Sunday, July 8, 2018

Expectations and Technical Debt

The Employer's Dilemma

Increasingly we read articles that examine the low US unemployment rate along with the difficulty in finding qualified employees to fill those positions. I recently came across an article that explores some of the reasons that according to author Josh Bersin contribute to the problem and perhaps more importantly, what can be done about them. Here's the full article: The Ugly Side To Today's Low Unemployment Rate.

My Reaction

I read this article at least twice, took notes, tried to gain some sort of overview of what was being said, and came away feeling that while the article was "okay," it was hardly something I would call great or even above average.

What Bersin Said to Me

I actually found two key observations in Bersin's article, but I'm not certain he intended his writing to convey the importance I attach to them.

Expectations and Reality

After itemizing a bunch of statistics that highlight a disappointing state of affairs Bersin notes: "Expectations are sky-high, which of course makes all our jobs harder than ever." This is a key observation. Unfortunately he doesn't catch on that the disparity between expectations and reality is one of the major causes (perhaps the only cause) for disappointment and unhappiness. The disparity certainly contributes to stress. Yet he never questions the expectations, one-half of the equation. He takes expectations as some sort of "given," (they are not) and by implication seems to think we need to find ways to meet them no matter how unreasonable or impossible to attain.

Technical Debt

We then arrive at another key observation: "I think this is caused by many factors (commute time, poor infrastructure, and also re-engineering of work practices), but ultimately it shows a "sloppiness" in the way we run our companies. Why? We are in such a rush to "grow" and hire people to meet demand, we don't always have time to really re-engineer what we're doing to become more efficient." Not particularly profound since we already knew all of that, and certainly not very illuminating to call the cause "sloppiness." What does that mean?

What Bersin has actually identified is more accurately described as "technical debt;" we have delayed until some future time the costs involved in building—transportation, corporate technologies, government systems, roads—a culture and environment that is both sustainable and amenable to the human existence. He then arrives at "We can't fix what's going on in Washington, we can't necessarily fix the commute or the state of traffic - but we have to realize that our focus has to change."

What's to Be Done?

Berson dismisses the idea that we have much control over technical debt and expectations.

Fixing Technical Debt

Well, yes, we can fix what's going on in Washington and we can fix the commute and state of traffic but it will take a long time and serious commitment to pay down the technical debt we have accumulated by our failure to adequately plan. 

Fixing Expectations

When he says we need to change our focus, he comes close to identifying that "other half" of the equation for happiness: expectations.


This is, after all, a piece to promote Bersin's area of expertise (HR mostly) so it's time for the commercial about stuff he can help you attain:

Bersin Says

Bersin finishes up with five ways to address the issues he has enumerated.
  1. Focus on employee productivity and well being. He seems to dwell on stress and yes, stress is bad. I don't think that it requires a major program to deal with however. I'd be interested to see what he has to say about this in detail. I deal with stress every day, and it's not that hard to do.
  2. Get your recruitment house in order. Don't get me started on this! The very notion of HR "screening" applicants implies "keeping people out." If you're really serious about building a solid employee base you should be seeking talent and then trying to see how you can integrate those talented folks into your organization. That's a completely different mindset than most hiring managers and HR people now have. You won't always be successful in crafting a fit, but the shift in approach (remember? change your expectations!) will result in lots of serendipitous discovery.
  3. Take your employee engagement problems very seriously. Do you mean to say that you haven't already been doing that? Shame! (And a pretty obvious thing to say.)
  4. Simplify your technology. Humorously, he recommends fewer communications tools and then enumerates Slack twice in the same sentence. I guess he feels overwhelmed! But it's not so much quantity as quality when it comes to applications. We are so intent on being the first to market that we publish the first app that doesn't crash within the first 3 minutes as the savior of whatever problem we're trying to solve. That rush to the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) is the great danger. Don't think about your technology in terms of number of applications, but how well they are integrated and what your costs of maintenance are. (Remember technical debt? Very important here but not necessarily related to number of applications.) What he really means is that your integrations should ideally be seamless and transparent to users.
  5. Get C-Suite folks to talk to each other about these issues. Well, yeah. You mean they didn't already know that? Why do we pay them so much if they are clueless about the obvious?

Here's What I Say

  • Change your expectations by trying to align your recruiting efforts in ways that serve both candidates and your organizational objectives. If you continue to have expectations that cannot be realized by reality, you are necessarily likely to experience disappointment. On the other hand, if your expectations align with reality and benefit your organization and candidate, your chances for success will dramatically increase.
  • Be aware of technical debt, which I define in an expanded sense to mean that by refusing to invest in employees or supporting infrastructure today you are probably ensuring future difficulties that will have to be solved at a greater expense than if you had simply addressed them immediately. This is not necessarily wrong, but an awareness that today's omissions will at some time have to be corrected at a cost in excess of today's cost should be part of your thinking. Business "borrows" all the time, but the cost of borrowing should be a part of the decision making process.

Changing Your Overview

Try sitting in a comfortable chair with the lights dimmed in a quiet place where you won't be disturbed. (Turn off your cell phone, too.) Close your eyes and breathe very deeply in and exhale very slowly out. Do that for about one or two minutes. Then imagine yourself floating out of your body and looking down at yourself from the ceiling; float up even more, until your above the building; keep floating upward until you can barely see yourself as a small speck on the earth below; keep going until you can see the entire earth and can only approximate where you might still be sitting, deeply relaxed. From your new vantage point, try to imagine what your life might be like if things were different; what would change? What should you be striving to make different? What does your new "global" perspective teach you about problem-solving? And while you're up there, you might just notice some of the stress disappearing as your neck, shoulders and rest of your body unwinds.

When you're ready to return, gently descend back to your chair, open your eyes and have a nice stretch. You might also find that you've brought back some new perspective to solving the problems of technical debt and expectations. Cheers!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Gentleman Caller

Raven Theater, 6157 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60660

Now thru May 27, 2018

Raven Theater Website

Friday evening (April 27, 2018) I had a remarkable experience attending a performance of The Gentleman Caller, a world premier production of a Philip Dawkins play. The play attempts to imagine what might have happened when Tennessee Williams met William Inge in Inge’s St. Louis garden apartment and later in a Chicago hotel room in 1944 and 1945. We don’t know exactly what took place, except that Williams encouraged Inge to pursue play-writing. Dawkins’ script attempts to recreate those moments based on what we know of the two men’s lives. The fact that the program has a credit for David Wooley as Fight & Intimacy Choreographer should alert you to some of the play’s content. (The extent of the fighting was a single face slap as I recall, if that helps you imagine more clearly.)

Both Williams and Inge were homosexual, although radically different in their self-acceptance and ultimate public acknowledgement of their orientations. Playwright Philip Dawkins is likewise gay, and has written a number of gay-themed plays that I have seen produced here in Chicago, usually by About Face Theatre, a company that produces only gay-themed work. In this case however, Raven Theater commissioned Dawkins and Raven’s Artistic Director Cody Estle worked closely with Dawkins toward the world premier production at Raven’s intimate West Stage. Estle also directed the play’s production at Raven. The play has been extended to the end of May in Chicago, and also runs May 5–May 26 in New York with a production by Abingdon Theatre Company at Cherry Lane Theatre.

It doesn’t take long to realize that Dawkins is exploring creativity in general and play-writing in particular. What does it take to a successful artist? What does it cost the artist? What are the dangers of emerging from your hiding place, and being seen? What compels the artist to follow a dangerous path to follow his passion? What about the narcotic effect of success? Can the successful artist ever be truly satisfied, no matter how much success they achieve? All of this and more is examined through the contrasting attitudes and style of two of the most famous playwrights America has ever produced—along with some pretty sexy action just to keep the tension high and expectations  focused.

If you are at all involved in some sort of creative activity, whether it’s in the arts, or scientific research, or any field that commands your full immersion and dedication to some act of imagination and creation, you will undoubtedly identify with what Dawkins is trying to show us. In the Chicago production there were several places where tears were streaming down the face of actor Curtis Edward Jackson during his exceptional portrayal of the closeted and insecure Inge. Actor Rudy Galvan brilliantly portrayed the defenses of Tennessee Williams hiding behind a shell of wise-cracking and carefree abandon that only occasionally allowed the real passion and fears to become visible. This contrast between the two characters keeps the play moving and engaging for the entire two and one-half hours run. (Includes one 15-minute intermission.)

In the end, you won’t have any answers to any of the questions asked by either Inge or Williams, but you will have a better understanding of what questions must be asked and ultimately answered by every artist and creative person pursuing a creative objective, not because they want to, but because they are somehow compelled to. It should be obvious by now that I consider this play to be mandatory viewing for anyone thinking of pursuing an artistic career. It won’t give you answers; only you can provide the answers. But it will most certainly provoke your questions. And it will certainly provide two-and-one-half hours of entertainment.

If you find yourself in NYC or Chicago during one of the play’s performances, I highly recommend snapping up a ticket for a most enjoyable and provocative experience.

In the interest of full disclosure, actor Rudy Galvan (Tennessee Williams in the Chicago production) is a Masonic Brother; we are both members of Oriental Lodge No. 33 in Chicago. Rudy was the youngest Mason I ever helped initiate as I acted as Senior Deacon for his initiation ceremony when he was only a few months past his 18th birthday. I have had the pleasure of following his career ever since. He’s a fine actor and, I might add, a fine Masonic ritualist. I always look forward to his ceremonial lectures that he delivers with polished perfection and conviction. He is also a faithful and true Brother.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

33 Variations: Diabelli and Beethoven Explored

33 Variations

by Moises Kaufman

directed by Nick Bowling

Timeline Theatre Company

at Stage 773, 1223 W Belmont, Chicago


As I watched the play this evening I was struck by the fact that the ending to Act I is a fugue for actors. (I failed to pay attention to what the piano was doing during this finale so it may have well been Beethoven’s fugue along with the actors’ fugue.) Musing about things during intermission I focused on the notion that musical composition is generally a motif followed by instances of repetition, sequence and variation based on that idea. The Diabelli waltz actually yielded three (or possibly four, I am depending on external analysis here, not my ears) motifs from which Beethoven constructed the finished set.

On the way home I mused over what the underlying motif of the Kaufman play might be. I walk about a mile and a quarter to get home from Stage 773 or Theater Wit so I had a good deal of time to muse.

Upon arriving home I thumbed through the Timeline program (always an academic work that rivals a thesis!) and sure enough, in “A Note on Structure” on page [unknown but it would probably be 5 if they had numbered their pages] it mentions Kaufman’s intention to write 33 scenes that are variations, one of which is actually a fugue. Kaufman certainly succeeded to my ears, even on first hearing with no advance research or reading. (I try to avoid reading about works I never experienced before just to see what I can get out of the experience without prior bias.)

Timeline misses a huge opportunity here to present the parallels between the classical music forms and the Kaufman piece probably because actors are primarily story-tellers, not practitioners of abstraction the way composers are. The musical devices of repetition, sequence and variation developed because of music’s limited vocabulary; once you establish a modality, key and a melody you’re pretty well locked into a path for at least a short time. Repetition, sequence and variation are just about the only ways you can make a musical piece interesting in the long term. Language, with its nuance and rich repertoire of vocabulary allows for an almost free-wheeling experience that doesn’t depend on structure for interest. In this case, however, I believe that Kaufman has set himself a much sterner task and succeeds brilliantly.

Kaufman does, in fact, have a motif, at least in my eyes. It is “time as a limiting factor.” Everything about the play deals with time. Kaufman repeats this motif endlessly, but he also “sequences” it (musically sequences deal with transpositions of the motif into different keys) by various theatrical devices like switching between current time periods and those of Beethoven’s Vienna or the completely artificial and impossible conversation between Dr. Brandt and Beethoven. He adds variations to his time motif by exploring the different perspectives held by various characters so that while “time” is central to each scene, the ornamentation or exact exposition of the motif may vary.

For Dr. Brandt time was a “killer.” She knew it was her enemy and there was little she could do to defeat it. For Beethoven, he always needed “more time.” Time was outside of his control in-so-far as the variations were concerned; the variations wrote themselves and he just had to wait until all of the secrets were revealed. Schindler and Diabelli were prisoners of capitalist time; both needed more time to meet financial obligations or greater financial resources to meet obligations in the time allotted. Take your pick, the capitalists have always had the same problem with time! For Mike and Clara (the youth element) time had no meaning what-so-ever. This is the typical view of youth; Mike was in a routine career and Clara was busy “experimenting.” Neither felt any urgency to explore life’s options, a viewpoint that would doubtless change as their years accumulate. Finally, Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, represents to me almost the Snoopy (in the Charles Schultz sense) of the characters. She lives for today; she has experienced a loss similar to the situation of Dr. Brandt; she takes the philosophical and yet humanist approach that one should reap as much in the present as one can. Contrary to one reviewer (who must have some sort of hang-ups about sex) I found that Dr. Ladenburger’s advocacy of engaging a “masseur” for Dr. Brandt only underscored her convictions that “the time is the present; carpe diem!”

"Wait until the evening before the opening night. Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it be the presence of a copyist waiting for your work or for the prodding of an impresario tearing his hair. In my time, all the impresarios in Italy were bald at thirty."

—Gioachino Rossini

So Kaufman takes the motif of time and repeats it, sequences it and embellishes (varies) it to arrive at this remarkable piece of theater that crosses the line between classical music and contemporary story-telling. What a happy experiment! We probably won’t see a lot of pieces for theater written this way, but who cares? Much of art is “one-off,” and we’re grateful that we have at least the single example for our enjoyment and enrichment.

One final word: Beethoven struggled with the closing of the variations. What did Kaufman do? First, in the imaginary conversation between Dr. Brandt and Beethoven he explores the notion of acceptance; Beethoven relates how his own acceptance ultimately resulted in his own freedom and he encourages Brandt to acknowledge that she has fought the valiant battle, but now is the time to surrender peacefully. Kaufman devised a superb closing when he chose to have Clara present her now deceased mother’s final paper to an academic forum. Kaufman sets the markers earlier when he conceals Dr. Brandt’s preparations for death from her own daughter Clara. Clara is hurt and angry and feels she has been unjustifiably isolated from her mother. Kaufman ties up this loose end by a theatrical “fade” from Dr. Brandt to Clara, reading the closing paragraphs of Brandt’s paper. Mother and daughter are thus reunited.

The 33rd variation, a minuet, is played; the entire cast joins in the dance, exchanging partners in endless variation.

Bravo Kaufman! Bravo Timeline! Of course, bravissimo Beethoven!

33 Variations presented at Stage 773, 1223 W Belmont, Chicago, IL 60657. Previews 8/24/2012 closes 10/21/2012. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays (matinee and evening) and Sundays. Tickets $32–$42. More info:

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Newberry Consort (and Friends)

David Douglass and Ellen Hargis Show Dazzling Versatility

Newberry Consort, David Douglass & Ellen Hargis, co-directorsI have only discovered the Newberry Consort recently, meaning that although I knew of the name I never knew exactly what they did or nor had I experienced any of their performances. Now, after exposure to three of their remarkable presentations I am beginning to gain an appreciation of just what these artists are capable of giving us and the enjoyable journeys the lead through the span of several hundred years of early music.

Miracles, anyone?

First I attended Rosa das Rosas, a work in honor of the Virgin Mary commissioned by Alfonso X, a twelfth-century king of Castille, León and Galicia. The performance was accompanied by interesting visuals prepared to compliment the early music. The venue, St. Michael in Old Town, with its white and gold icons and imagery, was a stunning accompaniment to music that was, in essence, a token of gratitude for divine intervention.

Ellen Hargis
This was largely a vocal presentation with the solos of soprano Ellen Hargis soaring high into the nave of St. Michael in a flight of memorable beauty that mimicked the grateful King’s prayers of thanks.

Cloistered Gloom

My second experience moved from the courts of kings to the baroque convents of Italy and Mexico. Further, this was an “all woman” concert. All vocalists and instrumentalists were women with Consort co-Artistic Director Ellen Hargis leading the performers through a program that was composed and arranged by the women who populated these early religious institutions. For this performance I traveled to Rockefeller Memorial Chapel on the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park. Rockefeller Chapel is a dreary place after sundown. The combination of darkened windows, subdued lighting and the music of these early convents invoked a solemn and somber mood for the evening.

Despite the subdued mood of the performance the experience was exhilarating. The single-sex presentation leaves an entirely different impression than does one of a mixed set of voices. It is not surprising that for the great 19th century composer Johannes Brahms, composing for his beloved women’s chorus was a favorite diversion. Hargis had her female companions on this journey well-rehearsed and coalesced into a stunning ensemble.

The Court of Ferrara

Piffaro the Renaissance Band
My most recent exposure to Newberry Consort versatility was again at the Rockefeller Chapel. This time it was a brilliant day and the sun shone through the windows of the nave prompting an entirely different perspective on life and the music that was presented. The Newberry Consort partnered for this special concert (an event presented in addition to their regular season offerings) with The King’s Noyse and Piffaro, the renaissance Band to present a concert of music from the late 16th century city of Ferrara, Italy. Consort co-Director Ellen Hargis provided the only vocal solos while co-Director David Douglass (also director of The King’s Noyse) performed instrumentally playing a Renaissance-style violin.

Douglass explains that the term noyse "...was only used for professional violinists, as in The King's Noyse. When violinists played with wind instruments at court, it was often referred to as the whole noyse. In the early 17th c. thomas Mace said the violin made a 'high-priz'd noyse fit to make a man's Ear Glow, and fill his brains full of frisks.'"

The effect of the timbres of the combined instrumentation was stunning. Besides the set (noyse) of Renaissance violins and Piffaro’s seemingly limitless access to drums, recorders, bagpipes, sackbuts, shawms, dulcians, krumhorns, lutes and guitars (many in several sizes) the superb vocal talents of Ellen Hargis soared above the musical accompaniments into the vaulted nave of Rockefeller. The oveall effect of this eclectic collection of instruments and the single superb voice of Hargis is not to be underestimated. The passions in the lyrics are also something of a marvel. Here is but one example:

Grievous martyrdoms, fierce torments, harsh fetters, evil snares, rough chains, where I night and day, every hour, every moment miserable lament my lost well-being; sad voices, complaints, cries and laments, tears shed and eternal afflictions are my nourishment and the treasured tranquility of my life, more bitter than any wormwood. Trans. Anthony Newcomb

Instrumentally there was great variety as might be expected given the vast array of instrumentation available. The entire performance, instrumental and vocal passed far too quickly and finished with what can only be described as a Renaissance hoe-down of some of the happiest music one might imagine at the court of Ferrara in the late 16th century. Even, or perhaps especially, the musicians were having a great and enjoyable time. Maybe that’s why the audience had a great time as well.


My initial contact with The Newberry Consort was as a pro bono consultant working through the Arts & Business Council of Chicago. In that capacity I got to know some of the artistic and administrative talent behind the organization. It has turned out to be one of the better experiences of my administrative career and I count my exposure to early music through The Newberry Consort as one of the more valuable experiences of my artistic career.

Here I have tried to present the range of experiences I had while attending Newberry Consort performances. While I was initially somewhat puzzled by the first performance I attended, wondering if I could become interested in a program series comprised of programs exactly like the one I had experienced, I quickly discovered that Consort co-Artistic Directors Douglass and Hargis are far more interesting and capable than a one-trick pony. They possess a knowledge of early music that is both deep and broad and the variety of musical experience available at their carefully programmed presentations is some of the richest I have experienced for a number of years. Further, the music presented represents the foundations on which our present musical heritage is based, making it both accessible and informative as well as artistically satisfying.

If you’re looking for something different that will gently coax you to come back for more, try The Newberry Consort. They are one-of-a-kind and the musical artistry is of the highest caliber.

For more information, see their website: The Newberry Consort Home

This entry has been updated by correcting some spelling errors and by replacing my original text with Douglass's comments about the origins of the word noyse to correctly reflect the etymology of the word.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening
One Hundred Years of the Same Old Same Old

The Musical

What I saw this past weekend at Griffin Theatre Company’s production of the Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik Broadway show was in every sense of the word a modern rock musical, replete with over-amplified, ear-splitting and word-obfuscating sounds masquerading as musical expression. In fact, most sources describe Spring Awakening as an alternative rock musical. Unfortunately, there is no particular agreement on what alternative rock is except loud with lots of twanging guitars and an outgrowth of punk rock.

Despite all of this, Spring Awakening is a provocative and moving experience. The musical follows the plotline of the original Frank Wedekind play rather faithfully and this is probably the great strength of the Broadway version; they started with a compelling story and dropped some songs and dancing into the works to arrive at a more or less winning musical.

Time and Place

As is my custom when I know nothing about a piece I refrain from doing any research or reading about it preferring instead to allow my own reactions guide my original judgments. My original thoughts ran along the lines of dating the piece as being written in the 70s or 80s with a lot of attention paid to teen-aged angst, coming of age issues and the rebellion of youth. The short gay episode struck me as being something tacked on by the current director trying to take advantage of the current fad of having a couple of gay or lesbian characters in a production just to keep everybody happy.

This is wrong from a number of perspectives. Only after I started reading about the musical and the play that is its basis did I come to realize just how far ahead of its time this particular plotline was. The original play was the product of Frank Wedekind, a German playwright noted for his criticism of bourgeois attitudes, especially towards sex. Astonishingly, he wrote the play sometime around 1890 or 1891. Further, all of the parts we might consider “modern” theatrical perversions—masturbation, homosexuality, sadomasochism between teenagers, sexual abuse of children, abortion, rape and suicide—are a part of Wedekind’s original version.

As controversial as Wedekind was during his lifetime his contribution to theater is unquestioned. He anticipated expressionism and made a major contribution to epic theater. At one point he served a nine-month jail term for lèse-majesté (insulting a reigning head of state) brought about by the publication of some of his satirical poems. Wedekind’s two-play Erdgeist (Earth-spirit) was the basis for Alban Berg’s Lulu, one of the twentieth-centuries great operatic masterpieces.

Now that I have the time and place of the original story firmly in mind (late nineteenth century Germany) much of the action of the musical makes a great deal more sense. Izumi Inaba’s marvelous costume designs easily convey both the time and place of the action as well as firmly delineating the differences between the boys and girls that dominate the action and the elder characters who act as foils against which the youthful actors push.  The industrial flavor of the set reminds us that at this time in world history the Western nations were seriously pursuing their courses toward industrialization; the age of machines was upon mankind with a vengeance.

Against this backdrop of severely repressed sexuality, the German traditions of pflict und arbeit (duty and work), the rebellious nature of all youth and the grim realities that often invade our everyday existence, the musical proceeds to unwind its tale of tragedy and hope.

The Music

Wedekind’s magical story provides a firm and unshakable underpinning for Spring Awakening. What could have made a truly great Broadway production out of this raw material is unfortunately missing. There are really no memorable songs or musical numbers in the over two-hour production. While it is true there is lots of “music,” and a great deal of energetic stomping (Nicole Pellegrino’s efforts at choreography seemed to consist of a great deal of foot stamping, twisting and leaping) what was missing was the feeling that music was making a significant contribution to an already praise-worthy plotline.

Add to this the entirely confusing sound design by Rick Sims and Josh Horvath and one wonders if the original Wedekind play in an English translation wouldn’t have been just as satisfying. For openers, there was way too much amplification of the band. The thundering sounds emanating from the instrumental musicians more than drowned the vocals of most of the singers. To counter this, singers were miked either by passing wireless hand-held instruments around or by wearing wireless transmitters whose outlines were visible under clothing. It’s not clear that all singers were always miked; some appeared to sing without the benefit of any audio assist and these were moments of absolute musical ecstasy.  The rest of the time, using amplified singers to overcome the excessive levels of the instrumentalists, words became a jumble of meaningless mumblings that absolutely defied decryption or comprehension.

Some of the best vocal parts occurred as in the final anthem The Song of Purple Summer that found the entire company singing as an ensemble, without any audio assist, so far as I was able to determine. This is what real music is about and should have been used (while suitably subduing the instrumental output) for the entire show.

The room is small, seating only about 100 patrons, so it’s not like filling the Lyric Opera and doesn’t take that kind of voice training. The few times singers did seem to sing against the instrumental accompaniment sans microphone the effect was both pleasing and had plenty of power.

There may be two reasons for using the strange combination of partial audio assist: first, two performances were typically scheduled for Saturday and that alone may have necessitated some help for the youthful singers whose voices are simply not accustomed to that kind of non-stop abuse over an extended period in a single day and second, not all singers are created equal and I’m thinking here specifically of Josh Salt the charismatic Melchior Gabor who ultimately survives to move on with life. The role of Melchior is large and Salt was called upon to sing major portions of about half of all the musical numbers. Salt seemed to have everything in his favor: looks, charisma, acting ability, a willingness to appear partially nude and boundless energy. What he needs some help with is his singing; he has plenty of vocal power but that seems to fail him when he is required to sing for long periods and indeed, toward the end of the show (his second for the day) his voice seemed to grow increasingly tired and less able to project as he might want it to even with the help of an audio assist.

There were plenty of good moments, as well. Josh Salt’s fine contribution has already been noted. Aja Wiltshire’s sensitive portrayal of Wendla, Melchior’s love object, was convincing. Mathew Fletcher’s portrayal of Moritz was inspired as was Fletcher’s singing (his was one of the best voices I hear that evening). Lindsay Leopold’s portrayal of Ilse was alluring to say the least. Ilse’s flight to the life of a Bohemian struck a bell in my own psyche and I found myself wanting to flee with her even though Moritz refused.

Special mention goes to Vanessa Greenway and Larry Baldacci who portrayed a variety of “elders” during the course of the evening. Various parents, school teachers, preachers and ministers, all came to life in the hands of these two veterans of the stage. They provided a strong anchor to the otherwise wild exuberance of the young actors.

Finally, a short but sweet episode between Adam Fane (Hanschen) and Adam Molloy (Ernst) deserves a brief kudo. Despite the late nineteenth century setting, Wedekind chose to present the first stirrings of love between two young men. Fane and Molloy gave it the sincerity it needed without the schmaltz it might have provoked.

The Verdict

It’s a worthwhile show, a good solid production and based on a great story and plot line. If you haven’t seen it, you should and you’ll probably enjoy it as did I. I could be a lot better musically. As I write these lines the show is closing. But if you get a chance to see Spring Awakening even with some of the flaws I have mentioned you won’t be unhappy for the experience.

Spring Awakening produced by The Griffin Theatre Company at Theater Wit closes today, January 8, 2012 with a 3:00 PM performance.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Blake Montgomery’s Charles Dickens Scintillates

Charles Dickens Begrudgingly Performs A Christmas Carol. Again.

I have seen lots of theater this holiday season that ranges from the absurd that is barely a cut above the amateur to the honed professionalism of actors well-versed in their art and craft. There were two that stand out in my memory as “best of season” and both are one-man presentations. Earlier, I reviewed The Sanaland Diaries at Wandering Through Chicago's Arts and Culture: Murder on the North Pole Express. Yesterday, as a capstone to my Christmas theater travels, I watched the last performance of Blake Montgomery’s realization of what it must have been like for Charles Dickens to repeatedly present his annual reading of what is perhaps the best-loved of all Christmas novels, A Christmas Carol.

I am familiar with Montgomery’s style of theater development; it is an organic method that starts with a story and then attempts to tell that story on the stage. In the process a lot of discovery takes place, a lot of questions are asked and a lot of questions are answered. The result is always something that departs from the original words of the story’s originator and morphs into a uniquely Blake Montgomery vision of events and, most significantly, characters.

This is theater for audiences that enjoy thinking; it is not theater for the intellectually immature. If you need to be taken by the hand, have every nuance explained and made explicit then you’ll probably not find a great deal to make you comfortable in one of Montgomery’s Building Stage productions. On the other hand, if you enjoy looking into the hearts and minds of “real” people (whether fictional or factual) then Montgomery is your man. I don’t mean to suggest that a Ph.D. in philosophy or psychology is a prerequisite to enjoying a Blake Montgomery creation. To the contrary, ordinary living will provide you with sufficient tools to understand and appreciate what’s going on during the performance. However, if you’re used to “multitasking” and sending and receiving texts throughout your day; if you’re essentially unfocused in your activities; if your attention span is something bordering thirty seconds; if your mind runs in long strings of abbreviations like “BFF,” or “WTF” or any number of countless other shortcuts now in vogue, you’ll probably have a hard time becoming sufficiently involved to enjoy what Montgomery serves up in the way of in-depth and nuanced development. [Aside: Current evidence refutes the notion that humans are capable of “multitasking.” The reverse seems to be the case and to attempt to “multitask” is to ensure output that is both lower in quality and longer in development.]

The production itself is refreshingly unique. The front of the program announces, “Tea. Biscuits. Spiritual Terror.” The scenic design of Pamela Maurer is a wonder. You enter a Victorian drawing room through a stately Victorian front door. (To me it is nothing short of miraculous how Montgomery’s sets always appear to be “the real thing” and not just a set.) Mr. Dickens is already serving tea with biscuits and other goodies. He invites the audience to enjoy a cup of tea and a biscuit or scone. Once everyone is settled in and quietly sipping their tea Mr. Dickens attempts to avoid yet another telling of A Christmas Carol but is thwarted repeatedly by a poltergeist, apparently also a part of Lighting Designer Matthew Gawryk’s plan, with some skill at operating a modern theatrical light board. Eventually, Mr. Dickens capitulates and the story is retold, making this reading the 159th annual reading for the recalcitrant Mr. Dickens. Montgomery starts off with a convincing British dialect that he maintains throughout the entire production. Montgomery’s skills with words and Izumi Inaba’s convincing costume immediately convey us back to Victorian England for an evening in a world we can only create in our imaginations.

Reading accounts of the life of Charles Dickens one is struck by the extremes he experienced in all directions. His childhood was marked by periods of extreme poverty and unhappiness, yet as an accomplished, wealthy and famous—even adored—writer he sailed over the heads of his peers surely and easily. Despite his occupation being “writer,” he was perhaps best known in his later years as a public figure and performer. Indeed, his acting skills were prodigious and evident at an early age. This combined with his nearly occult ability to read and describe characters, made his literary and stage efforts an unparalleled experience for his fans world-wide.

It is the stage presence of Dickens that Blake Montgomery captures so effectively in this Building Stage Production. Dickens is the charming and polite host, entertaining his audience; Dickens is the humorous, sometimes silly author connecting with his adoring fans; Dickens is the profoundly dramatic portrayer of some of mankind’s deepest fears and self-doubt. Montgomery captures all of this with such apparent ease that in the tradition of all great impersonations the audience forgets that they are, as Montgomery notes, “in a black-box theater in Chicago’s West industrial corridor.”  They are in a drawing room, with Charles Dickens, who is recreating as only Dickens can amazing characters that populate his novel.

Montgomery does not fail to explore Dickens’s protagonist in A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge. During the exposition of the Dickens story we get glimpses of Scrooge’s early life, not surprisingly different from some of Dickens’s own early experiences. Montgomery deftly becomes Scrooge and each of the four ghosts who visit the miserly Scrooge before his rebirth and epiphany.  We suddenly realize, along with Scrooge, that despite a life of hoarding there are still vestiges of humanity in the old miser that only await the correct stimulus to reawaken.

This complexity is nothing short of marvelous; Blake Montgomery becomes Charles Dickens to the point where we are no longer able to distinguish between Montgomery and Dickens. Then Dickens becomes Scrooge and we explore the mind of Scrooge and his four apparitions through the lens of Dickens. The effect is stunning and an example of the maturing style and ability of The Building Stage’s Artistic Director, Blake Montgomery.

As for the story that Charles Dickens penned, we already know how that story concludes; we understand the twists and turns it takes. What is important here is neither the story nor the conclusion; what is important is the journey we take with Blake Montgomery as our guide to travel through familiar ground and learn new insights, experience new emotions and depart with an increased understanding of one of the great literary geniuses of the 19th century and the role he played in the artistic parade of Western Civilization.
I cannot imagine a better capstone for my holiday theater going than The Building Stage’s production of Charles Dickens Begrudgingly Performs A Christmas Carol. Again. Let’s hope that Montgomery decides to present the 160th annual reading in December of 2012. If he does, don’t fail to see it. It may just become one of your own cherished holiday traditions.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Murder on the North Pole Express

Murder on the North Pole Express
The Santaland Diaries Explores the Dark Side of Customer Service
David Sedaris first aired his essay The Santaland Diaries on NPR’s Morning Edition on December 23rd, 1992. It has become a staple of the Christmas Season ever since. After twenty years it probably qualifies as “tired,” “trite,” “venerable,” or “shopworn.” But let’s face it: pieces like The Santaland Diaries, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the film Holiday Inn (think of the Irving Berlin song White Christmas,) Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales and Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory all satisfy an urgent and powerful need of the human spirit; we need to be connected during the holiday season regardless of whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, the Pagan Solstice or the simple pleasures of the Atheist who treasures time spent with family and loved ones.
Actor Mitchell Fain skillfully becomes Crumpet, the Elf, who works at a variety of positions at Macy’s Santaland. One by one he recounts the adventures and absurdities of parents, children, fellow elves and even Santa himself during this seventy-five minute one-man romp through the detritus of Christmas.
This particular version of Sedaris’s essay has been turned into adult theater by Joe Mantello. Some of the language would never make it on the air at NPR and some of the innuendo is definitely borderline XXX. These features are what make The Santaland Diaries resonate so strongly with audience members who have worked in service jobs, customer service positions or who have in general been faced with the daunting task of satisfying the often irrational and unreasonable demands of that mythic and ethereal being, “the customer.”
Fain, appropriately costumed as Crumpet, keeps interest high with interesting blocking and frequent shifts about the Joey Wade designed set that is probably ten times as inviting as anything Macy’s ever offered its clientele. Fain also has the uncanny ability to connect with everyone in the audience simultaneously. You feel as though he is telling you this story of his adventures over coffee at your local Starbucks.
Is there a message here for us all? Of course, there is. Be we’ve already heard it many times before. We know that we’re all obsessed with materialism at Christmas. We all become raging animals because of the incredible stress we experience when the Winter Solstice approaches. It is also worthwhile to hear this message again and again as we struggle to maintain our balance in life while still honoring whatever it is we want to honor at this time of the year. Santaland Diaries reminds us of our innate natures as human beings and cautions us to live a life of balance and fullness without becoming one of the monstrous creatures that made Crumpet’s life the “interesting” experience it was as he worked as an Elf in that magic place called Santaland.
Incidentally, toward the conclusion of Santaland Diaries Crumpet encounters a Santa he’s never worked with before. This Santa’s name was not on the list of regular “Santas” employed by the department store. I was more than touched as Fain/Crumpet recounted how this final Santa was able to satisfy parents and children without ever promising the child great material gifts. It is a brief but poignant moment in Santaland Diaries, but one well worth remembering. Fain handles it with remarkable sensitivity and skill.
Santaland Diaries is highly recommended, even if you’ve seen it before—even if you’ve seen it several times before. If you enjoy repeat performances of this kind of show, to hell with the nay-sayers; what do they know about satisfying your inner needs for connection over the holiday season?  You can do much worse than watch someone as talented and skilled as Mitchell Fain who makes you smile, makes you nod in assent, and who makes you grateful that you at least can choose how you want to celebrate this holiday season.
Santaland Diaries plays at Theater Wit at 1229 West Belmont Avenue on Chicago’s North side through December 31st, 2011. Visit Theater Wit: smart art or phone the box office at 773-975-8150 for tickets.