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).


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 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.


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.

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.


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.

Two theater reviews, one inspired by Bruce Springsteen

Two new theater reviews for your consideration. Both are excellent examples of why Chicago is such a great theater town.  Homecoming 1972 only runs through this weekend but you can see Mine until August 11.

Homecoming 1972 at Chicago Dramatists

Chicago Dramatists is a fine, playwright-oriented theater company with a comfy small space at 1105 W Chicago Ave.  Homecoming 1972 is a riveting play about the after-effects of the Vietnam war and its impact on those who served and those who stayed at home.  As I note in my Gapers Block review, about halfway into the play I realized that it was based on the Bruce Springsteen song, “Highway Patrolman,” from the acoustic 1982 album, Nebraska.  Frank, Joe and Maria? Those are the characters in the story Springsteen tells in that amazing song. Here are the lyrics, a summary of the play.

You’re probably thinking, “She’s obsessing again. Nancy thinks everything in life links back to Bruce Springsteen.” Well, I do think that. But in fact, the playwright Robert Koon is known to be a Springsteen fan too. I talked to some cast and crew members after the show and they confirmed that.

SPRINGSTEEN_NEBRASKA_5X5_site-500x500The Nebraska album is  a mournful record of  life in the late 1970s. Except for a few songs like “Atlantic City” and “Open All Night,” the album is basically a series of stories about downtrodden, lonely characters.  Springsteen recorded it in his bedroom on a tape recorder, intending it to be a demo to be released with a full E Street Band treatment. But his manager convinced him to release it as his first acoustic album. Its initial reception was lukewarm but in the years since, it has been acknowledged as one of his finest albums.

Chicago’s Tympanic Theatre Company produced Deliver Us From Nowhere last year, a series of 10 short plays based on the 10 songs on Nebraska. It was an interesting attempt but less than successful theatrically.

You can read my review of Homecoming 1972 here. I strongly recommend it.

Mine at The Gift Theatre

The Gift Theatre performs in a tiny storefront on the northwest side.  It’s a theater that I’ve been meaning to go to, since its work always gets outstanding reviews. I finally did that this week and reviewed a play called Mine that combines contemporary fears about parenting with reversion to medieval folklore.  It’s a very intense and haunting play, made more intense by the small performance space.  I often think when i see a play like this in a tiny space how much different it would seem if performed on a proscenium stage with a great deal of distance between players and viewers.

Read my review and try to see Mine — you have about six weeks to get there.

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.


  • 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 »

Live or Memorex?

In the antediluvian days of cassette taping, one company’s tagline was “Is it live or is it Memorex?” Their message was that the recording on their tapes was so true you would think you were listening to live music. Which of course is balderdash. Or the modern day equivalent.

Sound purists would say it’s all in the quality of the sound. Ok, that’s important. Studio performance or concerts recorded on vinyl may well be the best available recorded sound. And modern recording technology can strip out some of the sound between the sounds to create files that fit on our walking-around devices. We are willing to sacrifice sound quality for portability. Or as Bruce Springsteen said in his SXSW speech, “… the records that my music was initially released on gave way to a cloud of ones and zeroes, and I carry my entire record collection since I was thirteen in my breast pocket.”  Read the rest of this entry »