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Spotlight on a Jewish theater conference and other must-see culture around town

An autumn showcase on arts

AE.Orchestra image
Cynthia Yeh is the principal percussionist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Photo credit: Todd Rosenberg.

This month, we spotlight a Jewish theater conference, a work of 'Eternal Rhythm,' A 'Ship of Tolerance,' and an exceptional play.

A Jewish theater conference at Victory Gardens

Chicago-area theater aficionados are advised to mark their calendars for the week of Nov. 3-10. The Alliance for Jewish Theatre Conference will hold a series of professional discussions at Victory Gardens Theatre -- along with public performances under the banner of TEATRON, Chicago's Jewish Theatre Festival. TEATRON is produced by ShPIel-Performing Identity and its artistic director, David Chack, a professor at the Theater School of DePaul University.

The conference's seminars and workshops (to be held Nov. 3-5), are open to theater makers, including playwrights, directors, actors, producers, and other artists involved in "Jewish-inflected theater in all contexts." And along with expected participants from Israel, England, Russia, and beyond, there will be artistic directors from Theatre J in Washington, D.C.; the Jewish Women's Theatre in Los Angeles, Centerstage in Rochester, N.Y.; Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York, and Theatre Ariel of Philadelphia.

The conference also will pay homage to Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum and philanthropist Steven Miller at a Nov. 4 banquet to be held at DePaul's handsome new Music School. Nussbaum (who will turn 96 in December and is said to be the oldest working Equity actor), will receive the Theodore Bikel Award for Excellence in Theater, and Miller will receive the Special Distinction Award.

Among the performances to be presented as part of TEATRON will be The Ben Hecht Show (on Nov. 6) Chicago playwright-actor James Sherman's revelatory one man drama about Ben Hecht, the fabled journalist, playwright, and Jewish activist.

As Sherman observed: "I see this Festival as a political act, much as Hecht's 1943 'We Will Never Die Pageant,' which heightened American audiences' awareness of the Holocaust. Especially in these times I want to embrace Hecht, who proclaimed: 'You will not replace us.' As theater artists we have a unique opportunity to do this."

Other performances include: The Green Book (Nov. 3), a staged reading of a play by Calvin Alexander Ramsey about an African-American family in the Jim Crow era that opens its home to black travelers often shut out of hotels and restaurants, and the Jewish Holocaust survivor who arrives at their door; A Showcase of Jewish Theatre from All Over (Nov. 4); Jewish Storytelling Delight (Nov. 5), with Susan Stone and Vered Hankin showcasing the Jewish style of "mayse," and telling mystical tales that impart meaning even as they poke fun at absurd characters; Cabaret-Jewish Style (Nov. 7), featuring Carla Gordon and Rebecca Joy Fletcher; a special "performance Shabbat" (Nov. 8); a commemorative performance for the Kristallnacht Pogrom (Nov. 9); and "Gefilte Fish and Chips" (Nov. 10), a one-man show by England's Daniel Cainer.

For a complete schedule and information, visit For tickets call (773) 871-3000.

An Israeli composer taps a CSO percussionist

Avner Dorman is an award-winning, widely performed Israeli composer who now serves as an associate professor of Music Theory and Composition at the Sunderland Conservatory of Music at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.

Cynthia Yeh, who was born in Taiwan, is the principal percussionist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And she will be the featured soloist when, in a series of concerts (Oct. 3, 4 and 5), the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs the U.S. premiere of Dorman's "Eternal Rhythm," a percussion concerto in five short movements that features the use of a vast array of percussion instruments, including vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, crotales, a melodic set of tom-tom drums, and tin cans and bells.

In his notes for the work, which had its world premiere last year in Hamburg, Germany, Dorman wrote: "To the best of our knowledge, the universe began with a large impulse, and the resulting oscillations, pulses, and beats are what we still experience -- an eternal rhythm that stretches from the beginning of time in perpetuity."

Dorman, who had yet to meet Yeh when we chatted by phone last month, explained that the percussionist, who generally stands in the back of the orchestra, is front and center in this piece, with the instruments laid out in clear view of the audience. As for the score, "it involves some complex musical notation, and a certain level of variability depending on the performer."

Dorman has drawn on everything from Balinese Gamelan music to an 11th century Hebrew poem by Judah Halevi that questions "our interaction as conscious beings with the physical world." And he said, "there's one movement that is a bit like a Chopin nocturne although it works in a different way, and another that has a very rhythmic call-and-response between a drum set and the orchestra."

Yeh and Dorman will not meet until rehearsals begin, and when we chatted early last month Yeh said: "I've still not worked out the physical set-up, but I've been playing the piece in the air. I know I'll have three stations for the instruments, and I also know I'll be running back and forth like a monkey."

Also, on the CSO program, to be conducted by James Gaffigan, will be Shostakovich's "Symphony No. 8," a piece Dorman says he has been obsessed with for many years, "so it's a great fit." For tickets visit

Last days for the Kabakovs' "Ship of Tolerance" at Navy Pier

Ilya and Emelia Kabakov-the acclaimed husband-and-wife team of artists who were born in the Soviet Union and, like many Jews, emigrated to the U.S. (she in 1973, and he in 1987)-are acclaimed for their "immersive installations."

One of their most widely visited works is "The Ship of Tolerance," which was devised in 2005 and since then has been "re-constructed" on site, in ever-shifting permutations, in cities around the world.

The 65-foot "Ship" is now "docked" through Oct. 6 at Navy Pier's Polk Brothers Park, 600 E. Grand, where it is part of EXPO CHICAGO's outdoor exhibition program. According to the wonderfully effusive Emilia Kabakov, it was designed to "promote diversity and combat ethnic division, bullying, and violence." And the Chicago edition is festooned with a great rectangular patchwork sail comprised of colorful drawings made with waterproof paint by Chicago-area school students of all ages, and by earlier participants (in Cuba, Germany, Russia and beyond) who were involved in the project. For details, visit

Be There Now' a must-see play

Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer laughingly describes herself as "a very Jewish atheist who, like most atheists, is obsessed with religion and the notion of where religion and science brush up against each other." She also readily acknowledges that "there is such a painful and shocking hatred of Jews, and the world doesn't acknowledge it."

Yet Laufer's plays, including Be Here Now -- currently receiving a knockout Chicago premiere by Shattered Globe Theatre -- tend to deal with broader existential questions, and the closely twined meaning of life and death, as well as the notion of tolerance in the broadest sense of that word. This tragicomic gem, set in the sort of small, upstate New York town where Laufer grew up as quite the outsider, runs through Oct. 19 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. For tickets call (773) 975-8150 or visit

Hedy Weiss, a longtime Chicago arts critic, was the Theater and Dance Critic for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1984 to 2018, and currently writes for WTTW-TV's website and contributes to the Chicago Tonight program.

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