Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Chicago Landscapes and Architecture

The Original Chicago Architecture Tour

Chicago Skyline South of the Chicago River
The Wrigley Building
     We recently took a few days to explore Chicago's architecture and gardens.  We arrived a little early for the 2:45 tour on the famous Wendella boats, allowing us some time to explore the skyscrapers of Michigan Avenue.  One of the earliest examples in the city is the Wrigley Building from 1924.  The glazed terra cotta facade is one of the most recognizable along the Magnificent Mile. 

Chicago Tribune Building with Artifacts from Around the World
Across the street is the Tribune Building looking much like a gothic cathedral tower.  Around the base are embedded relics from around the world including a moon rock and pieces from ancient constructions.  All are well marked and make for a mini outdoor museum with considerable credentials.  

Chicago Skyline from Lake Michigan
     Our boat tour began on a perfect spring day at the Trump Tower docks.  Heading out to the lake, taking in the architecture along the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, the 75 minutes was full of Chicago history that changes yearly with new additions to the cityscape.  One of the most striking newer buildings was Aqua (2009), an 80-story multi-use residential skyscraper designed by Jeanne Gang.  The sculptured facade was created with irregular concrete slabs that form the balconies on the building.  The second tallest 
Towering Trump International Hotel and Tower
skyscraper in Chicago is the Trump International Hotel and Tower (2009).  It's hard to miss with the 2-story mogul's name strategically placed on the building's river side.

The Former Montgomery Ward Catalog Campus
     Heading north on the river, several residences appear from both newly-constructed and revamped structures.  I was particularly impressed with the former Montgomery Ward (catalog) office campus that has repurposed three distinctively different buildings into condos with a view.

     Chicago has always been known for innovative architecture, but one of the scariest is being constructed at 150 North Riverside.  The 54-story tower has a narrowing base that allows it to fit between the river and the railroad tracks.  It will be an eye-catcher in the years to come!

Willis Tower and 311 South Wacker Drive
     Two gems along the southern edge of the Chicago River are Willis Tower and 311 South Wacker Drive.  Willis Tower now has four glass-bottom balconies, known as The Ledge, for viewing on the 103rd floor.  The 311 building is best viewed at night when its tower appears as an oversized diamond ring.

The Chicago Botanical Gardens

Spring Planter
     There are public gardens, and then there are public gardens.  I've been to several in my life and this is my favorite.  I've been there every season of the year (even after a newly fallen 10-inch snow) and they all are spectacular.  The 385 acres of educational landscaping continues to grow and amaze.

Bonsai Collection
     We began with a tram tour of the perimeter.  It's a great way to get your bearings and get an overall feel for how massive these gardens are.  There are also tram rides through the inner gardens for those not wanting to walk through all of the 26 different gardens.  We chose to stop at the Regenstein Center to start our walking tour.  It contains the garden's extensive bonsai collection amidst simple, screened backdrops.  From there we stepped out onto The Esplanade and then on to the Native Garden that showed off the spring blooms. Time for a lunch break, which we found at the 
Lunch at the Garden Cafe
Garden Cafe with a substantial selection.  Eric and I chose the Pea Soup and French Onion Grilled Cheese. Both were tasty, but the grilled cheese was exquisite. 

Heritage Garden
     Now that we were refreshed, it was on to the Heritage Garden.  It's an area that used to be the front entrance, but still shows off some of the best plantings at the Gardens.  It's a circular area that leads to the rolling Rose Garden that was 
Waterfall Gardens
only producing buds at that time.  A stroll down the adjoining espaliered tree lane led us to the terraced Waterfall Garden that is best viewed from all levels.  
One of Three Japanese Garden Islands
Then it was on to the Japanese Garden, my favorite.  It consists of three islands, one of which is impossible to get to on foot—the Island of Happiness.  The other two are full of Japanese structures and well-manicured landscapes.  We happened to hit the azaleas in bloom.  
English Walled Garden
Poppy Fields

Our final stop was the English Walled Garden, another highlight on my list.  Its structured borders vs. curving hillsides provided a perfect backdrop to the English landscape architecture.  It's also home to some of the most unique plant specimens.

Northwestern University

Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts
     Our drive from the northern suburbs took us through Evanston, home to Northwestern University.  It's Eric's alma mater so he was interested in seeing what had changed since our last visit.  The new Music Building is a striking structure along the lake.  There are views of downtown in the distance, giving a connection to the cultural mecca not too far away.

The Robie House

Robie House Entrance
      Robie House is located on a small corner lot on the grounds of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park.  That's both a statement and a forewarning.  Parking can be difficult, depending on the time of your visit.  There is no parking lot for the house.  The tours are one hour and leave from the courtyard area after ticket purchase at the gift shop, which is located in what was once the 3-car garage.  

Robie House
     Robie House is Frank Lloyd Wright's greatest example of the Prairie School style home, making it uniquely American.  (To me, it seemed like an early prototype for the 70s tri-level home.)  Completed in 1910 for the Robie family, it was only inhabited by them for a very short period of time.  Through the years, it was sold to the Chicago Theological Seminary and threatened several times with demolition.  After international support materialized for saving the structure, the university turned it over to the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust in 1997.  Since then, the organization has been restoring the home to its original specifications.  

Living Room
     The home is a little austere from the time one enters the foyer.  Furnishings are sparse, if any.  Much of the furniture created for the home has been lost or is on display at another site. Such is true of the dining room set, which is in the  
Cutout Ceiling Panels and Lighting
UC Museum collection. It emphasizes the architectural and lighting of the home, but leaves one feeling very disconnected during the tour.  One feature that is in the process of being completed is the color specifications that Wright chose at the time of construction.  After seeing these example, Eric thought he should have left that to a more experienced interior designer, but one has to suppose that it was not an option or a subject to be addressed with Wright.

Frank Lloyd Wright Window Designs
     As with any Wright construction, there were experiments with ideas to make life easier and to conserve the structure.  This was the case with self-watering built-in planters that used rain water as their source, as well as cornices that acted as rain gutters on the underside of the roof hence eliminating vertical downspouts that would ruin the horizontal lines of the house.  On that same note, Wright used Roman bricks that 
Roman Brick with Painted Tuck Pointing
were narrower and longer to emphasize the horizontal shape.  To accentuate it even more, the mortar between the horizontal bricks was painted the same color to make it one continuous line.

      Our only quibble with visiting the Robie House was that its restoration and tour paled in comparison to Wright's Oak Park Studio and Home.  The tour seemed a little long (and pricey) although the volunteer did a tremendous job with relaying information.  in addition, there was a $5 up charge for taking interior pictures, a totally unnecessary fee as no one paid any attention and almost everyone on our tour was taking pictures and only one person admitted to paying.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

When did Second City become so Self-Satisfied?

     In today’s marketing era, an institution is one whose brand is indestructible, no matter whether the quality has slipped.  Second City embodies this definition in its current main stage revue Fool Me Twice, Déjà Vu.  The concept was intriguing, but the execution was off-key and veered dangerously close to being amateurish.  The set-up was that one cast member was in the now while the rest of the cast was in 1991.  It was a time machine he’d invented and the others were visiting him.  It was funny and the first act’s subtext was an examination of the extent to which American life and culture had changed over the past quarter century.  The best scene involved three young mothers energetically celebrating “having it all.”  The by-products were exhilaration, entitlement, and exhaustion.

The Cast of Fool Me Twice, Déjà Vu
     The second act began as an off-kilter version of the first act’s beginning:  the Déjà Vu effect squared.  The twentysomething brother/sister behind me felt the need to point this out to each other, though it only needed explaining for the obtuse or feeble-minded.  Although the variations, especially a family brunch scene, were droll and amusing, the ensemble made the fatal mistake of breaking numerous times.  Though this can seem funny when it happens inadvertently, it became a motif where the cast members were more focused on entertaining one another and themselves than they were in pointing at truths to an audience.  It’s narcissistic – the absolute opposite intention of improvisation – and lazy, which is the worst rip-off of a paying audience by professionals.

     The fully improvised third act was sloppy.  The first game was word/sentence association and went on three times longer than its natural ending, which was a hilarious example by Jamison Webb, who was the glue that held the ensemble together.  I felt Daniel Strauss was checked out of this part.  His best moments were one line in the first act and its repeat in the second act.  Strauss broke the cardinal rule of accepting a detail given him by another cast member and going with it.  Instead, he denied it and justified this by his character’s bad memory.  I couldn’t reconcile this ‘variation’ on the orthodoxy of improv.  Paul Jurewicz worked well, but the audience
Rashawn Nadine Scott
seemed primed to see another John Belushi just because he possessed girth.  Rashawn Nadine Scott sparked in any audience interaction game, while Sarah Shook was kookily attractive, but willing to do anything for a laugh.  I liked Kelsey Kinney a lot in a long improv about Google programmers, but she kept performing the same type of character continually in the first two acts.

     None of this seemed to faze the audience, however.  They were overly conversant with the legendary past of Second City and reacted as if they were watching then in their prime.  Ten years ago or so we saw an excellent troupe exemplified by the Black Republican sketch and the ancient black grandmother giving shockingly honest advice to much younger listeners.  I don’t know what happened to those performers, but they were excellent.  I saw Paradigm Shift in ’97 (partly written by Tina Fey) and found its quick retread of part of act one in the second act and final summative moments to be startlingly fresh.  I still remember Rachel Dratch’s mother of a gargoyle.  Fool Me Twice isn’t fresh, especially in the negative stereotyping of southerners and the easy shots at straight white Anglo-Saxon males.  They could have added Jewish males in the movie business as well, but they didn’t have the guts to go quite that far.  The lack of liberal self-awareness was surprising.  In the past, the ensemble has been able to poke fun at itself, but this was not an element of this production.

     The three-generation family behind us – I figured out that the younger members were explaining what was going on to the grandmother.  How she was able to get into the performance space in her wheelchair was beyond me, but she was sandwiched in like the rest of us.  They left during the improvised set I assume because it was coarse and not very funny.

Jacob Shuda
    The musical direction was stellar and did a lot to punch up the pacing and underscore the specific scenes’ emotions.  Musical Director and pianist Jacob Shuda looked like a star when he took his bow.  The cast should take a cue from him.


Monday, May 23, 2016

Mary Page Marlowe at Steppenwolf

     Neil was interested in seeing Tracy Lettts’ Mary Page Marlowe (MPM) because it was premiering at Steppenwolf and we wanted a reason to visit Chicago; I was interested after I read a rave in The New York Times (yes, bloggers can be review whores).  Letts has deservedly earned a reputation as a major American dramatist and he’s focused on the middle of the country with intelligent, quirky characters finding themselves in situations that begin mundanely and turn horrific.  With Superior Donuts (2008) and now MPM, he’s examining the details of ordinary lives, the type of people watching the show or people that viewers know.

     Baby boomer Mary Page Marlowe, living in Dayton and then Lexington, leads a life that many women of her generation did (and do) in being raised by parents who came of age before World War II, listened to records and thought about boys in the ‘50s, graduated from college in the ‘60s, got married and worked professionally, had a family, divorced, and I won’t go on from there because I don’t want to spoil the story, which depends on its specific details and the order of their revelation.  Although these were turbulent times that changed the culture in the U.S., MPM is not a leader in any movement.  She’s an ordinary middle-class woman and this frustrates her, along with her tacitly acknowledged Catholic guilt, resulting in behavior she regrets.

Madeline Weinstein, Jack Edwards and Rebecca Spence
     Letts’ coup de theatre is to portray scenes from her life out of chronological order so that the audience has clues to figure out MPM’s personality and motivations and also renders what could be commonplace when told like an obituary as various startling and defining moments.  Director Anna D. Shapiro has cast six actresses as Mary over the decades.  Rebecca Spence and Blair Brown are standouts in the role.  I’d like to have seen more of Spence, but the next scene she might have played chronologically was cast with another actress.  I wish we could have seen Carrie Coon since she was fierce in Gone Girl (2014), but her understudy was playing instead and was very good, though her wigs looked like wigs.  

     All of the actors in the large cast performed beautifully, especially newcomer Madeline Weinstein as Mary’s daughter Wendy and the veteran Steppenwolf member Alan Wilder as Mary’s final husband.  Without ever underlining, the production demonstrates the time periods easily through Todd Rosenthal’s set design and Linda Roethke’s costumes.  Large screen projections were integral to the scene changes (as they were in the Shaw’s production of Sweet Charity last year), but Sven Ortel’s are decorative and thematic, rather than being descriptive.

The Final Scene with Blair Brown
     The one problem with the performance was its ending.  Rather than a dramatic climax, though there were fraught confrontations earlier, the final moment is one of quiet epiphany.  However, there wasn’t an arresting conclusion with lighting or sound to draw the applause it deserved.  An understated, eloquent play was left hanging and I think Shapiro needs to re-think the moments after the final image so that the audience can react properly.

MPM runs through June 5, 2016.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Forno Osteria & Bar

Forno Osteria & Bar
     Cincinnati needs another mid-range plus priced Italian restaurant like Columbus needs another restaurant chain.  Cristian Pietoso is also the chef owner of Via Vite on Fountain Square, which is one of our favorite places for either casual or nicer meals.  His father owns Nicola’s and that’s still one of the loveliest restaurants in the region.  Forno Osteria & Bar is in ‘Hyde Park East’, which I think is really south Oakley, on Erie Avenue.  It’s a risky location because although many restaurants have made this a glossy district, few of them have survived more than a couple of years.  The exceptions have been Bangkok Bistro and Sake Bomb.  I still miss the unassuming and charming Pasta al Dente, but that’s another story entirely.  Like Forno, it also made its own pastas.  

Interior Dining and Bar
     Kris, Karn, and Helen were visiting and Karn wanted to check out one of the most talked about restaurants right now.  We decided on Forno because we hadn’t been there.  The indoors/outdoors element of the space will be very popular in the summer, but I thought the dark wood felt like an Italian monster sized version of Lincoln Logs.   The tables are close together; I was able to hear everyone’s order and the servers’ recommendations at the three tables around us.  The entrance was awkward because the manager was on the phone as we were leaving and we had to squeeze past.

Artichoke Soup
     The food, on the other hand, was mostly very good.  Karn, Kris, and Neil had the Fresh Artichoke soup with Parmigiano Reggiano and crostini.  It’s puréed, but with a little texture and has a lovely, golden color.  The taste has a real brightness about it, but I wouldn’t have guessed it was artichoke if I hadn’t known.  Helen had the Margherita pizza with the mozzarella, but without the leaf basil.  We finished it off the next day and I liked it, but I didn’t think it was anything special; it’s not better than Dewey’s.

Roasted Atlantic Cod
     Kris chose the Roasted Atlantic Cod with arugula pesto and soffritto.  The cod was a little drier than I expected with a slight fishiness, but the pesto and soffritto were both excellent.  
Tortelloni Gorgonzola
Karn went with the Tortelloni Gorgonzola—a rich and full-bodied dish covered with veal Parmigiano glace, mushroom and thyme.  Neil was attracted to the Gnocchi with Leek Parmigiano fondue and speck (a form of bacon).  This was a charming dish; the potato pasta was light and the sauce had senses of citrus and smoke about it. 
Gnocchi with Leek Parmigiano

Braised Honeycomb Tripe
     I ordered the Braised Honeycomb Tripe because it’s a specialty and I haven’t seen it on other menus.  It had a texture somewhere between octopus and mushrooms and was covered in a red wine tomato sauce.  It was rich enough to be a small entrée on its own.   I would certainly order it again, but probably consider soup or a salad with it instead.  
Whole Wheat Pappardelle Cinghiale
I went on to the Whole Wheat Pappardelle Cinghiale with beer braised wild boar ragout, which was basically like pulled beef with a tomato Bolognese sauce.  Pietoso always generates a full, rounded base to his red sauces with a complexity of notes in the spices and the alcohol.

     People that would want to visit should do so sooner than later because turnover in this part of the city is quicker than one might assume.

Forno Osteria & Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Eye in the Sky: A contemporary British cross between Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘50s period and Kathryn Bigelow’s war movies

     Though Helen Mirren has been featured as the star and has valiantly promoted the movie, Eye in the Sky depends upon a strong ensemble cast and an impressive script to achieve its goals.  It presents a number of hot button topics:  the geographically expanding Islamic war against the West; drone strikes; first world citizens becoming radicalized; gender equality in all manner of professions; inclusive casting; the Western literary tradition as a blueprint for modern cinema.  That sounds heady, but the movie is a wartime military thriller, a black comedy about indecisiveness at the highest levels, and a small-scale tragedy resulting from international conflict.

Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell
     Mirren plays a Colonel tracking a radicalized British citizen that she wants to capture.  However, that goal changes as a number of other factors suddenly present themselves and collateral casualties have to be calculated.  Mirren looks to be no older than when she began playing Jane Tennant on Prime Suspect in the early ‘90s.  However, since we have a history with her, there are moments when I felt like telling some of the other characters, “Don’t you know she’s the Queen and Jane Tennison?  Just do what she’s requesting.  We know she’ll be right; she has been for decades.”  We considered whether the character was a metaphorical reflection of Hillary Clinton.

Aaron Paul
     Neil wondered if Aaron Paul will draw a younger audience, especially since he gives a gutsy and sensitive performance as the pilot of the satellite controlled drone bomber.  
Alan Rickman
In one of his last roles, Alan Rickman displays both gravity and an ironic levity in dealing with the highest-level politicians and bureaucrats.  Barkhad Abdi, the chief pirate in Captain Phillips, plays the main spy on the ground, who finds himself in an almost impossibly suspenseful situation.  It’s a variation on Hitchcock’s definition of suspense, but substitutes a missile for a bomb.

Barkhad Abdi
     The British are uncertain and pained to unnecessarily destroy; their American counterparts portrayed by an unrecognizably corpulent Michael O’Keefe and an eager Laila Robbins (wonderful as Masha in John Doyle’s Playhouse production of Three Sisters a few years ago) display no second thoughts whatsoever.  At different points in the movie, 
Lalia Robbins
it’s difficult to know which view is more appropriate. The justification raised a number of times is that many people could be killed in a mall such as what happened in Nairobi in 2013.  Though filmed in South Africa, the setting is an older, shabbier suburb where the modern, westernized downtown can be seen.  Africa looks golden in Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography whereas Mirren seems to be working out of a high-tech cave – the military version of Batman?  Will the huge crowds attending dreck like Batman vs. Superman attend Eye in the Sky, which presents the actual principal world conflict?

A Drone's Perspective
     Guy Hibbert’s script works on a number of levels simultaneously and it pulled in the small audience with whom we saw it at The Esquire.  People were talking at the screen as well as checking out one another for reactions.  It’s the type of experience that electrified Classical Greek Theatre audiences.  Hibbert uses “In war, truth is the first casualty” by Aeschuylus as an epigraph, referring to the fear of public relations in conducting various rules of engagement.  However, that oversimplifies both the humor and the humanity of the story.  The movie seemed to be a contemporary descendant of the more mercurial Greek dramatist Euripides.  I don’t want to gave away much of the plot, but I think most viewers will want to yell out, “Buy that bread!  Buy that bread!”

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Delhi Palace: Unassuming but essential Indian cuisine in the region

     Delhi Palace on Montgomery Road in Silverton has been open for a couple of years and it’s turned into our go-to destination for its lunch buffet.  I don’t know why we haven’t reviewed it before now, but I suspect it’s because like a comfortable shoe, we take it for granted even as we’re checking out something more glamorous that doesn’t fit well.  
The Lunch Buffet

The menu is extensive, but some of the favorites at Delhi Palace show up at the terrific (and reasonable) lunch buffet.  It’s worth starting there and returning for dinner a la carte on another occasion.

Flavorful Chicken Dishes
     Delhi Palace can nail chicken every time.  Regardless of the dish and the protein’s preparation, it’s always tender, which can be harder to pull off than one might initially imagine.  The Chicken Tandoori is tasty and served in smaller portions than at other restaurants.  That’s a good thing because a whole thigh or breast can sometimes be tough in spots.  Plus, it gives the diner more room on the plate for 
A Lunch Sampling
some of the other dishes.  Chicken in Butter Sauce is beautifully flavored, though mildly spiced.  It’s a rich sauce like others at this restaurant, but it’s worth it.  Their version of Saag Paneer, a staple on local Indian menus, is hands down the best in town.  It’s creamier than others, but also more complexly seasoned.  The Dal (Lentil) Soup has a citrus after-bite, which is intriguing.  The Tomato Soup was also very good when I had it in the past.  The Mango Lassi has a purer mango flavor and color than other versions I’ve drunk in the past.

Remodeled Dining Room
     The dining room has been spruced up recently, which has cut all decorative ties with the previous restaurants in this location.  Unlike some other popular or well-established Indian restaurants in the region, Delhi Palace always looks neat and there isn’t spilled food from maladroit patrons.  The gentlemen that serve and host are invariably competent and friendly in a quiet manner.  One caveat:  whether dining buffet style or a la carte, the portions are far more filling than they initially appear. 

Delhi Palace Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato