Tuesday, February 26, 2013

'Picasso and Chicago' Exhibits Impressive Collections More than Cogent Connections -- Art Exhibition Review

Art Exhibition Review

Picasso and Chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago
Thru May 12

I consider Pablo Picasso an absolute genius.

His ability to transverse myriad modes and mediums over an 80-year career is largely unmatched in the annals of art history, and in liking a great deal of his output and admiring his insatiable sense of exploration, he stands--IMHO--alongside The Beatles and Charlie Chaplin as the greatest creative forces of the 20th Century. (With apologies to Mssrs. Gershwin, Sondheim, Coltrane, FL Wright, Hitchcock, Hemingway and whoever I'm overlooking.)

As such, any gathering of his paintings--especially with a sprinkling of sculpture, drawings, prints, ceramics and a solid dose of curatorial insight--will likely be enjoyable, even exciting, for me.

And the Art Institute's new exhibition, Picasso and Chicago--conveniently accompanying an across-the-board admission price increase--is.

Simply at (anamorphic, askew, inverted and cubed, etc.) face value, the 250 pieces on display offered more than enough to keep me pleasurably immersed for two hours, with a return visit not out of the question (abetted by my being an AIC member).

Given my particular fascination with Picasso's pre-Blue and Rose period paintings from 1900-1901, it was nice to see the one at right--Old Woman (Woman With Gloves)--on loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

And in eschewing a full-scale "greatest hits" show featuring an abundance of borrowings from worldwide museums in favor of showcasing its own Picasso holdings--including many less famous works not typically on display--and about 50 pieces from local private collections, the Art Institute does a nice job in digging a bit deeper into the master's multifaceted oeuvre.

I don't know for certain that the gouache, woodcut and drawing below aren't readily seen, but I don't recall them and enjoyed the way they complemented the more glorious full-color oil paintings (such as The Red Armchair, just underneath, for which Picasso also used Ripolin, as explained in a brief movie I wished delved deeper in technique than materials).

Certainly, there was much interesting--and per the eye of the beholder, beautiful--artwork on display, nicely augmented by wall text that broached Picasso's forays into numerous genres.

I appreciated this insight that was imparted on the text panel for the "1920's":  

"In 1915...while he was still very much engrossed in Cubist experimentation, he began simultaneously to pursue Classicism. From that point on, his concurrent exploration of styles would become one of the hallmarks of both his talent and reputation."

Whether you are an art aficionado or novice, I certainly wouldn't dissuade you from taking in this exhibit, either as a local or a tourist. In fact, the Art Institute is the #1 attraction I recommend for Chicago visitors.

All this said, for anyone residing beyond Rockford or Milwaukee, I'm not sure the Picasso and Chicago exhibit merits a special trip.

Given the purview of the exhibition--which in part commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Art Institute's Armory Show, which provided Picasso his foremost exposure in America as of 1913--most of the major pieces shown are always on display at the Art Institute, where of late they've comprised the best part of the otherwise mediocre (art-wise) Modern Wing. (A bit oddly, perhaps the best borrowed Picasso newly on display in Chicago--Three Musicians, at right, from Philadelphia--is not within the special exhibit, but hung separately within the Modern Wing.)

So while there are a good number of great paintings to be seen, most of the best--including my favorite, The Old Guitarist (below)--have long been AIC stalwarts.

And while Picasso and Chicago as an exhibition title implies an overt relationship between the two, except for the Daley Plaza statue that Picasso donated to the city in 1967 and the 1913 Armory Show in which early works were displayed within an American museum for the first time (the exhibition actually began in a New York armory), the connection between Picasso and Chicago is either tenuous at best, or not deeply explored in the current exhibit.

It was certainly fun to read that upon being pitched to create the statue now known as "The Picasso" and being shown photos of famed Chicagoans, Pablo--who never stepped foot in Chicago or the United States--noted Ernest Hemingway and said, "My friend! I taught him everything he knew about bullfighting."

(Tangentially, I also admired the chutzpah with which the artist introduced himself to Marie-Thérèse Walter, who would become his mistress, muse and model. According to the wall text, he said simply: "Mademoiselle, you have an interesting face. I would like to make your portrait. I am Picasso." Gotta try that myself sometime;)

But other than most of the works being AIC holdings or borrowed locally, I couldn't say I really discerned much about Picasso and Chicago. Rather, the visually and descriptively stellar but thematically suspect exhibit could more accurately be titled Picassos in Chicago, many of the prime of which are not newly on display.

As such, while I consider Picasso a superior artist to Roy Lichtenstein, last year's Art Institute retrospective on the latter was more exploratory and eye-opening as an exhibition (and a better organized visual delight).

So if you are living in, say, Picasso's homeland of Spain, and have even perhaps been to the excellent Picasso Museum in Barcelona--where I really liked learning about his obsessively re-interpretive Las Meninas series based on a famed Diego Velasquez painting--you needn't necessarily travel to Chicago by Mother's Day, especially if you might rather catch the Taste of Chicago, Lollapalooza or a visit by Barcelona soccer superstar Lionel Messi later in the summer. The best Picasso works now on display in Chicago will still largely be hanging around.

But for anyone coming to town anyhow, or already here, particularly if you haven't been to the marvelous Art Institute for awhile, Picasso and Chicago is 'muy bueno' and well worth your while.

And if the museum's new, special exhibit-inclusive admission cost of $23 (a bit less for Chicago and Illinois residents) poses a bit of a conundrum, see if the AIC's free Thursday evenings (for IL residents) or Bank of America's Museums on Us free admission programs (for their customers) might accommodate you.

After all, you know what us art geeks like to say: It's always great to see more Picasso for less Monet.

Monday, February 25, 2013

I Want to Tell You: Remembering George Harrison on His 70th Birthday

Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here

Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
And I say it's all right

By order of entry into the band, as well as his stature throughout, George Harrison was the third Beatle.

This could be seen as both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, he was one-fourth of the greatest, most important rock band in history, one that centuries hence will remain exalted alongside Mozart and Beethoven.

And there is no way of knowing if, without bandship with John, Paul and Ringo, George ever would have become famous or developed the songcraft that created "Here Comes The Sun," "Something" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," nor had the platform to explore Indian music and mysticism that helped introduce Eastern influences into popular music.

But on the other hand, Lennon and McCartney only allowed two Harrison compositions/lead vocals per Beatles album, no matter how many songs George may have had up his sleeve.

And based on having released the unprecedented 3-record set All Things Must Pass in November 1970, just months after The Beatles' official split--which many consider (along with Lennon's Plastic Ono Band and Imagine) the greatest of Beatle solo albums--Harrison's output within the Beatles could conceivably have been much greater than it was.

So after my friend Dave noted on Facebook that today would have been George Harrison's 70th birthday had he not been stricken with cancer and--after also being stabbed by a lunatic home invader--passed away at age 58 in 2001, I felt compelled to compile and share some of my favorite Harrison songs. (Wikipedia denotes all his compositions.)

A YouTube video playlist is below, which plays through 10 tunes including Beatles' classics written (or in the case of "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You," sung) by Harrison, solo cuts like "All Things Must Pass," "Blow Away" (a favorite of mine as a kid) and "Any Road," plus a Traveling Wilburys song.

With this evidence--and for just $9.99 on Amazon, I highly recommend downloading Live In Japan, a long-cherished double album documenting his 1990 tour of Japan with old pal (and wife stealer) Eric Clapton on guitar--it seems fair to say that even if he was the third Beatle, George Harrison forever stands not only among his bandmates, but the rock 'n roll songwriting gods: Jagger/Richards, Pete Townshend, Brian Wilson, Ray Davies, Bob Dylan and few others.

And while I really can't expound on this with any acuity or corroboration, when I think of a "beautiful soul" in the realm of musical heroes or the famous of any sort, no one comes to mind more prevalently than George Harrison. (Who, not incidentally, also deserves credit for creating the all-star benefit concert with 1971's Concert for Bangladesh.)

"All things must pass," indeed, but I have no doubt the world is a worse place without "the Quiet Beatle" around to celebrate his 70th birthday.

But I still wish him a happy one while sharing some of the best of what he left behind. For as George also sang, "Life flows on within you and without you."

Sunday, February 24, 2013

What Will and Should Win: Last Minute Oscar Predictions

Unlike 2012 and 2011, this year I haven't found the time nor need to write a full-fledged Oscar post.

But with the telecast still 90 minutes away, there's no time like the present.

Having seen all of the Best Picture nominees and most of those in the acting categories, I thought I'd take a stab at predicting what will win, while indicating a few cases where I think what "will win" differs from what "should win."

Speaking of "should win," some may enjoy this list of historical Alternative Best Picture Winners my friend Brad Strauss, an organizer of the Chicago Film Discussion Meetup Group, compiled for my blog last year, before The Artist took the prize.

I also think this Hollywood Reporter piece on a Academy member's voting process is rather insightful and fascinating.

But rather than bother with a post-haste text-heavy post, I marked up an Oscar Ballot I found on MovieFone.com, which I include below.

If so inclined, I may revisit my picks tomorrow to see how I did, but I certainly would not suggest anyone take my predictions to their local bookie.

In full disclosure, I should note that in some categories (beyond the major ones) where I didn't have any basis for a good guess, I took a look at what "experts" had predicted--as compiled on MetaCritic.com--for a bit of guidance.

And now, the envelope please....

Post-Oscar Update:

I wound up getting 16 of 24 categories right, although I obviously did not predict the tie in Sound Editing. But I missed on many of the major awards, including Director, Actress, Supporting Actor, Animated Feature, Original Screenplay and Adapted Screenplay. I did pick Argo to win Best Picture; it was the clear favorite but I felt it deserved its award.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: Well Hello, Deli

Once Upon a Grill
2758 Dundee Rd., Northbrook
Yelp page

Since my Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13, my primary identification with my Jewish heritage has probably come through eating.

This has included numerous family dinners commemorating Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah, but extends to my lifelong enjoyment of traditionally Jewish foods such as Bagels (with lox & cream cheese), Corned Beef, Pastrami, Noodle Kugel, Matzo Ball Soup and more.

From an early age, I was weaned on local (to Skokie) delicatessens such as Sam 'N Hy's and Barnum 'n Bagel, both now extinct, as is What's Cooking, long in Chicago's Lincoln Village shopping mall and later also Deerfield.

In visiting Northbrook's Once Upon a Grill--a sit-down, menu-board diner not to be confused with sister store Once Upon a Deli, also in the Dunbrook Shopping Center--with my friend Mark on Thursday night, and preparing to write this article, it dawned on me that I have scant knowledge of where, when, why and how the above mentioned foods (and others) became Jewish culinary staples.

While people, and even certain foods, are typically identified as Jewish in the same way others are Italian, Mexican, Irish, etc., obviously this isn't a perfect parallel as Jewish refers to a religion (Judaism), not a specific country of origin or ancestry.

Many Jews in America today trace their roots back to Eastern Europe, in what is now Belarus, Lithuania or even Russia itself, parts from which numerous other Jews emigrated.

Though much of their Jewish populations were decimated in the Holocaust, Poland and Germany were also the source of many Ellis Island immigrant Jews from the late 19th century through World War II.

The modern state of Israel was established after the war, in 1948, so although many surviving Jews went there, and some of their descendants have since relocated to the U.S., Jewish cuisine and culture as I know it doesn't harken--in a contemporary vein--to the Promised Land.

Sure, Jews have populated Jerusalem since well before Christ, but it's hard to imagine ancient Israeli Jews making a pastrami sandwich or cooking up a Reuben.

So I really don't know, and haven't been able to find the answer online, if corned beef (also part of Irish cuisine, but sliced much differently), pastrami, bagels, etc., trace back to Eastern Europe, Russia, Germany, Poland or largely developed--or at least coagulated into a "cuisine"--in the early 20th century after vast numbers of Jews settled in New York's Lower East Side and other nearby environs.

If you have any insight on this, or at least a solid opinion, please leave a comment.

As for our meal at Once Upon a Grill--which I chose over nearby options Max's Deli and Max & Benny's--it was enjoyable. I'd been there at least 'Once' before, but long enough ago to have forgotten that it features order-at-the-counter service, rather than wait staff.

Although I think Once Upon a Grill counts as a traditional Jewish deli, I was also tickled to note--as shown in a photo above--that it serves Mexican dishes as well.

Mark--on his first visit there--and I opted for the tried and true. I mean, what would be the point of going to the Jewish stop on my Chicago Dining World Tour and eating tacos?

He started with a bowl of Kreplach Soup, which he reported as very good.

I skipped the soup and went with a Pastrami Reuben on rye bread--as opposed to the Grilled Boat Reuben on a bialy loaf, which was all I could locate on the menu board.

A Reuben traditionally includes corned beef, Swiss or Muenster cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island or Russian dressing, grilled on rye bread. I greatly prefer it at a closed-face sandwich, but some places--notably New York's famed Carnegie Deli--serve it open-faced. Wikipedia notes that there are varying accounts about where and when the Reuben originated, but it was clearly a 20th century concoction.

While I definitely like hot corned beef, I opted to substitute pastrami, which isn't all that uncommon. Pastrami has a bit more spice to it, and it worked well in my Reuben, although I ate only half and took the rest home for lunch.

Like Mark--who fully devoured his corned beef sandwich on an onion roll--I got a potato pancake as a side dish. It was really crisp and quite good.

Mark offered that the corned beef was "not bad" though "I've had better," but said he'd come back to Once Upon a Grill as the prices were better than elsewhere, especially as there are no waiters to tip.

Although this wasn't one of more novel explorations of my Chicago Dining World Tour, it was rather satisfying nonetheless. As the late great Warren Zevon said when asked what he'd learned in facing death, "Enjoy every sandwich." And this was a pretty damn good one.

And though it doesn't represent one specific country, "Jewish food" represents a rather unique and savory cuisine onto itself.

Now if I could only find out where it came from.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Fault Dear Brutus: 'Julius Caesar' Sparkles in Brilliant Staging, but Key Casting Enigma Cuts Deep -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Julius Caesar
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Thru March 24

Friends, Romans, Countrymen:

I am neither a scholar of Shakespearean drama nor ancient Rome, so my central supposition about Julius Caesar may be highly suspect.

It may very well be prompted by my only prior viewing of the play having been on Broadway in 2005, with Denzel Washington as Marcus Brutus--by far a larger role than the titular character--as well as substantive film character actors William Sadler as Caesar and Eamonn Walker as Marc Antony, but my perception is that those three central characters should be roughly equivalent in standing, stature and moral rectitude.

I won't pretend I recall many details of that 2005 performance, but know that Washington imbued Brutus with his own powerful sense of dignity and decency, which made Brutus' questioning of his actions one of a "noble man" facing a crisis of conscience that one doesn't doubt exists.

In director Jonathan Munby's otherwise brilliant modern dress, contemporary political theater staging of Julius Caesar at Chicago Shakespeare, what seemed to me like a flaw in the casting and/or characterization of Brutus saps the Ides of March slaying and its repercussions--both personal and political--of its proper balance.

Performance photos by Liz Lauren
Though the Broadway version I saw was also done in modern dress, Munby's highly imaginative staging makes the Bard's 1599 play feel even more acutely contemporary.

Prior to the show's official 7:30 start, characters were already meandering around on-stage in something of an impromptu political rally, complete with 'Caesar For King' signs, rock music and even a hot dog vendor.

As the photo at right should suggest, Caesar is played like a confident American President (or at least candidate) by David Darlow, complete with a CaesarForAll.com URL. Smart phones, security footage and assault rifles also figure into Munby's staging, which even features a flash mob breaking out.

If, like me, you often find traditional Shakespeare a bit too dodgy and stodgy for your tastes, this rendition modernizes Sir William to a rather user-friendly extent without altering the original language or narrative. Simply for the originality of the staging, this production of Julius Caesar is worth seeing, especially if you find discount tickets on HotTix or Goldstar. (Chicago Shakespeare also offers a $20 ticket deal for those under 35)

But if Caesar here can be perceived as a George W. Bush (in terms of his power and, among supporters, popularity), then in my purview Brutus should seem like Colin Powell. Instead, as best I can offer within similar context, he feels more John Ashcroft, and that may even be an overstatement.

I certainly am not suggesting that John Light is an unskilled actor; far from it as the Brit's long and impressive list of credits would indicate.

But in making his American stage debut, the diminutive Light makes Brutus seem--at least to me--like a shifty, strung-out Wall Streeter, rather than a bold, gallant friend, then foe, to Caesar and later Antony.

Thus, when the brooding Brutus is convinced to condone and partake in Caesar's assassination--sorry for the spoiler of a story that dates back to 44 B.C.--I never had the sense he was all that conflicted.

Brutus here also fails to seem the equal of Marc Antony, played with forceful charisma by Dion Johnstone. As it is their dichotomy that drives the post-intermission action (technically not Act 2), I'm not sure I got a fair reading on the morals and motivations Shakespeare was likely trying to examine.

Certainly, along with the sublime staging, it was completely enjoyable to hear all the famous lines recited live on stage, including "It's Greek to me," with which I concluded my previous post.

There is much to recommend about Julius Caesar--the first Shakespearean play I've seen at Chicago Shakespeare Theater; the rest were all Sondheim musicals plus Amadeus--but to me the characterization of the main character (and again, it's Brutus, not Caesar) just didn't feel right.

That's too bad, because with a more overtly valiant Brutus--à la Denzel Washington--this inventive take on Julius Caesar could really have reigned supreme.

But what do I know? For as Cassius says (and I referenced in my headline):

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in ourselves."

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Skokie's Cultural Excursion to Greektown Comes Together Quite Communally

Museum Recap

National Hellenic Museum
Visited February 16, 2013
Main exhibit seen: American Moments

Upon seeing the title of this post, those few raving Sethaholics--a.k.a. insomniacs--who read everything I write may wonder why I have penned a piece about Greektown so soon after posting about a Greek meal I enjoyed at Mykonos (in Niles) as part of my Chicago Dining World Tour.

Well, although my visit to Greektown last weekend included some refreshments at a charming cafe--and an interesting personal twist--this piece is not primarily about food, Greek or otherwise.

Rather it is about culture and community, both Grecian and Skokian.

You see, my hometown and place of residence, Skokie, Illinois, is justifiably proud of the widespread diversity of its population. Each May the village holds a Festival of Cultures at which numerous ethnic groups showcase their countries of origin and cultural characteristics. And each of the past four years, Skokie has highlighted a different culture through the various programs and events that comprise Coming Together in Skokie.

After focusing on Asian Indian, Filipino and Assyrian communities, from January through March of 2013 Skokie is celebrating Greek Culture.

So on Saturday, my mom, sister Allison, a family friend and I boarded a school bus at the Skokie Heritage Museum--along with about 25 other people, at least half of whom seemed to know my mom--for a field trip to the National Hellenic Museum.

Though the museum previously existed on the 4th floor above the Greek Islands restaurant, in December 2011 it opened anew in an impressive building at 333 S. Halsted, designed by Greek-American architect Demetrios Stavrianos.

Chicago has one of the largest Greek populations in the world and the museum is said to be the only of its kind in the U.S. And among much that I learned from Mary, the terrific docent who led our group on a tour (primarily of the American Moments exhibit about Greek emigration and societal contributions) is that the current Greektown--roughly centered around Halsted and Adams--is a few block north of Chicago's original Greektown.

As one-sixth of Greece's people left behind hard times in their home country--sadly, what's old is new again--and came through Ellis Island between 1890-1920, many who made their way to Chicago settled near Halsted and Harrison (and Blue Island Avenue, which no longer intersects there).

In the 1960s, the expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago displaced the Greektown neighborhood and residents dispersed, which is why the current Chicago Greektown is largely a restaurant row, but not a heavily Greek residential community.

The docent, Mary (herself a Skokian), imparted why many Greek immigrants opened restaurants and diners--likely a consequence of coffee shops having been a common gathering place for men in Greece--and how at one point 1-in-10 Greek men in the U.S. owned a candy or ice cream shop.

That's when we learned that one of the members of our delegation was the daughter of the man who--along with his brother, her uncle--invented the Dove Bar (as the proprietors of Cupid and Dove Candies, respectively).

Unfortunately, she hadn't brought any to share.

But after learning about how people of Greek origin have made major contributions in many facets of American life--including within the labor movement, civil rights movement, military, medicine, sports and more--and taking a quick look at small exhibits on the 1st and 3rd floors of the museum (which is still very much in a fundraising/development/growth mode), we headed across the street to Artopolis, billed as a Bakery, Cafe and Agora. (I'll share a few more photos from the museum at bottom.)

I still am not clear if the cafe's owners had a direct connection to any of us assembled, or just graciously offered to feed us, but we were treated to free cookies, spanikopita (spinach pies), loukoumades (Greek donut holes) and coffee/tea.

Though we didn't have a ton of time to spend there, we were also able to order items beyond the compliments. My mom and I split a Smoky Harvest sandwich comprised of roasted vegetables, Provolone, spices and tomato sauce on herbed Foccacia. It was quite tasty.

Artopolis was rather charming and had three mouth-watering display cases of beautiful bakery treats. It also afforded me a minor ego thrill, as from our perch on a loft-like balcony, I looked down and saw a poster displayed in the general vicinity of the cash register.

"I think I took that picture," I uttered to my mom and sister, who didn't instantly grasp what I was referencing.

But at least 15 years ago or so, I wrote copy for the Greektown tourist brochure shown below, as part of a freelance project with a former art director colleague. And while I am not claiming to have done the design, the photo of the main structure shown--the round thing with columns; sorry, I don't know what it's called--is one that I took.

I thought it was a rather odd coincidence, especially as I don't think the poster is advertising a promotion anywhere close to current. But someone must like it, and if I may say so myself, one of the most striking things about the poster--which I didn't know was ever created--is my photo.

Upon comprehending what I was sputtering on about, Allison told a lady at the register that I had taken the photo and had done work for Greektown in the past.

To which she said, "We need you to do it again," albeit not in a way that implied she really wanted to immediately engage me. But Chris Diamond -- the designer who had the original connections -- if you stumble across this, get in touch.

Anyway, even without my own bit of ancient history resurrecting itself, it was a very nice day spent with nice people, learning interesting stuff and eating good food.

As I said to my mom on the bus on the way back, "You can't just spend all your life fiddling around on Facebook and playing Angry Birds."

To which she looked at me, puzzled. I think it was Greek to her.

Some additional pictures from the National Hellenic Museum and the Artopolis Bakery & Cafe:

The fustanella skirt shown at right has 400 pleats, marking the four centuries Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Empire.
One of the museum visitors in our group said it really should have had 500 pleats.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Chicago Dining World Tour: A Finely-Woven Afghan Feast

Kabul House
4949 Oakton St., Skokie

What I ate: Kabuli (Qabili) Palau, Tomato-Lentil Soup

Eating, exploring and writing are three of my primary passions in life, so even if evidence showed that my Chicago Dining World Tour articles inspired absolutely no one else to try the restaurants spotlighted or any others of diverse ethnicities, I would still enjoy what I'm doing.

But as another of my foremost passions is sharing my passions with others, the fact that a friend was tremendously pleased by being introduced to Kabul House--a Skokie restaurant featuring the flavors of Afghanistan--is especially gratifying. Particularly as he was there dining with me, and didn't even need to wait for this piece to be posted.

This past Sunday, after seeing the Harold Pinter play, The Birthday Party at Steppenwolf--review here--my friend Bob and I were thinking about where we might grab some dinner. My wont lately is to explore the cuisines of different cultures (and then write about the experience), but nothing particularly exotic and convenient to the North & Halsted corridor was readily coming to mind.

So I suggested Kabul House, a restaurant I'd eaten at a few times and enjoyed--both at its current location on Oakton and a past incarnation on the east end of Dempster in Skokie; coincidentally there also used to be a location across from Steppenwolf-- but not for a few years.

We passed on any appetizers but both got complimentary soup in advance of our entrees, as well as some delicious homemade pita bread.

The Tomato-Lentil soup was enjoyable, if a bit too subtly flavored for my tastes.

For my entree, I got Kabuli (alternately spelled Qabili) Palau, which the menu describes as the "national dish of Afghanistan which is named after the city of Kabul. Tender pieces of boneless braised lamb shank that is served underneath Afghan rice which is then topped by carmelized carrot strips & raisins."

Kabuli Palau
It was terrific, with the rice being particularly fragrant and fresh, and the raisins adding a bit of sweetness.

Though nothing was lacking in its flavor as served, I was intrigued by a shaker of a purplish spice I couldn't even guess at.

The waiter informed me it was sumac, which he described as fresh ground pomegranate.

Sounded good, so I sprinkled some on my dish, and though the sweetness it added was faint, it certainly didn't hurt.

I also later added just a bit of a spicy green sauce the waiter offered us. It had a good and powerful flavor, but I was hesitant to add very much.

As for Bob, he ordered Murgh Chalau, "sauteed chicken cooked in onion, garlic & tomato base, served with a plate of white rice."

Two bites in, he was declaring it "really fantastic," and later rounded out his rave by saying that it was "very rich and very tasty" and that he would definitely return to Kabul House in the not so distant future.

While the lamb and chicken went over quite well for me and Bob, I should also note that the restaurant is a longtime favorite of my sister Allison, who is a vegetarian.

Typically indulging in the Vegetarian Platter, consisting of sauteed spinach, eggplant, cauliflower, pumpkin and rice, Allison likes Kabul House to the point of dubbing it the Gobble House--bad puns run in the family--because "everything is so delicious I gobble it all up."

Murgh Chalau
The waiter who served Bob and me on Sunday was excellent, particularly in patiently explaining things to me so I could jot them down, and even offering some welcome suggestions.

So if you're ever in Skokie, you might well want to try Gobble--err, Kabul--House. And chances are good that Bob, Allison and/or I would be happy to join you.

Heck, Bob might have gone back already and it's only Tuesday.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Excellent Acting, Intriguing Ambiguity Make for an Enjoyably Absurd 'Birthday Party' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Birthday Party
a play by Harold Pinter
directed by Austin Pendleton
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru April 28

"Pinteresque" and "Pinter Pause" are terms that mean nothing to me, or close to it. 

Although I know that Harold Pinter was a legendary, Nobel Prize winning British playwright and I had seen an excellent production of his Betrayal at Steppenwolf in 2007, heading into The Birthday Party there on Sunday afternoon, I was essentially oblivious to any common characteristics of his works--or his trademark dialogue.

I explain this having noted that far more expert theater critics such as the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones and the Reader's Tony Adler have suggested that the tone of Austin Pendleton's production in Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theater falls short of giving The Birthday Party its requisite menace and oomph.

But while I certainly don't have the perspective to judge this rendition against past takes, or reference it in context with Pinter's esteemed oeuvre, I feel safe in recommending that--especially if you have the opportunity to purchase a $20 day-of-show discount ticket, like I easily did--you won't be disappointed.

I say this despite suspecting that some may find The Birthday Party's ambiguity and seeming absurdity a bit off-putting. But I found the former to be one of the play's--Pinter's second, published in 1957--greatest virtues, and while I have had a tough time with the absurdity of Beckett and Albee, the narrative labyrinth here is more puzzling (in a thought-provoking way) than perplexing.

The entire three-act, 140-minute play takes place within an English seaside boarding house, run by Meg--played sublimely by Moira Harris, an original Steppenwolf ensemble member making her first appearance with the troupe in 15 years--and Petey (the always terrific John Mahoney, who looks a bit more robust than he's appeared in recent years).

Pollyannaish Meg and matter-of-fact Petey are husband and wife, but I wasn't initially certain of this due to the way they spoke almost like strangers. As Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey references in her program notes, much of the dialogue plays like a riddle, with the audience left to wonder what is fact, fiction, fantasy or some combination of the above.

When the story begins, the only boarder is Stanley (a sensational Ian Barford), who used to be--perhaps--a touring pianist of some note. But then Goldberg (another remarkable Steppenwolf stalwart, Francis Guinan) and McCann (Marc Grapey, recently seen in The Odd Couple, The Iceman Cometh and Race), show up, seemingly with sinister interest in Stanley. 

I'm not going to reveal anything more about what happens in the play--other than to mention that the sixth character is Lulu, a young neighbor woman played by Sophia Sinise, who is the daughter of Moira Harris & Gary Sinise and luminous in a Grace Kelly sort of way--but I don't know that I could if I wanted to.

Is Stanley a criminal whose past is catching up with him? A broken-down rebel hunted by an authoritarian state? A former virtuoso who has to pay up for his Faustian bargain?

He easily could be any or none of these, and as echoed in a post-show discussion, Pinter intentionally leaves things--everything--open to interpretation.

Though Pinter was supposedly meticulous in his scripted stage directions and Pendleton seemingly followed them to a T--including, conceivably, the brilliant cat-and-mouse table circling between Stanley and McCann at the start of Act 2--according to the discussion moderator, the playwright gave no clear indications about any meanings, motivations, circumstances, etc.

As I referenced above, if you need to leave the theater knowing exactly what just happened, you shouldn't attend The Birthday Party.

But if you don't mind--or actually enjoy--pontificating about the possibilities on the way home, without any concrete answers to be had, the superlative cast at Steppenwolf will leave you with much to contemplate and, particularly for a bargain price, celebrate.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Celebrating Genius in Gym Shorts, as Michael Jordan Turns 50

I was born in 1968, so I never saw the Beatles perform live--in person or on TV.

The same can be said for Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and (at least per memory) the Clash.

I don't think I ever saw Muhammad Ali box in the present tense (certainly not in his prime) nor did I see Sandy Koufax pitch, Ted Williams hit or Jim Brown run.

I also didn't see Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell on the basketball court, nor Pele on a soccer pitch.

Obviously, I didn't have an opportunity to see Mozart, Beethoven or Gershwin play the piano nor Houdini perform magic.

Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling nearly half a millennium before I existed and I wasn't there when Moses parted the Red Sea.

But as amazing any or all of the above would have been to witness, there is none for which I would trade the privilege of having seen Michael Jordan play basketball.

And excepting such mundane tasks as seeing a co-worker walk to his desk or watching my mom make dinner, I think I saw MJ play basketball--though less than 10 times in person--more than I've seen anyone else do anything.

He played 930 regular season games with the Bulls and 179 playoff games. I likely saw at least 75% of the former and 95% of the latter (I lived in LA during the 90-92 runs). Plus some North Carolina college games and a handful with the Washington Wizards. So maybe 875 games.

In having seen all 180 episodes of Seinfeld--still the best TV show of my lifetime--even including reruns Michael easily tops Jerry and his gang.

And though I've seen Bruce Springsteen--the only other "performer" who has meant as much to my life as Michael--in concert 42 times, even if you add television appearances and the many times I've watched the Boss' videos and DVDs, MJ still wins.

And if you haven't heard, today is Michael Jordan's 50th birthday.

So it should be pretty easy to find numerous well-written remembrances of him and how great he was on the court--the greatest ever IMHO. Thus, this article won't go into too much detail about his supernatural skills. (This Deadspin piece about Craig Ehlo's recollections is terrific.)

If you saw him play, you know. And if you didn't, find some videos.

The Ultimate Jordan DVD collection I own--which now costs $135 more on Amazon than I paid in 2004--includes five of Michael's greatest games in full. Last night, I opted to watch the "Flu Game," the 5th of the 1997 Finals against Utah.

That was the game Jordan played after suffering from flu-like symptoms the previous night and up through game time. (The latest SI cover story on MJ@50 includes intimations by Jalen Rose that Jordan's illness may have been a hangover; OK, even if so, he was still sick as a dog. And this seems like a good place to state that I do not consider Michael Jordan a saint, nor even likely someone I'd enjoy having a beer or playing poker with. I've heard some less than savory stories and his Hall of Fame speech was brutishly ugly. But whatever his temperament, faults and transgressions, until his sins reach the level of Lance Armstrong, Ray Lewis, Joe Paterno and (allegedly) Oscar Pistorius, Michael remains heroic in my eyes, simply and solely for his athletic brilliance.)

To remind, the Bulls had lost games 3 & 4 of the '97 Finals to the Jazz in Utah, blowing a late lead in Game 4 to wind up tied 2-2 in the series. Game 5 was also at Utah's Delta Center, where NBC kept showing that the decibels from crowd noise reached up to 109 dB. The Jazz dominated early, going up 21-8 early and ending the first quarter with a 29-16 lead.

In watching the game again last night, which I knew they had won, I was still thinking, "How in the hell are they going to win this game?"

Two words: Michael Jordan.

After scoring only 4 points in the 1st quarter, he dropped in 17 in the second en route to 38 total. He also made a few incredible passes for assists, had some steals and great defensive stops and, after playing 44 of 48 minutes, in near complete exhaustion he sank a 3-pointer with :25 left to essentially seal the win.

So after a decade of not seeing MJ play--and the Wizards years hardly count--I watched a single game, one preceded by him puking his guts out, and was reminded altogether anew just how transcendentally awesome Michael Jordan was.

And what a joy he was to watch.

It's not just the 6 championships and unmatched "will to win" that separates him from LeBron, Kobe, etc., but I'd almost forgotten just how amazingly fluid and graceful Michael was on the court. I'll let others argue if he truly was the greatest player ever, but I'm pretty certain I'll never see another I prefer watching.

My bedroom, circa 1989
But as I was getting to, nine paragraphs ago, this tribute isn't so much about Michael Jordan's amazing abilities and accomplishments.

This is about what Michael meant to me, through some personal recollections.

Although, to be truthful, just watching him drop 44 points in some random game all by my lonesome was essentially just as gratifying as anything more overtly nostalgic.

But some of my memories of Michael are all the more special due to having been shared with a variety of friends, a few who remain in my life but several others I lost touch with years ago.

I certainly remember MJ dropping in the winning shot to win the 1982 NCAA Championship for North Carolina, and how happy I was the Bulls got him with the 3rd pick in the 1984 NBA draft, after the Houston Rockets took Hakeem Olajuwon and the Portland Trailblazers--to their eternal chagrin--took Sam Bowie, whose career was destroyed by a foot injury (a sad foreshadowing of Portland's pick of Greg Oden over Kevin Durant 23 years later).

On March 9, 1985, I saw Michael Jordan play in person for the first time, when he scored 28 points in a loss to the Utah Jazz at Chicago Stadium. I still have the $6.50, bought-at-the-door ticket stub--read about my obsession with such here--but can't quite remember which combination of high school pals (Fred, Mike, Billy, perhaps) I went with. I thought Jordan, who's been my best friend since Kindergarten, was there, but I just asked him and he had no recollection of it.

But I know that sometime in 1985, Jordan got a pair of Air Jordans when they first came out--he got the Black/Red ones--and sometime soon after, I got the kind shown at left. Regretfully, I don't have them anymore, but the Air Jordan socks are sitting just a few feet away as I type this.

I remember ruing Michael's foot injury that kept him out much of the 1985-86 season, but during that time saw him at the Chicago Auto Show, where he signed the photo shown below. (It's hard to see, but it says, "To Seth").

In the Spring of 1986, I was in my second year of being a Pepsi and peanuts vendor at Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park, along with high school friends Mark, Larry and others. I was pretty much the worst vendor in history anyhow, but April 20, 1986 was particularly slow for commissions as I spent much of the Cubs game camped at a concession stand atop the grandstand watching Michael score 63 against the Celtics in an overtime playoff loss. That was the game that prompted Larry Bird to call him, "God disguised as Michael Jordan."

In August 1986, I entered college at Northern Illinois University. My freshman year on the 6th floor of the Stevenson South dorm was a pretty fun one overall, but I most recall watching every game of the Bulls' season in the room of a sophomore named Tom Anselmo--if you see this, get in touch--accompanied by Tony, Greg and others. That was the year MJ averaged 37.1 points per game.

I remember buying a pair of Bulls playoff tickets--in those days you had to call Ticketron; the  upper deck tix were just $12 each--and Tom drove us to the Stadium to see the Bulls lose Game 3, and thus another opening round series, to the Celtics on April 28, 1987. Michael scored 30.

In February 1988, I again saw Michael at the Auto Show (at right), this time with a private dorm suitemate named Chris, who I never saw again after that semester.

On May 7, 1989, just days from my NIU graduation (yes, I finished in 3 years), my roommate Mike and I were watching the Bulls play the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 5 of the first round playoffs. MJ hit "The Shot" and we almost hit the ceiling.

From February 1990 through the end of 1992, I lived in Los Angeles (specifically Encino in the San Fernando Valley). I remember going to watch some Bulls games at a bowling alley in Tarzana, and being amongst the minority population when the Bulls met the Lakers in their first Finals.

I recall not just going nuts when the Bulls won the title, but calling my Aunt Renee, who lives near Clark & Division, for live sound of the celebration on the streets of Chicago. (And did so again in 1992.)

And on November 26, 1991, my friend Steve (from an advertising agency I worked at in L.A.) and I went to see the Bulls play the Clippers at the L.A. Sports Arena. MJ scored 23 in a 116-79 Bulls blowout.

I was back at my parents house in Skokie for the 1993 Championship, still recall being stunned by Michael's first retirement announcement and--though he doesn't remember this either--being with Jordan at a bar near his Urbana home (it was likely the Esquire in Champaign) when MJ announced his return to the Bulls after his ill-fated baseball career. Needless to say, we went crazy.

I went to a few games during the '95-'96 through '97-'98  seasons, including one in Milwaukee with my still-friend Mark from high school (the black jersey photo above was taken there) and the first game of the 1998 playoffs, a win over the Nets in which MJ scored 39. I took the photo at left from a prime box seat.

I likely watched every game of those last 3 championship seasons, many at the apartment of a colleague (at an Oakbrook ad agency) named Jack, who I literally have not heard from or about since the Bulls won their 6th and final ring.

I also went to 2 or 3 of the championship celebrations in Grant Park.

Eerily, especially since I've rarely ever watched the Today show, I recall that on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I saw Bob Costas talking to Katie Couric about Michael Jordan's plans to come back with the Washington Wizards.

That was before I left the house; by the time I got to work, MJ's comeback was the most tragically overshadowed news story in history.

Speaking of overshadowing--though not nearly on such a grim level--remember when Michael showed up at that White Sox playoff game in 1993 and became a much bigger story than the game itself? That just popped into my head.

Anyway, winding this down, I did see Michael play the Bulls in a Wizards uniform twice, but three other Wizards games I had tickets for didn't work out so well.

Michael sat out one in Chicago and another in Milwaukee, and when I was in New York on March 9, 2003, I bought a scalper's ticket for Michael's last appearance at Madison Square Garden.

Sadly, the ticket (shown at right) turned out to be a counterfeit and I never got in. (So I went to see Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune with Rosie Perez and Joe Pantoliano.)

Of course, over the years I've owned myriad Michael Jordan mementos; posters and t-shirts galore, some signed photos beyond the Auto Show one, several books, stuff from his old restaurant, even a bottle of Michael Jordan Cologne I still have but have never worn.

I sure hope my classic Michael Jordan McDonald's folder--a gift from Mark, who also memorably gave my first-born nephew an infant "23"  jersey--still resides somewhere in my mom's crawlspace, but nowadays, only the photo at the very top and the matryoshka dolls (Jordan, Pippen, Rodman (with orange hair), Kukoc, Kerr) are on display in my condo.

But more than anything else pertaining to Michael Jordan, I cherish the memories. Not just of him, but because of him.

I'm sure there's much I've already forgotten, and respectable reasons others may not like Mike (or want to be like him), but other than family, friends and perhaps the music of Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles, being able to see Michael Jordan play basketball--for my hometown team--for as long and often as I did, will forever stand atop the foremost pleasures and treasures of my life.

And for that I say, "Thanks, Michael."

Happy Birthday #50 to the man who will forever be 23 (though for a brief time, 45).