Arts in the pandemic era

Virtual and between the covers

AEHedy image
The film TheTobacconist tells the story of an unlikely friendship between Sigmund Freud and a 17-year-old tobacco shop apprentice. Photo courtesy of Menemsha Films.

The lingering COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the closure of stages large and small throughout the summer of 2020 and beyond. And that is enough to make anyone hark back to that Simon and Garfunkel classic, "The Sound of Silence."

The cancellation of the entire seasons of the Grant Park Music Festival in Millennium Park, the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park (summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), the Jazz and Gospel Festivals, Lollapalooza, and countless other events throughout this country and beyond-leaves a stunning emptiness as it robs us of some of the most glorious nights of summer. And things look to be no better this fall as most symphony, opera, dance, and theater seasons have already been cancelled or placed in limbo until 2021.

Yet there is still some "balm in Gilead" for arts lovers, thanks to the virus-free virtual world on the Internet stage, and the enduring world of books and recordings. Here are a few suggestions of such offerings that also happen to come with a Jewish twist:

A Jewish plays contest

The names of Jewish-American playwrights of the 20th century are widely known-from Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller to David Mamet and Tony Kushner. But what about those of the 21st century? There is Anna Ziegler, whose Photograph 51 captured the life of Rosalind Franklin, the overlooked scientist involved in the understanding of DNA, as well as Steven Levenson ( Dear Evan Hanson ), and Joshua Harmon ( Bad Jews ). But who else? And what can be done to foster and showcase a whole new generation of theater writers concerned with Jewish themes?

That is what the Jewish Plays Project, founded nine years ago by David Winitsky, is devoted to doing. Since 2011, it has received and vetted (by means of an elaborate voting process involving theater practitioners and audiences) 1,500 new Jewish-themed plays from writers in 32 states and nine countries, with many of them subsequently produced in New York, London, Tel Aviv, and throughout the U.S. Among the project's many partners is Continuum Theatre, a small company with big ideas based in Deerfield, and led by Devorah Richards.

When the pandemic hit in March, the contest went virtual and had its first Zoom event in May. The plays of the seven finalists to emerge were wide-ranging: The story of the hidden World War II past of a Hollywood success story; the making of West Side Story; the inherited trauma of four generations of Jewish women; the fallout from a controversial play commissioned by a Jewish community center; the arrival of Elijah the Prophet at a contentious Midwestern family's Seder; the confrontational reunion in Israel of three longtime friends; and an American journalist's encounter with refugee kids. Excerpts from these top seven plays can be seen by visiting Jewishplaysproject.org.

A biography of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick

You know him as the acclaimed Bronx-born director responsible for such wide-ranging and often groundbreaking films as Dr. Strangelove, 2001:A Space Odyssey, Spartacus, Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and many others. Now, in the latest of the many books about his life and work comes David Mikics' Stanley Kubrick: American Filmmaker, the newest addition to Yale University Press' Jewish Lives series, that unfailingly engaging collection of biographies about influential artists, politicians, theologians, scientists, and changemakers.

In his introduction to the book, Mikics writes: "When he made a movie, Kubrick was obsessively focused because he had to find a solution to every problem, but he was also drawn to macho revolt, and anything else that makes well-laid plans screw up royally. His movies are about mastery that fails."

Brodsky in Venice, and Beyond

Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), the Russian Jewish poet, essayist, and teacher, came to the United States in 1972 as an involuntary exile from the Soviet Union, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987, and served as poet laureate of the U.S. in 1991 and 1992. But for nearly 20 years, he spent his winters in Venice, Italy. And in Watermark-originally published in 1992 and now reissued by Farrar, Straus, Giroux-he crafted 48 brief but intensely personal and evocative riffs on that magical, watery city.

Ironically enough, given the antisemitism he and his parents faced in the Soviet Union, he never touches on the fact that Venice was the site of the earliest Jewish "ghetto," which lasted from 1516 to 1797. But in one piece he subtly but vividly recalls a meeting he and his friend, Susan Sontag, had one evening in 1977 when they were invited to the Venice home of Olga Rudge, the American violinist best known as the mistress of Ezra Pound, and the woman who vigorously defended him against charges that he was an antisemite and supporter of the fascist Benito Mussolini.

Three additional volumes of Brodsky's work have been published alongside Watermark. They include Selected Poems , 1968-1996, edited by Ann Kjellberg; and Less Than One and On Grief and Reason , two massive collections of the writer's brilliant essays on poetry, myth, history, and a great deal more.

A film set for streaming

The Siskel Film Center is not ready to reopen yet, but in the meantime you can stream its presentations from your couch. And here is a fine choice that begins July 10: The Tobacconist , Nikolaus Leytner's 2018 film (in German, with English subtitles) based on the international bestseller by David Seethaler.

Set against the Nazi occupation of Vienna, it spins the story of an unexpected friendship between Sigmund Freud (played by Bruno Ganz, the acclaimed Swiss actor who died last year), and a 17-year-old boy who has just arrived in the city to apprentice at the tobacco shop where the famous psychoanalyst buys his cigars. That boy falls desperately in love with a music hall dancer and both he and Freud are clearly puzzled by the nature of women and love. Visit siskelfilmcenter.org. 

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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