Tag Archive: theater


Each of the ten plays and musicals I saw in New York touched me in various ways and none, other than A Bronx Tale, disappointed me, but the one that stands in the forefront of my mind as the most personally influential has to be Sunday In The Park With George, or as my friends and I joke, Sunday in the Park With Jake Gyllenhaal.

A meditation on love, loss, disappointment, and the role of art in society, Sunday in the Park With George details the life and times of George Seurat, the painter who virtually invented pointillism and created a new, modern kind of impressionism, focusing on the importance of virtually every detail in a painting as it relates to the whole.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the moody painter George Seurat and Annaleigh Ashford backs him up as his love interest Dot, someone with whom he is ill-suited, but who captures his attention nonetheless. Jake deftly commands our attention, but I have to say that Annaleigh deftly backs him up, proving a formidable match. She loves George, but doesn’t love the artistic life and eventually a baker named Louis offers her a life of what seems to be a life of quiet contentment. Nevertheless, to the end of her life, she pines for the kind of vibrancy and artistic excitement that George Seurat offers her, and she wonders if she’s compromised herself beyond repair.

After Dot, George seems emotionally crippled. Through it all, Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics soar, painting a picture of people diminished without love in their life. His work emphasizes the compromises one makes to lead an artistic life, lessons I’m still learning. My only sadness: there probably won’t be a soundtrack to this revival, but if you happen to be in the New York area before April 23rd, catch this five star revival.

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Eric Goes to the Movies

I have two best friends, one is an African-American woman who teaches at Harold Washington College, and the other is my friend Eric who has cerebral palsy and lives in a group living facility called TLF, for Temporary Living Facility through an organization called the Association for Individual Development. In Eric’s case, his placement at the group home is more of a permanent housing solution rather than something temporary.

Eric and I love the movies, and we try and catch a film at least once a week. Most recently, we saw the Disney Nature film Monkey Kingdom, and before that, we went to Woman In Gold, the story of how the Nazis coopted much of the fine art that belonged to Jews in Germany and Austria. Generally, Eric is a very gracious critic, and likes most anything we watch together. When asked what he thinks about a particular film, his two standard responses are, “It’s good,” or “It was okay.” I’ve never really heard him pan a film although I have on one or two occasions caught him checking his watch. His favorite film from last year was the critically acclaimed Whiplash, about a jazz drummer and his dysfunctional and abusive relationship with a teacher who pushes him beyond the bounds of what is acceptable in order to make him one of the “greats.”

The hard part about hanging out with Eric is that I never really know how much to help him. Cerebral palsy is a movement disorder and in Eric’s case he has stiff muscles and somewhat useless legs. For someone with cerebral palsy, he’s pretty independent and gets around with the assistance of two silver arm crutches with black handles that go around the back side of his forearms. When climbing stairs, he will put one crutch in front for balance and scissor-steps to the door. When he’s just walking down the street, however, he pushes both crutches ahead of him, and propels himself forward at a pretty good pace.

Still, I’m tall and have a long stride, and I never really know if he wants to me walk ahead and get the door, or slow my pace and keep him company. For some reason, it seems more awkward to ask him what he would prefer rather than guess. Half the time I walk ahead. The rest of the time, I slow my pace.

The really awkward moment, however, used to be when we would to the movies and Eric wanted to order nachos or onion rings and two hot dogs or something equally difficult to carry when I myself wanted popcorn and a Coke Zero as well. I found myself in line sending up a secret prayer that he would get Peanut M & M’s or something else that I could easily tuck into my back pocket. A guy named Alex who works at the Regal Cantera theater we usually go to made all the difference one time when he simply asked, “Do you need help carrying your food to your theater?”

Ever since then, I simply ask for help if we need it, and I no longer have to send skyward those foxhole prayers of desperation when I worry whether I’m inconveniencing someone else. The lesson I’ve learned is to ask for help when I need it, and not to be embarrassed about someone else’s disability when he’s the one living with cerebral palsy, not me.

All right, I admit it. I started listening to Christmas carols in the car, shortly after Ellen DeGeneres advertised her new Christmas cd, available only at Target, aptly titled, The Only Christmas Album You’ll Ever Need, Volume One. After listening to Stevie Wonder’s rendition of One Little Christmas Tree a number of times, I branched out and bought the new Motown Christmas cd as well as the Mary J. Blige Christmas cd, featuring a great rendition of Mary Did You Know?

I have friends who consider me a bit of a simpleton to still believe in God. To them, the concept of God is similar to Santa Claus, something you outgrow as you mature. It’s kind of frowned upon by some intellectuals who seek an answer within rational determinism. One acquaintance considers people who put their faith in a power greater than themselves weak for their lack of self sufficiency.

I find, however, that what matters in the grand scheme of things is my interconnectedness and interdependence on others, and I still find myself startled into silence by a starry night. I feel blessed to have been given the gift of life, and blessed to have others with whom I can share my joy.

It may be a little early to crank up the Christmas tunes. It’s even possible, according to some individuals, that Jesus was born in April, not December, and that what has been co-opted is a pagan mid-winter festival holiday, adopted by Christians to better mark the season leading up to Lent, and to better differentiate Christ’s birth from His resurrection.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter too much to me whether we have the exact day correct on our calendar. What matters most to me is that we enter the winter season with a spirit of generosity in our hearts, and that we are open to receiving the grace of God, and the many blessings of the Christmas season.

City Boy

Are you a city mouse or a country mouse?

A tale of old originally titled, The Town and Country Mouse, as part of Aesop’s Fables, the story tells of a proud city mouse who visits his cousin in the country and then scoffs at the simple meal his country cousin prepares so the more extravagant city mouse in turn invites his compatriot to come to see big city life. The country mouse takes him up on his offer, but during their opulent meal, they must scurry for safety when dogs invade their digs, and each mouse, I believe, determines that he is the more fortunate of the two. Neither envies the other’s circumstances.

I myself just got back late last night from seeing a play in the city with my friend Rosie. While the drive home took only an hour and a half, the drive into Chicago took nearly three hours, and though I listened to an audiobook most of the way, I still found myself cursing my distance from the city. There’s always been a kind of divide between my friends who are city dwellers and suburbanites. I happen to be an ex-city dweller, and have lived on both the north side and south side of Chicago. The city, I have found, is very neighborhood-specific, and as a Chicagoan, you also feel a sense of pride and belonging that differs, in part, based on whether you live in Hyde Park, are a South Sider, or live on the north side in Andersonville, Edgewater, Wrigleyville, East Lakeview, Rogers Park, or any of the many other neighborhoods. Of course there are many more neighborhoods, neighborhoods peopled with Polish or Irish or Mexicans, and a lot of your identity can be determined based on where you live. I also think I had a sense that I was more hip and urbane, somehow more current and relevant, and that I was living life more audaciously when I was a Chicagoan proper.

Now I live in the far western suburbs, and though I grumble at the distance into the city, I don’t think I would trade my sense of increased space, or the greater sense of peace and well-being I have now. I feel more able to spread out, walk around my three bedroom ranch house–even if I’m only pacing when trying to come up with a story idea or simply to glance through my book collection as I look for a book I’ve misplaced–or leisurely walk my Beagle and Akita around my neighborhood.

It was great fun, back in the day, to pack a towel and swimsuit, and take the El train north to Hollywood Beach to lay out on the sand, great fun to head to the Music Box theater to see the latest art house film, great fun to check out the latest ethnic restaurant, and I have to confess, now it’s much more of a trek to plan a day in the city, but I don’t feel nearly as claustrophobic and cramped as I used to feel. One time, while living in the city, I was even broken into, although the rather inept robber quickly scanned the studio apartment and stole the VCR (this was back in the day before DVD players took over), leaving behind my fairly new laptop computer. The police suspected it was a drug addict who wanted to quickly fence something to fuel his drug habit.

For many years, as a Chicagoan, I didn’t have a car, and had to walk everywhere, or take the El, and I used to think myself somehow superior to suburbanites, simply because I felt closer to the pulse of life back then. Now life is perhaps more measured, lived with a greater deliberateness, but I wouldn’t trade the sense of peace I feel. I always felt vaguely frantic and rushed as a city boy in a way that I no longer feel hurried.

It makes sense to me to get up on a Sunday morning, pour a cup of coffee, and read the Sunday paper or the New Yorker magazine. I can still always head into the city when I want, but city life doesn’t dictate my very essence.

Lascivious Lifestyle

I just went to see Goodman Theater’s last matinee production of the Shakespeare play “Measure For Measure.” We also read this play for my Renaissance Literature class, a class titled, How (Not) to Be Good in Renaissance England. The class focused on the Seven Deadly Sins and their corollary virtues, and the virtue/vice that week was Lust versus Chastity.

Now Chastity is something I know a fair bit about from personal experience. My friends, who are my friends for this very reason, assure me that “it’s not me, it’s him.” I’m picky enough and virtuous enough that it’s becoming clear to me that even though I’m Catholic, I’m going to have to date a Mormon to find someone who fits my qualifications. The problem is finding a gay Mormon who isn’t emotionally damaged by his religion.

Even in Shakespeare’s day, though, people struggled with what it meant to live a virtuous life. Comedies written in that time period inevitably ended in marriage, and this proved difficult to accomplish when one of the main character’s in “Measure For Measure” is a nun. In class, we learned that this play is one of three by Shakespeare, along with “All’s Well That Ends Well” and “Troilus and Cressida,” that critics consider a “problem play.” Part of the reason it’s considered a “problem play” is because it blends incipient tragedy, moral ambiguity, and low, bawdy humor, but it’s also a “problem play” because it deals with social morass and social problems of its time. The bard set the comedy in Vienna, a city he almost surely had never been to, but the story reflects back on Renaissance England, and the city in question, a stand-in for London, faces moral and economic decay. There’s even a character named Mistress Overdone (wink wink), who almost certainly runs a brothel and is responsible for the spread of venereal disease throughout the region.

The Goodman chose to move the location of the play to 1970’s 42nd Street-style New York City. My mother hates when artistic directors “contemporize” a classic work, but in my mind this modernization makes the play relevant to our generation, though I must admit I squirmed a bit in my seat when I looked around the seats at the matinee and noticed a fair number of the grey-haired generation. But the way I look at it, people go to the theater to be challenged, not to embrace only what is comfortable, and Goodman’s “Measure For Measure” certainly challenges its audience.

Still today, a subset of the population lives a lascivious lifestyle, and unlike the play, things don’t always end happily. Not only do people catch venereal diseases, they also despair that things will ever get better. People using drugs have worn out their relatives, and I personally know of one eighteen year old who’s exhausted his family through his drug use and has ended up homeless. Another close friend had a great job, but got caught up in the drug scene, lost his job, lost his partner, lost all hope, and committed suicide.

Just because you live a virtuous life, doesn’t mean you won’t despair–virtue is no guaranteer of personal happiness–but it does tend to decrease the number of moral issues you bump your head against. Who knows? Perhaps your life will end more like a Shakespearean comedy, not a tragedy.

Liking the Unlikeable

Last night I went to see Tennessee Williams’ play Sweet Bird of Youth, written in the late 1950’s.  The basic plot is that a gigolo named Chance Wayne has latched onto a fading film star, played by Diane Lane.  He has great hopes to become a movie star himself, and seeks to rocket his longtime, estranged girlfriend into the spotlight as well.  Both main characters, Chance and Alexandra Del Lago, use each other to get what they want.  Alexandra repeatedly refers to the two of them as monsters, well over the edge of socially appropriate behavior.  These two people unabashedly use others, seeking first and foremost to get what they want out of life, damn anyone who gets in their way.

The story deals with issues not written about in the 1950’s, including sexually transmitted diseases, alcohol and drug abuse, the plight of sexual playboys who seek a better life for themselves as well as how we all deal with the inevitable ravages of aging, no longer as attractive as we were in youth when we took our appeal for granted.

As I got on the elevator after the show, two late middle-aged women were discussing the play, and one commented quite vociferously that she couldn’t relate to the main characters; she couldn’t find any redeeming qualities, and didn’t like Chance or the Princess Del Lago.  I suspect she didn’t relate to the seedier side of human nature, and I found myself thinking, “She was born on third base, and thought she had hit a home run.”  It’s all too easy to stay comfortable in what life has given us, especially if that gift is affluence.

As a writer, getting an MFA in creative writing, I have encountered several different attitudes about whether our protagonists should be likeable.  My first fiction course instructor stressed that we need not try too hard to plug in details simply to help us understand the plight of the narrator.  She felt we should strive to make our characters interesting, not necessarily likeable.  Then readers and audiences would automatically root for our main characters, looking to see how they change by the end of the story.  Other instructors stressed that it is helpful if we imbue those we write about with some redeeming qualities, or, at the very least, an ambivalence about how they go about ameliorating their circumstances.

I don’t know exactly which answer is right, but I’m certain the one task writers encounter is that they themselves must relate to those they write about. 

Emile Zola said it best:  “If you ask me what I came into this life to day, I will tell you:  I came to live out loud!”  Let us make our brief time here matter.