Potpourri, farrago, mishmash & hot dogs–my pop culture week

Farrago, potpourri, mishmash. Whatever you call a week of variety, that was my last week. A few tidbits and capsule reviews.

Cirque du Soleil: Kurios — Cabinet of Curiosities

The kid (he’s now 17) and I went to opening night at Cirque du Soleil with some friends. The Big Top (or le grand chapiteau) is set up on the United Center parking lot. Cirque du Soleil hasn’t been in Chicago for a few years and the show has been re-created or reimagined for a new audience, as my friend Kim reported when she interviewed the director, Michel Laprise, for Gapers Block. All the amazing acrobatics and gorgeous pageantry and choreography are still there but it’s done with a “steampunk” theme, suggesting late 19th century industrial machines with a whiff of fantasy. The costuming suits the theme and the period too.

Cirque du Soleil's Kurios, Grand Chapiteau by A1 Federation - via Wikimedia Commons

Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios, Grand Chapiteau by A1 Federation – via Wikimedia Commons

We loved the Acro Net, where a giant net stretches across the stage and operates like a trampoline. The performers bounce, dance, jump and leap, sometimes all the way to the tent’s peak. The Rola Bola man balanced on a board, first atop a ball, then several balls and finally a hill of balls and spools–and still he balanced. The Invisible Circus was very clever, with all the lights and contraptions operating as if someone was using them, but not a soul was in sight–except for the circus announcer who described what was taking place. I could go on and on. It’s an amazing show. Whether or not you’ve seen Cirque du Soleil before, try to see this one. And take a kid or a kid at heart.

Hot Dog Festival at the Chicago History Museum

Next day we wandered over to the south end of Lincoln Park for the Chicago History Museum’s Hot Dog Festival. The hot dogs were great; I had a Chicago classic with all the trimmings layered in the proper order*. The kid had a dog plus fries and then went back for a Godzilla dog, which is the equivalent of two or three regular ones. We shared an ice cream because I ran out of dog dollars.

NSB-historyOfChicagoDog

This is a perfect Chicago hot dog. Photo courtesy Vienna Beef.

In addition to great food, there were bands and a speakers stage. We got there early so we could hear Bill Savage, the Northwestern pop culture professor, discourse on “Ketchup: The Condiment of Controversy.” He discussed the nature of hot dogs (“the ultimate democratic street food”) in other locales, concluded that Chicago is rightly considered the hot dog capital of the world, and described how hot dogs and their peculiar Chicago condimentry came to be. He took a poll of his audience. Seventy percent of us agreed that ketchup on a hot dog is an abomination, but ketchup is ok for kids under 10. Bill’s conclusion was Chicago is a great democratic city and Chicagoans are free to do as we please, and if that means ketchup on a hot dog, that’s ok. I respectfully disagree.

* The layers have to be: mustard, neon green relish, chopped onions, tomato wedges, hot sport peppers, dill pickle wedges and finally celery salt.

Two nights at the theater

My two most recent reviews were (1) brilliant satire and (2) a flashy musical. Guess which one I liked best?

The Boy From Oz is the new show by Pride Films & Plays at Stage 773. It’s the story of Australian musician and entertainer Peter Allen, who was married to Liza Minnelli for a while, was a great hit as a cabaret performer, but never was a huge success in the US. At least his music was never a huge success–and since there was nothing melodic or hummable about his music, that made sense. The production is very well done, with some good performances from both the actors and the dance ensemble. Great costumes and choreography. So my review is: It’s a pleasant evening with a lot of talent and energy wasted on boring raw material. See my review here. The play runs through August 30. See it if you like gratuitous singing and dancing.

Katy Carolina Collins as Mash in SFB

Katy Carolina Collins as Mash in SFB

Stupid Fucking Bird is Aaron Posner’s play that kinda/sorta deconstructs Chekhov’s The Seagull. Sideshow Theatre is staging it now at Victory Gardens/ Biograph and you can see it through August 30. You need to see it. The script is witty and the characters are sort of based on Chekhov’s except their angst is contemporary rather than 19th century. It’s a case where A loves B who loves C who loves D who flirts with E who is the lover of F. (I’m quoting my review.) Plus there’s a playwright who wants to invent a new kind of theater and when he succeeds in getting a play produced complains that he will now have to put up with being criticized by perfect strangers in addition to family members. Some nice musical interludes throughout the play with Mash (Masha in Chekhov) on the ukulele.

Movies with musical themes

Madame Marie's booth on the boardwalk, September 2012.

Madame Marie’s booth on the boardwalk, September 2012. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Baby It’s You is a 1983 film directed by John Sayles. It’s a little indie film about Jill, a Jewish girl with dreams of college and a theater career (played by Rosanna Arquette), and her boyfriend, the Sheik (Vincent Spano), a well-dressed greaser who loves Jill and Sinatra. They are not going to walk off together into the sunset because Jill is not interested in marriage and babies and that’s the only relationship that Sheik can see for them. It’s a good film–I gave it 4 stars out of 5 on letterboxd.com. Two great things about the film are the music (plenty of Springsteen songs) and the trip that Jill and Sheik make to the Jersey shore. We see how Asbury Park looked 30 years ago when the Casino and the Palace were in much better shape; Madame Marie’s was there too and it still is. She died in 2008 but family members still tell fortunes in her booth on the boardwalk.

CBGB is a movie that I really wanted to like. It’s a 2013 docustory about the iconic punk rock club on the Bowery and its owner, Hilly Kristal (played, incongruously, by Alan Rickman). It was fun to see actors play the great bands that started there, like the Dead Boys, Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, the Ramones and Patti Smith– but the producers ruined the effect by playing polished studio recordings of those bands while the actors lip-synced. The music totally missed the raw, rough edge that it should have had. It’s not a very good movie–unless, of course, you loved the memory of CBGB.

One more thing ….

An exhibit of photos of rock star legends by Chicago photographer Paul Natkin was on display at the Ed Paschke Art Center in Jefferson Park. One Saturday afternoon, he sat surrounded by his photos and talked about his career, shooting some of the greatest musicians of our time, and how photography has changed with the digital revolution. His talk was fascinating and he was kind enough to talk to me later and answer a question about artists’ rights for one of my SCORE clients. Natkin’s work was shown in a more comprehensive exhibit a few years ago at the Chicago Cultural Center. You can check out his website.

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Pop culture pool: Drowning in TV, music, theater

A little of this. A little of that. It’s January. It’s cold and snowy. Have fun while you’re hibernating but don’t stay inside and mope.

True Detective on HBO

truedetectiveThis new HBO series has a dark, ominous atmosphere, clued by the opening theme music and visuals. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey are detectives with the state CID in rural Louisiana near the town of Erath. Harrelson plays Martin Hart, the senior guy, and McConaughey plays his partner Rustin Cohle, a moody, sometimes poetic detective. (This is another step in the McConaissance, as Tribune writer Christopher Borrelli termed it. McConaughey, who spent years playing in romantic comedies, has now turned into a serious actor. I personally think the change started with his 2011 performance in Killer Joe, the Tracy Letts script that started as a stage play.)

True Detective (in the Sunday night quality TV ghetto) starts out in 1995 like a police procedural when they find the first evidence of a serial killer who performs ritual murders. It’s also a character study of the two detectives, who are seen in 2012, testifying in separate internal investigations about the case.

The show is intense and the plot will keep your attention. But the best thing about the program is the writing. I’ve watched the first three shows and each time I hear several lines I want to write down, usually spoken by McConaughey’s character, who has been through a failed marriage and lost a child in an accident. He’s cynical, brooding and critical of religion. He often offends his partner, who represents the traditional small-town milieu in which they operate.

“Time is a flat circle. Everything we ever done or will do we’ll do over and over and over again.”

“This place is like someone’s faded memory of a town, and the memory’s fading…like there was never anything here but jungle.”

“I think human consciousness was a tragic misstep in evolution. We’ve become too self-aware.”

The screenwriter is Nic Pizzolatto, a former lit and writing teacher at the UofC and DePauw University in Indiana. He left teaching for Hollywood and worked on the AMC show, The Killing, before this. The Tribune article I noted above is a good overview and interview with Pizzolatto. (Registration required to access article.)

GRAMMYs mashups

The Grammys have become more of a variety show than an awards program since most awards are presented off-camera. But the musical performances are often absorbing collaborations between performers you would not often see together on a stage. The most publicized teamups this year were Daft Punk with Pharrell Williams and Stevie Wonder and the super-hot opener by Beyonce and Jay Z. But my favorite was the classical pianist Lang Lang with Metallica. They performed the Metallica song “One,” which was inspired by the Dalton Trumbo book and film, Johnny Got His Gun, a horrifying war story. Footage from the 1971 film formed the backdrop for the Grammys performance. It was a song you had to pay attention to.

Pete Seeger, “a heart of gold and a spine of steel”

Bruce-Pete-2009

Bruce and Pete, 2009

You have to love a radical folk singer who never gives up his activist ideas and activities into his 90s. Pete Seeger was a national treasure and role model and leaves us with so many memories. Like his performance with Bruce Springsteen at the 2009 inaugural concert. (The description of Seeger above is from Springsteen’s New York Times comments on January 29.) And his performances of children’s programs on educational TV when he was banned from the commercial networks. After Pete’s death on Tuesday, a testament to his grittiness surfaced: the transcript of his testimony before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1955. He never took the Fifth Amendment; he persisted in saying the committee had no right to ask him questions about what he belonged to or for whom he played and so he wasn’t answering. He would talk about his songs and that was it. Great reading.

Rosanne Cash’s new album, The River and the Thread

I’ve had Rosanne Cash’s album The List on my iPod for a long time—and full confession: I bought it because she does a duet with Bruce Springsteen on “Sea of Heartbreak.” It’s a fine album and now I have her newest as well. It’s The River and the Thread, an excellent album of original songs by Cash and a few collaborators including her producer husband John Leventhal. The thread follows the towns along highway 61, the main highway from Memphis to New Orleans, also famous as a musical route because of the many songs written about it, including Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” Most of the songs have road references and a strong sense of place. So far, my favorites are “Modern Blue” and “World of Strange Design.” There are many layers of culture and memory in these songs, plus the sound and the beat are more vibrant than her previous work. Rosanne Cash is worth a listen.

ON STAGE: The Golden Dragon by Sideshow Theatre

This is a short, fast-moving, sometimes puzzling play that I called a dark fairy tale. Here’s how my Gapers Block review begins:

“The Golden Dragon by German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig is a fanciful story presented by Sideshow Theatre Company. It’s a sort of dark fairy tale about the workers, residents and guests at a Thai/Chinese/Vietnamese fast food restaurant in a warehouse building in a certain global city. We are not sure where, but it doesn’t matter. The play is made up of the intertwined stories of 15 or 20 characters, played by five actors who quickly move from role to role without regard to gender, nationality or costume.“

I puzzled over it before writing my review, but it is really a fun and adventurous outing by Sideshow and displays the versatile acting chops of the five performers. The Golden Dragon runs until February 23 at Victory Gardens’ Richard Christiansen Theater.

The Little Prince by Lookingglass Theatre

lookingglass

Lookingglass’ home

The Little Prince is adapted from the beloved story by Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Lookingglass gives the wonderful story its due with a terrific production. I’ve loved this story forever and enjoyed reading it with my children as well as reading it in Spanish and French when I was studying those languages.

The play is produced by Lookingglass with the Actors Gymnasium, so there is plenty of flying, zooming and energetic action on the deceptively simple set. The play is poetic, visually beautiful and emotionally satisfying. It’s extended until March 16 at Lookingglass’ Old Water Tower space.

 Tennessee Williams Project by The Hypocrites

The Hypocrites is doing a trilogy of mostly unproduced Tennessee Williams plays at their space in the Chopin Theatre. The first—Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens—is set in the rather baroque lobby area in the downstairs space. For the second—The Remarkable Rooming House of Madame Le Monde—the audience moves into a creepy London boarding house set—and finally to a St. Louis hospital ward for The Big Game.

tennessee-williams-project-6835 Director Matt Hawkins takes the same cast thru each transformation. The first play is the longest and the most successful. Patrick Gannon plays a wealthy transvestite who brings home a sailor, played by Joseph Wiens. The drinking, seduction and interaction is quite intense and well performed by the two actors. The second play seemed most unlike any Tennessee Williams play I have ever seen and had a strong Brechtian flavor—and for a moment, took a Sweeney Todd turn. It was, I can only say, odd. The third play is about a young man with congenital heart disease and his two roommates, one a football player on his way to the titular game, the other with a severe brain disease. The play is fraught with disease and death, as are many of Williams’ plays.

The trilogy is an interesting, if uneven, evening of theater. The Tennessee Williams Project runs until March 2.

And et cetera….

I’ve seen a bunch of movies lately too, but I wrote about Movies, Movies, Movies last week, so I’ll save these for my next film fix: The Wolf of Wall Street, Princess Mononoke, Captain Phillips and Like Father, Like Son. And probably more.


Theater update: Three you can see

It’s theater season again and I have three new reviews that you’ll be interested in. Plus a special tip on what to see in the future.

Theater picks

9 Circles at Sideshow Theatre

warishell

From @HistoryinPix

9 Circles takes us  through the depths of Dante’s Inferno by telling the story of an Iraq war veteran who is accused of a terrible crime. The play presents a series of two-person scenes between the ex-soldier and a series of helpful or surreal professionals. The  story moves from accusation to trial to execution. The play is gripping, intense and discussion-provoking.  It’s a terrific performance by Andrew Goetten, who plays the ex-soldier, and by the other actors in multiple roles.  You can read my Gapers Block review here.

The photo at left is the one I reference in the first paragraph of the review. The photo is from the @historyinpix Twitter page and titled “Soldier in Vietnam, 1965.” Click to enlarge it and read what the soldier has written on his helmet.

Hank Williams: Lost Highway at American Blues Theater

This is a lively musical biography but of course the underlying story is tragic.  Hank Williams was a brilliant country-blues singer/songwriter in the HankWilliams-AmBlues-GB1940s and early 1950s.  He influenced many performers who followed him and the play suggests how he was a link to the African-American blues musicians of the period. His life was cut short at the age of 29 because of his addictions to alcohol and prescription drugs.  The ABT play does a good job of telling both the tragic story and making you happy to hear a healthy setlist of Williams’ songs. The band (Williams’ Drifting Cowboys) is made up of some excellent Chicago musicians and Matthew Brumlow as Hank comes close to channeling his image,  his voice and musical style.  Read my Gapers Block review here.

Photo by Johnny Knight; courtesy of American Blues Theater.

Other People’s Money at Shattered Globe Theatre

This is a witty and fast-moving play about corporate raiders in the late 1980s. You remember them, don’t you? Michael Milken, Victor Posner, Carl Icahn?  The financial crisis of five years ago this month has brought other corporate names to the forefront. Jamie Dimon, Richard Fuld and Hank Paulson; companies like Lehmann Brothers, Bear Stearns and AIG. So the raiders and their takeovers seem a bit dated now.  Nevertheless, this is an interesting and entertaining play and I recommend it. Ben Werling is terrific as Larry the Liquidator. Think of it, as I said in my Gapers Block review, as a drawing room comedy of the 1980s.

NT Live in HD

The Audience, a National Theater Live encore presentation

mirren-ntliveThe National Theatre of London broadcasts live performances of some of its productions to theaters around the world, similar to the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcasts.  NT Live broadcasts a live performance and several encores at the two Northwestern University theaters in Evanston,  at the Music Box in Chicago and Renaissance Place in Highland Park.

Last week we saw the final broadcast of the commercial, West End production of The Audience by Peter Morgan. Helen Mirren stars as Elizabeth II of England and some talented actors as her various prime ministers over the years. The play is a series of scenes, in random, not chronological, order, in which Mirren ages or reverses her age with very quick changes of wig and costume. It’s brilliantly acted and riveting as it takes the viewers through historical events of Elizabeth’s long career.  Her first audience was with Winston Churchill in 1952 and the latest with David Cameron in 2012.

Future NT Live productions this season are three Shakespearean tragedies: Othello, Hamlet and Coriolanus. 

Mirren as Queen Elizabeth; photo copyright National Theatre Live. 

 


On stage: Memories, heads, apocalypse prep

Comments on a few plays I’ve seen recently, including one full review.

 The Burden of Not Having a Tail: Apocalypse When?

burden-11x17Sideshow Theatre is presenting this one-woman show at Chicago Dramatists. It’s an entertaining 70 minutes about the prospects of an apocalypse. Woman, the lone character, is a “prepper” and the audience (that would be us) is there to learn from her experience to prepare ourselves.  There’s a sad thread to it (besides the grim one) about the death of her baby daughter.

All in all, the play fails to hold together as a play but I have to give the actor (Karie Miller), playwright (Carrie Barrett) and director (Megan Smith) props for a good try. It’s not easy to tell a dramatic story and hold a one-character play together. The successful ones I have seen are about the lives of riveting characters such as Clarence Darrow (by David Rintels from the Irving Stone biography) or Charlotte van Mahlsdorf (her story, I Am My Own Wife, was produced at Goodman Theatre in 2005). Or brilliantly written one-man plays, like Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett.

Read my review of The Burden of Not Having a Tail on Gapers Block. You can see it until August 4.

Big Lake, Big City: Chicago noir

If you think “comic noir” is not an oxymoron, then you’ll love the new play by Keith Huff at Lookingglass Theatre. Huff wrote the gripping two-character cop play, A Steady Rain, which was a hit here at Chicago Dramatists and then went to New York where Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman starred in it. That earned Huff his writing cred and he’s been writing for great TV dramas such as Mad Men and House of Cards, the recent Netflix streaming series that I wrote about in February.

BLBCposter

David Schwimmer directs this play about Chicago crime, with two hard-bitten police detectives (Philip R Smith and Danny Goldring), a guy who wants to go to Disneyland with a screwdriver embedded in his head (that’s right, he doesn’t make it through the metal detectors at O’Hare), and two morgue doctors who play golf with severed heads. Actually, heads get a lot of attention in this play and you can decide whether that’s symbolic or not. I left out the two corpses burned to a crisp while in flagrante delicto in a Lincoln Avenue motel and a dozen other delicious incidents.

The play has a lot of characters, a lot of plot threads and is probably more suited to TV, as a couple of critics have observed. Smith and Goldring are terrific as the two cops, and the acting and timing is very good. I suppose it’s not wholly successful as a theatrical exercise. However it’s really entertaining and stuffed with great Chicago jokes and references. My favorite scenic device is the Navy Pier Ferris wheel cab that I kept watching above me; it finally descended in one of the last scenes.

I recommend Big Lake Big City, although maybe not for out-of-town visitors. It runs until August 11 at Lookingglass Theatre at the Water Tower Water Works.

The Glass Menagerie: Memories in shards of glass

Mary Arrchie Theatre is presenting its distinctive version of the Tennessee Williams memory play in an extension at Theater Wit. It’s beautifully done and the acting makes you really appreciate Williams’ poetic language.

Tom, the poet, is played as a homeless man by Hans Fleischmann, who also directs. Tom wanders barefoot through a setting covered in glass shards. He’s the brother of delicate Laura and the son of Amanda (the southern belle who can’t believe the poverty of her current existence). There was something odd that I can’t quite put my finger on about Tom being played as a homeless man. The glass shards, of course, are reminiscent of Laura’s life with her glass menagerie and symbolic of their shattered lives. Basically, no one in the play accepts the reality of their own existence.

The play has a beautiful original score by Daniel Knox, which really enhanced the atmosphere.

I have seen The Glass Menagerie many times. My favorite still is the Court Theatre’s 2006 version, performed on an elevated set, mostly on the fire escape outside the Wingfield family flat in St. Louis. It captured the mood of Williams’ memory play beautifully, with fine acting in a minimalist setting. Jay Whittaker, an excellent Chicago actor who has left for other pastures, was a poetic Tom, longing for escape.

The Glass Menagerie runs until July 28 at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont.