I’ve seen five plays in the last two weeks. Most of them are provocative and well-produced gems from small theater companies, generically called storefronts, although they may well be in warehouses, church basements, behind restaurants or in old neighborhood centers. They’re by far the best theater bargains in Chicago and often demonstrate quality superior to the more high-profile theaters. Here are my theater picks for today.
Vatzlav at Trap Door Theatre
Yes, I’m always raving about this company, which produces plays mostly by eastern European dramatists. I like the bitter edge of these plays, their black humor and their historical references and precedents. Their current show, Vatzlav by Slawomire Mrozek, pokes fun both at capitalism and authoritarian governments. Vatzlav, a former slave, is saved from an ocean disaster when he lands on a magical island where inexplicable things happen. The inhabitants include a blind old man named Oedipus, a youth who turns into a bear, a roving ukulele player, and the rich couple who own the island. Don’t try to make sense out of it; just enjoy it. The set is simple and the costumes as usual are brilliant and colorful.
Playwright Mrozek died last August in France. He was often referred to as the Polish Ionesco and his work is compared to that of Czech playwright Vaclav Havel. Vatzlav runs thru May 24 at the Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W Cortland.
Director Beata Pilch, whose bio says she was born in the Polish district of Chicago, is founder and artistic director of Trap Door. The company has been invited to Poland to work with Teatr Witkacy and they’re raising funds for the trip. You can donate here.
The Doll’s House Project: Ibsen Is Dead at Interrobang Theatre Project
Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, published in 1879 and premiered in English in 1889, is now considered a groundbreaking piece of modern drama. It explores gender politics, scandals and marital relationships, and it brought realism to theater, when most were staging traditional costume drama. Calamity West’s new play is inspired by Ibsen’s but it’s not an adaptation. Nora in the original is the first dissatisfied housewife—84 years before Bette Friedan’s book explained the problem to us.
In the new version, Nora is a stay-at-home housewife, dominated by her successful husband Torvald, who doles out her allowance sparingly and monitors her activities. Her main job is recreational shopping. So far, like Ibsen. The new play is set in Manhattan in 1989 on the day the Berlin Wall fell. An old friend of Nora’s arrives to visit and the play veers away from the Ibsen version. The memories and tensions between Nora and Christine are the highlight of the play, while Torvald and the neighbor doctor circle around them and spar over Nora’s affections. The performers are excellent and director Jim Yost keeps the 90-minute play snapping along. The script still needs some work; there are parts that are slow and some of the dialogue seems dated.
The idea of Nora as a rich stay-at-home wife was dated in 1989, unless you moved in the circles of high-powered lawyers, financiers and consultants. In those worlds (where I worked as a marketing minion in those years), the rich stay-at-home dabbler wife was the standard. I met dozens of them at partner meetings. I couldn’t figure out how they spent their time. Recreational shopping, most likely.
The Doll’s House Project runs thru June 8 at the Athenaeum Theatre.
Cock at Profiles Theatre
Cock is a play title you very rarely find in a review headline. I’m hoping that’s because of fear over internet anti-obscenity filters, rather than puritanism on the part of copy editors. The play by Mike Bartlett is 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.
The setting is London in the present but the set mimics a small arena where cock-fighting might take place. The floor is covered with fake gravel; the arena is surrounded by a low iron wall. The characters frequently take positions at opposite sides, as if about to face off. In the first half, new scenes are signaled with a bell like the start of a new boxing round; after blackouts, the characters open new scenes in attack pose. The set design and the production vigorously directed by Darrell Cox make clear that the title refers to several meanings of the word, including adult male chickens and gunlocks, in addition to the male anatomy.
The actors create an intense atmosphere, which is enhanced by the intimate space. (The audience sits in tiered wooden stalls with cushions provided at the door.) The semi-comfortable seats and the tension among characters mean that 80 minutes is about the most one can tolerate of this drama that forces John to, finally, make a choice.
Cock runs thru June 29 at Profiles Theatre, 4139 N Broadway.
The Way West at Steppenwolf Theatre
Mona Mansour’s play seems to celebrate America’s pioneer spirit and our western expansion, but ends up in personal bankruptcies in 21st century Los Angeles. The family members—a mother and two daughters—have each in her own way found a way to financial ruin. Mom just quit paying her bills, is ignoring her illness, and believes everything will be ok. The older daughter has taken time off from her job in Chicago to help her mom sort thru her records and file bankruptcy. Her younger sister cares for her mother and has gone from job to job; she is in much the same financial shape as her mother. The older sister at first seems like the responsible one, but after she loses her job (learning about it by voice mail), everything falls apart for her too.
The story line is right out of 2008 and could be stronger with a more tightly edited script. The unfortunate musical interludes with western songs by the mother, accompanied by her daughters on guitars, are strange breaks in the action that just don’t work. (The wagon train and campfire projections behind the performers only increase the silliness.)
The Way West runs two hours plus intermission and can be seen thru June 8 in Steppenwolf’s downstairs theater. It’s one of the few times in my 20+ years as a Steppenwolf subscriber that I’ve been disappointed by a production.
More theater news: Expansion project for The Den Theatre and The Hypocrites
The Hypocrites, one of my favorite small theaters, will be leaving their claustrophobic basement space at Chopin Theatre and moving into a new space nearby on Milwaukee avenue that’s being taken over by The Den Theatre. The Den, another of my faves, currently has several performance spaces at 1333 N Milwaukee over a large empty retail space. They’re taking over that space and it will be the new home of The Hypocrites. It’s a great story for Chicago theater and for the Wicker Park neighborhood. You can read more about it in my article at Gapers Block.
Yes, there were some horrible things about 2013, mostly political, Congressional, in fact. But there were some great things about the year. Here’s are some of the things I want to remember about the last 12 months.
I’ve written about most of these things here, but I decided not to provide links because then the whole post would be links. If you want to follow up on a topic, check the Categories selections on the right. (Image courtesy PSD Graphics.)
- Retirement means I’m finally able to be a writer. Writing about the things I love. I was a business writer for 35 years, but it was never this much fun.
- Being “hired” to write for Gapers Block has been terrific. Thank you, Andrew and LaShawn. In just seven months, I’ve posted 71 articles, mostly theater and art reviews. All Gapers Block writers work as volunteers, but I do get free theater tickets and personal previews of art exhibits.
- Nancy Bishop’s Journal has been in business for 18 months and this year I wrote 65 new posts, as my WordPress Annual Report announced yesterday.
- An Iliad at Court Theatre was absolutely the best play of my year.
- The Seafarer at Seanachai Theatre, performed at The Den Theatre, was a close second. It’s been extended, so you can still see it until February 1.
- Homeland 1972 at Chicago Dramatists. How could I not love a play based on a Bruce Springsteen song? (“Highway Patrolman” from the 1982 album Nebraska.)
- Terminus performed by Interrobang Theatre Project at the Athenaeum.
- The Half-Brothers Mendelssohn by Strange Tree Theatre at Signal Ensemble Theatre. The time machine was worth the ticket price but the whole show was smart and funny.
- Remy Bumppo seems to do no wrong, at least this year. Both Northanger Abbey and An Inspector Calls were outstanding productions.
- Hypocrites is another company that does great work. Their production of the Chicago story titled Ivywild was wondrous.
- Trap Door Theatre’s production of The Balcony was outstanding, and so is most of this group’s work.
- There were many more excellent shows, many that I reviewed for Gapers Block. But I’ll stop at nine.
- Leonard Cohen at the Chicago Theatre. Leonard was his usual charming, sprightly self and left me cheering for a performer who knows how to present a great show. Both Leonard and I are approaching the age at which we might be called “super-agers” and I look forward to seeing how both of us do in our 80s.
- The farewell to Lou Reed, who died in October at 71, was a musical tribute played outside in a grove of trees near Lincoln Center. Watch this video to see friends and fans rocking out to his “Walk on the Wild Side.”
- The soundtrack from the film Inside Llewyn Davis, taking us back 50 years to relive the ‘60s in Greenwich Village, in the pre-Dylan era. The songs are all new arrangements of traditional folk songs, except for “Please Mr. Kennedy,” done in a hilarious performance by Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver (providing the bass notes).
- “Dream Baby Dream,” the Springsteen song I couldn’t stop listening to
- Anticipation: A new Springsteen record, High Hopes, will be released January 14. We’re hoping that Bruce will finally come home to tour but so far the 2014 dates are only in South Africa and Australia.
Films (a few of my favorites, in random order)
- Inside Llewyn Davis, which I’ve seen twice and reviewed here last week.
- Russian Ark, a 2002 film by Aleksandr Sokurov, a technological and artistic masterpiece, despite being plotless. It’s a tour thru the Hermitage with a cast of thousands.
- Sound City, a documentary made by Dave Grohl about one of the last analog music production studios in Los Angeles.
- Anna Karenina, a gorgeous film innovatively staged—literally on a theater stage—with beautiful costumes, settings, cinematography and acting.
- Holy Motors, a bizarre masterwork directed by Leos Carax, starring Denis Lavant.
- Springsteen and I, in which his fans talk about how they came to be Springsteen fans and what his music means to them.
- 20 Feet from Stardom, a film about the background singers, mostly black and female, who make rock sound like the music we love.
- I didn’t see Spike Jonze’s Her until January 3, but it’s one of the top films of 2013. My review is coming up.
- The Story of Film: An Odyssey, written and produced by Mark Cousins, an Irish film critic. The fascinating 15-part series starts with the first barely moving pictures in the 19th century and ends with today’s filmmakers. TCM ran it on 15 consecutive Monday nights this fall and Netflix is streaming it.
- As always, a bow to the Gene Siskel Film Center and its dedication to excellent, rarely seen films
- House of Cards, the Netflix political drama available for binge-watching
- Treme, a somewhat flawed HBO series, centered on the eponymous New Orleans neighborhood, with great music; it ended this week after four seasons.
- Breaking Bad on AMC; it’s all over for Walter White. Looking forward to the final season of Mad Men, also to be shown in two parts. Will Don Draper finally become Dick Whitman?
- Stand Up for Heroes, the annual benefit concert for wounded warriors, on which Mr. Springsteen did a 20-minute set and told bad jokes.
- Palladia, the 24/7 rock music channel. What would I do without it?
Art and art venues
- The Art of Fashion X 3. The most underrated of the three exhibits–Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of the Ebony Fashion Fair—is at the Chicago History Museum until May 11. It’s a fabulous show; don’t miss it. The other two were Punk: Chaos to Couture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; and the Art Institute of Chicago’s Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity exhibit.
- Shutter to Think: The Rock & Roll Lens of Paul Natkin. This exhibit of the Chicago rock and roll photographer’s work for magazines, album covers and posters is excellent. It’s at the Chicago Cultural Center thru January 4, so you still have a minute to see it.
- Chicago’s Bauhaus Legacy, a superb exhibit at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art on West Grand Avenue. I wrote a feature about this excellent small museum for Gapers Block.
- The Work at Play exhibit of graphic design at the Chicago Design Museum in the Block 37 building, part of the Pop-Up Art Loop project. The exhibit honored the work of John Massey, a famous Chicago designer, and other important graphic designers
Books and book events
- I’ve written about short stories, my book group, ebooks on the CTA, and musical author book events: Richard Hell at the BookCellar and Peter Hook at the MCA
- Emile Zola, whose novels I binged on this year. Nana, The Ladies’ Paradise, The Joy of Life and Germinal are just the beginning.
- The 50th anniversary of the release of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.
Miscellaneous but important
- The death of Roger Ebert left a huge gap in film criticism and the movie biz.
- Edward Snowden and the NSA. Snowden’s release of NSA files, whether legal or not, made us aware of how much the government is invading our privacy. My view is that Snowden is a patriot and should be given amnesty so he can come home. He should not be imprisoned and tortured as Bradley/Chelsea Manning was for similar acts. Today the New York Times published a powerful editorial agreeing with me.
- Oscar Libre. After 32 years, it’s time to release Oscar Lopez Rivera, the Puerto Rican independence activist. I wrote about him a few weeks ago.
- And now, it’s time for ….
I love writing for Gapers Block. It gives me an excuse to view, think and write about some of the things I love—like theater, art, architecture and design. So here are some things I’ve been writing about recently. You can still catch some of them.
Six Corners dedication of Portage sculpture
The Six Corners Association partnered with the American Indian Center to create a piece of art to celebrate the contributions of Native Americans to the history of the community, which is part of the larger area known as Portage Park. The sculpture titled Portage by artist Ted Sitting Crow Garner is being dedicated at 12 noon Saturday, October 12, at the Six Corners Sears store at the intersection of Cicero, Irving Park and Milwaukee.
Here’s a photo from a slideshow charting the progress of the sculpture. Garner is shown putting it into position on the west side of the Sears store. Image courtesy Six Corners Association.
See my preview here, which includes some of the history of the neighborhood.
In my high school years, I worked at a chain woman’s clothing store on Cicero Avenue across from the Sears store, so I feel a pride of ownership in my old neighborhood.
Even if you miss the dedication, you can drive by and check out the sculpture later.
Hebru Brantley’s The Watch at Pioneer Court
A collection of brightly colored figures has taken up residence at Pioneer Court Plaza, formerly the site of the Marilyn Monroe figure. They’re part of Chicago Ideas Week and created by Chicago artist Hebru Brantley, who is the Chicago Ideas Week 2013 Artist in Residence. Read about them here. They’ll be in place at least until October 20.
Photo by Kristie Kahns, courtesy Chicago Ideas Week.
Ukrainian Institute Artists Respond to Genocide exhibit
I wrote recently about the excellent Bauhaus exhibit at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. The institute recently unveiled its new exhibit, Artists Respond to Genocide, which enables artists to take a broad look at genocide over the last century. The exhibit is made up of paintings, drawings, photography, sculpture and assemblages by 20 local and international artists. Many of them are really gripping, such as the large brightly colored painting by Mary Porterfield titled Engraved, or the woodcut and intaglio prints by Harold Cohen titled Auschwitz, Baba Yar and Genocide. The exhibit recognizes the Holodomor or secret holocaust in the Ukraine in 1932-33 as well as the appalling list of genocides over time. A chilling list in the back of the exhibit program enumerates 13 of them, with the number of fatalities in each.
I wrote a preview of this exhibit for Gapers Block. You can see the exhibit until December 1 at this excellent small museum at 2320 W Chicago Ave.
The image is the Stanley Tigerman-designed facade of the building.
Image courtesy Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art.
You can tour Wright’s Unity Temple
It’s been some time since formal tours of the landmark Frank Lloyd Wright structure, Unity Temple in Oak Park, have been available. Up until now, the only way to see the interior of this innovative building was if you knew someone or by chance went to a program there. (I’ve done both and even happily went to several services with friends. Even an avowed atheist will do anything to see the interior of a famous religious structure.)
But now the FLW Preservation Trust is offering docent-led tours again. Get more information here.
Image courtesy Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust.
Terminus at Interrobang Theatre Project
I’ve seen and reviewed many plays in the last month, but one of the very best was this amazing three-actor blend of monologues produced by Interrobang Theatre Project at the Athenaeum. Here’s how my Gapers Block review started:
“Mark O’Rowe is one of the new generation of Irish playwrights whose work was first seen in the 1990s. In Terminus, being presented by Interrobang Theatre Project, he displays his fascination with language and his passion for words. Terminus isn’t so much a play as a series of stories, intertwined in monologues by three characters, known only as A, B and C. Their stories, set in the streets of Dublin, begin separately, and gradually become more connected, until they are finally merged in a glorious fantasy of blood, sweat, tears and sex.”
Truly, this was one of the finest nights of theater I’ve seen lately. Unfortunately, the play closed last week.
The Benchmark at Step Up Productions
I also reviewed this play about a well-read homeless man and although the lead actor’s performance is excellent, the play as a whole was somewhat flat. I wanted desperately to love it, but couldn’t. But tastes vary and other viewers might well enjoy it. Read my review here and then check out other reviews here.
My newest article on gapersblock.com is about a theater director who moved to Chicago from Charlotte, NC, to find a more challenging and dynamic theater scene. As you may know, I have a strong North Carolina connection. I’ve been there many times to spend time with my son, his beautiful lawyer wife and their two darling cherubs. I’ve spent time mostly in Greensboro but also in Winston-Salem, Durham, Raleigh and Charlotte. I know a little about the arts scene in Charlotte from my time with the giant law firm that has an office there. And I’ve been to a whole bunch of Bruce Springsteen concerts in North Carolina since 2002. (Greensboro is one of my favorite places to see Bruce; the audiences there are great!)
I met Jim Yost, the director, when I attended his current production, Orange Flower Water, at the Raven Theatre a few weeks ago. (The play is a co-production of Jim’s company, Barebones Theatre Group, with his new Chicago company, Interrobang Theatre Project.) You can see a link to my review on the right. I thought his move to Chicago from Charlotte might make an interesting feature for Gapers Block, the website about everything Chicago. So Jim and I had a good conversation recently in my office away from my home office, a Panera Cafe, and the story, in interview form, went up today.
It’s been years since I recorded an interview, transcribed it and turned it into a story. (I did that a lot earlier in my career.) It’s not a quick process, as any writer will tell you. But it’s a rewarding one — and getting the subject’s voice and style just right in the interview is important.
So here’s the story of Jim Yost and his move north to Chicago. His closing remark, which I didn’t put in the story? “I really love Chicago, except for the winter.” I told him he would get used to it. That’s why stores sell mittens, earmuffs, scarves and big puffy jackets.
(Photo courtesy of Interrobang Theatre Project.)
Nancy, the theater junkie, has been checking out local offerings lately. See my reviews of two new plays on Chicago stages at gapersblock.com. I recommend both. They’re interesting and enjoyable theater evenings.
Orange Flower Water: Breaking apart two families … at Interrobang Theatre Project
Orange Flower Water is a wrenching marital drama where the bed is the heart of the matter, both literally and metaphorically. The bed is the centerpiece of each scene, with quick changes of covering signaling changes of venue. The four characters are two couples who live in the same neighborhood and whose children play soccer together. One of the partners in each couple wants to end their marriages. James Yost, in his first Chicago directorial outing, directs this smartly written play by Craig Wright, author of television scripts written for “Six Feet Under,” “Lost,” “Brothers & Sisters,” and “Dirty Sexy Money.”
Please continue reading this review and see ticket info at the end. Orange Flower Water runs through June 9 at the Raven Theatre Complex, 6157 N. Clark St.
Speech & Debate speaks to a wide audience … at American Theatre Company
Group interpretation, original oratory, extemporaneous commentary. These are some of the graphic titles projected to introduce new scenes throughout Speech & Debate at American Theatre Company (ATC). That may sound like a yawnfest for speech majors but in the hands of four talented performers, they signal funny but searing explorations of teenagers trying to sort out their identities. This is doubly tough in an era where online activities further complicate the growing-up process.
Please continue reading this review and see ticket info at the end. Speech & Debate runs through June 23 at American Theatre Company, 1909 W Byron at Lincoln Ave.