peteg's blog

A Red Orchid Theatre: Red Handed Otter.

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$30.00 + $4.00 (Convenience Charge) = $34.00, bought 2015-04-11. This is the weakest of the four things I've seen there, but it did feature the strongest performance yet by Luce Metrius, who played a general, rounded sort of character for once. He was ably supported by Mierka Girten, she with a freehold on comedic clueful ditz, and Guy van Swearingen as the bloke who lost his cat. I went due to the review by Tony Adler at the Reader; he's right that the whole thing is a bit twee, somewhat fun but certainly not for people who don't have a thing for animals. The set is somewhat ornate and has a few hidden features, but is not used as broadly as e.g. Ecstasy. I sat right in the middle because the guys with the reserved seating were no-shows.

The Scrapes: discography to date at Bandcamp.

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I heard that these guys from Brisbane have a gig at an underground venue in Sydney in May, and as I won't be there the best I could do is buy their entire back catalogue. Their new album has slipped its promised deadline by at least a day. I like their mix of doom-drone, Dirty Three knockoffs and the odd atmospheric original so far. Kali Yuga Sunrise sounds like a mix of the Dirty Three's Indian Love Song with Valgeir Sigurðsson's World Without Ground from Architecture of Loss, and perhaps Lungs, for Merrilee off Ekvílibrium, with a dash of Ben Frost.

Acid Mothers Temple and the Melting Paraiso U.F.O., but not really.

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$12.00 + $3.36 service fee + $2.50 delivery fee = $17.86, bought 2015-01-30. The thing with buying tickets with such lead times is that you never know how things are going to be when the gig rolls around. I was pretty tired, a little sick, and certainly not up for a superlate night listening to loud, repetitive psychedelic rock an hour's walk from home. But what the heck, I went anyway. This was my first time at the Empty Bottle, past the hospital on Division. I'm guessing it was at about a third of capacity. I had a couple of Left Hand Milk Stouts to ease the passing of time: arrived there at 8.45pm, somewhat enjoyed the support (ST 37, I think, from Austin, Texas; one guy had a "free shrugs" t-shirt) from 9.30pm, and tried to get into the Japanese guys around 10.30pm. I bailed at 11pm as the last 70 bus down division had gone and it was a school night.

The Unbelievable Truth

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Still awesome. I think Adrienne Shelley is superior here but overall Trust has the edge, probably due to Martin Donovan and its more abstract concerns.

Definition Theatre: A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen at the Chopin Theatre.

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Goldstar ticket: $12.50 + $4.00 service fee = $16.50, bought 2015-04-18. That's three out of three for the Chopin Theatre. This one played in the fancy downstairs dungeon while The Hammer Trinity continued its run in the main space. The bar dude kindly rifled through his stash of quarters for me — I need just four more states! — after I purchased a coffee.

There being no threat of blood, I parked myself in the front row, and it ended up packed. My seat turned out to be right in front of where the actors sat for extended periods, but fortunately they cycled around the table so I got to study just about everyone's fronts and backs. This is (apparently) a classic play by the Norrman Ibsen which has been streamlined and directed by Michael Halberstam, and played by this diverse and young company of UIUC graduates. Some of the scenes are electric, such as when housewife Nora (a magnetic Miriam Lee) received her ultimatum from the agitated lawyer Krogstad (Christopher Sheard), and the tension-releasing horseplay between Nora and Dr Ranke (Yaw Agyeman). The cast synthesized comedy out of just about everything; Tyrone Phillips (as Torvald) graphically illustrated that embroidering is vastly more decorous than knitting. This did not rob the heavy bits of their gravitas. The material is somewhat dated, but I felt it had more to say than Three Sisters.

Zac Thompson at the Reader, and a longer article on Michael Halberstam's day job with the Writers Theatre by Deanna Isaacs. Also Jacob Davis.

Kimberly Kay Hoang: Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work.

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I heard about this book via the VSG mailing list, and of course remain curious about the underbelly of Saigon in the twenty-first century and people's experiences of it. In other words, adopting the same sociology-as-long-form-journalism perspective that I took to Mathews's Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong, and to Vũ Trọng Phụng's Lục Xì and The Industry of Marrying Europeans, I wanted to know about the economic prospects of the people in the South, and in particular from the Delta, and get some idea of the conditions and remuneration for working in vice relative to "honest" (non-stigmatized) labour (factories, housework, getting educated, etc.). It struck me that sex work for women from the Delta may be like finance for computer scientists: at this point in history you’d be a fool not to be in it, though the cost to the person and to karma is high; and can the money be washed clean? In any case there is a paucity of accounts of indigenous vice in Saigon, as Kimberly implicitly observes in her introduction [*].

Perhaps the first question that springs to mind is how Kimberly gained access to the four bars she studied: three had street addresses, two of which target Western men and the other Viet Kieus, while the anonymous Khong Sao Bar served the local elites. The link is the alcohol distributors, and the powerful men she befriends along the way, who see useful status in bringing her to business meetings due to her bilinguality and prestigious Western education. She discovered a culture of consent, and an absence of people trafficking, and specialized and savvy marketing to men of quite distinct backgrounds. Almost uniformly the work is considered socially beneficial as it enables a higher standard of living for more people than the alternatives (factory and domestic work are typical precursors). Unsurprisingly there is a selection bias at work (p114, p124) as it is probably difficult to interview people who desired but did not gain such employment, aged out of the scene, flouted protocols, and so forth. The work itself is uniformly hetero-normative: men buying women's consent for off-premises assignations. Interestingly the madams (mommies) mostly do not take a direct cut.

I struggle somewhat with the notion that Western men are contesting much of anything in Asia (e.g. p70), given that China already holds massive quantities of U.S. treasury bonds, and the mobility on offer (p75) is pretty much taken for granted in the West already; contrast it with the possibility of working wherever and whenever one wants, or even just residing in whatever (part of the) country you wish to. One technicality people from outside the city face is gaining a residency permit, or avoiding situations where one is required (p108). I had to wonder if the Johnny Walker Blue Label is authentic, and whether public shaming really does have the desired effect. Kimberly ably recounts much of the minutiae of drinking rituals and the somewhat subtle status indicators (p71): handshakes can be quite complex all by themselves.

For all that I couldn't imagine myself at any of these bars, which Kimberly tacitly acknowledges (p192) when she observes that many expats prefer talking to her as she can hold a far more interesting conversation than the bargirls. Perhaps that points to a gap in Saigon's bar scene. The flashiness of the cashed-up women returning to their villages (p166), laundering their wad, is a bit cringeworthy. But they've earnt it, I guess.

Things change rapidly in the developing world: since she concluded her fieldwork (~2006 to ~2010) the global economy has cratered and taken out the less resilient. China has slowed and Vietnam has gone through many corruption scandals, my favourites of which are the never-ending Securency scandal, entangling my favourite Australian powerbrokers, and the bankruptcy of Vinashin. Vietnam is far less tigerish now, as Kimberly observes in her Appendix. The high-end Khong Sao Bar is no more. Hopefully those ladies saved their cash and created something of durable value with it. The building on the far left of the cover is a bank that was under construction when I was last there in 2010.

I met Kimberly and her sociologist husband Robert briefly at the Association for Asian Studies conference in Chicago at 4pm on the Saturday March 28, 2015. I hoped to make it to her panel on the topic of her book but the AAS refused to allow non-registered people to attend, which seems crazy to me.

I close by observing that the Vietnamese mafia is almost certainly impenetrable by foreigners, so it seems improbable that anyone would achieve the blokey guerilla equivalent to Kimberly's work. Then again, the man from Freakonomics did cross perhaps comparable barriers of race and class.

[*] CHTN Nha Trang and W. L. Pensinger, The Moon of Hoa Binh (p461) suggest that Nguyễn Thị Thuỵ Vũ wrote a couple of books: Lao vào lửa (Embrace the fire?) and Mèo Đêm (Night cat) in the 1960s.

Ex Machina

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$9.50, 4.55pm, Landmark at 2828 Clark, newly refurbished. For Oscar Isaac, who was missing the cat so much that he retreated to a Garden of Eden, grew a mullah beard and created a woman. Or several women. As you do when you're the head of Google. Or a thinly veiled Google. Domhnall Gleeson here is similar to what he was in Frank: the uncool, uninteresting interloper around whom the story nevertheless revolves while more charismatic actors/characters wait on the sidelines. The movie proposes something of an extended Turing test, which is superficially shiny but really just shows the writers aren't as familiar with the idea of closure as Turing was. While I have absolutely nothing against the idea of Swede Alicia Vikander playing the robotic ingenue Ava, cold as an ex-girlfriend, I always thought GOFAI (now "strong" AI) would produce a disembodied mind that would build a body for itself, employing our primitive industrial robots to do so: closer to the Wintermute or Skynet model. I guess the imagined endgame is not so different; see also Bladerunner. Surely there's a thesis to be written comparing the robot rearing techniques of plutocrats and South Africans.

Tali for dinner after, at Taj Mahal on Halsted. Middling.

Manohla Dargis was entranced. Anthony Lane observes the positronic precursor to Isaac's gel.

The Hypocrites: Three Sisters at the Den Theatre.

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Goldstar ticket: $14.00 + $4.25 service fee = $18.25. Spring has disappeared for the now; I left my jacket at home, taking the Weather Underground at its word that the day would be temperate. So I went home to get it first, and took the 70 down Division. Dinner at Pot Pan Thai, the same-old Banmee Delight, and sat in the Den reading the closing parts of Kimberly's Dealing in Desire, about which, more soon. I think it was opening night, as half the chairs were reserved for the press and Jeff Committee.

I can't recall seeing a Checkhov play before. I've probably seen the odd movie based on his work, but the only thing that sticks in my memory is his principle about stage props. The Hypocrites turn this one into a sitcom, where the three sisters embody some social milieu out of time. It's been an age since I watched such things, so the anachronistic whatevers mostly came off as the actresses stepping out of character to me. The odd bit of histrionics didn't help either. Moscow is, of course, Godot, and this somewhat dovetails with their immediately-previous staging of Endgame in that the sisters don't seem to have gotten their timing right. (From the earlier Beckett: "Do you believe in the life to come?" "Mine was always that.") My seat was mostly OK, but the actors spent a little too long with their backs to our side of the room. (Best seats are probably alongside the cafe, on the right as you go in.)

Why this play, why now? — the eternal theatrical question. Kevin Green attempts some kind of answer. Tony Adler at the Reader.

Hal Hartley: Trust

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As fabulous as ever.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

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It's been an age since I last saw this.

Oracle Theatre: Upton Sinclair's The Jungle at the Public Access Theatre.

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Notionally free, booked 2015-03-29, $20 donation after the show. I felt pretty crap after a week on the turps but didn't factor that into my plan to walk up to the theatre in cool to cold weather. The chicken cashew at Asian Mix Cafe is OK but not awesome. I got there quite early and so scored the only chair in the foyer, but was one of the last timely people to go in. I sat next to the bloke who had the worst seat in the house, and by the time things got under way it was beyond packed. This is the story of how migrants to Chicago fared at the tail end of the 19th century, when capitalism was marginally less bridled. A bit too much happened on the killing floor, given the seating layout. The cast is quite able, and there were plenty of cute theatrical devices, but the material was tired: the working stiff as an unimaginative, credulous and continually exploited non-speaker of English. Pretty much what Justin Hayford said at the Reader about its initial run.

Theater Oobleck: Song About Himself by Mickle Maher.

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Perhaps because it has some buy-in from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), the pricing for this show was nicely tiered: $15 suggested, $20 if you felt like it, or free if you're broke. I paid $20.00 + $3.50 service fee = $23.50 online, 2015-04-03. Justin Hayford's long review at the Reader sold it to me. I was a bit too out of it — it's been a long couple of weeks — to really get into this kind of absurdist abstractionalism. The facial descriptions were pretty funny, evoking Frank. It took me a while to recognise Guy Massey from Smokefall, partly because I made the mistake of sitting in the front row, next to one of the access points to the floor, with poor sightlines. His voice is quite distinctive. Colm O’Reilly is a bit Thomas Jay Ryan but more kempt, and Diana Slickman is a bit of a desperate Irish everywoman.

The Long Goodbye

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Very enjoyable on a second go round, four years later.

Griffin Theatre: Balm in Gilead.

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Goldstar: $17.50 + $5.00 = $22.50, 2015-04-06. This is the second show put on in Season on the Line. I walked up to Pot Pan Thai for dinner, and cranked some more PLDI-paper stuff at the Den Theatre cafe beforehand. I was a bit surprised that it was packed on a Monday night, with a week to run. Perhaps because of this, or just because, they started about fifteen minutes late, which was hardly an ordeal as the play lends itself to random horseplay amongst the large cast when nothing in particular is happening. Initially the thing is totally overwhelming, with no centre to the action, and the ambient noise confusing the overlapping dialogue. While the leads where very good (especially the luminous ingenue Ashleigh Lathrop), and the production quite sound, it was difficult for me to really get into this despite deeply enjoying the milieu; the seedy side of NYC was strip mined between 1964 and the 1970s by people like Lou Reed, and sundry junkie flicks, which robs this of any possibility of being transgressive in 2015. It also loses a lot of momentum in the monologue straight after interval. We filed out under the timeless Nina Simone standard Sinnerman.

Upon reflection I was perhaps not so much disappointed with the play as with Chicago: I have yet to find a diner that anchors so diverse a crowd.

Zac Thompson probably saw the definitive version of it in 1980.

The Plagiarists: these saints will burn at the Den Theatre.

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Goldstar ticket: $10.00 + $3.75 service fee = $13.75, 2015-04-08. I had to go to Filter Café as the Den Theatre's cafe was closed, presumably so they could work on the main stage. This was my first time in the Den's theatre 2A, which is relatively small by their standards. The draw was that Layne Manzer is a co-founder, now ex-member. Hmm. Well, this one wasn't for me. Too many references to God (in that constant refrain way), and the blended French only helped me zone out. I didn't know more about Joan of Arc than Leonard Cohen taught me, and this didn't help. The initial scenes promise some humour but by the time we get to the pointy end things are plodding along. The puppet crow (Tony Kaehny) was well done, the large ones standing in for the made-King and judge and whoever less so. Hugh Iglarsh surveys the wreckage.

I had dinner at Olive (a chain Mediterranean fast food place) on North afterwards as my usual kebab joint on the corner near the Den was packed with surly patrons.

Piccolo Theatre: The Venetian Twins

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Goldstar: $13.50 + $4.25 service fee = $17.75, 2015-03-24. Took the Metra up, as always, and had a hot chocolate at Brothers K, as usual, and once again braved the terrible service at the Thai across the road. Their chicken cashnew nut is actually decent, if you can order one. This piece is apparently in a style called "commedia dell'arte", with the cast surplus to any given scene sitting on the edges, producing some music and sound effects. The set had a few cute bits, like the smooth deescalation of Rosaura (Claire Hart) in a fit of pique, nose in the air. Her mercurial, savvy character suited the play perfectly, but the cast is large and IMHO too much time is given over to more tedious (but well acted) characters like Brighella (David WM Kelch, as good here as in Smash) and the moronic twin (Kurt Proepper, who has excellent comedic timing throughout and anchors the humour). Nicole Keating has her flounce down pat (as the stock Colombina), and Caitlin Aase is made for anything with a touch of woe or goth. Max Hinds was only recognisable to me with his mask on. It's long but mostly fun. Given that I had to take the Purple/Red line back, so a late night.

Albert Williams at the Reader.

Theatre Y: Penelope O Penelope

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$22.00, bought 2015-03-29. The all-day rain and thunder put me off riding my bike, so I took the Blue line from State/Lake to Logan Square, and ignoring local-from-work Mark C.'s suggestions, had a hot chocolate at New Wave Coffee and a serviceable dinner at Trike. On the way in a bloke took a look at my tshirt and said "Dirty Three, eh? Jim White." — but wasn't interested in further discussion. I guess he may have caught the drummer of indie choice on a recent tour, which I just found out about, sniff.

Opening night, which of course I was going to be at after their fabulous Happy Days. This long piece is split into two acts and overstuffed with references to similarly trainspot. I can only imagine how flowery it is in the the original French. It opens promisingly with Melissa Lorraine splayed over a sewing table as Dinah, lamenting the absence of her husband Elias (Rich Holton) for two decades, Nabakov style: fire of my loins, etc., and wondering how long she can hold out against her son-of-incestuous-union landlord Ante (Kevin V. Smith). Confusingly Ante has a beef with her bloke because Elias killed Ante's father. I think. Her son Theos (Holton again) returns to much elation. Daiva Bhandari plays Nuritsa, Elias's mother in spirit form, who instead of bringing calm and an aversion to violence, encourages him to stick his sword in Ante. Catalina Vasile appears in video footage as Odsessa, a goddess of something-or-other. Lorraine has another turn as Sofia, a piece of fluff that gives Ante something to play with while he taunts Elias for being poor. It's the Odyssey shuffled into modern times.

The play closed with some evocative, interpretive tango, afterwhich beer (Heineken light, gack) and the customary chatter ensued. I walked home abuzz, wondering what the work will become as the run unwinds. There is, perhaps, too much raw material here. Hope lies with the excellent cast.

Justin Hayford at the Reader. A less generous one from Alan Bresloff, who presumably didn't stick around for the after-show beer and chat. Alex Huntsberger.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

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Still funny, third time around.

The Young Lions

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Meh, apart from Brando, and the occasional spark thrown by Barbara Rush and Dean Martin. Modulo the anti-semitism aimed at Montgomery Clift by his fellow American soldiers, the Nazis do all the heavy lifting; perhaps the Japanese were too hard to humanize in 1958. The young Lee Van Cleef looks weird; perhaps he's too fidgety.

A Touch of Sin

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By Jia Zhangke. I have no idea where I dug this up from. A touch of the ultraviolent, and some loose threads amongst these four almost-entirely freestanding tales. He's clearly been paying attention to Park Chan-Wook and the other Koreans, though his blood sprays and revenge arcs remain works-in-progress. The cinematography is very good; he makes a lot out of the air pollution of China.

Ned Rifle

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The first feature-length Hal Hartley in how long? $12 = $10 + $2 in fees at Facets Cinemateque, the somewhat-close indie arthouse that I only just discovered, with six others at 7pm. He got the band back together (Bill Sage, Martin Donovan, Karen Sillas, Parker Posey, James Urbaniak, Robert John Burke, and not the least, Thomas Jay Ryan), and placed Gen Y in the lead: Liam Aiken full-grown as Ned, and Aubrey Plaza, who I didn't know from Eve. Vintage Hartley this sometimes is, though it also nods at Lolita with a self nudie and some seriously age-inappropriate sex that should perhaps have been comedic or revelatory. (Marla's timeless line from Fight Club springs to mind.) I missed the pivotal deli from Henry Fool, anchored in silence by Hartley's wife. I regret missing out on the kickstarter. I wonder if he'll play that trick again.

Ben Sachs at the Reader spends most of his time reflecting on Hartley himself, though his leader-writer can't get his eyes off Plaza. I can't put her and Adrienne Shelley in the same frame. His review has the salients. Ben Kenigsberg concurs that the writing was on the wall but is now too faded to read.

Angel Island Theatre: Our Bad Magnet

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Goldstar ticket: $12.50 + $4.00 service fee = $16.50. I was last at the Mary Arrchie for Hellish Half Life. The cold caught me out a bit on the walk up from Clybourn/Division; my old woollen jacket was just a tad too light. Lunch at Diwali, afternoon at the Lincoln Park branch of the Chicago Public Library, customary dinner at the Asian Mix Cafe. Some light rain too.

Well, that's three out of three for Layne Manzer. I enjoyed this once-upon-a-time-in-Girvan, Scotland lark, which is rife with cultural references that date each scene to the microsecond. The four blokes are gifted and mostly kept their accents on, slipping only when things got heated. Somewhat confusingly, this is a reheat of a 2008 production by more-or-less the same people: Lane Flores takes on the role of Giggles, while Dan Behrendt (Fraser), Layne Manzer (Paul) and John Wilson (Alan) reprise, and Carlo Lorenzo Garcia directed both.

Tony Adler's review at the Reader confused me; he makes it sound awesome but somehow does not recommend it. Tom Williams.