Review–Nickel History: City of Heat

Tony Fitzpatrick is a creator whose visual art I’ve enjoyed for almost twenty five years (check out his website to see his funky style). He has turned into a good writer, too, as this column from New City demonstrates). His storytelling has been something I’ve appreciated, too, since back in the 80s and 90s when he, Buzz Kilman, and Steve Dahl would swap stories and critical opinions on Chicago radio. Well, last night, for the first time, I was able to see his visual art brought together with his storytelling in a satisfying night of theater. I highly recommend Berwyn’s 16th St. Theater production of “Nickel History: City of Heat” running  at the Steppenwolf Garage through August 5th.

This show is the last of a “personal trilogy” that makes me hope the other two are available on video (the book version of the most recent is available here). In this one, Fitzpatrick and his friend and business partner Stan Klein tell stories–mostly about their dads, both World War II veterans who came back forever changed by the experience–Klein’s from the European theater, Fitzpatrick’s from the Pacific. The portraits of these men that emerges from their middle-aged sons is honest (they were rough men) and compassionate (one leaves the theater full of admiration for the fathers’ sacrifice). And the question that is asked near the end can resonate for everyone in the audience:  “Are we the men they sacrificed for?” Would they approve of our America?  It is a good question on which to end the show.

Klein’s un-polished stage presence and pathetic fixation on working for the Chicago Cubs keep the show rooted–despite the fine music, video, and poetry (mostly haiku) that accompany the men’s performances (mostly personal vignettes and shared dialog). These guys aren’t fooling anyone that they are professional actors. But the show is that much more powerful because of the contrast. They are like Fitzpatrick’s re-purposed match-book and advertisement text–outstandingly authentic because of their displacement. And having just returned from a sojourn on Frenchmen Street, it was wonderful to hear Fitzpatrick soliloquize about the Crescent City and its many charms. At one point, he anthropomorphizes New Orleans as “an Irish woman with freckles in all the right parts.”

The Haiku that Fitzgerald goes to Japan to experience finds its way into the show in verbal form (the lovely Carolyn Hoerdermann’s enigmatic orations) but also in the intriguing videos by Kristin Reeves on the large screen at the back of the stage that played almost constantly (see Alison Cuddy’s appreciation here). Her videos use Fitzgerald’s dense images to spell out ruminations on life, death, and beauty and echoed dialog going on between Klein and Fitzgerald. 

If you’re looking for authentic, funny, and poignant narrative–and if you like your beauty raw–this show is for you. 

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