Saturday, September 30, 2017

Picturing the Most Beautiful Building in the World: My Photos of the Taj Mahal

For two weeks in August, I traveled to India.

On a tour with Gate 1 Travel, I visited Delhi, Jaipur, Abhaneri and Agra, and on my own ventured to Mumbai, then onto Bangalore where I stayed with friends and took a day trip to Mysore.

I provided on-the-go recaps and observations on my Seth the Tourist travel blog, complemented by photos posted to Facebook.

Theoretically I will eventually post an India travelogue on Seth Saith, but have been more so been putting available time to selecting, lightly editing and compiling photographs, out of nearly 20,000 taken.

So far, I have posted galleries of:
- Delhi
- Jaipur
- Abhaneri

I have since been working on Agra, which features some amazing sights in addition to the astonishing Taj Mahal. But I can now share my best photos of the Taj here.

The pictures on the grounds of the Taj Mahal were taken on Sunday, August 13, 2017 as part of the tour itinerary, and the next morning I took a private cab to take pix from across the Yamuna River in a garden known as Mehtab Bagh. I've also included one photo taken from the Agra Fort.

NBA superstar Kevin Durant posted this picture of the
Taj Mahal with significant scaffolding on July 29, 2017,
just 15 days before my visit.

Though I also used my iPhone 6s and a Canon SX600HS point-and-shoot, almost all the pictures here were taken with my Canon Rebel T3i digital SLR. (As you'll see, there were also a few photos taken of me.)

Not only was I blessed with clear weather, but in a year when the Taj has been largely scaffolded or partially covered due to cleaning and conservation efforts--with the possibility of major cloaking of the facade having prompted me to ponder putting off my trip--I was thrilled to find the Taj Mahal pristine, with not even a minaret shrouded in metal (as has pretty consistently been the case).

Photography of the the interior is largely forbidden, including of the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal--favorite wife of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, upon whose death he had the Taj commissioned--that serves as its centerpiece. But I captured what I could.

There were many wonderful aspects of going to India, including traveling with a friend and a tour group, visiting longtime friends and seeing & photographing many phenomenal sights--and compelling people. Those stories will continued to be told, but strictly from a photographic sense, getting these pictures--culled from thousands more--was the highlight. Enjoy.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Fine Local Flavor: Well-Drawn 'Fun Home' Fits Wonderfully in a Smaller House -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Fun Home
Victory Gardens Theatre
at the Biograph, Chicago
Thru November 12

One of my great pleasures in life is traveling to New York City and--along with concerts, ballgames, museums, restaurants, bakeries, parks, historic landmarks, random strolling, etc.--going to Broadway shows in bunches.

I've done so several times this century, and while I've also taken in long-running classics and revivals, I have loved seeing shows such as Avenue Q, Wicked, Spring Awakening, Book of Mormon and many others early in their acclaimed Broadway runs.

A good number of musicals do "tryouts" in Chicago prior to moving to Broadway, and national tours bring almost everything that plays on Broadway to the Windy City not long thereafter. (To wit, this year's big, Tony-winning hit, Dear Evan Hansen, should be in Chicago by the end of 2018.)

Photo Credit on all: Liz Lauren
So it's not like those who don't get to NYC haven't the opportunity to see most of the best new shows, in Chicago or even the suburbs as several local self-producing venues stage recent musicals once they're licensed to go regional (as opposed to touring under the auspices of their original Broadway producers).

Still, I find it notable that since the last time I was in New York in March 2015, the musical Fun Home opened on Broadway, earned 12 Tony Award nominations, won five Tonys including Best New Musical, closed on Broadway, mounted a National Tour--that played Chicago in November 2016 and continued through last month--and is now being produced locally by the Victory Gardens Theater.

That's one of the fastest rides along the theatrical life-cycle I can recall, especially for such an acclaimed show.

But not only is Fun Home a musical that deserves to be seen, it is far better suited for smaller local venues--such as the beautifully renovated Biograph Theater that Victory Gardens calls home--than the cavernous downtown ones that tours typically play.

As per my Broadway in Chicago "Balcony Club" subscription, just 10½ months ago I saw Fun Home from the very upper reaches of the resplendent but vast Oriental Theatre, with a capacity of about 2,250.

Though not quite as much as some reviewers or musicals, I greatly enjoyed it, but in my review surmised that greater intimacy might enhance appreciation. (On Broadway, Fun Home ran in the 776-seat Circle in the Square, where about half the seats bracket the stage.)

In the 299-seat auditorium refurbished some years back for Victory Gardens--within the space where John Dillinger famously saw his last movie--Wednesday night I had a seat in the front row, center.

And while I am still bestowing @@@@1/2 as I did for the touring rendition, the proximity--and a stellar local cast under the direction of the routinely superb Gary Griffin--definitely added potency to an excellent but somewhat downbeat musical that frequently feels like a drama.

Based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel's 2006 graphic memoir of the same name, Fun Home centers around a 40-something Alison (terrifically embodied here by the consistently stellar Danni Smith) reflecting back on herself in childhood (played by an excellent Stella Rose Hoyt, alternating with Sage Elliott Harper) and as a college freshmen coming to embrace her gayness (Hannah Starr, also superb).

The bulk of the 90-minute show chronicles the past, including dramatized recollections of Alison's dad Bruce (Rob Lindley, who brings a physical and emotional frailty befitting the role), mother Helen (McKinley Carter, who I've often seen and liked) and brothers (Leo Gonzalez and Preetish Chakraborty).

Danielle Davis, as Alison's college girlfriend Joan is also quite good, as is Joe Lino, who plays several different yet similar young men who factor in ways I will leave for you to discover.

Many of the key narrative aspects of Fun Home aren't meant to be secrets--especially as Bechdel's autobiographical account was a best-seller--and most are revealed early on, but I don't see the need to give away much to the uninitiated.  

I will share that "Fun Home" is the kids' shorthand for the Pennsylvania funeral their father runs--along with being a high school English teacher and home restoration aficionado--and their imagining of a Jackson 5esque commercial for it, "Come to the Fun Home," makes for the musical's most ebullient moment.

With book & lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori, this is about as far from a "tap dancing, robust chorus and flashy production numbers" Broadway musical as the genre gets.

Which is meant much more a compliment than a criticism, as musical theater should continue to extend its boundaries and--like Next to Normal before it, and seemingly Dear Evan Hanson now, though I've only listened to it--Fun Home offers more dramatic heft and poignancy than most musicals (and several plays, for that matter).

And with Tesori also the composer of Thoroughly Modern Millie and other acclaimed shows, there are several splendid songs, including "Ring of Keys" (wonderfully delivered by Hoyt as Small Alison at the performance I attended), "Changing My Major" (a showpiece for Starr as Medium Alison), "Days and Days" (beautifully wrought by Carter as the steadfast wife and mother) and "Telephone Wire," on which Smith shines as the older Alison late in the show.

But though Fun Home once again moved me considerably--and even more so from a far closer vantage point--its relative sparsity of scintillating showtunes likely helps account for why I love it a bit less than my very favorite musicals.

Having now seen the other nominees for the 2015 Best New Musical Tony Award--An American in Paris, Something Rotten! and The Visit, though only the latter on Broadway--I would concur with it meriting the award, even if I might not against competition from other years.

But it's to the considerable credit of Victory Gardens--long one of Chicago's most storied theater companies but not one I've patronized all that often--that it is not only staging its own production of Fun Home so shortly after the Broadway run and first national tour, but seemingly is doing it every bit as well (as far as I could discern or recall from the Equity tour). a far more intimate and appropriate home.

...with tickets starting at just $29 through the box office and discounts available through HotTix, Goldstar and TodayTix.

As such, whether you unabashedly love musicals or are more typically drawn to dramas, this is a Home I highly recommend you visit.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Sonic Blast: The Afghan Whigs Blanket the Metro With Solid Rock -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The Afghan Whigs
w/ opening act Har Mar Superstar 
Metro, Chicago
September 23 (also played 9/22)

Before I went to see the Afghan Whigs Saturday night at Metro, I had heard good things about them--and from them.

But though they've existed since the late-'80s--albeit with a 10-year breakup--I had never been a fan, and knew almost none of their music.

Yet in 2014 when I last attended Riot Fest in Chicago, while waiting to see Paul Weller at a different stage I marveled at how thunderous the Afghan Whigs sounded from across a giant field.

I resolved to see them one day, ideally at an indoor, headlining gig, and though a few Spotify attempts never quite hooked me on their recorded material, I was happy to get reasonably-priced tickets--and the Metro's assurance of a balcony seat--to properly check them out with my friend Brad.

I'm glad I did and I enjoyed the show. But I admittedly can't provide much in the way of critical analysis as I--other than vague familiarity with a few--recognized none of the songs played, didn't long for any songs not played and can't say how this show (or the current iteration of the Whigs) compares to past ones.

Despite my general obliviousness about the band's music, I have long been aware that the Afghan Whigs hailed from Cincinnati, with Greg Dulli as their lead singer and guitarist.

Wikipedia fills in that bassist John Curley is another founding member seemingly still active, and I had noted the passing earlier this year of guitarist Dave Rosser, a veteran musician who had played with the band since 2014, so presumably at Riot Fest.

I can't identify the other guitarist, keyboardist and drummer onstage with Dulli and presumably Curley on Saturday--the second of two nights at Metro--but the band sounded tight and powerful, if not as brain-crushingly loud as I expected based on the Riot Fest volume.

Per, I now know that a third of the 21 songs played across 100 minutes came from the Afghan Whigs' new album--In Spades--with another three taken from their other post-reunion release, 2014's Do to the Beast.

Only one--"Fountain and Fairfax"--came from 1993's Gentlemen, which Brad considers the band's best and best-known record.

That song was one I noted as sounding particularly great, along with the new "Arabian Nights" and, from the prior album, "Matamoras."

But I liked pretty much everything I heard, including a sweet cover of the Beatles' "Dear Prudence," on which Dulli played piano.

He had done likewise following a brief tirade against a main floor fan who had irked him with her cell phone and then her middle finger, but on "Demon in Profile" the opening act, Har Mar Superstar, did the singing.

Far be it from me to knock anyone for their physical appearance or choice of clothing, but in sharing the stage with the Whigs, I think Har Mar did well to adorn a shirt, as opposed to much of his musically-enjoyable performance as the opener. (My gut is even bigger than his, but I doubt anyone needs to see it raw onstage, complemented solely by multi-hued leggings.)

Dulli was in strong voice all night, and in addition to repeatedly expressing sorrow over Rosser, he fondly recalled personal interactions with Charles Bradley, a renowned soul singer who had passed earlier on Saturday.

I can't put this down as one of the best concerts I've seen--even just in 2017--or quite matching the previous glimpse of the Afghan Whigs that has remained a happy (but vague, in terms of particular songs) memory.

My lack of familiarity with the music played Saturday certainly may have hindered some of my enjoyment, but with the band mixing up setlists quite a bit--8 different songs were played Friday--I didn't know how to focus any pre-show Spotifamiliarization, and what I had listened to on Spotify still didn't dazzle me.

So I candidly wouldn't be qualified to review this Afghan Whigs show for an actual publication, but not only did I enjoy their performance, I valued the atypical experience of seeing a band in concert with scant point of reference.

For what it's worth, Brad--who had seen two prior Whigs gigs plus the Riot Fest barrage, and well-knows Gentlemen and more--also found the show terrific but a tad lesser than previous ones due to the preponderance of newer, unknown material.

I can't recall or readily find specific sources, but believe I had read that In Spades--and even Do to the Beast--represents considerable stylistic variance from the Afghan Whigs' music prior to the 2001 breakup.

As hopefully already well-noted, I thought the band sounded great and rocked hard, but it's possible that even for hardcore, longtime fans--and the Metro was sold out and raucous--there were ways this concert wouldn't quite be comparable to those of 20 years ago.

Or even 3.

And maybe I might have loved hearing quite a bit more from Gentlemen, Congregation or 1965--all highly-rated by but represented by one song each.

But for my first night of truly Whigging out, I can truly say I have no complaints to accompany a considerable amount of pleasure.

Pithy Philosophies #36

Seth Saith:

We attack what we don't try to understand.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

More Than Fun: Humorously & Poignantly Debunking Presumptions, 'The Legend of Georgia McBride' Is Never a Drag -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Legend of Georgia McBridge
a recent play by Matthew Lopez
directed by Lauren Shouse
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru October 22

Theater, at it best, not only shrewdly reflects our world, it shines new light--while affecting our way of thinking.

While the relatively new and rather comedic, The Legend of Georgia McBride, by Matthew Lopez may seem entirely disparate from the last play I saw--a stark take on Arthur Miller's classic drama, A View From the Bridge--I found congruent potency and resonance in both.

The brilliant, intense staging of the latter at Chicago's Goodman Theatre--see my review here--reiterated my belief that one's own frailties, foibles, fears and frustrations should not manifest in the hatred, demonizing or victimization of others.

And in providing a glimpse into the world of drag queens--which the show's straight, married, southern protagonist unsuspectingly joins in the guise of the title character--the often LOL funny Legend of Georgia McBride powerfully reaffirms the folly of making assumptions about anyone we don't know (or even those we do).

Playwright Lopez, whose The Whipping Man I very much enjoyed at Northlight in 2013, demonstrates his dexterity with a play far different from that intense post-Civil War drama about slaves and Southern Jews, although both works reflect well on the impropriety of preconceived notions.

And though the premise of The Legend of Georgia McBride isn't quite as unique as that past play--many viewers may conjure up "La Cage Aux Folles," "Kinky Boots," "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," "The Full Monty" and other such musicals, though this technically isn't one--not only is it uproariously funny and rather touching, Lopez' fine script renders comparisons (and questions of originality) largely moot.

And though there are some imperfect aspects--including, perhaps, the depth with which he explores the world of drag and practitioners of it--I found it one of the better new plays I've seen in awhile.

Given a raucous, instant standing ovation, the audience on opening night seemed to agree.

As The Legend of Georgia McBride opens, Casey (an excellent Nate Santana) is working as an Elvis impersonator--though a bit too young and fit to be convincing in a "Fat Elvis" jumpsuit--at, perhaps not coincidentally, a Panama City, Florida nightclub that is having trouble attracting patrons.

Before the club's shlubby owner, Eddie (an ever-reliable Keith Kupferer) has a chance to tell Casey about a change in direction, a pair of drag queens appear to take over as the new nightly entertainment.

As Miss Tracy Mills, Sean Blake--who made for a fantastic Sammy Davis Jr. a couple years ago--is likewise superb here, while Jeff Kurysz nicely splits his stage time between drag queen Rexy and (as a separate character) friend & landlord to Casey and his wife Jo (Leslie Ann Sheppard, rather likable in an underwritten role).

In truth, not much happens in The Legend of Georgia McBride that you don't see coming:

Casey is pissed at losing his Elvis gig, gets unexpectedly enlisted for an initial appearance in drag over his objections, becomes much better & accepting of it and keeps his new, well-paying job under wraps (so to speak).

Casey's secretiveness even well after warming to performing as Georgia McBride--his state of birth + the surname of the first person he kissed--makes for somewhat hackneyed interaction with Jo, who the script forces to react in ways unceremoniously akin to many a character learning of another's secret pursuits.

Though I think Lauren Shouse does a nice job directing this one-act piece, the need to juxtapose several drag numbers--as Kupferer's Eddie notes the passage of time in knowingly hammy holiday outfits--sacrifices some narrative depth for overt entertainment value, with Santana, Blake and Kurysz each delivering fine performances referencing Edith Piaf, Madonna, Tina Turner, Shania Twain and many others. (The recorded musical selections add much to the enjoyment.)

The Legend of Georgia McBride has already run regionally and off-Broadway to some acclaim, but it's possible considerable improvements can be made, particularly with the character of Jo and some continuity & plausibility concerns. 

Not that I would assume all drag queens--which the show's program defines as those "who perform femininity theatrically"--to be homosexual, but Lopez (who happens to be gay) makes for some interesting twists by having Casey be straight.

While adroitly learning how to squeeze into the trappings of faux womanhood, he has some nice discussions with Tracy and Rexy--who are gay--about drag personas, his playing a role vs. their (sadly) assault-inducing realities and the repercussions of hiding, finding and revealing one's true self.

While I can see how my synopsis, with some critiquing of the play's flaws, may seemingly not quite add up to a @@@@1/2 rating, what I can't give proper justice to in writing is just how funny the show often is--I'm not one to laugh out loud much, and I did--and how delightfully many of the drag performances are delivered.

Whatever The Legend of Georgia McBride's imperfections, it thoroughly entertained me and had genuine impact on my way of thinking.

Like great theater should.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Pithy Philosophies #35

Seth Saith:

I'm dismayed by how divided America is by class. 

It really shouldn't be that hard to show some.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

At Goodman, Ivo van Hove's Minimalist Take on Arthur Miller's 'A View From the Bridge' Provides Much Discernible Potency -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

A View From the Bridge
by Arthur Miller
directed by Ivo van Hove
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 15

The late Arthur Miller is my favorite playwright.

Over the years, I have seen many of his masterworks: Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, The Crucible, The Price, After the Fall, Incident at Vichy, Broken Glass and his final Finishing the Picture, which premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2004, a year before the writer's death at 89.

I like the way Miller's plays have identifiable, easily digestible story lines that usually seem clearly moralistic at face value while also offering considerable thematic, allegorical depth beyond the surface.

Somewhat surprisingly, it has been five years since I've last seen any of Miller's works and seven since viewing a really famous one (the phenomenal Death of a Salesman).

Until Sunday afternoon, at Goodman, I had never seen A View From the Bridge, which dates to 1955-56 and seems to be considered among Arthur Miller's very greatest plays (likely alongside Death of a Salesman, All My Sons and The Crucible).

A revival directed by the Belgian, Ivo van Hove--who rose to prominence in Amsterdam and is referenced as a "maximal minimalist"--earned a bunch of awards in London and on Broadway, and the Goodman production is essentially part of a national tour.

Notably, van Hove's rendition features virtually no scenery, no footwear on the actors, and many audience members sitting onstage bracketing the action.

The director supposedly employs such techniques to amplify the contemporary resonance of classic plays, and while I may have benefited from a more traditional staging being my introduction to this Miller masterpiece--and perhaps a perch closer than the Goodman balcony--I perceive the nouveau choices as adding power to the writer's words and themes. 

The title, A View From the Bridge, is seemingly intended to be symbolic, as there is no bridge represented or referenced, and no one who views anything from one. 

But along with a metaphorical bridge from one generation of American immigrants to another--in this case from Italy--it seems Miller means the Brooklyn Bridge, as the drama takes place in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook.

There, a longshoreman named Eddie Carbone (Ian Bedford in this production) lives with his wife Beatrice (Andrus Nichols) and her 17-year-old orphaned niece, Catherine (Catherine Combs), with whom Eddie is amorously smitten.

That Catherine initially seems appreciative of her uncle's affections, and essentially even flirts with him, makes it all the more creepy, with things beginning to come to a head when Eddie implores her not to take a stenographer's job--for fear of men noticing her--despite his having paid for such schooling.

Eddie agreeably takes in two of Beatrice's cousins when they newly arrive as illegal immigrants, but soon becomes rather spiteful as Rodolpho (Daniel Abeles) and Catherine take a fancy to each other.

Though somewhat obstructed by his wife, niece, lawyer Alfieri (Ezra Knight), friend Louis (Ronald L. Conner) and Rodolpho's brother Marco (Brandon Espinoza), Eddie vitriolically insists "something isn't right" about Rodolpho--1950s-speak for insinuating he's gay--and eventually attacks him in multiple ways, including contacting immigration authorities.

From what I read about A View From the Bridge before and after seeing it, supposedly Eddie is to be viewed as a generally decent, hardworking guy who is tragically flawed--adulterous, underage, incestuous lust and all--which ultimately brings consequences I won't detail.

This was seemingly, in part, Miller's way of condemning "upstanding" Americans--include his close collaborator, Elia Kazan--of outing suspected Communists to the HUAC committee when he himself refused to.

But with van Hove's stark approach apparently adding modern relevance as intended--even if different viewers might come away with different meanings--the following is what I got from a 1955-56 play in 2017. (It was initially staged as a one-act, soon revised into two acts, and done without an intermission at Goodman in about 110 minutes.)

Though he may have some (not readily apparent) admirable qualities, Eddie is basically just an asshole, whose human frailties prompt him to long for something that should be out-of-reach, and as a result acts reprehensibly toward nearly everyone in his life, demeans even the notion of homosexuality and--despite being an American immigrant himself--noxiously maligns other immigrants, even of similar origins.

I AM NOT SAYING this exactly parallels the masses of unemployed or underpaid coal miners and other--in many ways quite estimable and meriting of support--blue collar workers who bought into the fairy tale that a petty, miscreant billionaire was going to bring back their jobs and/or incomes, and (perhaps) resultingly feel compelled to hate Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans, homosexuals, women who dare express themselves, etc., etc., while victimizing immigrants as the problem (rather than Wall Street, the corrupt corporatocracy, bought-and-paid politicians and other actual culprits, including automation).

But I'd be lying if I said I didn't see similarities that the great Arthur Miller--and this steely new representation of one of his seminal works--helped me to better comprehend.

To say "he's a great guy but just doesn't like him, him, her, her and even him for no discernible reason," or because he's gotta blame somebody else for his own frustrations, is--to my way of thinking--bullshit.

I'm not sure if this is what Ivo van Hove's terrific, Tony-winning rendering of A View From the Bridge is going for; certainly it premiered well before Trump even began his presidential campaign.

And it does have some aspects I could have done without; e.g. spare drumbeats during tension-filled moments seemed a tad over-the-top and unnecessary.

But it brings new potency to a brilliant play, and in a variety of ways is pretty damn remarkable.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Future is the Past is the Future: At Aston Rep's '1984,' Big Brother Merits You Watching -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

George Orwell's 1984
adapted by Robert Owens, Wilton E. Hall Jr. & William A. Miles Jr.
directed by Robert Tobin
AstonRep Theatre Company
The West Stage @ The Raven Theatre Complex, Chicago
Thru October 8

I can't precisely remember, but it would seem I read George Orwell's 1984 either within its namesake year or within 12 months of it, either way.

I recall it being a brilliant book, and--upon its 1949 publication, in 1984 itself, until the present day and well into the foreseeable future--clearly quite prescient.

Although themes, concepts and terms of the book, including the Dystopian setting, brutally dictatorial state under "Big Brother," endless war, constant surveillance, thoughtcrime, thought police, doublespeak, erasing/revising history, etc., etc. have long stuck with me--how could they not?--I have not read it since my high school years.

And before going to see a live version done by Chicago's AstonRep Theatre Company--which has become one of my favorite local troupes in recent years--I did not brush up on the novel's plot summary.

Photo credit on all: Emily Schwartz
So seeing 1984 presented in dramatic form involved a multitude of provocations beyond merely taking in a fine work of theater.

As I watched, my mind was trying to construct how the play corresponded with what (little) I remembered of the book--based on now perusing Wikipedia, I'd say it hews pretty closely--what might have been left out, updated, etc.

Informed by the show's program that the British Orwell was a lifelong anti-Stalinist, I couldn't help but think of the influences on the author when he wrote the book--England, Russia, Nazi Germany, the swelling American superpower--and also how things jibed with his visions in the book's titular year.

With slogans from the novel's dogmatic "Party" repeatedly plastered around the theater and spoken within the play (including as videorecorded by Sara Pavlak McGuire for the omnipresent telescreen)--WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH--I couldn't help conjure U2's old Zoo TV concert extravaganzas and the way they barraged with electronic "mindthink."

From Hulu's recent (and now Emmy-winning) The Handmaid's Tale--based on Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel from 1985--to Charlie Chaplin's 1936 impersonalization-amid-industrialization masterpiece Modern Times to Radiohead's techphobic 1997 OK Computer album (referenced repeatedly by director Robert Tobin at AstonRep) to life in the Trump Age to the Equifax breach to our personal data being marketed by Facebook, Google, etc. to the way we walk around tethered to electronic hallucinogens, my head was spinning with external, related stimuli as I tried to focus on the actors onstage. (A shout-out also to Tobin for slyly incorporating, without lyrics, Radiohead's "2+2=5," as that falsified equation factors heavily into the book and play.)

Heck, given that 1984 was published in 1949, when Winston Churchill was no longer Prime Minister of the U.K.--he would be again in 1951--I also found myself pondering how much import to give the fact that Orwell named the book's main character Winston Smith.

So in many ways, AstonRep deserves props just for presenting 1984, as what should theater do if not make one think? (A dramatic version of 1984 is currently running on Broadway, but it's a different adaptation.)

Yet while I considerably liked 1984 onstage at face value--and all that it brought to mind to compete with my focus shouldn't be seen as a negative--I can't say it consistently kept me mesmerized.

Tobin, his crew and cast do a fine job in setting up the parameters of 1984's totalitarian world, as Syme (a frenetic Tim Larsen), Parsons (the always excellent Alexandra Bennett) and Winston Smith (a nicely-nuanced Ray Kasper) are slaving away in a utilitarian workspace conceivably deep in the bowels of Oceania's Ministry of Truth.

But, especially early on, I was a bit challenged to readily take everything in, and I wondered if those without any prior familiarity with 1984 might be even more confused. (Tobin makes the right choice not to mess with Orwell's dates, but one wouldn't want the totally uninitiated to see this as a look at the past rather than as what still holds up as a prediction of the future.)

The play truly begins to take hold and move forward as the unsuspecting love story begins between the vacillant, middle-aged Winston and the confident, young and pretty Julia (Sarah Lo, who I recalled fondly from AstonRep's Eleemosynary and is strong again here).

In fact, while understanding presenting 1984 likely comes with certain limitations tied to rights clearances--even if one wanted to commission alterations to an existing script or develop a new one--I think I would have liked this play better if it were even more acutely focused on Winston & Julia as they fall in love, run from Big Brother, meet with a Party leader named O'Brien (played well here by Amy Kasper) and face the consequences, including as they pertain to each other.

As much as this does happen in the considerably-more-riveting Act II of AstonRep's production, their rendition of 1984 is still high-quality theater, especially for the quite economical prices they charge. ($20, or less with discounts, such as HotTix and Goldstar.)

But while at under 2 hours including intermission, 1984 onstage never wastes anyone's time, there's likely too much than can be clearly covered, explained or intimated in such a relatively brief dramatization.

That's why I'm hypothesizing a smaller, more humanistic, slice of 1984 might work better onstage.

Or in a bit of simplespeak:

I enjoyed 1984 by AstonRep, enough to recommend it, but I didn't quite love it. I suspect it may require viewers to arrive with a basic familiarity, and though most will, this may prompt competing ruminations. Narrowing the focus might be preferable.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Harrowing 'United Flight 232' Depicts Uplifting Side of Humanity in Darkest Moments -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

United Flight 232
a play adapted & directed by Vanessa Stalling
The House Theatre of Chicago
at the Chopin Theater, Chicago
Thru October 21
(remount of 2016 production)

On July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 departed Denver's Stapleton Airport en route to Chicago and then Philadelphia.

It never arrived at either destination.

Undoubtedly, an airplane crash that killed 111 passengers must be called a horrible tragedy.

But following the "one in a billion" occurrence of the fan disk of the plane's tail-mounted engine disintegrating and puncturing the lines of the aircraft's three hydraulic systems, the flight crew's miraculous efforts prevented a catastrophic rollover and managed to land the plane in Sioux City, Iowa in a way that saved the lives of 185 people on board.

The unusually high number of survivors in a jumbo jet crash that also took many victims makes United Flight 232 one of the most distinct in aviation history.

Although I was living in the Chicago suburbs in the summer of '89 and must have heard about the crash, I cannot say I remembered it--unlike American Airlines Flight 191, which  crashed soon after takeoff at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on May 25, 1979, killing all 271 on board...and is forever etched in my memory.

Last year, The House Theatre of Chicago debuted a play titled United Flight 232 based on a 2014 book by Laurence Gonzales.

Although I knew the drama earned strong reviews, I did not see it in 2016, in part because I had seen a different play about an airplane catastrophe, Deborah Brevoort's The Women of Lockerbie, in a superb production by AstonRep Theatre Company.

But when House Theatre announced they would remount United Flight 232 this fall, a friend strongly suggested I see it, along with sharing the shocking factoid that his brother had been one of the flight's survivors. (He's quoted early in this New York Times story from the next day.)

Reading a prior review or two prepared me for entering the theater on a replicated jetway within the Chopin Theatre, but unlike what I somewhat imagined, it wasn't as though I was buckling in for a direct recreation of events over 80 minutes.

With nine actors shifting through multiple roles, the events aboard United Flight 232 are told in flashback, with the end results--both extremely tragic and extremely fortunate--revealed rather early on, at least in terms of numbers.

Brenda Barrie is quite prominent--and good--in embodying chief flight attendant, Jan Brown, as is Abu Ansari as Captain Alfred Haynes, who was largely credited for taking quite heroic actions.

But then, almost everyone aboard--which included a large number of children--is shown in a heroic light. As beyond hauntingly evoking an aircraft in distress, the play adapted & directed by Vanessa Stalling primarily aims to highlight the beautiful humanity of people helping and comforting strangers throughout an unbelievable  ordeal.

Fine work is done by the entire cast, and with the putrid smell of smoke pervading the auditorium, it would be hard not to be riveted by tales of fear, prayer, resolve, kindness and piloting prowess, which was abetted by DC-10 flight instructor Dennis Fitch (Carlos Olmedo, I think), a passenger enlisted to help in the cockpit.

By any measure, United Flight 232 is a fine piece of theater, though I wouldn't recommended it to anyone who might be flying within a week.

For anyone else, recollections from the pilots, flight attendants and passengers--some who perished, some who survived--should be both harrowing and uplifting.

Yet while the fast-paced play provides a powerful sense of what was taking place in the sky--including, rather surprisingly, food & beverage service even after the plane suffered damage from which it wouldn't recover--I felt it could have delved a good bit deeper into some of the personalities and why certain passengers happened to be aboard that Wednesday afternoon.

Although The Women of Lockerbie takes place several years after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 killed 270 people near Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, and the Come From Away musical--now playing on Broadway; I saw it last year in Washington, DC--chronicles Canadian townsfolk helping flyers stranded there on 9/11, I couldn't help but feel some similarity in United Flight 232, without it being as holistically compelling in a storytelling sense. 

Given the atypical circumstances of so many people surviving a plane crash while 100+ others didn't, Stalling's fine play came up a bit short in addressing my curiosity as to "Why?"

As depicted in this Wikipedia graphic--which isn't shown within the play--the preponderance of survivors were sitting in the plane's middle section. But among many fatalities in first class and past the wings were also a fair number of survivors.

United Flight 232 does mention the plane breaking up in certain parts, huge fire balls and smoke inhalation, but apart from mere luck, it left me unclear as to why there were multiple cases of minor injuries in seats right next to those who lost their lives.

So theatrically, narratively and investigatively, I didn't find the play quite perfect, or as enriching as similar works.

But as a depiction of chaos (though relatively little), heroism and humanity amid abject adversity and tragedy, United Flight 232--onstage and off--is now indelibly etched in memory.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

A Genre, A Book, A Party: Celebrating Immigrant Pride in 'Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat'

"My family's why I can fly."
-- Hudson Yang, star of ABC's Fresh off the Boat,
    in the new book, Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat

Premiering on ABC in February 2015--based on a 2013 memoir of the same name by Eddie Huang--Fresh Off the Boat existed as a TV show prior to the presidential campaign and election of Donald Trump.

The sitcom, which features Hudson Yang as a teenage Huang, showcases a Taiwanese family that has moved to Orlando, Florida.

Although I have only seen a few episodes, it is clear that the show aims to erase preconceived notions about Asian-American immigrants while depicting a family not so unlike those seen on Home Improvement, Everybody Loves Raymond, The George Lopez Show, Blackish and family sitcoms dating back to the 1950s.

According to Larry Smith, who created the origins of his Six-Word Memoirs magazine, book series and website in early 2006, he and Steven Melnick--an executive with Twentieth Century Fox, which produces the ABC program--have been discussing a Six Word collection tied to Fresh Off the Boat for at least a few years.

So the book, Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat--subtitled "Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America"--hitting shelves last Tuesday, the same day President Trump announced intentions to rescind DACA protections for 800,000 young adults brought to the United States illegally as children, was obviously mere coincidence.

Hudson Yang, Larry Smith and Ikram Goldman. Photo by Seth Arkin
But to Yang, Smith and the 70+ people gathered at a book release party at the Chicago fashion boutique Ikram--whose proprietor, Ikram Goldman, is represented by both a six-word submission and a 2-page backstory about her emigration from Israel--the timing clearly adds a potency to the book and its purpose.

The 14-year-old Yang, who was at the event with his mom Heather, an immigrant from Taiwan, told me how meaningful it was for him to be included in the book--see his entry at top--because his success reflects the struggles and sacrifices of his well as those of many other Asian-Americans.

In a brief speech, Yang shared, "My mom had to work so hard just to support the family; she was the first person in her family to go to college.

My six words is basically just all of that."

Photo by Larry Smith
With his sitcom likewise working to eliminate stereotypes, Yang told me that his favorite six-word entry came from another Asian teenager, identified in the book as David L.:

"I do not know kung fu."

Essentially asking American immigrants of all ages, generations and ethnicities, "What's Your Story?" Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat includes succinct submissions "by writers famous & obscure."

Among those in the former category are Madeline Albright, Aziz Ansari, Jimmy Carter, Julianne Moore, Mila Kunis, George Takai, Jeremy Lin, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mario Batali, M. Night Shyamalan, Fresh Off the Boat creator Nahnatchka Khan, several of the show's stars & producers and Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black (from which the Netflix series is based), who happens to be Larry Smith's wife.

More obscurely, my point of entry to the Six-Word Memoirs world--and the reason an unemployed copywriter like me was welcomed to Ikram's high-end boutique where, per the New York Times, her most loyal clients might spend $40,000 in one visit--is my close friend Ken Stasiak.

Appropriately writing under the nom de plume, Hemingway1955--per Smith, the Six-Word concept derives from Ernest Hemingway's bar stool bet winning novel-in-6-words: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."--Stasiak has been a regular contributor to Six-Word since 2013, after his mother's death two years prior left him seeking new forms of expression and introspection.

Ken will gladly tell you that aside from events tied to family, including his two grown children, one of his proudest moments in life came in 2015 when he was featured--along with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright--on Page 1 of Larry Smith's Six-Word Memoirs compilation titled The Best Advice in Six Words. (Click into Amazon's "Look Inside" preview to see Stasiak's entry.)

Another "life's accomplishment" for my pal came this past May when Smith named Stasiak the 6 Words Memoirist of the Month.

Inspired by Ken's enthusiasm for the Six-Word Memoirs genre, earlier this year I turned my passion for promoting cultural literacy into a daily 6word Portraits blog.

Clearly stating that "this website, and the concept of six-word phraseology, is inspired by Six-Word Memoirs from SMITH Magazine. No infringement is intended and no income is being generated."--I also told Larry Smith about it at the book party and he was cool with it--each day I concoct a 6word descriptive embodiment of a celebrity I admire who was born on that date.

I share each post on Facebook with a list of other daily birthdays, and friends seem to enjoy it.

So without suggesting I share Stasiak's Six-Word agility or evoke universal truths like the best examples in Smith's books, I have come to appreciate the challenge of trying to express something compelling in just six words.

It reminds me a bit of the majestically steadfast parameters of haiku, and one of my aims is for most anyone seeing my 6word descriptive phrase to be able to guess the subject without seeing him or her.

Today's example: Golf's "King" mixed lemonade, iced tea. (Revealed here to be:__________)

Having had past Six-Word Memoirs publications cover Advice, Love & Heartbreak, Teen Life and other specific and universal subjects, Smith was struck by the idea of devoting a book to the topic of Immigration and the experience of coming to America.

He was having trouble getting publishers interested until he connected with Steven Melnick of Twentieth Century Fox and developed the concept to tie-in with the popular Fresh Off the Boat sitcom, set to begin its fourth season on ABC on October 3. (You can see the first three seasons on Hulu.)

Melnick, who I spoke with briefly at the party, invoked some Yiddish into his Six-Word contribution for the book:

"Grandma's Sunday greeting: Gotenyu zisa boychikel!"
(Translation: Dear God, what a sweet boy!)

Ikram Goldman, who by many accounts is globally known and respected in the fashion world due to her namesake Chicago boutique (at 15 E. Huron), a passionate personality and having dressed First Lady Michelle Obama, was born and raised in Israel to Christian Arab parents.

As she relates in her backstory within Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat, she came to America at the age of 13 when her mother fell ill and needed treatment only a Chicago hospital could provide at the time.

The plan was to return to Israel but her mom passed away shortly after they arrived and Ikram realized she didn't want to leave.

"I stayed and I raised myself."

In warm remarks at the reception, Goldman stated unequivocally:

"I am truly a better American as those I surrounded myself with are also immigrants."

Ikram co-hosted the book release party with her husband, Josh Goldman, a lawyer who spoke to me quite proudly about being a Jewish-American who married an Arabic immigrant.

Effusively conveying his affinity for the Portland band Pink Martini, which performs songs in a multitude of languages to champion the notion of "the more the merrier," Josh voiced beliefs similar to mine, including that we are all human beings first, our core desires are pretty universal and different cultures are interesting. (I had recently returned from a trip to India where it was reiterated to me that people aren't really all that different anywhere; hence xenophobia is based on ignorance and fear, not reality.)

Clearly imparting that he and Ikram were raising their twin sons to understand the importance of diversity while sharing messages of love, not hate, Josh was openly concerned with the rampant anti-immigration rhetoric by and under the current administration.

As likewise a white Jewish man born in the U.S.A., I have been constantly distressed by attempted Muslim bans, the turning away of refugees, open insults of Mexicans, ridiculous wall-building schemes, white supremacy marches and the murderous aftermath, mass deportations that admittedly pre-date Trump, proposals to dismantle DACA and day-to-day examples of bigotry, intolerance and superiority that are hard to miss.

Thus, while on the surface it may seem that I spent a couple hours at a chichi party--the hors d'oeuvres were great by the way--at a swanky boutique that I would never otherwise enter, thanks to one of my best friends getting six words published in a new book, there was something resonant about the whole endeavor that reminded me of marching with a local mosque against the Muslim ban, as I did back in January.

In Morton Grove and on the Gold Coast, people of all colors and stations in life, in popular sitcoms and new books, at posh boutiques and in the streets, Americans--of all stripes, including undocumented--are fighting back against bigotry and xenophobia and malevolence and intolerance and anti-immigration policies & proposals.

Referencing "The New Colossus" poem by Emma Lazarus that adorns the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, my pal Ken Stasiak--a first generation American son of Polish immigrants, including a father who fought Hitler, was held as a POW and chased Nazis alongside U.S. troops--is represented on page 22 of Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat by this contribution:

Tired. Poor. Huddled masses. Seeking hope.

One may not imagine much can be conveyed in six words, but in reading through many of the entries in the latest collection from Six-Word Memoirs, believe me, it can.

While I won't reveal her real name or show her picture, I was truly moved by a contributor to the book covertly calling herself Doreen, as she works for the Department of Homeland Security.

Although she candidly admitted the DHS isn't always a fun place to be these days, she noted that many of the agency's approximately 200,000 employees are working diligently to help bring people into the U.S., not keep them out.

She herself has transitioned from a job in higher education where she helped recruit international students to a someone similar one at DHS, where she works with schools to help attract students from abroad.

Also speaking at the reception was Maya Bayazid Khater, Secretary & Director of Events for the Karam Foundation, whose mission is to build a better future for Syria.

Khater championed the aim of Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat, noting how the book's messages of struggle, perseverance and hope dovetail with her non-profit's aim to provide smart aid for Syria while helping to ensure safe passage and, ultimately, innovative education for Syrian immigrants.

Although I'm not certain it's contained within the book, Khater said her six-word message would be:

"Syria to Alabama; redhead not redneck."

Along with their hospitality, Ikram and Josh Goldman purchased copies of the book to give to each reception attendee. Ken--who had participated in a book signing event the night before at Anderson's Bookshop in Downers Grove--had already given me a copy signed by himself and Larry Smith, which I also got autographed by Hudson Yang, Steven Melnick and Ikram.

In her inscription, Ikram borrowed a line I know well from Lin-Manuel Miranda's masterful Hamilton musical, which champions immigration & diversity and--even in a divided, partly xenophobic and hateful America--has become, in multiple locations, seemingly the most in-demand live entertainment event in U.S. history:

"Immigrants, we get the job done."

Six words, but who's counting.

I should end there, but can't help but offering up my own six words on the topic at hand:

Our differences—and similarities—unite us. 

...whether our ancestors came over on the Mayflower or we're Fresh Off the Boat.

Purchase Six Words: Fresh Off the Boat from the Ikram boutique website or wherever books are sold.