Tuesday, October 17, 2017

ALL'S WELL Goes Very Well at ISU

All's Well That Ends Well is not one of Shakespeare's most beloved or most frequently performed plays. While Midsummers and Macbeths come and go, it's not as easy to find an All's Well. In fact, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival has only done it twice, in 1988 and 1997, and you have to go back to the 1999-2000 season to find it at Chicago Shakes.

The reason why All's Well isn't at the top of the charts is probably because its plot is a bit wobbly and some of its major characters are more than a bit limp. That's especially true of Bertram, who isn't much of a hero as we see him, even if he is in the eyes of heroine Helena, who yearns for him mightily. In contrast, Helena is plucky, smart and virtuous. She may be smitten with Bertram, which is decidedly a weakness, but she also knows what she wants and isn't afraid to get it, and she can travel by herself, even through war-torn areas, come up with a fairly crazy (but successful) plan to nab the man she wants, and cure the King of France from a mystery illness without breaking a sweat. Helena is, in short, a pretty cool girl.

But Bertram... Why is she so enamored of Bertram? He really doesn't like her, he's rude and immature, he comes on strong when he sees a virgin he wants to score with, and he hangs out with (and listens to) a lowlife braggart and coward that everyone else sees through. That would be Parolles, one of Shakespeare's most tiresome characters.

For Illinois State University's School of Theatre and Dance, MFA director Enrico Spada looks to solve some of the problems with Bertram (played by Robert Hunter Bry) and Parolles (played by Daniel Balsamo) by setting the play in mid-18th century France, at a time when fashion was about excessive feathers and frippery and philosophers were spinning new ideas about personal liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That works well to explain why Bertram is a self-absorbed twit -- he is chafing at having to do what people in charge want him to and expressing his idea of freedom, after all -- and makes Parolles' appearance as a painted, powdered popinjay right on the money.

As played by Paige Brantley, Helena is a headstrong, forthright and no one's idea of a girly girl. Because Bertram is snobby and silly, it also makes perfect sense that she does not represent the girl of his dreams. At times, Bry's version of Bertram seems distant and oblivious to what's going on around him, and that works, too.

Others of note in the cast include Christian Friedan and Jordan Figueroa as a pair of French brothers who conspire against Parolles, and Maggie Joyce, Katie MacLauchlan, Kelly Gross and Rachel Hall as a quartet of Florentine ladies who conspire against Bertram.

There are some lovely stage pictures here, framed and supported by Kim Lartz's elegant scenic design, which makes the most of Westhoff Theatre. Erica Maholmes' lighting design adds texture and mood, while Megan Wood's costume designs are fantastic. Sound designer Aaron Paolucci also makes a strong contribution with music that underscores the play's themes and Spada's choice of setting.

Dances added as a prologue and postscript, choreographed by Madeline Cleveland, are another welcome feature of this production.

Although I'm not sure All's Well That Ends Well will ever end up as anybody's favorite Shakespeare, this production is so pretty and Brantley is so appealing that it certainly makes an argument in its favor.

All's Well That Ends Well runs in repertory through October 28 at ISU's Westhoff Theatre. For more information, click here.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

CRAZY EX Is Crazier Than Ever in Season 3

She's back and crazier than ever. Also ex-er than ever.

When we last saw Rebecca Bunch, the title character in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, she had just been dumped at the altar. Her crush of crushes, Josh Chan, decided at the very last minute to become a priest rather than marry her. Ouch. But our crazy girl, played by the show's producer/writer/creator Rachel Bloom, was not going to take that lying down. Well, actually she was, but that comes later.

When we pick up Season 3 of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, still on the CW but now moved to Fridays, Rebecca is AWOL in the wake of the wedding that wasn't, and her friends and co-workers are wondering what happened to her. They get together for a musical number where they are dressed like the village folk in a Disney flick like Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast and sing, "Where's Rebecca Bunch?" At the end of the number, Rebecca sings, too, from her bed (lying down No. 1), ultimately deciding to "Fight back!" As part of her plan to go from a victim to a "woman scorned," she's buying dark nail polish and hair dye and renting movies like Fatal Attraction.

Her best friend Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) also has a plan, but hers involves lie detector tests and sign-in sheets to make sure she can trust her husband, who had an affair last season. And Rebecca's sweet but dim boss at the law firm, Darryl Whitefeather (Pete Gardner) is trying to convince his boyfriend White Josh (David Hull) that the two should raise a baby together, while White Josh is focused on a new venture with power bars made of ants.

In the meantime, Rebecca does show up at the office, with darker hair and a hot white dress, à la Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. She also gets together with the rest of her friend squad (deadpan neighbor Heather, played by Vella Lovell, and another of Josh's exes, perfect Valencia, played by Gabrielle Ruiz), cluing them in on her plan to get revenge. Since it involves poop cupcakes, they nix it quickly, so she turns to a fake porno/sex tape idea and starts auditioning actors to find a Josh Chan stand-in to have fake-sex with. That also strikes her friends as wrong wrong wrong, but they pretend to go along for awhile, until Rachel finds a perfect Josh replica (also played by Vincent Rodriguez III, presumably to give him something to do in the otherwise Josh-less episode). When Rachel gets naked with every intention to really get it on in front of the cameras, Paula steps up and shuts it down.

And then we get a slam-bang 80s girl-group number called "Let's Generalize About Men," with the Girl Squad in bright-colored power suits, with short skirts, big earrings and giant shoulder pads, as they bash the male half of the population in the catchiest possible way. Except for gay men. They are specifically excepted from the bash. It's pretty nifty all around, with the self-aware, snarky, fizzy-pop edge this show does so well.

By the end of the episode, White Josh and Darryl have sorted out their issues, Paula has reached a rapprochement with her husband, and the Girl Squad has come up with a much better plot for revenge wherein Rebecca takes Josh to court. But Rebecca... Yeah, she's still firmly ensconced in Crazyville, right back in the bathroom with the feces-laced cupcakes.

What's next? "To Josh, With Love" airs next Friday, and since that's what Rebecca wrote on the lid of the container for her meadow muffins, presumably there will be some fallout from her crappy revenge idea.

I admit I pretty much hate scatalogical humor, so I'm hoping there isn't much on that score, and we jump right to what's happening with Josh in his ill-advised attempt to become a priest.

"To Josh, With Love" is set for Friday October 20 at 7 pm Central time on the CW.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


At its best, theater bridges the gaps in our attempts to communicate. It offers a view of the world we might not see otherwise, a view through others' eyes and ears. It is, in other words, a perfect vehicle for Mark Haddon's best-selling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which set out to accomplish that in written form.

To tell his story, Haddon used a first-person narrator named Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old on the autism spectrum, as he tries to navigate a world he has difficulty understanding. Some things make perfect sense -- math, astronomy, geography -- while more ambiguous things like facial expressions or social niceties are baffling. When Christopher's neighbor's dog is killed, he is determined to figure out who did it, setting him on a journey of detection that uncovers more than just one mystery.

Playwright Simon Stephens adapted Curious Incident for the stage, with director Marianne Elliott (War Horse, the recent Angels in America at the National Theatre) and designer Bunny Christie collaborating to find a way to take a stage audience inside Christopher's head, to see events from his perspective. Their vision involved Christie's set design, aggressive lighting and sound by designers Paule Constable, Ian Dickinson and Adrian Sutton, and extensive ensemble work by the entire company of actors to give us a visual picture of the sensations Christopher experiences.

Technically, it was a huge show in London and on Broadway, piling up Olivier and Tony Awards. Indiana Repertory Theatre in Indianapolis is one of the few regional theaters so far to get a crack at Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and its technological challenges. It's one thing to create Christopher's world with every possible bell and whistle at your disposal, but how do you make it work with a smaller company like Indiana Repertory?

The answer for Indiana Rep director Risa Brainin and scenic designer Russell Metheny was to scale it back -- no flashy escalator, no magical drawers sliding out of the woodwork -- while maintaining the focus and the intensity of the play. Michael Klaers' lighting and Todd Mack Reischman's sound add layers of stimulus and sensation to ramp up the tension, and Brainin's staging showcases the work of movement coordinator Mariel Greenlee to maximize the space and the interactions among characters.

The show's biggest asset, however, is Mickey Rowe, the first actor with autism given the opportunity to play Christopher. Rowe carries the action from beginning to end, tapping into the character's sweetness and intelligence as well as his conflicted emotions. He also fills out the physicality of the role beautifully, whether it's a small, repetitive hand motion, carrying a pet carrier on his toe, pedaling a unicycle or stretching out in what seems like an impossible balancing act on a chair. There is a joy in Rowe's performance that celebrates Christopher and his differences even as it expresses his humanity and vulnerability.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a special play, given a thoughtful and emotionally expansive production at Indiana Rep. If you are in the mood for a trip to Indianapolis, this Curious Incident is well worth your time. Performances continue through October 14 at the historic Indiana Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.

Note for Central Illinois Theatregoers: Eric Parks, an MFA acting alum from the University of Illinois, is a member of the ensemble in this production.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Juggling Your Dates in October

There's a lot on the calendar in October and I thought a handy reference list might be in order, for me as well as anybody else scrambling to juggle all these dates. Let's get this October party started...

Tuesday, October 3:
  • An all-female All the King's Men from Illinois Theatre continues at Krannert Center at the University of Illinois in the Studio Theatre at 7:30 pm. Through October 8.
  • Illinois Wesleyan University's production of Dancing at Lughnasa opens with an 8 pm performance. Through October 8.

Wednesday, October 4:
  • Professor Bill McBride brings Taxi Driver to the Normal Theater as part of a new Six Week Film School centered on the films of Martin Scorsese.

Thursday, October 5:
  • Prairie Fire Theatre offers a sneak peek at its upcoming production of Starting Here, Starting Now from 5 to 8 pm during a special event at Satio Wine Bar in downtown Bloomington.
  • Waiting for Godot begins at 7 pm from the TwinCitySquared company at Champaign's SoDo Theatre.
  • Parkland Theatre's production of The Crucible continues with a 7:30 pm performance. Through October 8. 
  • The Station Theatre opens its fall season with Title and Deed, starting at 8 pm. Through October 21.

Friday, October 6:
  • Arts@ICC continues its production of Steve Martin's play The Underpants at 7:30 pm. Through October 8.
  • Sticky in the Sticks and their pop-up bar plays return to Firehouse Pizza & Pub in Normal with an 8 pm performance.
  • The new film Victoria and Abdul comes to the Art Theater in Champaign, with screenings at 5 and 7:30 pm. Through October 12.

Saturday, October 7:
  • Illinois Voices Theatre's history walk continues at Evergreen Cemetery. Through October 8.

Friday, October 13:

Thursday, October 19:

Friday, October 20:
  • Prairie Fire Theatre offers Starting Here, Starting Now in the Young Lounge in IWU's Memorial Center, starting at 7:30 pm. Through October 21.

Wednesday, October 25:
  • Young at Heartland's Fall Showcase begins at 7:30 pm at Heartland Theatre. Second showcase is at 2 pm on October 27 at the Normal Public Library.

Thursday, October 26:

Friday, October 27:
  • The ISU School of Theatre and Dance production of She Kills Monsters begins its run at the ISU Center for the Performing Arts at 7:30 pm. Through November 4.
  • Fault Lines opens at 8 pm in IWU's Lab Theatre. Through October 29.

Saturday, October 28:
  • The newly redefined Illinois Voices Theatre holds an open house from 3 to 5 pm at the First Christian Church of Bloomington.

And that's what I have so far. Check back for additions as we proceed through October.

Friday, September 29, 2017

WWI History Comes Alive -- Evergreen Cemetery Walk Begins This Weekend

The annual cemetery walk that brings together the McLean County Museum of History, Illinois Voices Theatre and Bloomington's Evergreen Cemetery is almost here. In the past, the walk has centered on the Civil War and Illinois State University, but this year, eight characters from Bloomington-Normal history will be brought alive to tell about their involvement with World War I. That includes soldiers and nurses as well as those who supported the Great War on the homefront.

On the walk, you'll meet Ethel Hamilton Hanson and Julia Holder, both active with the Red Cross and other important volunteer war efforts in McLean County, along with nurse Carolyn Schertz Geneva, who served at home and abroad, including joining an Army medical unit that was sent to England during the war.

Jennifer Maloy will play Hanson, Abby Scott will take on Holder, and Ann White will play Geneva. All three actors are joining the cemetery walk for the first time, although they are familiar faces to local audiences.

You will also see three military men who faced great challenges just to serve. Brothers Edward and Lincoln Bynum fought together to great acclaim in an African-American unit in France, while Roland Read, rejected multiple times by the United States Army because of his poor vision, ended up serving with French and Serbian forces to do his part.

The Bynum Brothers will be portrayed by Emmanuel Jackson and Timothy Jefferson, with Brian Artman as Roland Read. And they, too, are newcomers to the walk with a variety of credits in local theaters.

Prominent members of local society Carl and Julia Scott Vrooman will round out the parade of World War I participants. Both were actively involved in the war effort, Mr. Vrooman as Secretary of Agriculture under Woodrow Wilson and Mrs. Vrooman as the driving force behind a jazz band put together to entertain troops in Europe.

Dean and Cyndee Brown will portray the Vroomans this time out. Cyndee Brown has performed in this program before, but her husband Dean is a first-timer. Carl and Julia Vrooman were last portrayed in 2008.

If you would like to take part, you have a choice of group tours beginning at 11 am and 2 pm on Saturdays and Sundays for the next two weeks. This is a walking tour and you will be on your feet for approximately one-and-a-half to two hours. Some wheelchairs and walking canes are available at the cemetery, but the number is limited and it is much wiser to bring your own if you need one.

The dates for tours are September 30 and October 1, and October 7 and 8, with, again, start times at 11 am and 2 pm.

Because this is a popular event, you are advised to buy your tickets ahead at the Museum of History or Casey's Garden Shop in Bloomington or the Garlic Press in Normal.

For more information, including bios, pictures and a map, click here.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Shepard's LIE OF THE MIND Opens Tomorrow at ISU

When playwright Sam Shepard passed away in July, Illinois State University theatre professor Lori Adams decided it would be an appropriate memorial to direct one of his plays as part of the fall ISU season. Adams chose A Lie of the Mind, one of Shepard's best.

Shepard specialized in family drama threaded with dark, cynical humor, and that is certainly true of A Lie of the Mind. The play involves two families linked by a dysfunctional marriage and defined by a history of violence.

There's Jake, a man so consumed by jealousy and rage that he lashes out with his fists, and his wife, Beth, the person he lashes at. When the play opens, Jake has beaten Beth so badly he isn't sure if she's alive or dead. She is alive, but she has serious brain damage. By the end of the play, the reverberations of Jake's violence split the families and their secrets wide open.

On Beth's side, we see her father, Baylor, mother Meg, and brother Mike. They are ill-equipped to deal with her condition, with very few emotional tools of their own, except, of course, rage. Her dad also has a gun and he really likes to shoot things. Jake's side isn't any better -- he has a smothering mother, Lorraine, a sister, Sally, hiding family secrets, and a brother, Frankie, who has a kinder nature than the other toxic men in the play, but also a bad habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

After auditions last month, Adams' cast included Parker Carbine as Jake, Gina Sanfilippo as brain-damaged Beth, Dylan Dewitt and Elena Sasso as her parents, Raul Marron as brother Mike, a chip off Baylor's block, Abby Langner as Jake's mother Lorraine, Betsy Diller as sister Sally and Everson Pierce as sweet brother Frankie.

On the production side, Emily Kinasz is costume designer, Kayla Brown has lights, Morgan Hunter is in charge of sound, and Nick Kilgore and John Stark were listed as co-scenic designers.

A Lie of the Mind officially opens at the ISU Center for the Performing Arts at 7:30 pm tomorrow night, with performances continuing through a 2 pm matinee on October 1. For tickets or information, contact the CPA box office at 309-438-2535 between 11 am and 5 pm Monday through Friday.

If you'd like to see a sneak peek, the cast will also offer a short scene from their production on the ISU Quad as part of the SEVEN kickoff program. SEVEN is a wellness campaign bringing together a variety of campus groups and resources, including the College of Fine Arts. As their contribution, actors from A Lie of the Mind will perform a short "teaser" scene at Schroeder Plaza on the Quad sometime between 11 am and noon, while other SEVEN activities are taking place. For more information on the SEVEN kickoff, click here.

Friday, September 22, 2017

BBC Top Film Comedies Tonight on TCM

Today is an interesting day on Turner Classic Movies. This morning, they've gone with something of an otherworldly lineup, what with Angel on My Shoulder (featuring the Devil), Angels in the Outfield (divine assistance helps a baseball team), The Heavenly Body (an astrologer gives Hedy Lamarr a reading), Topper and Topper Returns (with ghosts) and I Married a Witch, which has, as you might imagine, a witch. It's a fine batch of movies -- I especially like Fredric March and Veronica Lake as the bewitched couple -- but I don't really know why TCM chose today to spring it. Vernal Equinox?

But it's tonight when things really start to pick up. Or fall down. Or dress in drag, pack a crowd of crazies into one stateroom, turn the volume up to 11, take a ride around giant gears, or put Jack Benny in Hamlet's tights. No supernatural beings, just a lot of super comedy. In fact, TCM is showing five of the best-ever comedy films in existence, all of which appear on a recent BBC list of the "100 greatest comedies of all time."

The movies range from Some Like It Hot, starting at 8 pm Eastern/7 Central, to the original version of To Be or Not To Be at 3:30/2:30 am. In between, there's A Night at the Opera, This Is Spinal Tap and Modern Times. In order of viewing, that's a 1959 caper with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe in an all-girl band in the 1920s; the Marx Brothers debating the existence of a Sanity Clause as they mess with an opera company in 1935; a 1984 "mockumentary" about a very bad heavy metal band; a silent film from 1936 with Chaplin in his Little Tramp persona; and a dark comedy from 1942 with a troupe of Polish actors who end up impersonating Nazis (including Hitler) when they get invaded. If that doesn't sound funny, let's just say it has Lubitsch touches all over it.

In terms of the BBC list, these films represent Nos. 1 (Some Like It Hot), 9 (Spinal Tap), 12 (Modern Times), 13 (To Be or Not To Be) and 39 (Night at the Opera) on the list compiled from votes by 253 film critics – 118 women and 135 men – from 52 countries and six continents.

I might argue that A Night at the Opera should be higher than No. 39, but Duck Soup is there at No. 5, and I have a feeling that's getting the most Marx Brothers love, pushing Opera down a bit.

Quibbling about the numbers aside, that is a dandy lineup. As different as these films are from each other, they're each gems. Every single one is worth your time and attention. And repeat viewings.

Charlie Chaplin takes a ride in Modern Times