This Holiday Season, Spring Comes Early for Chicago Cub Fans


“It’s a season of comfort and unreserved giving for Cubs fans. At the time of this post, the thermometer registers an unseasonably terrific 59 degrees Fahrenheit – two days before Christmas. Throw in intermittent pouring rain and if one closes their eyes to the encroaching late afternoon darkness, it feels an awful lot like spring.”

Read the full post at Wrigleyville Nation.


He’ll Be Back: Antonin Scalia’s 2016 SCOTUS Racism Could Be Record Setting


“There are a number of important cases to be decided by the court in 2016 in addition to Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Issues regarding legislative gerrymandering, collective bargaining and capital punishment are among a series of bellwether determinations before the justices. Given Scalia’s continually vocal opposition to leveling the playing field according to true democratic principles, we can probably expect him to come down on the wrong moral side of each decision.

Enjoy the judicial-free calm before the winter storm.”

Read the full post at Contemptor.

Baritones Unbound


Marc Kudisch, Nathan Gunn and Mark Delavan
Marc Kudisch, Nathan Gunn and Mark Delavan

For the theater critic as well as the general fan, three expectations are associated with a production bearing the label, “Hershey Felder Presents.” Beautiful music, a solid history lesson and the weave of these two elements into an engaging story — that’s the Felder brand. And in bestowing his signature blessing on “Baritones Unbound,” another worthy show enters the already competitive Chicago holiday theater market.

Conceived and written by three-time Tony Award nominee Marc Kudisch, who also performs in the production, “Baritones” is an unofficial response to the “Three Tenors” conversation. The popular and commercially successful operatic singing group exploded in the 1990s, boasting the star power of Plácido Domingo, José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti. One of many imprints left by the trio was the elevation of the tenor vocal part to cultural primacy, somewhat at the expense of the baritone.

Observation of the recent past’s dearth of strong, new baritone parts is included in the show’s second half. Although the script creditably and diversely attributes the dive to the rise of stadium rock as much as any other influence, there is a pervasive, if amiable, defensiveness. The “Baritones Unbound” have something to prove. For slightly more than two hours, Kudisch, in partnership with fellow sonorous ones Mark Delavan and Nathan Gunn, as well as Musical Director Timothy Splain, takes audiences to school.

The history of the baritone begins with 10th Century variations on the original Gregorian chant and runs through “Miss Saigon” and beyond. I wouldn’t know this if Kudisch, Splain and writing partners Merwin Foard and Jeff Mattsey hadn’t done such painstaking research. Along with a varied assortment of storied musical numbers that run the gamut from Mozart, to Gilbert & Sullivan to Johnny Cash, the narrative unfolds with a delicate and insightful use of multi-media. This is another Felder staple and when I saw the Scenic Design attributed to the producer himself, there was no surprise.

In perusing the production’s press materials, I was amused to discover that among the highlights of Delavan’s and Gunn’s illustrious careers, the pair have been branded with fanboy/fangirl nicknames. “The Voice of God” and “Barihunk,” are the respective flags by which the two men are sometimes known. I can pronounce these pet monikers well-deserved.

Gunn handsomely transitions many of the segments with a deliberate walk center stage that stands in contrast to the more screwball antics of say, Kudisch. I’m a huge fan of screwball antics by the way, as was most of the adoring crowd at the press opening — and we are a difficult lot to impress. When Kudisch held a long, deep note while also maintaining a front split position, we were truly amazed. The man’s a middle-aged hero! Diversity of talent is the most special effect of all.

And Delevan’s “Voice of God” label is earned honestly. His impressive resume is chockablock with the finest and most popular in opera, and the years of training show. Delevan’s gorgeous, booming voice, so otherworldly and effortless, is humanized by self-effacing physical comedy skills.

Magnified by the intimacy of the Royal George’s individual theaters, the three baritones are captivating. Delavan, Gunn and Kudisch enjoy an aqueous chemistry united by individual gifts, niche experience and genuine love of the covered material.

However in lauding the talented and titular cast, it would be remiss to exclude Splain from the curtain call. By the time he steps out from behind the piano and grabs a mic, while Delevan and Kudisch pick up guitars, it’s the Beatles at the Ed Sullivan Theater all over again. Total rock stars.

Fans of music from all eras, who love the satisfying sound of strong, classically trained voices nimble enough to tackle just about anything: find room on your busy holiday schedule for a rousing history lesson. That’s the Hershey Felder brand. And “Baritone’s Unbound” delivers on its promise.

“Baritones Unbound” runs through Jan. 3, 2016 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N Halsted Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-988-9000 or visit the Royal George Theatre website.

Hubbard Street’s Season 38 Winter Series: ‘Solo Echo’


To understate the situation, I’m no expert in the art of dance. Words are my artistic medium. I find a regular flight of stairs a terrific challenge to fine motor skills, and besides a beginner’s tap class I took last year, personal study ended in first grade with an underwhelming ballet recital. But oh how I love movement and envy the practitioners who devote their lives to the craft. Using one’s body to tell a story is a powerful thing.

And powerful is a fitting adjective for “Hubbard Street’s Season 38 Winter Series,” enjoying an all-too brief run at Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance. Since 1977, one of the city’s finest dance institutions has been serving up provocative, gorgeous contemplations that have achieved worldwide recognition. Media force “The New York Times” famously observed of the company’s talent, “The list of choreographers who have worked with this immaculately technical group reads like an international who’s who of contemporary dance.”

Genius is on full display in the “Winter Series,” featuring the work of choreographers Yin Yue, Robyn Mineko Williams, Penny Saunders and Crystal Pite. The quartet of female voices calls forth a stunning four-part program with much to say. At the same time, the production overwhelmingly succeeds in leaving enough space for audience members to project individual experiences onto the stage. The series is both universal and singular. It’s a remarkable achievement.

All four routines — “A Glimpse inside a Shared Story” (Yue), “Waxing Moon,” (Williams), “Out of Keeping” (Saunders) and “Solo Echo” (Pite) — are sparsely contextualized in the production program. The most copy is devoted to “Waxing Moon,” described as a contemplation on “the process of becoming; its protagonist considers possibilities for his future through engagement with two forces we see as figures.” The choice to leave interpretation open-ended, as I have already suggested, is a win.

To continue the “Moon” example, the two figures moving onstage around the central character represent darkness and light. I saw the protagonist wrestle with the dusk, subsequently too exhausted to fully engage with the healthier light, and my own struggles with insomnia came to mind. The shorter days of winter can exacerbate the pain of long, sleepless nights. Beautifully danced by Andrew Murdock, Jaqueline Burnett and Jason Hortin, the compelling piece is still with me today.

The final offering of the production, “Solo Echo” features one of few overt wintertide images — a glittering display of falling snow. Lighting design from Tom Visser serves as an enchanting backdrop for a meditation on interconnectedness. Like the drifting flakes, blown about in communities, fortunes united by the whims of Mother Nature, the cast of seven dancers moves in intricate unison. My companion for the evening and I both suffer from motion sickness, and mutually reported that the troupe’s fluid meld was almost too effective for our respective equilibriums. Nausea be damned. I couldn’t look away from the stage.

This review’s focus on the second and fourth segments of “Hubbard Street’s Season 38 Winter Series” should in no way suggest a superiority to Yue and Saunders’ work. All four specimens are revelatory experiences. I’m still pondering the explosion of color, usage of sound and surface that is “Out of Keeping.” Is it a rumination on life’s tendency to be lived in shades of gray? I can’t be sure, but I revel in wonder. I’d love to see the performance again.

In fact I’d like to see them all encored — many times. As I collected my press passes for the evening, I questioned the choice to include two intermissions in a production that runs less than 120 minutes. In retrospect I’m grateful. The audience needs time to catch its breath and process the visceral reactions likely to stem from each fascinating, exquisitely danced piece.

This critic’s first Hubbard Street Dance Chicago experience won’t be the last. If there’s anything to bemoan, it’s that the “Winter Series” won’t survive until spring. Lovers of art, regardless of channel, are in for a thought-provoking treat this weekend.

“Hubbard Street’s Season 38 Winter Series” runs through Dec. 13 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E Randolph Street, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-850-9744 or visit the Hubbard Street Dance Chicago website.


The Red-Stained Road to Remission

The Red Road to Remission

In public speeches, on this blog, and in daily life, I’ve spent two years talking about my struggles with pompholyx eczema, a little understood autoimmune disease. As a refresher, here are some basic facts about the mercurial condition, courtesy of DermNet:

“Pompholyx presents as recurrent crops of deep-seated blisters on the palms and soles. They cause intense itch and/or a burning sensation. The blisters peel off and the skin then appears red, dry and has painful fissures (cracks)….

Pompholyx is multifactorial. In many cases it appears to be related to sweating, as flares often occur during hot weather, humid conditions, or following emotional upset. Other contributing factors include:

  • Genetics
  • Contact with irritants such as water, detergents, solvents and friction
  • Association with contact allergy to nickel and other allergens
  • Inflammatory dermatophyte (tinea) infections
  • Adverse reaction to drugs, most often immunoglobulin therapy…

[Additional risks involve] secondary bacterial infection with Staphylococcus aureus and/or Streptococcus pyogenes…results in pain, swelling and pustules on the hands and feet.”

So yes, debilitating, painful and at times, humiliating. I’ve written about society’s tendency to treat another’s visible disfigurement as an acceptable conversation topic. Strangers ask rude, invasive questions – like “What happened to you? Did you get burned?” – that they wouldn’t dream of posing to someone in a wheelchair, for example. And very rarely was I in possession of answers.

The condition typically onsets during young adulthood. I was 34 years old – not a geezer, but past the blush of youth. There’s no pompholyx family history. I’m allergic to nickel as well as a number of medications. But that’s always been so, and reactions stop at vomiting and temporary hives. Also? My case exploded near the Thanksgiving holidays. I live in Chicago. So much for the hot, humid theory.

Emotional upset? That I can believe. When the initial outbreak occurred I was living in a studio apartment falling down around me, ending an 18-month relationship with a psychologically abusive alcoholic, the plaintiff in a lawsuit (ultimately resolved in my favor) and between jobs. I was a bit stressed, but for better or worse, my harrowing upbringing instilled excellent coping skills. Why now if not then? I’ll never know for sure what caused my autoimmune system to shift into hyper revolt.

Over 18 months ago, I wrote about being one of the lucky ones. Pompholyx has no known cure, and most patients endure interminable alternation between steroid therapy (which temporarily subdues the swelling and growth) and escalation. It’s miserable. I used to dream of happily cutting off fingers, a macabre but welcome relief. I’d often awake in tears when I realized all ten burning digits were still in place. Chronic pain is the enemy of rational thought.

But in one of those right place, right time, great mysteries of life, raw, organic beet juice presented itself as a solution when my medical team had just about exhausted available treatment options. Had I not discovered that disgusting, beautiful, natural, thick red elixir, I’d be on disability right now rather than climbing the corporate ladder, taking on new writing and leadership challenges, or preparing to teach my first collegiate course in the spring. I’d never have traveled to Alaska or fallen in love with Bob and our dogs. 20-30 ounces a shot, 5-7 days a week, and except for the part where every fluid emanating from my body was crimson tinged, I went on as I once was.

Beet juice was a part of life, was life itself. And then all of the sudden, toward the end of October, another miracle: the pompholyx went into remission. I’ve enjoyed nearly eight symptom, juice-free weeks and counting. In preparation for writing this post, I looked up the technical definition of that word: remission. These are the three explications offered by Google:

“1. the cancellation of a debt, charge, or penalty.

2. a diminution of the seriousness or intensity of disease or pain; a temporary recover

3. forgiveness of sins.”

Through sheer luck, I’m not in financial distress. And as an atheist, I don’t believe powers higher than myself and the needs of the global community are required to guide my moral code. Guilt and I are old, longtime friends. Yet when I look at the three varying definitions of “remission,” I relate to them all under present circumstances.

In the throes of acute physical suffering, it was easy (and romantic) to wonder if the bad juju I know I’ve put into the universe yielded deserved pain. I don’t need a god’s help to see that almost everything is connected. Somehow I’d asked for this. But if so, to whom could I plead for relief and absolution? It was too, chronically late.

I don’t know what led to this pause in physical torment any more than I can ascertain what led to it in the first place. Has existential debt been forgiven, or is it (a far more likely scenario) that my human body, with all its mysterious quirks, has finally caught up to the happiness, mental health and peace I experience through better life choices?

Remission. Rumination. Resolve. So many “R” words, so little certainty. Gray areas used to drive me batty. Now I can just be grateful for the calm, taking comfort in the knowledge that if symptoms return, there are beets.