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Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Crashing the boys’ club: independent women directors in the 60s and 70s

Posted By on 08.07.18 at 06:00 AM

Barbara Loden's Wanda
  • Barbara Loden's Wanda
The explosion of American independent filmmaking in the 1960s and '70s was largely an all-male affair (surprise), but a few talented women also got their hand in during this vital and changing period. The Chicago Film Society is showing one such effort, Juleen Compton's 1966 rarity The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean, which has been recently rediscovered and restored, on Wednesday, August 15. We've selected another five diverse titles below.

The Connection
I saw the Living Theater's legendary production of Jack Gelber's play (directed by Judith Malina) three times during its initial run in the early 60s, and no film adaptation half as long could claim its raw confrontational power. Echoing The Lower Depths and The Iceman Cometh, it's about junkies waiting for a fix (among them a performing jazz quartet with pianist-composer Freddie Redd and alto sax Jackie McLean), and spectators were even accosted in the lobby by one actor begging for money. Shirley Clarke's imaginative if dated 1961 film uses most of the splendid original cast (Warren Finnerty is especially good), confining the action to the play's single run-down flat. It's presented as a pseudodocumentary; the square neophyte director, eventually persuaded to shoot heroin himself, winds up focusing his camera on a cockroach. The film retains the same beatnik wit that the play effectively distilled, as well as a few scary shocks. With Carl Lee, Garry Goodrow, and Roscoe Lee Browne. 105 min. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

Wanda
Perhaps the most depressing film ever made, this 1971 feature by director-actress Barbara Loden tells of a young, ignorant, emotionally deadened, and hopelessly dreary woman from the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania whose life is a succession of dead ends. Doomed from the start to a life of ignorance and boredom, she's victimized by her surroundings, by men hardly less dreary than she, and by her sex. A brilliantly atmospheric film with a superb performance by Loden. 105 min. —Don Druker

The Velvet Vampire
Given the genre (horror) and the budget (extremely low), it may seem perverse to say that Stephanie Rothman's 1971 film is among the best women's films ever made, but so it is—a highly intelligent, deftly poetic reimagining of the vampire myth, with the theme of fatal sexuality transferred to a female character. The vampire is neither an aggressor nor a seductress, but an abstract figure of polymorphous sensuality: her "victims" choose her, and they range from a would-be rapist to a liberated (and wittily parodied) southern California couple. 80 min. —Dave Kehr

Hester Street
Joan Micklin Silver's ingratiating little movie (1975) begins with some big ideas about immigrant culture, but these are soon and happily shucked in favor of a modestly effective domestic melodrama. In the New York of the 1890s, Jake (Steven Keats), a Jewish immigrant with five years in America, dreads the arrival of his wife, Gitl (Carol Kane), from the old country. Jake is a "Yankee" now, resenting Gitl's naivete and superstition. Photographed in a self-consciously quaint black and white, Hester Street is compromised by preciousness and oversimplification, but it makes a pleasant and efficient entertainment. 90 min. —Dave Kehr

Harlan County, USA
Barbara Kopple's 1977 documentary on a Kentucky coal miners' strike is muddled on the issues, but it earned its Oscar as a dramatic, involving story, full of tough and appealing characters. Kopple's fiercely partisan stance upsets the classic balance of cinema verite documentary, but who could fail to take sides in this timeless labor-management confrontation and still claim to have a heart? 103 min. —Dave Kehr

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Thursday, July 12, 2018

Profiles abuse scandal inspires new magazine examining Chicago theater

Posted By on 07.12.18 at 01:00 PM

Almanya Narula - COURTESY ALMANYA NARULA
  • courtesy Almanya Narula
  • Almanya Narula

When Almanya Narula enrolled in graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she wanted to find a way to bring her passions for journalism and theater together to tell stories of the theater community. The fusion of her interests led her to create Chicago Theatre Now, a new biannual magazine that will discuss and explore issues of accountability, inclusion, diversity, and equity within the Chicago theater scene.

Narula traces the creation of Chicago Theatre Now back to the summer of 2016 when the Reader published an article about abuses occurring at the now-defunct Profiles Theatre. The story hit home for Narula who was then a theater student at Columbia College Chicago studying fight choreography. "Being a fight choreographer, being a person in the industry, that was very triggering for me," she says. "It was also triggering because some of the people who were a part of Profiles were faculty members at Columbia College Chicago. What was going on within Profiles was an open secret for years, yet they were allowed to come to my institution and recruit people who might be under the age of 18 to intern for them."

Shortly afterward, Narula applied to arts journalism graduate program at SAIC. "Within my theater art, my main goal was to make a difference," she says. "At that point, I didn't think my art was conveying that, but I wanted to highlight the good things that were going on in Chicago, and I wanted to document that within journalism."

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Monday, July 9, 2018

Y No Había Luz brings the voices of post-Maria Puerto Rico to Chicago

Posted By on 07.09.18 at 01:00 PM

Y No Había Luz - GABRIEL VARGAS
  • Gabriel Vargas
  • Y No Había Luz

Ten days or so after Hurricane Maria tore across Puerto Rico last September, Casa Pueblo—a solar-powered, self-sufficient environmental center in the mountainous municipality of Ajuntas—got in touch with the San Juan theater company Y No Había Luz. With the electrical grid destroyed, the entire island was in survival mode, focused on clearing debris and securing food and clean water. Casa Pueblo, one of the few sites anywhere with electricity, had become a hub of activity. Everything is crazy here, they told the group. We need cultural activities for the kids, for everyone. Can you come?

"We said YES," remembers company cofounder Yari Helfeld. "Finally, we thought, we can help." For the next three or more months, the company crisscrossed the island, teaming up with community kitchens and other ad hoc groups to stage street theater, lead workshops, and develop new work. Sing-along plena workshops guided people struggling to process and express what they'd lost in the storm. In Orocovis, Helfeld's hometown, a huge mango tree that had been felled by the hurricane became the inspiration for a new cantastoria show, El Centinela de Mangó (The Mango Sentinel), that they took on tour to shelters, schools, and hospitals. Another piece, Diego el Ciego (Diego the Blind) urged the audience to grapple honestly with the challenges of Puerto Rican life. "People keep sewing their eyes together to stop seeing things like the Jones Act and overconsumption," says ensemble member Carlos Torres Lopez. "If we don't open our eyes we are blind, and we can't do anything to help Puerto Rico."

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Facility Theatre transforms The Little Match Girl Passion from a vocal piece into a meticulously pitched spectacle

Posted By on 04.19.18 at 12:06 PM

Facility Theatre’s The Little Match Girl Passion - LESLIE SCHWARTZ PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Leslie Schwartz Photography
  • Facility Theatre’s The Little Match Girl Passion

Composer David Lang, who served on the committee that awarded Kendrick Lamar's album Damn a Pulitzer Prize earlier this week, won his own Pulitzer in 2008 for the vocal composition The Little Match Girl Passion. Commissioned by the Carnegie Hall Corporation and the Perth Theater and Concert Hall, it was premiered in October 2007 by Theatre of Voices, conducted by Paul Hillier. A sublime recording of the work by the same ensemble was released in 2009 by Harmonia Mundi. The piece was written for four vocalists and percussion, but a choral version by the Los Angeles Master Chorale came out in 2016 on Cantaloupe Records.

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Wednesday, April 4, 2018

In the Jackie Taylor Drama Series, the Black Ensemble Theater highlights work by three young playwrights

Posted By on 04.04.18 at 06:00 AM

Caren Blackmore in The Plea - COURTESY BLACK ENSEMBLE THEATER
  • courtesy Black Ensemble Theater
  • Caren Blackmore in The Plea

The Black Ensemble Theater has long been a reliable destination for original, larger-than-life biographical musicals about larger-than-life artistic icons. Next year, upon the completion of a 150-seat studio theater space in its building in Uptown, members of the company's Black Playwrights Initiative will have a new outlet for experimental and dramatic works intended to resonate on a more intimate and more personal scale.

In the meantime, as a preview, BET is partnering with the DuSable Museum of African American History for the Jackie Taylor Drama Series, a nine-performance presentation of three new plays by BPI members Ervin Gardner, Reginald Williams, and L. Maceo Ferris.

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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Justin Hayford's apology for his Guess Who's Coming to Dinner review

Posted By on 03.29.18 at 01:01 PM

I included the N-word in my review of Court Theatre’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. A lot of people let me know I shouldn't have.

You’re right. I agree. I apologize.

First, I did not accurately quote the dialogue in question.

Second, although the character in the play uses the N-word, I could have conveyed the horror of the stage moment without quoting the word at all, as many of you rightly pointed out. I might have used "vile racial epithet" instead. I clearly underestimated the hateful and hurtful nature of that word’s appearance in print, even when citing a character's use of it.

I felt it was important to hear out as many of you as I could before responding. Thank you for speaking up. Thank you for helping me better understand the injurious effects seeing that word in print can produce. It won’t happen again.

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Monday, March 26, 2018

A year before Stonewall, there was The Boys in the Band, the first successful mainstream play with all gay characters

Posted By on 03.26.18 at 06:00 AM

A scene from the 1970 movie version of The Boys in the Band - SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION
  • Sun-Times print collection
  • A scene from the 1970 movie version of The Boys in the Band

The Reader's archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we'll dig through and bring up some finds.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of many landmark cultural events (the original release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Broadway debut of Hair, the release of the Beatles' White Album, etc.)—including the premiere of Mart Crowley's groundbreaking gay-themed drama The Boys in the Band, which opened on April 15, 1968, at the off-Broadway venue Theatre Four, produced by the visionary Richard Barr, whose other producing credits included Edward Albee's The Zoo Story and The American Dream and Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape and Happy Days.

Fifty years after its debut, the ever-controversial landmark play is coming to Broadway, set to open May 31 (following a month of previews—this is Broadway, after all).

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Thursday, March 8, 2018

Long Way Home gives the Odyssey a modern hip-hop beat for an epic journey across Chicago

Posted By on 03.08.18 at 12:21 PM

Odysseus trying to find her way back to Ithaca - TODD ROSENBERG
  • Todd Rosenberg
  • Odysseus trying to find her way back to Ithaca

In Long Way Home, the theater group Q Brothers Collective creates a contemporary mix on Homer’s epic the Odyssey: instead of hypermasculine white men slaying mythical creatures or stirring grandiose battles, five black actors spin Homer as hip-hop verse.

The play follows MC Odysseus (aka "Ody"), a young black woman, and her clan on their journey home from the Rogers Park Jarvis stop to the mythical southwest neighborhood of Ithaca. Along the way, the crew travels on a magical el train that weaves throughout Chicago neighborhoods, highlighting the city’s diverse musical communities, from house to punk.

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Thursday, March 1, 2018

Casts of Chicago’s hottest plays send posters to support Parkland students after mass shooting

Posted By on 03.01.18 at 06:04 PM

The cast of Wicked was one of many productions that donated a signed poster to the theater students. - COURTESY BROADWAY IN CHICAGO
  • courtesy Broadway in Chicago
  • The cast of Wicked was one of many productions that donated a signed poster to the theater students.

Following the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, student survivors wasted no time mobilizing their fight for gun control through the Never Again movement and capturing the nation’s attention. It turned out that many of the leaders were active in the school’s theater program, a fact that was “utterly unsurprising” to Alicia Senior-Saywell, the program director for the Belmont Theater District.

“When you hear them talk, a theater person—we know each other. We’re cut from the same cloth in a way. And the ideas that these kids have come up with—envisioning a fantasy or dream for the future, despite what anyone else says, making that a reality—that is theater,” says Senior-Saywell.

On Sunday, a friend forwarded her information about a national effort to send theater posters to the students at Stoneman Douglas as a show of support. That night, on her own, Senior-Saywell emailed nearly 30 theaters and theater companies. Many people either told her they were interested in sending posters or that they had already done so. Broadway in Chicago, the Goodman Theatre, Lookingglass Theatre Company, and Lifeline Theatre have all donated materials. Henry Wishcamper, an artistic associate at the Goodman who spearheaded the company’s efforts, says the cast of The Wolves quickly mobilized Friday and in 24 hours had sent a signed poster, a signed playbill, and a custom banner.

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Monday, February 26, 2018

Anna Karenina, the love bug

Posted By on 02.26.18 at 04:38 PM

COURTESY LIFELINE THEATRE
  • courtesy Lifeline Theatre

There's a notion in Jewish mysticism that the Torah appears in different forms in different eras, depending on how much the people of that era can absorb—a collection of fables, say, at one time, the pure presence of God at another. Something similar seems to apply to Leo Tolstoy's 1878 novel Anna Karenina. Interpreters have treated it as everything from a bodice ripper to a deep philosophical treatise.

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