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.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Koval Distillery: When the Spirit Moves You

There are spirits and then there are spirits

Of course what I’m referring to here are ethanol spirits: the kind that alter your consciousness to a greater or lesser extent so that the man or woman in the bar next to you that you wouldn’t have given the time of day to a couple of hours ago now appears to be the handsomest or most beautiful creature you’ve ever laid eyes on. This, of course, refers to its psychoactive properties.
It can also be used as a solvent or added to the gasoline in your car to “fortify” it. (Mainly, it provides subsidies for farmers since its value as a fuel additive is far less than the cost of producing it.)
But Koval makes spirits for human consumption, and wonderful spirits they are—twenty-six different products ranging from clear whiskies made from five different grains to spirits in a light or dark form depending on the barrels they were aged in to some of the most exquisite liqueurs you’ve ever had cross your jaded palate.

How spirits are made

To gain a feel for the painstaking care that goes into the preparation of a whisky or liqueur you really need to take the Koval Distillery tour. You’ll see samples of the original grains that are the beginnings of the distillation process. In Koval’s case, they use wheat, oats, rye, millet[i] and spelt.[ii] Starting with a mash and an enzyme boost[iii] Next, distillation to extract the ethanol from the resulting mash. Finally, some of the finished product is placed into barrels to age while batches are bottled as clear whisky similar to vodka. The extent to which an ageing barrel is charred determines to a large extend whether the finished whisky will be light in color or dark. Koval uses no artificial coloring in any of its products. Liqueurs are produced from clear whisky by the addition of flavorings such as ginger or rose hips.
Although the preceding explanation takes only a paragraph to describe, the actual details involved are numerous and critical to producing a quality product. For example, each time the pot still is utilized it produces essentially three kinds of ethanol termed the head, hearts and tail. The head is produced first and is pretty nasty stuff that smells like nail polish remover. In fact, heads are often sold to cosmetic firms for just that purpose. The hearts are what you are really after and constitute the most desirable portion of the run. The tails follow the hearts, are not as offensive as the heads, but are not as desirable as the hearts. The ability to distinguish between these three parts of a still’s output is not something that can be “automatically” or mechanically determined. It takes a skilled Master Distiller to actually take samples of a still’s output to determine when the stop collecting heads and start collecting hearts and so forth.

Touring Koval

The best way to learn about the production of spirits is to tour the Koval Distillery. Tours cost $10 per person and include a tasting of many of the Koval products. Many of the people on the tour I took stopped in the Koval store following the tour to purchase products to take home.
If you’ve never thought about how spirits are distilled you’re in for some surprises. The equipment used is somewhat exotic, like the two thousand liter pot still with a whiskey helmet pictured here, or the five hours it takes to distil the contents of a three hundred liter pot still.
The tour covers all parts of the steps needed to produce a product for sale, not just the distilling process described above. Following distillation and warehousing (in the case of aged whiskies) there next comes bottling, labeling, packaging and distribution. For some of the liqueurs a certain amount of labor is required to prepare the fruits and flavorings used in the production process. In fact, when Koval makes Ginger Liqueur they often ask for volunteers via their Facebook page who help in the preparation of the ginger root used to produce the liqueur. In return for volunteer services the ginger-peelers might get a gift t-shirt emblazoned with the Koval logo.

More On Koval

To see a little bit more about Koval Distillery, visit Wandering Lion—Koval Distillery Tour. There you will find a Google Map of the Koval Distillery, a link to some photos I took of the distillery during the tour and a link to the Koval website that contains more details about history, products and tours.
For anyone with an interest in high-quality spirits, Koval is a must-see in the next time you’re in Chicago.

[i] Millet is a small-seeded or cereal grain that grows in difficult conditions of low moisture.
[ii] Spelt is an ancient grain, closely related to wheat, that paleobiologists now believe may have been widely cultivated by the Chinese even before rice became a staple of the Eastern diet.
[iii] Koval does not malt its grains the way a brewer does. Malting requires heat to stop the germination process and heat, according to Koval’s founder Robert Birnecker, would damage the distinctive and characteristic flavors of the individual grains.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

New Millennium Orchestra Opera

New Millennium Orchestra Opera

Milioto and Lee Team Up For an Evening of Superb Music

A Night of Favorite Opera

Yonghoon Lee
A great tenor, a fine orchestra, a gifted conductor, Orchestra Hall: It doesn’t get any better than this. This thought passed through my mind as I sat in Orchestra Hall’s Upper Balcony listening to lirico-spinto Tenor Yonghoon Lee effortlessly enchant a largely Korean audience with his renditions of some of opera’s most beloved Tenor arias. Accompanying Mr. Lee was The New Millennium Orchestra led by its co-founder and Conductor, Francesco Milioto.

People's Gas Building
The concert was preceded by a reception/fundraiser for the orchestra at Chicago’s Cliff Dweller’s Club, high atop the building at 200 S. Michigan Avenue. Across was the Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park, Grant Park, the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and Monroe Street Harbor. Buckingham Fountain seemed almost miniature from the Cliff Dweller’s vantage point. Across Jackson Boulevard sits the Daniel Burnham masterpiece, People’s Gas Building, now facing serious deterioration and crumbling capitals on the columns that surmount the top of the building. The balustrade atop the building features a row of ferocious lions that, from the nearly level vantage point of Cliff Dweller’s, remind us of the opulent, fin de siècle architecture that still graces Chicago’s downtown.

Mr. Lee

Mr. Lee made his operatic debut in 2007 in Santiago Chile, a city with a climate remarkably similar to Chicago’s except “revered” in a seasonal sense as they are in the Southern hemisphere. He has since established a remarkable career as a an internationally known tenor have appeared both at Chicago’s Lyric and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Mr. Lee’s program included noteworthy renditions of La fleur que tu m’avais jetée from Bizet’s Carmen, and a courageous finale in the form of Nessun dorma from Puccini’s Turandot. The first half of the program was all Verdi, including Ma se m’è forza perderti from Un Ballo in Maschera and La vita é Inferno from La For a del Destino.

Mr. Lee retained sufficient energy to deliver several encores including a Korean folk song with Western orchestral accompaniment that delighted the audience. His final number was Amazing Grace. Mr. Lee is a devout Christian and gave testimony to the divine inspiration he received to return to his singing career when he had abandoned it a number of years earlier.

Mr. Lee is clearly destined for great things as an operatic tenor. Watch for his future roles at major houses in the U.S. and abroad.

Mr. Milioto

Francesco Milioto
Francesco Milioto is one of Chicago’s rising conducting stars. But there’s more to this youthful conductor than simply the ability to get an orchestra to perform beyond its capabilities (although that is a significant achievement in itself.) Mr. Milioto is additionally a charming individual; he’s the kind of person you’d enjoy having dinner with or a cocktail after a hard day of work. His charming personality and witty, urbane intelligence makes him a desirable social companion in any setting.

On the podium his is a man simultaneously yielding and in control. The program was interspersed with orchestral pieces, generally overtures or other selections from opera (example: Meditation from Thaïs by Massenet.) During those moments he performed just as one might expect a seasoned conductor and then some. Precise tutties, effective and appropriate dynamics and a dramatic sense that was a pleasure to watch. While accompanying Mr. Lee he added to these already impressive credentials an uncanny ability to watch and sense his soloist, giving the tenor the artistic freedom to interpret the aria while still maintaining the musical integrity of the piece.

Mr. Milioto is another Chicago artist to keep in your performing arts focus.

New Millennium Orchestra

This small but amazingly talented ensemble is another born-in-Chicago ensemble to command your attention. True, ensemble playing becomes easier if the group of musicians is smaller but it is also true that sound becomes more transparent. Even fewer hesitations and false notes are permitted when a single individual makes up a larger percentage of the section. The New Millennium Orchestra was certainly up to the challenge, exhibiting exceptional intonation, attack and sensitivity whether playing accompaniment to Mr. Lee’s gentle piano passages or vigorously attacking Verdi’s Overture to La Forza del Destino. Importantly, although it could have overpowered the tenor at certain climactic points in the program, it did not. The orchestra provided sufficient power to give the audience a sense of grand climax but still allowed Mr. Lee to remain the center of the aria’s gravity.

Other Notes

I didn’t know that Symphony Center had free Wi-Fi. It enabled me to check my bus schedule to ensure that I wasn’t going to be stranded if I stayed for yet another encore. Thanks, CSO and CSO President Deborah Rutter!

I need to bring a camera back to my next visit to Cliff Dwellers. The city-lake-scapes are magnificent.

I recently discovered how easy it is to insert diacritical marks when using Word or Outlook (that uses Word as its default editor.) It certainly makes entry of classical music names much easier.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


He who looks deserves what he gets: Nothing.

What is Pornography?

At first I thought that perhaps I didn’t understand pornography despite having watched a lot of it over the years. I jumped over to Onelook, the online free dictionary and learned a few things I didn’t know about pornography.
  • The word comes from Greek (where else?) and means “writing about prostitutes.” This was a pretty honorable profession to the ancient Greeks, so what happened?
  • Somewhere western civilization decided that prostitution was something to be eschewed and spurned. Prostitutes themselves fell in stature and esteem. I assume that this is true for both male and female prostitutes since rest assured; both types exist, although the male variety is probably much smaller in number for reasons that beg yet another blog at another time.
  • The word “pornography” came to mean something more specific. For example:
 the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement[i]
  • We added the caveat that pornography must “[intend] to cause sexual excitement.” But there is yet another definition of pornography in the same source cited:
the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction
  • This makes the word a little more useful in that we don’t have to limit ourselves to sexual excitement alone. Any old excitement will do.
Finally, Pornography is the name of a play written by British playwright Simon Stephens and currently enjoying sold-out performances at Steep Theatre Company just East of the Berwyn Red Line stop on Chicago’s north side. I went to see Pornography this past Saturday evening and came away with some rather intense emotional reactions of my own. In that sense, the play succeeds admirably in agreement with the last definition cited above.
Unfortunately, my intense emotional reaction was negative as I walked out the door of the theatre and became increasingly negative the more I thought about the play and the more I researched what others have found in their own analyses.
The play doesn’t really tell a story, not that any play needs to do so although it makes life a little easier for your audience if there is some thread of continuity upon which to cling. It consists of a series of seven vignettes that may be presented in whatever order the whim of the director dictates. The vignettes take place in London over the seven day period July 1 through July 7, 2005. On July 7, 2005 three young men detonated bombs in London’s Underground railway system with a fourth young man, having been thwarted in his attempt by the closing of one of the lines, detonated his bomb on a bus about fifty minutes later.

What does the play Pornography tell us?

I had to rely on published interviews with the playwright to gain even a glimmer of understanding about his intentions. In Stephens’ view the production and consumption of pornography objectifies people. This explains the title of the play. But it is more than the consumption and production of pornography that Stephens is portraying; he is portraying a group of four young men who feel objectified,  alienated and distanced from those around them. According to Stephens, “We live in pornographic times.”[ii]
The play illustrates the perceived distance between the terrorists who detonated their bombs on July 7 and what Stephens believed was a necessary outcome to that perception of objectification and distance, e.g., the taking of 52 innocent lives.
The Guardian has chosen the following lead for the article cited: “Simon Stephens makes audiences confront their own guilt.” Whether that is the product of some hack headline writer or the author (Lynn Gardner) of the piece, it is in no way supported by Stephens’ comments in the article. Stephens seems to feel that the outcome was inevitable but stops short of attaching guilt. Who could possibly be guilty? The audience? How about “society?” These are the absurd constructs of the Guardian and Stephens is too smart to fall into that trap. Individuals objectify other individuals. Groups do not objectify individuals and this difference is profound in its ability to differentiate between extreme liberal reactions to acts of terrorism and the classical liberal approach that holds the individual to be the atom of civilization.
Stephens does want us to understand that these are important considerations; not the least of which is the possibility that yet more disenfranchised individuals will follow the same futile path of destruction and terrorism. He offers no solutions, only questions.

How was the production?

With some minor flaws, the production was superb. I have never seen a bad play at Steep. Since the cast is listed in alphabetical rather than appearance order and since none of the characters are identified by name, I have difficulty recalling who was who in the play. I believe it ws Kendra Thulin who presented the opening monologue. Despite I very good British dialect I had great difficulty in understanding what she was saying. This was largely a matter of voice timbre and projection, not the dialect. Needless to say, this got things off to a very slow start for me and it wasn’t until the second monologue, convincingly and superbly presented by Rudy Galvan that I was able to settle in and begin to follow the character development (which is really all the play has to offer).
Humorously, the title page of the program states: “Steep Theatre Company proudly presents Simon Stephen’s…” instead of the correct formation of the possessive. I am reminded of a similar misspelling many years ago by a company that sold yachting gear from its Elston Avenue headquarters in Chicago. “Lands’ End” was a printer’s error that went undetected until thousands of catalogs had been printed. Lacking the money to reprint and rebind the book, they went with “Lands’ End” and the rest is history. I vaguely recall a clearly missed lighting cue that left the actor yammering away in the darkness until the technical people got it corrected.
Chelsea Warren’s Set Design was nothing short of inspired. Steep is small and it is difficult to repeatedly design small, compact sets that don’t look exactly like all the other small, compact sets you’ve seen. Chelsea was up to the challenge.
I was somewhat distracted by Mike Tutaj’s video design which I found more distracting than anything. A number of large monitors were suspended above the stage turned so that everyone in the audience could see at least one of them. Before the opening curtain they displayed some interesting “facts” about the forthcoming vignettes while during the production the screens displayed seemingly random and bothersome rows of flashing lights. I assume these lights were intended to mimic the passing of cars on the London Underground but I found them more of an irritation than a compliment.
I also need to mention Caroline Neff, who I have seen in a number of other Steep productions. Besides taking a role in Pornography she also acted as Casting Director. Her superb abilities as an actress never disappoint. Her performance in Pornography was no exception.

Then what’s wrong with this play?

Basically, it is way too difficult to understand this play without doing a great deal of research. Robin Witt’s Directors [sic] Notes were of little help. Witt repeated what she saw as the recurring lament in Pornography three times: “Are you laughing or are you crying?” This phrase still makes no sense to me after repeatedly trying to integrate it into my understanding of the play.
The other major flaw with the play is the lack of any markers that enables the audience to make connections that run something like: Pornography—Objectification—Disenfranchised Young Men—Senseless Acts of Terrorism. It is simply too vaguely written to be understood even upon subsequent reflection.
While Stephens’ rationale has its adherents it should also be mentioned that not everyone shares the notion that sexually explicit images result in objectification; that assertion is made by extreme liberals and feminists. There is another view shared by many that sexually explicit images are no different from other kinds of celebrity images. Does that mean that we objectify someone like Madonna, or Lady Gaga, or Justin Beiber, or John Wayne? Regardless of your view of sexually explicit images and objectification you could probably understand the argument if it had been presented more coherently. In this regard, the playwright has failed his audience.
Once we get past the objectification argument we might then examine the remaining steps to the puzzle of Pornography. Unfortunately, the balance of the equation is as opaque as the beginning, and we must seek our own epiphany, probably using the internet. Ironically, in Stephens’ view, the internet contributes to isolation and objectification. His is a very tenuous and loosely constructed argument, indeed. It could be more defensible if Pornography had developed its ideas more carefully.
Would I recommend seeing this play? You bet I would. Now that you’ve read this far you’re probably prepared to enjoy the production. In fact, you’ll probably get more out of it than I did.

[i] Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, 11th Edition
[ii] Gardner, Lynn. The Finger Pointer (article) published Monday, August 4, 2008 in The Guardian. Downloaded 2011-09-01 from