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 theatreinchicago.com, as did all the other reviewers.

That website, theatreinchicago.com, 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

IIT-LAURENT.SmallChange72-GB

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.

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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 http://thedentheatre.com. 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 dalobstachicago.com. If you remember luscious mayonnaisy lobster rolls from vacations in Maine, check out this place.


Counting Psychopaths (Seven of them)

I’ve always had a thing for Irish writers and especially playwrights.  Sean O’Casey, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, J M Synge — I’ve had amazing evenings in the theater with their work.  Several contemporary Irish writers are doing important work too — Conor McPherson (This Lime Tree Bower, The Weir, Seafarer, Dublin Carol, Shining City), Enda Walsh (Penelope, Once), Deirdre Kinahan (Moment), and most of all, Martin McDonagh.  McDonagh writes outrageous in-your-face theater such as that often done by Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. Pillowman, Beauty Queen of Leenane and Lonesome West are my favorites.

However, it’s McDonagh’s films that are astounding. His new film, Seven Psychopaths, is brilliantly and hilariously funny, dark, quirky, bloody and violent, with more plot twists and turns than I can possibly detail here. It’s a movie about a movie and the movie business. While it’s not perfect, I guarantee you will like it, as long as blood and violence don’t bother you. (It’s that fakey Tarantino-esque violence that you also see in The Sopranos.)

The casting is brilliant.  Colin Farrell as an alcoholic film writer with writer’s block.  Sam Rockwell as his buddy and mastermind of the dognapping business.  (I know, I know. Bear with me here.) Christopher Walken is inventive, funny and poignant. Woody Harrelson is a gangster who loves his missing shih-tzu. Tom Waits is a serial killer with a bad hairpiece and a rabbit. And I haven’t listed all the psychopaths yet. Let me say, for you animal lovers, that all the blood and violence is committed on humans. No animals are even touched. Although Bonny, the shih-tzu, comes close.

Seven Psychopaths is so good, I will see it again.  And again.  McDonagh’s earlier film, In Bruges, is equally good, but has a more linear plot structure. I think I want to see it again too.