peteg's blog

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.

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.

The House Theatre: Season on the Line at the Chopin Theatre.

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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.

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. Harold 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; Harold 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 Orchid Theatre's incubator is supposed to be, but I'm going to keep an eye on it.

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.

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.

Cole Theatre: Ecstasy at A Red Orchid Theatre.

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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 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. (Seems they had some more realistic tech earlier in the 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.

The Drop

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4:10pm at the River East 21, $12. Two rows from the front in a small theatre. I saw the short a few months back. Another one written by Dennis Lehane. I enjoyed this far more than his previous outing — Shutter Island — and about as much as Gone Baby Gone. This was probably due to a stellar cast: Tom Hardy tries hard to play dumb, and only really starts to convince when he goes all Bad Boy Bubby by gladwrapping the remains of the neighbours. He needs to dull his eyes down, like David Wenham in Gettin' Square. The dog subplot is unfortunately a cliché; unfortunate, at least, to us cat people, who'd need to be into the tough-cat equivalent of a pit bull to go anywhere near Noomi Rapace in this one. (She carries her damage and vulnerability very well and the film wisely avoids making too much of her character.) John Ortiz is again very fine, but his role is completely auxiliary, more's the pity. James Gandolfini hit a high note for me in Killing Them Softly, whereas here he coasts in full-blown Tony Soprano mode. I think this was his last major role. That the Chechens have pushed the Poles out of the Brooklyn bars is news to me. (I hope I got that right.) The Chechens portrayed here are suitably menacing in a knowing, show-don't-tell, cardboard-cutout mode. Michaël R. Roskam does a fine job in directing, and I'm off to see what else he's done.

Strawdog Theatre Company: Fail/Safe

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Goldstar ticket, $10.50. I feel so cheap. Also a cider, $5, from the bar there. This was adapted from Burdick and Wheeler's Fail-Safe of the early 1960s. I know the former from his and Lederer's The Ugly American. The all-male cast did a great job on the three jammed-together sets, which worked out well even though it severely constrained how they could move. I got talking to the girl selling drinks, who almost convinced me to make time to see The Arsonists in the next day or two, and a playwright / maths / english teacher who reminded me that I should study some geometry and read the book. The ride up from work was pretty messy as I still haven't internalized how to get onto Clark / Broadway from the west. I went home straight down Halstead, then got bored and jagged via Goose Island / Division to Noble. Marta had taken Jackson for a walk and sorted out the food.

Side Effects

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What a terrible little movie. I'm making a habit of it, I can see. For Jude Law, I think, and a Rooney Mara segue from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. All the ladies are horrible here. I don't know what Soderbergh's point is.

Dana Stevens.

Den Theatre: Alice invents a little game and Alice always wins

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Goldstar ticket, $13.75. Well, two out of three ain't bad for the Den. This one was not exactly enigmatic so much as just plain indulgently obscure and occluded. I don't know what we were supposed to get out of this. It was certainly a friends-and-family kind of a crowd. The barlass suckered me into buying another Great Lakes stout by calling it something I didn't recognise (its subtitle). Dang. The schlep up in the Sydney-style non-committal rain from Noble St was not fun, but I think preferable to cycling. Here's the blurb:

From Nick Flynn, the author of acclaimed memoirs Another Bullsh*t Night in Suck City and The Ticking is the Bomb, comes an enigmatic and haunting stage play, Alice Invents a Little Game and Alice Always Wins. In the wake of a natural disaster in their city, four strangers find themselves locked out of their homes, abandoned on the sidewalk. Day by day, they become friends, enemies, and everything else in between. Now Ben Kaye directs this tale of desperation, dreaming and donuts for the Forget Me Not Theatre Company.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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For Fincher, warming up for Gone Girl. What a horrible little movie. Long, yes, but so small; it wants to be Fincher's earlier Se7en with a side of Silence of the Lambs. I see they are making the rest of the sequence. Was it really necessary for the cat to cop it? I won't be watching the Swedish originals. Christopher Plummer is the pick of the actors. Rooney Mara scrubs up fine when she needs to. Stellan Skarsgård relishes his role a little too baldly. Daniel Craig is too banal to play brains.

Old Sennheiser CX300-IIs almost die, replaced by Shure SE215-CLs, news at 12.

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The cable on my never-great Sennheiser CX300-IIs was getting decidedly dodgy, and I guess I'd been pining for my dear old e2cs from my Hồ Chí Minh City days, so I gave Amazon their entirely-plausible asking price of $96.99 and waited a week for a pair of these. They sound a little muddy, perhaps a bit bass heavy, and are neither super comfortable nor particularly uncomfortable. The cable is less stiff than my previous Shures, and can be detached from the drivers. I'm now wondering if I should have plonked for the next ones up in the range. The case is much larger than the old one.

Kazuo Ishiguro: An Artist of the Floating World

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From the Chicago Public Library. An early work, from 1986, but vintage Ishiguro nonetheless. This is something of an apologia from his generation to his parents', centred around the radical transformation of Japanese society during World War II and the immediate aftermath, but really stretching back to the modernisation of the country from the late 19th century (drawing on my limited memory of history). He aims for ambiguity and melancholic abeyance but instead crowds the stage with too many characters who do not serve distinct purposes; often they are just generational reflections of each other, which seems a clunky way of showing what does not change. His technique is not quite there yet as his first-person unreliable narrator is sapient enough to record many telling things but can be relied upon to miss the obvious. This is further muddied by his erratic hauteur and general unrepentance; perhaps Ishiguro is telling us that Ono would never compromise himself for himself but is happy to do so for others (cf the miai for Noriko and generally shady dealings with Matsuda). We get the usual slow ramp up but not quite the powerful climax. Next up for him was The Remains of the Day, which I have yet to read but am increasingly expecting to be his masterpiece.

Prop Theatre, Bare Kuckle Productions: Who is Tyler Durden?

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Goldstar ticket, $13.75. The blurb ascribed imagination and/or creativity to this crew, who instead served up a very slight variation on the Fight Club script. The lowest-quality outing yet: many flubbed lines. Two hours straight, and I would have left at intermission if they'd had one. The cast outnumbered the audience.

Piccolo Theatre: Smash

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Opening night, another Goldstar bargain: $17.75, Evanston. The theatre is in the old train station / waiting room, but the Metra doesn't come so often that you'd notice. I left work at 4pm to catch the 4.35pm up, and then sat for a while in Brothers K coffeehouse. Their iced latte (yeah, I know) kept me awake far longer than necessary. Thanks guys.

This was opening night and the small-ish theatre was packed with friends and family. The play was an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's novel An Unsocial Socialist by Jeffrey Hatcher, in the style of GBS's later works, and American screwball. Wilde this sort-of is. The cast was excellent: Megan DeLay ably anchors things in the role of Henrietta Jansensius. Brandon Johnson is slightly too arch/woe-is-me/I'm-Hamlet as Sidney Trefusis, though his accent work and forelock-tugging is pretty funny and often pitch-perfect. David W. M. Kelch plays the plummy Sir Charles Branson well enough to open the English batting. Lumpkin (Joe Beal) is something of a northern-England/Scottish resentful. And the rest too got right into it. The set design was pretty good for a tiny theatre (yeah, I know, I got spoilt by Summertime in the Garden of Eden). That all characters get some kind of comeuppance softens the commie vibes enough for anyone's political leanings... possibly excepting the perennially ignorant rich.

I guess this is exactly what one would expect from a north-shore-equivalent theatre.

Murray Bail: Camouflage.

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I apparently read this or perhaps some earlier assembly of Bail shorts almost exactly a decade ago. (For the record: this one was published in the U.S. in 2002 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.) Some seemed familiar. I skipped the more obscure / whimsical ones. He sure has picked up the pace since then, and I think his more recent output is superior. I do like his still lifes, limited though they are. I'll see what else of his I can extract from the Chicago Public Library.


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From 2012. A competently executed and lovingly shot piece of depthless vigilantism, indistinguishable from e.g. Robocop. Ma-Ma does not much of anything, and it is rife with anachronistic concepts like testimony. The slo-mo shots probably ate most of the budget and certainly all of the imagination. I'm sure someone wrote a PhD on how this relates to the increasing militarization of policing etc.