One Week Later: Impressions of Printers’ Ball and Howard Henry Chen at the MCA

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Last Friday night, I was at the Printers’ Ball at the Museum of Contemporary Art so I could check out what the hype was all about.  Many people have said it has been the must-go event of the past three late summers in Chicago, and with it’s notorious shutdown by the cops at last year’s Zhou B. Art Center venue, it’s curiosity value, and yes, cool cache, has increased several dozenfold. The Poetry Foundation sponsors this annual event where Chicago-based publishers and publications give away their wares for free to the hungry reading public in a party-type atmosphere, complete with free food, cash bars, performances, and DJs spinning house music.  So, first off, I do want to say that anything that encourages people to read is worthwhile, so kudos to the Printers’ Ball organizers, sponsors, and participants for getting the event off the ground.  However, any event that has several hundred people shoving their elbows into other people’s eyeballs, and looking like they’re the frenzied Bridezillas in the Today show’s race for bridal gowns contest, all for free stuff, is insane.  I wasn’t sure why people were grabbing “The Textiles of Indonesia” softcovers from each other’s hands (these were people who should be paying attention to the textiles they were wearing first – honey, wearing a gold lame tanktop when you’re outrageously Rubenesque will make you look like the groom’s elephant in an Indian royal wedding anyday).  People were taking anything that was laid out on the floor or on the tables, whether they were books, magazines, journals, tsotchkes, flyers for a Chinese restaurant, whatever wasn’t locked down was grabbed and pawed….it was really tacky actually.  Now, I did grab my share of free stuff (and contributed $3 to the Poetry Foundation for a, uhmmm, ok, I need to be revived with a hot towel, quick…green and yellow tote bag) but, at least, I thought I was pretty selective.  And after the freebie grab, the attendees began gorging themselves on the free hotdogs as if they just arrived from a Somalian refugee camp! Really, what was up with these people?

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Dismayed at the Jeff Awards

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I’m in New York City this week for a three-day planning workshop with my client, but I can’t help but react to the flummoxing and flabbergasting news that are the Jeff Awards nominations for Equity theater in Chicago, which were announced this morning.  I have always had disagreements with the Jeff committee’s selections, but today’s announcements took the cake- I felt dismay, disappointment, horror, and an overall sense that maybe these theater awards were truly irrelevant to Chicago theater; that instead of encouraging and advancing Chicago theater, it’s pulling it backwards.  Have the Jeff nominating members seen the same plays that I did this past year?  I think any discriminating and sophisticated theatergoer would say that American Theater Company’s heartwarmingly funny production of Speech and Debate was one of the best productions of the year, and that Sadieh Rafai as the eccentric, complicated, outrageously lovable heroine, Diwata, gave one of the top performances, male or female, of the year, too, but both didn’t get a Jeff nomination, although director PJ Papparelli did.  Instead, for Best Production, there’s the Goodman’s Passion Play, which was excruciating to sit through (note to self:  three and a half hours and a huge budget does not make a good play make), and Remy Bumppo’s old-fashioned snoozer The Philadelphia Story.  A Red Orchid Theater premiered one of the most original, thought-provoking, and intriguingly complex new works last year, Brett Neveu’s Weapon of Mass Impact, but the Jeff folks didn’t give it a slot in the Best New Work category, despite the fact that there were seven other plays nominated, including the muddled, unexciting Wedding Play.  And why a big zero for Court Theater’s brazen, risk-taking, introspective take on Shakespeare’s Titus?  Charles Newell’s visionary direction was superb and unexpectedly breath-taking, the design was astounding, and the cast was flawless.  Other major, almost unforgivable, nominations oversights for me:  James Vincent Meredith’s riveting John Proctor in Steppenwolf Theater’s The Crucible; acting nominations for Court Theater’s brilliant What the Butler Saw, especially Michelle Moe; Peter deFaria’s intense turn as a cop in A Steady Rain (thankfully, Randy Steinmeyer’s brilliant performance as deFaria’s partner got noticed); Steve Pickering’s over-the-top lead performance in A Red Orchid Theater’s Fatboy; any nominations for Silk Road’s rockingly fresh and engaging Merchant on Venice or Gift Theater’s dazzlingly intellectual Last Days of Judas Iscariot.  Did anyone notice my descriptions of the shows and performances that the Jeff Awards overlooked?  Brazen, risk-taking, intellectual,original, rockingly fresh….uhmm, I guess shows that can be described in this manner don’t stand a snowball’s chance in Jeff Awards hell…which begs the question, why give these awards at all?  Breaking New York news:  My disgust and frustration at the Jeff nominations were nearly obliterated by the fact that during dinner at the Michelin-starred Sushi of Gari tonight with BFF extraordinaire Rene, his partner, the fabulous Johannes, and our friend, the lovely and unique Hedy, I sat beside the divine Kathleen Turner!  And I handed her the magazine she nearly left behind under her seat.  I thought my head had heatlamps on them, I nearly fainted, I am such a big fan!

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Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

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I finally had a reason to go and see Lookingglass Theater‘s, well, Lookingglass Alice, yesterday, since I brought my six and half year old nephew (my cousin’s son) to see it.  I have resisted going during the multiple times it’s been staged at the Lookingglass over the years, despite knowing that it had received glowing reviews in its off-Broadway run at the New Victory Theater.  Call me jaded, cynical, snobbish, but I’m just not children’s play-friendly, I guess. Yes, I may not be in touch with my inner Abigail Breslin anymore (at my age, sweet peas, I should probably be trying to sniff out if there is an inner Bea Arthur waiting to come out); the times I have gone to see children’s plays, I’ve found them cloyingly uninteresting (although I did love Mabou Mines‘ production of Peter and Wendy, which I caught last year at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, maybe because it was so much more highly theatrical and stylized than most children’s theater). I don’t regret bringing my nephew to Lookingglass Alice, because he liked it a lot, but I sure won’t have any more similar plays on my viewing list soon.  I have to give props to adapter and director David Catlin- Lookingglass Alice is creative, original, fun, and vividly art directed, with lots of striking visuals such as the giant Red Queen on wheels.  I think the ensemble works really hard in physically demanding roles, and Lookingglass ensemble member Lauren Hirte, who has played Alice in all it’s productions, both here in Chicago and elsewhere, is a dazzling acrobat and an engaging presence.  I think infusing the play with hip-hop elements makes it contemporary and accessible.  However, I feel that the play is just a collection of set pieces and striking visuals.  So Alice is trying to move across a giant chessboard to become a Queen, and the play charts her encounters with various eccentric characters such as the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter, but there doesn’t seem to be a logic, a coherence, a tight dramatic narrative to it all.  If being Queen is a metaphor for growing up, then all the experiences Alice has on the various chessboard squares should be metaphors for experiences, for the learnings and insights, that she acquires as she completes her journey to adulthood.  But I don’t really see what she learns (other than breakdance, and deal with really precious, sometimes unintelligible, characters…uhmmm). Maybe I shouldn’t have been so adult-analytic, and just let the visuals and the music and the hard-working cast overpower me. By the way, I was aghast at the audience yesterday (ok, it was a matinee, so there were probably a lot of people who normally don’t go to the theater there), but just because it was a children’s play, they seemed to think that they had a hallway pass to talk and make noise- yeah, and it weren’t the kids yakking away, but adults who were with them.  Ugh- of course, I had to give the worst offenders my patented vicious shut-up-or-I’m-going-to-pull-your-hair-by-the-roots glare.  Really, people, learn how to go to theater, please.  Lookingglass Alice must close September 7; it’s playing at the Lookingglass Theater, 821 N. Michigan Ave.

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Weekend Shuttle

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After recently grumbling that the dog days of August have brought with it a semi-drought of interesting events to check out, I suddenly had a deluge over the weekend, which saw me shuttling all over the place (well, actually, mostly around my neighborhood of Lincoln Square as well as New Caledonia, Illinois).  Be careful what you wish for, as the wise ones say….

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Summer Daze

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For me, the dog days of August seem to be almost interminably crawling by, with an overall hazy, languorous feel to them that makes me all the more want to stay cooped up in my air-conditioned apartment watching the men’s springboard diving at the Beijing Olympics (if cutting-edge NASA technology was used to develop the new aerodynamic Speedo body swimsuit the swimmers are wearing, I wonder what technological marvel could have come up with Alexandre Despatie’s diving trunks? Uhmmm…I’m sure you Halsted queen bees have a multitude of theories running through your, ahh, heads…). There hasn’t been a lot of arts and culture events to go to (or at least any that I am particularly interested in), so I have been catching up a lot on news of what’s coming up.

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Two Films

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contempt.jpgLast Monday, I finally left the ranks of the eight people or so in the whole city that have not yet seen The Dark Knight.  I’m normally not a comic book kind of guy, but what with all the hype, hysteria, and never-ending water cooler discussions about the movie, plus my own inherent curiosity about how good Heath Ledger’s last film performance was, I just had to bite the bullet and go.  Plus, I did see the original Batman with Michael Keaton, and the super-campy one with the codpieces and the plastic nipples with George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell, and truth be told, enjoyed both of them; and I’m a big fan of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, so this movie couldn’t be all bad.  And it wasn’t (although I felt it could have ended at least forty minutes earlier than it did).  Two days later, I managed to catch one of the last screenings of Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal 1960s classic, Contempt (Le Mepris), during its limited revival at the Music Box Theater.  Many film scholars consider Contempt as an aberration in the Godard oeuvre – it is his one foray into commercial cinema, with a narrative that is somewhat more accessible than his other masterpieces.  While The Dark Knight is absolutely not at the cinematic level of Contempt, one of the pinnacles of world cinema, I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarity between Nolan’s and Godard’s ambitions and achievement. The Dark Knight takes the comic book genre and the generic Hollywood blockbuster and both adhered to, and refreshed and re-imagined, their conventions:  amidst the multitude of breathtaking, blazing, action movie set pieces is a reflective tale of the inherent fallibility of human nature and the near-impossibility of categorizing who is a hero and who is a villain, who is virtuous and who is weak-willed.  Contempt, on the other hand, also takes the conventions of 1960s Cinemascope, “international co-productions”, which it can be initially lumped with, such as panoramic, bright-hued views of Capri, characters who speak in English, Italian, and French, and abundant female pulchritude (in this case Brigitte Bardot’s) and wrapped a compelling story of various levels of breakdowns (marital, artistic, virtue) around them, using risky but innovative directorial techniques such as a 35 minute sequence shot in near real time in the closed quarters of an apartment.

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