Monday, May 31, 2010

Perhaps Not Life Changing, But Still A Net Gain

I've been to a lot of cool events in my life, but until Saturday night, never to a final round game in any sport.

Playoff games, yes. Cubs, Bulls, Bears and Blackhawks. Even the 2003 MLB All-Star Game. But never a World Series, NBA Championship, Super Bowl or Stanley Cup.

So I was pretty psyched when I was able to purchase a ticket to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals through Ticketmaster back when the Blackhawks were still in the second round of the playoffs. And even more psyched when the Hawks actually made it to the Finals.

Although I had a party planned for Saturday night (unrelated to the Hawks), I switched it to Sunday night, and geared up (in my Kane 88 jersey) for a nice, low-scoring Stanley Cup Final game.

And wound up attending a game that was tied 5-5 after two periods, had the Hawks go ahead 6-5 on a Tomas Kopecky goal 8:25 into the 3rd Period and then hold on for the victory.

Certainly it was pretty exciting, but I really can't say "the electricity in the air" before and throughout the game was any more palpable than during a sold-out regular season game. I'm not sure what I was expecting, and any Hawks game is a pretty raucous affair, so I'm not saying that there was an energy shortage in the United Center.

But somehow it just seemed like a great game to be at, but not necessarily all that transcendent. 

As with all Hawks games, there was a pre-game video montage that runs much, much too long. It's about 10 minutes or so. Long enough to get you to the edge of your seat, and back down, edge of your seat again, and back down again. Not ideal for sustaining a true fervor. 

And while the National Anthem with the fans roaring throughout was quite loud, and gave me goose chills, it didn't seem any louder than for less pivotal games. And perhaps it was because the Hawks kept giving up goals, even after scoring to take the lead at various points, that the crowd boisterousness didn't fully sustain itself until after Kopecky's goal and through the end.

Don't get me wrong. I'm very glad I went and had a great time. And I'm thrilled the Hawks won and hope they can take the Cup. But it definitely wasn't like what a Cubs World Series game feels like in my imagination. And I'm not buying a seat on Stub Hub for today's game, or even wishing I could. TV will be just fine.

Here's a video I shot of the National Anthem:

Some photos from the night:

Michael Jordan statue with a Jonathan Toews jersey and ice skakes

Stan Mikita signing autographs before the game; I was too late to get one.

The Opening Face-Off

Savard, Esposito, Mikita and Hull in the house (and on the scoreboard)

Near the end of the 2nd Period

Video of the Celebration of Kopecky's goal, which proved to be the game winner (featuring Chelsea Dagger by The Fratellis)

The Final Score

The Hawks Leave the Ice, Victorious

Friday, May 28, 2010

There's More Than A Slight Hitch in 'The 39 Steps'

Theater Review

The 39 Steps
Bank of America Theatre
Thru May 30, 2010

I'm not really sure how to define the stage version of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps.

It's not a musical, but also doesn't fit most expectations of a traditional play. It's fairly faithful to the old suspense flick, but is more a comedy than a drama. It has a number of slapstick elements, but isn't a farce. It has clear reverence for Hitchcock, but substitutes laughs for any of his trademark tension.

But whatever it is, the show that uses only 4 performers to act out over a dozen roles, works. And it does so surprisingly well on multiple levels.

At times it is laugh-out-loud funny. While intentionally depleted of much Hitchcockian suspense, it does qualify as a sufficient mystery, particularly for those unfamiliar with the film. The three actors and one actress all do yeoman's work. The sparse staging is actually used as a benefit, not a weakness. And for fans of Alfred, The 39 Steps also cheekily references--albeit anachronistically--Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho, North By Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Lady Vanishes and perhaps a few other Hitchcock films that I missed or forgot.

Although I liked it very much, I'm sure my appreciation would've been even greater in a smaller venue, rather in trying to discern the variety of British and Scottish accents from the balcony of the Bank of America (nee Shubert) Theater. And numerous latecomers, people chattering next to me and at least one ringing cell phone didn't help either.

While I wouldn't call it enlightening, enriching or likely even extremely memorable--and therefore probably not  a "must-see,"--in terms of an entertaining night at the theater, The 39 Steps was definitely far more up than down.

This is a clip of a memorable scene, from the Broadway version.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

You Can't Judge A Book By Its Lover

Book Reviews

The Man From Beijing
by Henning Mankell

Although Henning Mankell has been writing best-selling crime novels for nearly 15 years, I hadn't heard of him until this past February, when Entertainment Weekly gave his new book--The Man From Beijing--a short but glowing review, in which the reviewer states, "This is hands down the best thriller I've read in five years."

So I put it on reserve with the Skokie Public Library, and when my turn came, I was very excited to read it.

But as it turns out, it wasn't even the best thriller I've read this month.

Despite the title, the book mostly takes place in Mankell's native Sweden, where a brutal massacre has wiped out a small village.

Over the past year, I've read and enjoyed all three books in the Millennium series (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.), by the late Stieg Larsson, another Swedish crime fiction writer whose works weave throughout his homeland. This was another reason I was optimistic about the new book by Mankell, who in the past has centered his novel around an inspector named Kurt Wallander, but wrote The Man From Beijing as a stand-alone novel.

But whereas Larsson's books constantly made me want to read the next page, discover the conclusion and tackle another of his thrillers, 50 pages into The Man From Beijing, I realized I was reading only to reach the end, not because I was anxious to learn what would happen next. The small-village massacre becomes linked to happenings in the American West from over 130 years prior, leads to dozens of non-thrilling pages about modern China and is ultimately relegated to the background of a story that meanders a whole lot.

And while it seems that Mankell was aiming for a book with considerably more consequence than your average page-turner, it didn't ever approach great literature or enlighten like a non-fiction take on some of the same matters might have. So basically I was left with a thriller that didn't thrill.

Though Mankell appears to be a well-regarded author, the Amazon reader reviews more closely approximate my take on The Man From Beijing than Entertainment Weekly's. Almost a third of the Amazon reviews give it 1 or 2 stars out of 5, so perhaps my @@1/2 is a bit generous if anything.

I'm sorry I wasted a full two weeks getting through it, especially because a few days in, the Skokie Public Library let me know that another thriller I had on reserve was ready for me. Fortunately, after finishing The Man From Beijing, I was able to read the book below in just 4 days, and liked it much better.


by Harlan Coben

I have now read all 17 of Coben's books currently in print (his first two novels no longer are) and each has taken me about a week or less to finish.

While his books--split between his Myron Bolitar mysteries and stand-alone thrillers--are not works of high art, they are stay-up-all-night page turners, filled with more than a bit of humor and shrewd societal insight.

His latest hardcover, Caught, is no exception. While probably not his best book, not quite meriting the 5 stars that 96 of 151 reviewers on Amazon have bestowed and without nearly the complexity of The Man From Beijing, it is a whiz-bang thriller that is extremely enjoyable to read.

Far more so than the Mankell book.

Although I had pegged some of the surprises in Caught before I got to them, I won't reveal much here. But it starts with a man getting caught, as part of a TV show sting, in the home of a teenage girl he had contacted over the internet. Not all is as it seems and the newswoman from the show becomes the central character in a proverbial roller coaster ride across all 388 fast-moving pages.

Although Caught is a stand-alone novel, not a caper involving the Myron Bolitar character, Coben does utilize characters from past books, which adds to the fun for those of us who know his North Jersey oeuvre.

But even as your first foray into Coben, you should find Caught quite satisfying, although you also wouldn't go wrong starting with his earlier stand-alones like Tell No One and Gone For Good.

Along with Lee Child, whose works all revolve around a character named Jack Reacher, Coben is my favorite thriller writer, and I've yet to be disappointed.

If you likewise love a good page-turner, perhaps it's about time you 'Caught' on.

The Final Countdown: Time Runs Out on '24'

While there seemed to be much more hoopla and press regarding the last episode of 'Lost' on Sunday night, Monday night brought an end to the television series that was my favorite of the past decade: 24.

The around-the-clock adventures of Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, may have been better during some of 24's eight seasons than others, and the last two seemed somewhat spotty, but even at its worst, 24 never made me not want to watch.

And that's saying a whole lot.

There have been a total of 193 episodes, including a 2-hour television movie prior to Season 7, and I have seen every one, almost always either on the night it aired or within a day or two.

Sometimes 24 had plot lines, or characters, that pushed credulity.  Sometimes Jack blurred the line between "doing what needs to be done" and outright criminality, either in torturing suspects to reveal needed information or in shooting those who got in his way, even if they were just following orders at times when he was disobeying them. Occasionally things became a bit formulaic and you kind of knew what was going to happen. And in several season, there were subplots that just wasted time without really going anywhere (most vivid in my mind is this past season's strain about Dana Walsh's past).

But 24 was never boring.

And while there were often clear delineations between good and bad characters, others, including most notably Jack Bauer himself, provided interesting character studies in the midst of crisis.

In fact, while it was probably a necessity of the show, rather than a weakness, that most supporting characters came or went within a season or two, and none except Chloe O'Brian (played by Mary Lynn Rajskub) lasted all eight seasons, some of the secondary roles were so well-characterized that I wished they didn't disappear.

But at the end of the day, Jack really was a lone wolf, and to complicate the show or his life with too much baggage probably wouldn't have worked.

While I'll miss seeing Jack saving the world 24 Mondays a year, and will assuredly see the 24 movie that is said to be in the works despite being unsure of its necessity, I have to say that ending now seems right. I think 24 had run its course, to the point that it sometimes felt like a parody of itself.

Yet beyond being a visceral thrill, I think the show did add something to the art form of television by working in real time (even if people often changed settings with unrealistic expediency) and heightening the idea that "every moment counts."

Of course, 24 will live on forever in reruns, on and on DVD. And with the film slated for 2012 (according to IMDB), Jack will be back.

But for now he's heading out of the country, hopefully for a well-deserved rest. I wish him well.

Time's up, but it's been quite a ride.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Still in the Dark About 'Too Much Light'

Theater Review

Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind
The Neo-Futurarium

What do I know?

I mean who am I to say that Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind: 30 Plays in 60 Minutes doesn't seem like anything special? After all, it is the longest running "play" in Chicago, dating all the way back to 1988. And there is also a long-running New York production.

In Chicago, people start lining up an hour before the 11:30pm weekend shows just to make sure they get in to the 150-seat theater. And from my newbie attendance on Saturday, after participating in the Neo-Futurists prime-time show (Crisis: A Musical Game Show), it was apparent that many in the audience were hardcore devotees, as they knew precisely when to shout out numbers that decided the order that 30 pre-written mini-plays would be performed within an hour.

So I won't tell you that TMLMTBGB was bad, while noting that it supposedly changes substantially week-to-week and is totally different every couple months. So maybe the material I saw isn't indicative of how good it usually is.

And I won't tell you not to see it; that's up to you.

But I will tell you that I didn't like it.

Perhaps it's one of those things, like Reality TV and Nickelback, that millions of people love, but I just don't get. Or maybe it's the format; I'm doubtful that Shakespeare, Miller or Mamet could regularly write 3-minute plays that I would find compelling, insightful and/or hilarious.

But whatever the reason, and sure, maybe it's just me, but in the 60 minutes I was there--though on my watch it sure seemed like 67 minutes--I almost never laughed, was made to think or ever really cared. I guess I must've missed something, but it seemed like a concept better served by improv, not pre-scripted pieces. While watching it, The Emperor's New Clothes fable kept running through my head.

The performers were energetic and likely quite talented, but the whole thing really did nothing for me. So next time I have an hour to waste, I think I'd be better off avoiding 'Too Much Light.'

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Star is Born in 'Crisis'

Theater Review

Crisis: A Musical Game Show
Through June 12

As incongruous as it sounds, last night I was on-stage--albeit without an actual stage--at one of Chicago's most famous theaters.

And even more shockingly--especially as I even did a bit of public singing--the audience gave me a nice hand when I was finished.

But alas, I still went home a loser.

You see, I went to see the Neo-Futurists current prime-time production, Crisis: A Musical Game Show (and also stuck around to see their longstanding late-night show Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind, which I'll review separately when time permits).

Before every performance of Crisis, a 25-question, Scantron-scored trivia test is given to all audience members. Out of about 80 people, I was one of the 8 top scorers and was selected to be in the game show, and thus on-stage.

Taking place amidst original musical numbers and some cheeky "ads," the first-round of game-playing was basically a take-off on Family Feud. As part of a team of four, I led off the game by beating my opponent to the punch in naming one of the "Things People Fear Most,"--public speaking was my answer--and then proceeded to help my team crush the other in all three rounds of the initial game.

After that, it was every man and woman for him or herself, and the second round wasn't knowledge-based, but more about thinking and moving quickly on your feet. This included musical chairs, having to vote out one of our teammates, watching a short movie, answering questions about it and then writing & singing a jingle about it. The silly movie was ostensibly about a Nigerian dictator who loved McDonalds, the Atlanta Braves and Woody Allen, and who needed to sell off his belongings. So my written-on-the-spot song went:

I love Woody Allen/But he lost Mia Farrow/So won't you buy my items/And you can be my hero

Although the actors and audience laughed, I was voted out and sent back to the audience, dubbed "The Losers' Lounge." My shot at stardom, and the $300 the winner eventually earned, was over. But after seeing the next round, which involved running around the stage, I'm glad my participation ended when it did.

I had fun, but as I was either on-stage or backstage for about half the show, it was hard to truly gauge its merits as a performance, especially to those only in the audience. But @@@ seems about right, as Crisis was enjoyable, and even a bit insightful in satirizing game shows and commenting on the economic meltdown, but the musical numbers were slight and the humor was fleeting.

I wasn't quite the best thing about Crisis, but in my mind, it wouldn't have been quite as good without me in it. Although to be fair, the winner--a Chicago-actor-turned-lawyer named John--was a good guy, the high scorer on the test and much better than I would've been on-stage in the last two rounds. He deserved the $300.

Anyway, if you go, I'd suggest trying to be in Crisis rather than simply seeing it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

In Dramatizing the Fight for Equality, 'The Good Negro' is Only Fair

Theater Review

The Good Negro
a play by Tracey Scott Wilson
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 6, 2010

As a fictionalization of the civil rights movement, centered in Birmingham, Alabama in 1962, Tracey Scott Wilson's The Good Negro should've been a highly-charged powder keg of a play.

But with what felt like too many scenes over the course of 2-1/2 hours, the recent work directed at Goodman by Chuck Smith never really crackled. Though not quite a dud, it just didn't feel especially compelling, insightful or even all that dramatic.

The central three characters were fictional civil rights leaders who despite their noble cause were flawed men who battled not only Southern bigotry but also each other. The play might have felt more urgent if it kept its focus on the trio, but six other characters and an unseen child shared plot time and made the show more talky and didactic than razor sharp throughout.

Not every play can be fantastic and in spite of a worthy subject matter and solid performances throughout, The Good Negro was only fair.

Maddeningly, as the show was within 5 minutes of its conclusion, a cell phone with an incredibly annoying ringtone rang. And rang and rang and rang. 

I felt bad for the actors, who assuredly could hear it onstage. While the play wasn't as good as I hoped, the performers and audience certainly deserved better than to have some idiot forget (or choose not to) turn off his or her phone, and then fail to hear it as it continued to ring.

Talk about a really disappointing ending.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

An Up & Down Evening as CSO Plays With Yo-Yo

Classical Concert Review

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
with guest artist Yo-Yo Ma, Cello
May 13, 2010

Yo-Yo Ma has the distinction of being the only concert cellist, living or dead, that I can name. And though his name itself is quite memorable, I figure his renown--and numerous Grammy Awards--must be well-earned.

Having never seen him perform live before, and in sum only through a few short televised performances (including one at President Obama's inauguration), I purchased a ticket awhile back to see him Thursday night with the acclaimed Chicago Symphony (the same program was repeated Friday and Saturday).

Although far from a classical music aficionado or expert, I try to get to 1-2 CSO performances each season. Thus it wasn't a surprise nor cause for outrage that Yo-Yo Ma--as with other famed guest soloists whose names are promoted to prompt neophytes to buy tickets--was only onstage for 1 of 3 pieces played, or about 30 of 100 minutes of music.

As such, my "review," which especially in a classical music realm, should only be seen as a gauge of my personal enjoyment and not confused for a learned critique, covers the entire evening's performance and not merely the cello concerto on which Yo-Yo Ma performed in conjunction with the orchestra. A total of three pieces were played, all conducted by guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto (right).

While my evening at the symphony, was--as almost always--a worthwhile exploration beyond my natural entertainment habitats, I didn't acutely enjoy what I heard all that much, even compared to past CSO performances.

The first piece played, sans Yo-Yo Ma, was a suite from the score of the film Redes, composed by  Silvestre Revueltas in 1934-35. In simplistic terms, it didn't do much for me as it was somewhat dour and lacked the ravishing flourishes I like best in live symphonic music.

I felt similarly about the CSO's take on Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6, Op. 54, which concluded the evening. The last five minutes of the piece provided a scintillating crescendo, but the first 40 minutes or so seemed rather somnambulant, to the point that during the first half of it, one of the musicians (who wasn't playing during that section) seemed to be sleeping onstage.

As for the Cello Concerto, which the CSO commissioned from Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky specifically for the Yo-Yo Ma engagement, the world premiere rendition was pleasant enough, though often musically dissonant, and rarely managed to enthrall.

While Ma's playing was beautiful, he didn't provide me with any "oh wow" moments that I've enjoyed from other acclaimed virtuosos, even in atypical realms (for me), such as Itzhak Perlman, Evgeny Kissin, Savion Glover, McCoy Tyner and numerous opera singers. Perhaps it is the muted nature of the cello or the parameters of the piece, but I couldn't really perceive that Ma was doing anything far beyond the presumed capabilities of the other 10 cellists onstage. Although I was watching his hands through binoculars nearly the whole time, nothing really made me sit up and take special notice.

I am certainly not knocking Yo-Yo Ma, of whom Tribune classical music critic John von Rhein suggests, "it's hard to imagine any soloist playing this music with greater mastery," but if I pay good money to see a performer who's name is printed on the ticket, I hope to come away understanding what makes him or her so singular. In this case I didn't.

(If you want a more professional take on the cello concerto and entire evening, read von Rhein's review, though you may be hard pressed to discern whether he liked it or not.)

The video below doesn't have much to do with the performance I saw, but a few years ago, Yo-Yo Ma put out an album where he played compositions by Ennio Morricone, who wrote some of the all-time great movie scores. This is one of them.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Beautiful Day (Late) For U2 Celebrate As The Icon Formerly Known As Paul Hewson Turns 50

Bono, born Paul David Hewson in Dublin, Ireland, on May 10, 1960, is undeniably one of my favorite rock stars.

Yet there are times when I can't stand the guy.

I think he has been, and largely remains, an outstanding front man, excellent singer, occasionally brilliant songwriter and great humanitarian. But I also think he often comes off as a pompous, pretentious and even smug egomaniac.

I have been a huge U2 fan since about 1983, own every album and live DVD they have released and have seen them live 13 times dating back to 1986 (and will again on July 6 at Soldier Field). Their albums include some of my all-time favorites and others I find to be nearly complete duds. And while most concerts have been thrilling, I have found others to be quite disappointing, largely due to Bono's self-aggrandizing overreach.

I think it's unquestionable that Bono has done more to help--or at least bring attention to--poor and oppressed people around the world than almost anyone,  and for that he deserves a healthy dose of appreciation and admiration. Which of course, would only feed his admitted God-complex--What's the difference between God and the lead singer? God knows he's not the lead singer--and I also think while saving the world Bono's songwriting has suffered and he has become, at times, increasingly insufferable.

But despite a love/hate observatory relationship, at the end of the day--in this case the one following his 50th birthday--it's clear that Bono has provided me with much more enjoyment than he has taken away.

And thus I celebrate Bono at 50 with a collection of videos that correlate to how he and U2 have intertwined with my life for more than half of each of ours.

Happy Birthday Paul (after all, you weren't born Bono). From me to U2.

(Video Compilation begins below)

Saturday, May 08, 2010

All Hail the Mighty Castro

Oh, Starlin! Sure, being anointed the savior of a baseball team that hasn't won the World Series for 102 years can be daunting to anyone, let alone a 20-year-old, but based on your debut, it seems you may acclimate well.

In case you haven't heard, Starlin Castro, a shortstop from the Dominican Republic who the Cubs just brought up from Double A on Friday, made history in his first big league game while wearing lucky number 13.

I myself was oblivious to history until about 1:30 this morning, but found out about Castro's exploits in a most fortuitous fashion.

You see, I was at the White Sox game last night, invited by my friend Dave to share his great seats. It was a pretty good game that the White Sox wound up losing 7-4 in 12 innings. The Blackhawks, who were on my mind from their 8:30 start time, wound up winning by the same score in a game that ended just as I got home. After listening to the Hawks on the radio on my drive, I instantly turned on the postgame highlights show on Comcast Sports Net after getting in bed. The Hawks are now up 3-1 and heading home in their second round series with Vancouver.

After seeing all of the Hawks' goals, and hearing Canuck goalie Roberto Luongo give a sorry bemoaning of his team's play--not once mentioning his--I watched the NBC season debut of my favorite show, Friday Night Lights, which I had DVR'd from earlier in the evening. It was, as I expected, really good. I then watched a month-old episode of House that I also had in my DVR queue.

I think it was about 1:37am when I was done with my viewing for the night, but in getting out of  DVR-mode, the TV was still on CSN and a replay of the Cubs game was on (I don't even know what CSN or WGN-Radio did when both the Hawks and Cubs were on simultaneously).

And, I swear to you, Starling Castro was up to bat (in replay) at that exact moment; his first major league AB after hitting .376 this spring in AA. I think I may have seen one pitch before he hit the next one over the right field wall for a 3-run homer in his first big league plate appearance. It was pretty amazing timing, as although I was aware from the White Sox scoreboard that the Cubs had won 14-7 and I knew they were bringing Castro up, I was ignorant to what he had done.

Ready for sleep, I checked the web on my iPhone and learned that Castro also hit a 3-run triple, giving him 6 RBI, the most anyone has ever had in their first major league game.

A wondrous beginning to what should be a long and prodigious reign of Castro in Chicago. At least until he winds up a Dodger, Yankee or Met. A Starlin is Born, indeed.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Worth A Close Look

As I commonly bemoan the lack of living, museum-quality fine artists (like I did here), I feel compelled to highlight someone I consider an exception.

Chuck Close, who spoke last night at a lecture at the Art Institute of Chicago which I didn't attend because it was sold out from the time I heard about it, has been creating museum-showcased paintings since the late-'60s. And two month shy of his 70th birthday, he still is, all the more incredible for the fact that he has been severely paralyzed and wheelchair-bound since 1988.

Almost exclusively a portraitist, Close initially created super-realistic paintings of people--including himself, at right in 1967-68--that casual observers likely assume are photographs.

After a catastrophic spinal artery collapse left him paralyzed from the neck down in December 1988 (Wikipedia), Close has continued to paint on with a brush strapped onto his wrist with tape, creating large portraits in low-resolution grid squares. With the individual grid designs resulting in detailed portraits when viewed from a distance, he was forced to take his art in an exciting new, yet clearly connective, direction. (And in my mind, he presaged Photomosaics, which Robert Silvers popularized years later).

Close himself has seemingly become his favorite subject matter, and his works are still in demand by museums and high-end collectors. I'll include a few below; you can find more through here and here, and can see a number of clips about Chuck Close and his work on YouTube.

John, 1971-72

Leslie, 1973

Keith, 1970

Bob, 1970

Lucas, 1987
(If this date is right, perhaps the grid-style predated Close's paralysis)

Alex, 1991

John, 1998

Close-up of Right Eye from painting at top of article

Close at work

Self-Portrait, 2007

Beckett's Endgame Baffles from the Beginning

Theater Review

a play by Samuel Beckett
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 6, 2010

I realize that some of the most ultimately enriching works of art can initially be among the most challenging and confusing.

Artistry at its most innovative and imaginative often requires an eschewal of linearity or normality that can be more than a trifle off-putting to a newcomer.

As such, in seeing Samuel Beckett's absurdist one-act Endgame for the first time last night at Steppenwolf, I can't say that I "got" or particularly liked it. But especially with the help of a good post-show discussion, I can appreciate that there might be much worth re-exploring and quality that exceeded my firsthand enjoyment.

I imagine devout Beckettophiles should love it, as there is undeniable talent involved with this production.

William Petersen, who has returned to Chicago stage acting after getting rich and more famous on TV's CSI, stars as Hamm, a blind, unable to stand man (king? tyrant? definitely a son, perhaps a father) coming to terms, obtusely, with his own mortality.

Now a Steppenwolf ensemble member, Petersen is joined onstage by three other Steppenwolf stalwarts and directed by a fourth. Ian Barford plays Clov, Hamm's servant, Martha Lavey and Francis Guinan play Hamm's dead, dying and/or otherwise decaying parents, who are relegated to living in ashcans, and Frank Galati helms the mainstage production. 

The performances alone probably made the 75-minute show worth seeing, even if I never do warm up to what was really going on or why I should care, but I would strongly suggest availing yourself of Steppenwolf's ticket discounts, which enable you to buy day-of-show seats for $20 over-the-phone at 11am (this is what I did) or at half-price in person within an hour of showtime. Based on last night's considerably less-than-full house--I guess the novelty of Petersen back on the local boards has worn off--cheap seats should be commonly available.

Endgame was just my second foray into Beckett, but recently seeing Krapp's Last Tape at Goodman was an even more befuddling and displeasing experience. Perhaps I'm not smart enough--or even in the moment alert enough--to appreciate the consequence of his absurdity, no matter how artful. I probably should look deeper and revisit Endgame at some point, but perhaps for now it's best if I keep Waiting for Godot.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Chicago History Museum Needs To Rewrite Its Future

Museum Review

Chicago History Museum
Visited May 3, 2010

On Monday, after some business to attend to in downtown Chicago, I made a point of stopping at the Chicago History Museum on my way northward.

It had been quite awhile since I visited the building on North & Clark formerly known as the Chicago Historical Society, at which I had enjoyed some special exhibitions in the past. Although I could have gone for free on the first weekend of May as part of Bank of America's Museums on Us program for customers, I had noted that all Mondays are free at the History Museum, so though I couldn't get there until about 3:00pm and closing time is at 4:30pm, I figured I'd see what I could and perhaps visit again.

But while I enjoyed some of what I saw and valued learning a bit more about various famous events in Chicago's past--such as the Haymarket Square Riot and 1968 Democratic National Convention--90 minutes was plenty and I'm sure glad I didn't pay the normal $14 adult admission fee.

For despite recently rebranding itself to expand its appeal, the Chicago History Museum just feels woefully stuck in the past. Sure it provides some decent information about a number interesting topics, and certainly justifies an occasional free visit, but there really isn't a whole lot to look at that feels truly compelling.

For instance, I have long been intrigued by Chicago having hosted two World Fairs, particularly the Columbian Exposition of 1893, at which a glorious "White City" was constructed on Chicago's south side, but destroyed by fire soon thereafter (the Museum of Science and Industry occupies the only remaining building). This topic is covered at the CHM in a few panels of text and photos, and a couple small artifacts like the "I Will" bust above. In this digital age, why not have a virtual White City created, so that visitors can get a real sense of this magnificent moment in Chicago's past? Or at the very least have a physical model built?

Chicago's relatively short but quite deep history in the realms of architecture, music, theater, television and sports are also covered in rather tepid displays, with almost nothing providing an "Oh, wow!" moment.

Sure, there was a Playboy Bunny outfit--the first service uniform to be registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office--and a Schwinn bicycle and a couple lesser Frank Lloyd Wright art glass windows and a police helmet from the 1968 DNC riots, but would it be so hard to let visitors try their hand at Bozo Buckets, play old Bally Pinball Machines or even watch a collection of Michael Jordan highlights? Or how about having an interactive Chicago Gangster (and/or Politician) Hall of Shame? And given Chicago's great diversity, how about computerized displays highlight the various neighborhoods and communities, coupled perhaps with a concession stand featuring food of various ethnic origins?

Theoretically, I have no problem with history being primarily something that should be read about, but with half the world now able to access Wikipedia and the entire Web on their cell phones, and therefore capable of instantly learning far more about any subject covered in museum display text without reading any of it, the Chicago History Museum really has to figure out how to "engage" 21st century visitors.

There are currently two new exhibitions going on; one is a roomful of nothingness about the Lincoln Park area while the other, a multimedia presentation called My Chinatown, sounded promising but runs every 18 minutes with no indication of exact start times, so unless you happen to be at the auditorium doors at just the right moment, you can't see it (which I didn't).

The most famous relic in the museum's collection--Abraham Lincoln's death bed--is currently inaccessible. All the more reason not to pay $14.

I did enjoy seeing what an old 'L' car looked like, learning a bit about Fort Dearborn and discovering why Chicago is so named (it comes from an Indian word meaning wild onion).

But my favorite piece of previously unbeknownst trivia was that the birth control pill was patented and first marketed by Searle, in my hometown of Skokie.

Interestingly, this bit of information was paired with a panel about another Chicago scientific breakthrough: the first nuclear chain reaction--created by Enrico Fermi and others at the University of Chicago in 1942-- which made the atomic bomb possible.

Tellingly, with deference to the significant amount of knowledge it can impart to visitors of all ages and the value of free admission Mondays, the Chicago History Museum really needs to be newly conceived. For right now, on an acute enjoyment level, it's a bit of a bomb.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Masterpiece of Puppets

Theater Review

Avenue Q
Bank of America Theatre
Thru May 9, 2010

A randy, raunchy and gleefully non-PC spoof on Sesame Street, Avenue Q is wonderful from A-to-Z.

I selected the musical as my second favorite of the 00s and consider it one of the 21st century's best pieces of entertainment, in any form. Wickedly funny, surprising tuneful, tremendously insightful on a variety of topics and one of the most spot-on societal satires you'll find anywhere, Avenue Q well-deserved its 2004 Tony for Best Musical (over Wicked) and is highly worth seeing even on the current non-Equity tour now playing at Chicago's Bank of America Theatre (formerly known as the Shubert).

Especially if you've never seen it, I suggest you do so. If you can get a ticket.

Available seats for the week-long Chicago run seem sparse and the one aspect of Avenue Q that has often left me shaking my head is a string of puzzling business decisions. Certainly, the show has been successful, with a 6-year Broadway run returning over $23 million to its investors, and yet, if I had been an investor, I think I would've sued someone over all the money left on the table.

After being developed in 2002 at Connecticut's Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in 2002, Avenue Q opened Off-Broadway early in 2003, quickly moved to Broadway and won the Tony in 2004, the year I first saw and loved it in New York. But rather than embark on a National Tour in 2005, the producers decided to take Steve Wynn's money for a Las Vegas production that flopped and closed after only 9 months. I also saw and loved Avenue Q in Vegas, but no matter how brilliantly subversive and risque in some of its subject matter, Sin City just wasn't the right spot for a puppet show.

Featuring both humans acting as humans and other humans manning puppets acting human--I know how that might sound, but it works just fine--Avenue Q didn't tour the U.S. until 2007 and first came to Chicago in May 2008. Despite having lost some of its post-Tony steam, the two week run here was far too short for the demand, and two years later--after closing on Broadway in 2009 only to re-open Off-Broadway--the non-Equity tour is again shortchanging Chicago with just a measly week. Opening night was completely full and I expect the rest of the week to be likewise, although I was able to get an affordable balcony seat for last night just this past Sunday. (Ticketmaster link)

I know no one asked me, but Broadway in Chicago, which recently leased the Drury Lane Water Tower and re-christened it the Broadway Playhouse, should plant an Avenue Q production there, where it could probably run for years. Particularly if marketed properly, for it's an ideal show for anyone from about 15 to 35, and excepting anyone especially uptight, should delight folks considerably older, whether avid theatergoers or those who typically avoid musicals.

About a bunch of optimistic yet underachieving twenty- and young thirtysomethings living on a New York city block, Avenue Q not only clearly references Sesame Street with characters based on Bert & Ernie, Cookie Monster, etc., it also owes Rent for a good bit of inspiration. But despite its allusions, the show is phenomenally original, with songs like "It Sucks to Be Me," "If You Were Gay," "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist," and many others being hilarious, pointed and hummable all at the same time.

This was my fourth time seeing Avenue Q and while the especially young, non-Equity cast may not have been quite as great as others I've seen--the Tribune's Chris Jones didn't think so--I found the performances to be satisfactorily strong.

As most of the actors are responsible for not only tuneful singing and quality acting, but more-than-passable puppetry as well, I was pleasantly surprised by how good the current non-union cast appeared to me.

They certainly did a more-than-adequate job delivering the superlative source material, directed by original Broadway director Jason Moore and utilizing a full stage set. So all in all, the shoulda-been-era-defining show is being presented at a level of quality you likely won't be able to see too much longer, particularly in Chicago.

Whether by car, bus, train, bicycle or foot, get down to Avenue Q. 

(This is a video of the Original Broadway Cast doing "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist" on The View. You can also see some clips of the current touring cast here.)

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Eggleston Exhibit Makes Quite A Colorful Impression

Art Review

William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008
Art Institute of Chicago
February 27-May 23, 2010

Think about any photographs you've ever seen in art museums or high end galleries. Most, if not all, are undoubtedly in black & white.

Chances are, any you've seen in color are by--or because of--William Eggleston.

Eggleston, of whom I was previously ignorant, is the subject of an excellent exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago called Democratic Camera, which calls him not only a pioneer of color art photography but "one of the most influential American artists of the last 100 years."

Eggleston's Wikipedia entry similarly states that the Mississippi-bred photographer born in 1939 "is widely credited with securing recognition for color photography as a legitimate artistic medium to display in art galleries"

With the 47-year-span of the exhibition, Eggleston's images showcase a variety of subject matter, but he predominantly captured the American South, with an eye for portraying people and places a bit beyond the mainstream, or with an offbeat-yet-evocative quality. His prints are highly saturated, the result of utilizing dye imbibition (a.k.a. dye transfer) printing, "a continuous-tone color photographic printing process popularized by Kodak," which discontinued making all materials for the process in 1994.

Eggleston's early work was in black & white, and some B/W prints are included in the exhibition, but he switched almost exclusively to color in the late '60s and the vibrancy of his color images is comparatively astonishing, not just literally but figuratively as well.

Beyond several favorites that I'll include here, you can find much more of Eggleston's work through his comprehensive website, including photos from his Los Alamos series (the national laboratory served as an inspiration, but few pictures were actually taken there) and his commission to photograph Graceland in 1983, seven years after Elvis' death.

Especially with the recent passing of Alex Chilton, singer, songwriter and guitarist with the Box Tops, Big Star and on his own, I was intrigued to note that Eggleston photos adorn the album covers of Radio City by Big Star and Chilton's solo album Like Flies on Sherbert (sic).

The exhibition mentions that Eggleston was "an old friend of the Chilton family" and he even plays piano on a track on Big Star's third album, Third/Sister Lovers. He also helped document the making of True Stories, David Byrne's film directing debut.

If you enjoy photography as an art form, this is really an exhibit that you should try to see, although as it only takes about 40 minutes to view, I suggest going on Thursday evening between 5:00-8:00pm, when museum entry is free.

In the past I've been quite critical of Art Institute's new Modern Wing, in which the Eggleston exhibit is housed. Although the building is quite striking, inside and out, I've been rather disappointed with the quality of the collection--except for some pieces moved to the third floor from the main building--and until now, the exhibitions I've seen. Especially given the resultant leap of general admission to $18, the Modern Wing has so far felt largely unnecessary and hard to justify.

As such, I didn't rush to see the Eggleston exhibit when it opened in February, but when visiting the Matisse exhibit, I really liked what I saw in the Eggleston catalog in the gift shop. Fortunate to have a friend whose membership allows me to get in as a guest, I didn't have to pony up $18 for the first exhibit that has made a visit to the Modern Wing truly worthwhile.

Below are several Eggleston photos, from his website, all of which were included in the exhibition.

I think the above photo, which shoots outward from behind Graceland's entry gate and slyly captures the Souvenirs sign across the street (at left) is quite brilliant.