If you got through last winter without looking at least once at real estate listings in San Diego, you’re made of sturdier stuff than I am. But we both have a leg up on lifelong Chicagoan Tony Fitzpatrick, who announces in his latest collagelike show—the fourth and final installment in a series that began with This Train in 2010—that he’s decamping for New Orleans.
Now in his 50s, the artist/storyteller has decided, he says, that all he wants to do is “be warm and draw birds.” The first requirement obviously takes Chicago out of the running from the get-go.
In addition to the weather, Fitzpatrick’s stated reasons for leaving include gentrification, gun violence, inequality, our chronically shady politics, and the imminent closing of Hot Doug’s. More and more, it seems like the city he loves has turned into “something shiny and cheap.” The skyline downtown is marred by Donald Trump’s name in giant letters, while former blue-collar and ethnic neighborhoods like Ukrainian Village have become overrun with “double-wide strollers.”
This probably sounds like middle-aged grumbling, but there’s more to it than that. Though Fitzpatrick’s demeanor is gruff, the mood of the show is elegiac. Big, bald, and scowling, he wears a sleeveless T-shirt that shows off the faded tattoos up and down his arms. Altogether, he could pass for a retired bouncer, or maybe Dick Cheney’s rebellious kid brother. His rants and reminiscences, however, are shot through with a potent nostalgia that belies the tough-guy exterior.
What he longs for is the Chicago of Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, and Mike Royko—a gritty, noisy, built-from-nothing sort of place inhabited by a colorful cast of hustlers, charlatans, bar-stool philosophers, and salt-of-the-earth types. Fitzpatrick’s best stories have this same kind of hard-boiled beauty, whether he’s recalling the gut-busting pleasures of now-vanished restaurants or memorializing a maternal Ukrainian neighbor.
As a storyteller, he’s not immune to schmaltz or name-dropping (two faults that doom a well-intentioned tribute to Lou Reed), and his transitions can be jarring as he flits from one subject to another (what does Lou Reed have to do with anything anyway?). But ultimately the show is held together by Fitzpatrick’s churlish charisma in tension with what feels like a genuine sense of weary heartbreak.
Director Ann Filmer supplies an appropriately autumnal atmosphere for Fitzpatrick’s ruminations. Her multimedia production features evocative video projections (incorporating Fitzpatrick’s bird-centric artwork) designed by Kristin Reeves, as well as jazzy live accompaniment from guitarist John Rice and vocalist Anna Fermin.
Fitzpatrick also has a mild-mannered sidekick in Stan Klein, who acts as a much-needed counterweight, providing his own semirelated recollections and making the very salient point that New Orleans has its fair share of gentrification, inequality, and political corruption too (though you do have to admit it’s warmer). Klein comes across as the more realistic of the two, gently arguing in favor of the here and now rather than pining for the past or a promised land elsewhere. “Never trust too much good,” he says—a quintessentially Chicago philosophy if I’ve ever heard one.