August theater reviews: No summer slump in Chicago

August may mean the summer doldrums with nothing happening for Parisians and Berliners, who have to get on a train or drive south to find a beach. We lucky Chicagoans have our own built-in lake and beach, so we don’t have to go away for summer fun. There’s lots going on at the lakefront and in the theaters, both large and storefront. Here are a few theater tips from my last couple of weeks.

Assassination Theater at the Museum of Broadcast Communications

GB-AssassinationTheaterYes, this is a single production titled Assassination Theater: Chicago’s Role in the Crime of the Century, which lays out in excruciating detail how the Chicago Outfit was directly involved in the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy and also that of his brother Robert five years later. (I did wonder whether it was a new theater company to be dedicated solely to assassinations and started making a list of how many productions they could muster before they ran out of murders. It would take years, but no, this is a one-off production.)

Journalist/author Hillel Levin researched and produced this documentary production staged in a theater space at the Museum of Broadcast Communications, 360 N. State St. The ingredients are four actors, three projection screens and a minimum of props and costume changes. The story is dramatic and gripping and if you’re a fan of political conspiracy and love to immerse yourself in historical detail, you will love it. If your theater taste runs to musicals and light comedy, stay away. The show could perhaps have been cut by 15 minutes, but I usually think everything is 15 minutes too long.

My review notes that “The story line of Assassination Theater offers persuasive evidence that the JFK autopsy was falsified and the real facts covered up then and in the 1964 Warren Commission report.” The evidence of Mob involvement is not quite as persuasive but I would be willing to give it some study. You can see this show through November 7.

Things You Don’t Say Past Midnight at the Windy City Playhouse

GB-ThingsYSSPM-McClainKenyonThis is a fast-moving, funny, smartly acted and directed sex comedy at the Windy City Playhouse, a new venue in the Irving Park neighborhood that I’ve written about before. Three couples converse and romp about in three bedrooms arrayed across the large playing space. Their interests finally converge and the comedy reaches its apex in a six-way phone call. The play is clever, edgy and a little vulgar but there’s no nudity (in case you were worried or hopeful).

This new theater company is a nonprofit, but had a well-funded startup. The venue is very comfortable with good sightlines, comfy seating and an attractive bar/cafe in its lobby. The company has been bringing in established Chicago actors and directors to stage their productions and the quality is obvious.

Things You Don’t Say runs through October 4. Windy City Playhouse is at 3014 W. Irving Park Rd. Read my review.

The Jacksonian at Profiles Theatre

GB-Jacksonian2-Bowman,IselyThis is one of those plays that I really wanted to like because it has the right ingredients for a fabulous production. Honored playwright: Beth Henley (she won a Pulitzer for Crimes of the Heart and has written many other plays and films). Ingredients: Sex, drugs, murder and a sidedish of politics. Staging: By one of Chicago’s finest Equity storefront theaters. The Jacksonian is set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964 and the title is the name of the rather seedy motel where Bill Perch is staying, since both his marriage and his dental practice are in decline. The other characters are the motel bartender and waitress and the dentist’s wife and teenage daughter, who my review describes as “Cassandra in a cocoon.” The scenes flow back and forth from the December “night of the murder” to sexy bar and bedroom scenes.

The storyline is interesting and the play and characters definitely keep your interest. So even though I would say my rating is “somewhat recommended” because the nonlinear progression of scenes is a little incoherent, it’s still a worthwhile 90 minutes of theater. The Jacksonian runs through October 11 at Profiles, 4139 N. Broadway. Read my review.

Kafkapalooza at First Floor Theater 

GB-Kafka-PoseidonFirst Floor Theater’s annual Litfest, made up of eight short plays inspired by the stories of Franz Kafka, had a short run at the Flat Iron Arts Building in Wicker Park, so I’m sorry if you missed it. Sometimes when you see one of these evenings of short plays, a few of them are good and most are forgettable. But all eight of these plays, running 10-15 minutes each with one to five actors each, were interestingly written and well-performed. My review describes my favorite, titled “The Applicant,” drawn from a fragment of a story that Kafka wrote about Poseidon, bored with the paperwork required in his job as god of the seas, and wishing for a vacation.

First Floor Theater says its mission is to stage stories of individuals facing moments of radical change. I was impressed with this effort and look forward to their next outing.

Show Me a Hero on HBO

Speaking of individuals facing radical change, HBO’s current miniseries definitely fits that description. The story is based on actual events that took place in Yonkers, NY, from 1987 to 1994, when the city was trying to implement scattered-site public housing under a court order.

NSBJ-showmeaheroThe “hero” is the young mayor, Nick Wasicsko, played by Oscar Isaac, who’s elected because of his vote against a housing bill but then realizes that the city has to change. There are some great performances by actors such as Bob Balaban as the judge, Alfred Molina as a city councilman passionately opposed to the change, and Catherine Keener as a Yonkers resident bitterly opposed to the new housing that would be in her neighborhood. There are some very ugly but realistic scenes of Yonkers citizens protesting outside city hall and in council chambers. Of course, their arguments are that it’s all about property values and “lifestyle,” not racism. Uh-huh.

The characters are not all politicians and angry residents. Several subplots weave together the stories of public housing residents who will eventually be able to benefit from the new housing.

Isaac really proves his acting chops in this series, following his fine performances in A Most Violent Year and Ex Machina. Of course, I first wrote about him in 2014 when he starred in the Coen Brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, which all the critics, including me, raved about. Too bad it bombed at the box office and in awards season. I still think it’s a great film and I recommend it too.

One of my favorite things about Show Me a Hero is that it’s threaded with music by Bruce Springsteen from beginning to end. The mayor is a Springsteen fan and the songs all fit the dramatic action. Last week, in parts 3 and 4, the Springsteen songs were “Tenth Avenue Freezeout,” “Brilliant Disguise” and “Secret Garden.” Can’t wait to hear what tonight brings.

Tonight is the third and final part of the six-part production, being shown on three Sunday nights. It will be available on demand if you’re an HBO subscriber and I’m sure it will have another life streaming and on DVD soon.

Images courtesy theater companies and HBO.

May mashup: My pop culture diary

Busy end-of-May at Nancy’s house. House guests, including two perfectly darling grandsons, and a family wedding at a grand venue. So I haven’t seen much theater since the last time we chatted. Still, there were a few great movies, one so-so play, and news about a new website that I’m writing for. You’ll find some TV recs too.

 First, some architecture notes 


South Shore Cultural Center. Photo courtesy Chicago Park District

A lakefront wedding. The wedding was at the beautiful South Shore Cultural Center, right on the lakefront at 71st Street. It was originally a private country club and it’s now part of the Chicago Park District. If you haven’t been there, it is simply lovely and worth a visit. If you’re planning an event, it should be on your list of venues.

The country club, built in 1906, was designed by Marshall and Fox, who designed the Drake and Blackstone Hotels. It was expanded in 1916, also by Marshall and Fox. (Benjamin Marshall also designed the elegant Beaux Arts apartment building at 1550 N State Parkway.) The wedding ceremony was held in the beautiful solarium, looking out at the lake, and then we moved to a reception hall for champagne and greetings, and finally to the dining room. You can see some CPD photos here.

An architecture scavenger hunt. If you’re a fan of Chicago’s Loop architecture, you should sign up for the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s scavenger hunt next Saturday afternoon, June 7. The game starts and ends at the Railway Exchange Building at 224 S Michigan; there’ll be an awards reception in the grand atrium. You’ll find the details in my story on Gapers Block.

Theater notes


Photo by Michael Brosilow.

M Butterfly at Court Theatre. The script by David Henry Hwang is marvelous, very smart and well-written. I thought the Court production left a little to be desired—it was a bit flat. The reviews were definitely mixed from “not recommended” to “highly recommended.” I imagine director Charles Newell might have taken some notes and spiffed up his production since then. The play tells the amazing story of the French diplomat who was deceived for 20 years by a male opera star posing as a female diva. Despite my review, I do recommend a trip to Hyde Park.

Here’s my review; my rating was “somewhat recommended.”  This is a New York-based theater website that covers Broadway, off-Broadway, Washington, Connecticut and, now, Chicago. My first review (of Cock at Profiles Theatre) is now up on See it here. It’s a terrific show and I highly recommend it. It runs until June 29; details are at the end of my review.

My headline is “… A Riveting Play That Explores All the Meanings of Its Title.” Here’s how my review begins:

Cock is a play title you very rarely find in a theater review headline. I’m hoping that’s because of fear of internet anti-obscenity filters, rather than puritanism on the part of copy editors. The play by Mike Bartlett is a comedy about sexual identity, 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.

Movies I loved…or at least liked

The Normal Heart. HBO’s production of Larry Kramer’s play about the early years of the AIDS epidemic is excellent. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I had read enough about the production, and the playwright’s involvement, to be optimistic that its edges wouldn’t be softened. And they weren’t. We needed to be reminded about the terror of the disease first known as “gay cancer.” And to be reminded that the war is not over. The tagline, “To win a war, you have to start one,” is an ideal descriptor.

The acting is excellent. Mark Ruffalo plays a very believable Ned Weeks (Larry Kramer) and there are terrific performances by Julia Roberts, Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer. I originally saw the play off-Broadway in about 1985 and Timeline Theatre did an excellent production last year. I highly recommend the HBO film. Here’s the trailer.

Stoker and Blue Velvet. My film group discussed Stoker last week and we’re discussing Blue Velvet soon. They are both excellent films and each is weird, creepy and outrageous in its own way.

Stoker (2013, 99 minutes) is the first English-language film by the Korean director, Chan-Wook Park. (He directed the so-called vengeance trilogy, which includes Oldboy.) His title is surely meant to remind us of Bram Stoker, who created Dracula, but Stoker is just a family name. A family whose father is killed in a mysterious auto accident, whose daughter ( Mia Wasikowska) is obsessed with hunting and saddle shoes, and whose mother (Nicole Kidman) can’t get her daughter to love her. But at the funeral, an uncle (Matthew Goode) appears out of nowhere and befriends mother and daughter. The story is a bit of a takeoff on an Alfred Hitchcock film, Shadow of a Doubt, about a young girl’s relationship with her serial-killer uncle. Stoker has lots of strange and beautiful cinematography and features a psychologically steamy piano duet of Philip Glass music.

If you stay up late or get up early or set your DVR, HBO is showing Stoker June 1 at 3:20am CT.

Blue Velvet (1986, 120 minutes) is an early David Lynch film, before Twin Peaks. The weirdness is set off when an earnest young man (Kyle MacLachlan) finds a severed human ear in a field as he’s walking home. The plot revolves around his boy detective attempts to solve a mystery with a very young Laura Dern as his co-star. Isabelle Rossellini is a nightclub singer who performs “Blue Velvet” and Dennis Hopper is her crazed tormentor, who uses a mask to breathe in gas to energize his crimes.

Roger Ebert hated this film so much that he gave it one star in 1986. He and Gene Siskel disagreed on it, however. (When it was revived 20 years later, one reviewer said it was still “a hilarious, red-hot poker to the brain.”) Here’s a clip of the “At the Movies” review from 1986. Go to 2:35 to see Roger and Gene debate the film.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction

Yes, tonight is the night that we can see the E Street Band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their frontman, Bruce Springsteen, was inducted in 1999. The induction ceremony took place in April but tonight is the three-hour-plus event, with all the honorees, along with a bunch of special guests performing. The band is being inducted in a category that used to be known as sidemen and now is called the Award for Musical Excellence.

Other inductees are Peter Gabriel, Nirvana, Hall and Oates, KISS, Linda Ronstadt and Cat Stevens. Artists are eligible for the Rock Hall 25 years after their first recording. Rock Hall members (including me) voted for a list of eligible musicians and then the panel of judges picks the inductees. My DVR is already set.

Chicago storefronts: Great new theater

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

NSBvatzlav_webYes, 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

NSB-IbsenHenrik 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

NSBslide_cocksCock 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

NSBwaywest_large_nowplaying2Mona 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.