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.

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Holiday reviews: A play or three to end your year

It’s almost the end of the year and I don’t want you to miss these three plays now on stage in Chicago. Plus notes on a fourth play and a film recommendation.

The Clean House by Remy Bumppo Theatre

cleanhouse_poster_250x386You may have seen Sarah Ruhl’s smart, funny play The Clean House in its first production at the Goodman Theatre in 2006. Even if you did, you might want to see it again by Remy Bumppo, a theater company that always thrills me with its attention to language and diction. In this case, some of the language is Portuguese and Spanish (which I understand un poquito), but the actors always help you along with the sense of what they’re saying in another language.

This play is about cleaning houses, and a lot more than that. It’s a commentary on how we love and care for each other and Ann Filmer’s direction enhances its great humor and charm.

Running time is 100 minutes with one intermission; thru January 11.

Pericles by Chicago Shakespeare

CST_PericlesPericles is one of Shakespeare’s plays that isn’t produced often, but Chicago Shakes has done a great job in staging it to bring out its best parts and subdue its lesser aspects. David Bell’s direction is excellent and the staging, costumes and music are superb. My Gapers Block review calls it a “lush, celebratory production.”

The play has a fine crew of actors, led by Canada’s Ben Carlson in the lead with grand support from Chicago stalwarts Sean Fortunato, Kevin Gudahl, Lisa Berry, Ora Jones and the always delightful Ross Lehman.

It runs 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission. My review notes that the first act is too long, but the production is worth your time. You can see it thru January 18.

Shining City by the Irish Theatre Company

GB-ShiningCity-2This is one of those minimalist, slightly claustrophobic productions that makes you feel that you’re peering over the shoulders of the characters whose life traumas you’re watching. The staging of this Conor McPherson play in the small Den Theatre space enhances that mood. It’s set in the office of an ex-priest, now-therapist, who is feeling his way through his own life as well as that of his patient.

Beautifully acted, with a special performance by Brad Armacost in the role of John, the patient. In his long monologue, he unburdens his soul and guilt to the therapist. You will be on the edge of your seat, lest you miss a word. Warning: there are ghosts in this play.

This 100-minute, five-scene production runs thru January 4. See my review.

Iphigenia in Aulis at Court Theatre

GB-Iphigenia-CourtThis was a rather low-key production by Court Theatre of the tale of Agamemnon, who sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia so that the winds would blow and send his fleet to attack Troy and bring back “that whore, Helen.” My review of this quote and of the play, which is now closed. Those bloody tales in which human fates rest on the whims of the gods and goddesses never fail to be interesting. However, this play has nowhere near the power of Court’s production, twice mounted, of An Iliad, which I noted in my review.

And on screen: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya at the Gene Siskel Film Center

kaguyathumbThis is a new and exquisite entry in the collection of superb work by Japan’s Studio Ghibli, known for its beautiful hand-drawn animated films. I mentioned the work of Studio Ghibli when I reviewed The Wind Rises by Hayao Miyazaki last spring. This new film is by Isao Takahata, drawn in subtle, almost water-color delicacy and black brush-stroke detail. It tells the story of a tiny baby girl adopted by a woodcutter and his wife when he finds her in a bamboo plant. She is an enchanted child and the film, based on a 10th century Japanese folk tale, tells the story of her growth, love and loss.

Runs thru December 30 at the Siskel Film Center–137 minutes. You can see it with Japanese subtitles (my preference) or voiced in English; the Siskel schedule tells which showings are which.

(All photos courtesy of the theater companies.)


The joy of talking: Conversations short and long

I was thinking the other day how much I enjoy the various meetups and discussion groups I belong to.  Most weeks I have one or two get-togethers with friends and acquaintances who share some of my diverse interests. It’s a real joy of city life.

The news media confirm that more and more of us are getting tangled up in our technology. We’re not having as much human interaction as we used to—or as much as we should have for our mental and emotional health.

iphone4S

My iPhone–the source of tech addiction

Serious highway accidents are caused by texting while driving, pedestrian tumbles are caused by texting while walking. Actually, while I’m a major tech geek, I don’t understand either of those phenomena. When I’m sedentary or at least stationary, I’ll use whatever device I have in hand for most any purpose. Reading, listening, talking, texting, getting directions, taking photos, finding a coffee shop. When I’m walking (or driving), I want to know that I’m not going to crash or tumble. In motion, I’m paying attention to where I’m going. (This is only partly because, with age, you’re more likely to fall, and some of your senses are in decline. Or so I’m told.)

Casual chat. I read a New York Times article recently in which social scientists studied the value of casual conversations. A chat with the coffee barista, the store cashier, the pharmacist, the doorman, the person sitting next to you on the bus. These interactions make us more cheerful, the social scientists found, and may ease the anomie of living in a modern metropolis.

I enjoy those interactions. And I especially enjoy long conversations on interesting and sometimes provocative topics—with friends, relatives, members of my discussion groups. Right now, I belong to four discussion groups. I really value them as ways to expand my circle of friends and acquaintances, and to keep my brain in constant activity, mulling over new ideas and churning out concepts for discussion and writing.

Two of my groups are fairly traditional discussion groups—one political, one focused on books. They were formed by friends inviting friends inviting friends. Each meeting is at someone’s home and focuses on one topic.

Book group

shteyngart cover

Next up for my book group.

We discuss one book, either fiction or nonfiction, at each meeting, agreed on by members in advance. It’s very rare that a member doesn’t finish a book. Everyone really takes the reading seriously. (There was one occasion when the book choice—Henry James’ The Ambassadors—brought about a near-unanimous revolt. We changed books midstream.) Sometimes we have a professional moderator but usually one of our members leads the discussion. And if we spend a little time chatting about family, work and travel, that tends to knit the group more firmly together.

Political group

The political/policy group discusses one topic, usually chosen from articles in The Nation, a political magazine we all value. Yes, we too often agree on everything but we really do try to bring in topics and members that will generate disagreement.

Meetups are a newer kind of group. They bridge the technological and the personal relationship world by bringing together total strangers who have common interests for in-person meetings.

Film meetup

I belong to an excellent film meetup. It has hundreds of members, but the meetups at a local tea shop, bar or cinema are rarely more than 12 or 15 people. The cast shifts for each meetup, but there’s a core group of about 30. Very diverse group. All ages, races, genders, film interests, areas of expertise. I have never had such good discussions at which I also learned so much about a topic. This group has an excellent and creative organizer, which is the basis for its success.

now-in-the-wings-on-a-world-stage-posterOur regular film discussions are planned to discuss one or two (related) films that we all see in advance. Other events are held to view a film together and then discuss it afterwards. In the last week, I hosted two such meetups at the Gene Siskel Film Center. We saw Orson Welles’ Othello and a few nights later, a different group joined me for the new Sam Mendes/Kevin Spacey documentary about their Richard III production—NOW in the Wings on a World Stage. After both films, we stayed at the Siskel Center or found a cafe nearby to talk about the films. Both discussions lasted more than an hour.

Tech meetups

I also belong to a couple of WordPress meetups, which focus on WordPress usage questions and practices. (WordPress is the tech platform on which this blog is built; it’s a user-friendly and widely used platform.) I always meet new people and get answers to my questions and new ideas  at these meetups. You can probably find a meetup for virtually any techy project you’re working on.

A sidebar on Meetups

meeetup logoMeetups run on a social networking portal that facilitates offline, in-person local meetings. Meetup was founded after the 2001 attack showed the founders how the internet could help connect people in a crisis. Today, Meetup says it has almost 16 million members in 196 countries. Meetup organizers pay a small fee each month to meeetup.com and members are usually asked to chip in.

If you want to try out Meetup, go to meetup.com and put in your zip code. Check the topics you’re interested in and you’ll be offered a menu of meetups in your categories. You create an account to join and then you’ll receive email announcements about coming meetups on your topics.

Yes, some meetups are lame and never do much while others are vibrant and active. If you find one of the former, just try out another. You’ll meet new people and learn new things. And most important, you’ll find you are creating new human interactions (i.e., friendships) in this complex and tendentious technological age.

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May Playbill: Fighters, painters, mammoths and more

I’ve seen lots of plays lately, as usual, and wanted to give you a little recap of a few to see, or not.

Lay Me Down Softly at Seanachai Theatre

Seanachai does an excellent job with this terrific Irish script by Billy Roche. It’s a tough story about a traveling roadshow that includes a fake bearded lady, carnival booths and fake boxing ring challenges. Every day is the same; only the towns change. The main story thread is about Dean, a boxer who can’t seem to win, and Junior, a once-champion who was forced to retire because of an injury. The bullying roadshow owner Theo and the cut man and boxers’ mentor Peadar are the other two male characters. Two women create really strong performances to anchor the play. The boxing ring set is handled with great care and almost seems to create a play within a play.

My Gapers Block colleague, Alice Singleton, reviewed it and adds some interesting insights.

Lay Me Down Softly runs until May 25 at the Den Theatre, 1333 N Milwaukee Ave. Like Seanachai’s recent production of The Seafarer, which I reviewed in December, it’s a must-see. Oh, how I love those Irish playwrights.

Dorian at The House Theatre

GB-DORIAN_HouseThtr_photoMichaelBrosilow

Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Dorian is an adaptation of the great Oscar Wilde novel, A Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s a visually interesting production that stresses the personal relationships among Dorian, his portraitist and friends and party people of today’s London. It’s the well-known story of Dorian–the man who didn’t age while his portrait did. House stages it in “promenade” style, which means most of the audience is mingling with the actors during the action, which can take place in the artist’s studio, at parties, galleries or performance spaces. I recommended it with a three-star review, and added this:

“This is not a play to attend because you love the writing of Oscar Wilde, notably in his fabulous plays like Lady Windermere’s FanA Woman of No ImportanceSaloméAn Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest, all written in the 1890s. The Picture of Dorian Gray, his only novel, is complex and challenging–and filled with smart, witty dialogue, but you won’t find much of that complexity or dialogue in Dorian.”

Dorian runs until May 18 at the Chopin Theatre on Milwaukee Avenue. My review here.

Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England
at Theater Wit

This play has received excellent reviews, every one of them richly deserved. It’s smart and well written, warmly acted by a fine cast, and directed by Jeremy Wechsler. The script is by Madeleine George, a writer with Massachusetts and Brooklyn connections. It’s about relationships between friends and lovers and the financially stressed closing of the museum at a small northeastern college, which will leave the mammoths homeless.

Every cast member is excellent. The day I saw it, one of the major roles was played by a superb substitute, Penelope Walker. Laura Fisher, an old friend from Famous Door Theatre days, is outstanding in one of the other lead roles. A special treat is the performance by Steve Herson, who plays various characters including the museum caretaker, a reporter, citizens at a town hall meeting, and a board member reading the hilarious minutes of the meeting. In each case, his accent is different and perfect. Also the museum exhibits include prehistoric people in diorama exhibits who voice the concerns of museum visitors.

Seven Homeless Mammoths is a great treat and you shouldn’t miss it. It runs until May 17 at Theater Wit on Belmont.

 Mud Blue Sky at A Red Orchid Theatre

GB-MudBlueSky-560px

Photo by Michael Brosilow.

This is a terrific show at Red Orchid, with great humor, warm relationships, and things you didn’t want to know about airplanes. Here’s how my Gapers Block review begins:

“Loneliness, regrets, friendship, humor, and a little maternal instinct season A Red Orchid Theatre’s new play, Mud Blue Sky. Director Shade Murray gets the most out of Marisa Wegrzyn’s fine script, which revolves around airport life. The tiny Red Orchid space on Wells Street is perfect for the claustrophobic story of three very mature flight attendant friends on a layover at a hotel near O’Hare.” Beth and Sam are still flying. Angie lost her job recently and now lives in a Chicago suburb. Angie misses flying and the others can’t wait to get away from it. That’s the story until they get acquainted with a young man named Jonathan, who helps them find some relaxation and entertainment.

My review is highly recommended at theatreinchicago.com. Mud Blue Sky has been playing to sold-out houses and it’s now extended until June 29.

Our Class at Remy Bumppo

Our Class by Tadeusz Slobodzianek is a play about the Holocaust—set in the small Polish town of Jedwabne in the years leading up to World War II. The play was troubling and thought-provoking and my friends debated and disagreed about it  afterwards.

The story begins in the schoolroom where members of “our class” study and play together. They are all friends, whether Jewish or gentile. Hints of anti-Semitism creep in to their school and their play from time to time and gradually increase. The key event is the 1941 massacre of virtually all the Jewish citizens—1,600 men, women and children–by their neighbors. The perpetrators are never accused, never held accountable. In the years that follow, various survivors lie about their role in the event, including one who hid and one who had converted to Christianity.

Despite the power of the first act, most of the second act is bogged down in excessive exposition. Too much detail kills the power of the first act. The play runs nearly three hours, with one intermission.

This is a risky sort of play for Remy Bumppo, which tends to produce superb quality Anglophile theater by great writers. Their regular ensemble is made up of talented and experienced Chicago actors. Our Class takes Remy Bumppo in a totally different, riskier direction and brings in some younger actors new to the company.

Reviews are virtually all “highly recommended” or four star. Our Class runs until May 11 at the Greenhouse Theatre Center.

Death Defying Acts at Saint Sebastian Players

GB-deathdefyingacts

Photo by John C Oster.

Three short plays by three brilliant writers: David Mamet, Elaine May and Woody Allen. Unfortunately, they were all writing on their off days because the scripts in Death Defying Acts aren’t very good. The production is medium, with a few good performances. I really wanted to give this play a better review but I just couldn’t. The theater company decided to create a circusy atmosphere in the lobby and around the production, which was not a great idea. Here’s what I said about that in my Gapers Block review.

“One problem with the whole production is the overworked circus atmosphere. Yes, death-defying acts suggest a carnival with risky high-wire acts. Old circus posters decorate the lobby of the church-basement theater. Before the show opens, an old circus film, Here Comes the Circus, is projected across the stage floor. The crew is dressed in circus clown and aerialist costumes while making stage changes. But it’s a bit over the top, especially considering the lack of death-defying acts on stage.”

Death Defying Acts runs until May 18 at St Bonaventure Church, 1641 W Diversey. The theater space is in the basement; entry door on the west side of the church. Good news is that there’s free parking in the church lot.

And on screen, not stage

The Wind Rises returns. This wonderful Japanese animated film by the master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki is scheduled for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Center, May 16-29. I wrote about this film when it opened recently. It’s beautiful, hand-drawn throughout, rich and complex in its use of Japanese history and mythology. If you didn’t see it before, you have another chance.

orsonwelles-siskel

Photo courtesy Siskel Film Center.

Othello at Siskel. The great and greatly flawed Orson Welles 1952 production of Shakespeare’s Othello has been running at the Gene Siskel Film Center. I saw it for the third time last night (the first time was when I was in college at the old Fine Arts cinema, the second a few years ago at the Music Box). The 1992 restoration made a lot of improvements in visual and sound quality. It’s a powerful film, with Welles starring as the Moor. It’s clear why his film presence was so huge; he dominates every scene with his size, voice and expression.

The play is really Iago’s, as Harold Bloom insists in his essay on Othello in his book, Shakespeare: Invention of the Human. The actor who plays Iago in the film (Micheal Mac Liammoir, an Irish actor who founded the Gate Theatre),does a creditable job but can’t stand up to the Welles persona. Because he is Orson Welles, no matter what role he is playing.