Day of the Dead Exhibit Combines Old Traditions with New Ideas

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The quilted installation "Quilting Souls" by El Stitch y Bitch

“Quilted Souls” an installation created by textile artists of El Stitch y Bitch, is exhibited at the National Museum of Mexican Art. The quilt includes tributes to people honored by the crafters.

The National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen is a welcome riot of color on a gray, wind-bitten Thursday. The small institution, founded in 1987, buzzes with chatter as a cluster of young children are herded into the main exhibit: “Hanal Pixan Food for the Souls: Dia de los Muertos 2012”. There, the traditions of Mexican culture and contemporary ideas have been brought together–sometimes surprisingly–to honor the cycle of life and death.

Dia de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead”, is a holiday indigenous to Mexico, when families celebrate and remember the lives of deceased loved ones. In the U.S., the festival has become synonymous with smiling skeletons and bright colors, but for Mexican families the two-day period is spiritual, even sacred.

“It’s…very intimate, very personal,” said Alicia Herrera, the Gallery Education Coordinator at the museum. Many of the rituals occur overnight between Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, including visiting the deceased’s grave, cleaning and hanging fresh flowers, and keeping a vigil.

“The human reaction is to have a fear of what will happen when we die,” Herrera said, but “in Mexican culture, its deeply rooted in Mesoamerican history…there was an honoring to the fact that we die…it’s balancing between life and death.”

The exhibit, which runs from now until Dec. 16, is probably the most anticipated, and certainly the most well-attended exhibit each year. In 2011, the museum saw 160,000 visitors, 75,000 of which were for the Day of the Dead exhibit alone.

The main draw are the vibrant ofrendas–altars decorated in honor of deceased loved ones. In Mexican homes, the ofrendas are traditionally covered in tablecloths and adorned with candles, fragrant incense, flowers, lacy colorful paper flags, favorite foods and items representing the person or people the altar honors.

While many of the sensual trappings of home ofrendas–burning candles and incense, fresh food or flowers, even water–have to be rendered in wax or fabric for a three-month long exhibit, the intentions behind the altars are nevertheless visible.

One particular altar is eye-catching not because of its brilliant colors, but its style. Gone is the traditional table, replaced by a handmade quilt that hangs from the wall. Black and white photographs on the quilt squares are interspersed with embroidered skulls, flowers, and other details. At its foot sit baskets of wax bread and embroidered pillows, on a bed of bright yellow and orange silk flowers. One of the pillows reads, in green thread, “El Stitch y Bitch”, the name of the group of textile artists who came together to create this unique installation for the exhibit.

“It was a great experience,” said Kristina Roque, one of the members who worked on the quilt, in a phone interview. “It was nice…to see everyone’s squares put together and see everyone else’s stories in the quilt.”

Roque worked on a square dedicated to her grandmother, who died in 2003, but taught all of her grandchildren how to embroider first. She tried to imitate her grandmother’s style, and incorporated small items from her life, like antique buttons. While she worked on it, she said, she told stories about her grandmother and in turn heard family recollections about her grandmother and her skill with a needle.

“She never called it art,” Roque recalled. “But she was definitely an artist.”

Rachel Wallis also worked on the quilt, embroidering details and helping assemble the final product. Though Day of the Dead is not a tradition in her family, she was moved by her friends’ dedication to the project.

“It’s about reconnecting…and celebrating the parts of their lives that they enjoyed,” Wallis said of the experience during a phone interview. “It’s [the quilt] not traditional…but there’s so much love that went into it and all the people who made parts of it….so in that way I think this is…very fitting.”

Other installations both embrace and challenge the traditional images of Day of the Dead.

Amidst all the color, a plain, black altar sits in a corner. It is styled like a window, with animals–a cow, a rabbit, a duck, a turtle–peering through at the visitor. The animals are so arresting that it takes a moment to notice the blood dripping from the window. In scrolling white script above the picture are the words “Consumes mi dolor…mi muerte.” You consume my pain. My death.

The installation, by artist Alma Dominguez, is meant to be an altar dedicated to the exploitation of animals killed for human consumption. And it generated a bit of a stir when the exhibit first opened.

“I think some people were taken aback,” by the installation, said Cesareo Moreno, head curator of the museum, in a phone interview. He noted that the people who were most surprised by Dominguez’s altar were those who came regularly to the annual exhibit, and who likely had family ofrendas back at home. While animals are important to Mexican families, he explained, they are not traditionally a part of Day of the Dead rituals.

“I think if it had been a painting, it might have made it easier to understand,” Moreno said. “They [visitors] don’t always stop and think ‘this is the artist’s perspective on a cause’ and so are a bit surprised.”

Dominguez could not be reached for comment.

Dominguez’s altar is thought-provoking, but hers is not the only contribution that asks visitors to think about an issue. A pair of acrylic paintings by Los Angeles artist David Botello at first look like traditional Day of the Dead scenes: a man and a woman, their faces painted like skulls, and dressed in traditional Mexican garb cover a colorful, textured canvas.

But in the background politicians, tanks, guns and a woman in red about to be mowed down by a tractor share space with depictions of the Christian cross, a Muslim mosque, and the Jewish Star of David, a question mark dangling from one of its points.

“I…want people to see it,” Botello, speaking via phone from his Los Angeles home, said of both the paintings and their sober details. He wants to question pointless war and violence, he said, as well as bring awareness to the negative impact of religious fundamentalism in the world.

“It’s up to us as human beings to go up against the warlords,” Botello added, referring to the human characteristics of the paintings’ man and woman, which were modeled after a photograph of himself and his wife. He references the painting of the woman:  “She…represents Mother Nature…rising up against…the people who want to make war. She’s going to bury them in flowers.”

Indeed, the green tanks and talking politicians are wading in a field of blossoms.

Day of the Dead traditionally is meant to celebrate life. Though they are not traditional in their approach, these artists maintain that core of this Mexican holy day. For some, like Dominguez and Botello, it is an opportunity to highlight social struggle, and invite viewers to engage in a discussion about it. For others, like Wallis, Roque and the other textile artists of El Stitch y Bitch, taking these liberties are about honoring the lives of friends and family in a fun, meaningful way.

But for all, the installations at the Day of the Dead exhibit embody on crucial similarity: they are faithful not just to who they honor, but also the artists themselves.

Roque says it succinctly when describing her quilted tribute to her grandmother:

“We made it [Day of the Dead] our own.”

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Museum of Contemporary Photography: Big Collections Hampered by Small Space

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At first, it’s easy to overlook the Museum of Contemporary Photography. The gallery, run by Columbia College Chicago, is nestled on the corner of Michigan Ave and Harrison St., next to the flamboyant Spertus Museum. It’s as reserved inside as outside: warmly lit, with white walls and simple black frames surrounding its photographs. The atmosphere inside is calm, even austere.

The main collection, “Jan Tichy Works with the MOCP Collection”, which opened on Oct. 12 and will run until Dec. 23, marches down the walls and up the stairs at the far end of the room. Smaller images flank the museum’s party piece:

"Shanghai" shot by Shi Guori in Oct. 2005

The Shanghai skyline, shot by Shi Guorui in October 2005. The print was purchased by the Museum of Contemporary Photography in 2010. Photo credit Lancette Arts Journal.

a panoramic view of Shanghai, China, shot by Shi Guorui in October 2005. What makes the photograph so eye-catching is not just its size but its inverted colors. The city is ghostly white, the river and sky are black. The picture has the most ‘wow’ factor, and its placement on the wall directly across from the entrance invites the audience in to see more.

Unfortunately, few of the other photographs in this gallery live up to “Shanghai”. While the collection is a pleasing combination of portraits and abstracts, none of the photos are as arresting. The closest contender was “Bicicletas en Domingo” by Manuel Alvarez Bravo. A 1966 black and white photo of four bicyclists riding through the desert, “Bicicletas” had a quietly nostalgic feeling, evoking images of cowboys on horseback.

The mezzanine and second-floor galleries are a maze of collections and dizzying photo montages on video screens. One photo series that stood out, “Death in the Doorway” shot by Dorothea Lange–four increasingly close-up images of what appears to be a body wrapped in a blanket in the door of an old house or barn–is fascinating, but disappointingly placed on a small strip of wall high above the staircase, where the viewer cannot truly admire it unless they are coming down the stairs and tall enough to see it at eye level.

Placement trouble continues throughout the second floor. An extensive “Changing Chicago” project is crowded  in one room, where clusters of photographs almost reach the ceiling, making them difficult to view comfortably. The museum is small, but it seems there is enough room on the first floor gallery for the much-larger “Changing Chicago” exhibit and the other photos could be moved up to the second floor, giving more room to all.

Back downstairs, though, there is a gem hidden behind a black curtain just off the museum’s entrance. Unlike the rest of the gallery, this room is darkened, and instead of photographs, a trio of projectors cast images on the walls. The best of these, “Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation” by Aaron Siskind, is a series of men tumbling through the air. The original photographs have had their colors inverted like “Shanghai’s” , the men’s white silhouettes twisting against a black background. This projection, high on a far wall, adds to the exhilarating sense that the people are falling, or flying, through space.

The Museum of Contemporary Photography has a great collection and some of their pieces–” Shanghai” and “Levitation” especially–are worth the visit. But poor placement and limited space hamper the exhibit’s abilities to showcase their photographs. Until the museum either expands or re-organizes its collections, a viewer will likely leave feeling vaguely disappointed and wondering if more great photographs were there, but unable to be seen.

“Persistence of Invention”: Old Objects, New Life

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"Eucalol" by Ellen Lanyon

“Eucalol”, painted by Ellen Lanyon. This, and other paintings along with many of her historical inventions can be viewed at the DePaul Art Museum in her exhibit “Persistence of Invention”. Photo credit: Art Institute of Chicago

At first glance, Ellen Lanyon’s painting “Eucalol” looks like a box full of brightly-colored candies, or maybe bits of tissue paper. The box, wearing the South American soap brand that gives the painting its name, is decorated with little flaming cauldrons, giving the box the appearance of a gift.

So it comes as a bit of a shock when you realize the bright candies are actually dead hummingbirds, lined tidily beak to claw. The only thing odder than this realization is that the birds’ Eucalol coffin actually exists in real life.

“I bought the box years ago,” at the Salvation Army, Lanyon said in an interview. She sat in her exhibit as she talked, pausing briefly to smile at the painting. She had been impressed by the careful preservation of the birds, how lifelike they looked even after years.

“Eucalol”, and the box of birds on which it is based, is part of Lanyon’s “Persistence of Invention” exhibit, at the DePaul Art Museum. The exhibit, running from Sept. 14 through Nov. 18, is an unusual mix of paintings, lithographic sketches, and a museum-like collection of curios from bygone decades: old cherry pitters, a purse made from the claw of an alligator, seashells, and of course, the Eucalol box.

She had been collecting these objects from flea markets, thrift shops and other places for years, Lanyon explained. She began drawing and painting her collection as a way to both record their existence and comment on the intersection–and imposition–of manmade objects on the natural world.

“It’s a fact of life that man is destroying the earth,” Lanyon said. “Those are my concerns…its [invention] moving too fast towards serious problems.”

But even as she is critical of the negative impact of industry on the environment, Lanyon wants to preserve some of those early inventions, not just on canvas, but in physical form.

“Ellen has this caretaking collector’s philosophy regarding her collection of objects,” said Mary Ann Papanek-Miller, a fellow artist and the chair of DePaul’s Fine Arts department. She had viewed “Persistence of Invention”, and attended Lanyon’s lecture on Oct. 2. Papanek-Miller said she was impressed not just by Lanyon’s paintings, but the way she cared for the actual items themselves.

“She had a…fantastic photo of her studio,” that she showed during the lecture, Papanek-Miller continued. “It looks like it’s almost part museum, where her objects become very well-regarded and prominent.”

Unlike “Eucalol” many of the items Lanyon depicts in her pictures are mechanical–an old microscope, an early toaster oven–but these machines share more in common with the dead hummingbirds than one would think: they are all part of a pre-digital era Lanyon worries the world is forgetting.

“It’s kind of like by collecting and portraying objects as I have, it’ll remain in visual memory for people,” Lanyon said. “I…feel contemporary invention is much more robot-like…it takes away something.”

For Louise Lincoln, director of the DePaul Art Museum, it is interesting to see a range of Lanyon’s work, pieces which span decades of different influences and different points in her artistic development. Lincoln knew of Lanyon’s work from her prior contribution to a DePaul art exhibit: the 2008 “1968: Art and Politics in Chicago” which looked at art in Chicago during and after the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

“She did this terrific…3D sculpture in the form of a Lyndon Johnson puppet,” Lincoln recalled.

Like Lanyon, Lincoln sees a kind of time-capsule effect the paintings in “Persistence” have on the objects they portray.

“I think it definitely transforms them, from being just a cherry pitter to being an object of  contemplation, with all kinds of implications about human intervention on the natural world.”

But her favorite painting is not the objects of metal and wire preserved on paper, but “Eucalol”–a representation of nature already preserved.

“She’s made some inspired choices [with “Eucalol”],” Lincoln said. “It has the…wonderful combination of…surreal, baffling content…you remember that ordinary life can be surreal.”

For Lanyon, the hummingbirds–like the cherry pitters, the microscope, the alligator purse–are a conservation effort not unlike the environmental movement she supports: not just preserving something  that once was, but reanimating it.

“Maybe that’s how I feel about all of these–I’m giving them a new life by documenting it all,” she said, nodding to “Eucalol”. “They [the hummingbirds] are flying again, so to speak.”

“Argo” Review

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the "Argo" movie poster

The poster for “Argo”. Premiering Friday, the film recounts a CIA mission to rescue 6 US embassy employees in Iran. Photo from IMDB.

A telephone ringing should not have an audience at the edge of their seats. But that is exactly what happened towards the end of the movie “Argo”, directed and starred in by Ben Affleck. That phone was life and death.

Based on a declassified CIA operation, “Argo”, premiering Friday, Oct. 12, starts in 1980’s revolutionary Iran, where agent Tony Mendez (a scruffy Affleck) must rescue six American embassy employees hiding in the home of the Canadian ambassador. His plan? Escape undercover as a production team scouting for a science fiction film.

“Argo” could descend into tropes or camp to avoid aforementioned tropes, but it does neither. “Argo” balances between docudrama and thriller, lending humor to Mendez’s  just-crazy-enough-to-work  plot. It does not ignore the bloody revolution, but  the moments where the audience is reminded of it–a hanged man spinning in the wind is one especially stark example–it allows the emotional punch without beating the audience into miserable submission.

“Argo” can thank its actors for that balance. Affleck may be the star in the credits, but he doesn’t dominate too many scenes. His Mendez is weary and haggard, quietly determined to do his job and follow the CIA motto: “leave no one behind”, even if it means disobeying orders.

Bryan Cranston plays Mendez’s boss Jack O’Donnell, who is not above subterfuge to do what needs doing. In one critical scene, he impersonates someone from the school  attended by the Secretary of State’s children to get the man out of a meeting. Lives can’t wait for meetings, O’Donnell won’t either. Cranston acts with grave intensity; even when he delivers his funnier lines, it’s with the wry smile of a man with the world’s weight on his gray head.

But it’s Alan Arkin as producer Lester Siegel and Victor Garber as Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor who really shine. Arkin’s Siegel is a mix of eccentric flamboyance and calculating businessman. He knows Iran won’t buy Mendez’s cover unless it passes the Hollywood test. As he warns Mendez early on, “If I’m doing a fake movie, it’s gonna be a fake hit!” Siegel orchestrates the blockbuster trappings that make “Argo’s” existence believable, and he does it in a gold Rolls-Royce.

Garber’s Taylor, by contrast, is quietly dignified. The only man standing between the six Americans and angry militants, Taylor is good, but not a martyr–every day the ‘houseguests’ are there, he and his wife are in danger. When he tells Mendez “it’s time to leave”, he does not just mean for the Americans to go, but for Canada to jump ship as well. Garber plays the role delicately, saying little while expressing volumes through body language and facial expression.

“Argo” tells a true story about a plan so crazy it seemed made for cinema. Whether it adhered strictly to the original mission, or took some artistic license seems inconsequential. That the story exists at all in our history is phenomenal. That it’s brought to the screen with such conviction is even more gratifying.

‘Argo’ — 4 stars

MPAA rating: R (for thematic elements, language, and violent images)

Running time: 120 minutes

Opens: Friday, Oct. 12

The Fishback Boys–Article

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The Fishback Boys at House Cafe in DeKalb

The Fishback Boys at House Cafe in DeKalb. From left: Tyler Morse, Wesley Carr, and Mitchell Leahey.
Photo credit: the Fishback Boys (from band website)

Wesley Carr was driving through Virginia on his way to a bluegrass competition when he saw a sign at the side of the road.

It said “Fishback Creek”.

“I thought this was one of the most unique names I had ever seen,” Carr said in an email.

Around that time, Carr and his high school friend Mitchell ‘Mitch’ Leahey had been tossing around the idea of turning years of interest in folk music and casual jam sessions into an actual band. That band needed a name.

“I knew I couldn’t go with Fishback Creek…because that would be too reminiscent of  [another band] Nickel Creek,” Carr said. So he suggested the Fishback Boys instead.

The name stuck.

Originally just Carr and Leahey on the mandolin and guitar respectively, the Fishback Boys began mostly as a way for them to develop original bluegrass and folk-based songs.

“It’s always been on the back burner for Wes and myself,” Leahey said. “So it [the band] just took off from there.”

Two months ago, as they started playing more shows and writing more original material, they added a third member: banjo player Tyler Morse. Morse met Carr at the guitar shop Ax in Hand in DeKalb, IL, where Carr gives guitar and mandolin lessons.

“I stop by the store sometimes for fun,” Morse said, ” We got to talking… and then we started getting interested in playing a couple shows…so we did.”

Today, with an EP (“Shallow Breaths“) under their belt and an increasing number of gigs–including Elbo Room in Chicago back in September–the boys from northern Illinois are still happy with their leap of ambition. They are experimenting with different types of sound, so asking them “what kind of music do you play?” can be tricky.

Or, as Morse succinctly put it: “there aren’t a whole lot of words to aptly describe sound.”

Indeed, describing the Fishback Boys’ music is a bit like herding cats: just when you think you’ve pinned down a category, it slips away again. The song “Fading” has a distinct folk-infused sound that evokes images of Southern back porches on humid summer nights, while “Valiant Heart” has a jazzy riff that calls to mind early Dave Matthews songs.

Leahey likes to call the music “newgrass”, which he describes as “a combination of blues, jazz, rock and folk…old instruments in the modern age.”

Carr says the variation is intentional as the Fishback Boys try new things and push the boundaries of their traditional instruments.

“Two-thirds of the instruments in our band have been pigeonholed into bluegrass or Irish music,” Carr said, referring to Morse’s banjo and his own mandolin. “But there are a lot of people coming out now that are trying to push these boundaries, like Chris Thile and Kym Warner…we want to be able to help push them too.”

While they say they would like to pursue music full-time, the Fishback Boys know that success won’t arrive overnight. For now, they promote themselves through aggressive use of Twitter, Facebook, and a YouTube channel, and when they aren’t playing they work on their day jobs–Carr with his lessons, Morse with a delivery job, and Leahey is finishing a Criminal Justice degree at the University of Wisconsin Platteville.

“I think everyone wants to make money doing what they enjoy doing,” Morse said of the future. “If that became a possibility, I would welcome it.”

Nightwish at Congress Theatre, Monday, Sept. 24 Review

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The band poster for Nightwish’s new “Imaginaerum” album. The operatic metal band, formed in 1997, recently parted ways with its second vocalist, Anette Olzon (above center), who joined the band in 2007

Near the end of a two-hour show last Monday at the Congress Theatre, a breathless Anette Olzon looked out over the crowd, wide-eyed. Scandinavian metal band Nightwish’s front woman had just finished a vocal-chord busting rendition of “Dark Chest of Wonders” and the crowd, an excited throng of black t-shirts, roared with approval.

“Oh my,” she said, almost speaking to herself. “Oh my. Thank you.”

At that moment, it sounded like she was thanking the audience for their appreciation that evening, Nightwish’s only Chicago stop as they tour North America promoting their new album “Imaginaerum”. The audience had much to appreciate: with only a few jarring pace changes and one ill-advised black feathered fedora, the evening was a fulfilling range of intimate acoustic ballads and soaring classical- and folk-influenced metal for which Nightwish is known.

Now, though, it is easy to wonder if she was thanking them for six years of love and support as she prepared to leave Nightwish permanently.

By now, most fans have heard about Olzon’s mid-tour departure–the band’s second split with a vocalist–and are speculating about Nightwish’s future. The press statement  said that keyboardist and founder Tuomas Holopainen, bassist Marco Hietala, drummer Jukka Nevalainen and guitarist Emppu Vuorinen would finish the tour with vocal assistance from Dutch soprano Floor Jansen.

It’s unclear of the split was planned or a sudden one, but sad as the news is, it seems fitting that Nightwish ends their collaboration with Olzon while promoting an album about saying goodbye.

“Imaginaerum” is Nightwish’s most ambitious project yet, a cross-media behemoth about an old man trying to recapture his childhood memories, that includes a full-length movie and score still to be released. Nightwish has always turned toward the fantastical in its albums. “Imaginaerum”, by contrast, was about letting some of that fantasy go.

But there was no indication that change was coming when the band took the stage at the Congress, following a rousing set by fellow touring band Kamelot.

Anette Olzon sings at Congress Theatre 9-24-2012

Anette Olzon sings at the Congress Theatre in Chicago, Sept. 24, 2012. Photo by Katherine Hall

Olzon bounded around the stage, a blond Gothic Lolita in a ruffled black dress and studded leather gloves that winked in the flashing lights. She looked doll-like, and her enthusiastic interaction with both the rest of the band and the crowd gave the feeling that Nightwish, and everyone who had come to that concert, was the child in “Imaginaerum” with that wild imagination.

Theater is often just as important as the music in a metal performance and even without the usual stage decorations that define a Nightwish show, the atmosphere of the concert was tangible. The lighting itself told a story: simmering red and yellow pulsated across the stage for the snarling, foot-stomping “Planet Hell” and “I Want My Tears Back” while a soothing, sad blue gently swept over the audience during an acoustic rendering of “Nemo”.  Olzon did not change costumes, though she did don the aforementioned fedora for the smoky, jazz-influenced “Slow Love Slow”. The touch was nice, but the hat looked too big and covered her eyes almost completely.

As they closed with the aptly named “Last Ride of the Day” the band looked, and sounded, tired but happy. They hugged, smiled, and bowed to the crowd amid chants of “One more song!” They finished on a strong note.

Just like that, unbeknownst to fans then, Olzon finished her last Chicago concert with Nightwish. And like”Imaginaerum’s” old man bidding farewell to childhood, Nightwish fans will have to say goodbye to another chapter in the band’s history.

Set List:

“Storytime”

“Wish I Had an Angel”

“Amaranth”

“7 Days to the Wolves”

“Dead to the World”

“Slow Love Slow”

“I Want My Tears Back”

“The Islander”

“Nemo” (Acoustic)

“Last of the Wilds”

“Planet Hell”

“Ghost River”

“Dark Chest of Wonders”

“Over the Hills and Far Away”

“Song of Myself” (two movements)

“Last Ride of the Day”

“Spring Awakening” Review: The story of growing up has growing pains of its own

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Broadway banner

the banner for the Broadway production of “Spring Awakening”. The musical, adapted from the 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, was first performed in 2006

“There’s a moment you know you’re f*cked. Not an inch more room to self-destruct.”

So begins the aptly-titled song “Totally F*cked”, about adolescents watching their peers crumble under societal pressures. The song is from the musical “Spring Awakening”, an anthem to every teen who thought the adults in their life had tuned them out.

“Spring Awakening” premieres on Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m. in DePaul’s Merle Reskin Theatre. It started life in 1891 as a controversial German play  about the perils of growing up: masturbation, abuse, sex and suicide. The story looked frankly at shame and desperation, and no character made it through unscathed.

Its 2006 adaptation is no less serious, but a rock score by Duncan Sheik provides moments of hope, and even–as one boy sings about being distracted by his piano teacher’s bosom–comedy.

There is much to like about this musical: the cast are energetic and the music is fun and irreverent. However, this musical about growing up experienced some growing pains of its own.

“Spring Awakening” started strong. The first act was well-paced, endearing, comic, and bleak. Leading lady Wendla, played with earnest naiveté by Sonaz Izadi,  sounded shaky as she opened with “Mama Who Bore Me”, but improved as she gathered momentum and remained strong throughout the show.

The best acting performance was Joe Keery’s Melchior. Keery imbued his rebellious character with a righteous disdain for the adults around him, while preserving a kindness that made him likable. Unfortunately, Keery’s singing voice isn’t as strong as his acting, and at times he couldn’t be heard over the chorus.

The second act struggled. Climactic scenes felt rushed or glossed over,  giving the audience no chance to digest what happened in each scene. Part of this might be script limitations, but it would have been nice to see the characters slow down and feel the consequences of those moments the way they did in the first act.

The set was simple, and utilized the Reskin’s space effectively. Tall trees bathed in blue light remained onstage the entire show, while various rooms were indicated only by a picture and a few chairs. The best part of the scenery was the musicians–a string quartet and a rock ensemble–who were visible through the trees behind a transparent screen, peeking out  as they supplied a soundtrack to the young lives onstage.

The songs were the relief to the plot’s darkness: “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked” were raucous and emphatic, while “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind” was lovely and sweetly sad. But group harmonies were rough at times. There were moments when everyone connected and the audience could hear how great the song sounded. But there were moments of discord that made some audience members visibly wince.

“Spring Awakening” doesn’t officially premiere until the 28th, so hopefully the cast will work out the kinks they experienced here. If they do, “Spring Awakening” still won’t be a musical to see for  laughs, but it will definitely keep you thinking long after the curtain falls.

*banner credit to the “Spring Awakening” Tour webpage. http://www.springawakening.com/

“Spring Awakening” Preview

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It’s not often that a musical forces the audience to think about uncomfortable topics while they are being entertained.

But that’s exactly what to expect watching “Spring Awakening”, according to director Damon Kiely.

“Incest, abuse, masturbation, abortion, suicide, the list goes on,” Kiely said over the phone about the issues the play will tackle. “Kids get beat, kids get put down. It’s pretty shocking.”

But “Spring Awakening”, premiering Sept. 28 at DePaul University’s Merle Reskin Theatre at 7:30 p.m., does not present those issues gratuitously.

Based on the controversial 1891 play by Frank Wedekind, the story follows a group of young German adolescents as they struggle to navigate sexual discovery in a community of restrictive, demeaning adults. It was adapted to a rock musical in 2006 by Duncan Sheik.

The musical approaches social taboos like homosexuality and suicide as human struggles, not shameful secrets to be swept under the rug.

“The original play really tapped into the problem of adolescence…you’re learning new things about yourself and you don’t understand them,” Kiely said. “What the musical does is allow flights of fancy and imagination where the kids get to release frustration, express longing…and that’s where the connection comes from. You get to hear them for a moment, feeling better about themselves, overcoming the perils of adolescence.”

Joe Keery, a third year student in the Acting Program, said he was “shocked” by the musical the first time he saw it in New York several years ago.

Now, he is starring in the production as Melchior, the intelligent, openly atheist young man who clashes with the conservative adults around him.

“It’s been definitely one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done,” Keery said of his role as Melchior, which includes everything from sex to physically beating a friend onstage. “Trying to embody this journey from being a…rebellious young boy to the end of the show when he’s…becoming a man.”

While the musical does not incorporate one of the strongest images from the original play–a forcible rape–there is one scene that Keery is glad it kept.

“I’m really glad they still included the suicide [scene],” he said. “I think it says a lot about the pressure people put on themselves and others…and how someone can feel like they’re lost inside their own head.”

Kiely just wants people to realize that the things happening to the characters onstage are not a product of 1890’s Germany, but still happening today.

“I hope people see it and recognize themselves in it,” Kiely said. “I hope we inspire people to think.”

No one will know until after the show premieres if it will spark discussion, but if Kiely’s rendering of “Spring Awakening” is even half as potent as Wedekind’s original, it will be worth watching.

“The Mindy Project”: Rom-Com Humor, But None of the Heart

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Here is a scenario you have probably heard before: a single, 30-something woman, who is a diehard romantic but unlucky in love, wants a change in her life. This tried-and-true formula has helped many a romantic comedy earn box office success, encouraging audiences to root for a genuine, if flawed protagonist as she sets out to improve her life and get the guy.

Unfortunately, Mindy Kaling’sThe Mindy Project“, while certainly funny at times, takes the humorous premise of a romantic comedy, but leaves out the actual progress that make up the heart.

The episode starts strong: title character Mindy Lahiri voices over a brief montage of her childhood, which was full of Meg Ryan romantic comedies, and into the events leading up to her giving an embarrassing speech at her ex-boyfriend’s wedding. She has been arrested for fleeing the wedding drunk, on a bicycle, and then crashing into a swimming pool.

“I’m not that person,” Mindy assures a skeptical police officer. “At least, I won’t be anymore. I’m changing.”

There are many things Mindy wants to change: she is bullied by her coworker Danny Castellano (a caustic Chris Messina) over work ethic and her weight, is having sex with her other coworker, randy Jeremy Reed (Ed Weeks), she drinks too much, and has a bad habit of stalking potential dates online (one of the funnier scenes showcase her cavalier attitude toward this habit, when she tells her flustered date that she knows about his career and college life because, “I looked it up online, alright? Relax!”)

But though Mindy declares repeatedly throughout the episode that she wants to change, there’s very little evidence to back the assertion.  When she tumbles into bed with Reed at the close of the episode (her third encounter with him), there is a sense of vague disappointment in Mindy, rather than amusement at her antics.

The scenes with the immigrant mother and her young son seem out of place with the rest of the show, and jar the pace. They appear to have been placed there to show the ‘other’ Mindy, the caring, efficient OB/GYN who takes on a patient even though they don’t have insurance and then delivers a high-risk breech baby. But their placement feels forced, and her coworker Betsy’s (Zoe Jarman)comment about taking on “more white clients” sounds stilted and unnecessarily callous.

That weak comment aside, though, where the show does find sure footing is in the dialogue. Characters converse, snipe, and badger each other the way any coworkers, friends or rivals might. Mindy’s ripostes with Castellano were the high points of the episode, and the two have genuine chemistry under the insults they sling at each other.

“The Mindy Project” has the potential to be both funny and a thing of substances, but right now it fails to deliver a crucial point: conviction. If Mindy doesn’t appear to believe she actually wants to change, the viewer can’t really believe it, either.

Unsung Chicago: Jenny Schlueter

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Enter Jenny Schlueter’s house in Humboldt Park and the first thing people notice is Sita, a small black-and-white tuxedo cat with a personality bigger than her diminutive size.

She prances around newcomers, sniffing shoes and watching people come and go with her bright green eyes.

Looking at her healthy coat and sweet disposition, most visitors would never know that Sita was a feral cat that Schlueter rescued from the streets of Madrid.

“I’ve always loved animals my entire life,” said Schlueter, the Director of Development at Tree House Humane Society in Edgewater. “I always felt that I was destined to help animals.”

Jenny Schlueter discusses the Trap-Neuter-Return program while her dog, Fritz, gets a head scratch

Schlueter, who worked for seven years as a journalist for Reuters in Spain, saw stray and feral cats everywhere in Madrid. At the time, Spain was developing an animal control infrastructure, but it did not yet really include a way to control the feral cat population.

“When a lot of people refer to ‘animal control,’ they refer to it as ‘the dog pound,’” Schlueter added. “They [shelters] were created to help dogs…cats were kind of the afterthought.”

Cats like Sita, who Schlueter saw sitting on a park bench one day while she was jogging through the Campo del Muro, a public garden behind the royal palace in Madrid.

“Every time a couple would stroll by she [Sita] would follow them until the end of the bench, and would meow at them,” Schlueter said. “Once they got to the end of the bench she would go back to the other side … and continue to go back and forth.”

Schlueter saw that the little cat was friendly, but very skinny and hungry.

“So I went home and got a carrier, and went and got her,” Schleuter said, smiling.

Schlueter ended up returning to the United States with both Sita and another rehabilitated feral cat, named Mali, and was determined to work out a solution for Chicago’s own feral cat population.

She discovered Tree House Humane Society, a non-profit cat shelter based in Edgewater. Tree House started in 1971 specifically to address the concern of abandoned and stray cats.

Schlueter began volunteering there. She discovered that while Tree House worked hard to give a voice for the strays, there was no formal policy in Chicago to control their population outside of the old “trap and kill method” used by the city.

So Schlueter developed Trap-Neuter-Return, called TNR, as a way to address that problem.

The focus of TNR, Schlueter said, is to control and gradually reduce the feral cat population through neutering, vaccinating, and monitoring colonies of feral cats.

Feral cats recovering at Tree House's Bucktown spay/neuter clinic

Any friendly cats—like Sita—are put into foster homes until they can come to Tree House to be adopted.

The un-socialized “alley” cats, though, are where Schlueter’s program differs from the old model. Rather than euthanize the “unadoptable” cats, the program returns them—neutered, vaccinated and treated for any illness or injury—to their territories where they can continue to live without the risk of spreading infection or reproducing.

These groups of cats, called “colonies” are monitored by caretakers, neighbors who live in the area and who put out food, monitor the cats’ health, and bring in un-fixed newcomers to be vaccinated and sterilized.

Before the program could really gain traction, though, Schlueter first had to get Cook County officials on board. There was no legislation that said a program like TNR was illegal in Cook County, but no legislation said it was legal, either.

Schlueter and Tree House played a big role in getting the Managed Care of Feral Cats ordinance passed in Cook County in 2007. The ordinance recognizes TNR as a method to safely and humanely control colonies of feral cats.

Under the ordinance, feral colonies are made of stray cats that are fixed, vaccinated for rabies and other diseases. The cats are implanted with a microchip, so that if a feral cat is picked up, they can be identified and returned to their colony caretaker, rather than euthanized.

The ordinance also specifies that feral cats are not property, and colony caretakers are not the same as owners of domesticated cats, who could face charges of abandonment if they leave their cat outside.

Douglas Stoltzfus, office manager at Tree House’s Bucktown spay/neuter clinic, says that the program has had an impact already on the feral cat population.

Since the clinic opened in May of 2009, it has operated on 3,027 cats. In 2011 alone, the clinic has operated on 1,165 cats.

“The part that has been important to me has been the advocacy and helping get a good policy in place in Cook County,” Stoltzfus said.

“If a feral cat is found, Animal Care and Control will actually now scan for a microchip and call the caretaker before euthanizing. And that is progress.”

Much of the progress the program has seen, Stoltzfus believes, is due in part to Schlueter’s tenacity.

“She’s driven,” Stoltzfus said. “You need somebody who’s like that in the position she’s in…to advocate for the animals and for a policy that’s appropriate for the animal’s wellbeing.”

On a cold, blustery night in early November, Schlueter and a fellow “colony captain”, Heather Weidmann, were out in the alleys behind Weidmann’s apartment on Rockwell Avenue in Humboldt Park. Weidmann was setting up traps to catch several untagged strays she had seen; including what appeared to be an injured male, and a heavily pregnant female.

“TNR is a waiting game,” Weidmann said as she laid out traps, using a pungent mix of wet food as bait. “It once took me two years to catch a cat.”

Weidmann has been managing feral cat colonies for about ten years, by her estimation, and has known and worked with Schlueter for roughly five of those ten.

“She is great. I like that she’s so into TNR,” said Weidmann. “Whenever I have frustrations, I can talk to her. Whenever I need stats…she’s like a book. It’s good to have someone else who is passionate.”

Trapping is a long, sometimes frustrating process. Weidmann and Schlueter checked on the traps throughout the evening. They never leave the traps unattended for too long, for fear that someone will damage or steal them. Sometimes they are successful, and manage to trap several cats. Other nights, the traps remain empty.

About halfway through the night, one of the traps was sprung, catching a young gray-and-white male who was an unregistered stray. The cat pushed on the trap door, but otherwise did not seem too angry at his confinement. Schlueter and Weidmann spoke to him gently as they wrapped a white sheet around the cage and carried it to Schlueter’s car.

“If they can’t see you, then you can’t see them,” Schlueter said as she set the cage down in the back of the car. “They feel safer.”

The cat will be taken to the clinic where he will be fixed, treated for any infections and vaccinated.

The night’s trapping yielded more good results: after the gray cat Schlueter and Weidmann caught the injured male, and they were able to network with some neighbors about putting a trap on private property to more easily catch the female, whom Schlueter suspected had given birth to her litter. Schlueter explained to them that a feral female can have up to three litters a year, with anywhere between three and six kittens per litter.

By the end of the conversation, one neighbor agreed to put a trap on his property to catch the female cat, and another took an information pamphlet about Tree House and the TNR program

“What I love is when you can talk to the neighbors,” Schlueter said afterwards. “Blindly setting traps doesn’t always work.”

This year, Tree House received a grant of more than $75,000 from PetSmart Charities to fix and vaccinate 1,500 feral cats. The shelter is focusing on the cats in the 60651 zip code, which has a large feral and abandoned cat population.

Schlueter hopes that by focusing on one neighborhood at a time and stabilizing their stray cat population, Tree House can then expand outward to other neighborhoods until—hopefully—all of Chicago’s feral cat population is sterilized and monitored.

“Our goal is to finish the entire city,” Schlueter said. “It will probably take fifteen to twenty years to finish–” she said, laughing, “—but we’re getting there.”