A Bit of the Chicago Fringe Festival

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival was pretty much out of the question this year — and it’s probably a logistics hassle of the first order, even of you’re already in the UK — so I went to the Chicago Fringe Festival for a few hours on Sunday afternoon. Though not a trans-Atlantic proposition, it did involve driving into the city, which has its own small hassles.

Fringe1Naturally I left home later than I wanted to, so I caught only two performances, more-or-less picked at random: With the Weight of Her Fate on Her Shoulders and Jeff Fort and Fred Hampton: A Revolutionary Love Story. Per Fringe rules, each ran for an hour or less, with the latter taking nearly the whole 60 minutes, the former not quite so much.

The festival, now in its eighth year, is in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of the Northwest Side. One of the selling points of the festival is that all of the venues were within easy walking distance of each other, and they were. Despite all the years I’ve lived in northern Illinois, it was yet another unfamiliar neighborhood, so I spent some time walking around between the shows as well.

Jefferson Park is a pleasant strolling neighborhood, even in the fairly high heat of late summer, with its residential and commercial thoroughfares (Milwaukee and Lawrence) very much in the Chicago pattern: leafy small streets lined with small apartments, plus blocks of shops along the larger streets. In our time, Jefferson Park is heavily Polish. So Polish, in fact, that the Copernicus Center is there, at 5216 W. Lawrence Ave.

The center includes the Mitchell P. Kobelinski Theater — formerly Gateway Theatre, the first movie palace in Chicago for talkies. That by itself would be worth seeing, but over Labor Day weekend, the center holds its Taste of Polonia festival, which was in full swing Sunday afternoon. So the place was jumping, having attracted more people than the Fringe could ever dream of, and making a lot more noise. As I passed, a band was playing “Come on Eileen,” sounding like the Save Ferris version.

I wasn’t in the mood for a festival, but I did walk by the entrance and took a look at the outside of the building, including the sweeping tower atop the building. That was added in the 1980s and is said to resemble the tower of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, or at least its post-WWII reconstruction.

The Fringe venues were more modest, but I was surprised to learn that three of them were actual theater spaces: the Gift Theatre, Jefferson Park Playhouse and Windy City Music Theatre Blackbox Studio. Jefferson Park, in other words, has a theater scene. Other performances were held in spaces provided by the Congregational Church of Jefferson Park.

With the Weight of Her Fate on Her Shoulders was at Gift Theatre, a 50-seat slice of space with three rows of seats, black walls and a small performance area under a modicum of lights. You can’t get any more basic than that for a theater space, so everything depends on the strength of the writing and the skill of the actors.

Weight wasn’t bad, but not that good. The three young actors certainly had some acting chops. The tight space of the theater fit the setting of a cramped refuge from unseen but definitely heard urban combat going on outside. It also fit what the play seemed to be about: war is hell, it will drive you mad, and then probably kill you. Also, words are weapons. What? One of the characters seemed to talk — verbally harass — another into a violent death. Or was that supposed to be a stray bullet coming into the room?

As earnest as it all was, the short play was something of a muddle. I couldn’t quite bring myself to care whether the characters survived, because I wasn’t quite sure what kind of danger they faced. At times I felt like dozing off, but forced myself to stay awake, like you do during a hard patch of long-distance driving. There’s no risk of causing a traffic accident sitting in a theater, but snoring during a live show would be embarrassing.

I had no such problems with Jeff Fort and Fred Hampton: A Revolutionary Love Story, a fine work of historical fiction, done in the Congregational church’s meeting hall. The thing was engaging. I wanted it to last longer than its hour. The acting was strong, especially the two leads, and while it would have been easy for the playwright — Steven Long — to stray into the tendentious, he avoided that trap, portraying the leads as human beings rather than talking points.

The story was straightforward, depicting meetings between Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, during the year before the authorities murdered him, and Jeff Fort, a major gang leader in Chicago at the time. Hampton spent considerable energy trying to persuade Fort to give up his criminal enterprise and join him in revolution, which he believed would be along Marxist, not racial, lines. Fort was less impressed by the idea of revolution.

As depicted, the two were in a kind of courtship: Hampton doing his best to persuade Fort, who resisted his pleas, along with spells of mutual admiration, quarrels that almost turned violent, and a sense of foreboding. Aptly so, since both men were doomed in their own ways. A short life for Hampton and a long one for Fort. Even now, the real Jeff Fort, aged 70, is at the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colo., where he will surely be until he dies.

After the play, Steven Long came out and asked the audience, about 25 of us in all, to mention it on social media. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that, but probably not the last. For my part, I’m mentioning it and the festival here.

My attendance at the Fringe this year was as much an exploratory run as anything else, to see whether it might be worth committing more time and energy to in future years. I’d say yes.

Al Stewart at City Winery

Considering his longstanding love of wine, it seemed fitting that Al Stewart appeared at City Winery in Chicago last Thursday. I don’t share his oenophilia — I like the idea of wine more than wine itself — but I can appreciate an enthusiasm like that. Still, it didn’t matter to me exactly where he was playing. Some time ago, I decided to catch his shows whenever they were convenient to where I happened to be, and anywhere in the Chicago area is close enough.

City Winery is a relatively new place, taking its current form on the near West Side of Chicago only in 2012, and as such, it was a pioneering venue in that part of the city. Just before the music started, an announcer said, “City Winery’s not just a kitschy name. We actually make wine here. All those barrels in the back are filled with our wine, aging for your consumption.”

Carefully stowed barrels dominate the back of City Winery’s music room. The place also has a number of other rooms, including a large restaurant space forming the front of the building. All together, it’s a handsome interior space, characterized by brick walls and barrels and bottles, and the acoustics are good.

I’ve seen Stewart with a band, with sidemen, and by himself. This time, he had a band backing him, the young but talented Empty Pockets. They did a set before Stewart came out, including a fine version of “Fever.” The band’s relative youth caused Stewart to marvel at one point that he was being backed by musicians who weren’t born when the music they were playing came out, but who had the jam down pat anyway. That wouldn’t be quite so remarkable in a classical or jazz context, but I suppose it still is in popular music.

Though not a member of Empty Pockets, sax man (and flautist) Marc Macisso joined Stewart and the band for the concert too. He blew his sax like a man possessed, and did a fine job on the flute as well. On a number of Al Stewart songs, the sax is a defining sound, so it was good Macisso was on hand. He reminded me of the saxophonist who killed it with Stewart during his 1989 Park West concert, who might have been Phil Kenzie (who played on the record Stewart was promoting at the time), though I’m not sure.

The set list for the City Winery concert was different than any other of his that I’ve seen. After a handful of songs — “Sirens of Titan,” “Antarctica,” “Time Passages” — Stewart and the band played all of the songs from the album Year of the Cat in order.

The bonus was Stewart’s usual entertaining patter between the songs. “This brings me to Year of the Cat,” he said by way of introducing the songs. “It was a shock for me. I was an English folk singer playing in coffee bars, and all of the sudden people bought this thing, and I wasn’t sure why. I did begin on a very commercial note by writing a song about an English seafarer from 1591, Richard Grenville. This is a subject that most disco artists at the time were embracing.”

Stewart was being coy. If ever he did a polished commercial record, it was Year of the Cat (except maybe Last Days of the Century, which wasn’t as good). Alan Parsons produced Year, after all. The first song, “Lord Grenville,” does indeed mention Richard Grenville. He of “Out-gunned, out-fought, and out-numbered fifty-three to one.” I believe listening to the song in 1976 was the first time I’d ever heard of him.

About the next song — “On the Border,” a favorite of mine since I acquired the record 40 years ago — he said, “I thought we’d continue with mass popular appeal by doing a song about the Basque separatist movement, the crisis in Rhodesia and the fall of the British Empire, and amazingly this one actually made the top 40. I have no idea how that was possible. I can only assume the disk jockeys didn’t listen to the lyrics.”

For a long time I thought the song was about the Spanish Civil War, but I’ll defer to the songwriter. But it doesn’t really have to be about anything so specific.

Regarding “If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It” — my least favorite cut on the record — he said, “It has far too many words. If I’d known when I was 30 that I’d be singing it when I was 70, I’d have written half as many words.”

Stewart said that his favorite song on the album is “Flying Sorcery,” which was not top 40, but a fine tune all the same. “It concerns two lovers. I turned them into airplanes. They take off from the same airport but they get caught up in a fog bank and land at separate airports. Obviously that means they’re breaking up.”

I never quite took that from the song, but no matter. It has some wonderful lyrics, including, “You were taking off in Tiger Moths/Your wings against the brush-strokes of the day.” The brush-strokes of the day. What a way to describe the sky. It occurs to me that he’s done other songs with aeronautic images (not on Year), such as “The Immelman Turn” and “Fields of France.” (“When Lindy Comes to Town” talks about flight, too, but it’s a particular historic event.)

He mentioned some alternate lyrics to the song “Year of the Cat,” though not in as much detail as recorded on this Songfacts page, based on a 2015 performance. I think everyone was pretty glad that the final lyrics came out the way they did, including Stewart.

On the whole, Al Stewart was in fine fettle on Thursday. His voice is still clear and his guitar playing is impressively energetic for a man of 71. He also seems to enjoy himself thoroughly on stage, which must be why he still tours. Hope he’s got more years yet.


Snow last night, first time it’s stuck in quite a while. But only a few inches, not like the East Coast.

This year the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Co., a nonprofit based in Hyde Park that does performances one weekend of the year at the University of Chicago’s handsome Mandell Hall, produced Iolanthe. I have fond memories of the company’s Yeomen of the Guard, which Lilly and I saw two years ago, so we all went on Friday (except Lilly, whose spring break hasn’t started yet).

img462Like last time, we ate at Salonica’s first. The face on the telephone pole is still down the street, on the way to the theater.

The show was just as much fun as Yeomen. More, since I knew some of the songs better, including everyone’s favorite lord-marching-trumpets-braying number, which saw a mellifluous chorus of lords spill out from the stage and into the aisles and back, and the renowned patter song about insomnia and the weird dreams of shallow and disturbed sleep.

According to The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan by Ian C. Bradley, parts of which are online, “[Gilbert] had, in fact, experimented with the metre later used for the nightmare song in a poem entitled ‘Sixty-Three and Sixty-Four,’ which appeared in Fun in 1864 and which began:

Oh, you who complain that the drawing’s insane, or too much for your noodles have found it.
But listen a minute, I’ll tell you what’s in it — completely explain and expound it.

An earlier poem by Gilbert, ‘The Return from My Berth,’ which appeared in Punch in October 1864, gives a more lurid account of a Channel crossing:

The big Channel steamer is rolling,
Frenchmen around me are bilious and fat
And prone on the floor are behaving unheedingly,
It’s a ‘sick transit,’ but never mind that!

Matthan Ring Black was in fine form with the patter, and the rest of his Lord Chancellor part. Everyone else did very well, but I was especially taken with Claire DiVizio, who did the Fairy Queen, and David Govertsen, who not only amused everyone with Private Willis’ single song, but stood perfectly still in the lobby in his bright red guard uniform as the audience filed in. Perhaps that’s a G&S tradition I don’t know about, but in any case he was there.

Private Willis also got the biggest laugh of the evening:

That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!

Of course, there’s Victorian context to that, but a modern one as well.

Yuriko liked it, and Ann, who’s developing a taste for musical theater, said she enjoyed the show a lot. I never had such a taste as a teenager, though I did (mostly) enjoy the successive senior plays put on at my high school toward the end of each school year, all of which happened to be musicals: Bye Bye Birdie, The Mikado, Fiddler on the Roof, and West Side Story.

One more thing, which if I knew, I’d forgotten: Iolanthe apparently inspired Chief Justice William Rehnquist to add gold stripes to his robe in 1995. Guess he decided that a powdered wig as well would be a bit much.

Thursday Bits

A lot of rain on Sunday and then more on Monday, creating a week of puddles and mud as temps never quite made it down to freezing during the day. My kind of winter. No risk of slipping on ice, though I did nearly slip on a patch of mud in the yard the other day.

One more picture from Saturday: a street band at the corner of Washington and Wabash who call themselves Chicago Traffic Jam.

Chicago Traffic Jam Dec 12, 2015Jam is right. When we saw them, they were jamming, doing a bang-up job on a ’70s instrumental that I recognized, but couldn’t remember the name of. I pitched a dollar coin in their bucket.

I saw a trailer for Gods of Egypt on YouTube not long ago. From the looks of it, the title’s not quite right. CGI Egypt might be better. Could be one of those movies in which “tell a good story” is about fourth or fifth on the list on the director’s list of things to do, while “make it look badass” is first. Without more information, there’s little chance I’ll spend money to find out. Just another benefit of not being 15 anymore.

Then again, I don’t remember rushing off to any fool movie when I was 15. But the industry was different then.

I missed the obituary of Gene Patton earlier this year, but here it is. RIP, Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. Looks like you had a fun 15 minutes of fame.

The Yeomen of the Guard

The Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Co. drew a solid crowd for the matinee of The Yeomen of the Guard on Sunday afternoon. Not a full house, but a decent turnout, including a small busload of seniors from somewhere or other. But unlike at some events, I wasn’t one of the younger members of the crowd. There was a good mix of ages.

Yeomen of the Guard 2015Mandel Hall was the venue. A handsome place on the University of Chicago campus — I’d like to see it in this light — and almost as old as Yeomen, since it was originally designed in 1903 by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge. Not the Savoy, but what is?

Though done at a college, the show wasn’t collegiate. The highly accomplished company goes back to 1960, and, according to the program notes, “has a policy of alternating the signature operas with the obscure, taking into consideration anniversary years and programming by other local companies.” This was its seventh production of Yeomen, with HMS Pinafore, The Mikado, and The Gondoliers also done that many times over the years. (At the other end of the spectrum, Utopia, Limited and The Grand Duke have been done once each in 55 years.)

Good fun, as G&S should be, but also not quite as much levity as you’d expect in a romantic romp of switched identities, instant attractions, and lines like this: “These allusions to my professional duties are in doubtful taste. I didn’t become a head-jailer because I like head-jailing. I didn’t become an assistant-tormentor because I like assistant-tormenting. We can’t all be sorcerers, you know.”

Spoken by Wilfred, the head jailer and assistant tormentor of the Tower, portrayed by Brad Jungwirth, a bald slab of a baritone, whose voice and character I enjoyed the most. The rest of the cast turned in fine performances as well, in as much as I’m qualified to judge, as did the University of Chicago Chamber Orchestra.

Maybe there should be more romantic comedies in which love doesn’t quite conquer all, as in Yeomen. After all, it ends with three couples paired up, two of which involve less-than-enthusiastic participants, and one of which leaves a sympathetic character (the merryman Jack Point) as the odd man out, much to his anguish. Then again, I guess a movie that ended that way wouldn’t test very well among focus groups.

Item From the Past: Gettysburg

Got a postcard from my nephew Dees last week, the nephew who’s the drummer for Sons of Fathers. It describes the 12th Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival earlier this month, in which the band participated. The photo on the right depicts the only known first-name Deeses of the world, together about this time last year, when Sons of Fathers played at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn, Ill., and I went out to see them. He’s the hale fellow with facial hair.

A little further in the past – 1991 – I found myself driving from Boston to Chicago during this time of year, and I stopped at Gettysburg National Military Park. I missed the 128th anniversary of the battle by a few days, and presumably whatever commemoration events they had. I thought of that when I was reminded by the newspaper today that the 150th anniversary of the battle is upon us, beginning tomorrow, of course.

There were some other visitors when I was there, but not too many.  It was a hot day, fittingly, since it was a high-summer battle, which must have added to the misery. This image captures the summer conditions of the site pretty well, besides the 72nd Pennsylvania Infantry Monument, which has its own intricate history, and which was knocked over by high winds only last week.

Here’s another view of the Angle – the stone wall that Pickett’s men managed to reach (Lewis Addison Armistead’s men, but let’s not be too pedantic).

I haven’t seen one of these quarters yet, though I’ve been noticing a number of national park quarters in change lately.

Time for Three

Lilly and I went to see the Elgin Symphony Orchestra play Tchaikovsky recently — Symphony No. 5 in E minor, part of the program called “Time for Spring” — and they did a fine job of it. But the astonishingly good part of the concert was the half-hour or so Time for Three was on stage. The trio, two violins and a double bass, set up in front of the orchestra and went to town, accompanying the orchestra on Concerto 4-3 by Jennifer Higdon, who apparently wrote the piece about five years ago with Time for Three in mind.

The trio – Zach De Pue, violin; Nick Kendall, violin; and Ranaan Meyer, double bass – were more than just energetic, technically adept young men, though they were certainly that. They went well beyond good musicianship, exuding their joy in working together, which wasn’t lost on the audience, who applauded frequently and stood for the three at the end (until they came out for an encore).

More about Time for Three is at the PBS Newshour web site, and while this YouTube video doesn’t really do them sonic justice – I’m not sure anything but seeing them live could – it still shows their range, and how they approached working together, and how enthusiastic the audience was. And of course it was filmed in the same hall as we saw them. In fact, it’s from roughly the same vantage point, except we were to their left, rather than their right, on the second row (which are the cheap seats at the ESO, but acoustically just fine).

Christmas Tintinnabulation

Ann wanted to go to the library last night, and when we got there we chanced on a performance of the Random Ringers, a handbell ensemble. They were playing in a part of the Schaumburg Township Library sometimes given over to movies and small concerts, with about 50 people watching.

The ringers were more than half finished when we got there. Ann wasn’t especially charmed by the music, but I insisted on staying for a few songs, because I liked them—especially the large bells. The handy “Major American Handbells Sizes and Weights for Diatonic Pitches” says that the bells can weigh as little as 7 oz. or more than 18 lbs. I’m not sure the largest of the Random Ringers’ bells were at the large end of that scale, but they looked big enough to be weapons.

The Random Ringers include 12 performers and a conductor, Beth McFarland of Mundelein, Ill. “Random Ringers is a community-based choir and not affiliated with any religious environment, but most members ring in their own churches,” says the concert program (leaflet, really). “Members hail from the North and Northwest suburbs and practice in Arlington Heights each Monday night.”

We heard “Welcome Christmas,” “Good Christian Men Rejoice,” “He is Born” and “Silent Night.” A fine tintinnabulation, it was.

Branson Leftovers

Back again on Sunday, as the long Thanksgiving weekend peters out. We will be home for the occasion, since just the thought of going anywhere is tiring.

Branson is full of shows, but Joseph beat everything else I saw for sheer spectacle. Joseph is a South & Sight Theatres production, whose specialty is elaborate stagings of Bible stories, but “elaborate” hardly does it justice. The theater’s enormous, seating about 2,000, with a large stage that accommodates massive sets, large troupes of actors (including live animals, such as goats and camels), and impressive lighting and effects. The sets alone for Joseph—fittingly evoking ancient Egypt much of the time—would be worth seeing all by themselves, but fortunately not all of the effort went into sets and effects. The script tells the story of Joseph well, both in song and dialogue.

Christopher James, emcee on the Branson Belle showboat, told the trip’s best joke. I forget the exact wording, but it was a line about knowing better than to shine a bright light on stage, since too many of the audience would respond by getting up and heading toward it.

Indeed, at some of the shows I was a youngster compared to most of the audience. Such shows were heavily spiked with ’40s and especially ’50s nostalgia. But the showmen of Branson are preparing for the future. At one point, we had to wait for a few minutes outside a theater as the audience emerged from a John Denver tribute show. That is, a show spiked with ’70s nostalgia. The audience looked much younger than at most of the other shows—roughly my age.

No presidents were from Branson or are buried nearby, unless you count Harry Truman up in Independence, Mo. But I did see one presidential item: a bronze of the elder George Bush, as a young naval aviator, at the Veterans Memorial Museum.

We also visited the College of the Ozarks, which is a few miles from Branson. It’s a private Christian school whose students pay no tuition, but rather work for the school 15 hours a week. The fruits of all that work are many: among other things, we saw the greenhouses that grow orchids, a crafts building, the small hotel that the school runs, and the school’s restaurant, where we had Sunday brunch, done as a large buffet. The food was really good. Much of it is raised by students on the college’s farm.

Speaking of food, I had breakfast at a number of other places during my visit, and none of them—not even at the College of the Ozarks—offered grits. I was puzzled. I thought Branson would be south of the Grits Line, but maybe I’m wrong about that. Biscuits and gravy were widely served, but not grits. Odd.

Janice Martin, Aerial Violinist

A favorite fact about the showboat Branson Belle, which plies the waters of Table Rock Lake, Missouri: when the ship was launched in 1995, she slid into the water on a ramp greased with 4,000 pounds of bananas. The yellow fruit was a eco-friendly alternative to standard lubricants, and perhaps even cheaper, though I’m not up on the economics of boat launching.

Branson Belle is the property of Herschend Family Entertainment Corp., the company that also owns Silver Dollar City and a lot of other properties.– including Dollywood, but that’s part of another tourist-magnet area. The showboat’s a paddle-wheeler – two twin wheels, 24 feet in diameter each, and it’s a smooth ride, because while sitting in the theater I didn’t notice the ship getting underway. Later I wandered around taking pictures, making it as far as the topmost deck.

The 4 pm show included dinner plus entertainment: magician-comedian emcee Christopher James, who told the best jokes among the various shows I saw, a number of musicians, and “the world’s only aerial violinist,” Janice Martin. That alone was worth getting on the showboat for.

Janice Martin also happens to be a fine singer and pianist, which was part of the act, but I think everyone was waiting to see just what an aerial violinist would do. Climb up a couple of silk lines and do the kind of act you might see in a circus, to begin with. But strapped over one of her shoulders somehow was a special violin built for the purpose, which she played skillfully while dangling from the silks in one way or another. Flat-out amazing.

How did the remarkable combination come about? From the little she said, she’s been a musician always, including training at the Julliard. As for the aerialist skills, she said she first learned rope climbing during her stint in the U.S. Army as a musician. At what point did a light bulb go off? – hey, I can do both of these at the same time. Couldn’t say, but it did, and I hope the Branson Belle is making it well worth her while.