Archive for April, 2013

PostHeaderIcon People Who Hate People

I first came to know Alan Bennett as a member of “Beyond the Fringe”, the smash 1960 comedy revue that revolutionized British satire. Back then, Bennett was the forgotten Fringe member, ceding the spotlight to Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller. Yet, as the years passed, Bennett has achieved his share of fame as a playwright, screenwriter and author. He even enjoys the status as one of England’s “national treasures.”

His name is not well-known outside Britain or theater circles but, in recent years, he has enjoyed great success with two plays, “The Madness of George III” (1992) and “The History Boys” (2006), both of which were made into films. And a British Film Institute biography calls several of his television scripts “amongst British television’s greatest achievements.”

Alan Bennett

Alan Bennett

Watching his television and Broadway plays, I admire his compassion for downtrodden or unfortunate characters who often fail to connect with others, particularly in intimate relationships. I think the BFI profile gets it right when it commends “his ability to get under the skin of such withdrawn people and write about them with such empathy, compassion and wry (often gallows) humor (that) makes him not just a great writer but the definitive chronicler of a certain kind of English ordinariness, whose outwardly placid surface conceals inner turmoil.”

I thus went with high expectations on Tuesday evening to see his latest play, “People,” which premiered at London’s National Theatre last October and has been a big hit, prompting TNL to film a live performance for screening internationally under the National Theatre Live banner.  Locally, TNL productions began screening at The Music Box Theater in 2011 with Danny Boyle’s adaptation of “Frankenstein”.

TNL’s ambitious plan closely resembles the successful effort of  The Metropolitan Opera’s theater telecasts. For this production, Bennett was reunited with his “History Boys” director and National Theatre head, Nicholas Hytner.

The People

"The People"

The play opens in the living room of a crumbling South Yorkshire country estate stacked high with furnishings under wraps and a bath on top of the billiard table. Dorothy Stacpoole (the delightful Frances de la Tour) and her companion, Iris (Linda Bassett) are facing a tough decision. Dorothy’s archdeacon sister, June, wants to hand the estate over to the National Trust to manage but Dorothy finds the idea distasteful. She abhors all the people traipsing through the house on a National Trust tour, something to be avoided at all costs. “People spoil things,” she says. That reminded me of  the famous line by Jean Paul Sartre, “Hell is other people.” But what is she to do?

I wish I had a better report to deliver. However, I found the action plodding, the dialogue lacking punch and the wit too British for my taste. Things do pick up in Act Two but the story had lost me by then. The English harbor a fondness for such drawing room comedy. Yet, for me, this genre just doesn’t travel well. Readers may feel differently, given the tremendous popularity of British fare aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater.

“People” will be shown again at the Music Box this Sunday, April 28, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance at the theater’s box office, $18 at the door and online at www.musicboxtheatre.com/events/people (click Special Events).

However, I still plan to be in the audience for the NTL’s next two presentations: a political thriller, “This House,” which enjoyed two sold-out runs at the National, on May 16 and Helen Mirren in “The Audience,” once more portraying QE II on June 13.




PostHeaderIcon It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll but I Like It

News Bulletin: CIMMFEST (Chicago International Music and Movies Fest) is on this weekend (April 18-21) with a lollapolooza lineup of movies and live events. Don’t let the weather keep you from catching part or much of this exciting event. CIMMFEST is a unique happening, celebrating the inseparability of movies and music.

Festival co-directors Josh Chicoine and Ilko Davidov have worked tirelessly to make this their best outing. I salute their vision and organizational chops to provide Chicagoans with a festival in the true sense–70 music-centric films from 27 countries, over 50 bands and live events spread over 14 venues.

As Chicoine and Davidov say in the festival program, “more venues, more stars, more up-and-comers, more legends, more everything!”

Chicago has become America’s summer music capital with Pitchfork and Lollapolooza but I admire the local, very indie, scrappy vibe of CIMMFEST. Their opening night was plagued by the weather which cut into the turnout for the tribute to composer/musician Van Dyke Parks last evening.

Tonight, you should run to catch the funk and bugaloo sounds of the Funky Meters along with the bluesy notes of J.C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound at the Congress Theater. And there are 3 other live shows performing tonight at the Hideout, Logan Square Studio and Township.

I plan to camp out at the Music Box Theater which will be screeing 10 features documenting 50 years of The Rolling Stones on Film. Another can’t miss documentary and a Chicago premiere is “AKA Doc Pomus”, a fabled songwriter who wrote some iconic songs of the early rock ‘n’ roll era. But perhaps my age bias is showing.

Admission to most events is $10 with tickets for live performances at $20-25. I’d recommend buying a weekend pass for a reduced price of $50 and just going from one venue to the next. Whatever you do, I think you should put a few CIMMFEST programs on your weekend “To Do” list.

To see the entire program, go to www.cimmfest.org.

PostHeaderIcon “Maria” & Argentina’s Dirty War

First it was Philip Glass’ “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Now, with Astor Piazzolla’s opera, “Maria de Buenos Aires, which opens this Saturday, Chicago Opera Theater is signaling a trend toward more contemporary, unconventional programming. Such an approach fits the artistic outlook of its new general director, Andreas Mitisek.

COT was founded in 1974 by Alan Stone who led and tirelessly built the company for the next quarter-century. He handed the reins to Brian Dickie in 1999 who built upon Stone’s foundation and added his own strong vision for 13 seasons, a time that saw the company gain immeasurably in local and national prominence.

Dickie exposed Chicagoans to a wider range of operas beyond the standards (he produced 22 Chicago premieres). He championed operas from Handel and Mozart to Dimitri Shostakovich and John Adams. For his imaginative leadership, he was twice named a “Chicagoan of the Year’ by the Chicago Tribune.

Andreas Mitisek, Artistic Director

Andreas Mitisek, Director

Last April, Mitisek was named COT’s third general director. He is currently also Artistic and General Director of Long Beach Opera and will retain his association with that company. He is championing the idea of a close artistic partnership between Long Beach and Chicago Opera Theater as a synergistic solution for shared costs and musical ideas.

At his introduction, he offered a vision of alternative programming and bold ideas, including  expanding future seasons from three to five productions. A company brochure lists five of Mitisek goals: Out of the box, Provocative, Engaging, Relevant, Adventurous repertoire. Such artistic ambition can only be applauded. If successful, it can only further raise Chicago’s profile in the opera world.

Maria de Buenos Aires

This month will see the Chicago premiere of the work first presented at Long Beach.   According to Mitisek, “Maria is the ultimate metaphor for the heart and soul of Argentina.” She is meant to symbolize the hope, fear and resistance of a generation of Argentine women to the repressive rule of military juntas during the “Dirty War” of the 1970s during which an estimated 10,000 to 30,00 Argentinians were killed or disappeared.

Astor Piazzola

Astor Piazzola

The opera had its world premiere in Buenos Aires in 1968. The surreal story revolves around Maria, a prostitute, both during her life and following her death. It pulses to the passion of Piazzolla’s arresting “nuevo tango” beats and the poetry of Horacion Ferrer’s imaginative story. The opera will have four performances, beginning on Saturday, April 20 with subsequent performances on April 24, 26 and 28.

Closing the season in September will be an opera rarity, Giuseppe Verdi’s “Giovanna d’Arco” (Joan of Arc). Mitisek says that the unifying theme of the  three productions is their focus on the tension between the power of love and the love of power.

It is noteworthy that, preceding “Maria de Buenos Aires earlier in April, COT has presented several enrichment programs providing added context to each opera’s plot. There was a film screening at Facets Multimedia of the 1985 Academy Award-winning foreign film, “An Official Story,” and a documentary at Istituto Cervantes, “Burnt Oranges”, about the effects of state terrorism in the country during the 1970s.. This Wednesday, Latin American art expert, Gregorio Luke will speak on the art and politics of the Dirty War at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen. For more information about Luke’s talk and to purchase tickets to the opera, contact www.chicagooperatheater.org.

PostHeaderIcon Photography’s 150 Years on View

Bouquet of Flowers by Edward Steichen

"Bouquet of Flowers" by Edward Steichen

A rare synchronicity of scheduling makes it possible for photography fans and collectors to survey 150 years of photography in three current museum exhibitions. The only hitch: you need to travel to Milwaukee, Washington D. C. and New York to do so. You can take in the most expansive show–75 years from 1906 to 1981–at the nearby Milwaukee Art Museum’s “Color Rush: American Color Photography from Stieglitz to Sherman,” a sharp-eyed, captivating survey on view through May 19.

Next, fly to Washington’s National Gallery of Art for “Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop” that runs through May 5. Then head up to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for “Photography and the American Civil War” which is up through September 2.

One theme running through all three shows, overtly stated or not, is the meta question of what is “real.” Such a question would have been inconceivable for Civil War photographers Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan who captured the fierce reality of battle. The National Gallery show deals with the less-explored issue of photo manipulation before Photoshop came along in 1987.  Milwaukee tackles the struggle color photography endured during the first six decades of the 20th century to be accepted as “real’.

Red Interior

Color Rush - "Red Interior"

“Color Rush” begins in 1907 with the Lumiere brothers, Auguste and Louis, introducing the autochrome, the first widely used color process that didn’t require the manual application of color. Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen learned the process that first year and autochromes debuted in American magazines, such as National Geographic, in the 1910s.

The co-curators, Milwaukee’s Lisa Hostetler and the Art Institute of Chicago’s Katherine Bussard, have fashioned a decade-by-decade, scholarly yet highly accessible tour of color’s life story. The exhibit features leading photographers of each period with the focus on color’s evolution and photographic practice. Bussard spoke of their intentions. “Lisa and I set out to rectify the problematic–if prevailing–notion that color photography prior to the 1970s was either amateur or commercial and only recognized as such. The historical reality was never that simple, never so definitive.”

The show has a bipolar personality. During its youthful years, color film was used primarily by advertisers and commercial printers to lure consumers with eye-catching images before exploding into total saturation with Brownie and Polaroid cameras. By the late ’60s, color film has its artistic breakthrough.

For nearly a century after photography’s origin, black-and-white monochromes were the artistic language of reality. While Kodak introduced 35mm Kodachrome film in 1936, color remained the province of advertising, photo magazines such as LIFE and movie spectaculars. As color technology developed, the issue of realism between black and white and color was joined.

Starting in the 1960s, Americans begin snapping color pics by the millions to capture everyday moments and key life events. Alongside its penetration into popular culture, the exhibit registers color’s move into the art world with “The Conceptual Turn.” Artists such as Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, Joel Meyerowitz and William Eggleston react against conventional notions of art-making and see the artist as a producer of ideas rather than simply objects. Their photos blur the boundary between art and life.

The exhibit ends with images by Cindy Sherman and a provocative video installation by Nan Goldin. I only wish the curators’ critical gaze had encompassed more conceptual and pop culture references from the 1980s. It felt like the exhibition ended too abruptly with Sherman and Goldin. However, I’d highly recommend making this enjoyable show part of a weekend getaway.

Leap into the Void at NGA

"Leap into the Void" at NGA

Starting with the invention of Photoshop, the question of whether a photo presents a true representation of reality or a crafty manipulation is ambiguous and rich with distinctions that would have baffled earlier generations. The National Gallery show demonstrates that altered photos are part of a tradition dating to the origins of photography in the 1840s. Even a photo purist  as Ansel Adams was not above making tonal changes to enhance his iconic images.

The National Gallery’s press release makes a telling point. The exhibit images show “that photography is–always has been–a medium of fabricated truths and artful lies.” Wish I had said that myself. This is a show I’m sorry to miss.

Pennylvania Light Artillery

"Pennylvania Light Artillery"

The Met exhibit features more than 200 rare and poignant photos of the Civil War, the national tragedy in which an incredible 750,000 lives were lost. the curators examine the evolving role of the camera during America’s bloodiest war.

While the works of Brady, Gardner and O’Sullivan are the most iconic images, the conflict engaged the talents of roughly 1,000 photographers, working individually and in teams. It features studio portraits of Union and Confederate soldiers made on thin sheets of copper (daguerreotypes), glass (ambrotypes) or iron (tintypes), gory battlefield views of the dead at Antietam and rare muti-panel panoramas of Gettysburg’s killing fields.

Fly to all three venues online and access information about each exhibit, go to www.mam.org, www.nga.gov and www.metmuseum.org.

Addendum: I have just returned from a visit to the Art Institute and discovered another photographic exhibit worth your time. It is When Collecting Was New,a display from the Robert A. Taub collection. Taub purchased his first photo at a bookstore in Denver in 1960 and acquired most of the 200 works he donated to the museum during the 1970s and early 1980s.

Galax, Virginia by Lee Friedlander

"Galax, Virginia" by Lee Friedlander

That was a key period in photography’s acceptance as a true art form. The market boom for fine art photographs took off in the 1970s and was led by two pioneering New York dealers, the Witkin and Light Galleries.

Taub played an important role in paving the way for color photography’s acceptance as an undeniable part of art practice. By collecting vernacular and commercial images, such as NASA photographs and images commissioned by his employer, Ford Motor Company, Taub helped change the definition of photographic art.

The Department of Photography will host a free seminar on the show on Friday, April 26th from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Fullerton Hall. Registration is not required. It should prove a worthwhile event.

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