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.