A tale of three cities: Mostly Manhattan

New York was fascinating as always, despite being beastly hot. My favorite thing about New York is always tramping uptown and downtown, east side and west side. Unfortunately, since temps were in the high 90s, my tramping was focused on finding cool buildings for respite or walk-thrus. In my next tale, I visited friends in Connecticut and I finished up with a family wedding in Brooklyn in the neighborhood known as DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass).

Manhattan

First we’ll take Manhattan, as Leonard Cohen sang (or sort of sang). The highlight was my visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its special exhibit on Punk:  Chaos to Couture, which runs until August 14. I also saw two very good plays – one at Irish Repertory in Chelsea, my regular favorite New York theater, and the other a Richard Greenberg drama on Broadway.

PUNK_landing4Punk: Chaos to Couture was the Met’s 2013 Costume Institute exhibition and it celebrates both the look that punk musicians adopted in the 1970s in the UK and the US and the impact it had on couture (meaning clothes-not-going-to-be-worn-by-the-average-woman). Original punk clothing was shown, especially that worn by some performers and some designed by Vivienne Westwood for her London punk boutique. Couture by name designers of that period and later decades is also shown. The exhibit was visually and aurally appropriate with period music and videos.

The DIY (do-it-yourself) nature of the punk scene was celebrated in the organization of the exhibit. The section DIY Hardware displayed the use of safety pins and metal ball chains in both punk and couture looks. DIY Bricolage used trash materials in costuming. Here we had the use of bottle tops, plate shards, plastic shopping bags and Tyvek envelopes to create wearable garments. Best of all, black trash bags were shredded or chopped to make glamorous gowns. Really.  They were couture and I would wear one of them.

Most of the couture seemed fakey to me, especially that from the last two decades. The use of safety pins or other metal and shredded and torn fabric doesn’t make sense outside of its musical context.

gibraltarcoverGibraltar. At Irish Rep, the two-character play Gibraltar, “an adaptation after James Joyce’s Ulysses,” was being presented in its tiny basement studio. I felt like I was at home in a Chicago storefront venue. The play was written and performed by Patrick Fitzgerald, along with Cara Seymour as Molly Bloom, and directed by Terry Kinney, one of the Steppenwolf founders. It’s beautifully done, retaining Joyce’s language, and leading us through many of Leopold Bloom’s errands and encounters on Bloomsday. (I was a month or so late for Bloomsday.) It ends with Molly’s monologue, usually called the Eight Beatitudes. Beautiful lighting and sound design make this scene magical.

The Assembled Parties by Richard Greenberg is a family affair set in a large old Central Park West apartment in two acts on two Christmas Days, 1980 and 2000. Judith Light and Jessica Hecht give fine performances as sisters-in-law in a family in decline. The dialogue is charming, funny and vivid and we glory in their lives in act one and grieve for them in act two. It’s a terrific play. (Greenberg also wrote Take Me Out, The Violet Hour and Three Days of Rain.) The revolving set displays five rooms of the apartment, designed as only Santo LoQuasto can furnish a room.

Stamford

Stamford was a short visit, punctuated by shopping (I learned that Stew Leonard’s is a destination, not a supermarket), eating, visiting, exploring Stamford and Greenwich, and going to a movie. We saw The Way Way Back with Steve Carell and Toni Collette. Carell is Collette’s obnoxious boyfriend, a character you love to hate. The movie is funny and sweet, one of those coming-of-age stories about the Collette character’s 14-year-old son. Sam Rockwell (remember him in Seven Psychopaths?), a very talented actor, manages to give it an edge and keep it from lapsing over into sentimentality.  His performance is the treat of the movie.

Brooklyn

bridge-EmpireStBldgShort story. Family wedding at a lovely old temple with a lively reception in DUMBO. The bride and groom were darling and it was nice to see friends and relatives. Just before we reached the reception, we passed an intersection that offered a fabulous view of the bridges (Brooklyn and Manhattan) and we walked back to take lots of photos. I took this one with the Empire State Building playing a cameo in the distance.


Oh, Roger. The balcony is closed

I’m a cancer survivor. Twice. 16 years and counting. So I had particular empathy for Roger Ebert’s decade-plus battle with cancer. Despite his pain, many surgeries, and finally his inability to eat, drink or speak, he never flagged in his writing, film reviewing and outrage at political insanity.  In 2012, he reviewed 306 films, his record. When he died yesterday, his tweet count was over 31,000.

He didn’t invent it, but he thrived on the internet, tweeting and blogging madly. He was one of the first people I followed on Twitter (just after Bruce Springsteen, who actually doesn’t tweet) and found him endlessly provocative. He didn’t just review and write about films. He also commented upon and provided links to items on important social issues and political controversies. He was an unreconstructed liberal and I valued his comments.

BOOK-articleInlineSomething Roger said in his memoir helped get me started on this blog. I quote this on my What I Believe page. He said his blog taught him how to organize the accumulation of a lifetime. ”It pushed me into first person confession, it insisted on the personal, it seemed to organize itself into manageable fragments.” For Ebert, his blog was the beginning of writing his memoir, Life Itself (2011, Grand Central Publishing).

I did meet Roger and his wife Chaz once years ago at LAX. I was waiting to get home from a business trip and I knew they had been doing something much more glamorous in Hollywood. I had the opportunity to speak to him and I said something silly about a review he had written about a film I liked. I wished we could have had a longer conversation.

I regret not taking any of his film classes but reading his reviews ultimately was like listening to a film scholar. He was a humanistic reviewer. He wrote thoughtfully about the characters in the films he reviewed and often expressed insights that made a film and its people more meaningful. Recently I wrote here about This Must Be the Place, which is admittedly a rather weird film (just my type). A lot of reviews were negative or neutral at best. But Roger made an effort to help us understand Cheyenne, the aging glam rock star, and his sadness, a part totally inhabited by Sean Penn. https://nancybishopsjournal.com/2013/03/21/whats-showing-not-for-the-faint-of-heart/

Roger introduced me to many types of films, and showed me how to appreciate the skills of directors as well as cinematographers and other production staff. He wrote about the work of Andrew Sarris, whose concept of the director as “auteur,” or the true author of the film, is important in contemporary film viewing and in encouraging us to follow the work of certain directors.

I always loved movies, from the time I was old enough to walk to the Montclare Theater on Grand and Harlem with my friends Carol and Dolores.  When we were in high school, we went to the Mercury Theater on North Avenue and Harlem, where we could smoke in the bathroom and flirt with boys from other high schools. Movies were more than entertainment.

After I subscribed to Netflix and had access to its large film archive, I was able to visit or revisit many classic, foreign and indie films that I had either seen in decades past or missed entirely. I started catching up on the great directors I had missed, reading Roger’s reviews as I went along. It was fun to read his early reviews of great directors like Altman, Antonioni, Bergman, Bunuel, Fellini, Kieslowski, Lang, Scorcese and Welles and later reviews of some of my favorite contemporary madmen like Pedro Almodovar, Guy Maddin, Christopher Guest, Jim Jarmusch, Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino. (What would I do without imdb.com, the wayback machine for movie junkies?)

Of all the obits and encomiums about him, one of my favorites is the editorial on the back of the special Roger Ebert wraparound section in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. It’s titled “Do you love what you do?” and describes how Roger did. And we all should.

There are many fine film reviewers today, like Tony Scott. Peter Travers, David Edelstein, Dana Stevens and Mick LaSalle. But none of them will replace Roger. Because the balcony is closed.

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If you’d like behind-the-scenes insights about the Siskel and Ebert TV era, I recommend an ebook titled Enemies, A Love Story: The Oral History of Siskel and Ebert by Josh Schollmeyer. It’s a series of interview quotes about every aspect of their TV history from many of the people they worked with. The ebook is published by Now and Then Reader, which publishes original short-form nonfiction in digital formats. See their site at nowandthenreader.com.


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.


Wintry Mix: Recent plays, films and music

What have I been doing lately? Not cocooning, when there’s lots to do and see in Chicago.

Homage to Molière. Put the actors on stage in froufrou costumes, both male and female, from the rococo era. Have them speak in Molière’s rhyming couplets, transformed into 20th century slangy tropes. That’s David Ives’ School for Lies, an adaptation of Molière’s The Misanthrope, now playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Ives, who wrote the brilliant Venus in Furs, which I saw in New York last year, pays homage to Molière in an outrageous way. The acting is excellent with some surprising characterizations (Kevin Gudahl as a lisping twit, Sean Fortunato, momentarily the queen, in a stunning blue dress) and the set is glorious.

Nancy’s rating: Catch it before it closes.

Theater for the fearless. Park somewhere on Cortland in the quiet area west of the Elston/Armitage/Ashland/Kennedy tangle. Have a little dinner at Jane’s Café, then walk down the narrow gangway next to the restaurant. Voila. You’re at Trap Door Theater to see the Vaclav Havel one acts, The Unveiling and Dozens of Cousins. Trap Door performs in a tiny theater space that enables you to get nose-to-nose with the actors. I like the Trap Door mission – to perform “challenging yet obscure works” usually of European, mainly Eastern European, playwrights. http://trapdoortheatre.com These two plays (total run time about an hour) are witty, head-spinning and somewhat fabulistic. You are never sure what or who is real and truthful.

Trap Door’s choice of plays reminds me of the late European Repertory Company, which performed some highly visual, startling and memorable productions. I have missed them for years, but Trap Door makes up for their loss.

Nancy’s rating:  Both Jane’s and Trap Door are always recommended.

 

Opera at the movies. As you probably know, the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts performances live in HD to cinemas around the country. There’s an encore showing for each opera. We saw the encore of Verdi’s Aida last night and it was excellent. I really like the HD version of these operas, although some opera purists disagree. The sound quality is excellent. The opera is shot from multiple camera angles so you have closeups of the performers during the arias. (I wish they would do that during televised hockey games!) It seems to me you get a more direct connection to the opulent visual art and the music by this kind of viewing.

My favorite part of any HD opera is the long intermission when you really get a backstage view. During the Aida intermissions, the stagehands moved huge pieces of Egypt around and put the altars, thrones, sphinxes and statues back together for the next scene. The soldiers lined up with their spears and practiced marching. This cast included five horses (sometimes an elephant appears, but not in this production). During the intermission, you also see interviews with cast and crew members and the animal trainers.

The Met Live in HD is shown at four theaters in Chicago and many suburban venues; there are five operas left in the season. I still believe that live is always better (See “Live or Memorex” here https://nancybishopsjournal.com/2012/11/10/live-or-memorex/ but I’ll make an exception for the Met in HD. This is a great way to see opera and far less expensive than going to a live performance.

Bruce wins WXRT 2012 Listener Poll. XRT listeners voted Bruce Springsteen at Wrigley Field September 7 and 8 as the Best Concerts of 2012. The tour album, Wrecking Ball, was voted #6 on Best Albums list. Here’s what I wrote about the Wrigley concerts. https://nancybishopsjournal.com/2012/09/12/wrigley-x-2/

Leonard Cohen gives me another chance. I missed Leonard last time around in November but he’ll perform one of his great concerts Wednesday, March 13, at the Chicago Theatre. I recommend his latest album, Old Ideas, again. http://www.leonardcohen.com/us/home.

 

Film clips. Finally saw a few more of the Oscar and Golden Globe nominated films. My micro-reviews:

Argo was one of my favorite movies of the year. Very well acted; dead on with costumes, hair and hirsuteness, cars and props.  Sharp dialogue, quick-moving direction by Ben Affleck. His character, as well as Alan Arkin’s and John Goodman’s, were a treat to watch. I’ll see it again when it’s out on DVD or streaming.

Silver Linings Playbook. Good film with fine acting, especially by Robert DeNiro as the Philadelphia Eagles fan who was banned from the stadium for overzealous behavior. I found some of it painful to watch as people with serious emotional problems tried to cope with their lives. But by the way, wasn’t it a little unrealistic for these wounded characters to be so beautiful and perfect-looking, even when they were supposedly in the depths of depression?

Beasts of the Southern Wild. A lovely magical film starring the sparkling child actor, Quvenzhané Wallis as the six-year-old Hushpuppy. You will weep for the disasters the changing environment wreaks upon the bayou community where Hushpuppy lives. But the film is ultimately about love and courage, not disaster.

Et Cetera. I’m about to see Django Unchained and I still want to see Amour, maybe Life of Pi and Zero Dark Thirty. I won’t see Les Miserables since it’s in my egregious singing and dancing category. https://nancybishopsjournal.com/2013/01/03/not-fade-away-soundtrack-of-the-60s/ I wanted to see Promised Land but other things kept getting in the way and I think now I’ll have to wait to see it when the DVD is released. It appears to be disappearing from theaters, as Not Fade Away has already done.

 


Nancy’s Favorites of 2012

We love making lists. This is a restrained list of my favorite things about 2012, not necessarily the bests in any category. Politics, music, movies, theater, TV, books. Wanna argue? Write a comment here.

Politics

  • Constant political coverage, which annoyed everyone but political junkies like me
  • The reelection of President Obama
  • Bruce Springsteen campaigning for the President and riding on Air Force One.
  • Crowning of Nate Silver as King of Stats (others who did much the same, like Sam Wang of Princeton, unfortunately were not recognized)

Music – the Bruce Springsteen factor

  • Release of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball album (yes, I still buy them). Excellent, substantive story songs even though the music is better played live
  • The Wrecking Ball tour and the six fabulous concerts I attended in Greensboro, New York (first time at the Garden!), Detroit, Los Angeles and Chicago (yay, Wrigley Field)
  • Taking my grandson James to his first Springsteen concert at Wrigley Field (see my September post)
  • Taking a road trip to Detroit with my nephew Brad and friend Craig to see Bruce at the Palace in Auburn Hills, with several dynamite food stops
  • Bruce’s keynote speech at South by Southwest. Regretted not going to Austin but I watched him streaming live. He gave us a history of rock and roll through his own career in music   Read the rest of this entry »

Quick cuts: recent films, music, TV

Here’s to better Christmas music, some Chicago blues, and a few films, including two special foreign ones.

poguesThe Pogues’ “A Fairytale of New York.” Are you sick of the constant din of soapy, sappy, sentimental Christmas songs?  I have come to loathe all Christmas music.  Except for this one.  I love the Pogues and their Celtic punk music (think Sex Pistols married to the Chieftains) and this song is perfect if you’re sick of holiday schlock music. In fact, it’s the 25th anniversary of the release of this Christmas classic. The Guardian features a story about the creation of the song http://bit.ly/UpYjra  and also describes the great video version. Here’s a link to the “A Fairytale of New York” video described there.  http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1nxmt_the-pogues-a-fairytale-of-new-york_music#.UMQTsTlQT8h

(Image is the album cover for my CD of Essential Pogues.)  Read the rest of this entry »


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.