Friday, February 24, 2017

First Ever Full Show by Wilco at the Chicago Theatre Feels Quite Homey -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act The Flat Five
Chicago Theatre
February 22, 2017
(Also playing 2/23, 25, 26)

Some--whether regular readers of my reviews who know my tendencies on a @@@@@ scale, or those who attended Wednesday's Wilco concert and found it absolutely phenomenal--might see my @@@@ rating above and perceive that while I liked the show more than not, I have some gripes about it.

This wouldn't be a crazy thought, especially when it comes to the erstwhile Chicago folk-rock combo, who I've now seen as a headline act 11 times over the past 15 years and more often than not bestow @@@@ for their proclivity to keep their setlists more mellow and esoteric than I would prefer.

And such is pretty much the case once again.

Yet while @@@@@ or @@@@1/2 denotes a concert (or musical, play, opera, etc.) I loved to the point of urging others to attend at the next opportunity, per my Reviews Key at right @@@@ = Excellent, which I think of as a show I enjoyed and am entirely glad to have attended, just not one of the very best of dozens I see. 

This seems to be where Wilco fits in for me as a live act and--though I have more robustly rated and raved about shows where they've rocked out rigorously--I wouldn't want this taken as anything but a positive review. 

And I wouldn't even dare suggest Wilco should change anything to please me more.

By a band I very much like, this was an excellent concert, just to a @@@@ level rather than beyond. 

It was, however, made all the more special by being at the Chicago Theatre, my favorite local concert venue, with a good main floor seat at that (though I stood through Wilco's set with everyone else). 

Oddly, the quintessential Chicago band--though I prefer the Smashing Pumpkins at their peak--had only once previously played the glorious, 3,600-seat former movie palace on State Street, where they would seem to fit perfectly.

And that was just a guest slot on Late Night with Conan O'Brien in May 2006, where the evening's first guest on the visiting NBC show was a junior U.S. Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.

No, I didn't remember that, but Tweedy did and mentioned it from the stage, in between genial appreciation for being "back home" and some mild, then harsher comments about our new President.

In his longest harangue on Wednesday, the singer and guitarist, who had gotten some online flack for remarks supporting basic human decency and dignity--seen by some as anti-Trump--said:

"If you voted for Trump, and don't want me to say anything about him, just remember, you voted for a reality TV star.

I'm going to say whatever the fuck I want to. We're going to persist and we're going to resist."

Formed by Tweedy 23 years ago, from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo (with Jay Farrar), Wilco continues to sell every ticket they put on sale in Chicago.

Wednesday was their first show of 2017, and the opening of a 4-gig Wilco Winterlude at the Chicago.

Tweedy joked that the band had to relearn songs they had last played "in a simpler time."

Opening the evening were The Flat Five, whose easygoing stylings were largely ruined by two dumb-asses behind me conversing loudly throughout their 40-minute set.

Then at 8:30pm, six months and a day since I had last seen them, on a February evening nearly as temperate as that August night under the stars at Millennium Park--accompanied now by a friend named Alison who happens to share my last name and is therefore a homonym with sister, who was with me then--the six members of Wilco took the stage.

I didn't give much thought to their opening song, "Ashes of American Flags" at the time, but given Tweedy's subsequent remarks about the times in which we now find ourselves, I doubt the selection was coincidental.

As referenced above, Wilco has a tendency to slow-groove for awhile, and though everything they played sounded good, the first half of the 24-song set was dominated by newer and/or lesser known songs, including from 2016's Schmilco album.

A couple of gems from 1996's Being There and 1999's Summerteeth--"Misunderstood" and "Via Chicago," the night's only representatives from my two favorite Wilco albums--were mixed in early, with the cacophonous thunder bursts of the latter soon leading to greater sonic excitement.

Some great guitar leads from Nels Cline powered a blistering end to "Impossible Germany," and it was great to hear "Box Full of Letters" from Wilco's 1995 debut A.M., "Heavy Metal Drummer," "I'm the Man Who Loves You" and "Hummingbird," among others.

Though I've heard them plenty of times, I was hoping for "Shot in the Arm," "Monday," "Outtasite (Outta Mind)," "I'm Always in Love" or some other early rockers in the encores, but I realize these are probably being spread out over the residency.

A terrific 10-minute romp through "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" seemed to end the evening, but I was delighted to see the band come back onstage for a closing "California Stars."

And even more so was my friend Alison, who had gotten married to the song Wilco composed with Billy Bragg to previously unheard music by Woody Guthrie.

That legendary folk troubadour never shied from mixing his social and political beliefs into his music, and Wilco seems content to travel a similar road.

Perhaps particularly when it brings them back home.

Wilco's show at the Chicago Theatre on Saturday, February 25, will be broadcast on WXRT and streamed worldwide on

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Does 'Mamma Mia!' Retain All Its Joys in Marriott's Intimate, In-the-Round Setting? Abba-solutely! -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Mamma Mia
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru April 16

I've seen dozens of musicals at Marriott Theatre over the years, and can't think of one I didn't enjoy, with many I truly relished.

Part of the Marriott Resort in Lincolnshire, IL, featuring in-the-round seating and attracting what's been purported as the largest subscriber base in the country, the theater began operations in 1980.

When I first started attending at the beginning of this century, indoctrinated to musical theater as a kid but not having seen many shows in adulthood, the Marriott served as a great venue to catch fine renditions of classics of the canon.

These included Damn Yankees, 1776, Funny Girl and The Pajama Game, none of which I've seen produced elsewhere, even as I became a vociferous musical theater attendee across Chicago and occasionally in New York, London and elsewhere.

But now, much of what I see at Marriott--aside from their bold, original commissions like Hero and October Sky--are musicals I've seen elsewhere, typically in much larger venues.

As I'm typically relegated to nosebleed seats at, for instance, the Loop's cavernous Oriental and Palace Theatres, the intimacy at Marriott is always welcome.

And part of the fun of going there is noting how well talented directors, choreographers, set & costume designers, musicians and actors are able to replicate the essence of musicals that once had far more grandiose scenery.

To the credit of everyone involved, I'm usually exuberantly impressed; Marriott's takes on Les Misérables, La Cage Aux Folles, Spring Awakening and Man of La Mancha still stand out as particularly remarkable, among many other fine productions.

But especially in writing reviews, I often wonder if Marriott's excellent distillations of shows I've seen on a larger scale are providing holistic introductions to the source material; i.e. are patrons seeing musicals for the first time in-the-round--where no scenery can block the view of audience members on all sides--getting the full effect?

More so than possibly ever, with the ebullient current rendition of Mamma Mia!, I would say, "Yes!"

Certainly it helps that the musical in which songs by Sweden's legendary ABBA quartet are employed to tell an original story--still describable as "slight" but far better than those of myriad "jukebox musicals" to follow--has always delighted me and still does.

Loosely defined, jukebox musicals--which use pre-existing and typically popular songs, rather than those newly composed for the stage--have long been around, with classic tunes by the likes of George Gershwin and Cole Porter being compiled into "new" musicals.

But in terms of those using rock or pop music, Mamma Mia!--which debuted in London in 1999--can be regarded as the first (excepting perhaps The Who's Tommy, which turned a recorded rock opera into a stage musical).

I first saw it on tour in Chicago in 2001--well before it hit Broadway--and soon after in Melbourne, Australia, as well three other times before now. 

Though quite popular and beloved from the get-go, the ABBA musical--with a book by Catherine Johnson weaving together songs written by the group's two male "B" members, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus--has generally garnered comments along the lines of "It's not Shakespeare" about its storyline.

But the narrative about a 20-year-old girl living in the Greek Islands with her mother--having never been told who her father is among three possible candidates and impulsively inviting them to her upcoming wedding behind mom's back--incorporates the title song, "Chiquitita," "One of Us," "Knowing Me, Knowing You," "Slipping Through My Fingers," "The Winner Takes It All" and other ABBA tunes so well that oblivious audience members would likely not suspect they weren't specifically written for this show.

And with the single mom, Donna Sheridan (nicely played here by Danni Smith) having been a former singer in a trio with pals who arrive for the wedding, high energy ABBA hits like "Dancing Queen" and "Super Trouper" are also wonderfully worked in without feeling shoehorned.

In Lincolnshire, the soon-to-be-wed Sophie is delightfully embodied by Tiffany Tatreau, a young actress who has become one of my favorites in Chicagoland over the past 15 months, beginning with Ride the Cyclone--a new musical staged at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre under the direction of Rachel Rockwell, who helms this Mamma Mia!--and continuing with a string of shows at Marriott (Spring Awakening, Sister Act) and elsewhere (Griffin Theatre's Bat Boy).

So I found it rather fun that when Mamma Mia! begins with two of Sophie's BFFs arriving for her wedding, one of them is played by Lillian Castillo, who I fondly recall alongside Tatreau in both Ride the Cyclone and Sister Act.

The redheaded Tatreau makes for a rather spirited Sophie, and amiably handles interactions with her mom, "dads" (Derek Hasenstab as Bill Austin, Karl Hamilton as Harry Bright and Peter Saide as Sam Carmichael) and fiance Sky (Russell Mernagh).

I was again reminded how often funny, and occasionally risque, Mamma Mia! is, with Donna's old singing partners, Tanya (Meghan Murphy) and Rosie (Cassie Slater), making for wonderful comic relief.

The unseen band hits all the right notes, the almost entirely Equity cast is excellent throughout, costume designer Theresa Ham works in some dazzling hues, choreographer Ericka Mac makes good use of the square stage and, under the always dynamic direction of Rockwell, set designer Scott Davis clever compensates for Marriott's spatial considerations, which precluded the typical white & blue Greek taverna (which Donna owns) as a central stage piece, but smartly works it in nonetheless.

I last saw a "downtown" Mamma Mia! in November 2015, and it likewise reiterated just how much I like this show.

But there was something about finally seeing this "island musical" up close that made it especially buoyant, and though I could quibble about a couple of the primary vocal timbres or point to a few of the cast members seeming notably young for their parts, the truth is that I had a smile on my face throughout the whole thing and couldn't wait to dance in the aisles during the "encore."

"You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life," goes ABBA's quintessential "Dancing Queen," and with my mom alongside, indeed I was.

If you've seen and loved Mamma Mia! before, you should certainly be smitten by this rendition, and if you've never taken a chance on this once newly-cheeky but now nearly-classic musical, the answer to "Voulez-Vouz" (do you want (to)?) should be rather apparent by now.

"I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do."

Monday, February 13, 2017

Hanging Around My Condo: A Look at the Pictures on My Walls

I live in a one-bedroom condominium, in a building that has existed since at least the early 1960s.

It is quite sufficient for my needs, but not what one would likely call spacious.

When moving in nearly 10 years ago, I requested a beige-ish wall paint, but asked that the main wall in my living room be painted white, so that I could project movies & TV upon it.

The other two main walls in my living room are completely fronted by bookcases and CD/DVD shelves, while a smaller wall is where I have my computer hutch, in front of which I am currently sitting. A wall in the hallway is largely occupied by a display of autographed baseballs that I once collected.

Given these facts, it might not seem that I could have all that much wall art adorning my residence, yet I have more than 60 pieces, of various ilks and sizes, some rather large.

Although I typically host friends and family a good handful of times each year for Movie Nights, other gatherings and occasional visits, the truth is not that many people will ever see my condo or what is on its walls. And even those who have been over will likely have missed some works, including some recent acquisitions and those in my messy bedroom.

So I thought I'd do this.

I'll try to suggest the relative size of various pieces, and in many cases am posting a replica version rather than an actual photo of what's hanging, given issues with odd angles and glare. If you want to see them in context, you'll just have to come over.

Movie Posters

Funny Face is the English title

Sunday, February 12, 2017

At Porchlight, Kander & Ebb's 'The Scottsboro Boys' Musically Illuminates a Tragic Injustice -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Scottsboro Boys
Porchlight Music Theatre
at Stage 773, Chicago
Thru March 12

Composer John Kander and the late lyricist Fred Ebb collaborarated on some of the greatest works of musical theater ever created, including Cabaret and Chicago.

I'm also a big fan of Kander & Ebb's The Visit, which premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2001 before finally landing on Broadway in 2015; both productions starred Chita Rivera, as did one in 2008 near Washington, DC. I saw all three, and have also enjoyed local stagings of their Curtains and The Rink.

Though I've seen Cabaret and Chicago multiple times, I've never knowingly had an opportunity to catch K&E's famed Kiss of the Spider Woman, nor other notable works like Zorba and Steel Pier.

But with Cabaret, especially, being among my very favorite musicals--its festive, brassy score masterfully undermined by a sense of foreboding as people danced on the edge of extinction--my appreciation of Kander & Ebb runs deep.

Photo credit on all: Kelsey Jorissen
So I eagerly took note of the first Chicago staging of The Scottsboro Boys, by the erstwhile Porchlight
Music Theatre.

Though the musical's brief 2010 Broadway run preceded The Visit's arrival on the Great White Way, it is considered the last Kander & Ebb collaboration.

Fred Ebb passed away in 2004 and John Kander, who is now a month shy of 90, finished lyrics that his partner left incomplete, while also writing the music. The show's book is by David Thompson.

I've seen a number of stellar musical productions by Porchlight at Stage 773 on Belmont--including their recent terrific take on In the Heights--and the harrowing story of the real-life Scottsboro Boys seemed like one I should know, especially after missing a non-musical stage piece (Direct From Death Row The Scottsboro Boys) that recently earned raves at Chicago's Raven Theatre.

In 1931, nine teenage African-American men riding a freight train from Chattanooga to Memphis resisted an assault by a group of white men, who got off the train and complained to police. Concurrently, two white women who were on the train and at risk of being arrested for prostitution, claimed they were raped by the black men. 

The nine men were tried in Scottboro, Alabama, where despite a recantation by one of the women and scant evidence of any guilt, they were convicted. The case became something of a cause célèbre among Northern liberals and Communists, and while subsequent trials and years saw the release of some of the men, guilty verdicts were handed down repeatedly.

Whether in prison or out, most of the Scottsboro boys died quite young.

This may seem like tough subject matter for a musical, but between the way their brilliant Cabaret hinted at the rise of Nazism and Chicago depicted a court case, the material would seem to be in excellent hands with Kander & Ebb.

And between the actual history, the legacy of the composer/lyricist team and the Chicago premiere by a troupe I've often enjoyed, The Scottsboro Boys felt like an important show for me to see.

On all those levels it was, and even if I didn't find it on par with Kander & Ebb's best, or Porchlight's, it is certainly worth one's while.

Subversively, given the subject matter, the story is told through the framework of a minstrel show, with a white Interlocutor (the routinely excellent Larry Yando, though uncomfortably so here) and otherwise entirely black cast.

Though clearly older than the 18-year-old Haywood Patterson that he plays (and not the son of James Earl Jones, though he's related), James Earl Jones II is also terrific, as usual, as the most prominent of the Scottsboro Boys onstage.

Whether solo or along with others, Jones' vocal prowess raises the opening "Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey," "Commencing in Chattanooga," the powerful song of defiance, "Nothing," the beautiful "Go Back Home" and "Make Friends with the Truth," among others.

Imbued with southern and minstrel stylings, Kander's score is never less than interesting, and often delightful, if not as robustly so as that of Cabaret, Chicago or even The Visit.

And the six-piece band sounded great.

Yet while I understand the conceit of the "minstrel show" is meant to mock the circus that the actual proceedings appear to have been, for me it tended to dissipate the power of the storytelling.

Certainly, as the Interlocutor's chief jesters, Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, Denzel Tsopnang and Mark J.P. Hood, respectively, are terrific. And their embodiment of the two white female accusers adds to abject inanity of the distressing situation.

But Hood's seemingly mocking portrayal of Jewish lawyer Samuel Leibovitz, who later came to the aid of the Scottsboro Boys, had me a bit confused. And though learning about the real events--including the treatment of Haywood Patterson, who learned to write while in jail and would author an account of the injustices--was undeniably moving and angering, I'm not sure if the emotional impact was as deep as it should have been.

There was much good and nothing obviously deficient in the script, songs, casting, performances--Stephen Allen, Jr., who was excellent in In the Heights also does nice work here--or the direction by Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. (the Artistic Director of Chicago's Congo Square Theater) and choreography by Florence Walker-Harris.

But whether due to the show as written--The Scottsboro Boys wasn't a big hit on Broadway, received mixed reviews and won no Tony Awards despite 12 nominations--or the choices and limitations of the Porchlight production, my introduction to this Kander & Ebb musical, while enjoyable, enlightening and important, was neither perfect nor fully enriching.

That isn't quite the verdict I was hoping to reach, but unlike the miscarriage of justice that actually destroyed the lives of the Scottsboro Boys, I think it's fair.

And just for the reasons I wanted to see this show, I recommend it to almost anyone.

This isn't quite a Kander & Ebb masterpiece, but it's nonetheless still a rather significant, eminently watchable, entirely relevant piece from two undeniable masters of musical theater.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

'The Salesman' Leaves Me (Further) Sold That Iran's Asghar Farhadi is the World's Best Movie Director -- An Appreciation (with an assist from Brad Strauss, co-host of The Director's Club podcast)

Yesterday, I saw The Salesman, an Iranian film written and directed by Asghar Farhadi.

This is just the first week it is playing at Chicago area cinemas, and just a pair at that--Century Evanston (where I saw it) and Regal Webster Place--but it is officially a 2016 release, nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar to be awarded on February 26.

If I had seen it in 2016, I would have named it--on this year-end blog post--my second favorite film of the year, behind just Manchester by the Sea. When I make my list of the Best New Movies I Saw in 2017, I'm pretty sure it will rank high.

Farhadi's A Separation was my #1 new movie seen in 2012, though it was officially a 2011 release and won the Foreign Language Academy Award for that year. It's likely among my 10 favorite films produced in this century.

The Past, officially a 2013 release, was third on my list of the Best New Movies I Saw in 2014. (His films tend not to hit U.S., or at least Chicago, screens until the following year.)

Within the past week, I've also watched for the first time, Farhadi's 2009 About Elly, which I found terrific, and 2006's Fireworks Wednesday, which is also very good if not quite to the level of the writer/director's four films that would follow.

According to IMDB, Farhadi also directed two earlier feature-length films, 2003's Dancing in the Dust and 2004's Beautiful City; these are hard to find, and I have not seen either.

But based on what I have seen, including The Salesman--which chronicles a high school literature teacher acting in a local (presumably in Tehran) production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman along with his wife, whose privacy is violated within their new apartment, setting off a slow-boil whodunit--I would confidently call Asghar Farhadi the world's best movie director working today, at least per work that I have witnessed.

This needn't be a contest, nor my opinion meant to override the legacies of still-working legends like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Michael Haneke, the Dardenne brothers, etc., nor disrespect brilliant younger directors such as Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Denis Villeneuve, Christopher Nolan, the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson or anyone else.

And to be clear, this article is meant as an artistic appreciation, not a political screed, but at a time when the U.S. President is trying to ban immigrants from seven Muslim countries--including Iran--I find it interesting that perhaps the finest practitioner of the world's most universal art form is indeed Iranian (and presumably Muslim).

(Just to note it, one of my other favorite film directors of the past dozen years or so is an Iranian-American, Ramin Bahrani.)

Though Farhadi could supposedly receive dispensation to attend the Academy Awards amid the Muslim ban--regardless of stays and other court decisions--the latest I've read is that he won't attend the ceremony.

This is a shame, especially as his movies have greatly abetted my insights into life in Iran and provide far more humane depictions of real people than most Hollywood movies. 

My friend, Brad Strauss, who has long run the monthly Sunday lunch gatherings of the Chicago Film Discussion Meetup Group, of which I am a member, concurs that "I can think of no contemporary director who is currently making films as consistently great as Farhadi," while capsulizing his mastery as such:
"He is wonderfully perceptive and humanistic in his development of characters. While not an overtly flashy filmmaker, the technical skill required to develop narratives with this level of complexity is considerable, as is his ability to constantly surprise in a medium that is so often predictable."
Strauss has recently begun co-hosting The Director's Club podcast--you can listen to episodes here (the latest being about Danny Boyle, with an exploration of Jacques Tati upcoming) and/or find it on iTunes--with another of my film Meetup group friends, so it seemed natural to glean his insights about Farhadi.

In fact, I believe Brad was my entrée into A Separation--which he calls "Farhadi's masterpiece, my favorite film of this decade [and] one of the most compelling dramas ever made"--and a champion of The Salesman since seeing it at the Toronto International Film Festival last September.

His praise of About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday over a recent dinner was what prompted me to seek them out, and in noting similarities across the five Farhadi films we've both seen--a focus on middle class Iranians, the unhurried depiction of universally identifiable domesticity, explorations of discord, struggle, strife and often a rather chilling twist--I asked him if he considered Farhadi an "auteur":
"Without diving into the weeds and controversies of the auteur theory, I have no doubt he is one," Strauss opined. "Thematically, Farhadi is constantly building empathy and refuses to judge his characters. This allows us to see conflicts from multiple points of view. He is also, like [Stanley] Kubrick and [Robert] Altman, a genre jumper, but he does so subtly, never relinquishing his own style."
Although Brad, I and film lovers worldwide can find enjoyment in any well-made movie, including big budget Hollywood extravaganzas, we've come to rue the relative sparsity--or at least non-prominence--of character-driven cinema.

For simple-yet-compelling storytelling beyond the ubiquitous superhero movies, franchise films, sequels and "event movies" that even gifted directors like  Iñárritu (The Revenant), Villeneuve (Arrival), Nolan (Inception, Interstellar, The Dark Knight series) and others seem obliged to make, one must often look to independent films and those originating from countries other than the United States.

Current Best Picture nominees like Manchester by the Sea (written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan) and Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) provide exemplary arguments against the notion that America can't produce quality, intimate films devoid of spaceships and explosions. But neither has yet grossed more than $45 million at the U.S. Box Office, with the latter below $20 million.

Even Spotlight (directed by Tom McCarthy), which won the 2015 Best Picture Oscar, made only $45 million in domestic theaters, and Jim Jaramusch's current Paterson--which stars Adam Driver of Star Wars: The Force Awakens fame and has a 96% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes--has spent the past month playing on exactly one Chicago area screen (at the Century on Clark St., which isn't very convenient for me).

Personally, I think the world--and especially the U.S.--would be a better, more empathetic place if more people saw a wider swath of movies.

I love Farhadi's focus on human stories, familial dilemmas, inner conflict, turmoil, illness, heartbreak, insecurity and other matters that are common to pretty much everyone, no matter where they live, who they pray to or how much money they have.

"World cinema is a wonderful way to explore different cultures, but they are always from the filmmaker's point of view. The takeaway with Farhadi is a universalism that allows us to completely relate, regardless of cultural differences," Strauss expanded, while adding:

"We also have to recognize the place that Iranian censorship plays in his and all Iranian filmmakers' work. Aside from The Past, which was filmed in France and able to deal with more frank subject matters, all his films had to be (sometimes reluctantly) state-approved. Farhadi gets around this by implying what he can't show and "smuggling" subversive messages in ways that great old time Hollywood directors used to get past the Hays code."

In The Salesman, the director of Death of a Salesman tells the cast that edits likely need to made at three points in Miller's legendary script in order to satisfy Iranian cultural norms and those who enforce them. Without wanting to give away any key plot points of the movie, I can't help but interpret this as Farhadi's way of telling his audience that aspects of his film may have been softened or excised due to possible censorship concerns.

With this perception likely heightened due to the theatrical production central to The Salesman, I also see Asghar Farhadi's films--especially in contrast to most mainstream cinema--as being more akin to great, contemplative theatrical dramas, such as those written by American masters like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill. (The 44-year-old Farhadi was a Theater major with a Master's in Stage Direction, and got his professional start writing and directing Iranian theater. )

To this point, Brad notes, "Yes, one can draw connections to theater works that focus on familial or small group conflicts, but Farhadi adds cinematic elements missing from an otherwise great adaptation like Fences [an acclaimed play by August Wilson, and recently a movie directed by and starring Denzel Washington]."

Obviously, people choose to see certain films for any number of reasons, and miss out on most due to obliviousness, disinterest, lack of availability and/or a limited amount of time.

If you've taken the time to read this blog post, you're probably already aware of Asghar Farhadi and may well have seen at least A Separation. If so, The Salesman is similarly not to be missed, even if you must wait for it to hit Netflix, On-Demand or your local library. (About Elly is currently streaming on Netflix and you should be able to find The Past, A Separation and probably Fireworks Wednesday at any library worth its salt.)

But if you've opted to avoid Farhadi's excellent films, intentionally or not, due to a perceived aversion to the Persian language or Iranian subject matter--and I'm not condemning you, as I must admit to once having similar thoughts--I think it's even more important that you seek out his oeuvre, or at least a few of his movies.

Not only will you enjoy sensitive, insightful storytelling not readily found at your local cineplex--and will likely be surprised at how largely non-religious and modern Farhadi's work is--you'll undoubtedly encounter people, places, scenarios and feelings that are far more familiar than they are foreign.

In a recent interview with Elise Nakhnikian for Slant Magazine, Asghar Farhadi observed:
"The situations that characters are put into in these films are situations that could happen anywhere in the world. The look that I have onto the characters is a look of empathy—even the characters who are at fault. Perhaps this is something that people around the world like, when you can put yourself into the shoes of others. This is the most important thing to me."
Whatever one's political or social beliefs, a good movie is a great thing, no matter who made it. And if an enjoyable couple hours of entertainment can further our cultural understanding, that's even better.

Not everyone needs to agree, and we never will, but greater commonality can only enhance our conversations.

As Farhadi astutely notes in the Slant piece:

"I think my audience has realized now that it has to leave some time to think about the film after they see it. That people talk to each other, that it creates conversation and debate among people, even those that don't agree with the film."

So you well may contradict my premise that Asghar Farhadi is the best movie director working today. You may not even love, or even much like, his films. (Those  versed only in blockbusters may find them slow to unfold.)

But especially in this combative, polarized age, I believe it inarguably valuable to be aware of him and the work he is doing.

In Iran, where as he told Nakhnikian, "despite all the difficulties, I still prefer making films."

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The World Could Sure Use a Band Like The Clash Right Now -- Celebrating International Clash Day 2017

Song quote from "Clampdown," off London Calling (1979). See more about International Clash Day on

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Of Enemies and Empathy: Northlight's 'Faceless' Provides a Riveting Look Into Our Hearts, Minds and Humanity -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a world premiere play by Selina Fillinger
directed by BJ Jones
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru March 4

Given the considerable time it takes to research, write, refine, develop, schedule, produce and promote a play, it might seem rather kismet--from a topicality and publicity standpoint--that Selina Fillinger's Faceless, which focuses on Muslims in America and fears of terrorism, happens to be world premiering right now.

Certainly, anti-Muslim vitriol from certain quarters--and empathy for the predominantly peaceful followers of Islam from others--is nothing new, and in recent years I've seen three excellent plays by Rohina Malik (Unveiled, The Mecca Tales and Yasmina's Necklace) that have aided my cultural understanding rather acutely after terrorist acts have exacerbated American Islamophobia.

But with President Trump's immigration-restricting executive order that many, including me, read as a Muslim Ban resulting in great agitation and mass protest--and assuredly widespread support as well--Faceless comes at about the most salient juncture imaginable.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
If this helps garner press and sell tickets for Fillinger's smart, empathetic and humane drama--astutely-directed by Northlight artistic director BJ Jones--in which every character has relatable and objectionable aspects, the timing can't be considered inopportune.

Particularly if the show opens eyes among audiences bringing with them varying perspectives.

Yet it's also a whole lot of imprecisely-added weight to put on what I believe is the first professional production of a play by Fillinger, who graduated from Northwestern just last June.

Though clearly quite talented--she twice won playwriting awards in NU's Agnes Nixon Festival and here demonstrates deftness with dialogue, pacing and balance--the author wasn't acutely writing about Trump, political polarization in America, refugees, Muslim bans or strategies for counteracting terrorism.

Rather, Faceless more psychologically focuses on a 18-year-old, white, suburban Chicago girl named Susie Glenn (an excellent Lindsay Stock), who is on trial for attempting to join ISIS.

While this itself might sound pulled from headlines--and actually is, as Fillinger notes in the program that she was inspired to write the play upon learning that over 250 Americans have joined ISIS--the play proceeds, adroitly, in rather intriguing directions.

Though Susie's actions are never openly condoned, Fillinger paints this demonized girl with brush strokes we rarely consider, including her still being a child, dealing with the loss of her mother, feeling like a high school (and societal) outcast, longing for love and finding Twitter, Facebook, texting, etc., an easy way to interact internationally yet intimately with a man who expresses tenderness despite--initially unbeknownst to her--being a soldier with ISIS.

Even her loving father (Joe Dempsey, who well handles a delicate role) and liberal, well-intentioned lawyer (longtime Chicagoland stage vet Ross Lehman, excellent but almost unrecognizable here) often demonstrate far less understanding of a struggling teenage girl than did Reza, the Syrian whose online conversations with Susie are depicted, though he isn't embodied onstage.

Counterbalancing Susie is a young prosecutor of Muslim descent, Claire Fathi (played by the terrific Susaan Jamshidi, who was also great in the title role of Yasmina's Necklace).

Raised in Chicago as the daughter of a French mother and Iranian father, Claire doesn't "use my faith to fight my battles; that's what ISIS does."

At least as the play opens, she is scornful of a "Wonder Bread white" girl who has maintained a 8-month communication with a "Jihadist," intended to move to Syria and marry him, posted pro-ISIS tweets, converted to Islam and wears a hijab.

Somewhat goaded into heading Susie's prosecution by a much more seasoned--and calculating--Assistant DA, Scott Bader (Timothy Edward Kane, also quite good, like the entire cast), Claire intends to put Susie in prison for quite a long time, including for the career benefits doing so can have.

But she is also skeptical about being used as a pawn because of her religion and appearance, and disdainful of Scott, who continues to make disparaging remarks about Muslims and women well past the point of it furthering the narrative.

I won't reveal any more of Faceless' specifics, including a court case that--sans the depth of legalese--begins to feel a bit like something a stellar episode of The Good Wife might have involved.

But as I was trying to intimate above, the 90-minute Faceless may be most skillful for what it isn't, at least not in preponderance. Sure, it's partly a courtroom thriller, partly a religious lesson, partly a look at prejudice and presumption, partly a discussion of Islam and intolerance, partly a character study of a young American who joins ISIS.

But to quote Selina Fillinger directly (from a marketing piece for Faceless):

"This play is first and foremost about two young women trying to face their fears, find their voices, and leave their marks."

And indeed, the beauty of Faceless is how it doesn't draw easy conclusions, engage in sound-byte polemics nor provide bumper sticker protest slogans. (Not that there aren't numerous pointed lines, such as "It's a privilege to defend the defenseless.")

Instead, it addresses the reality that we are all in this together, good and bad, with lines not always so clearly drawn, nor predictably obvious.

Though I saw just the first official public performance, it's easy to imagine Faceless being staged for years to come, at theaters around the world.

And without mistaking it for a pedestrian, hyper-topical dramatic crusade, the fresh, modern piece--along with much else, it makes ample use of emoticons--is gladly and yes, somewhat sadly, very much a play for our times.