Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Picking up after your dog is just the start

     Social media gets talked about as if it were one thing. But “media” is plural, and each social medium has different customs and tone.
     Facebook is familial, for instance. You can show unruly guests the gate. On Facebook I mark personal occasions: my wife’s birthday, a son home from school, in a way I never would on Twitter. Twitter is far more public and contentious, a mad free-for-all, like that tomato festival in a small Italian town where everyone is covered in red goo, flinging fruit as fast as they can.
     Then there’s blogging. I maintain a blog whose name, alas, can’t be printed in the paper. Blogging seemed edgy when I began, six years ago, ignoring the unavoidable truth that, if I’m doing something, then it ain’t edgy.
     Now blogging seems a quaint and obscure time-wasting pastime, like embroidery. A place for smaller, more trivial thoughts that have no business gobbling up the scarce real estate of a printed newspaper. Two weeks ago, one blog post began this way:
     “Tuesday is garbage day in the old leafy suburban paradise. Which makes Tuesday a better day to walk the dog, because people roll their big sturdy green garbage cans to the curb, affording me a range of disposal options after Kitty has done her business. No need for carrying the blue New York Times bag with its load of doo, not for long, not on Tuesdays. Detour a few steps over to a can, a tad guiltily, lift the top and flip the bag inside.
     “I don’t know why I feel guilty—it isn’t as if the homeowner will mind, me using their can for such a purpose. Or maybe they would. Of course they would. We can be very jealous of our prerogatives, we suburbanites, and I can imagine some homemaker gazing worriedly out her window. ‘That disheveled man, the one with the limp who is always walking that ratty little dog. He just came by and used our garbage can!’”
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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

A star is born, or at least detected, maybe, at The Second City.

Kimberly Michelle Vaughn, singing about the Zodiac
     My wife's birthday was Friday, and she requested we go to dinner at Topo Gigio on Wells Street—truly excellent Italian fare—then take in a show at The Second City.  Our younger son, freshly returned in triumph from his first year at law school, joined us.  
     At Piper's Alley, we were seated in the second row, which made me happy before the thing even began—close to the action—and we settled in to watch the venerable Chicago troupe's 107th revue, "Algorithm Nation or the Static Quo."
     It was the sort of boisterous fun you'd expect from Second City: not genius, not dreck, but a series of sketches and songs designed to poke fun at our current cultural moment. Not the easiest thing to do, considering how our national conversation has devolved into continual low farce, no satire necessary. Though given the overarching premise—something about Facebook and its grip on our lives—let's just say I felt that the evening ended with whole wings of possibility left unexplored. Maybe Facebook is already too closely and creepily intertwined into our lives to step back and observe it with the necessary critical distance. I hope not.
      Some sketches ended too soon. I savored the hard gaze that Nate Verrone, as an Uber driver, shot into his rear view mirror as his passenger, a bubbly Emma Pope, prattled on about her birthright tour of Israel. I wanted to get to know that guy better, but the bit ended almost as soon as it began. 
     Some sketches went on too long: Ryan Asher's bawdy female Trump supporter whipping up a crowd for an appearance by His Orange Enormity, all leg kicks and pussy jokes that went both on forever and nowhere. Donald Trump is gross as he is; he doesn't need to absorb a cheeseburger through his anus. She was much better as a young kid sounding out his mother's boyfriend. Pope and Jeffrey Murdoch also had a sweet moment at an eighth grade dance. 
     One performer stood out—Kimberly Michelle Vaughn. My wife and I afterward agreed that she has the ... I don't what to call it. The sparkle. A certain joyous fierceness, a fire, a look in her eye that just put her on the next level. She was part of an ensemble, singing a loopy song about astrology, yet somehow she just sold it more. I hope her cast mates don't hate me, or her, for saying it.  Maybe they shine more on other nights.  And one hesitates to predict the future, given the crucial role of luck. But now at least I can say I told you so.
    Tyler Davis was also very good—he also has presence—though both he and Vaughn were wasted in a sketch where they endure the clueless goodwill of their new white neighbors. Maybe I didn't like the bit because it skewers the kind of obliviousness of which I myself am guilty. I can't be the judge of that. But it seemed to me a concept done to death decades ago, It was like a cartoon set on a desert island or in a dungeon: it has to be done really well to merit doing at all. 
     Not that an old joke can't be fluffed up and used anew. 
    There was some business at the end of the night when Davis takes an audience member hostage, and fate dictated that the audience member be me. As he quickstepped me out of the theater, he asked me who I had come with, and I pointed to my wife and son. 
     "Which one should live?" he asked, or words to that effect.
      "My wife," I said, immediately. "I have another son."
     That got a big laugh out of the audience. Later, I wondered where the line had come from, and realized, not without a slight shiver of horror, that I was re-casting a trope from Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian.
     In his "Speculations About the Nile," he speaks of what he calls the Land of the Deserters: Egyptian soldiers who revolted from the Egyptians and joined the Ethiopians.  As they fled, their commander tried to stop them. Herodotus writes: 
     Psammetichus heard of it, and pursued them. When he came up with them, he entreated them mightily: he would have them, he said, not desert their household gods and their wives and children. At this, it is said, one of their number showed him his prick and said, "Wherever I have this, I will have wives and children."
    Not quite the same line, but a similar spirit.  The evening reminded me that I should make a point of seeing The Second City more often than I do. Though next time, not on the aisle.

Kimberly Michelle Vaughn

Kimberly Michelle Vaughn


Monday, May 20, 2019

Just smoke and mirrors. No babies. No concern for life. No heartbeats.

The Fall of the Magician (1565) by Pieter van der Heyden (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     Magicians creates a world where you can be fooled. The pretty assistant and the flapping doves, the twirled wand and the cloth-covered table — all props to distract your eye from the hidden mirrors, the invisible thread, the palmed playing card.
     That’s why what they do are called “magic tricks.” The audience is tricked. We’re supposed to be: it’s almost bad form to point out the illusion.
     Bad form when contemplating an innocent entertainment such as magic.
     When dealing with a key political issue, however, pointing out the deception is obligatory. The showy distractions need to be understood. Especially with a crucial societal issue such as abortion. For too long we’ve accepted the chimerical world of one side, the long-established artifice of those who would suppress women down for religious reasons.
     You know all the magic props: the wide-eyed Gerber baby. The constantly cooed concern for “life.” And, most recently, “heartbeat” laws.
     In reality, there are no babies: most abortions are done in the first trimester, when a fetus is the size of a watermelon seed. The supposed concern for life is a sham, beginning and ending with fetuses of women they’ll never meet. There’s no sympathy for those actually living.
     And the “heartbeat” laws, such as that passed in Missouri on Friday, the latest in a string of states to ban abortion after about the sixth week of pregnancy, effectively banning it altogether, since most women then are just finding out they’re pregnant. There is no heartbeat: a fetus at that point has not developed a working circulatory system, never mind a heart. Calling whatever rudimentary spasm goes on in a fetus a “heartbeat” is like calling a brick a house.
     Like unskilled magicians bobbling the coin as they pocket it, those opposed to women controlling their own bodies carelessly give away the game. The new Missouri law limits the punishments for abortion to doctors, not the women having the procedure.
     Why? If these fetuses are people, and if destroying them is murder, then why not charge the women, too? In any other murder, they would be equal culprits, given that they conceived, facilitated and paid for the crime.

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Sunday, May 19, 2019

"The dangerous power of women"

     Lucky is the man who finds himself in the vicinity of Michigan Avenue and Adams Street with an hour to kill, say before meeting his younger son for lunch at their favorite dim sum place on East Wacker Drive.
      Can there be anything more indulgent than to wander into this palace of masterpieces, without goal or plan, stumbling from treasure to treasure, waiting for something to catch your eye? Because something always does.
Courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago
     This time it was this picture of Judith, painted around 1540 by Flemish mannerist Jan Sanders van Hemessen. For those unfamiliar with the biblical tale, Judith has just stolen into the tent of the Assyrian General Holofernes and cut off his head. 
    I knew the story, and, seeing her across the room, practically called out her name—"Judith!"—the way one does when recognizing an old friend, hurrying over to say hello and contemplate the painting afresh. What struck me this time was her expression, the way she looks at her powerful arm, her hand clutching that sword. A kind of numb amazement, as if she can't quite believe what she's just done and is capable of doing again. 
     The heroine was a popular Renaissance subject, the placard tells us: "The dangerous power of women was a recurrent and ironic theme in the art of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance in northern Europe."
     Women's power is no longer seen as dangerous. Just the opposite. It is latent, unseen, ignored, at least in the United States, as men across the country, aided, as always, by female confederates gulled to work against their own best interests, conspire to force all women back to the distaff and the loom by revoking their rights to control their own bodies and reproductive choices. They have gotten as far as they have, I believe, because women generally have been pre-occupied enjoying the fruits of their hard-won freedoms, assumed they are permanent, and are not focused seriously enough on the real possibility that our country will indeed march back into the past, where they bore babies based on the dictates of their menfolk, or the vagaries of fate.
     It won't. Women, like Judith, will find their power, late but in time. It has to happen and when it does, I imagine it will be accompanied by the same kind of wonder, almost awe, at the realization of what they've done, what they now can do. The understanding that they had this power all along, literally in their own hands.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Go see "The Winter's Tale" at the Goodman Theatre

Dan Donohue, right brings Shakespeare's mess of a play, "The Winter's Tale" to life as King Leontes, who has jealousy issues. To left Nathan Hosner, as King Polixenes, and Leonides' queen, Hermione, played by Kate Fry, in the kind of close chat that gets them into trouble.  

     I really ought to apologize to Robert Falls.
     As much as I respect the talent of the artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, as much as I've been enjoying the plays that he directs for ... golly ... the past 35 years, I went to see "The Winter's Tale" at the Goodman Theatre Thursday night with, well, not a sense of dread, exactly, but a certain air of resignation.
     A sense of doubt.
     This is not "Hamlet." This is not "Richard III" or "King Lear" or even "Romeo and Juliet." "The Winter's Tale" is some strange, unfamiliar, minor, late Shakespeare mish-mash that I had never seen nor wanted to see. Study proved fruitless. An hour conversation with Falls barely nudged my expectations. Even he wasn't certain what the play is about. 
      "I've been working on it for a year and I barely know what it's about," he said, over lunch at Petterino's.
     And I believed him.
     Adding to my unease was this: "The Winter's Tale" is the play the Sun-Times was taking our contest winners to see. I was responsible. We had a lovely party beforehand in the Goodman's Alice space, and I lingered, nursing my spring water, not quite ready to will myself into the theater to see ... what?
     Something about jealousy. A dramatic hybrid: an act of drama followed by an act of clowning. Some monstrosity, neither fish nor foul.
     Well, I mused, heading toward my seat, expectation mingled with unease, if anyone can pull this off, it's Bob.
    Does he ever.  Turns out that his pretending not to know what the play is about was merely a taste of his trademark trickster smokescreen. He knows exactly what it's about, and brought in just the right help to drive the tale home. 
    What I hadn't anticipated, before the fact, is that no director, no matter how good, puts on a play alone. I had overlooked the key role that great acting plays in rescuing dubious material, in this case, the lunge from doting friend to jealous fiend that King Leonites executes at the start of the play, a shift that seems daft on paper, but natural and terrifying when performed by Dan Donohue, making his Goodman Theatre debut. Veteran of 30 productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, he marches Leonites into the realm of great Shakespearean tragic figures, along with Lear and Othello and Richard III.
      Leonides' turns on his blameless wife, Hermione, played with perfection by Kate Fry.  Her newborn daughter abandoned to the mercy of crows and vultures, she delivers a riveting speech, explaining how Leonides' threatened punishments for her imaginary crimes are mere nothings. 
     "The bug which you would fright me with, I seek," she says. "To me can life be no commodity ... Tell me what blessings I have here alive, that I should fear to die?"
     Donohue and Fry make the first act work—it's as searing as "Hecuba"— but its highlight is Christiana Clark, as the queen's lady, Paulina. Her angry, courageous keelhauling of Leonides has the audience leaning forward in their seats, hanging on every word.
    "What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?" she spits out, telling him to bring them on. The boatload of contempt she packs into that word, "tyrant" is worth the price of admission.  (Kris Vire calls her performance both "stunning" and "blistering" in his spot-on review in the Sun-Times).
Chloe Baldwin, right, enlivens the second act.
    Then the second act of the play is basically a dance party, a sheep-shearing festival graced by Chloe Baldwin, as the abandoned babe, Perdita, now grown to a sylphic 16. Notice how her youthful naturalness turns formal and rigid when forced to talk to an adult, in this case King Polixenes in disguise.  
      I won't argue that "The Winter's Tale" is ripped from the headlines. But, as to be expected with Bob Falls, particularly during our current national torment, all play choices are political. Just as his last play, Ibsen's "Enemy of the People" was a rebuke practically ordered up by our president, so it can't be an accident that he's now offering a play where, one after another, courtiers who are supposed to be subservient instead stand up to a capricious and powerful despot who has lost his reason. Who one after another hold their ground and say, in essence, "Go ahead and kill me. I'm telling you the truth anyway."
      Only in fiction, alas.
      "The Winter's Tale" is Bob Falls at his best, directing a cast of excellent actors who know what they're doing, with a modern set by Walt Spangler that gives its own drama and austerity to the proceedings. It is really a Chicago theatrical moment not to missed—onstage only for a few more weeks, until June 9.  The word my wife used was "excellent"—three times in her immediate summation of the experience. "The Winter's Tale" is truly excellent, as if an unknown Shakespeare masterpiece were discovered and performed for the first time.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Pardon clears Black’s legal woes, but his stain remains

The Infants Christ and St. John the Baptist Embracing (detail)
The Art Institute of Chicago

     I’m writing this column on an Apple iMac. Not the latest model — it’s from 2012. Quite old, actually — but a good size, 21.5 inch screen, and reliable.
     Fifty bucks and it’s yours.
     No? How about $25?
     Kidding. There are two problems with my selling this iMac. First, I need it to write the rest of today’s column. And second, the computer’s not mine: it belongs to the Chicago Sun-Times. So if I did sell it, contrary to the company’s best interests, the money wouldn’t belong to me, but to them.
     That, in a nutshell, if you puff away the bombast and legalese, not to mention the confusing miasma of conviction and acquittal, appeal and reversal, is the essence of the misdeeds of Conrad Black, former master of Hollinger International, a chain of newspapers that included this one. Crimes Lord Black was pardoned of on Wednesday by his friend and fellow fraud, President Donald Trump.
     Black and his underling David Radler sold off pieces of Hollinger as if they and not the stockholders owned the place. They sold publications and skimmed off cash for themselves, arguing this was OK because the embezzlement was cast in the form of “noncompete” clauses, promises not to undercut the business of the new owners.
     To return to our opening scenario, it’s as if I sold you this iMac for $50, passing $25 to the paper and keeping $25 for myself as payment for promising not to hurt your ability to profit from writing stuff on it.
     “We believe the verdict vindicates the serious public interest in making sure that when insiders in a corporation deal with money entrusted to the shareholders, that they’re not engaged in self-dealing,” Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois at the time, said after the convictions.

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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Wherever Rembrandt went, there he was

     The informational cards in museums—the preferred term is "wall labels"—are one of the few forms of writing even less respected than daily journalism. They are anonymous, typically. There are no awards, that I know of. Nobody collects them, and they have no life beyond the length of the exhibit they are prepared for, unless they linger, obscure and unread, in a book version of the show.
      So I want to pause, and highlight a particularly noteworthy label at the current Rembrandt Portraits show at The Art Institute, running now until June 3. 
      It accompanies a self-portrait of the great Dutch artist, and begins: "Rembrandt was his own favorite model—and he was always conveniently available for study." 
     Ignoring the "and"—superfluous—I want to focus on "conveniently." There is a modest parcel of whimsey packed into that word. A slight joke: He was always around. Wherever Rembrandt went, there he was.
     I thought of plunging into the Art Institute PR department and trying to find the identity of the writer. But Wednesday was such a nice day—I shouldn't have been in the museum at all, but just popped in to wait before lunch, spending only, oh, 45 minutes before exiting into Millennium Park to savor the advent—finally, finally, finally—of decent spring weather.
    The Rembrandt Portraits show, by the way, contributed to the brevity of my visit. It consists of the four portraits shown above, two from The Art Institute's collection, two visiting from California. That's it. I understand cultural institutions must do what they must do to draw in the groundlings. But really, giving this gathering a formal name and presenting itself as a cohesive exhibition, well, it strikes me as a minor species of fraud. Forgivable, perhaps, if it puts eyeballs on art. But something beneath a mighty enterprise such as The Art Institute. Or so is my opinion, but I am open to the possibility that I might be mistaken.