Critic's Choice with Andrew Patner

Andrew Patner, WFMT FM

"While the cultural calendar generally slows a bit in August, the careful examiner of The Chicago Reader's listings and reviews and of the new and superb weekly magazine-guide Time Out Chicago can find plenty to do in the traditional dog days of summer. Even the major institutions are still busy, with Ravinia looking forward to capping its outstanding Sondheim 75 series with the much-neglected Anyone Can Whistle at the end of the month, the same weekend that the festival makes its first foray into programming in downtown Chicago, presenting dance subversive Mark Morris's take on Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato with Music of the Baroque at the Harris Theater. Grant Park still has three major performances this week at the Pritzker Pavilion, the crown jewel of Millennium Park, including Saturday night's celebration of WTTW/Channel 11's 50th anniversary. And the Art Institute has a hit on its hands with its excellent examination of Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre.

For me, though, summer in Chicago is one of the best times to encounter and dig into the eclecticism that persists here often just a few steps off of the beaten path. In the last week, I headed out to an Armenian Festival in north suburban Glenview (wonderful Armenian flatbreads) and the 50th annual Ginza Festival at the Japanese-American founded Midwest Buddhist Temple in Old Town (invariably the best grilled chicken on Chicago). I went to see a remarkable piece of theatre in a beautifully preserved mansion I had never even noticed before, the Serbian Cultural Club on Barry just west of Sheridan in Lakeview on the north Side. Founded in 1951 by political exiles and former POWs who had fought the Nazis but were also opposed to the Tito regime in former Yugoslavia, the group is seeking to expand its cultural offerings and exchanges as well as to give the general public a sense of the Serbs' connections with and attachments to high culture that go beyond the headlines and the recent tragic history of the Balkans. This is not an easy task, of course, and the exile and immigrant communities from this region themselves have many troubling divisions even in Chicago and even within their enclaves here. Still, the monodrama A Pin with Two Heads, by the young Belgrade-based playwright and music critic Aleksandar Gatalica, performed here by one of his Belgrade associates, was certainly a brave and important choice in this effort — an examination, both powerful and sensitive, of a half-Jewish orchestra conductor who escapes Nazi Europe for the United States where, after achieving some measure of success, he finds himself haunted by the choices he made in his past. In the context of its Chicago premiere, the work was not without additional ironies, not all of them intentional and not all of them compensated for by the generous offerings of grilled meat patties after the performance.

Zygmunt Dyrkacz is one of a number of young Poles who have come to Chicago in the years since the Solidarnosc uprising began in 1980 and have worked tirelessly to advance the most sophisticated and challenging Polish and Central European cultural events here.

Since 1990, Dyrkacz has owned and operated the 87-year-old Chopin Theatre at the old ground zero of Polish Chicago at the intersection of Division, Ashland, and Milwaukee in Wicker Park. Making his adaptable spaces available to many young Chicago theatre companies and presenting an astonishing 500 or so events a year (!), Dyrkacz also brings important European avant-garde companies to his venue, something that happens too rarely here since the demise of the International Theatre Festival of Chicago.

Currently Chopin is home to the much-admired Katowice-based Teatr Cogitatur, a troupe that has done a superb job of passing on the techniques and traditions of the Polish avant-garde to a new generation of young Polish theatre artists.

On this, their third annual visit to the Chopin, Cogitatur is presenting an abstract work that has at various times been known as Tribute to the Expressionists and La Luna. Its title, though, is not so important, nor, for that matter is its content “a sort of vodka-intoxicated parallel to Jonathan Larsen's Rent. What matters in this highly-distilled 45-minute performance is the skill and individuality of the stylized and constantly changing stage pictures.

This is disciplined work of a type we do not see enough of even in as theatrically rich a city as Chicago. La Luna will be joined in repertory this week by another of Cogitatur's signature (and similarly brief) pieces, Aztec Hotel. And there are still a few places on the street where you can round out your visit with some fresh pierogi and a cold beer.

I'm Andrew Patner” .