Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Splendiferous Day of Natural Beauty: Photos of Colorful Trees, Recuperating Birds and a Sleeping Turtle

One of my favorite things about living in Glen Ellyn--a western suburb of Chicago--for 12 years from 1995-2007 was my proximity to the Morton Arboretum.

I would only go, at most, once a year and almost always in late October, when the leaves on the trees represented a kaleidoscopic symphony across the color spectrum.

So, now living in Skokie, it was a pleasure to convince my friend Ken to take a ride out to DuPage County to visit the arboretum (officially in Lisle) on Saturday.

Afterward, I took him into Glen Ellyn, to see where I used to live and to stop by the Willowbrook Wildlife Center, which I also have long enjoyed.

We also ate at another longtime favorite of mine, the Seven Dwarfs Restaurant in Wheaton. I'll spare you a picture of my Francheezie, but here are several photos from the Morton Arboretum and the Willowbrook Wildlife Center.

All photos by Seth Arkin, copyright 2014. Please do not repost without permission, or at least attribution.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Not So 'Amazing Grace' Fails to Save Its Wretch of a Protagonist -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Amazing Grace
A Pre-Broadway World Premiere Musical
Music, Lyrics & (co-)Book by Christopher Smith
Directed by Gabriel Barre
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago

I am certainly no authority on who deserves "to be saved."

But so morally suspect--at least in retrospect--was the early life of an Englishman named John Newton, a longtime slave trader, that it corrupted my regard for and interest in his eventual and rather abrupt salvation late in Amazing Grace, a new musical ostensibly about the famous hymn Newton wrote in 1782.

Imagine if Irving Berlin had slaughtered Native Americans for years before he wound up writing "God Bless America." I'm not sure I'd really enjoy sitting through a musical biography of his ugly backstory just to have it culminate in his iconic tune.

Which isn't to imply that Amazing Grace doesn't have any musical merits, although it is not in any way an acute examination of how "Amazing Grace"--technically just the opening phrase of a hymn called "Faith's Review and Expectation" (per Wikipedia)--came to be conceived and composed. Rather it spends 2-1/2 hours focusing on Newton, his father, a female interest named Mary Catlett, a bizarre love triangle and oh, yeah, slave trading (with Newton repeatedly noting he was just "a businessman").

To be fair to composer/lyricist Christopher Smith, who also co-wrote the book with Arthur Giron, many in the audience seemed to like the show considerably more than I did, and I couldn't help but be impressed with several of the songs.

With Broadway vets Josh Young and Erin Mackey making for a beautiful pair of leads with glorious voices--this World Premiere is theoretically headed to Broadway, so the cast is terrific--tunes such as "Truly Alive," "Here's to You," "A Chance for Me" and others are stellar enough that I imagine if I simply heard an eventual cast recording, I would find it rather engaging, maybe even delightful.

Under Gabriel Barre's direction, the staging is inventive with impressive sets designed by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce.

The 18th century costumes--by Toni-Leslie James--were also quite striking in their own right, but though my "best musical ever" affinity for Les Miserables suggests no innate aversion to period pieces, something about sailors of yore (much of Amazing Grace takes place on and around boats) just added to its not resonating with me in the here and now.

To try to elaborate on why I didn't like Amazing Grace would wind up rather convoluted, if only in trying to explain that a piece about a (mostly) bad person doesn't inherently make the creative work (mostly) bad. Some of the most compelling stories in history are those of sin and redemption.

But from early in Act I, when Newton was spearheading the auctioning and mistreatment of slaves, to deep into Act II, when despite a number of travails including being held captive, the protagonist remained a petulant asshole, I found the whole thing rather off-putting.

I think I followed what was going on rather well, including with the Mary character (a clandestinely rebellious abolitionist), the malevolent Major Archibald Gray (played by Chris Hoch) who tries to romance her, Newton's callous ex-seafaring father (Tom Hewitt) and a former slave of Newton's named Thomas (Chuck Cooper), but the whole thing--such as in juxtaposing slavery with a Titanic-like love triangle--far too slight and trite in its examination of one of history's greatest wrongs.

And besides the parts of Amazing Grace I really didn't like, most of the rest--including the pre-answered question about whether Newton would find salvation--I just didn't much care about.

Although I often say an abundance of strong songs is the key to a first-rate musical, despite the inclusion of several here, they just seemed too slow in arriving, with far too much exposition in between.

Distaste is hard to explain, and I would do poorly in trying to debate anyone who greatly enjoyed Amazing Grace.

But some shows you just love, perhaps without acutely knowing why, and some shows you really just don't.

With due respect to the talented cast, composers and others involved, Amazing Grace is one of the latter for

So when the title song was finally sung at the end of the show, repeatedly--my suggestion would to also begin with it and tell Newton's story in flashback--it was far too late to save a wretch like me.

I found myself happy just to leave the theater and go home.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Eleven on a Scale of 'Ten': Truly Epic Pearl Jam Yields an Old Milwaukee Classic -- Concert Review

Concert Review:

Pearl Jam
BMO Harris Bradley Center, Milwaukee
October 20, 2014

If you've ever seen Pearl Jam in concert over their 23 years together, you probably know that calling them one of the great live acts of all-time isn't hyperbole.

But just two songs into their show Monday night in Milwaukee, both from their good-but-not-great 2013 Lightning Bolt album, that acclimation was not only reiterated but amplified.

Gloriously--as in I can't readily recall them ever sounding better--amplified.

And things only got better from there, over the course of a 3-hour-and-15-minute show that was--not in a trite, overused, co-opted by mediocrity sort of way--truly epic.

Certainly, I've long known how great a band--and concert act--Pearl Jam is. There is no other extant band who I've followed closely from their first album onward over as long a span.

Although I now rue--and to an extent did then--not seeing Pearl Jam (along with Nirvana!) open for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at the LA Sports Arena in late 1991, nor attending the second traveling Lollapalooza at which they played in 1992, and being unable to get a ticket for their show at the Chicago Stadium in its waning days in 1994, I have now seen the band 16 times since first catching them live at Milwaukee's Summerfest on the greatly abridged (due to their anti-Ticketmastet crusade) 1995 tour. 

(I wish I also went to their Soldier Field show in '95.)

Having seen them many times in Chicago--including on both nights of 2-night stands multiple times--and
in such disparate places as Madison Square Garden, the Toledo Sports Arena and an outdoor amphitheater in Cincinnati, I've never not loved Pearl Jam live, and have often found them to be fantastic.

But honestly, if they have ever been better than they were on Monday, I'm glad I don't recall it, for I had--anew, perhaps--one of those absolutely rapturous "this is one of the greatest concerts I've ever seen" sort of evenings (for at least the 4th or 5th time this year).

It's easy to say the length of the show had much to do with my ecstasy, but as they tore through "Mind Your Manners" as the second full song--following "Pendulum" which was preceded by the brief instrumental "Red Bar" that would factor in later--I turned to my friend Paolo and exhorted, "They sound fucking phenomenal!"

After a blistering "Corduroy" and the title track off Lightning Bolt, Eddie Vedder brought on a special guest "from the great state of Illinois."

This was Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, who had just appeared at the Cubby Bear on Friday night with the Foo Fighters (I wasn't there but Paolo was) and featured heavily in the first episode of the Foos' Sonic Highways show on HBO.

Rather than rip through "Surrender," Nielsen strongly abetted Pearl Jam's scintillating take on The Who classic, "Baba O'Riley." This is a song PJ has long done as an occasional late encore, but one of the best songs in rock history was delivered only 5 tunes into the show.

I thought the following "Brain of J" was a rather rare (though welcome) choice, but must admit I didn't catch on that the band was playing 1998's Yield album front-to-back until midway through; I just enjoyed the interesting song selections--"Faithful," "No Way," "Wishlist," "Do the Revolution," "In Hiding," etc.--and how good EVERYTHING sounded. (The "Red Bar" instrumental comes from Yield, which is why it began the show; it was not played again in album sequence.)

I've always liked Yield quite a bit, but that Pearl Jam could play 12 straight songs from it without a noticeable lull served to showcase not only how many quality songs the band has written, but that even with Vedder two months from turning 50, bassist Jeff Ament & drummer Matt Cameron past it and guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready getting close, the band remains as powerful, potent and professional as ever, maybe even more so.

Clearly still at the height of their powers--and with Vedder in phenomenal voice--Pearl Jam delivered searing, sensational versions of "Even Flow" and "Rearviewmirror" (video below) among the songs that closed out the main set.

Thirteen more songs would still follow.

I won't name them all as you can see Pearl Jam's Milwaukee setlist here, but along with a number of quieter cuts with the band seated, it was a joy to hear four great ones from Ten--"Jeremy," "Porch," "Black," "Alive"--their 1991 debut that remains my favorite.

But even citing how good the band sounded, how long they played and how strong their material is still doesn't quite capture why this was such a superlative show.

It's hard to convey this aptly in writing, but the group--and especially Vedder--just seemed to be having the greatest time in the world, which added to why shlepping to and from Milwaukee sandwiched between nights of 4-5 hours of sleep was completely worth it.

Among other mirthfulness, Eddie saluted Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, who was on hand but never on-stage, took a jibe at Bears quarterback Jay Cutler--Evanston native and huge Bears fan Vedder declined to don a cheesehead thrown at him, though did later put on a #10 Packers jersey--nostalgically recalled that Old Milwaukee was the first beer he'd ever tasted (at the age of 8), dedicated a song to an audience member whose lover was away in Korea tending to her ailing father and noted that bassist and huge basketball fan Jeff Ament thought the #10 of ex-Bucks star Bobby Dandridge should join the retired numbers hanging in the rafters.

And at one point, Vedder even waded out into the center of audience on the main floor.

Anyway, I could go on and on about how good Pearl Jam was, but it's three nights after the show and their tour has ended, so it's not like this review is acutely actionable.

I won't even bother trying to assess where the show ranks, this year or among all the concerts I've ever seen.

All I know is that it is among the rare ones that was absolutely perfect.

This video won't really give you a sense of what it was like to be at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, but it's a great clip--posted to YouTube by NMAfreak--of Pearl Jam's blistering version of "Rearviewmirror."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

David Bowie Is...a Fascinating, Revelatory Fusion of Sound & Vision -- Museum Exhibit Review

Exhibition Review

David Bowie Is
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Thru January 4, 2015

David Bowie is an artistic genius.

This was well-established for me before I became a teenager, probably first from hearing "Space Oddity," though obviously well after its 1969 release--I was born just the year before--or even its mid-70s re-releases.

In the late '70s, "Changes," "Rebel Rebel" and "Suffragette City" were still also FM radio staples, and at some point I bought the ChangesOneBowie greatest hits LP.

When "Let's Dance"--the song, album, video, etc.--exploded in 1983, I was still only 14, but I really wanted to attend Bowie's Serious Moonlight Tour in Chicago (but was left out despite a friend going).

So I've never known of David Bowie and not been a considerable fan.

Note: No photography is allowed in the exhibit;
pictures here are from the V&A Museum website
and may not depict exact items or layouts in Chicago
But even in finally seeing him live in 1990--at Dodger Stadium--on the Sound & Vision Tour that was to represent the end of him playing his greatest hits, I primarily knew his most popular songs, the Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders From Mars and Let's Dance albums and his reputation for being a creative chameleon, vis-à-vis the Ziggy, Aladdin Sane and Thin White Duke characters.

It probably wasn't until Bowie played three shows at the Rosemont Theatre in January 2004--I attended two of them, plus one in Milwaukee a few months later--that I really did a deep dive that raised my appreciation to a far greater level.

From the brilliance of early albums like The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane and, of course, Ziggy Stardust, to the epic slow-burn track that is "Station to Station" and the album named for it, to his staggering German period that produced Low, Heroes and Lodger, it's quite possible that simply from a musical standpoint no one had a more consistently and comprehensively remarkable '70s (with apologies to Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Steely Dan and others who were sensational throughout the decade).

And I've liked all the albums Bowie has released in this millennium, including 2013's rather surprising--after years of his being completely silent--The Next Day.

But what I loved most about David Bowie Is, the extensive exhibition on Bowie now running at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art--it was organized by the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum in London, where I saw it last year as well--is how it augments what I already knew and loved about its subject in ways that substantially amplify my appreciation of just what a genius David Bowie Is.

Most acutely--though reiterated through numerous artifacts (most from Bowie's own archives) across several galleries--the exhibit does this by illustrating how thoroughly he has provided or overseen the creative direction for every aspect of his career and multiple personas.

Even when he was 16 and in a band called the Kon-rads, Bowie (then still David Jones) was creating stage-set designs and paying close attention to fashion.

And from his unique stagewear to album covers to tour themes to music videos and more, nothing about Bowie's one-of-a-kind imagery happened outside his control.

Yes, he collaborated with highly innovative fashion designers such as Kansai Yamamoto, Ola Hudson (incidentally the mother of Slash from Guns 'n Roses), Mark Ravitz and Alexander McQueen, as well as musical compatriots like Lou Reed, Brian Eno and Iggy Pop, but Bowie was seemingly completely on top of everything.

And even more compelling to me than its insights into his collaborators is the way David Bowie Is showcases the artist's vast influences.

This is personally heartening because--as this blog hopefully somewhat conveys--I think cultural literacy is vitally important for myriad reasons (not the least being emotional sustenance) and rue that between the here-and-now superfluous nature of the digital age and scholastic de-emphasizing of humanities and arts curriculum, art forms from painting to jazz to poetry to theater to classic cinema to classical music, etc., etc., etc., are being digested by the masses and especially the young less and less...to great detriment.

For as the exhibit makes clear, David Bowie didn't just wake up and become David Bowie.

Not too surprisingly, especially given that they incidentally share January 8 as their birthdays, Elvis Presley helped inspire the young Londoner's musical bent.

But just as much, to my enlightenment, so did Little Richard.

Then there was the inspiration provided by teachers who further fueled Bowie's artistic curiosity--most notably Owen Frampton, who, in just one of the nifty coincidences the exhibition reveals, is the father of Peter Frampton. The latter's early band, Humble Pie, was one that David Bowie opened for while a fledgling performer in the late '60s.

But beyond the several names I've already mentioned, rather conspicuous to those who take the time to read most of the exhibit's text are myriad influences from the fairly obvious--the Beatles, Andy Warhol--to a host of others, some well beyond my familiarity.

Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Bill Haley, Jimi Hendrix, Stanley Kubrick--Bowie saw 2001: A Space Odyssey several times before writing "Space Oddity" and was highly influenced by A Clockwork Orange--J.G. Ballard, Frank Sinatra, Fritz Lang, Metropolis, Erich Heckel, Bertold Brecht, Marlene Dietrich, the musicals Oliver and Cabaret, Christopher Isherwood, Philip Glass and Jim Henson are just some of the people and works cited as influencing (or intersecting with) Bowie.

The exhibit repeatedly notes Bowie's love of "art, films, theater, the avant garde and all music genres," and in the one room specifically devoted to his songwriting, the accompanying text shares that:
"As he layers influences form music, theater and art, he devises his songs 'so that you see something new each time.'"
Yet while I enjoyed having my incessant whining about the importance of artistic exploration validated, at least in regards to Bowie, whose "influence on contemporary culture is perhaps greater than that of any other musician of his generation" (per the exhibit's introductory text), those more interested in rock memorabilia and other eye candy won't be disappointed, either.

The numerous fashions from Bowie's various phases are plentiful and fascinating, and--especially in the case of those by Kansai Yamamoto--flamboyantly fun.

A display devoted to costumes Bowie and his bandmates wore for a 3-song Saturday Night Live appearance in 1979 is clearly one of the exhibition's overt highlights.

There is also an ample section about the time Bowie spent in West Berlin from 1977-79, creating a trilogy of albums and sharing a flat with Iggy Pop; this gallery has some fine paintings Bowie made, including of Iggy.

And the exhibition doesn't sugarcoat the effects of Bowie's mid-70s cocaine addiction, with a cocaine spoon being one of its artifacts.

Yet I imagine it would be hard for anyone to adequately tour the vast exhibit--my friend Dave and I spent 2-1/2 hours there--and not come away with a greater appreciation of just how influential David Bowie has been.

From being a pioneer in bringing theatricality (and makeup) to the concert stage, to his acting in several notable plays and movies, to the way the androgynous and/or effeminate aspects of Ziggy Stardust and other personas were a boon to the nascent Gay Rights movement, it becomes clear that to think of David Bowie simply as a "rock star" greatly undermines all he has brought to the world, far beyond radio stations and record stores.

Yet anyone who--not wrongly, IMO--thinks "Sure, I appreciate all that 'David Bowie Is,' but I mostly just love his music" will undoubtedly enjoy hearing plenty of Bowie tunes through headphones that accompany the exhibition (for no extra charge beyond the $25 admission), seeing a variety of videos including a great one of "Starman," a full gallery showcasing concert appearances and several MTV clips, flipping through LP covers and reading numerous hand-written lyrics to such songs as "Oh! You Pretty Things," "Five Years," "Ziggy Stardust," "Rebel Rebel" and "Fame."

Oddly, I got a kick in noting how Bowie always dotted his "i's" with circles.

It may seem strange to some that an art museum is hosting an exhibition on a rock musician.

But not only have I never much cared for most contemporary art nor the MCA's permanent collection--the entirety of non-Bowie stuff on display took all of 20 minutes to see, and nothing dazzled except a lobby wall of punk-era portraits--I would really be hard-pressed to name a contemporary artist (to any connotation of the word) more innovative, influential and inspiring than David Bowie.

Whether you're a huge fan of his or an artistically-curious neophyte--or anywhere in between--David Bowie Is...well worth your time, and (despite $25 being a bit steep) your money.

Although David Bowie's music is certainly a major thread of the exhibit, the genesis and greatness of his songs and albums themselves are secondary to more visual aspects of his career. Yet his music merits ongoing exploration, from his hit singles to nearly the full entirety of his oeuvre. This Spotify setlist I put together when it was "David Bowie Day" in Chicago tries to cover his output to various depths (across just 22 songs). 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Tender is the Night, Debased: Jackson Browne Showcases His Artistry as (Some) Fans Demonstrate Their Idiocy -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Jackson Browne
Chicago Theatre
October 14, 2014

"Have you ever been to a concert before?" 

So sneered the asshat behind me, shortly after I had politely asked if he and others nearby could quiet their talking during the songs Jackson Browne was singing. To which he retorted, "No, I can't."

I didn't bother to answer his question then, but will now.

Yes, fuquad, I've been to a concert before. In fact, I've been to 620 of them, primarily because I enjoy hearing what the artists onstage are singing and playing.

And just because I keep track of these things, Tuesday night's show at the Chicago Theatre was the 1,500th live performance of almost any kind--except athletic--I've attended in my life, at least as entered into my Filemaker database.

So I certainly understand that people attend shows--and specifically rock concerts--for various reasons, from varying perspectives.

Many--and I am not being derisive about this, if the enjoyment of others isn't terribly impinged upon--go primarily to "have a good time," or to hang out with friends, or to be seen, or to consume considerable amounts of alcohol (and/or weed).

I certainly hope to have a good time at any performance I attend, often in the company of a close friend or relative, occasionally several.

And I don't wish to deny others their pleasure--however achieved, unless rudely--any more than I want them to corrupt mine.

But there is not a single rock concert I've ever gone to where my primary objective has not been to hear, see the performance of and appreciate the music. (Even on the Lawn at Ravinia, notorious for chatterboxing, I feel the performers deserve to be heard by anyone who has bought a ticket with that intent.)

As I've often said, not facetiously, rock is my religion. And probably my therapist as well.

And even in the nosebleeds where I typically sit, most rock concerts are far from cheap.

Perhaps because I have gone to so many concerts by myself, where conversing with a companion wasn't an option, I may be a bit oversensitive to people talking around me. Though I try to keep this in mind before getting overly irritated.

And though Jackson Browne, even in playing with a band, focused heavily on new and/or more delicate songs from his vast repertoire, I am not saying the theater needed to be funeral silent. Or even as quiet as at a theatrical performance.

But the dick behind me, and a few others either with or near him--I never did turn fully around--just wouldn't shut up DURING the songs.

These included, in order from the onset, tender takes on deep cuts from Browne's catalog ("The Barricades of Heaven" and "Looking Into You"; the latter from his 1972 self-titled debut) followed by two tracks off his brand-new album Standing in the Breach, and then an introspective early classic, "These Days."

I enjoyed all of these songs, especially as I had studied up for the show by listening to the new album and several of the tracks I had noted on preceding setlists. (See Jackson Browne's Chicago Theatre setlist here.)

The main jerk behind me was avowedly there hoping for a glut of greatest hits--I don't blame him much for that; I would've welcomed a few more myself--but before the show I had even shown him the recent setlist on my phone to suggest that, especially early on, easy ear candy would be sparse.

Yet even he--apparently, as he voiced his every thought--appreciated the warm beauty of Browne's still-supple voice, keen lyricism and adroitness on guitar and piano.

But as he and his pals incessantly talked through every song, the distraction certainly detracted from, if not quite ruined, the first set of the show for me. 

So after a wondrous take on "These Days," during which the guy enunciated at least four times how much he liked the song, I was compelled to turn and request the chatter be quelled. His obnoxious retort, and the then-increased rudeness, prompted an older man sitting next to me to even more vociferously tell them to shut up.

Things threatened to get ugly, and adding to my discomfort was that my friend Paolo, who had bought the tickets as a birthday present, was caught up at meeting and didn't arrive until 8 songs into the 10-song opening set. So even to move to some empty seats a section over was precluded by not wanting Paolo to arrive and not find me.

When he did get there, he got a taste of the bullshit behind us, and rather than pick a fight I just insisted that we move to empty seats at intermission. Musically, the break was preceded by a lovely "Fountain of Sorrow."

But in addition to the very acute rudeness that directly affected my enjoyment, I felt the show was marred by many other imbeciles who felt the need to shout song requests at Jackson--even amidst his introductions to other songs--and other obnoxious guttural utterances.

As Browne noted from the stage, when he plays completely solo he's more open to heeding fan requests, but just a few shows into this tour with a new band, he's sticking mostly to his planned playlist.

Plus, aware that he was indulging the audience with several new songs, he commented that "I've been working on these songs for six years, I need to play them."

So I was perfectly fine hearing what he wanted to play, especially as I knew that "Doctor My Eyes," "The Pretender," "Running on Empty" and "Take It Easy" would be coming late in the show.

That said, although all the cajoling was crap, and when Browne did give into it and asked "What do you want to hear? all he got was an aural blur, it was nonetheless opportune--performance-wise--for him to call an audible and play "In the Shape of a Heart."

And--while greatly appreciating the artistry on abundant display--given the austerity of a bit too much of the material, a blast through "Lawyers in Love" or "Somebody's Baby" would have interspersed rather well.

In fact, we almost got the latter, for as Jackson was about to play "For a Dancer" per his norm on this tour, screams for "Somebody's Baby" prompted him to ask which one the crowd wanted to hear.

But then, perhaps justly annoyed, he played neither, going right into "Doctor My Eyes," which like the hits that followed, was a delight.

Though I somewhat felt during "The Pretender" and "Running on Empty" that the band didn't sound quite as fluid as it will once it fully gels.

I was afraid the audience had cost us a song, and a great one at that, but we got an extra one to end the encores: "Before the Deluge" from Late for the Sky.

It sounded good, though I would have preferred the title track from that classic 1974 album, or even more so, "The Load Out/Stay" combo.

But heck, I was just happy to hear Jackson Browne sing without having morons talking over him.

A bit hard to believe, but this was the first time I was seeing him as a headliner (I'd seen him open for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers in 2002).

He was good enough that I'm happy I went, and perhaps even deserving of @@@@1/2 if the disruptions didn't detract, though I think balancing his set with a few more rockers and/or favorites ("Red Neck Friend," "Boulevard," "You Love the Thunder," perhaps, though I should note he did play "Rock Me on the Water") would have seemed appropriate and advantageous.

As it was, I would have enjoyed Jackson Browne a whole lot more if not for his fans.

At least the worst of them.

So as not to seem too much a hypocrite, as this blog shows I take a good number of photos during any concert. I also take some notes on my phone for review purposes. Some fans nearby may find either or both of these emissions of light annoying and distracting; I certainly might. 

But not only do I try my best to be courteous--including dimming my phone's brightness--if someone informs me that I am impinging on their enjoyment of the show, I comply without discussion.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Pithy Philosophies #20

Seth Saith:

Beyond whatever lessons or reveries the past can provide, looking backwards is usually a waste of time. 

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Despite Sparkling Critical Acclaim, Goodman's 'Smokefall' Fails to Light My Fire -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by Noah Haidle
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 26

The theater critic I most read and respect--the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones--absolutely loves Smokefall, a drama by Noah Haidle that he called the "best new play in Chicago" in 2013 and now likes even better as the work has been re-staged by the Goodman in their larger Albert Theatre.

Especially given my regard for the Goodman Theatre, I feel it only fair to begin my review by sharing that much more knowledgeable and esteemed critics enjoyed Smokefall far more than I did.

For in telling you that the piece largely left me cold and uncaring--despite the wondrous 90-year-old Mike Nussbaum being entirely wondrous, a good amount of silly humor and points to Haidle for originality--it's entirely possible that I just missed the brilliance, beauty and profundity.

Not that I couldn't sense that there was some of each there.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
In crafting a strangely-structured parable about a Grand Rapids, MI family across multiple generations, Haidle--along with Goodman director Anne Kauffman--incorporates such novel aspects as a narrator who recites footnotes onstage, a mute girl who eats Earth and drinks paint, a pair of in utero twins who engage in slapstick dialogue and sing Sondheim, and over 150 years worth of characters named John, principally embodied by Nussbaum.

Yet in spite of the inventiveness, or perhaps, given the weirdness, because of it, Smokefall--which I entered excited to see and remained attentive to throughout--never sufficiently engaged me in its characters, storytelling or significance.

I don't think that I'm giving much away to suggest that it's a story about life, love, perseverance and continuity, none of which are trifling matters.

Clearly they resonated with Jones, Weiss and enough audiences in the Goodman's Owen Theatre for the work to be uniquely re-presented at the top of the flagship subscription series in the Albert.

But for a show so supposedly fantastic, it was notable that while the Sunday night crowd bestowed appreciative applause, not a single audience member I saw rose to give it a standing ovation.

Perhaps also reflecting a dichotomy between critical acclaim and audience reaction, on the TimeOut Chicago website, the current production of Smokefall is given 5 stars by critic Kris Vire, but the User Ratings reflect just 3 stars.

Through conversation with friends and relatives who have also seen the play, and in hearing comments of audience members after the performance, I further sense a more muted or mixed response seemingly more akin to mine.

Which isn't to dissuade the curious from seeing for themselves, nor to disavow those who were enraptured. 

Any chance to witness Mike Nussman act upon a local stage is, in itself, entirely worthwhile, while all the actors do a fine job enacting this strange play. I found Katherine Keberlein particularly engaging in the role of Violet.

And I have no reason not to hope that if you do check Smokefall out before it closes 3 weeks hence, you'll absolutely love it--like many clearly have.

But suffice it to say, rightly or wrongly, I didn't.