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.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Indifferent Torture

Indifferent Torture

Sound of Silence by Jean Cocteau at Theater Wit

Indifference is one of the most powerful instruments of torture possessed by man. Since it is a form of psychological torture it is difficult to detect, intense but subtle in its effects and despite the fact that the victim probably has complete control over the application, nearly impossible to defend.

The premise of this hour-long monologue is simple: an attractive night club singer is in an unsatisfying relationship with her lover, who routinely abandons her for trysts with his ageing mistress. He also completely ignores the singer by taking refuge behind his newspaper. In this production, the lover is actually portrayed by a projection; it is physically impossible for the image to respond even if given stout blows with a club. The singer is thus trapped by a combination of her love and attraction to the lover and his torturous and complete indifference to her presence, monologue or needs.

The seeming paradox of the effects of indifference—the suffering contrasted with the simple solution of simply abandoning the unsatisfactory relationship—is explored in depth by the gifted European actress Noemi Schlosser. The piece begins with a low level of anxiety as the singer nervously awaits the return of her lover and builds in intensity as the lover returns, withdraws into his newspaper and maintains absolute indifference to her presence.

We are given two subtle devices to observe the passage of great time during the piece. First, there is an image of a telephone that simply exists as unresponsive as the lover. It becomes a symbol of indifference equal in its ability to inflict pain by virtue of its complete silence for most of the piece. On the occasions the telephone does ring, the results are disappointing further heightening effect of psychological pain by first promising relief and then inflicting even greater agony.

The other device used is the image of an ashtray with slowly burning cigarettes. One by one as each cigarette burns to the end it is augmented by another newly lit cigarette. This progression slowly fills the ash tray as a constant reminder that besides being an intense form of torture, indifference can be applied for extended periods of time without danger of the victim expiring because of physical damage.

As the piece proceeds we are witness to the emotions and torments of the singer as she struggles with the indifference of her lover. The effect is profound and the impact strong. This kind of exposition is not easy to achieve and certainly can’t be achieved quickly or with the theatrical devices typically sought by audiences more interested in easily grasped stories and explicitly stated moral lessons. Rather, Sound of Silence is a trip inside the mind of a single individual as she struggles with her inability to remove the pain she is experiencing. It is a journey that takes time to experience and indeed, it does not have a destination; the journey is the point of this intense exploration, not any particular dénouement.

Costuming for the singer is interesting because of its extremes. She appears most frequently in a “little black dress” replete with platform heels. Frequently, however, she removes the dress revealing her 1940s style lingerie. There is something appealing about an attractive woman dressed only in period lingerie—bra, panties, garter belt and stockings (this was before the era of panty-hose, remember). Her final costume is in reality a long, brilliantly red train of cloth that extends from the footlights to her exit up stage left. This exit is accompanied by a cabaret song in French with supertitles mercifully provided for those of us (me included) that are completely unable to understand the French language.

This is an absorbing piece, and judging from the total silence of the audience around me all were as absorbed in Schlosser’s brilliant performance as I was. It’s also a piece for mature audiences. By this I mean audiences who have experienced something of life and love on their own, not necessarily those of any advancing age; some have had profoundly moving life experiences even as youth. To really understand the singer and her travails it is almost imperative that the viewer have experienced something similar in his or her lifetime although perhaps not with the same intensity. The piece made me recall occasions where my own inability to control the indifference of a real or imagined lover had made my own existence vastly more painful than was necessary.

Sound of Silence is highly recommended. It appears at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont on Chicago’s North side through December 17th, 2011.  

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Riff Raff

Riff Raff

By Laurence Fishburne

The Story

Mike Cherry, Eric Sherman-Christ, Eduardo Martinez
Riff Raff tells the story of Michael (20/20) Leon and Michael (Torch) Murphy, two New York half-brothers who attempt to steal four kilos of heroine. Instead, they end up with three kilos and a trail of murder and violence as they end up hiding in an abandoned New York apartment. Enter Tony (The Tiger), an old drug dealing partner of 20/20. The minimalist plot unfolds for 110 violence-filled minutes. In fact, there isn’t a great deal of plot to unfold. 20/20 and Torch attempt to steal four kilos of heroin from the most powerful drug lord in New York City. In the process they kill the drug lord’s nephew. They take flight and end up in an abandoned apartment. 20/20 calls his old friend Tony The Tiger to ask Tony to help them escape the wrath of the drug lord.

The Real Story

As the characters interact with one another we learn a great deal about their individual weaknesses and strengths. Torch hates to be called “Bro.” by 20/20. He also hates to be called “Stupid.” He’s an incredibly violent man and prone to solve all of his problems by simply killing those he doesn’t like or who he perceives as a threat. 20/20 on the other hand perceives himself as very street-wise and smart when he actually has terribly misjudged just about everyone in the play along with a number of other characters who never appear but who play significant roles in the play’s ultimate resolution. 20/20 is also terrified of rats. Tony the Tiger may in fact be the one with the most street-smarts. He has a wife and daughter who matter to him although he elects to support them by dealing in drugs.

Mike cherry, Eduardo Martinez
Each of the characters has a long monologue that tells us how he arrived at his present station in life. None of the characters is the least bit likeable and early on there are probably none in the audience who have anything but contempt for the lot of these amoral, murderous and anti-social misfits. But the fact that they are misfits and how they came to be that way is what makes this play an important exploration. Circumstance impacts human development in many ways and while it may be comforting for the existentialists to point out how individual choice is what determines outcomes, that choice is often denied the very young or the very vulnerable. Should we be at all sympathetic toward these characters or should we grateful that most of them are no longer able to hurt other members of society?

There is no easy answer to that question, of course. But what may be of greater significance is our ability to perceive how grave mistakes like 20/20, Torch and Tiger are created and how we as a society might mitigate future occurrences.

At the play’s conclusion, I breathed a sigh of relief that I no longer had to be in such close proximity with these incredibly miserable and disgusting human beings.


Mary Arrchie is the perfect venue for a play set in an abandoned New York City apartment. The seating feels like an extension of the set. Floors haven’t been swept for perhaps ten years. You are “in the mood” before the piece even starts. When 20/20 hears the scratching of rats, I was certain I felt something run over my foot! With only three members in the cast, a one-act production nearly two hours in length, and a dramatic intensity that exhausts even the audience, there is little room for any performance less than about 110% of the actor’s ability. Unfortunately, Eduardo Martinez (20/20) wasn’t always up to the task. On a couple of occasions he had to grope a bit for a line or a word; the book just wasn’t completely solid in his head. Martinez did have a firm grasp on the important monologue by 20/20 detailing his sordid criminal history. Mike Cherry (Torch) turned in a consistently solid performance that convincingly portrayed both his physical (his hand had been injured among other things) as well as his emotional sufferings. Likewise, his monologue provided the needed back-story of his journey from earliest youth to a life of violent crime. Eric Sherman Christ (Tony the Tiger) also turned in a convincing portrayal of a crafty, street-smart and ruthless criminal who was never-the-less able to “sell” a number of ideas to both 20/20 and Torch that ultimately resulted in great benefit to Tony but that were the final undoing of both 20/20 and Torch. Tony’s long rap about his life as a pimp with a “ho” seemed somehow out of place in a piece that was primarily concerned with violent drug dealing but did serve to cement the idea that Tony was a crafty and ruthless adversary.

Riff Raff runs through October 30 at Mary Arrchie. By the way, the playwright’s setting states that the time is the Present All Hallows Eve, making this a perfect choice for your Halloween outing! Don’t expect any answers, but instead expect a better understanding of the problem.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Farragut North

Farragut North

Stage Left Theatre

And You Thought Politics Was About…


I’m not sure what I thought politics was about when I went to see this remarkable play by thirty-something playwright Beau Willimon. Certainly I didn’t think it was about what I saw. I almost never read reviews about plays I’m about to see and confine my “research” to the hype posted by the theater company. I’m almost never disappointed by this tactic since it permits me to form my own reactions and opinions as the production unfolds before my eyes.

Farragut North Cast
What first strikes you is the incredibly crisp set presented by Scenic Designer Roger Wykes. The formal, grey-blue tongue-and-groove paneling atop the clean, dark blue with white picture-frame wainscot speaks nothing of the perfidy you’re about to witness as Farragut North unfolds.
Playwright Willimon tells us in the Dramaturg’s Notes that “…the atmosphere of it, the paranoia, the bald ambition, the gluttony for power and the ways in which all those things can warp your soul—it was all there.” Years ago I was involved in a grass-roots presidential campaign and actually ran for statewide office (as an elector) by accident. I was there; they needed a name; they put mine on the form. I witnessed up close the same kinds of behavior that Willimon presents to us in this masterwork of political drama. This is not a play about political issues; it is a play about moral decay and the gamesmanship of politics at its worst.

Stage Left Scores

Brian Plocharczyk (Stephen) and Melanie Derleth (Molly)
There is little if anything to dislike about this strong Stage Left production. If you’ve ever worked even slightly on a political campaign you’ll recognize the characters easily and Stage Left has cast them to a T. The heavy lifting in the piece is born by Stage Left ensemble member Brian Plocharczyk  portraying Stephen Bellamy, the whiz-kid Press Secretary who leaves no doubt in our minds as to his unquenchable desire to be a success in politics. Bellamy works for Paul, the Governor of Iowa’s Campaign Manager ably presented by Mike Dailey. Ian McLaren plays a smaller but critical role as the Campaign Manager for “the other side,” and indeed, when the play concludes we are left with the distinct feeling that it was McLaren’s character that emerges as the grand puppet-master in the entire charade. Melanie Derleth, Sandy Elias and Sarah Denison turn in strong supporting roles, especially Denison whose NYT Reporter character Ida teaches us that it’s not only the politicians who are morally bankrupt. Andy Quijano fills in with some important ancillary roles to round out this excellent cast.

The play is set in Des Moines, Iowa, during Iowa’s presidential caucuses and is very loosely based on the playwright’s experiences working on the 2004 Howard Dean campaign for President. Although the incidents are fiction, the ambiance and attitudes reflect what Willimon saw during his various assignments working on political campaigns.

The dialog is quick and wonky. It helps if you read about politics somewhat regularly. The pacing and rhythm of Stage Left’s production is fast but skillfully and executed. As we might say in the musical world, the tuttis and intonation are nearly perfect.

Farragut North | Stage Left Theatre runs until October 9th, 2011 at Theatre Wit on Belmont. This is one you won’t want to miss. And if even ten percent of what it shows us is true, what does that say about the state of American politics?

The Double

The Double
Babes With Blades Theatre Company

Fun With Swashbuckling

I wasn’t going to bother seeing this despite getting numerous offers from the various coupon/deal companies that seem to fill my in-box with offers for mostly massages and pedicures. Then I realized that in only a few minutes I could walk to the theatre from my apartment so I said what the heck, I’ll give it a shot. I wasn’t disappointed. Don’t look for a profound message in The Double. Right up front the director tells us that it’s “screwball comedy.” But what great fun it is, none-the-less.
The Double is a play about a play—always a winning concept in my book. Set in the 1940s The Double concerns a troupe of actors trying to mount a play about Cyrano de Bergerac and naturally are struggling to find funding. There are numbers of romantic involvements in the script, one that turns out to be a reunion of a married couple, another that makes a discovery about women who love women and yet another case of mistaken intentions—men who are friendly are not necessarily interested in a romantic involvement.
Throughout all of this craziness we are treated to a number of scenes on the vast open floor of the set that are nothing short of breathtakingly energetic and exciting examples of physical theater. In one scene a woman whose sensibilities have been offended by a faux-suitor throws a tantrum to end all tantrums not to mention throwing her shoes, purse and any other object she can lay her hands on. In yet another scene in a 1940s night club, we are given an energetic series of dances by two women who must certainly have learned their craft at Actor’s Gymnasium or some other school for circus arts. It was one of the most absorbing pieces of choreography I’ve seen in some time.
Then, there is the final sword fight involving nearly all the cast. What else would you expect from a theatre company named Babes With Blades? When it’s all over, not only are the actors completely relaxed without a trace of exhaustion (only the audience is exhausted by the action) but they have secured their funding.
What a great time and a chance to really laugh, smile and enjoy yourself for a couple of hours.

The Company

According to the program, Babes With Blades Theatre Company uses stage combat to place women and their stories center stage. They do that to perfection. Coming up next March Babes With Blades will be presenting Trash | Check it out, I’m sure you’ll have the time of your life, but don’t sit too close to the flashing hardware!

Understanding the Fundamentals of Music

Understanding the Fundamentals of Music

A Teaching Company Course Taught by Robert Greenberg

The Great Master

Robert M. Greenberg
It is no secret that I admire Robert Greenberg greatly as a lecturer and teacher. His complete mastery of his subject I view as a prerequisite to being a great lecturer and unquestionably Greenberg has mastered whatever he teaches and then some. What sets him apart as a teacher is his ability to communicate that material, complex though it may be, in ways that are understandable by any student willing to engage his brain (and in the case of music courses his ears) in the pursuit of the knowledge Greenberg freely passes on.

I have even been known to purchase a ticket to Ravinia, for a concert I had no interest in hearing, just to be able to attend a Greenberg lecture following in the Murray Theatre. In person he is just as impressive as he is on an edited and produced DVD with the added bonus that during the following Q&A he was patient and persevering with even most dense of audience members who seemed to be having trouble with understanding his concepts.

They just don’t come any more enjoyable than Greenberg.

The Course

Understanding the Fundamentals of Music is a somewhat technical course on music theory that covers much of what you might expect from a beginning survey course: tamber; beat, tempo, meter, pitch, mode, intervals, tunings, tonality, key signatures and the circle of fifths. The more difficult topics of motifs, melody, repetition, sequencing and metamorphosis are also dealt with in clear, straightforward fashion. But there is even more as he delves into harmony, function, tendency, dominance, progression, cadence and modulation.

Even more impressive is that he covers this broad set of topics without resorting to musical notation of any kind. He does use illustrations of a piano keyboard to describe intervals and chords, but the beginning student does not have to learn the intricacies of staves, measures, notes and so forth that probably confuse more than they enlighten until some facility is gained in reading what has become our standard western notation.

As with all of Greenberg’s courses (and the Teaching Company courses in general) there are an ample number of examples to help the learner’s ears understand just what kind of concept is being communicated. Unlike other Greenberg courses I have viewed, Greenberg plays a number of examples at the piano himself rather than resort to a recorded example. He is actually a fairly proficient pianist and besides the obligatory chord progressions we are given at appropriate lecture points he even illustrates some of his concepts with excerpts from Beethoven's less demanding sonatas that he plays himself at the piano.


If you like music of any kind and are willing to invest a little time and thought into developing your right brain, artistic sensibilities and musical skills, this course will provide you with a foundation that will last for the rest of your life. On this, you can continue to build your musical proficiency or just enjoy your next trip to the opera, concert hall or rock band venue all the more. It’s worth every minute you put into it.
You can find out more about Greenberg's courses at the Teaching Company Website.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Deconstructing Putting It Together

Deconstructing Putting It Together

Notes From a Sondheim Ambivalent

In The First Place…

I wanted to write a great deal about my impressions of Stephen Sondheim and his art. That’s going to take up most of this blog entry. I know that lots of people will want to hear about the current Porchlight production of Putting It Together and won’t care a bit about what I think about Stephen Sondheim’s art. So up front, here’s the skinny, the low-down, the scoop, the cat’s meow and the cream from the milk:

This is a terrific production even if you’re not completely enamored of Sondheim’s output. Porchlight is superb; the venue is great, the staging is nothing short of miraculous, the music direction is flawless; the singers are just what you’d expect from Sondheim vocalists and then some.

Rush over to your PC and buy tickets, NOW! Purchase Tickets - Porchlight Music Theatre.

Now I can write about what really interests me. By the way, there are a lot of good reviews of this production already on the Internet. You can see some of them at Review: Putting It Together (Porchlight Music Theatre) | Chicago Theater Beat, or Porchlight season off to sizzling start - Chicago Sun-Times and THEATER REVIEW: Putting It Together from Porchlight Music Theatre at Theater Wit gets 3 stars - Chicago Tribune.

Why I Don’t Adore Sondheim (or His Art)

Let me start by saying I don’t dislike Stephen Sondheim’s artistic efforts; I simply don’t adore them. There seems to be an implicit polarization of Sondheim camps in the world; either you love the entire body of his work or you find it repulsive and unendurable. I’m in neither camp. I’m not particularly fond of his work, but I do enjoy hearing it. Some of it I can do without.

I view musical theater as a distinctly American form of opera. It has soliloquy, dialogue, scenery, action and nearly continuous music; these are all of the things that characterize opera. We might more succinctly summarize these parts as book, lyrics and music. I find Sondheim weakest when listening to his music.

Without music it’s simply not musical theater; it’s theater (without the music). Since I don’t find Sondheim’s music particularly noteworthy or even satisfying, I can’t really place him in my “most adored” category.

Lyrics, Book, Music

To be certain, his lyrics are among the most engaging and illuminated ever created in the English language. Cleverness is one of the Sondheim hallmarks as is his use of the unconventional and unexpected. It helps to stay very alert when listening to something with the Sondheim autograph.

His books, which is to say the topics he treats in a production, are generally interesting and always timely. (Sondheim has always collaborated with a book-writer of some sort.) He is the quintessential twentieth century artist in his reflections of all the angst and shortcomings of a world that emerged from the relative innocence of Late Romanticism into an era of two world wars, a host smaller ones, a constant stream of economic misery interspersed with periods of prosperity, a pace to life and change of dizzying speed, and finally the rise of the modern terrorist. No wonder he is generally concerned with some sort of disappointment or suffering among his characters.

It is the music that I find uninteresting. It is the composer, after all, who adds the drama, emotion and nuance to the words of the lyricist and librettist. For a musical to be really memorable it must synthesize all three major parts—book, lyrics and music—into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Sondheim fails to achieve that most of the time and it is his music that is simultaneously the most significant and weakest link in the chain. When Sondheim began to handle both lyrics and music on a regular basis it is as though his focus shifted completely to the lyrics, relegating the music to a supporting rather than a starring role.

I exclude from my evaluation those projects where he worked strictly as lyricist, most famously and successfully West Side Story and Gypsy. It is when Sondheim began tackling both music and lyrics that merit gave way to other considerations.

One of the key components that any composer must master is melodic invention. The principles of melody are well understood, especially as they apply to Broadway musicals that need to rapidly engage and entertain an audience not always sophisticated enough to grasp contemporary trends in musical invention. Through the devices of the motif, repetition, sequence and transformation a skilled composer can take some very fundamental elements and create an amazing kaleidoscope of musical experience for his listeners.

The starting point of the melody also has some bearing on things. Motifs that have a lyrical basis (ones that you would be inclined to sing) are generally easier and more memorable for an audience. Twentieth century practice has been to use melodic components that are not lyrical in nature. It is still possible to apply all of the techniques of invention to non-lyrical bases but it does require that the audience be somewhat more educated and sensitive to the processes taking place. Sondheim is able to utilize the tools of his trade and in fact is a reasonable craftsman when it comes to constructing melodies.

His music, however, doesn’t benefit a great deal from his craftsmanship as a composer for a couple of reasons: first, much of his music sounds like all of the rest of his music; it is monotonous; second, the music itself often does little to enhance the meaning of the book and lyrics. A musical is a synthesis after all, and unless there is a synergy injected by the composer, the whole will not be greater than the sum of the parts.

There are exceptions to these general criticisms, as there are always exceptions to nearly every generalization. But I maintain that the fundamental observations hold true and are the reasons that I don’t dislike the artistic efforts of Stephen Sondheim, but I don’t adore them, either.

Porchlight Is Superb

All of that being said, I again state that I found the Porchlight production superb in every aspect. Putting It Together is, after all, nothing more than a cabaret act with a bunch of songs strung together. Porchlite’s set, comfortable venue (Theater Wit) and plot exploits made the experience much more than just another song mash-up.

The singers, three men and two women, were what you’d expect from a group of solid professionals. Especially noteworthy was Alex Weisman whose banter and commentary added some needed breaks to the otherwise uninterrupted cascade of Sondheim songs.

Also deserving high praise is youthful Music Director Austin Cook. Cook’s piano wizardry helped alleviate some of the ennui surrounding Sondheim’s compositional shortcomings mentioned earlier.

Did I enjoy it? Of course I did. Would I recommend it? Yes. My level of enthusiasm in recommending this production should be in direct proportion to my listener’s devotion to the cult of Sondheim. If you adore Sondheim, you will definitely not want to miss this one.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Underground With Madness

Underground With Madness

Christopher Hampton’s Alice’s Adventures Under Ground

Mad Hatters and March Hares

City Lit Theater has spent nearly one-third of a century (a very long time indeed) “dedicated to the vitality and accessibility of the literary imagination.” In keeping with that part of its mission statement, City Lit is currently treating us to the Chicago premier of Alice’s Adventures Underground, a romp through the unlikely slapstick world created by Lewis Carroll for his favorite muse, Alice Liddell. Audience looking for a stage adaptation of Carroll’s best-known works for children, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, will be disappointed. The play most certainly does not attempt to recreate the contents of the books. Rather, it is a play about the relationship between Carroll and Liddell and attempts to imagine the creative process that gave us these timeless and charming children’s stories.

The play opens innocently enough with Alice paying a visit on Carroll in his Victorian drawing room. It quickly slips over the edge into fantasy as the unforgettable characters begin to flow from Carroll’s imagination to fill the world of Alice. Alice interacts with the characters as though they were real and in the process invites the audience into the magical world of the White Rabbit, The Mad Hatter, The Doormouse and all the others that populate the books. Throughout the play the audience’s conscious is repeatedly escorted from reality to fantasy and back again as Alice experiences the flights of fancy that so entertained and fascinated her. In fact, this technique of “crossing over” between the real world and the imaginary is one that Carroll also employed to great effect in another of his children’s novels, Bruno and Sylvie.

At one point, the eighty-five minute production takes a short detour into some darker material that explores the nineteenth century practice of photographing nude children. While this was common practice for the time, the twentieth century discovery of some photographs taken by Carroll of nude children raised immediate questions regarding the propriety of his relationship with Alice Liddell. Scholars have since debunked such concerns, yet it is evidence that we, as contemporary members of society, have yet to completely understand and accept the intimate relationships of that romantic era that don’t exactly conform to our own notions of sterile morality.

Thus Hampton’s play leaves us with a strangely clouded vision of mid-nineteenth century life which by all accounts was a period of intense emotions and strong personal attachments. At the same time, we feel great nostalgia for those parts of the culture we can accept without effort. This mixture of mild precaution and attractive romanticism accompanies the audience as they leave the performance, perhaps with visions of their own childhoods and what they may have experienced or not experienced during those halcyon days of youth so long ago.

Changing Roles

The entire five-person cast is called upon to play multiple roles. Even Emily Garman, the talented young actress who portrays Alice so effectively, is called upon to become an oyster at one point. The remaining actors all assume a range of Carroll’s book characters ranging from five to eight in number. There are no costume changes, but the acting is at a high level and Carroll’s archetypes leave little doubt as to the identities of the characters as they sweep in and out of Alice’s imagination through a variety of clever entrances and exits built into the set.

Emily Garman’s fine work has already been mentioned. She was required to be sometimes sweet, sometimes frightened and sometimes petulant but always a bright and energetic seven-and-one-half-year-old. Kudos to Emily.

Nick Lake likewise had his hands full as he switched from Lewis Carroll, the clever inventor of Children’s fantasy to a more serious monolog dealing with the photographs of nude children mentioned earlier. In between, he effectively portrayed nine of the Carroll characters for the delight and amusement of the  audience.

Likewise, LeeWichman, Edward Kuffert and Morgan McCabe all put forth outstanding performances as they deftly switched from one insane character to another in the twinkling of an eye. Especially noteworthy were McCabes portrayal of the Duchess and her pig baby along with Kuffert’s portrayal of the Cook in the same scene. Lee Wichman’s Mock Turtle was nothing short of brilliant.


Ray Blackburn’s set design, while it may have appeared to be a “normal” Victorian drawing room was anything but. Clever secret entrances allowed the actors to appear and disappear in ways that reinforced the fantasy and magical experience of the world Carroll created in his books. The looking glass over the mantle was a nice touch that permitted us to wonder just how much of all of this was real, and how much might have been imaginary.

Worthy of mention is Devon Carroll’s lighting design that gave us a simulated flash powder experience, Tom Kieffer’s costume design that had just the right amount of extravagance to elevate us to the fantasy and yet remain firmly anchored in Victorian England.

Also notable were Richard Peaslee’s original songs that set some of Carroll’s poetry to music. The songs added yet another surreal touch to the entire production that left us wandering between here and now and then and somewhere imaginary.

Do You Remember

If you remember Lewis Carroll’s books fondly; if you read them as a child, or if they were read to you; if you read the books recently as I just happened to do for no apparent reason, then you will probably find great pleasure and satisfaction in this fine production. You will be transported to a land you may have only dreamed of on a long-ago afternoon; you will experience once again the magic of a world that knows little restraint and that celebrates the unexpected and outrageous. You will, in short, become a child again, even if for only about an hour and a half.

This is a recommended production for all ages. Alice’s Adventures Under Ground is at City Lit Theater through October 9, 2011.