Tuesday, August 15, 2017

At ISU, Shue's FOREIGNER Is Out and Shepard's LIE OF THE MIND Is In

The School of Theatre and Dance at Illinois State University has announced a change in their schedule for the upcoming 2017-18 season.

Due to "the horrific events taking place in Charlottesville, VA this past weekend," the SOTD will be removing the previously planned production of The Foreigner by Larry Shue and replacing it with A Lie of the Mind by Sam Shepard.

The Foreigner is a much-performed comedy about a sweet man visiting a rural cabin in Georgia who pretends not to speak English so he won't have to talk to people, but his new "foreigner" status causes all kinds of problems. The Foreigner may be hilarious, but it involves Klansmen, including hoods and weapons, and it is understandable that that sort of thing doesn't seem all that funny at the moment.

A Lie of the Mind is altogether different, about toxic masculinity and domestic abuse, as the play examines what happens to the families involved after a man beats his wife to the point of brain damage. The statement from the School of Theatre and Dance notes that the selection of a Shepard play honors "the recent passing of this award winning playwright."

If A Lie of the Mind occupies the same space as The Foreigner, it will play in the ISU Center for the Performing Arts from September 27 to October 1 and will be directed by Lori Adams.

Other shows on the SOTD agenda for 2017 include She Kills Monsters, a 2011 play by Qui Nguyen involving Dungeons and Dragons, directed by Paul Dennhardt for the CPA in performance from October 27 to November 4; two classics -- Sophocles' Oedipus directed by Kristen Schoenback and Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well directed by Enrico Spada -- in repertory in Westhoff Theatre between October 13 and 28, and the Fall Dance Concert under artistic director Sara Semonis for the CPA November 30 to December 2.

Things are a bit less clear-cut in the spring, although there is information that directing MFA candidate Schoenback will be back at the helm for Anne Washburn's dystopic fantasy Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play in Westhoff from February 16 to 24, 2018, while her colleague Spada will direct The Illusion, presumably playwright Tony Kushner's adaptation of Pierre Corneille's 17th century comedy, in Westhoff  March 30 to April 7, 2018. After that, the Mozart opera Cosi Fan Tutte will play the CPA from March 2 to 9 under a director to be named later and a show to be named later will be directed by John Tovar for the CPA from April 13 to 21.

To keep up with School of Theatre and Dance news, follow their Facebook page here.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Casting Update: Heartland's EARNEST Begins Its Bunbury Business September 7


Heartland Theatre Company and director Don LaCasse have announced who'll be pretending to be Earnest (spoiler alert: there is no Earnest or Ernest) when Oscar Wilde's delightful period comedy The Importance of Being Earnest opens September 7th.

The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed in 1895, which is also when it's set. Earnest takes place in fashionable English settings like a London flat and the garden of a country house, and its cast of elegant characters are generally floating around in gowns with giant leg-o-mutton sleeves and feathered bonnets (the ladies) or silk cravats and high hats (the gents). Wilde is sending up society and puncturing its pomposity, which means you must see what that society looked like in 1895.

The most memorable character in the play and the clearest example of snobbery among the finer classes is Lady Bracknell, the formidable dragon who sniffs at her daughter marrying a man whose pedigree cannot be ascertained. After all, Jack Worthing was abandoned as a baby, left in a handbag at the railway station. A handbag! She also has all the best lines in Wilde's deliciously witty play, like this one: "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness."

Because it's such a wonderful role, men have strapped themselves into Lady Bracknell's corset quite a lot, with acclaimed performances from the likes of Brian Bedford, Geoffrey Rush and David Suchet. Still, my favorite Lady Bracknell is Dame Edith Evans in the 1952 movie version of the play. Apparently director LaCasse is also a fan of the female Lady Bracknell, since he's cast local favorite Kathleen Kirk to play Lady B for Heartland.

The four lovers in the play -- Algernon, Jack, Cecily and Gwendolyn -- will be played by Kyle Redmon, Timothy Olsen, Emilia Dvorak and Jessie Swiech. Joining them will be Julie Riffle as Miss Prism, Cecily's governess, and Dean Brown as Dr. Chasuble, a local rector, with Chuck Pettigrew and Larry Eggan as Merriman and Lane, the perfectly composed manservant and butler who bring in the tea (and possibly cucumber sandwiches) at inopportune moments.

Wilde called The Importance of Being Earnest "a trivial comedy for serious people," but it's actually not at all serious as long as it skates along with the proper fin de siècle feel.

You'll find The Importance of Being Earnest on stage at Heartland Theatre beginning with a Pay What You Can preview on September 7, followed by Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances through the 23rd. For the complete list of performance dates and times, click here. For reservation information, see this page.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Casting Update: Community Players' ALL MY SONS


When Arthur Miller's All My Sons, a fierce family drama about fathers and sons and the failed promises of the American Dream, takes the stage at Community Players later this month, veteran actor Dave Lemmon will lead the cast as Joe Keller, a partner in a factory that sent defective parts to aircraft used in America's war effort during World War II. When 21 pilots died as a result of those cracked cylinder heads, Joe's partner at the factory, a man named Steve Deever, took the fall, while Joe walked away, publicly exonerated. But now Joe's chickens are coming home to roost, as his son Chris is engaged to Deever's daughter, and the truth about what really happened can no longer be hidden.

Miller deals with issues of honor, loyalty, money, truth, lies and family, with plot threads involving Joe's wife Kate, who refuses to believe that their other son, Larry, who has been MIA for three years and was once romantically involved with Ann Deever, is really gone; Ann's brother George, who thinks that Joe is guilty and doesn't want his sister involved with a Keller; as well as how much we're willing to lose in the name of prosperity and affluence.

For director Bruce Parrish, Lemmon will play the head of the Keller family at Community Players, with Darlene Lloyd as Kate Keller and Len Childers as son Chris. On the other side of the airplane parts scandal, Rachel Houska will play Ann Deever and Nick Benson will play her brother George.

In the 1947 Broadway production, Ed Begley played Joe, with Arthur Kennedy as Chris and Karl Malden as George, but it was director Elia Kazan who took home the Tony, along with one for playwright Arthur Miller for Best Play. In the most recent revival in 2008, John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest and Patrick Wilson formed the Keller family, with Katie Holmes in her Broadway debut as Ann.

All My Sons opens with a preview performance at Community Players on Thursday, August 31, followed by evening performances on September 1, 2, 8 and 9, and Sunday matinees on the 3rd and the 10th. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here to visit Players' All My Sons page.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Prairie Fire Opens Their MOST HAPPY FELLA Thursday August 3


The Most Happy Fella, a 1956 musical with book, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, brings a little bit of wine country to town this week. Prairie Fire Theatre and director Dawn Harris will open their Most Happy Fella Thursday August 3rd at 7:30 pm in Westbrook Auditorium at Illinois Wesleyan University.

Prairie Fire specializes in performing "professional, first-rate musical theatre and light opera" in Bloomington-Normal and that has often meant Gilbert & Sullivan, with a little Irving Berlin or Lerner and Loewe to mix things up. I haven't seen anything from Frank Loesser there before, but we haven't been without Loesser on local stages, as Illinois State University has done Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in recent memory. The Most Happy Fella is more operatic than those two shows, which means it fits securely in Prairie Fire's sweet spot.

This warm, charming musical about the romance between an older man -- an Italian immigrant who has become a successful grape farmer in California -- and a younger woman, a waitress from San Francisco who happened to pick up Tony's love letter, premiered at Broadway's Imperial Theater in 1956, running for 678 performances and earning six Tony nominations. The song "Standing on the Corner," the one about "watching all the girls go by," was a major hit from the show. Since then, The Most Happy Fella has been revived on Broadway three times, with an Encores! production at New York City Center starring Shuler Hensley, Laura Benanti and Cheyenne Jackson in 2014. You can see a teaser video of that production here, and that video will also give you a preview of Loesser's lush, romantic score.

For Prairie Fire, artistic director Robert Mangialardi will play Tony, the good-hearted but sometimes foolish grape farmer, with Laurel Beard as Rosabella, the beautiful girl he loves. Blake Miller takes on the role of Joey, the handsome young farm foreman whose picture Tony used when he sent letters to Rosabella, while Kelly Riordan and Kevin Alleman play a second couple, Cleo and Herman, who also encounter romantic difficulties. In the 1992 Broadway revival, Scott Waara, who played Herman, was the one who came away with the Tony, maybe because he's the one who leads "Standing on the Corner," or maybe because he gets to be the bouncy, dancy guy on "I Like Everybody" and "Big D."

For more information on Prairie Fire Theatre's Most Happy Fella, click here or call 309-824-3047. Performances run from August 3 to 6, with evening performances at 7:30 pm and matinees Saturday and Sunday at 3 pm.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

NT Live and PERESTROIKA


Tony Kushner subtitled his Angels in America "a gay fantasia on national themes." The nation he was referring to was, of course, the United States of America, which is referred to constantly throughout both plays and gets that "America" reference in the title, as well. After seeing both parts of Britain's National Theatre Live cinema presentation of Angels in America, I think I've centered on my biggest problem with this particular take on Kushner's masterpiece. It's just not American enough.

Nathan Lane emerges as a powerhouse in both Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, perhaps because he isn't struggling to find that essential Americanism under Roy Cohn's skin. He's got it. It's to Russell Tovey's and Andrew Garfield's credit that they are better attuned to it, too, and that they both turn in excellent, well thought-out and well executed performances.

As Prior Walter, the man in the center of the action, the prophet, the victim, the one with "gay fantasia" swirling around him, Garfield has the showier role and he makes the most of it. I still think he's channeling Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard too much for his own good, and he looks like he could be Anne Hathaway's twin brother (Anne and Andrew in Twelfth Night, anyone?) but he does jump into Prior's pajamas with both feet, so kudos there.

But I think Russell Tovey is even better as Joe Pitt, the self-loathing gay Mormon lawyer who just can't seem to make his life work. In Part One, Joe is hobnobbing with powerbrokers like Lane's Cohn, imagining himself as a player in Reagan's America. In Part Two, after the explosions of Millennium Approaches, Joe has come hard up against his lies and deception. He's a little panicked and a lot off-balance as he tries to find some sense of who he is. Tovey navigates all that beautifully, with an inner glow that makes it understandable that someone like Roy Cohn would want him on his team, that Louis would be attracted to him, even knowing his politics, that Prior would be devastated to realize THIS is his ex-lover's new beau, that Harper would have married him in the first place. Suddenly the pieces fit.

I can't say that the pieces fit for Susan Brown as Hannah Pitt or Amanda Lawrence as the Angel, however. Brown is better as the World's Oldest Living Bolshevik and her Ethel Rosenberg is good enough in the excellent Kaddish scene, but her Mother Pitt never seems like an American for even a minute. Hannah may be plain-spoken and stiff of spine, but she is also naive in some ways, unknowing instead of uncaring. Brown's Hannah is all rough edges and hard knocks with no layers of humanity underneath. And she can't fully suppress her British enunciation. Lawrence also struggles with the American accents, and she never gets past that problem far enough to sink into her characters. She is undermined by her costumes, as well, which don't take her from the glorious, androgynous white vision carved from Greek marble described in Kushner's Millennium script to the battling black harpy of Perestroika, but leave her as a hard-luck little insect Angel, scraggly and unkempt, throughout. Her version of a Mormon mother who steps out of a diorama is even less successful, blunting the impact of Kushner's "jagged thumbnail" speech and dimming the play's messages about change and suffering.

Those messages are hard to catch throughout Marianne Elliott's production. If this Millennium takes its time to breathe as it sets things up, the companion Perestroika seems to wander and unravel. For a play that debates the wisdom of standing still versus moving ahead, there just isn't enough forward momentum.

Part of that lies in the direction of individual scenes and part of it comes from the murky-after-midnight scenic design, which remains mystifying. Yes, we've lost the revolving set pieces edged in neon (for the most part, anyway) but the new vast and impersonal space with an arching dome -- something like the ceiling inside an old movie palace -- is just as perplexing. I enjoyed the levels and lifts and some of the stage pictures created, like Prior's ladder to heaven, Roy slipping out of his death bed and onto a new plane, and Harper trying to hang on as her scenery is swept away, but in general, the vast expanse swallows up the action. And this stingy version of the Bethesda Fountain, the location for the final scene of the play, is underwhelming at best.

Kushner's play is so beautiful and his characters so strong that it pulls you in even in the places that this particular production falters. There is, after all, some new wisdom to learn from every new Angels in America. This time out, I was struck by a particular speech delivered by Prior:

"Then I'm crazy... The whole world is, why not me?"  As he tells us, every morning he wakes up and it takes him "long minutes to remember...that this is real, it isn't just an impossible, terrible dream."

What could be more timely, more right now than that?

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

PEOPLE OF EARTH Is Back (and Not a Moment Too Soon)

Last year, People of Earth emerged as one of the best shows of the fall TV season. Sweet, odd, whimsical... It was different enough to be intriguing, with characters who were engaging enough to keep me wanting to find out what happened next.

And now it's back, with its loopy humor, cranky aliens (reptile, short gray and tall white), confused humans and generally oddball tone intact. Thank goodness! Let's just say I need People of Earth and its insanity to keep me sane.

The first episode of the new season aired Monday, but don't worry if you missed "New Beginnings," the season premiere. You can still catch it on the TBS site or find repeat screenings tonight at 6:30 pm Central, tomorrow at 11 pm, or Friday at 5 pm. "Uneasy Alliance" is up next at 9:30 pm Monday night.

So where are we in the world of People of Earth and what's ahead for Ozzie, the skeptical journalist (played by Wyatt Cenac) who has finally embraced the fact that he was abducted by aliens as a child? Rebel reptile Jonathan Walsh (Michael Cassidy) and his exploded-robot assistant Nancy (Debra McCabe) are trying to put the pieces back together; little gray Jeff (Ken Hall) is still mourning lost comrade Kurt (Don Nelson) and plotting revenge against group therapy leader Gina (Ana Gasteyer), the one who ran over Kurt; tall, pale alien Don (Björn Gustafsson) has fallen in love with Kelly, one of the members of the group, while pretending to be an Icelandic barista; Gerry the UFO expert (Luka Jones) finally got his wish as he got sucked up by a spaceship; a new boss -- a floating box named Eric (voiced by Peter Serafinowicz) -- has taken charge of that spaceship, and a hardliner of an FBI agent who once shot herself in the foot has shown up in Beacon, where our group lives and meets, because she is determined to find Jonathan, who she thinks is a white-collar criminal on the lam.

Nasim Pedrad, who has comedy chops good enough to go toe-to-toe with Cenac and Gasteyer, is playing Agent Alex Foster. I have no idea where her storyline will take her, but I wouldn't be surprised if she were a love interest for Ozzie, given that he seemed interested in Kelly, but she is entangled with Don, and the other females in the group are all taken. Or if not taken, involved, since Yvonne (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) and Gerry were just starting to connect when he disappeared, neurotic Chelsea (Tracee Chimo) is into Father Doug the Catholic priest (Oscar Nuñez) and Gina has way too much on her plate to deal with romance. Of course, Agent Foster could also fall for Walsh the reptile, since he is very attractive when he's wearing his human skin. Or she could fall for no one and stay true to her mission. Since creator David Jenkins and his writers continue to surprise me, I'm going to go with that last choice.

Can't wait to find out, though! Next Monday, look for "Uneasy Alliance" at 9:30 pm Central Time on TBS.

Monday, July 24, 2017

NT Live and MILLENNIUM APPROACHES

The first half of Britain's National Theatre's take on Tony Kushner's blistering and beautiful Angels in America arrived in cinemas last week, looking and sounding just as timely and affecting as ever. The depth of Kushner's language may be what hits you first, but it's the humanity of his complex, imperfect characters that keeps the Angels fire burning throughout Part One: Millennium Approaches.

This production, directed by Marianne Elliott, has been much buzzed about, partly because of its casting. With Nathan Lane playing Kushner's version of closeted gay powerbroker/Joe McCarthy acolyte/friend of Trump/poisonous toad Roy Cohn and Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter, a sweet gay man with AIDS at the beginning of the epidemic, there was bound to be notice taken. Both Lane and Garfield are turning in terrific performances, making it clear they were cast for more than just their star-power.

Lane is not the cuddly musical-comedy star you may expect from The Producers or La Cage aux Folles, although the jokes about the latter show at the beginning of Millennium Approaches do take on added amusement coming from him. But as the play proceeds, he starts biting off chunks of Roy Cohn and spitting them out, not afraid to go dark and disturbing when he needs to. He also works beautifully with Russell Tovey, who is really stellar as Joe Pitt, the resolute, married Mormon lawyer who is fighting his attraction to men and unsure about almost everything in his life. Joe can be a difficult character to communicate, given all that repression. But Tovey takes him to a much more vital place. He may be tortured and wrong-headed, but this Joe is alive and searching. He may also be the best Joe I've seen, and with Lane half of the best Roy/Joe combination.

Garfield's Prior is (and should be) the opposite of Joe's turned-in persona. At the outset, Garfield seems to be going for drama queen gusto with his Norma Desmond take on Prior, but his scenes with James McArdle as Louis, Prior's boyfriend who can't handle illness or death, put him in the proper context to break your heart. Garfield has some really fine moments when life (and the fantasia part of Kushner's "gay fantasia on national themes") hit him where it hurts, creating some of Millennium's most powerful scenes.

I also enjoyed Denise Gough, whose Harper Pitt is fragile and strange, but also intelligent, as she negotiates her messed-up marriage and the "threshold of revelation" that connects her to Prior as it gives her some unpleasant truths about her husband. And Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is on target as Prior's ex-drag-queen friend Belize, although I'm hoping he is a little more memorable in Part Two when Belize's role grows.

I was less fond of McArdle's portrayal of Louis, which was interesting if not fully satisfying. He sounds as if he's channeling Gene Wilder to get an American Jewish mood, but... This Louis is really not Jewish at all. He even mispronounces "anti-Semitic." And that's a problem, given that Kushner opens the play with a rabbi who is telling us that Louis's Judaism is bred in the bone. Still, McArdle's killer speech about politics and race shows he can handle the density of the language and still make it seem spontaneous, which is key.

The final two actors in the ensemble -- Susan Brown and Amanda Lawrence, who both play multiple roles -- are less than impressive. Brown is fine as the rabbi, but I didn't care for her stiff and chilly take on Hannah Pitt or the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, and Lawrence struggles to sound American throughout, especially when playing a homeless woman slurping soup in the Bronx. Her entrance as the Angel, which is supposed to be "very Steven Spielberg" and knock-your-socks-off theatrical, is definitely underwhelming, although that seems mostly due to director Elliott's choice to go with hoisting her Angel on the backs of black-clad crew members instead of flying her in through the ceiling and smashing some plaster. This is a bit too minimal and pedestrian.

Ian MacNeil's scenic design and Paule Constable's lighting are also minimalist, focusing on three separate spaces where industrial gray flats edged in neon revolve to carry actors in and out. It's got the look of an Edward Hopper painting now and again, but it's awfully murky, at least on screen, and neither Hopper nor a dystopic Big Brother wasteland suits the material all that well. It's not clear whether the cinematic work needed to transport the action from the National's Lyttleton space to movie theaters is at fault or whether it looked this vast and gray on stage, too, but it's distancing. I have hopes that will improve for Perestroika, too.

In any event, Tony Kushner's masterpiece is strong enough to overcome a few missteps. Or an army of missteps, for that matter. Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika can't come soon enough. It will be here -- in cinemas nationwide -- Thursday, July 27 at 7 pm.