2015 Top Plays

This year has been a tremendous year for plays. I’ll list my top “ten” plays that I’ve seen in Chicago, New York, and London. These are the plays that I’ve judged as an “A” play on my unofficial list. Enjoy!

In chronological order of seeing them:

  1. Waiting for Godot, Court Theater
    • Godot is one of my favorite plays and the one I’ve seen the most. This is the fourth production I’ve seen! Court Theater did an incredible job of putting this  one with an all African American cast.
  2. Othello, Backroom Shakespeare
    • The whole idea of Backroom Shakespeare is that the actors have practiced once or so and they perform the entire play in a bar. No real costumes, no stage, minimal props. This production of Othello was simply incredible. They managed to convey so much with so little. And live music is always a plus in my book. Not often you get to watch a character die on the table your sitting at.
  3. Sense and Sensibility, Chicago Shakespeare Theater
    • Several years ago, I had read the book and didn’t care for it. However,  this musical version of the play managed to move me. I actually cared about what happened to the characters. So that’s quite an achievement in my book! The singing was great. Period pieces are always fun to watch too.
  4. An American in Paris, Palace Theater (NY)
    • I don’t love many musicals but this ballet/musical set in post-war Paris was stunning. The story isn’t exactly special but the dancing made up for it.
  5. Sleep No More, Punchdrunk (NY)
    • This had to be one of the best things I saw all year. I talked about it at length in this post. To sum it up, imagine a haunted house that you can explore and there is a play (Macbeth) going on. That’s the experience.
  6. Fun Home, Circle in the Square (NY)
    • What a heartfelt play about the main character coming to terms with her sexuality while trying to make sense of her father’s spiral downward. It totally deserved the Tony it won (yes, even over An American in Paris).
  7. Chicago Contemporary Circus Festival
    • There were so many productions that came to the festival that were magnificent. Casus, Tossed and Found, Suhde, The Girlie Show, Pedal Punk, and The Submarine Show were all incredible. We are so lucky that we had this festival to bring these incredible groups to Chicago.
  8. Moby Dick, Lookingglass Theater
    • I think this is the best play I’ve seen at the Lookingglass. They manage to combine circus and play so seamlessly. You can read my review here.
  9. Richard II, Globe Theater (UK)
    • Richard II is one of my favorite plays, which still surprises me since he is not a very good king. But the speeches about England and land get me every time! This was the third production and it did not disappoint. Plus it was at the Globe where we were groundlings. We’d totally do it again. Only 5 pound tickets!
  10. The Tempest, Chicago Shakespeare Theater
    • This was my other favorite play of the year. It combined Shakespeare, Teller’s magic, and the music of Tom Waits. It was like the universe decided to make a play just for me. I have never loved the Tempest but this play made me a believer.
  11. Ride the Cyclone, Chicago Shakespeare Theater
    • Chicago Shakespeare has had a good year. Ride the Cyclone is about 6 teenagers who have a tragic accident on a roller coaster and explore their lives in death. Funny, sad, hilarious, and strange all at the same time.
  12.  My Soul’s Shadow, Manual Cinema
    • I love Manuel Cinema, a theater company that uses shadow puppets, live actors, and more to tell stories. This was a piece  about Frederico Garcia Lorca in conjunction with the Chicago Humanities Festival. This time we had a room to explore before the show began. There were ringing phones that you could pick up to hear poetry in Spanish and English. There were drawers to open to find mysterious and amazing objects. Poems were projected onto walls. The performance was magnificent: a kind of Garcia Lorca in Wonderland. I hope they do it again.

That’s all for now!

Almost Top Ten Movies of 2015

My next list of top media for the year will be movies. Now, it will be readily apparent that I have not seen many films this year. Again, these are based on movies that I have seen and rated an A or higher. I do exclude movies I saw the small screen. Maybe next year.

Top Nine Movies (in chronological order of seeing them)

  1. Red Army – This documentary explores the Soviet Ice Hockey Program. I’m fascinated by cultural practices under Communist or Socialist governments so this doc was everything I could have wanted.
  2. Song of the SeaThis Irish animated movie has to be one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen. It is a story about a little girl realizing her destiny and future in a fairy tale world. It’s from the same people who made The Book of Kells but the plot is stronger and the animations are even prettier.
  3. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry

    This was probably one of my favorites of the year. It’s a documentary about the early years of the feminist movement in the US. It covers a wide swath of the movement looking at different racial, ethnic and LBTQ groups and their priorities, how these groups pushed at the movement and tried to make it more inclusive. It showed that the feminist movement was messy, exclusionary at times. It’s a movie everyone should see.

  4. East Side Sushi

    This film was with the Latino Film Festival in the spring. It’s about a young woman of Mexican descent who is a cook and has a real passion for it. She ends up working at a sushi restaurant and aspires to become a sushi chef. It’s a compelling story about identity, sharing of cultures, and more.

  5. Jurassic World – Yes, I’m putting this on here because I have a dinosaur obsession. Was it the best movie of the year from a critical standpoint? No. But I really had a blast with the film. It gave me what I didn’t even know I wanted. Because dinosaurs.
  6. Inside Out – This was the other top film of the year for me. This animated movie about the emotions inside a young girl is simply brilliant. It’s heartfelt and funny. The animation is tops.
  7. Mr. Holmes – This film is about an aged Sherlock Holmes, played by Ian McKellen, in retirement and dealing with his fading memory. The movie tracks him as he tries to figure out his last case. It’s a really moving story and painful at times in the way that good movies are.
  8. The Martian – While space stories aren’t usually my cup of tea, I really dug this one. This film is about an astronaut who is accidentally left behind (for dead) on Mars and he has to figure out how to survive with limited resources. It’s funny and a nice nod to the wonders of science. Science!
  9. The Suffragette – This film explores the life of a young working woman and her involvement with the suffragette movement in the UK in the early 1910s. It’s a hard movie at times to watch the treatment of the suffragettes, beaten and force fed in jail. But it’s an important piece of the story that is often forgotten.

 

That’s all for now!

Top Books of 2015

Since it is nearing the end of the year, I’m going to spend a few blog posts talking about the best media I’ve read/seen this year. It won’t be a top ten list because some media will have more than 10 and some will have fewer.

From these lists, I will exclude movies and books that I’ve read or seen before. I just finished my rereading the Harry Potter series and watched most of the original Star Wars. I don’t think I have to convince people to read/watch those. And yes, Harry Potter  is still as great (maybe even greater) than when I read it several years ago. Star Wars is also still good but not in the same way that HP is.

This year, I decided to keep track of all the books that I’ve read and grade each one. So the following is a list of the books that received an A or A+.

Best Books (chronologically ordered by when I read them)

  1. The Magicians, Lev Grossman – This is the first book of a trilogy that is about a world of magic where teenagers deal with sex, drugs, ennui, etc. in a way Harry Potter doesn’t. Very well constructed world that riffs off other magical worlds in clever ways.
  2. Department of Speculation, Jenny Offill – This book is one of those most heartbreaking and beautifully written books I’ve read all year. It’s about a woman trying to understand her life and art as her marriage begins to crumble. It was hard for me to read at times, and reduced me to tears, but it is so worth it.
  3. The Elephant Whisperer, Lawrence Anthony – This nonfiction book records Lawrence Anthony’s adventures with a pack of rogue elephants on his reserve in South Africa. One day out of the blue, he got a call asking if he wanted about a dozen elephants. However, if he didn’t take them, they’d be shot. It’s an incredible story about elephant and man.
  4. Phoebe and her Unicorn  and Unicorn on a Roll, Dana Simpson – This YA comic and its sequel is about a young girl who meets a unicorn, named Heavenly Nostrils, and befriends it. The book is described as a new take of Calvin and Hobbes and I think it is fair. It’s a charming series that anyone, young and old, either gender, can get into.
  5. Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, Karen Abbott – Karen Abbott is one of my favorite history writers. She focuses on incredible women in US history that have been lost to the main narrative of American history. Previously, she wrote on the Everleigh Sisters, madams of the Levee district in the Chicago, and Gypsy Rose Lee. This current book deals with four women in the Civil War who act as spies and other roles. Two women are from the North and two are from the South. It’s a wonderful story of bravery and daring-do in the time of war.
  6. The Penelopiad,

    Margaret Atwood – Another book that was beautiful and painful to read. It tells Penelope’s story from the

    Odyssey and Iliad from her perspective. Alternating chapters are in Penelope’s voice and her doomed 12 maidens. Stunning.

  7. A Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith – So yes, a J.K. Rowling book snuck on. When I read Harry Potter, I knew that she had the making of an incredible murder mystery writer. A Cuckoo’s Calling showed that. It’s a great detective series start with Cormoran Strike, an Afghanistan vet who lost his leg in the war. In this case, he attempts to understand the possible suicide of a star model.
  8. The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac, Sharma Shields – This book begins with a young boy watching his mother walk out on his father and him with a man he thinks is Sasquatch. The book beautifully interweaves his lifelong obsession with Sasquatch and his family, all dealing with sometimes nefarious magic.
  9. Consider the ForkBee Wilson – Since I like reading books about history of objects, I devoured this book about cooking utensils. The book looks at tools in the kitchen: pots, spoons, fire, knives and forks. It’s a fascinating way to look at history through these objects.
  10. Heads or Tales, Lilli Carré – This is an exquisite set of short stories in graphic novel form. The graphics are simply astonishing and the stories are full of magic and gravitas.
  11. Wild Seed, Octavia Butler. – This was my first book of Octavia Butler’s, known for her incredible science fiction. It’s an incredible story about Anyanwu, a woman who is a shapeshifter, who encounters a powerful vicious spirit named Domo who is trying to breed his magical race of humans. It’s a beautiful consideration of slavery, love and death, family and duty.
  12. Champagne, Don Kladstrup and Petie Kladstrup – This book is a great and fascinating history of champagne. It’s a tale of invention, daring-do, and much more. The authors wrote Wine and War that looked at the wine industry under the Nazis in WWII. Champagne is a great addition to their history works.
  13. Step Aside Pops, Kate Beaton – Web cartoonist Kate Beaton published her third (second) collection of her comics. These are full of history, literature, philosophy. Extremely silly and erudite. Everything I could have wanted!

That’s all for now!

Jane Addams Day 2015: Recap

AAUW’s Jane Addams Day 2015 was wondrous. I couldn’t be happier with the event. This year, we decided to have the incredible singer and songwriter Kristin Lems as the star of the show. Kristin Lems has a play with songs (as she would put it) about the life of Jane Addams. She and her mother, Carol Silver, reflected on the role that Jane Addams played in their family’s history and the lives of many other women in Chicago. It was an honor to have them both share their songs and stories with us at the event.

The theme of the event was on hope and stories. Or as some may suggest, the event featured the famous story of the Devil Baby. We started with a wonderful history of Jane Addams, AAUW and its role in helping to found Jane Addams Day on December 10th by Lori Switzer. Than we had Ruth Holst read “Hope” by Emily Dickinson to start off the event. In November, at an event in the very same room, I learned that HUll House events would begin with a poem. So I felt it was important to continue the tradition.

Then we had the local historian, my husband Scott Priz, give an overview of the Devil Baby, the one of the first fairy tale or urban legends of Chicago. There’s a lot of variation about the story. Some stories have it in a Catholic household while others in Jewish household. THe common theme is that the husband swears an oath against religion or children that he would rather have the devil himself. His poor wife then ended up bearing a devil child who was said to speak languages, Latin or Greek, dance and swear. For weeks women all over Chicago came to the Hull House and demanded to see the baby.

Later on, Jane Addams would write extensively about the Devil Baby, trying to understand how the tale became so popular so fast and how it seemed to appeal to so many women. As Jane, I presented one of the essays, “Women’s Memories – Reaction on Life, as Illustrated By The Story of the Devil Baby.” In the essay, Jane Addams considers that the story may be a fairy tale that helps people (women) make sense of hte world and see a glimmer of justice. She talked about how the story caused many women to open up themselves to Jane and tell her their often sad stories of wayward sons and husbands. One line from the text speaks to me:

“The story of the Devil Baby may have incited these women to put their experiences more vividly than they had hitherto been able to do. It may have been because they were unconsciously spurred by the hope that a supernatural retribution might intervene even for them, or because they were merely comforted by the knowledge that it had once done so for someone else that they spoke with more confidence that they had had ever done before.”

The Devil Baby story causes women to open themselves up and share their lives with Jane (and presumably other residents). They speak of hope in often hopeless and dire situations. It’s an amazing consideration of the meaning of it all by Jane Addams.

After my speech, Kristin Lems and her mother shared their songs and experiences. Kristin Lems sang about Jane’s call to action to do somsething proactive instead of continuing on the Grand Tour of Europe by talking about her moment of awakening at a bullfight in Spain. This is what Jane called the “Snare of Preparation.” She also shared a wonderful song about Jane Addams’ reaction to Tolstoy after his rather rude interaction with her.

Her mother, Carol Silver, shared several passages from memoirs of the family who had been positively impacted by JAne Addams. The family lived across the street from Hull House and the place and its inhabitants featured in their lives. Jane and her fellow residents saved the life of Carol’s grandmother! And they have a family photo of Carol Silver when she was 2 months old in a sweater knitted by Jane Addams. It was quite moving to hear these stories about people personally impacted by Jane Addams and the Hull House.

Kristin Lems continued with a wonderful Hull House Rag and a delightful song on the Devil Baby as well. She ended the show with a moving song from her recent CD You, Me and All of the Above called “Oh Little Bird” that reflected on the lives of refugees and immigrants who came to the US for a better life. These are the people that Jane Addams tried to help.

What a wonderful event! Thank you again to everyone who came. Thank you to Kristin Lems and Carol Silver for making it a truly fantastic occasion! Thanks to AAUW for hosting the event.

And thank you to Jan Lisa Huttner for inspiring and recommending that I do this in the very beginning!

 

Thoughts about Jane Addams Day

AAUW’s Jane Addams Day 2015 is Saturday, December 5th. This year, we are featuring the amazing Kristin Lems who will sing songs about Jane Addams while she and her mother talk about their family’s amazing personal history with Jane Addams and Hull House. “Jane Addams” herself—that’s me—will also give a speech. This year, Jane will be speaking on the meaning of the Devil Baby. She will seriously consider this interesting phenomena, and explore why the story is so compelling to so many people.

Simply put, Jane Addams is amazing. I think there is hardly anything worthwhile that happened in Chicago, the USA, or the world at large that she didn’t have a hand in. Besides her work at Hull House, she is best known nationally/internationally as the first American woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize! Here is a brief biography of her: http://www.biography.com/people/jane-addams-9176298

I’m still learning about the amazing things she did. At a recent talk for the Chicago Humanities Festival in November about Addams and the arts, I learned that Viola Spolin, who wrote a book on improvisation games, taught the games at Hull House. Her son, Paul Sills,would later found Second City. Damn!

Most folks probably don’t know the backstory of the event. The short version is that Dongola Unit School teacher Cindy Vines and a team of five eighth-graders decided to advocate for a Jane Addams state holiday, since there were no holidays named for women in Illinois at that time (and very few anywhere else). Think about it. Can you think a single day that is dedicated to a woman? State or federal? AAUW-Illinois’ Carbondale Branch, located near the students, decided to support them in this noble task. After tireless hours spent writing letters, making phone calls, visiting legislators, and more, a bill was eventually signed into law in 2006. It became effective on January 1, 2007, so the first Jane Addams Day was celebrated later that year. You can read a fuller account here: http://www.films42.com/feature/09HuttnerHistoryNov21.pdf

And yet, does anyone know when Jane Addams Day actually is? Does anyone celebrate it? It’s December 10th and yes, Hull House certainly knows. And so do AAUW chapters in Metro Chicago. But otherwise, it’s a day that comes and goes with little fuss.

Now here’s the personal part of this story: AAUW-Illinois was committed to celebrating Jane Addams Day (because Jane Addams had once been a member of AAUW-Illinois), and the leader of this effort was Jan Lisa Huttner (who had been a state board member in 2007). Jan, who started as a mentor and is now a good friend, organized annual celebrations every year. In 2010, the first year I went the special guest was Louise W. Knight who had recently published a biography called Jane Addams: Spirit in Action. Ms. Knight’s presentation was called “Jane Addams & the Progressive Tradition.” Jan, wearing a costume designed for her by someone at Timeline Theatre, played our hostess: Jane Addams in person! You can read a fuller account here: http://ff2media.com/thehotpinkpen/2010/11/30/jane-addams-day-4/

Of course, I was hooked immediately. For several years, I had been participating in historical reenactments all around the city. I was literally giving voice to Chicago women, famous and infamous. I played Minna Everleigh (famous madam of the Levee), a temperance worker, denizen of Captain Streeter’s Streeterville, a vendor of snake oil, and much more. When Jan moved to Brooklyn in 2012, she suggested that I become Chicago’s new Jane Addams. She connected me with Lori Switzer of AAUW Chicago, and Lori became a big advocate for ideas I had for 12/10/12—the auspicious date of my debut as Jane.

At the time, I was used to participating in other people’s events, but I had never put on one of my own before. This was an opportunity to celebrate one of Chicago’s greatest people. It would be my first event and it would be showcasing the words of such an amazing woman.  I spent time researching, writing and directing the event, focusing on one of the many projects Jane worked on. I chose the Pullman Strike because she had written a very powerful essay “A Modern Lear” that looked closely at the relationship between industry and labor. Needless to say, it’s all history from there. This is year three at Hull House for me. I hope it will be an annual tradition for years on end. Each year would deal with a different area that Jane dealt with.

Also, this process taught me that I could plan long term projects without the structure of school. Without a doubt, this led to my oral history project, which is now on the verge of 50 interviews.

I’m excited about this year. I hope you will all join us at 2 PM at the Resident’s Dining Hall at the Hull House Museum. I promise that it will be magical.

 

Jane Addams

Logo by Dan Carroll

 

Dan Carroll (Logo Design) is an editor and freelance cartoonist based in Chicago. His comic work can be seen at http://www.herecomesyourdan.com. For editing or design work, he can be reached at dan@stickfigurehamlet.com.