Barack Obama and John Lewis Serve a Double Netflix Helping of MLK Day Respect and Dignity

President Barack Obama awards the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Congressman John Lewis in a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 15, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Last night Bob and I watched Episode 1 of Netflix’s latest entertainment experiment, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman. Though the program is instantly addictive, audiences will not be able to enjoy the familiar, sedentary luxury of binging – at least not for a while. Billed as a “monthly event,” Netflix is taking a light gamble that the next act of David Letterman’s storied career will prove to be destination television. Future A-list guests include Oscar-winner and humanitarian George Clooney, and international social justice icon Malala Yousafzai.

If Episode 1 proves a standard, Netflix has an important, topical non-fiction hit on its hands.  My Next Guest is must-see TV, but don’t expect the old Letterman throwing postcards through fake windows to cheesy sound effects. This is an older, wiser, more confident David Letterman – with magnificently groomed Ralph Waldo Emerson facial hair to underscore the shift. As Esquire’s Matt Miller writes:

“Though the beard might suggest Letterman is in a gives-no-fucks stage of his career, this show is far more mature, more relaxed, and at many times more touching than his previous one…This isn’t a stand-up special. It’s not a late-night talk show. Letterman’s new show is something deeper, more valuable.”

Anytime your guest is former President Barack Obama, value is a given. And not just because of ex-POTUS’s self-deprecating comedic timing. In these troubled times, Obama’s return to the public stage proves a soothing tonic to wounded, exhausted and humiliated political spirits. The quiet wisdom of a Nobel Prize-winning leader, a scandal-free, empathetic human being who’s never done learning and reflecting. Barack Obama is always going to be one of the smartest, most thoughtful people in any room. And in conversation with a transformed, more outwardly self-aware Letterman, an engaging, witty and touching hour unfolds. The communion is a true give and take.

Toward the end of the program, Obama turns the tables on his interviewer, asking Letterman if he ever feels the serendipity of fortune combining with his natural talents. A question to which the former Late Night and Late Show host gives a forceful reply:

“This is what I’m struggling with at this point in my life – I have been nothing but lucky… When John Lewis and his friends, in March of ’65, were marching across that bridge … in April of ’65, me and my friends were driving to Florida to get on a cruise ship to go to the Bahamas because there was no age limit to purchase alcohol, and we spent the entire week – pardon my French – shit-faced. Why wasn’t I in Alabama? Why wasn’t I aware? I’ve been nothing but lucky and the luck continues here this evening.”

Letterman’s honestly earned white guilt is more than academic exercise. Cut throughout the rich Obama interview are segments of the comedian’s visit to Selma, Alabama. There he connected with Civil Rights legend and longtime Georgia Congressman John Lewis to discuss the 1965 Bloody Sunday March, where a 25-year-old Lewis was beaten, and his skull fractured, as he and demonstrators tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Letterman purposely keeps himself out of the conversation’s center. He is there to listen and learn, because Lewis has plenty to teach all of us about courage and conviction. There is no celebrity here. Just Dave the American Everyman (or Woman) looking desperately for reason, humility and a path to salvation from our self-inflicted, xenophobic national predicament.

I watched My Next Guest on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, just removed from Donald Trump, the anti-Obama in every conceivable way, labeling Haiti and African nations “shithole countries.” It’s a particularly on the nose time to consider the long-term loss the country experienced as a result of last year’s transition of power from 44 to 45.

This is not to engage in Obama hagiography. I was often a dogged critic of the cautious rationalism that prevented bolder action on a number of generational issues. But to compare the basic goodness and global respect enjoyed by our previous President, to the moral cesspool and international laughingstock (when he’s not hated outright) that is Donald Trump? As tragic as it is unfair to the three million plus Americans who popularly preferred Hillary Clinton and the legacy of Obama’s economic, environmental and social policies.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, David Letterman’s reverence for the sacrifices of John Lewis stand in stark contrast to Trump’s childish taunting of the Civil Rights icon. Lewis’ steadfast refusal to accept a self-aggrandizing, ignorant white supremacist as the legitimate leader of a free and diverse nation chafes the Narcissist-in-Chief. That chafing also drives the current administration’s singular mission to dismantle every achievement of the Obama era, from greater access to healthcare to important steps toward protecting the planet.

Trump’s racist bullying – at least it pertains to Obama and Lewis – stems from a place of naked envy. Because one can’t buy or tweet the way dignity and moral authority. Esteem is built by time and consistency, two currencies of which the racist pseudo-billionaire is acutely short.

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With 2018 Cubs Convention in Swing, Theo Tells Fans “We’re Not Done” at Pitching

“Even if we didn’t have a 2016 World Series World Series trophy safely tucked away to remind us that times have changed, the words and post-season actions of Cubs’ President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein would do the trick. The 2018 Cubs Convention kicked off this week, and attendees of the annual event were abuzz with the team’s latest moves to shore up a struggling 2017 pitching staff…

With free agent hurlers Yu Darvish and Alex Cobb still swirling in the Cubs orbit, it’s clear that Epstein’s assurance is more than bluster. The trapped and panicked offseason mistakes of years past have been completely displaced by methodical, considered logic.”

Read the full post at Wrigleyville Nation.

2018: It’s Here, It’s Blear and Full of Sneer

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2018 burst out of the gate spraying bizarre and unpleasant phenomena like so much buckshot. At the national level, it’s fairly clear that our President is an unstable, corrupt, half-literate, white supremacist. Understated facts seem to pass for fashionable dissent this year, as congressional cynics and ignorant voters pretend this is patriotic American status quo. So here goes. Donald J. Trump is bad for the country in every conceivable moral, secure and rational sense – 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365. He needs to be removed from office while we still have a country left.

At the regional level, Chicago has been so uninhabitable this first week of January, our famous rats are freezing to death. Back in the late 1990s, there was a joke making the pop cultural rounds (memes were not yet a thing): in the end times, we’ll still have rats, cockroaches and Cher. With the ex-Mrs. Bono/Allman strutting through a 2018 concert tour while Windy City rodents give up the fight, she is now the likeliest of resilient species to survive deadly climate change.

The first week of the new year has also presented a variety of personal challenges for me. Some of these were consciously chosen, for example selecting January as the month to simultaneously give up carbs, sugar and alcohol. Others hurdles are happenstance, like my estranged, mentally ill father bombarding my inbox with four senseless Yahoo! E-cards in five days.

All I can tell you is that the confluence of crap that flew this week (which assuredly includes the national and regional stressors) resulted in a cleansing Friday morning sob – catalyzed by a missing sock. Equilibrium is in short supply.

Perhaps this week’s jarring, frigid threats have adopted a heightened intensity because they follow the most mellow and unstructured 10-day accord in recollection. Online and in real-life, I rarely stop moving. Depending on which day you ask, I’ll say this is because I’m hustling to create community and opportunity, or that I’m the victim of my own subconscious dysfunction. A darker self addicted to achievement, operating in perpetual fight or flight mode to avoid some undefined danger. Either way it’s productive.

This way of life also produces acute periods of burnout. And when I bid my day job a 2017 adieu on Thursday, December 21, I felt fully particularly singed by the following events:

  • Bob and I married on August 19, an only-in-the-movies perfect summer day that was nonetheless the culmination of a three-month engagement and planning gauntlet.
  • We took exactly one day off after the wedding weekend before I was asked to leave the husband to deal with a monthlong, international corporate crisis. The trip was canceled three days before boarding owing to a separate, more acute, local panic that lasted until Thanksgiving. In between there were rush immunizations, a flurry of shopping and packing, and much hand-wringing over a long separation from the man to whom I’d just said “I do.” All that adrenaline for naught.
  • At the same time post-wedding employment chaos unfolded, I co-wrote a non-fiction book and met an October 1 manuscript deadline. Anyone who’s ever completed a long form work of journalism, which requires interviewing, transcribing and developing coherent, connected stories from numerous sources, knows the unique mix of excited rush and sheer terror.
  • The #MeToo movement. I don’t need to explain to women what this season-long and still unfolding sociopolitical movement has asked of each of us – publicly and privately. The grappling with the horrors large and small that dot our pasts, the pre-holiday thrill of watching ensconced, menacing, powerful perverts topple like so many fetid dominoes, even as we wondered if there would be real, lasting change after the purge.
  • Did I mention Donald Trump stubbornly remains the humiliating, heartless and vacuous President of the United States?

By contrast, during the last glorious week between Christmas 2017 and New Year’s Day 2018, time and cold reality suspended. For the first time in years, languishing through unplanned, relatively news-free days (by deliberate choice), I rested. I lived in the moment. I had an indoor honeymoon with my best friend and the love of my life. I read the most recent issue of The Atlantic cover to cover; binged watched quality television while Bob and I held hands. We were an island of simple pleasures, removed from winter’s assault and the frenzied business of an exhausted mind in perpetual motion.

The peace was so – to use an incongruous word that is no less accurate – intense, that 2018’s opening sprint of national, local and personal madness still assumes manageable proportion. I’m clinging to the shards of a zen hangover with everything I’ve got.

BLKS

BLKS
Nora Carroll (Octavia), Leea Ayers (June) and Celeste M. Cooper (Imani)

In the late stages of 2017, critics and publications across Chicagoland are running their “Best of The Year” in theater pieces. I am 100 percent convinced that if “BLKS” the Steppenwolf Theatre Company world premiere from Aziza Barnes, debuted just a few weeks earlier, it would sit atop most — if not all — of these lists.

Barnes, an award-winning poet and playwright, brings a vibrant, hilarious, painful, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful script to the Steppenwolf stage. It’s hard to briefly describe such a nuanced piece of work, but I will try. Because I want to make sure everyone who comes across this review buys tickets. Press materials offer a promising hint of the rich material audiences will find:

“F**ked up sh*t happens. After an unsavory wake-up call, Octavia decides to put off her troubles and have one last turn up with her friends. In poet Aziza Barnes’s ingenious portrait of a day in the life of four young black women discovering life’s uncomfortable truths in New York City, ‘BLKS’ explores the joy and anguish of growing up and out.”

All this and so much more. Infidelity, illness, Black Lives Matter, income inequality, violent misogyny, grief and stereotype questioning of all kinds. ‘BLKS” tackles all of these issues and rather than feeling overstuffed, every word of dialogue, every movement onstage, is organic. On top of all the rhetorical goodness, this particular production is blessed with talent in abundance — technical, set design and performance.

Directed by Nataki Garrett, the play is set in 2015 against the backdrop of a cigarette selling Eric Garner’s real-life murder by members of the New York police department. The women at the center of Barnes’s theatrical triumph have their eyes wide open. The aforementioned Octavia (portrayed with endearing layers of complication by Nora Carroll) is a young, black lesbian writer with all the cultural baggage that society forces her to carry because of it. Even in New York City.

Octavia has career and romantic issues on top of those inherent to her displacement within the white patriarchy, but she’s also in possession of brains, humor and terrific friends. Imani (brought to life by a strong and vulnerable Celeste Cooper) is a striving stand-up comic who misses her father and also suffers dating complications. But there is — quite literally — nothing she won’t do for her sisters. When Octavia discovers something unpleasant during an early morning trip to the bathroom, Imani is out the door to CVS with all the urgency of a confused but committed partner-in-crime.

June (a gorgeous and deep Leea Ayers) is the only hetero member of the tribe, as well as the sole professional with STEM goals and a huge sack of weed at the ready. But she’s also susceptible to warmly traditional moments. When times get hard, nothing lifts June’s spirits like donning her old cotillion dress — and smoking a blunt.

Finally we have Ry (a terrific Danielle Davis), the casual sex buddy/girlfriend/partner of Octavia, dependent upon the day and mood of the commitmentphobes. Ry and Octavia are also teammates on a filmmaking project. The complications in their story are exactly the messy ones you’d expect from an ill-defined mix of business with pleasure.

That is the beauty of “BLKS.” The characters are dynamic and unique, as well as universal. We may not all be as funny and resilient (seriously, this is one trying day for the gals), but we experience the same broadly categorized challenges. Where are our careers going? Whom shall we choose as a mate — if we choose at all? How do we live our truths against the judgmental assaults of the outside world?

And yet Barnes’s brilliantly drawn characters very much own their blackness. They don’t have all the answers, but they will not go unseen or unheard. And “BLKS” should not go unwatched — by anyone. One of 2017’s best productions.

“BLKS” runs through January 28, 2018 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit the Steppenwolf Theater Company website

The Year in Tears, Fears and Cheers

I’ve done a lot of the right kind of crying this week – big, fat tears of hope, awe and relief. More fantastic than the cathartic sobs themselves, however, is the direct connection between them and national politics. For most of the year, emotional inspiration from the country’s elected leaders has been in short supply.

The lion’s share of 2017 blubbering has been of the traditional disappointment/rage strain. It’s been a tough year with many challenges to moral authority, character and justice. It may seem incongruous to sexist hate mongers like defeated Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore, but a liberal, atheist, feminist can also believe that standard codes of conduct should straddle all walks of human life. Righteousness is not the spiritual property of Bible-banging, racist, homophobic straight white men who condemn everyone outside their circle of privileged ignorance.

Regardless of gender, faith, geography or race, there should be a few universal agreements. We should reject white supremacy, violence, sexual assault, pedophilia, corrupt looting of the public treasury, heartlessness toward the poor and the war-torn.  When an American territory is ravaged by natural disaster, we should offer all forms of recovery assistance and skip the Ayn Randian self-reliance lectures. We should support science and research and take care of the only Earth we have. When hundreds are publicly gunned down at a concert and children are not safe in school, its way past time to ask ourselves if the Second Amendment should supersede all other rights.

Moderates, cynics and self-styled realists will be quick to say that we must make our way through the world as it is. Indulging idealistic daydreams is a waste of time. To which I reply in the words of my favorite former Vice President, Joseph R. Biden III: “That’s a bunch of malarkey.” Despite the unaccountable example elevated by President Trump, we can admit when we’re wrong. We don’t have to live with the choices we’ve made when empirical and experiential data illuminate error. If we’re not here to try our best to build a greater and more just world for ourselves and our children, what’s the point? If all we’re meant to do is take what we can and run, what sets humans apart from scavenger species like rats and vultures?

2017 has made it painfully clear that at the highest levels of American government and industry, a shared vision of social justice and opportunity has fallen out of favor. The Trump administration has appointed numerous leaders to public agencies with the express purpose of making it harder for us to breathe, receive a quality education or equitable treatment within the justice system, among other taxpayer scams. See, as just one absurd example, the decision to install Scott Pruitt, tool of the fossil fuel industry, as leader of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Never in modern history has it been so obvious that the public trust and tax dollar are being misused. The heavy-handedness of it all has elicited buckets of my impotent, despairing tears throughout the year. It’s been overwhelmingly tempting at times (Charlottesville, Republican tax “reform,” a sexual assaulter as POTUS) to view the country’s oligarchic, cynical tailspin without hope.

I recently took a personality test shared via link by a Facebook friend. I scored high on the quiz’s concept of reverence. Although the word has taken on a religious connotation, as applied in the personality assessment, it denotes a humbling of the self in respectful recognition of something perceived to be greater. I recognize this existential need. I’m a devoted planner and tactician, but always in service of a motivating larger concept. Shake my faith in the efficacy of action and I’ll quickly devolve. More Law & Order marathons, less self-confidence and movement. Reverence and I have been estranged for months at a time this year, replaced by tears of bitter shame as 45 debases this great nation with Twitter feuds, misogyny, bigotry, feckless and dangerous domestic and foreign policies.

But as we approach the end of the calendar year and the conclusion of the first twelve months of the Trump presidency, I’m starting to get my reverent groove back. On Monday night, Bob and I went to the Chicago Theatre to see the aforementioned Joe Biden on the Windy City leg of his book tour. Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose, according to The New York Times Book Review, “splices a heartbreaking story with an election story and a foreign affairs story. And in so doing, he offers something for everyone, no matter which strand draws you in.”

Reading the words of Joe Biden is a privilege. Hearing his earnest, human good sense and compassion live is better still. The 75 year-old public servant is an American hero. A man who has weathered enormous personal tragedy with grace, intelligence and a steadfast commitment to bending the arc of humanity towards justice. I was, am and will always be inspired by Papa Joe. The choked sobs I released on Monday were full of gratitude – for Americans like the longtime Delaware senator, and for a husband who knew that walking down Obama/Biden memory lane would sooth my battered soul.

Then last night, voters in the deep red state of Alabama rejected a twice-sacked, child molesting, bigoted judge in favor of a pro-choice Democrat with a demonstrated commitment to civil rights. Much has been made in the media about urban and suburban white distaste for Moore. But the real story is the 93 percent of black men and 98 percent of African-American women who overcame all disenfranchisement odds and pundit expectations to put their state on the right side of history. As Esquire columnist Charles Pierce noted:

“Voter suppression is a scandal and a crime and an offense against the Constitution. John Roberts’s declaration of the Day of Jubilee in Shelby County v. Holder was an act of historical butchery. The laws enacted since that day should be torn out, root and branch, and burned to cinders. However, what the results from Alabama demonstrated is that, with good candidates and a solid message and tireless work, you can swamp the bastards and all their works just by showing up.”

2016 went out for me with a disillusioned, distressed whimper. Hillary Clinton’s loss was my despair for the country, for womanhood, for immigrants and any chance of addressing the nation’s increasingly stratified economic and social opportunities.

At the end of 2017, I’m rediscovering reverence for the American proletariat. The wise and compassionate words of a retired public servant and the empowered, forward-looking agency of Alabama voters make great holiday gifts.

Increasingly Blurred Partisan Lines Offer Hope for Journalism in 2018

2017 has been a strange and disturbing year for the United States in so many far-reaching ways. Long, well-researched books will be written about this year’s impact (or lack thereof) on income inequality, government corruption, gender dynamics, the justice system, immigration, suffrage, healthcare, civil rights, the First Amendment, foreign policy, war and climate change. I’m hard pressed to think of a major issue facing humanity that hasn’t been stress tested to the point of breaking spirits, cultures, families, the economy and the nation in the seventeenth year of the 21st Century.

For liberal political journalists, it’s been especially hard to dissociate the self from the reporting. 2017 has been an unusually challenging year for investigating topics unemotionally. At least tangentially, we have a stake in the story by virtue of sharing space with other people affected by a policy, decision or revolution.  I don’t live in Puerto Rico, but I don’t need to in order to feel helpless anger over fellow Americans failed by every possible government system in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. People are still dying from the ripple effects of disease, water and power shortages, not to mention the callousness of a President who believes a paper towel tossing photo op is #MAGA – because brown people are takers.

As a writer/human hybrid, there have been many days and weeks this year when the power of the pen hasn’t felt forceful enough. That the exercise in information sharing that is journalism falls impotently short of the action needed to right a country that has popularly lurched toward heartlessness at the highest levels of government. Isolationist xenophobia, backs turned to war-torn refugees, a place where Nazis are labeled “very fine people,” black lives only matter when it comes to kneeling in protest and female reproductive health is a political bargaining chip for the dominant hierarchy of middle-aged white men. It’s easy to become disoriented and confused to the point of inertia. Should I be writing about this? Should I be in the streets? Am I supposed to be deliberating? Hand me another scotch in the meantime.

I do not pretend to be a moderate. Never have. I can’t be less than all the way when it comes to constructing government and social systems that support and offer opportunity equally. I do not believe we go it alone. Call me a socialist, a radical, an angry intersectional feminist or any of the more colorful epithets offered by my (typically male) Twitter trolls. When the leader of the country governs by pandering to the ignorant 35 percent, rather than representing all Americans, displaying the kind of divisive, threatening behavior and rhetoric well known to despots, I’m happy to be branded an enemy of the state. As lonely and frightening as it can be to sit outside the circle, the air is a lot less toxic.

All of this is to say that as the end of the year approaches, I and many other exhausted journalists in my acquaintance are still trying to find our footing. Just the facts has been replaced by fake news, many of the policy threats are deeply personal and after all, wallowing in the muck of the Trump era is spiritually exhausting. However the work continues in a bi-partisan way, and if there’s comfort to be found in the crusade, it’s the unexpected shared experience with an increasingly large number of conservative writers and pundits. If you’d told me just 18 months ago, that I’d find myself aligned with the thoughts of the New York Times columnist David Brooks, the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan and Peter Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center – in the same week! – I wouldn’t have believed it possible. But here we are:

“The Republican Party is doing harm to every cause it purports to serve. If Republicans accept Roy Moore as a United States senator, they may, for a couple years, have one more vote for a justice or a tax cut, but they will have made their party loathsome for an entire generation…Young people and people of color look at the Trump-Moore G.O.P. and they are repulsed, maybe forever.”

“The support being given by many Republicans and white evangelicals to President Trump and now to Mr. Moore have caused me to rethink my identification with both groups. Not because my attachment to conservatism and Christianity has weakened, but rather the opposite. I consider Mr. Trump’s Republican Party to be a threat to conservatism, and I have concluded that the term evangelical — despite its rich history of proclaiming the ‘good news’ of Christ to a broken world — has been so distorted that it is now undermining the Christian witness.”

“[Republicans], have faith. Not everything comes down to an immediate election that is this coming Thursday. Think long term, philosophically. Be true to your own political principles, but have some faith and don’t make decisions that are not ones that you’re really comfortable with.”

Suddenly it seems conservative to stand against cynicism, pedophilia, party before country and the corporate raiding of the American people. I and other liberals may disagree with these writers on “everyday” policies. But in 2017, normalcy has been supplanted by Constitutional crises and the end days of representative democracy. The journalistic blurring of party lines may offer small 2017 comfort. But as a writer, it gives me energy to take on 2018.

Barney the Elf

A bawdy piece of holiday fun that also uses laughter to make incisive political observations, “Barney the Elf” is back onstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center. Directed by Tommy Rivera-Vega, who also guided the 2016 incarnation, the colorful show is more than meets the eye and ear. The plot summary, as it were, provides cheeky, consistent cover for a production that has been meticulously updated since its second Obama term debut.

The third annual musical comedy production from Other Theatre is written (and rewritten) by Brian Renaud, with lyrics by Renaud and Emily Schmidt. Press materials broadly describe the work in traditional holiday terms, with a nod to some modern twists: “After Santa Claus retires, his wicked son begins a not-so-jolly reign as the new head of Christmas. The North Pole begins to crumble under his bigoted rule, and Barney the Elf is forced to leave his home for being different from the others…he embarks on a fabulous journey of self-discovery (or is it elf-discovery?) that lands him in one of Chicago’s hottest drag bars.”

That’s a big story to tell in 90 minutes — the production’s running time. “Barney the Elf” moves fast, literally and figuratively, taking the audience on an emotional journey from Barney’s life as a sheltered, one-dimensional holiday spirit through his metamorphosis into a more complex citizen of the world.

The absolute silliness that drives much of the action, song and dance onstage can be taken and left there for theater patrons looking for a bit of joyful escapism. The dialogue is sharp and punctuated with up-to-the-minute pop cultural references. And despite the frightening topical issues addressed in the 2017 script — xeno and homophobia, diplomatic isolationism, income inequality and class warfare — “Barney the Elf” is careful never to take itself too seriously.

It’s quite clear that Santa Junior (played with marvelous gusto by Jaron Bellar) is a fictional stand-in for the mercenary, divisive and unfortunately all-too-real Donald Trump. But those looking for a respite from politics can just as easily locate elements of traditional holiday villains like Ebenezer Scrooge or Mr. Potter, the human humbug of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Thus, before the first word of banter is uttered, we know how the story ends. We already know who wins. Spoiler alert: it’s not Junior. And that’s a nice serving of theatrical comfort food as the country faces so many issues with uncertain outcomes.

I’ve already highlighted Jaron Bellar’s fantastic turn as Santa Junior. It is not easy playing the villain in a production like this. The temptation to chew scenery and twist the metaphorical mustache can be too much for the most talented actors to resist. But Bellar’s Junior is the man we love to hate, even as we can’t help but admire his trendy red suit, vocal chops and ability to execute a high kick. With much moxie, Bellar brings to mind a young Jim Carrey’s charm, comedic timing and legendary flexibility.

The rest of the cast is more than equal to Bellar. Roy Samra’s Barney is appropriately wide-eyed, rosy cheeked, full of love and hope. Samra is also gifted with a magnificent singing voice. Unfortunately, there were times during Tuesday’s night’s premiere when that beautiful voice was difficult to hear.

An unwise creative decision was rendered to leave the performers unmiked. In the intimate downstairs theater setting of the 2017 production, that may have seemed like a good choice in the rehearsal abstract. However in the presence of a raucous audience — as Tuesday night’s premiere observers certainly were — vocal nuances and dialogue were occasionally lost. There is still time to address this before the show’s December 30 conclusion. I hope that the producers and Rivera-Vega give it some consideration.

Maggie Cain is a wonderful Mrs. Claus, a character who begins the show obeying the voices of men before reasserting her own. This transition is neatly and comically summarized in a send-up of Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You.” Cain sings it with the dramatic zeal of a North Pole woman with her own complex story to tell.

Rounding out the big four of “Barney the Elf’s” 2017 cast, Dixie Lynn Cartwright brings much more than glamorous, enviable drag to the stage. She also offers a lovely tenor and modulated, dramatic gravity. In the program distributed with my ticket, I learned that Cartwright hosts her own monthly show at Berlin in Boystown. Attendance is on my 2018 artistic priority list.

Other Theatre’s 2017 rendition of its holiday staple deserves space on lists both naughty and nice. “Barney the Elf” is worthwhile and effervescent with hints of social justice awareness. The production proves that being woke can be funny business.

“Barney the Elf” runs through December 30 at The Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 773-404-7336 or visit the Other Theatre website.

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