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December 2013 Archives

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Language is king in "Tribes," a sharp, humor-infused drama about an insular family of boisterous eccentrics. Christopher, the patriarch (a strong Francis Guinan) is a professor whose linguistic criticisms are both well-intentioned and harsh. Siblings Ruth (Helen Sadler) and Daniel (Steve Haggard) are respectively, a novice opera singer and a phD candidate. Although adults, the two live with their parents, and devote most of their time to squabbles over Daniel’s thesis and Ruth’s lack of boyfriend. Perhaps the most empathetic of the bunch, mother Beth (an adept Molly Regan) is an aspiring novelist. The show opens in a barrage of foul language and sexual jokes as the group gathers around the dinner table while son Billy (John McGinty), deaf from birth, struggles to keep up with his fast-talking family.


Over the play’s course, as Billy meets and falls in love with Sylvia (the always capable Alana Arenas), a woman slowly losing her hearing, we learn that Billy’s father insisted that rather than studying American sign language, Billy be raised to lip-read. Believing ASL a kind of pigeon-English, Christopher didn’t want Billy’s intelligence blunted, his humanity curtailed. Interestingly, Sylvia’s sign language is perhaps Tribes’ most graceful mode of communication, its subtle visual poetry clearly intended to bely Christopher's theory.


"Tribes" is never as ribald as during its opening scene, as if playwright Nina Raine used profanity to establish character then lost interest. In fact, the show seems comprised of thematic gestures rather than fully formed through-lines. Like a distracted hummingbird, Raine lands briefly on the idea that Ruth’s interest in opera runs counter to her family’s focus on language, though the use of superscripts to translate Billy’s flattened speech seems to align his language and opera as modes of communication. In addition, the purpose of the superscripts fluctuates; several times they are used to translate Daniel’s increasingly stutter-ridden speech, and only once do they serve to reveal the meaning behind a silent interchange between the brothers. Mid-show she also grants Daniel a stutter which apparently correlates both with his aural hallucinations and Billy’s increasing independence. However, the origin of Daniel’s afflictions exists in a metaphorical file marked “communication issues;” their concrete source is never confronted.


Overall, Steppenwolf’s strong production elevates a thematically jumbled script. Under Austin Pendleton’s decisive direction, the talented cast delivers potent performances. Particular standouts include Sadler whose emotional range impresses and Haggard who imbues Daniel’s vague mass of snobbishness, jealousy and artificial madness with real humanity. Raine’s primary interest seems the exploration of shifting allegiances, and delving into character and examining familial relationships, her insights are clear and her observations incisive. However, when she belatedly tacks on a plot arc involving Billy’s job reading lips from surveillance tapes, the result is a character piece with plot served cold on the side. In the end, if "Tribes" plucks at the heart strings, it’s may be the rich subject matter that deserves credit.

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December's Hot Writer: Giano Cromley

My genre: Fiction that has a compelling story, especially when it's told in first person present tense, because the readers get to experience the same reality as the main character. They get to squirm as they see the protagonist make a mistake that'll likely have dreadful consequences down the road.

My literary influences: In order for someone to be a true literary influence, I need to have consumed all of their work in its entirety. (I'm a bit of a completist in that sense.) The artists who fall into that rare stratum for me are: Richard Ford, Joan Didion, Graham Greene, and "The Mountain Goats." If you could put them all in a blender to mix up a literary smoothie, the resulting concoction would help any writer grow big and strong.

My favorite literary quote: It's from Richard Ford's "Independence Day." "In that way, I explained, she was my muse; muses not being comely, playful feminine elves who sit on your shoulder suggesting better word choices and tittering when you get one right, but powerful life-and-death forces that threaten to suck you right out the bottom of your boat unless you can heave enough crates and boxes -- words, in a writer's case -- into the breach."

My favorite book of all time: Really tough call here, but I think I'd have to go with The Sun Also Rises because I happened to read it at the exact write time in my life where the impact it had was huge. It opened my eyes to the possibility of what books could be about.

I’m currently reading: I'm re-reading "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain because it's so good it just makes me mad. And if you can't beat them, you might as well try to figure out what the hell they're doing and use it.


My guilty pleasure book: Since Raymond Chandler can't write any more books, my favorite guilty reading pleasure is anything that comes close to imitating his stuff. Please note the operative phrase "comes close," because the closer a book comes to imitating Chandler, the less guilty I feel about reading it.


I can’t write without: Music -- has to be wordless or it'll just mess me up. A good fountain pen -- Pelikan, Mont Blanc, Markiaro -- which pen depends on my mood and vice versa. Thick paper. Extended periods of unaccounted-for time. During fallow periods, I have to wait for the perfect celestial alignment before I'm feeling like I've got the go ahead.


Worst line I ever wrote: Right out of college I used to write constituent letters for a U.S. Senator. There was one line I wrote in a letter to a military veteran that was so bad my colleagues put it on the bulletin board of shame. The following is an attempt to recreate that line: "I will do all I can to ensure we give all we have to all of you who gave all you could for this great country." That seems pretty bad, but I'm pretty sure the real version was even worse.


Brief Bio: Giano Cromley's debut novel The Last Good Halloween was released this fall by Tortoise Books. His writing has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Literal Latte, and The Bygone Bureau, among others. He is the recipient of an Artists Fellowship from the Illinois Arts Council. He teaches English at Kennedy-King College and lives on Chicago's South Side with his wife and two dogs.


A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez
and Facebook.

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December's Honest Parent: Amy de la Fuente

My great parenting strength is: I invent then sing ridiculous songs to try to get my kids to do things such as put their lunch boxes away or start their homework.

My greatest parenting weakness is: my poor time management skills.

What do you wish someone had told you before you became a parent?
Oh, so many things but one would be that it is a lot of trial and error - kind of like a mad scientist experiment at times.

How often do you compare yourself to what you think other parents are doing--or what you "should" be doing?
Less and less as my children get older. I think it’s because I have become more confident in my parenting and my husband and I have made certain choices about what is best for our unique family.

Describe your worst moment as a parent.
We were living in a condo downtown and in the process of trying to sell it. I put my kids in the hallway and then locked the door for 5 minutes because I was so frustrated with them not cooperating while I was trying to clean up our place for a showing. They cried and begged to be let in. I couldn’t do it until I had calmed down, but the entire time I was thinking - this is not good. I need to figure out a better solution to this chaos.

Is there one thing you give yourself a pass on?
Making my kids call their friend’s parents Mr. and Mrs. so and so.

How many hours out of each day do you feel like you’re being a good parent?
More or less about 20. Some days are better. But each day I try to start with a clean slate.

How has having kid/s affected your sex life?
It changed it, but just like other couples other things have caused changes to it before and after having kids, such as work, travel, and obligations, illness, health, etc. As my children have gone through different stages, so has our sex life. It was nice when my child took 4 hour naps. I think overall, we have been forced to discuss it more and sometimes even schedule time for it.

How have you grown as a person since becoming a parent? I think I have learned to listen to that voice inside myself more. I have also had to confront some of my negative qualities and really look at how they were impacting my life.

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It has taken me ten minutes to type this sentence. Why? HEAD COLD. Let’s not even talk about the fact that despite hours in front of my computer, I’ve written nothing for Samantha Irby and Keith Eckard’s awesome live lit event, Guts and Glory next Wednesday. Let’s not talk about the three separate snow storms I’ve wandered through in search of soup and Sudafed and sorbet and other things that start with S, like Sonic Youth. I know they’re out there somewhere. I definitely don’t want to discuss the canker sore that just popped up on my tongue or the fact that randomly I appear to have pulled my back and now I can’t sit or stand without yelping like I’m starring in a Chewbacca porno.

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Groundhog Day meets Doctor Zhivago meets The New Girl meets The Shining would be how I'd pitch a memoir about the last week of my life. I’m including The New Girl because of my stupid winter hat, a hat that only Zooey Deschanel could love. In fact, in terms of winter-wear I’m serving J Crew Ski Lodge meets Clown College.

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The texts I’m sending my boyfriend are growing more and more desperate:
"Don’t worry" I wrote yesterday, "I’m just going to jump off the Hancock building, that’s all."
"Nothing dramatic," he wrote. "Good."
"Just headed to Jewel to buy rat poison. I’m keeping it all in perspective."
"That’s simpler. Writing going well?"

When he called, he said I sounded like I was trying to clean up after committing a mass murder. I asked him why a MASS murder, he said “You sounded way too disturbed. There had to be more than one body.”

Basically, you know you're in good shape when you’re reduced to cobbling together an intro to your Holiday Gift Guide from text messages and Facebook updates, which is what I just did. Not only that but rather than synopsize each gift myself, I've asked their creators to personally vouch for their products. Because HEAD COLD.

Happy Menorah/Christ, Chicago. You take a look at these Chicago-made gift options and I’ll lie down on the floor and moan about how the walls are closing in.


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Who needs another Nutcracker or Christmas Carol? This December head to Zoo Studio for the Mammals production of All Girl Frankenstein. Our Town spoke with actor Jessamyn Fitzpatrick about her role.

Our Town What drew you to acting?
Jessamyn Fitzpatrick The sense of joy and connectedness. I was a weird kid, and suddenly I was surrounded by all these other weird kids who wanted to create and explore together. My parents put me in a Chicago Park District program with this incredible drama instructor, Debbie Maddox. I remember her having us lie on our backs and do a body meditation where we became aware of all the different parts of our body and then visualized expanding our circle of hearing farther and farther outside of the room. I think that was the first time I ever put together the fact that my body could be used in concert with my imagination. It felt amazingly powerful. I still look for that body/imagination fusion in theatre. 


OT What’s unique about the Chicago Mammals?
JF Their rehearsal process is wonderful. For this production we started meeting way back in August and just workshopping ideas for how to give this piece physical shape. I loved how open to exploration it was - there was this real focus on process rather than rushing to execute some final product. The Mammals champion exploration in a way that gives actors permission to try anything. But the other great thing is that Bob Fisher, our director, also has a very strong directorial vision, which is crucial to taking all that exploration and knowing when to let it roam and when to reign it in. 


OT How did All Girl Frankenstein come to be?
JF The Mammals started their All-Girl Series with All-Girl Moby Dick. I really respect this interest in taking these canonical male figures and opening up the stage for women to explore them. I feel like Frankenstein carries certain themes - longing, creation, masculinity, maternal vs. paternalistic power - that lend themselves to a gender-conscious exploration.


OT Tell us a little about your role. 
JF I am one of the ensemble members. Most frequently I play either a maidservant in the house of Frankenstein or a corpse that someone is trying to reanimate. There are a couple of other moments when the ensemble steps in to play fellow University students, and one of my favorite scenes involves us all playing birds. It is a non-speaking role, highly physical and it has been a really wonderful experience for me as an actor not to rely on text to convey emotion.

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December's Crush:
Kelly Jocius
Hometown: Elgin, Illinois

Profession:  Executive Director, National Flute Association
Hobbies: Reserving items through interlibrary loan, bookmarking recipes, scoping out what other commuters are reading.

How did you come to work for music nonprofits?
I had planned to be an ad agency copywriter, but I found I had no drive to write about packaged goods. I realized I could make a career by promoting what I care about, which is the arts.

As a non-flutist, what’s it like being a leader of the National Flute Association?
It’s fun! I am inspired by our members’ passion for what they do and their devotion to this organization. Helping professional musicians make a better living and amateur musicians express their love of music is a privilege and a gift.

What's your favorite thing about Chicago?

The variety of wonderful faces I see each day. That and imagining my parents' knockabout childhoods in 1940's Lakeview and Hyde Park. 

What's your least favorite thing about Chicago?

Wide-shouldered dudes in bulky winter coats on rush hour trains.

Describe your perfect day: 
I discover a great new batch of songs, hit repeat, and experience: a giggling fit, a rekindled childhood memory, a long hike, a first kiss, three kinds of cheese, an outdoor concert, a political rally, an animal rescue, a spontaneous dance move in a bakery and/or the poetry aisle, a high five with a grinning stranger, the perfect heist, and a little light snoring during savasana. I end the day losing all track of time with close friends in a beer garden. 

Relationship Deal breaker? 
Chatting on the phone. Come on technology, make that obsolete already!

Who was your first crush? 
The dancing green Orion slave girl on Star Trek. Followed by Jessica Lange in the 70’s King Kong remake. In my fantasies, I was the ape. Then Meryl Streep in Kramer vs Kramer. I was her ambiguously-amorous son. From alien to anthropomorphic to Oedipal. That’s the normal progression, right?

Why are you crushworthy?  
Just look at how charmingly flustered this question makes me.

Any questions for me?
Has anyone else discovered the acrostic ode you hid for me in your novel


Bio- Kelly Jocius has served as the Executive Director of The Midwest Clinic: An International Band and Orchestra Conference, Rush Hour Concerts, and most recently the National Flute Association, which he joined in September 2013.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez
and Facebook.

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