Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Along for the Ride: Passenger-Side Photos From a Memorial Day Excursion Heading Southeast in Chicago

I didn't have much happening on Memorial Day yesterday.

No one invited me to any barbecues or picnics; I didn't attend any remembrances for fallen soldiers.

And while hanging out with family is a fairly common option, I had done so pretty extensively on both Saturday and Sunday.

So I was glad when I connected with my friend Ken, who wanted to pay a cemetery visit down in Calumet City and was happy to have me along for the ride.

Ken opted to take "the scenic route" along south Lake Shore Drive and the 41 extension, wanting to point out a grand church, stop at a longstanding eatery, show me his favorite fishing spot and take me past the Hammond, IN homes where he had spent a good part of his childhood, among other points of interest.

It was a fun jaunt and made for some good photos, as shown below roughly in the order taken. We began down the Edens & Kennedy but got over to LSD south of McCormick Place. I didn't get any good shots of the most beautiful stretch along Lake Michigan, as I was on the passenger side.

St. Michael the Archangel

A small shack featuring fish smoked on the premises; it's existed since 1948 but neither Ken or I had been here before.

It's hard to tell, but the bridge had opened while we watched.

Caught between two states (not just of mind); Indiana on the left, Illinois on the right.


All photos by Seth Arkin, copyright 2017. Please do not repost without permission and attribution.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Strong Acting Can't Keep Numerous Threads of 'The Night Season' FromHanging Loose -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Night Season
by Rebecca Lenkiewicz
directed by Elly Green
Strawdog Theatre Company
at The Factory Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 24

Perhaps I have seen too many Martin McDonagh plays featuring quaint Irish settings, thick brogues, quirky characters, quarreling families and a healthy dose of profanity that I couldn't help but anticipate Rebecca Lenkiewicz's The Night Season--featuring all of the above--similarly erupting into bloody mayhem.

Lenkiewicz--who co-wrote the movie Ida, a masterpiece of contemplative serenity and my favorite film of this decade--obviously can't be held accountable for opting not to turn her 2004 drama into an over-the-top black comedy.

For assuredly, there are many great Irish plays that don't wind up with body parts strewn around the stage.

And gushing like geysers. (Such as in McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore.)

But while The Night Season's script--aided by fine acting in this Strawdog Theatre Co. production under the direction of Elly Green--is strong enough to keep me reasonably intrigued across a 90-minute first act in which numerous narrative threads are introduced, the nearly-as-long second act never congeals cohesively enough.

Nor provides McDonaghesque histrionics, which, candidly, would have been welcome.

Centered around three unmarried sisters--Rose (Micaela Petro), Judith (Justine C. Turner) and Maud (Stella Martin)--who live in Sligo with their father Patrick (Jamie Vann) and his mother-in-law Lily (Janice O'Neill), The Night Season's driving force is the arrival in town of a (mostly unseen) film crew shooting a movie about legendary Irish poet W.B. Yeats.

I do not know enough about Yeats or his work to appreciate corresponding themes that may have run through the play. There are some poetic verses openly quoted, but if any of these provide reason or rationale for the show's title, or anything else, I'm admittedly clueless.

John (John Henry Roberts), a film actor of seemingly some renown, stays in the family's guest cottage, has sex with one of the sisters and dances sweetly with the somewhat demenia-beset Lily.

Amid much drinking and the steady playing of old phonograph records, we also meet Gary (Michael Reyes), a local ex-boyfriend of Judith, while another sister's good-fer-nothin' beau is frequently referenced but not seen.

Also commonly spoken of is Esther, the girls' mother, Patrick's ex-wife and Lily's daughter. Slowly piecing several Act I mentions together, it seems she divorced Patrick years back--before the youngest sister, Maud, really go to know her--now lives in London and is longingly spoken of as though she were dead and not just a phone call, email or hourlong flight away.

Petro, Turner and Martin well-play the sisters, with convincing Irish brogues, and dialogue about their love lives, missing mother and visiting movie star--who himself is just days removed from a family crisis--offering much for the audience to digest and potentially identify with. (The rest of cast is also strong, most particularly O'Neill as Lily.)

But while The Night Season ostensibly involves several themes familiar to many a fine drama, I found that there were too many threads, with most never leading anywhere all that enticing.

I also didn't see any reason for this play--or most for that matter--to be as long as it is, especially as I would have been content with three separate ending points before the actual one.

Not that nearly 3 hours of earnest, even if not superlative, theater isn't a worthwhile investment of my time, but I typically find relative brevity to be dramatically beneficial.

With seven on-stage characters, all given considerable depth--I didn't broach on nearly all of the narrative strains--writer Lenkiewicz, director Green and all the actors do a estimable job letting us get to know the members of this particular Irish family and their Yeats-playing new pal.

But I think it would've behooved The Night Season if some of the storylines were winnowed out, with the focus on certain characters and their everyday crises allowed little more than a smattering.

If not--in going all Inishmore--a splattering.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Work of Genius: Mike Nussbaum's Performance as Albert Einstein in 'Relativity' is Remarkably Brilliant -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a world premiere play by Mark St. Germain
directed by BJ Jones
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru June 25

I first saw and liked Mike Nussbaum in David Mamet's excellent 1987 film, House of Games.

Since 2002, when the Chicago-based actor was just 78, I've seen him 11 times in a variety of local theater productions, including Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, two Sondheim musicals (at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater), four plays--including the current one--at Northlight Theatre (for whom he was the founding Artistic Director in 1975) and in 2012 playing the titular genius in Freud's Last Session, which, like Relativity, was written by Mark St. Germain.

As, just a bit past half of Nussbaum's 93 years, I'm hard pressed simply to stand for 30 consecutive minutes, let alone memorize lines or perform in any meaningful way, I won't apologize for being impressed merely by the esteemed actor's continued ability to grace a stage.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
According to Actors' Equity Association--per the press release for Relativity--Mike Nussbaum is the oldest actor still working on stage.

So it's amazing to appreciate just how truly outstanding he remains an actor.

I wanted to see Relativity primarily to watch Nussbaum play Albert Einstein, candidly caring more about the former than the latter. And I swear, midway through the play--just 70 minutes with 3 cast members--I felt like I was watching Albert Einstein, not an actor embodying him.

There are other reasons to see Relativity, including fine performances by Katherine Keberlein and Ann Whitney.

I think it prudent for me to avoid any specifics about the plot; best that anyone seeing it arrive unknowing, and even unguessing, where St. Germain will take things, even given considerable historic liberties.

Though there isn't tremendous biographical depth, I learned several things about Einstein I never knew, and one of the show's key questions--can you, or should you, appreciate the great accomplishments of someone you might not consider a good person--is something I seem to debate at least monthly.

Should I watch and champion the films of Mel Gibson, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski? Should ugly insinuations about Alfred Hitchcock lessen my enjoyment of his brilliant movies? Can I love Guns 'N Roses, still, despite perceiving Axl Rose to be a wife-abusing asshole? Was it wrong for me to cheer for Aroldis Chapman with the Cubs given his domestic violence transgressions?

I fully admit to being inconsistent about matters like these, which rarely are precisely parallel.

As someone suggested the other day, what we're willing to overlook may well depend on how much a given person's art--or as in Einstein's case, other such brilliance--means and matters to us.

To wit, I can live contentedly without ever again watching reruns of The Cosby Show, but damn if I'll be giving up the Beatles no matter how damning any evidence that John Lennon wasn't always an upstanding guy.

And of course, while there are always gray areas, criminal matters can be rather different than someone being a cheating husband or emotionally abusive or absent father. But given one's own personal experiences, it's not impossible that the latter can seem more grievous. 

What Relativity alleges about Einstein, largely having to do with familial flaws, are things I'd never heard before, and in both a dramatic realm and informative one, the play is worthwhile--even if I'm not sure I really needed or wanted to know about the genius' imperfections.

Anyway, it's pretty obvious to say that with a lesser cast Relativity probably wouldn't seem as good. Great actors always elevate material in ways that lesser ones don't.

And it's not impossible to imagine other stalwart actors playing Albert Einstein well.

But at Northlight, under the direction of his longtime friend and colleague BJ Jones--they met during the troupe's nascent days--Mike Nussbaum is extraordinary, even with a script that otherwise may not quite be considered brilliant.

Which I think is my convoluted way of saying that Relativity, as written and even otherwise well-performed, would probably merit @@@@ from me.

But Nussbaum himself, in this role, at the age of 93--or even if he were 53--deserves @@@@@.

Which gets me to @@@@1/2 and a rather emphatic recommendation that you see this remarkable performer in a play that--most of all, because of its star in Skokie--is worth your time, money and attention.

His really is a work of genius. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

'Time Stands Still' Provides Moving Look at Life, Love, Pain and the Pursuit of War Zone Photography -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Time Stands Still
by Donald Margulies
directed by Georgette Verdin
Aston Rep Theatre Company
at the Raven Theatre Complex, Chicago
Thru June 11

As Time Stands Still begins--per a fine local production by Aston Rep of the Tony-nominated play by Donald Margulies--considerable time has already elapsed from the events that will acutely shape its narrative.

With a man named James (Robert Tobin) helping his girlfriend of several years, Sarah (Sara Pavlak McGuire), into their New York apartment, her facial scars, damaged leg and arm-in-a-sling let us know that she has survived --with lucidity intact--and somewhat recuperated from a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq while on a photo assignment.

Within a few minutes, we also understand that he too is a war journalist--a writer to her photographer--who was compelled by the ravages and dangers of what he experienced to return home, with ever-increased guilt, just weeks before the incident that maimed her and caused nearby casualties.

These episodes are central to everything that unfolds onstage, with Margulies focusing more overtly on the characters trying to move forward, even as the past is ever-present.

Photo credit on all: Emily Schwartz
Under the direction of Georgette Verdin, the play is as much observational--in depicting how the central couple strives, and struggles, to regain a sense of normalcy after such shattering events--as it is overtly dramatic and tension-filled.

In fact, the play's other two characters--Richard (Rob Frankel), a magazine editor for whom Sarah worked, and his young, attractive, new girlfriend Mandy (Kirra Silver)--seem to exist largely to provide a dramatic refuge from the hard-to-enunciate discomfiture between James and Sarah.

While Sarah's lashing out at Richard for "robbing the cradle" feels fairly routine and even a bit distracting from the primary thread, far more pointed and compelling is Mandy's challenging Sarah over her instincts to photograph victims, rather than to aid them. I actually thought this, and a couple other confrontational strains, might well have gotten even more intense.

I also found the exploration of vocations of passion that people opt to pursue--even in the face of obstacles, including possibly life-threatening ones--to be rather resonant, not just regarding the perspectives of Sarah and James within the play, but in watching actors from a small Chicago ensemble (and even as pertinent to my own life).

Despite the title, Time Stands Still--which runs about 2 hours with an intermission--is well-paced and holds one's attention throughout.

Margulies, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Dinner With Friends--though I recall being lukewarm about a Goodman production of it several years back--is clearly a professional playwright, and especially for just $20 per ticket, this production feels like quintessential "local theater."

Aspen Rep has become one of my favorite Chicago troupes in recent years, and as usual the actors here are all demonstrably good.

Tobin, who is Aston Rep's Artistic Director, and McGuire, an ensemble member, feel quite genuine as the main couple, especially in roles necessitating considerable emotional ambiguity. (I imagine unease is hard to portray naturally without it seeming too much like "actors acting.")

Though I felt the Richard character was the least compelling--his perspectives on Sarah, James, journalistic decisions and his own relationships seem a bit middling rather than forceful--Frankel clearly plays him well as written.

And recent Northwestern grad Silver brings palpable freshness to the proceedings, not simply in her embodiment of the guileless Mandy, but in terms of intangible stage presence.

In the theater, I didn't perceive Time Stands Still to quite be a brilliant play; I never felt that tingle of wondering what might unfold.

But it prompted a nice discussion afterward, and I do appreciate that sometimes the storylines that don't dazzle with overt theatricality are the ones that hit closer to home.

For the big questions of life are rarely answered with precision, and never within a 2-hour span.

Time Stands Still had its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf in 2012, but though I see many shows there I didn't get to it. I have tremendous regard for the quality of Steppenwolf's productions--and recommend you read the typically illuminating program notes that their recently passed former Artistic Director, Martha Lavey, wrote about this play--but it's to Aston Rep's great credit that I feel they provided the full essence of Margulies' work.

You may like it a bit more than me, or perhaps a bit less; either way this should be taken as a wholehearted recommendation.

Within the comfortable confines of the Raven Theatre complex, with easy parking in an adjoining lot, for a rather value-packed price--and possibly even less through HotTix and Goldstar--Time Stands Still should at the very least provide a couple hours of low-hassle, high-quality Chicago theater.

...and may even make you think for quite a spell longer. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Read About It: Exemplifying the Power and the Passion, Midnight Oil Still Burns Bright on a Tough Night -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Midnight Oil
w/ opening act Boytoy
The Vic, Chicago
May 18, 2017

"Sometimes you're shaken to the core 
Sometimes the face is gonna fall 
But you don't give in"
-- "Sometimes" - Midnight Oil

For me, Midnight Oil's return to Chicago should have been a completely exhilarating affair.

I have loved the Australian band for 30 years, as 1987's great "Beds are Burning" single--and soon after, the entirely fantastic Diesel and Dust album--was my entrĂ©e, as conceivably for many American fans, although that was actually Midnight Oil's 6th album. (Their self-titled debut came out in 1978.) 

Though I loved their next two albums, Blue Sky Mine and Earth and Sun and Moon, and bought not only everything that followed them, but almost all of the earlier ones, I never noted a reasonable chance to see Midnight Oil live during their "heyday."

While stateside popularity had waned, the band continued to put out (pretty darn solid) albums until 2002's Capricornia. The year prior gave me my first chance to catch Midnight Oil in concert, at the Rave in Milwaukee with about 50 other fans.

I would also see them in 2002 at Chicago's House of Blues and on a 4th of July Taste of Chicago bill.

Then they disappeared, with the band's hulking lead singer Peter Garrett entering Australian politics. He would serve in a variety of appointed and elected positions from 2004 to 2013. (See his personal Wikipedia bio.)

I continued to love Midnight Oil's canon, which combines politics, activism and humanitarianism with hard charging rock 'n roll better than almost anyone. (They were slotted in at #22 among my favorite rock acts ever, and in my most-ever read post on the 100 Best Alternative Bands of the Past 25 Years--compiled in 2012--I placed them 8th.)

Via YouTube, I became aware that the band did some Australian benefit shows in 2009, and with Garrett's retirement from politics, suggestions of a reunion tour started to swirl last year.

Especially with 2016 having seen a plethora of passings of cherished musicians, and then the election of Donald Trump, news earlier this year that Midnight Oil was hitting the road and playing Chicago's Vic Theatre on May 18 couldn't have been any more welcome.

And with four prime reserved balcony seats at the typically General Admission venue, accompanied by three music-loving pals--Paolo, Dave and Brad--I was so looking forward to seeing Midnight Oil.

Particularly as clips and setlists from earlier tour stops seemed great; the band was changing things up every night, playing songs from throughout their entire catalog, and I enjoyed Spotifamiliarizing myself with tunes I didn't know or well-recall.

But on Thursday morning, I awoke to the terrible news that Soundgarden's Chris Cornell had died, taking his own life just hours after a concert in Detroit. I loved Soundgarden and had seen them multiple times in recent years, also with Paolo and Dave.

I had also seen Soundgarden years ago, and Cornell on his own and with Audioslave. He is probably the most gifted rock singer I've ever heard.

Thus, while still greatly looking forward to seeing Midnight Oil, my ebullience was considerably muted.

And yet they still delivered a show as good as I could have wanted.

Though now into their 60s, the band members--held over from the prime years--are still in fine form; first-rate musicians all.

And Garrett remains one of the most singular front men in rock history, a rather kinetic skyscraping dervish whose passions remain emotively honest in his powerful voice.

Despite doing my homework, I still found myself largely unfamiliar with half of the show's first 10 songs (see the setlist on Setlist.fm), not that they didn't all sound good.

It was only after the show that Brad revealed that Midnight Oil had opened by playing an album in full:

1982's 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1, from which I well-knew tunes like "Read About It," "Short Memory" and "Power and the Passion," but not several of the album tracks.

I actually like that the band had surprised me despite my studying earlier setlists, and even though a subsequent 5-song acoustic grouping with a few more relatively esoteric songs--"Ships of Freedom," "Spirit of the Age"--did have me wishing for a bit more ear candy, the blitz of prime Oils that did come proved all the more righteous.

"The Dead Heart," "Beds Are Burning," "Blue Sky Mine" and "Dreamworld" sounded as good as ever to close out the main set (see video below), and after three more rockers to begin the encores, the wondrous closer "Sometimes"--partially quoted at top--perfectly capsulized a show that was majestically therapeutic, even if not quite as exhilarating as expected given the circumstances.

And as the houselights came up, so too did Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" (on the PA, not played by Midnight Oil; I was somewhat surprised Garrett hadn't mentioned Cornell, but I guess he was content to let the music do the talking).

I really wish Midnight Oil followed Thursday's Chicago show by playing tonight in Milwaukee, as I would love not only to see them again, but possibly hear things like "Warakurna," "Bullroarer," "Hercules," "King of the Mountain" and others that may have been eschewed for the rare album playthrough.

But on a night when a lesser band could have kept me wallowing in sadness for the loss of Cornell, the tragedy for his family, the steady erosion of heroes of my youth and the dearth of truly great new rock 'n roll, Midnight Oil came back to reiterate their brilliance.

And the power, and the passion, to truly enlighten and enrich lives like mine.

Even--or perhaps especially--on the not so good days.

Here's a clip of "Beds are Burning" from Thursday night, posted by YouTube user named Rod MacQuarrie.