peteg's blog

Shaw Chicago: Don Juan in Hell

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I got in early a while back and scored a complimentary ticket to this from Goldstar... who tacked on an $8 service fee. Ouch. The Shaw people are hosted by the Ruth Page Center for the Arts which could serve as a future RSL; they already have the clientele. I hoofed it over there in some mild non-committal Sydney-style grey drizzle via Big Shoulders, and intended to get lunch at the Thai on Chicago. Well, their lease expired and I knew of nowhere decent nearby. The dinky Thai/Viet thing around the corner and up a bit sold me a passable Panang in a horrendously noisy, divey setting. I won't be hurrying back.

I wasn't expecting a script reading, though it was just: I pretended to pay and they pretended to serve up some acting. All the players worked hard on the material, but I was too tired after a week of training to take this as anything other than an hour and forty-five minutes of being talked at about interesting things; "I'll read the notes later," I thought. Some of it was laugh-out-loud though I can't recall just what.

This is a part of Shaw's Man and Superman, and is apparently his own working out of his own ideas.

Tim Winton: Land's Edge

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Rooting around Amazon for something to pad my order up to $35 (didn't it used to be $25 for free shipping?), I remembered this one. The cheapest that BookFinder came up with was $4.25 total from Thriftbooks, trading on Abebooks as Motor City Books. Go figure. Anyway, they are in Detroit and it took about a week to get here. This was the original, 1993, coffee-table edition from Pan Macmillan on Balfour Street in Chippendale. Lanfranchi's shadow looms large indeed. What I ended up buying from Amazon, more about later.

Here Winton reminisces, or simply lives, his life on the wild coastline of Western Australia. We get the childhood summer holidays at the beach shack, a couple of the perilous situations and how they happened, the dreams they became. It's more of the same from him, I guess, but unfortunately not as much as one might hope for at a brief 48 pages, followed with about the same in photographs (by Trish Ainslie and Roger Garwood). Or perhaps it isn't: this one is a bit quieter, and the more powerful for it being directly personal, than his fiction that canvasses similar spaces (e.g. Breath). I've got to wonder how much of this imaged Australia still exists; one imagines the entire coastline is full of mining rigs and lonely container-based settlements housing fly-in fly-out Perth suburbanites. The weirdo hermits and the roo hunting families are surely unwelcome and/or uneconomic in booming Westralia.

Den Theatre: Step Up Productions: Dead Accounts

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Yet another Goldstar outing at the Den: $15 + $4.50. 3pm on a Sunday afternoon looked good a while back, but after a lazy morning of hacking away at nothing in particular, and given an increasingly-rare sunny and not-too-windy day in Chicago, I wish I could have been outside. That's just to say I'm glad I went, but I wish I'd gone some other time.

This play by Theresa Rebeck attempts to explain the midwest (specifically Cincinatti, Ohio) to foreigners, specifically New Yorkers. The stayed-there locals, mother Barbara (Millie Hurley) and Lorna (Emily Tate), play on a pretty funny Catholic dynamic that is probably the strongest thread. Steve O’Connell's Jack returns as the prodigal son so coked up that he destabilises everyone else (actors and characters alike). Conveniently his last remaining mate in the town Phil (Bradford Lund) has waited a long time for another crack at Lorna, for otherwise this thing would be romance-free, and the scenes where ex-wife-of-sorts Jenny (Elizabeth Antonucci) and Jack get down to it would be straight out of Albee. Much of the humour trades on people talking past each other, and spiraling back to earlier conversational points, as family dialogue often goes.

Step Up had an elaborate set constructed on the Den's main stage. The "tasteless" kitchen featured plates on the walls, and it seems that the in-sink-erator I have grown familiar with is not a NYC thing, but it remains unclear to me just how much it is a mid-Western thing. The audience was tiny, which was unfortunate. I wondered if Elizabeth was trying for a squeaky NYC accent, or trying on a fake one to match her satirical hauteur, which was entirely entertaining. Emily was almost formulaically histrionic, an All-American put-upon girl, which I put down to her character lacking dynamism, probably by design. I left wondering why Jenny ran off like she did. The Chicago Reader reviewer had more doubts. Alex Huntsberger at New City Stage is more cutting about the source material.

Rohinton Mistry: Such a Long Journey

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I heard about this book via Pankaj Mishra a while back. He tends to cite it at every opportunity; I think I got excited by the introduction to a piece of his in the New Yorker. This lead me to think it provided insight into the birth of Bangladesh, but that topic is dispatched in perhaps ten pages spread over 337, and in a way that assumes you know about the Pakistan of the day. Everything telegraphed turns out as you expect, so surprises come suddenly and tend to feel like tangents from the already discursive narrative. For instance, it's a bit tedious when a previously-unshown Parsi's "domestic vulture" wife turns out to be shrewish at his funeral. In some ways this is something on the topic of Salman Rushdie's Shame but an (1991) imitation of his Midnight's Children, or looking at it another way, a clunky Ishiguro. There are some funny bits, but nothing laugh-out-loud. The focus is on the Parsis in Bombay.

LAMPO: Rene Hell (Jeff Witscher): Bifurcating a Resounding No!

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I signed up to the LAMPO list a while back, and finally their season has commenced. Unfortunately it is very short, at only four widely-spaced gigs. The The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts is some fantastical anachronistic outfit that believes that art can be advanced, perhaps even systematically, by hosting things like this. They've got a beautiful old building in an upscale part of town that was packed to the gills and beyond with cool trendy types. While waiting to get in I got talking to Kyle, from Indianapolis, who was himself waiting for a friend who had also driven up for the day. We pondered why they didn't charge for what seemed to be an incredibly popular performance.

This is the type of music that NOW now showcases: here they call it "electroacoustic" but really it's samples from all over the map, or man-plays-laptop if you prefer. Some of it was coherent, but never for long, and I could have sworn there were some chip tunes in the middle. Rene Hell showcases some of his paranoia on his bandcamp page.

Here's the blurb:

You say yes; Rene Hell premieres "Bifurcating a Resounding No!" The latest project from Rene née Jeff draws from years of recorded sounds (acoustic instruments, field recordings and voice), collected in cities across the U.S. and shaped with various digital techniques, to make one new weird work.

There was no lightshow so all I could do was space out to the calm between the mild bouts of audience abuse. I enjoyed it, and I'm certainly going to the rest.

Last Days in Vietnam

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At the Music Box Theatre, 5pm session, $10, and a Revolution Brewing Octoberfest beer for $5. I rode up from work due to a power shutdown that was delayed from yesterday, via Target. It seems I can't buy Nivea deodorant in this country, and so I stupidly bought some off Amazon, forgetting that I can buy super-cheap fragrence-free stuff everywhere. Oops. I got a new poncho — the old one, from Vietnam, has shed its lining along the shoulder seams and now provides little more than symbolic rain protection. Oh well, it survived a couple of monsoons and a few Sydney showers, pushbikes, scooters and a motorcycle. The new one is essentially a $12 breathless plastic bag that tore the first time I tried to zip it up. Oops.

This one sucked me in in the obvious way: I enjoy footage of Sài Gòn in the old days, and trying to figure out what remains the same. One thing that never did were the street names, but you won't learn about that here. Nor about the baby lift, though the earlier World Airways lift from Đà Nẵng does get a passing mention. There is some excellent footage here, and some some objectively sterling behaviour. For instance, Richard Armitage was tasked with ensuring that the northerners did not gain the southern navy's boats, clapped-out as they were. With help from his high-placed connections he did this, and additionally managed to shepherd a huge number of people across the South China Sea (some call it the Pacific in this film) to the Philippines, who understandably didn't want to process or house the refugees. The story of Vietnamese Chinook pilot Ba Nguyen is awesome. We get to see Big Minh striding around in the final days of his country.

Less charitably, one can see this as a frozen-in-time piece of heart wringing by American film makers. The communists don't get a say, and we don't get any real sense of what has happened since April 30, 1975. (The re-educations camps are mentioned in endnotes.) One could also compare this chaos to the Berlin air lift, so many years before. It is fuel for the hands-tied-by-pollies version of history.

A. O. Scott found this to be even handed; I disagree. For instance, to paraquote one of the American interviewees: "[that] the North Vietnamese were terrified by Nixon..." was not really true: the northerners were clearly resigned to sacrifice and more sacrifice. I'm not sure how much stock we can put in Kissinger's take on negotations as he is getting blandly revisionist in his old age. George Packer calls him on it.

In the weeks before I watched the fair-and-balanced PBS TV series on the Vietnam War from 1983.

City Lit Theatre: Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo

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Goldstar ticket, $14.50 + $4.25. I felt really bad as this venerable theatre group struggled to pull a crowd to this early and late Albee vehicle: perhaps too many wonder why he decided to add an act to the first play he wrote and rebrand it like a Microsoft product. The venue was the Edgewater Presbyterian Church, which is more like an old school; I can imagine many support groups find a home there. The weather was threatening so I left the bike at home and took the El up to the cute kitchen sink cafe. Later on I walked back to Argyle for a phở (decent, at Le's on Broadway) and then back up to Edgewater. I had hoped to make it to Big Chick's but wimped out when I saw how few the drinkers were. Next time.

As Wikipedia will tell you, this is a two-act thing that is mostly monologue, despite there being two people in each of them. The notional pivot/foil is Peter (Ted Hoerl), who gets worked over first by his wife Ann (Elaine Carlson) and then by Jerry (an excellent Mike Cherry). The actors are all solid but there's not much to it; the kids arrange their sexual deviancy on the internet these days, and have done for a decade and more now. Sure, we can make people squirm by talking confrontationally about such things, but Albee seemed oblivious to how things have moved, about depleted privacy and millenial sensitivities. Yes, the dialogue is vintage, but even so. I don't think we find out what happened at the zoo, despite Jerry's entertaining stories about caninicide. No, I did not take notes.

The red line El got me back to Grand, up which I schelpped in the cold for the second night in a row. When I got home I finally found out what the cowboy and the girl was all about.

Gone Girl

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I skipped out of work a little early, as my productivity had become approximately negative, and headed up to the "Magnificent Mile" of North Michigan Avenue to see Fincher's latest. First time at the AMC Loews 600, which was upstairs from a Louisiana restaurant I'd been to before. Small town, at least after a while. $11.50. The men's was difficult to find. They have these clever Dyson all-in-one faucet thingies that do water and soap and dryer, but idiosyncratically; the dryer only kicked in when I removed my hands, defining me by my absence. It's that kind of space, and that kind of movie.

The seats are like business class: reclining, leg supports, wide enough for two cats and me, outsize arms for mini-meals, and assigned. The ticket girl bluffed me by claiming the screen was huge, so I sat three rows back, far off to the right when I could have sat a row forward in the middle. It turned out OK though. The couple sitting next to me talked throughout, less as it went on, and my usual metric of a good movie — that it shuts up the audience — doesn't work so well here as Americans like echoing things they agree with in validatory style, along the lines of the call and response of the Gospel churches.

The movie itself is a blend of almost everything Fincher's done before, most notably the two-track structure of Fight Club and the graphic awfulness of Se7en, right down to the immaculate boxes containing ... presents. Trent Reznor is back with a drone-y soundtrack that fits the mood perfectly. The cinematography was vintage; I mean, does anyone even notice how beautiful he and Jeff Cronenweth shoot anymore? The cat, who may be the same one who lead Inside Llewyn Davis, is squandered, and Ben Affleck proves he is not a cat person when he treats him so casually. I was almost offended to see him driving a Volvo, and that he can act this well. This kind of absence and craziness has many antecedents: the first is Kim Dickens's solid performance as a competent, sceptical police detective being so familiar from Fargo. The theme of doubt where there once was trust reminded me of Lantana. Rosamund Pike far exceeded the expectations I had of her from The World's End, and similarly matched or exceeded Nicole Kidman's craziness in To Die For. (Maybe both of their characters matched people's expectations so closely that their limitations as actors were simply ignored.) She keeps her unmentionables close for less time than you'd expect from a prim English actress. Her parents were predictably cardboard. I was a bit surprised when we lost cabin pressure so early as I figured Fincher would ride the ambiguity for longer, but no, this one has a sting in the tail. Carrie Coon as Affleck's twin sister annoyed me initially by coming off as Catherine Keener, but she develops into something more than just a man's vision of the right kind of anchor. She's also a Chicago local.

It's long, at 2.5 hours, but doesn't drag. The movie ends before consequences completely come down, which seems to be Fincher's way of saying that the mess he's made doesn't make complete sense; in that way it's more Fight Club than Se7en. St Louis and Missouri get a guernsey in the form of a Cardinals shirt that Affleck wears in almost every scene.

Unusually I read Dana Stevens afterwards. She's right that it does get a bit mechanical in the second act. Manohla Dargis. She's wrong about the cat: Affleck shows him some attention but is not careful about it. I'm glad I went in cold. Anthony Lane. I will remain one of the twenty-one who haven't read the novel. Michael Wood reminded me about Fincher's The Game.

Goodman Theatre: Smokefall

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My first time at the Goodman, and at a Loop theatre, though I walked past them all the time when I first got to Chicago. Another Goldstar ticket: $31.50 + $6.75. They gave me a pretty decent seat, better than at the Steppenwolf last week. I got chatting with the lady sitting next to me. She has season tickets to the ballet and symphony, and was not so much into the theatre. She gave me the rundown on the old Ukrainian Village: bordered by Division and Chicago, Damen and Division, roamed by Urge Overkill back in the day. You had to be there. Her timing was apparently perfect on picking up the stats processing software, R and so forth: she teaches people how to crank the unending streams of data, amongst other things.

Before this I burnt some time at Starbucks with a croissant, and had a Blue Moon Belgian White when I got to the Goodman. The play got moving quite agreeably: a narrator / footnoter makes an appearance and starts sketching the family we follow for the first act. At some point the set exploded and most of the audience went to the bathroom. The following birth scene was what the one in Tristram Shandy was going to be, and the humour was both low- and high-brow, probably annoying everybody. The swearing went a bit over-the-top somewhere around here. There was loads of repetition humour, and while I did find some poignancy in some of it (maybe over-identifying with one or two of the characters), it was once again mostly an exercise in affirming the American soul, which hopefully resonated with the rest of the audience. The acting was quite fine across the board.

This was a reprise of last year's run. Same cast, I believe. Chris Jones gives a local's impressions, with a few clangers. (Those twins do know that they're better off in the womb.) He had another go a week past.

Egg(s)hell

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$11.50 from Ticketleap (for a $10 ticket in advance). I think I heard about it from the Reader, but this piece by Tony Adler was not it. At the Trapdoor Theatre on Cortland St, out the back of Jane's. I had in mind to go to the Wicker Park Pub across the road, but the vestibule where the manic ticket lady and drinks girl were was packed and so I settled for a New Belgium Tour de Fall Pale Ale there. Very cramped, not much seating. The toilet door apparently did not lock.

I guess this was something for the Chicago Hungarian community, some kind of improv performance art or circus. There was one girl and three guys, and the girl got very objectified. There was lots of groping, and it was unclear what we were supposed to make of it; some was playful, some a bit aggressive. There were eggs, yes, but nothing too adventurous or skillful. She got tasked with mopping up the ones that weren't caught. Conceived and directed by Zoltán Balázs. I hoped to hear some Félix Lajkó.

Steve Nieve at the City Winery.

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"Premier seating", according to Goldstar, who asked for $11 + $3.75, for this gig featuring the sometime, all time, Elvis Costello pianist. The City Winery is a faux upscale wine bar that presses, or maybe just ages, or maybe just serves, its own wine. I got sat at the end of a series of tables with a decent view of Nieve's back, which was totally OK. The real problem was that it was right next to the door to the kitchen, from which excited Spanish regularly issued, glasses clinked, and so forth. Those sitting two or more seats down the tables did not suffer from this. Also paying at the end is farcical: I had two beers — a Founders Michigan Porter and a Triple Alpha hopped-up Indiana thing, for what is now old-time's sake — and had to wait ten minutes for my change. The ploy is, of course, to get you to walk away and leave an outsize tip. As my liberty was being infringed either way, I waited with teeth gritted.

So the whole vibe was American dinnertime, with the plea to respect the other audience members and the artist by remaining quiet. It was instead a time to catch up with old friends, graze, network. I guess American exceptionalism extends upwards, downwards and in every direction. The French vocalist was not great and the songs tended to blancmange without the rest of the band and the snappy lyrics. Did Steve play Bowie's Is there life on Mars? on the fifth Steinway when they were choosing pianos for North? Were these flyover songs for flyover states? As many people would observe of me, if any of that's going to give me the shits then I should stay home. Steve, on the other hand, did prove that necrophilia can go stale.

Eugene Burdick: A Role in Manila, Fifteen Tales of War, Postwar, Peace, and Adventure.

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Fifteen sounds about right, but some of them felt a lot longer. Not much for me here; I think he was stronger with a collaborator in more expansive form. There's a predecessor of Moneyball in there for the trainspotters. A segue from Fail/Safe and The Ugly American etc. Extracted from the Chicago Public Library. Apparently a first-edition from 1971.

The House Theatre: Season on the Line

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I bought a Goldstar ticket for $16.50 ($4 to them) almost a month ago, largely because I'd been wanting to go to the Chopin Theatre on Division at the Polonia Triangle pretty much as long as I've been in Chicago. I think I picked the right production to go to. Their foyer is full of theatrical bric-a-brac, evoking some of the old world without being overstuffed with it. The ticket was a random page from Moby Dick, stamped by the upbeat box office girl. I bought a couple of Żywiec bottles, $5 each, one before the show and the other at first intermission, and found them to be light and agreeable. The alternative was Pabst in a can.

The play itself is long, at three hours. I can say it made me even less likely to read Moby Dick. The main stage is a large room with seating on all four sides, which sometimes lead to substantial occlusion. A review at the Reader. The whole thing is terribly meta, but still a lot of fun. Many in the cast crank up the histrionic apoplexy, especially Andy Lutz and the eventual Ishmael Thomas J. Cox. The narrator/neophyte assistant stage manager Ty Olwin lithely segues between the dramatic incidents, evoking Ed Norton from Fight Club at times by remaining somewhat calmer than his colleagues. Ah, to be paid a flat wage when others have gone all-in! — though I think my purple Amoeba-San Francisco tshirt is so much cooler than his beige one from Hollywood. Unfortunately Marvin Quijada does not get to apply his excellent vaudeville skills here, though there certainly was room for it. Maggie Kettering does well in the just-say-yes/I-must-say-no role of the stage manager. Danny Bernardo had a lot of fun as the bartender. Some of the get-ups were hilarious. The treatment of racism in Gatsby was over-the-top. I'd never heard of the second production Balm in Gilead and so probably missed half the jokes in the midsection. Reviewer Sean Sinitski evoked Ebert for me: the suits, the what-can-I-do honesty. The rest of the cast had their moments too, but I have typed enough.

Art Institute of Chicago: Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections

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I signed up for this talk a while back; I'm very susceptible to Art Institute of Chicago's emails, perhaps due to the time-limited nature of my membership. After spending the morning at the Daley Library at UIC, I hurried my lunch at Chinatown (some tasty fried stuff, and not the ramen or dumplings I had hoped for) and sprinted up Indiana Avenue to get there by 2pm. We got an intro from the curator (I think) and then two long talks from the Greek ladies who have been shepherding the exhibition across the U.S.: Jenny Albani, Ministry of Culture and Sports, Greece, and Anastasia Drandaki, Benaki Museum, Athens. From what I understood, these guys are interesting as they stand at the root of the Christian Orthodox Church, and transitioned from 3D/sculptures/idols to 2D/icons, and had a tolerant (Greek?) attitude to other ways of doing things. I'm not sure I like seeing Athene with a big cross on her forehead, even so. I'll head back to the exhibition later on, perhaps on a Thursday night. I ended up chatting a bit with Virginia, an older lass who told me that Charles Schwab no longer wants her non-internet business. I'd have hoped they'd have transition plans for such customers.

Steppenwolf Theatre: The Night Alive

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The Steppenwolf Theatre is something like the Belvoir of Chicago; way off anywhere one might think of as Broadway, independent and expensive. I don't yet know if they do anything good, however. I paid $23.60 for a Goldstar ticket, who took $6, which I think was steep. Apparently it was Australian-ladies-in-Chicago night out as a tribe of them, twenty or more, settled on the balcony in the rows in front of me. I happened to be wearing my Pixies, Sydney 2007 shirt but got away with it. The whole place was packed.

Before the gig I had dinner at the Chinese on Wells/Ohio, which was not great. The ride up Wells and Clybourn was pleasant as the streets are wide and presently quite clean. I also bought a Revolution Porter from the upstairs bar in a can inscribed with "serve cold". It was better than that would suggest. The play itself is a middle-of-the-road crowd pleaser with some familiar, clichéd humour. By Conor McPherson, it's Irish and the accent work was fine, the acting solid. The set was ornate. I just didn't get into the tepidly reheated theme of rescuing fallen lassies and grafting a living from shifting dodgy artifacts (err, been there, doing that?). The building is a bit of a bland big-box theatre, not so different from the strip-mall cinema. While waiting for it to start the girl sitting at the end of the row pulled out her old (film) box camera and prepared to sneak photos; she got sprung and soon moved up the back. I wonder if she succeeded.

David Bowie cover band Sons of the Silent Age at the Daley Plaza.

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... ably displacing any protesters who might wish to observe that Rahm Emmanuel is not doing a stellar job, however impeccable his taste, just for one day. The band's name is a song off Heroes, and they pretty much stuck to the Bowie of then: Ashes to Ashes, Is there life on Mars?, that sort of thing. Gail Ann Dorsey has set the standard for Under Pressure covers; no-one attempts the Freddie-all-over-the-map original. They closed with Heroes, which made me realise that they had a keyboard player (see far left in the picture). The band was tight but the mix was occasionally crap. Oh yes, the band: Chris Connelly ex-Ministry on vocals, Matt Walker ex-local-boys Smashing Pumpkins on drums, Shirley Manson ex-Garbage on Under Pressure co-vocals. I last saw her in 1996 at the Hordern, also for free. Time flies.

Of course it was just shameless marketing for the Bowie Is exhibition; shameless but still they went through the motions. A lady in front of me had a new-ish Thailand tour t-shirt that showed pre-1975 North and South Vietnam, with the border near Hue. News sure does travel slowly near the Cambodian border.

It struck me that Bowie coverbands do it tough: if they were ripping into the Beatles back catalogue they could aspire to be the next Oasis. Here the best they can do is keep up, even now.

A Night Out by Harold Pinter

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I rushed off down to the central Chicago Public Library after work as I'd finally gotten notification that my Silk Road CD had arrived from the nether regions of their network after a week. Unfortunately the computer system in the popular library decided to take a holiday, so I almost didn't get it. While waiting I sought out a copy of Burdick's shorts A Role in Manila. Had the customary (perfunctory) Thai for dinner at the de Paul campus-of-sorts, and then a fairly pleasant and not-too-hairy ride up Dearborn then Wells to A Red Orchid Theatre. It remains warm in the sun and the wind hasn't quite developed a taste for gooseflesh.

I'd tried to find the buy-a-ticket link before turning up, but didn't and ultimately figured it'd either be very sold out or very not sold out. As it was I got there 29 minutes early and was number seven on a waiting list that eventually numbered in the thousands. Pinter hasn't been this popular since he got the Nobel in 2005. I wasn't the last to cough up my $10 and squeeze past the organized, but this had left no time left for booze, which was probably just as well as I was sleepy. No afternoon coffee, see. Anyway, the cast greeted us with some manic Sade/Marat hospitality and dancing, and I was pleased to see the players of Ecstasy, unfortunately out of character, there to see the mess to be made of their fantastic set.

The reviewer at the Reader more-or-less nails it, uncharitably though, as the commenter observes. They're both right; Pinter deserves this lighter approach, though it proves unsustainable over the longer haul. The best parts were indeed the dance scenes, where modern partying is cut with some dated dialogue about the eternal.

I have no idea what A Red Orchard Theatre's incubator is supposed to be, but I'm going to keep an eye on it.

Chicago Wandelweiser Festival (day 2): R. Andrew Lee

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Grégoire gestured at the Constellation as some sort of home to experimental / marginal music, so I figured it'd be worth a shot. $11.85 ahead of time from Ticketfly; could have gotten in for $10 at the door as it turned out. I had a beer at their bar beforehand, which is somewhat cosy despite the unpadded wooden furnishings. I think there are a few spaces there; the one with the minimalist piano works was quite large with seating on three sides. Two of the composers were present: Eva-Maria Houben and Jürg Frey. The setlist:

  • December (2002) by Craig Shepard, which was genre drone music, impressively played by Lee.
  • Go and Stop (2002) by Eva-Marie Houben.
  • Distance (1) (1996) by Michael Pisaro.
  • pianist, alone (2) (2013) by Jürg Frey.

The crowd was small-ish (40-50 people) and very appreciative. Some of it got noir-ish like Barry Adamson, back in his heyday, but without the backing noise; just the slicing, the pauses, the sometime paranoia.

Violet Kupersmith: The Frangipani Hotel

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I heard about this book from a generous review in the New York Times. I had hoped to borrow it from the Chicago Public Library but the queue was out the door for the single print and single ebook they have. Oh well, I thought, I'll just wait. Well, someone sold their copy to glenthebookseller who's out in Aurora, Illinois. Aurora is famous for hosting the datacentre for a very large derivatives market. For that reason it has many microwave towers, mostly pointing east towards New Jersey, and probably Chicago. Glen's automaton happily charged me a total of $4.45 to ship this data the old fashioned way.

The short story is that I've read too many Vietnamese folk stories to get too excited about these. (I'm not going to enumerate them; those salad days were back in 2011 and 2012 and thereabouts; oh, start in 2008 then.) Moreover this is not a memoir of her time there on her Fulbright; contrast it, for instance, with Balaban's magisterial effort. Like Frank Black, I've been tired, so pardon my continued kvetching.

The voice Violet adopts here is young, brash, confident; she knows who she is, and these are not stories of becoming (see Andrew X. Pham for that) nor reflections on genre ethnic lit (see Nam Le for that). Perhaps because she is so late to the party, with Vietnam now a middle-income country and Orange County well-integrated, we get some often-decent writing dressing up very slight insights in obsolescent magical realism. Is this a peace offering to the mother country from a youngster of the diaspora? Or some aspect of the American Generation Y, a reticence, an unwillingness to offend, an homage to blancmange that I don't understand? Perhaps Charles Yu's humorous science fiction is the more expressive style, and he definitely felt less need for a thesaurus.

It is also clear that she hasn't done her homework. Like Peter Lloyd and his male ants, Violet appears to think that beer is distilled and not brewed (p36). Personally, I think of bia hoi as something of an opposite to Tactical Nuclear Penguin, and whatever it is that Norwegians do to theirs. By Vietnamese vodka, does she mean rice wine (p208)? That stuff sends you blind, as Dương Thu Hương was telling us back in the days of đổi mới. I found Tết a lonely time as everyone decamps for their home villages; in my case I was heading back to Melbourne for Peodair's wedding and struggled to find somewhere to leave my bag; traditionally Vietnamese do not engage with strangers on the first day of the new year. I will stop with the false notes here.

As is necessary these days, some of these stories traffic in the transgressive. In Guests, we're shown an entanglement between a young American embassy worker and a local mechanic. I feel Dana Sachs treated the scene far more humanely a while back. This and most of the other stories exploit Vietnam's eternal, almost definitional, status as the exotic; it seems beyond her to realise that the United States is also totally bizarre, as Oliver Stone demonstrated in the supermarket scene in Heaven and Earth so long ago. Does she realise that many non-Americans may like to stay that way? Her Saigon geography seems a bit off to me; no-one who's been there for more than a month drinks on De Tham, not when there are cheaper, less comfortable places just up the way, or rum hoi down near the statue of Tran Hung Dao — right next to Black Cat! — or myriad nightclubs closer to where she houses her protagonists. There are supermarkets within walking distance of the U.S. Consulate; I wondered where Mai got the meat to go with the vegetables from the market. She's writing for the home crowd, echoing what Burdick said in Rest Camp on Maui (Harper's, July 1946) about marines who go on sexual escapades:

... the correspondent was writing occasionally in a black notebook. Young moved behind him and read what he had written. "Marines like Aussie girls, but first love still clean-cut American girls."

Ah yes, I promised to stop. Allow me instead to ramble on: her story Turning Back features a bloke from Bạc Liêu, which is famously very commie, and hence his village was likely to have escaped the post-1975 purges. Perhaps they did raze the Catholic ones, I don't know. It also echoes Andrew X. Pham's account of his transgender sister. I found it very unclear what the narrator herself wants; we've seen this kind of slacking as a response to outsize tiger-parent ambition in his work too, but there it profitably becomes a search for stories and not just shopkeeping. See also Growing up Asian in Australia. Her One Finger contains her solitary gesture (no, not that one) to the war/agent orange, and came across as a nakedly exploitative freakshow.

I'll close with a quote I liked from the strongest of the stories, the titular The Frangipani Hotel:

"Let me tell you something about women. Translate for me, Phi. Did you know that in Hanoi, they say the most beautiful girls live in Saigon? In Saigon, they say the most beautiful girls live in Hue. In stuck-up Hue, they say that Saigon is right. But everyone is wrong. There are no beautiful girls left. Pretty faces, sure. But then they ring their eyes with all that dark makeup. They wear see-through blouses and run around in packs, shrieking and squealing and always fiddling with their cellphones and their dyed hair." His voice break off, and when he speaks again there is a note in it that I've never heard before. "Whatever happened to the simple girls, the sweet girls, the girls that you could sing about? All my life, I've only ever known one girl like that."

Vietnam waits still for her Midnight's Children and How to get rich in rising Asia; I imagine the time when Bac Ho smiles to himself because someone has equipped his country with a backstory even more fantastical than it is.

Cole Theatre: Ecstasy at A Red Orchid Theatre.

/noise/theatre | Link

As Irvine Welsh lives here now, one might reasonably have expected this to be a take on his shorts from a long time ago, but no: this is Mike Leigh's script from circa 1979, and A Red Orchid Theatre would not be out of place on Sydney's lower north shore circa that time. I suspect it may take the surrounding locality of Old Town until 2020 to discover Thai. I had a beer across the road beforehand at an Italian restaurant, where I sat at the bar and drank my Guinness with almost no help from the barstaff. For $8.50 including tip I expected at least a little interest. This stretch of Wells is for the the showpony set.

Be that as it may, I was here for the theatre, having stumped up the full price of $25 to see some game folk have a crack at art. I think the review at the Reader was unduly snarky. The cast is uniformly excellent, with great accent work. Sure, the bloke (Roy, played by Joel Reitsma) finishing up with Jean (Lauren Pizzi) is not Thewlis, but things open with them naked in an authentic kind of way. No danger in that, not never. I particularly liked Michaela Petro's Dawn, laughing like a drain and trying to be a mate, who is wisely given a lot of room by Boyd Harris (playing Mick, her husband with the softest Irish lilt) and Layne Manzer, who makes Len, the pivot of the second half, a timid Elvis Costello type. Skyler Schrempp is very briefly Val. Perhaps they've tuned things over the intervening weeks, or Maura Kidwell's Jean may have been something else entirely.

The set is an impressively-detailed London bedsit, which made me wonder if they still have electricity and gas meters. Someone put a drinking bird on the bedside table, soon cluttered with dead Newcastle Brown Ales and spirit bottles. The noses wrinkled at vodka, the G&T's, certainly mark it anachronistic. Much smoking is evoked, though the cast reduce it to bum-puffing so they can get through the night/run. The plot follows from the characters: a couple of nights in working-class London, amongst the common people who came from elsewhere. It was a fun, solid effort and I'm keen to see what they all get up to next. Director Shade Murray apparently did a ripper Abigail's Party in 2010.