Review: Chicago’s Magritte Exhibition

This past weekend we went to see “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary 1926 – 1938” exhibition at the Art Institute. I had seen an iteration of this exhibition at the MOMA back in November but I was curious to see it here in Chicago. Also, Rene Magritte is one of my favorite painters. His work is the inspiration for my named Bowler Hat.

I think I liked the Chicago version better than the NY show. It was fascinating to see if and what changed between the shows. Very infrequently do you get to follow an exhibition to multiple cities. The shows had very different feels to them. Also, I’m fairly certain that there were pieces in the Chicago show that weren’t in the NY show. The MOMA show had a very open feel. There were paintings all along the walls. And at the entrance, there was a wall of photos of Magritte.

The Chicago show really emphasized the mystery. The walls were painted a dark blue and it felt much more closed off, almost labyrinthine. You never knew where you were going to turn into the next gallery. The dark color also really emphasized the paintings. In many paintings, there were candles that seemed to pop out. And there is this long hallway with a series of walls running the middle of it. On each wall, there was a single painting. It made it seem mysterious and exalted. You could really focus on each painting individual. It made the paintings even more incredible.

Towards the end of the exhibition, there were these display cases that were made to look like shipping containers. In the boxes, there were photos of Magritte, posing as some of his paintings or posing with them, illustrations, and much more. This was a better presentation of these photos than in NY. You could easily walk past them there. Here, I could spend time looking at each piece. There are amazing photos of Magritte playing with his own paintings. One photo plays with “Clairvoyance” that depicts a man painting a bird while looking at an egg. Brilliant work. Well, the photo shows Magritte sitting in front of the painting in the same pose as the artist, staring at nothing. What a lovely little inside joke!

The final room had three paintings that looked like they were hung as a triptych. These were large magnificent paintings. There was little else in the room, save a bench and a sweet wall explanation about this incredible house of Magritte’s patron. The center painting titled “On the Threshold of Liberty” has eight panels showing different motifs like fire, a woman’s naked torso, a forest, bells, and more. There is a cannon in the foreground aimed at the naked torso. Do the eight compartments refer to the elements needed to create liberty? Or are the eight compartments a different representation of liberty, such as a woman’s torso representing freedom of love or fire embodying freedom from want or cold? Is the canon a force for liberty or against it? I love how his paintings generate so many questions.

The painting on the left is a larger painting of the shoe feet. It looks like bare feet have been made into shoes. In this larger painting, there are a few coins forgotten nearby. It’s a harrowing image. I keep thinking that it should have a title like “The picture of poverty.” Absolutely astonishing.

On the right side of the triptych is a painting that is completely new to me. It shows a grassy field with a lane running through it. On the lane, there are random objects like a lion, a tuba, and more. Ads for the exhibition have the tagline “Rethink Traffic Jam.” But I think that this diminishes the work. Throughout the exhibition, they talk about his play with the relationship between words, objects and art. He liked to question the way we think about objects in themselves and with each other. This piece plays with expectations about place and time. Lions and tubas don’t belong in grassy fields. Why are they there? What about the trail of objects behind them? It also begs the question of the arbitrariness of objects that belong together. Why not a tuba with a lion?

What a wonderful exhibition.

So go out and see this wondrous exhibition before it closes on October 13th.

And regular readers, I’m going to take a little hiatus this week from the blog. Don’t worry, I’ll be back with more adventures but I’ve got some other projects to attend to.

Stay tuned for more mischief!

Review: The Boxer

On Saturday evening, we went to see The Boxer at the Athenaeum Theater. A friend recommended it to me. The play is effectively a silent movie but as a play. So how does that work? Basically, there is no dialogue; the actors convey the plot through their actions, occasional mouthing of lines, There are some subtitles (and videos) projected overhead. A pianist played throughout the show just like in silent films. It was a charming production.

The basic plot is about a woman who dresses as a man so she can do men’s work. She ends up meeting a boxer. Through a twist of fate, she becomes his trainer for the big fight against a formidable enemy. It’s a sweet and funny tale.

One of the neat things about the show was that the stage had sepia lighting. Everything was bathed in that soft orange color, which enhanced the old timey aspect to the show. Overall, the show captured the spirit of silent movies. The humor hit the right note; much of it was delightfully physical, a necessity given the general lack of words. The characters did a great job in defining themselves through wonderful faces, postures, etc. I think that silent films/plays have to be more physical than talkies. You liked the main character and wanted her to succeed.

And the play continued to confirm my thesis that parties are so much better in silent movies. There is a great scene where all the characters dance in a bar and it’s just so incredibly lively. I think that my impression about the awesomeness of parties is because these films lack words. Without verbal cues, you have to convey the joy of a party through the exaggerated motions, or through dancing. And nothing says a party than a lot of dancing.

One thing that was a bit off for me was an extended dream sequence. It involved fairies conveying the main character around and other mischief but it didn’t really flow with the rest of the show. They even turned off the sepia light so it visually looked different. Generally, I’m not a fan of dream sequences (though I do like surreal things so go figure the confusion). This scene just didn’t work for me.

Despite my one qualm, I think they really did a bang up job. The playwright really kept to the era and avoided throwing in anachronisms or really obvious pop culture references. It was a play written now but in the spirit of the 1910s and 1920s. I really dig that. I’ve seen some lovely silent films but they get too clever and try to muck around with the period. I have the same issue with many murder mysteries about the era as well. I love my steampunk but I’m not sure I like it as silent film material. However, that’s a rule that has been broken by exceptional work.

I hope The Boxer is one of many such productions in the future. I can’t wait to see what’s next. It’s playing until August 31st.

That’s all for now!

Listening Room with Nate DiMeo of the memory palace

On Thursday night, I went to another “Listening Room” hosted by Third Coast International Audio festival at the Logan Theater in Logan Square. This was a special Listening Room since it was a conversation with Nate DiMeo of the memory palace. I’ve only heard Memory Palace once or twice before on 99% Invisible. Basically, it’s a podcast about true stories in history. But it’s really more than that. Nate DiMeo creates an entire world with each piece that you become part of. And it doesn’t matter what it’s about. He’s just that good of a storyteller.

The first story “Distance” that they played was about a young artist in the early 19th century. He receives a commission to paint Lafayette in DC so he left his pregnant wife. After several days of travel, he sits waiting for this important person, when he gets a knock at the door. When he answers, he finds an exhausted messenager who has a short message: “Your wife is convalescent.” The artist immediately gets on his horse, rides non-stop for several days. He arrives to find that not only has his wife passed away, she was buried during his time of travel. Heartbroken, he decides to invent something to prevent these things from happening again. So he invents the telegraph. This was Samuel Morse.

Another piece they played was “Picture a Box”. It’s one of the host’s favorite pieces on radio. It’s the incredible story of a slave who mailed himself to freedom. Go check it out because you have to listen to the story to do it justice. It’s not the story you think it is. It’s about the true meaning of freedom in a way that few think about it.

When the host asked about how much embellishment Nate DiMeo adds, he explained that he tried to stay away from playing fast and loose with the facts. He explained that his background as a journalist makes him want to focus only on what is known. And if he does take liberties, he bases it on fact so that he can defend the choice.

In addition to the memory palace, Nate DiMeo has been working on the miniseries about astronaut wives. So since he was spending a lot of time on the subject of space, he recently did a piece called “The Glowing Orbs.” It’s about John Glenn’s experience with glowing orbs as he orbited the earth. Out of nowhere, he finds himself surrounded by these beautiful orbs that reaffirms his faith in God. The piece is a beautiful meditation on belief. In the Q&A, Nate DiMeo explained that he’s more of an atheist but you had to think about other people’s beliefs seriously. However, he thinks that the beauty of the moment is even heightened when you do find out what the glowing orbs turn out to be.

My favorite piece of the evening was “Dreamland.” It’s about a Coney Island amusement park by the same name. Nate DiMeo creates this beautiful image of the park, describing all of the wonders it contained. You felt like you were there for a few minutes. Such powerful radio. He told us that his five year old daughter loves this piece and would go to sleep to it for awhile. It’s made her understand what her father does even for a moment.

And he apparently wrote some episodes and the book for Parks and Recreation. That’s just icing on the cake.

So I have a new podcast to check out. Huzzah! I love Listening Rooms.

That’s all for now!

Review: Dinner of Our Discontent

Last night, we saw Aloft’s production of The Dinner of Our Discontent by Shayna Swanson at the Chopin Theater. It’s a circus show about five terrible sisters who return to the family home to mourn their recently deceased parents. They fight with each other; they mourn together. It’s a daring show with some incredible circus on several new apparatuses (at least new to me). Spoilers ahead.

It started with Molly Plunk performing on the tight wire. She played the butler who cared for the parents and is completely distraught by their deaths. She seems to have a drinking problem and the act is a nod to that. She skillfully jumps across the wire, even jumping front to back on it while facing the audience, which is really difficult. She even balances with a bottle of wine and a glass while dancing across the wire. It was quite the impressive act.

One of the newer apparatuses were these giant beaded necklaces. Two performers, Natalie Abell and Mary Jane Schroeder, play identical twins who try to have their own distinct personalities but fail at it. They find each other in the same clothing, down to the knickers, reading the same book. So in an attempt to vary it up, they each find this beaded necklace to assert themselves…only to find the other sister has done the same. So they have this amazing acrobatics act where they weave in and out of the necklaces. They even lift one another other with the necklaces. It’s rather novel.

Later on, they perform on two ropes, each end attached to the ceiling, sort of like a u. They twist and roll themselves in the rope, while the other sister mirrored the actions. It was a coming to grips with each other. They are twins who really can’t do without the other. It was astonishingly beautiful.

Another duo aerial act was with Dana Dugan and Leah Loer. Dana Dugan plays the rebel of the family, doing whatever she wants, while Leah Loer is the prim and proper sister who is very successful. They perform on an apparatus that I’m going to call the chandelier, since it hangs over the table. They weave and balance all over this round metal cylinder as they brawl and come to turns with the other sister. There were some amazing drops. At one point, Dana Dugan stood on the legs of Leah Loer, and then dropped down, only to be caught in the armpits by Leah Loer’s feet. Really spectacular.

Then Zoe Sheppard, who plays the youngest sibling, performed on the chains. I’ve seen Zoe Sheppard perform on the silks in these amazing acts for several years. The chain really upped the ante. While she undertook these impressive drops, and holds, there was this incredible audible quality to the chains that really enhanced the experience. As she pulled the rope to set up for various postures, it would clang and clatter. It was a nice visual and audible symbol of her plight as the youngest daughter who is forgotten but seems to carry much of the emotional baggage.

The final act was an incredible duo acrobatics act by Will Howard and Destiny Vinley, who play the deceased mother and father. The act was one of the best acts about love; these two people clearly cared for each other deeply. At one point, Will Howard lay on the ground holding Destiny Vinley upright on his hands. He proceeds to roll over several times while still holding her upright. Simply marvelous. And that’s only a small part of the piece.

All in all, the circus was really impressive as described above. My only qualm was that I would have liked to see a bit more characterization of all the characters. You get a vague sense of them but I think it could be deepened. I’m not sure I completely got how these five sisters were terrible people. Maybe they’re mildly unpleasant but not horrifying.

So go on and go out to see The Dinner of Our Discontent at the Chopin Theater before it closes on August 25thCheck it out!

That’s all for now!

Review: Cirque Shanghai

On Wednesday, we went to see Cirque Shanghai’s “Shanghai Warriors” at Navy Pier. Cirque Shanghai has been coming to Chicago in the summer for many years; I think that I’ve seen them the last four years. I consider it a real treat to see them. The show is very different from Circo Cheapo. It’s more about the spectacle and tricks than Circo, which focuses more on the artistry. But I find that it’s always fun and worthwhile to go. Plus the tickets are fairly cheap too (compared to the tickets in Las Vegas). The theme was Shanghai Warriors so they had some giant warrior statues at various points. There was martial arts but I was there for the circus.

This year was good fun. It started out with Chinese pole but with a twist. The poles were not secured at the bottom so they swung back and forth. Throughout the act, performers would breeze up and down the pole like it was the ground. And then several performers would swing poles at the same time and leap from one to another. Pretty freaking sweet.

My favorite act was these incredible duo acrobats. The base acrobat would do the amazing feat of swinging the flyer acrobat around his body like she was made of nothing. He’d would be lying down and then he’d flip her on top of him while he stood up. Amazing feats. But what made it even more impressive is that the flyer would do point throughout the act. In ballet, point is when the dancer goes on his or her toes; it’s really quite difficult and can hurt your toes. So this acrobat would do amazing acrobatic things and then balance on her toe. The most incredible was when she balanced on her toes on his head. It was really magnificent. I’ve never seen toe being employed like this before. I love when performers combine art forms. My all time favorite juggling act was in the Winter Circus in Paris where the artists combined juggling with tango. So beautiful.

There was also a wondrous duo silks act. It was a little different since the silks were shortened. They actually tied up the bulk of the silks at the top. However, they really made use of the space; the performers would fly around the stage. At one point, the male silks artist grasped the silks behind him and flew around the stage like the silks were wings. He looked like a butterfly with pure white wings. I’ve never seen that before. They also did some drops where the woman would be caught in the feet or arms of the guy while they soared through the air. And they even did the neck strap that had the lady twirl through the air. Very neat.

There was also a fun foot-juggling act. I have a soft spot in my heart for foot juggling since it impresses me how much people can do with their feet. This was a drum inspired act where the women would juggle drum-like objects on their feet. They even tossed a drum between them. Very cool. My only qualm was that they had drums set up to be played…but the women didn’t actually play them. As a percussionist, that was a little disappointing. But it was some awesome circus nonetheless.

There was another round of the wheel of death. This is a giant apparatus where two person-sized circles are on either end of a rotating apparatus. Think of a Ferris wheel with only two cars at either end. Performers get in the circles and spin the entire apparatus and then do amazing feats of daring do inside and outside the circles. As I mentioned previously in my post about Cirque de Soleil’s Zarkana, I think Cirque Shanghai does it better. I think they push it more (for better or for worse). The audience gasped at various points during this performance. You aren’t always sure that it is actually safe. (I also just read that an acrobat did injure himself during a show in November 2013 of Zarkana so yeah…) But the performers did things like go blind folded while walking the outside of the wheel or jump rope. It was thrilling to say the least.

And then there is the finale. We call it the sphere of death. Basically the show lowers a giant sphere from the ceiling. The act has five motorcyclists driving inside of this sphere in amazing loop de loops. It’s an incredible visual effect with the motorcycles, each with their own colored lights, swirls around this sphere. My only thing is that I’ve seen the show for four years and this has always been the finale. I’m not saying that it isn’t impressive and I’m sure it’s incredibly dangerous. But I’d like to see a different finale. That’s just me.

Overall, I’m very pleased we went. The show is on to September 1st. Check it out!

Afterwards, we had just enough time to get on the Ferris wheel to see the fireworks. It was a Wednesday night at Navy Pier in the summer. It’s a tricky thing to get the timing down but we managed it. The fireworks started going when we were in line inching closer to the front. I was worried we’d see the entire show from the line. But we managed to be on the Ferris wheel for the second half of the show. We saw the grand finale from the top, which was simply magical and brilliant. Highly recommended it if you can manage it.

That’s all for now!


Review: Manual Cinema Workshop

On Tuesday night, we went to see a workshop of Manual Cinema at the Museum of Contemporary Art. They have been working on their new piece Mementos Mori that looks at our relationship to death and dying in this new digital world. I have seen Manual Cinema twice before; the first time as part of the Studs Terkel Festival in May, and the second time with their full length piece Lula del Ray later in May. We got to see about thirty minutes of their new work that they are prepping for a Chicago Puppet Festival in January.

For those of you unfamiliar with Manual Cinema, they are a shadow puppet trope. But it’s more than shadow puppets. Think of film but with puppets. They seamlessly move from one scene to another creating entire worlds with paper and projectors. Some characters are live actors in silhouette. It’s truly the bees knees.

This piece was just a taste of the full show. I won’t go into too many details since the show is in process of being created. One major thing that was different about this show was that they were using three screens. There were two screens that they used as backdrops and then a third screen, front and center, where the main action happened. They would switch between the two screens to project onto the third. The other shows had only one screen. This three screen set up allowed for quicker transitions. It was also interesting to see how they would prep one screen for the next scene. It was wonderful to watch the physical aspect of the show as the performers ran from projector to projector or screen to screen, etc.

The thing that I love about Manual Cinema is how they mimic how we see the world. They effectively replicate the ambiguity and fuzziness of the world around us. It’s brilliant. They strive to get down the visual cues from our day to day experiences. For instance, a character rode her bike on busy streets. To give you the sense of riding on a Chicago street, the puppeteers waved car puppets really fast past her. You could barely see the shape of the car, but you knew what it was. Or in another scene, you see birds above, circling. They swirl around and eventually you aren’t even certain they are birds save for the fact that you had just seen them. Their attention to detail is magnificent, whether it’s moving the little girl’s feet while she’s bored or moving her eyelashes.

During the Q&A, an audience member asked why they were interested in the digital world when their medium choice was so analog. The directors commented that they got together in a room. Surprisingly, they found that 20 somethings were interested in death and the digital world. That was how they decided on the topic for the show. It’s timely now that we live in a digital world and are still figuring out how to deal with death in the cyberworld. The past few weeks have shown public mourning on Twitter and Facebook for celebrities and other people. It’s a very important area that needs to be explored. I think that it will be really great to look at the digital world and death through puppets; it will help pare down the extraneous noise and focus on the essential aspects to our interactions with each other and death.

Also, they talked about how they experimented with representing the digital world, between puppets of iPhones with puppet fingers to showing screens. I think they are still thinking about how to do that so it’ll be exciting to see what they come up with. In the Q&A, the directors talked about how they also used some film in the story where they projected running film onto a puppet backdrop. Fascinating!

I’m looking forward to seeing the finalized piece in January with the rest of the festival.

That’s all for now!

City Alive with Dreams Part 3

This past weekend, I attended (and participated in) another performance of Carron Little’s City Alive with Dreams at the Chicago Cultural Center as the artist in residence. I’ve been following the performances of this series for the past couple of months at the Green Mill and the Hyde Park Art Center. I was very excited to see how the series developed. It was wonderful!

This next step in the series was a mental and physical journey. It started inside the north lobby of the building where a performer, dressed in bright pink, blue and silver, asked me if I wished to get a head massage in the Temple of Dreams. When I agreed, I was led up the stairs to the GAR Rotunda, or the Grand Army of the Republic Rotunda, which has an incredible stained glass roof. There were four mats and pillows laid out like a plus sign on the floor beneath it. Two were bright blue and two were bright pink. I was told to stand by a mat and wait.


I waited a few moments when a door opened from nowhere, and people dressed like priests and priestesses processed out. Some of them were wearing long robes that were both pink and blue while some wore black. They all wore amazing shaped masks in pink, blue and silver. They circled around us once and then stopped in place.

Two performers or priests stepped forward and began singing a haunting song. Their voices echoed perfectly to the room. I felt like I was transported to Ancient Greece to a temple ceremony. It felt that this room was built for this sole purpose.


When the last notes drifted away, a tribute to the dream Gods, I was asked by a performer to lie down on the mat for my head massage. I did so and had a really relaxing head massage. When it was over, I was given a crystal that was to be given to the Queen of Luxuria. When my turn came, I gave my crystal to her and we discussed my thoughts in the temple. I couldn’t help but think of how the body was an external frame to the known world. There is me, defined by the body, and then everything else. But dreams are how the body pushes beyond its limits. Queen of Luxuria wrote down a sentence of my thoughts and instructed me to go on the next stage of this journey.

I was shown outside to the South entrance of the Cultural Center. There I found a masked performer dressed in all black with white angel wings. I gave my sentence to the musician who spent several minutes improvising it into a song. It was rather splendid to hear my thoughts turned into music.

I really liked this piece. I loved how it was a journey of the mind and the body. The journey of the mind came from the haunting music and the head massage. They allowed me to relax and drift. There were three women who participated with me. One of them told me how fantastic the experience was. She told me that she works with the elderly and it could be stressful and emotional. This experience gave her the rare opportunity to relax.

In her artist statement, Carron Little talked about how “It was believed in Ancient Greece that dream interpretation was the highest form of healing.” I can see that spirit resound throughout the piece. People had the opportunity to relax, to think and Queen of Luxuria would listen and guide the participant. It was liberating.

But there was also the physical journey throughout the building. There were four stages of the piece from the north lobby to the GAR Rotunda, another room, and the south entrance of the Cultural Center. It felt like a pilgrimage that ended in enlightened and personal song. And at the end, I felt like I was part of a larger piece to the dream gods. Together, the performers and all the other participants collectively wrote a song and/or poem together, a line at a time. One aspect of the work is the interest and consideration of the cities as bodies, people as part of the larger whole. I feel that this collective song creation was a metaphor for the city at large, lots of pieces working together to make a whole.

There will be another performance in the series on Friday, August 22nd at Buttercup Park at 7pm. Check it out!

That’s all for now!