I didn’t quite get it.”

My coming attractions for this week

Inside Llewyn Davis. This is the Coen brothers film about the early years of the folk movement in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. It opens here Friday and I’ll be there. In addition to the film, Showtime network has been running a concert with a setlist of some of the music from the film, performed by other musicians. There’s also a Showtime making-of film called Inside Inside Llewyn Davis. And there’s the soundtrack on CD or download. I’ll review this film here soon.

Blood on the Cat’s Neck by Rainer Werner Fassbinder at Trap Door Theatre on Cortland. The always provocative and entertaining Trap Door group has been getting mixed reviews for this play; it’s Jeff recommended, however.

Burning Bluebeard by Jay Torrence presented by The Ruffians at Theater Wit. The play is about the tragic 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago. This is a theater company I have not seen before and I’m looking forward to it.

And finally, I’ve gone another whole week without writing about Bruce Springsteen.  But he has a new album coming out in January. You can be sure I’ll make up for my apparent neglect.

What’s showing? Not for the faint of heart

This is an excellent theater season in Chicago. Both the mainstream and storefront theaters are doing interesting new plays and presenting inventive takes on old material. And there’s always the bizarre and quirky film to talk about, for instance….

seanpenn2This Must Be the Place. This is an extraordinarily rewarding film if I can interest you in the plot and the techniques – and if you can tolerate ambiguity. It’s written and directed by the Italian Paolo Sorrentino. Sean Penn stars as Cheyenne, a rich rock star, retired in Dublin, who seems to have lost interest in life and has nothing to think about except when to sell his 30,000 shares of Tesco. His wife of 35 years, played by Frances McDormand, is charming and vital and totally in love with him. Penn, by the way, throughout most of the film, is made up with the bizarre red, black and white makeup and long black messy hair patterned after Robert Smith of the Cure. And one plot element (two teenagers commit suicide, perhaps because of the depressing lyrics of Cheyenne’s songs) is also patterned after Smith’s career.

When his father, a Holocaust survivor, dies in New York, Cheyenne goes home and gets involved in a search for the Auschwitz camp guard with whom his father was obsessed. The film then becomes an American road trip as Cheyenne travels across country tracking down clues and eventually finds the man – with the ultimate help of Judd Hirsch as a Nazi hunter. I’m leaving out a lot of detail that makes this plot somewhat more rational. (One critic called it “a fascinating mess, but one worth your time.”)

Sorrentino’s direction has a lot of jump cuts and oddly composed scenes but the cinematography is beautiful and his dialogue is often poetic and intense. Penn is brilliant as Cheyenne; he has totally remade himself and his voice to become the depressed aging performer.

Oh and there’s music. David Byrne, who makes a cameo appearance in the film as himself and an old friend of Cheyenne’s, composed the original music with Will Oldham. The film title is also the name of the song from the Talking Heads album, Speaking in Tongues. Byrne and Talking Heads and other artists perform “This Must Be the Place” frequently throughout the film. (Turn on the subtitles on your DVD player to find out who is singing what at any moment.)

The film was released in 2011 and was recently released on DVD. I watched it twice. You might too.

The Birthday Party. This early play by Harold Pinter is now at Steppenwolf Theatre and I was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. It’s not that I don’t like Pinter. But early reviews were mostly negative and I had heard from two acquaintances that it was “terrible.” Maybe it improved since opening night. I thought it was well paced and had some good performances, two of them appropriately menacing. The scary birthday party has disastrous consequences … and a Pinteresque ambiguous ending. The play is in three acts and (unusual for me) did not seem too long. I usually think everything needs editing but this party did not.

The cast is directed by Austin Pendleton and made up of some fine Chicago actors including John Mahoney, Francis Guinan, Marc Grapey (don’t miss his clever bio in the playbill), Ian Barford, Moira Harris, and her daughter, Sophia Sinise. It’s a play where everything is not always what it seems, which makes it gripping from beginning to end. The Birthday Party runs thru April 18.


denthtr-cityCity of Dreadful Night. The last time I commented on a Den Theatre play, it had already closed and that’s the case with this noir knockout. Sorry – you should have been watching out for this clever storefront company, as I recommended recently.

City of Dreadful Night is a four-character thriller by Don Nigro. It’s set during the Cold War and the four characters end the play sitting in a diner that resembles the scene in Edward Hopper’s painting, Nighthawks. (See that at the Art Institute of Chicago. Nigro has written about 300 plays, several of them about or inspired by artists and their paintings.) Brisk dialogue, a bit Mametesque, and good acting. It’s a 90-minute one act that moves along briskly.

Several other small theater companies also perform at The Den Theatre location. Check them out.  These small companies are the lifeblood of Chicago theater.

Julius Caesar is the current play at Chicago Shakespeare. It’s not my favorite Shakespeare but I liked the visual style and setting of this production. It’s a contemporary political drama – that’s probably an irresistible approach for a director and serves to demonstrate how Shakespeare can explore human character flaws in any era. Before the play starts, the scene is the Roman Forum, populated by sellers of hot dogs and political buttons, Roman citizens taking photos with their smartphones, and a banner promoting Julius Caesar’s website: The play is well acted and its scenes of strife bring life to the conspiracy against Caesar.

An essay in the Chicago Shakespeare playbill points out that the play was relevant to the American Republic from the beginning – in its “neoclassical constitution and the gargantuan neo-Roman buildings that would give it palpable form.” And we have also inherited the “irreconcilable conflicts that provoke its violence.” Just as Caesar was considered by his enemies to be an illegitimate leader, some American presidents have been the subject of polarized opinion about their right to lead. In the Civil War era, supporters of slavery would not recognize Lincoln’s leadership, just as today a certain wingnut fringe persists in denying President Obama’s citizenship. And my very rightwing father despised FDR and thought his third and fourth terms were illegitimate and illegal. (They would be today because of the 22nd Amendment.)

Julius Caesar runs through March 24. See it if for its visually stunning presentation and reminders of how political conspiracy can infect the body politic.

Folk and funk at the Symphony Center. Wednesday night’s concert featured Richard Thompson and his Electric Trio in a fabulous one-hour set on the symphony stage, followed by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell performing songs from their recent album, Old Yellow Moon. The Thompson set was amazing and he deserves his reputation as one of the greatest guitarists ever. (For some reason, he slipped from #19 in 2003 to #59 in 2011 on the Rolling Stone list of 100 greatest guitarists, living and not. That confirms my view that the list is made up by one person after a long day without coffee. Just start with Jimi Hendrix as #1 and then shuffle the cards for the rest.)

The Thompson trio played songs such as “Good Things Happen to Bad People,” the beautiful “Salford Sunday” and “Saving the Good Stuff for You.” Harris and Crowell played a fine acoustic set with their seven-piece band and then Thompson joined them on stage for another number. Greg Kot’s review in the Tribune gives a good description of the concert – and of Thompson’s playing wizardry.

I know most people were at the concert to see the marvelous Emmylou. She was fine and her songs with Crowell were well done. But I was there to see Richard Thompson Electric. And he was.

What’s next on Nancy’s calendar? Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West at Timeline Theatre, Coriolanus at The Hypocrites, and an overview of the Picasso and Chicago exhibit at the Art Institute.

Quick Cuts #2: Stage, screen and lobster rolls

Some brief reviews of plays and films I’ve seen lately. Plus the promised lobster rolls.

aliensAliens at A Red Orchid Theatre, extended through 3/16. A Red Orchid is one of those small theaters that makes Chicago’s reputation as the home of excellent storefront theater. It’s a tiny space at the end of a hallway on North Wells Street that makes amazing use of its space. Aliens by Annie Baker is a three-character play in which nothing much happens and moments of silence are dramatic action. Two slackers hang out near the dumpster behind a coffee shop somewhere in Vermont and philosophize, write novels and occasionally make music. A teenager who works there is fascinated by them and their conversation and – perhaps – finds his way to his future. It’s a character study and a sweet play although not for those who need fight scenes and choreography. I recommend it.

Sweet Charity at Writers Theatre is also still running (through 3/31) in Glencoe. It’s in the category of fluffy musical, done moderately well if you like that kind of thing. Neil Simon adapted it from Fellini’s Nights in Cabiria, which made me optimistic that it would be good. The film starring Guilietta Masina was charming and sad – and it didn’t have egregious singing and dancing. My recommendation:  Rent the Fellini movie.

A Soldier’s Play at Raven Theatre, running through 3/30. This play by Charles Fuller delves into racial tensions during World War II, when the armed services were officially segregated. The characters are mostly baseball players from the Negro League, who were drafted to form a team that could beat other service teams but haven’t had a chance to get into battle. The plot centers around the murder of a black sergeant being investigated by a black lawyer/captain from the military police. The play won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 and had a long off-Broadway run as well as a film version (titled A Soldier’s Story). There’s plenty of tension but the plot is occasionally weak. Nevertheless, it’s good to be reminded of how shockingly bad racism was at a Louisiana army base 70 years ago. Raven Theatre is on North Clark Street; its productions are always worth seeing.

Faith Healer at The Den Theatre (now closed). This was a terrific production of the Brian Friel play. So tragically Irish. The play is structured in four monologues by three actors so it’s an exercise in rhetoric rather than action.  Faith Healer is closed now but I recommend you check out The Den Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue just north of Division. It’s a pleasant space with a comfy lobby and a small performance space. Check them out at Their current play is City of Dreadful Night by Don Nigro, an homage to film noir.

Other Desert Cities at Goodman Theatre (now closed). This play by Jon Robin Baitz was a Broadway hit with name stars and it’s easy to see why. It’s a juicy family story with political overtones. It takes place when the writer/daughter comes home to Palm Springs to tell her family about her soon-to-be-published memoir, which will spill all the family’s secrets. The dialogue is sharp and the play is well acted, although the extremely wide stage set seemed to leave too much distance between characters (symbolic staging, possibly). The first act is too long and the ending, which turns the whole story on its head, was a bit of a gimmick. Nevertheless, it’s a fine play and worth seeing.  Apparently it’s the new hot play for regional theaters, so you may have a chance.

Anna Karenina. This is a gorgeous film directed by Joe Wright that didn’t get the attention it deserved. It won the Oscar for costume design and was nominated for cinematography and production design. It deserved all of them. I thought the staging and design were unique and brilliant. It is set theatrically – and in fact as if staged in a theater, on stage and up in the catwalks and backstage riggings. At first that seems mannered but you soon forget that the staging is unconventional because the plot and language (script by Tom Stoppard) have you thoroughly mesmerized. The exteriors include marvelous scenes of trains arriving in Moscow or St. Petersburg, totally encased in snow and ice. I’m glad I saw it on a big screen but if you missed seeing it in theaters, get the DVD. It is a beautiful film with excellent performances by Keira Knightly and Jude Law, among others.

A.O. Scott in the New York Times notes that Anna’s is perhaps the most famous infidelity in literature (but not unlike that of Madame Bovary, I would add). And both end tragically for the women.

Maine comes to Chicago

Have you been to Da Lobsta, this new lobster-roll place on Cedar Street? It’s where Ashkenazi Deli used to be. I had lunch there recently — great sandwiches full of big chunks of lobster in a warm buttery roll. Limited menu otherwise, but it’s lobster all the way. Salads, soups, lobster mac and cheese, a few other items. The arrangement feels more spacious and has room for more tables than when the deli was there. The owner/manager said they plan to be at various markets and street fairs this summer and probably add more retail locations later. You can see the menu on their website If you remember luscious mayonnaisy lobster rolls from vacations in Maine, check out this place.