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.

It’s Not Easy To Get Laid These Days

It’s Not Easy To Get Laid These Days

Date Me Explores the Trials of Thirty-Something Womanhood

Noemi Schlosser and Michelle Slonim are best friends attending a wedding. They each have been unable to find a date and so are marooned at the bar together where they share about seventy-five minutes of some of the bawdiest adventures imaginable.  As the wedding reception drags on the two women consume substantial amounts of the free-flowing Champaign that only adds to the frank and graphic depictions of their past escapades not to mention contributing to a very unsteady Slonim toward the play’s conclusion.

Don’t misunderstand these women, however. They are not ordinary sluts willing to take any man that happens along. Far from that, they have standards, preferring, for example, men who are circumcised as well as men who can boast of twenty-two centimeter equipment. (Schlosser is Belgian and they use the metric system to gauge a man’s important statistic. It turns out to be 8.66 inches in case you’re wondering.) Wealth is also a strong indicator of a man’s desirability.

The cell phone plays an important part in this glimpse of modern social intercourse. This writer has long believed that the cell phone along with texting has very nearly destroyed our last vestiges of civilized behavior and this is amply illustrated by Schlosser and Slonim as they interrupt their fast-paced romp through their recent sexual history frequently to send or receive calls and messages to their various trysts and amorous partners.

The “DJ” at the wedding adds a nice contrasting touch. Actors Brandon Galatz and Josh Odor alternate the role of the DJ. He’s a nice, stable accountant who makes a good living so bouncing him against Schlosser and Slonim only adds to the extreme promiscuity exhibited by the horny pair.

This is not a profound piece of theater although it does make one wonder overall what has become of our interpersonal relations when we evaluate a potential lover by metrics rather than more subtle and subjective means. This play gives us a glimpse at two women but the practice is just as common among men. Perhaps it is somehow related to texting and (dare I mention) Facebook, where your profile allows for limited kinds of information that tends to compartmentalize those individuals who don’t take the time to actually compose a prose narrative.

This is also a very tight and well-oiled production. You enter the theater space with the wedding reception in progress; they offer you a shot of beer; you’re invited on stage to dance awhile at the reception. Now that you’re in the mood for the wedding reception, Schlosser and Slonim take off on their romp through their brand of liberal young womanhood.

There are a few more surprises as the reception proceeds and things get raunchier and raunchier right up to the curtain but you should treat yourself to this production yourself rather than read spoilers in a blog. It’s a great evening of laughs and reflection on life and love in the modern world. You won’t be sorry you went to this wedding.

Date Me! Plays at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont on Chicago’s North side through December 18, 2011.  See Theater Wit: smart art for show times and tickets or call the Theater Wit box office at 773-975-8150.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Paul Varnell: RIP

Paul Varnell: RIP

Some Reflections on the Passing of an Old Friend

The Passing of Paul Varnell

Paul Varnell
Paul Varnell passed from this life on December 9, 2011 sometime in the afternoon. He had been experiencing a decline in health for some time and those of us who knew and cared were certainly prepared for what will be the final journey for all of us. It is inevitable when faced with the loss of a friend, no matter how much anticipated, that we stop to reflect a little on the life of the lost traveler and our own interactions over the years we knew, worked, played and enjoyed each other’s company. In Paul’s case it is a complex story; Paul was in some ways a complex man while in others he was crystal clear and transparent, never wavering from a strongly held set of values and ethics.

What follows are some of the highlights of my own interactions with Paul over time along with some notes about a few of his other noteworthy activities. I’m sure that many others will have relevant information to add to the story.

Paul is gone but I hope he will not be forgotten. His life is a model for many of the best characteristics of a man worthy of adoption and emulation by us all. His legacy is substantial.

His friends miss him greatly.

Independent Gay Forum

I first became involved with Paul in the 1990s. My own partner of 13 years died in 1994 and my life drifted to and fro without much direction. Bruce Bawer published Beyond Queer: Challenging Gay Left Orthodoxy in 1996. Beyond Queer included a number of essays by Paul along with others penned by Bruce Bawer, Stephen H. Miller, Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Rauch, Mel Dahl, Stephen H. Chapman, David Link, Norah Vincent and David Boaz. With Bawer’s and the original authors’ permission we established a website to publish some of the essays contained in the book along with other work from other sources. Paul became the Independent Gay Forum’s first editor while I managed the technical aspects, becoming its first webmaster.

Over time Paul contributed many articles to the IGF website. I still have what I believe to be a complete archive of all of Paul’s articles now that the IGF has evolved into a different kind of program.

My own life took a different path toward the end of the 1990s and I turned my IGF responsibilities over to more capable hands while remaining an interested observer and avid reader of IGF content.

Around 2010 the IGF reevaluated its program and concluded that a shift in emphasis was in order. The IGF Culture Watch — IGF Culture Watch website explains it best:

IGF Culture Watch emerged from the Independent Gay Forum project. The original IGF project was created by a group of gay writers, academics, attorneys, and activists who felt dissatisfied with the then current level of discussion of gay-related issues. A great deal has been accomplished in the less than two decades since IGF was formed. Gay issues are now very much mainstream. The left-wing has lost much of its once exclusive grip on gay issues. Gays are now taking their place at the American political and cultural table, as equals, instead of as political pawns. With these advances, it was decide that The Independent Gay Forum should be downgraded from a formal 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization to a watch-keeper blog site, IGF Culture Watch.

 We still hold the following goals and values:

·        We support the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in civil society with legal equality and equal social respect. We argue that gays and lesbians, in turn, contribute to the creativity, robustness, and decency of our national life.

·        We share a belief in the fundamental virtues of the American system and its traditions of individual liberty, personal moral autonomy and responsibility, and equality before the law. We believe those traditions depend on the institutions of a market economy, free discussion, and limited government.

·        We deny conservative claims that gays and lesbians pose any threat to social morality or the political order.

·        We equally oppose progressive claims that gays should support radical social change or restructuring of society.

·        We share an approach, but we disagree on many particulars. We include libertarians, limited-government conservatives, moderates, and classical liberals. We hold differing views on the role of government, personal morality, religious faith, and personal relationships. We share these disagreements openly: we hope that readers will find them interesting and thought-provoking.


Paul Varnell was, if anything, the epitome of a gay activist. He was a long-time columnist for more than one gay newspaper in Chicago and his columns also appeared in other gay publications from coast to coast. It is perhaps for his writing as it appeared in print and on the internet that Paul will be best remembered.

But Paul was much more than a writer. He was also a leader, although he would probably dispute that assertion. With his quiet, polite and gentle style Paul achieved much on behalf of gay advancement over the years. I found a sampling of some of his activities in a short biography that appears on the Internet at Paul Varnell: "The controversy over poppers".

Paul Varnell writes a weekly column for the Chicago Free Press and other gay newspapers.

He has also written for Reason magazine, the Advocate, Lambda Book Report, and the Chicago Reader. Some of his essays were included in Beyond Queer (Free Press, 1996) and The Bedford Guide for College Writers (Bedford, 1999).

Varnell has been involved in gay advocacy for more than two decades. He headed the education committee of the Gay/Lesbian Union in DeKalb, Illinois, 1977-1982, was a board member of Parents and Friends of Gays in Chicago, 1983-84; and chaired the Media Committee of the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Chicago, 1983-1990. He was a co-founder of Gay History Month in 1994.

 He was a member of the Chicago AIDS Task Force and was appointed to the Illinois Department of Health's AIDS Advisory Committee. His areas of interest include classical music, gay history, political philosophy, libertarian theory, and socio-economic analysis.

Many of Paul Varnell’s previous columns are posted at the Independent Gay Forum.

In 2004 I joined Paul in protesting the appearance of the Jamaican reggae artist Capleton, whose patois lyrics of violence, murder and hate target gays and lesbians. The Chicago Tribune reported the protest at Anti-gay reggae - Chicago Tribune. This movement against all reggae artists spreading hate and violence has continued to the present. A small compendium of concert cancellations that resulted from these protests can be seen at Murder Inna Dancehall: Bounty Killer Concerts Cancelled.

This is only my personal involvement with one of Paul’s activities. He was constantly aware of the cutting edge of gay activism and the progress of the gay movement toward full equality and inclusion in society.

Personal Life

Paul was a generally private individual. His personal involvements were not shared with a wide audience. Yet there are certain parts of Paul’s interaction with others that cast a brilliant light on Paul Varnell the human being and illustrate the great kindness and affection he had for others. New York Journalist Jennifer Vanasco writes:

What I loved best about Paul was his unrelenting kindness. Paul was encouraging of me very early in my career. When he thought I got something wrong in print or in person, he pointed it out in the most gentle possible way. He was a great sounding board and warm friend. What I miss most, already, is him calling in his deliciously rounded voice, saying “Hello, it's Paul Varnell,” as if we shared a joke, or were about to.

I was proud to share an op-ed page with him for 15 years at our Chicago paper. Any libertarian tendencies I have I owe to him and his gentle and thoughtful persuasion.

I miss him already.
Unrelenting kindness.” What greater tribute might one ask as a remembrance? I can offer nothing to surpass Vanasco’s description of Paul’s most memorable characteristic. I, too, was the recipient of Paul’s gentle persuasion and kindness.


Paul leaves behind a legacy of what it means to be an effective activist whether that be for gay causes or otherwise. His gentle, polite and rational approach to issues will long stand as a model to those who follow.

Paul’s philosophy and activism is well preserved in his numerous articles and essays available from many sources.

Likewise, his early efforts as the Editor of the Independent Gay Forum leaves behind a strong legacy of quality internet journalism that has grown and evolved over the years into what remains a strong and important voice for the advancement of gay and lesbian rights.

Paul’s early efforts on behalf of Gay History Month are mentioned in the Wikipedia article LGBT History Month - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Begun in 1994 this month-long celebration remains with us today and in 2005 similar observances were initiated in England and Scotland. Since these early efforts, interest in gay history has seen progressively greater attention. In Chicago Tracy Baim, Publisher and Executive Editor of Windy City Media Group Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Trans News, launched the Chicago Gay History website that features an extensive series of video histories of prominent gay Chicagoans. In one such video Activist Tim Drake recounts how he and Paul accompanied two reporters from Chicago’s mainstream press to a downtown gay bar for after-work cocktails and even to a Mr. Chicago Leather competition in their efforts to educate and inform the non-gay community about gay culture and issues.

Doubtless other examples of Paul’s lasting legacy will be found as time passes. There will likely be a public memorial service to celebrate and recount the life of Paul Varnell. Paul is gone, but his memory will live on and in all probability easily exceed my own lifetime and the lifetimes of those yet unborn.

Thank you, Paul. It was an honor and privilege to know you, work with you and learn from you.

May you rest in peace.