Sunday, May 29, 2016

Chicago Bound--AIC, MCA, and Goodman Theatre

Not much better than a trip on the train to Chicago anchored by an exciting and thought provoking play at the Goodman Theatre, visits to the Art Institute and Museum of Contemporary Art, some fine eating, and an overnight stay with good friends.

At the Art Institute we spent a nice hour with the famed "Life" magazine photographer Gordon Parks. The exhibit chronicles a creative meeting between him and the author of "The Invisible Man" Ralph Ellison.  Few of the photos and text actually reached publication, but this resurrection mostly from Parks' archives says more than enough to get you thinking about what was then and what we have achieved in our racial history.

Lunch was in the courtyard at the AIC and Jim enjoyed the soup and the fountains.

The following day we paid a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art that seemed to carry on the theme of the Parks/Ellison exhibit.  The photo below was for me the centerpiece of  Kerry James Marshall's retrospective now on at the MCA.  It reflected back to Ellison's masterpiece and forward to Marshall's large, often ironic paintings that covered the image of the African and the African America in the history of art in total and in the history of American society. 

Marshall's acclaimed Garden Series dominated one room with pictures of stereotypical white life overlaid with the irony of life as it was actually lived in the housing estates of urban America.

 A fuller outline of Mr. Marshall's life and his art can be found by putting his name into any search engine..

  Jan had a quiet moment while reading up on the artist and his work. The catalog for this exhibition is outstanding by the way.



Now on to the Goodman Theatre production of Lorraine Hansberry's "The Sign in Sydney Brustein's Window."  First off it was superb on all fronts.  The acting was crisp and telling without giving way to potential for melodrama in the multiple plot lines. The set was a tour de force with its hyper-realistic !960's New York apartment literally floating in a framework of urban scaffolding that went up into the flies and down into the bowels of the basement trap room.  The lighting enhanced every element by capturing the realism of sunrise, sunset, and the evening hours. Best effect of all was the fiery all surrounding glow of hell that encased the Brustein home as his world imploded around him. 

Thematically this is a grand and sweeping play. It might easily have been made into a trilogy or cut into a tighter more focused piece had Hansberry lived to edit or reconsider its scope. The American Theatre clearly lost  a brilliant artist far just as she was reaching her maturity. 

Why is the play so good yet so frustrating as we think about what Ms. Hansberry might have done with it?  To answer the question partially let us just consider just how many themes and plot elements she is juggling and trying to integrate by the end of its two long acts.  She does tie them all up, but it is damnably complex stitching.  Let me try to summarize the plot and then let you decide whether she would have been better to slim it down or expand it into multiple plays.  

Sydney Brustein is that traditional New York liberal--a socially conscious Jewish striver who  wants a  life necklace of real pearls, but keeps coming up with plastic fakes.  As his marriage sputters and he  tries to recover from his most recent business debacle,  he leaps into the purchase of a community newspaper.  Even though he wants to stay clear of editorial causes, he is convinced to help with the election of  a so called reformer (Wally O;Hara) who is really just another party hack,    Poof, the sign in the window of the play's title. Wally wins the election but Sydney discovers that nothing will change. Political reform as a way to correct the ills of society is not going to occur. 

Hansbery also gives Sydney a frustrated wife who aspires to be serious actress, but can only manage a commercial for a home permanent product that doesn't work.  In addition there is a struggling black, gay, avant garde playwright,  neighbor who suddenly authors a hit but doesn't seem to know how to deal with it. Poof--if politics can't fix the world,  will toleration of all lifestyles and the vision of the arts provide an avenue to  fulfillment and social justice?

To further extend the reach of the play, Hansberry gives Sydney's troubled wife two twisted sisters. The eldest has acquiesced to her husband's infidelities to keep her upper class life style and a thumb on the lives of her two siblings. Sydney's wife is full of resentment at this meddling. The youngest sister, who is a call girl, doesn't turn up until late in the script but is talked about a good deal.  She is engaged to one of Sydney's best friends,  who happens to be a very light skinned black man. This allows for miscegenation, prostitution, and inter-marriage attitudes of the sixties to be folded into this smoldering dramatic stew,

The wife's family had a long Greek name but shortened it to Parados.  For the uninitiated these are the entrance alleys for the chorus and many of the characters in a Greek drama.  This gives Hansberry  a chance to lard the play with a series of theatrical references from Willy Loman to Strindberg.  I may have been the only person in the audience to get the Strindberg reference as I had just finished reading a biography of him where it talked about the fact that he could never actually watch one of his own plays in performance.  So is Sydney a latter day Oedipus, committed to helping his community only to find the tragic truth he is the problem? Or is he a Jason to the killer Medeas around him who will butcher all of his noble offspring? Not sure but there is a lot to think about in this play and to attach to the history of minorities and social movements in past and present societies.

Ambitious, complex, through provoking it was and that's enough for one weekend. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Our Pride and Joy Does Baseball

Having had the great pleasure of recording our eldest grandson's graduation with a Fire Science Degree a couple of weeks ago, it is now our pleasure to give some space to our youngest grandson's baseball heroics last Saturday.

It was a lovely late spring afternoon when Mikel donned his catcher's gear and literally led his Yankees to victory. 

Catcher is a hot job but he was up to it.
The game began with a flurry of walks and it was not long before his team was down by several runs.  Then they got a second wind and battled back to just short of the lead.  Mikel had struck out his first time up, but on his second shot at the plate he was looking for that right pitch and found it.

It was fastball and right down the pike.  He hit it solidly and the swing had enough uppercut to lift the ball skyward.  It sailed out toward left center field and cleared the fence for a two run homer.   While we cheered he jogged around the bases
Was he through?  No.  His team fell behind again and things looked dark once more--dark literally as the game had a two hour limit and we were approaching it.  The Yankee had clawed their way back to a tie at 14 to 14 and there was just five minutes left on the time clock when Mikel came up again with a man on base.

 No four bagger this time, but a good clean solid single that knocked in the run and broke the tie. 

Here's the guy in the white hat rounding first and below is a bit of the congratulation celebration.

Yankees on top for their first win of the season 15 to 14 with three minutes to spare. And our Mikel was a proud and happy camper.
He even jumped with joy right over the top of the fence. Congratulations SLUGGER! We are proud of you. 


The Diary of Anne Frank at the Giving Tree Theater

My wife and I made the trip to Iowa this weekend for a little R & R.   Friday night saw us at a fairly new community theatre in downtown Marion called the Giving Tree.  It is a quite comfy little black box with unusual sort of semi-cabaret seating composed mainly of a bunch of sofas and easy chairs. The show was the Goodrich and Hackett version of  "The Diary of Anne Frank." as adapted by Wendy Kesselman.  My grandson had done some Holocaust study and expressed an interest in seeing it. As it was close by my daughter got us all tickets.

The cast, composed of a nice mix of high schoolers and adults did a fine job bringing the now quite familiar story to life. I have seen many productions over the years and still treasure both of our visits to the original house in Amsterdam.   The whole site remains a moving document even though it is  more commercialized now than when we first visited it in the summer of 1963.  I took these photos then and they have weathered the years remarkably well. 

Here is the bookcase that hid the stairs going up to the attic

The attic window that Anne must have gazed out of often

The tower of the West Kirk can be seen from that window and its bells would have been a constant in their lives.

The canal in front of the house shows the church just across the way.

The Giving Tree Theater  has projected an ambitious list of further productions and if you are in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa area I definitely recommend you check them out.  Check out their web site in the link at the top of this article.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Talk About Irony

Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul and passionate pro-Israel advocate, endorsed Mr. Trump in a Washington Post op-ed article on Friday.
“You may not like Trump’s style or what he says on Twitter, but this country needs strong executive leadership more today than at almost any point in its history,”
Funny isn't it.  All we have heard for several years is screaming about President Obama's capricious and arbitrary use of executive power and now we are being urged to line up for more of the same. 
Could it be that "executive leadership" is only bad if  "if your ox is gored"?   Meanwhile the Congress has a worse unfavorability rating than either of the two major party candidates for president.

It is holding nose time regardless of your party.  Either way it appears we will get pretty much what we deserve.  We bash and bash all of our most cherished institutions and then bash again when the bashers we hire or elect seem not able to fix, or deal, or compromise on anything.



Friday, May 13, 2016

Cable News Super-hypes the Obvious

The winners of the repetitive over-hyping of the obvious award goes once again to the lost souls of the 24 hour news channels.  Whether Fox, MSNBC, or CNN we have once again been treated to three days of  numbing repeats of the same non-story.  "Will Donald Trump and Speaker Ryan reach an accommodation?    First we had hours of talking heads attempting to generate suspense about the  outcome. Then we had the staking out and wholescale coverage of the private meeting itself, which  consisted mainly of fleeting views of limos scuttling in and out of garages and more ginning up of the outcome as something close to a nuclear detonation on the Mall.  Finally comes the climax.  The participants, surprise of all surprises, declare that  the meeting was "constructive" and the parties will continue to work for the presentation of some kind of united front. This is not the finish because we now must sit through a full day of prognostication on what a non-solution meant.

All told a story that might deserve less than a minute for its announcement, its taking place, and its result becomes a non-stop three day campaign of hype whose primary goal is to provide salaries for the legions of babbling flunkies who populate the cable channels like mosquitos in a swamp.

Meanwhile news of the world and the rest of the country,  little things like a potential presidential impeachment in the country that is to host the Olympics in a few months or the gun violence in Chicago,  floats ignored and below the radar. If it's really news you want stick to the BBC or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.     

Monday, May 09, 2016

No Exit at Prairie Players Civic Theatre

Strange as it may seem you can manage to see good productions of important and seldom performed plays in and around my hometown in what has been often called Forgottonia.  Two weeks ago the Monmouth College Theatre did a full throated performance of Aphra Behn's The Rover-- a seminal female playwright's shot at seventeenth century English comedy.  It sold out the Fusion Theatre in Monmouth.

This weekend we traveled to Galesburg to see another classic at the Prairie Players Civic Theatre.  Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit  lies comfortably in its slot as definer of the Existentialist tradition in drama in post war France and worthy predecessor to the Theatre of the Absurd. 

Though Sartre's dramatic characters have often been seen more as mouthpieces for his philosophy rather than evocative human beings, this tightly organized 90 minute one-act still packs a theatrical punch. The young cast nicely caught the flow of the script as they moved from obstinate and befuddled denizens of their chambered hell toward the discovery that they were each other's torturers and that they made the lives they now are being called to task for.  In the small part of the bellboy, Adam Duffield helped immeasurably with setting up the ironic humor that continued right through to the last laughing jag that finally receded into horrid silence.  

With some memory of my shot at directing the show some thirty years ago, I do have a few items of hopefully constructive criticism.  A slightly more closed in space might cut down on the long crosses and better support the built in claustrophobia of the script. There is also a lot of dialog referencing  the heat of the place and a slightly warmer lighting tone might be helpful. I wouldn't wish for more of the intense crimson of the pre-show set-up, but maybe some amber creeping in as the room heats up.

Even with a constrained budget that allowed for few technical frills, I would like to have seen the stage floor firmed up.  Or if not, perhaps a rug could have been used to mute the sounds of creaking boards and constant clicking of high heels. 

No matter, the director Michael John Bennett, is to be congratulated for bringing this too little performed drama to the area. The evening was a true success for my wife and I and the performance   definitely engendered a spirited post-production discussion.  Sure theatre can be full of nonsense and simply enjoyable, but for my money the addition of thought to an entertainment is what makes live theatre sing.  

Thanks to all the cast and crew for a fine night out at the theatre. 

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Congrats to Our Grandson

We made a trip to Iowa on Wednesday to see my grandson receive an Associate Degree in Fire Science Technology from Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC). 
He is also a certified EMT and will be beginning the Paramedic program at DMACC in the fall.
Here are the proud grandparents.

Then there's the proud parents.


Oops can't forget the younger brother.

This is the Wells Fargo Center where the ceremony was held.

 And here was that important "handshake from the pres"  moment.

And did I mention that he is already working part time for two fire departments in the Des Moines area.

Congratulations TJ!  You have made us all proud.






Monday, May 02, 2016

Technology Thy Name is Wondrous!

I don't twit and I don't snapchat.  Instagram sounds like some kind of small dosage powdered beverage.  BUT  my family's world is much smaller due to Skype.

Here's an intriguing shot that echoes back and forth through space and over oceans.
My son in Finland holding up the I-pad he is using to skype with us. On the screen are us in the USA.

And who is taking the picture of him there and us in the US.  Why of course our 3 1/2 year old granddaughter wielding an old fashioned digital camera. Enlarge the image and look closely at the bottom right inset of the I-pad screen to see the even more complicated digital ricochet of granddaughter in Finland photographing a Skye call to her grandparents in the USA sent to us via really old fashioned e-mail. 

Weird is the new normal.