Monday, May 29, 2017

SPEECH & DEBATE on Screen (on iTunes)

A film version of Stephen Karam's Speech & Debate is now available to rent through iTunes. Karam wrote the screenplay for the film based on his own play, which opened Off-Broadway in 2007 as part of the Roundabout Underground initiative.

Speech & Debate, the play, has been well-performed since then, including at Urbana's Station Theater in 2008 and at Illinois State University in 2011.

Speech & Debate involves three teenagers in Oregon, none of whom exactly fit in. Diwata is overflowing with the desire to PERFORM!, Howie is gay and looking for a way to express that at a hostile school and Solomon sees himself as a crusading journalist. Together, they revive their school's moribund debate club to expose the hypocrisy and perfidy of the adults around them. By turns, they're funny, wounded and outrageous, especially when they perform a musical with a witch from The Crucible time-traveling to meet a gay, teenage version of Abraham Lincoln.

Sarah Steele, an actress you may recognize from her role as Marissa Gold on The Good Wife, played Diwata in that Roundabout production ten years ago, and she is back as Diwata for the movie. She's joined by Liam James (The Family) as Solomon and Austin P. McKenzie (he played Melchior in the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening on Broadway) as Howie.

Karam and director Dan Harris have opened up the stage play, which showed only the three high school students and one adult, at least far enough to include space for actors like Skylar Astin, Roger Bart, Janeane Garolfolo, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Kal Penn, Gideon Glick (who played Howie in the original production), and Lin-Manuel Miranda as part of the tableau.

All that, for $3.99 on iTunes.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Coming Soon: 2017 Illinois Shakespeare Festival Opportunities & Options

If it's almost summer, it's almost time for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival. If you haven't purchased tickets yet, there's still time to choose single seats or a season pass. And a call just went out for volunteer ushers, which may also get you in to see the show.

Here's the scoop on what's happening this summer:

A Midsummer Night's Dream is up first with a preview performance on June 28 and official opening night on the 30th. After that, you'll find 16 more performances in the theater at Ewing Manor through August 11. This Midsummer is directed by Robert Quinlan, head of the MFA directing program at Illinois State University. Quinlan's previous Illinois Shakespeare Festival credits include Richard II and Macbeth. Festival favorite Tom Quinn leads the cast as Bottom, with Jordan Coughtry as Puck, Thom Miller as Oberon, Nisi Sturgis as Titania, and Jesse Bhamrah, Susie Parr, Raffeal A. Sears and Emily Wold as the four Athenian lovers lost in the forest.

Next on the agenda is not just any Cymbeline but an adaptation for six actors created by Chris Coleman called Shakespeare's Amazing Cymbeline. The ensemble consists of Coughtry, Miller, Quinn, Sears and Sturgis and Patrick Toon, under the direction of Andy Park, who also directed Peter and the Starcatcher and Failure: A Love Story in Festivals past. The preview for Amazing Cymbeline happens on June 29, with performances on stage at Ewing Theater from July 1 to August 12.

The Q Brothers return to the Festival with I Heart Juliet, "bringing their incredible energy, humor, and hip-hop verse to Shakespeare’s timeless masterpiece, Romeo & Juliet." You might've seen the Q Brothers' take on Two Gentleman of Verona called Q Gents back in 2015. This time, ISF Artistic Director Kevin Rich is at the helm with a cast that includes the Q Brothers Collective (GQ, JQ, Jax and Pos) and ten members of the Festival company. I Heart Juliet opens July 9 in Westhoff Theatre on the ISU campus, continuing at Westhoff till August 8. For all the details, click here.

If you're wondering who's who on the design team this year, look for Joe C. Klug as scenic designer for all three shows, with Dan Ozminkowski as lighting designer and Kieran Pereira in charge of sound design. Splitting up costume design duties, Nicholas Hartman will conceive the wardrobe for Amazing Cymbeline, Christina Leinicke for I Heart Juliet and Tyler Wilson for Midsummer.

In addition to these three shows, you'll have five chances to see The Improvised Shakespeare Company and Wednesday and Saturday morning performances of the fairytale Sleeping Beauty under the Theater for Young Audiences umbrella.

And about that volunteer usher opportunity... You can wear what you want, pick your dates (with some flexibility), and even see the show for free, as long as seats are available. Read more about it here. If ushering sounds like something you'd enjoy, contact ISF House Manager Dave Hansen at

Monday, May 22, 2017

What's Up from Prairie Fire the Rest of 2017

Prairie Fire Theatre's 2017 season is well underway, with their Champagne Gala last month and this month, the return of the children's opera project that tours area schools. After that, they'll finish up 2017 with a classic musical later in the summer and a revue about romantic hopes and mishaps in the fall.

This year's children's opera, once again written by Nancy Steele Brokaw, is The Last Book on Earth, and it involves three young friends intent on saving all the books in the world from a dark force called The Blank. There's a magic bookshop, storybook villains, hidden talismans and something called A Dangerous Book that our heroes must leap into to begin their mission. The Last Book on Earth has already performed two public performances at the Normal Public Library and the Unitarian Universalist Church, with the third scheduled for tonight at 6:30 pm at the Bloomington Public Library. For more information, click here.

In August, Prairie Fire returns with The Most Happy Fella, the 1956 Frank Loesser musical that "tells the heart-stopping story of unlikely love that blossoms in Napa Valley." Its original Broadway production was nominated for six Tony Awards, but it was the 2014 City Center Encores! production with Shuler Hensley, Laura Benanti and Cheyenne Jackson that impressed critics like the New York Times' Ben Brantley. You'll recognize the song "Standing on the Corner," the one where the guys are "watching all the girls go by," in Loesser's "sweeping, seamless and intricately layered score." Performances are scheduled from August 3 to 6 in Westbrook Auditorium inside Illinois Wesleyan University's Presser Hall.

And the last show of the Prairie Fire season will be Starting Here, Starting Now, a Maltby and Shire revue made up of story songs on the general subject of love and romance. In the first act, we hear about the challenges of finding love in the city, while the second turns to people who have stumbled in pursuit of romance but have hopes of new beginnings. It will be performed on October 20 and 21 in IWU's Young Lounge in the Memorial Center. (The image you see here is from the 1977 off-Broadway original cast recording. That production starred Loni Ackerman, Margery Cohen and George Lee Andrews.)

The Prairie Fire box office is available at 309-824-30476.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Portugal's Salvador Sobral Wins EUROVISION 2017

Another year of Eurovision, the international song contest that has been around since 1956, is now in the books.

Every year, an array of countries who fall within the "European Broadcasting Union" pick original songs and artists to represent them in Eurovision competition. In the 1950s, the field was limited to a dozen nations in Western Europe, but by now, the number is up to 46, including Eastern Europe, Eurasia and even Australia. It's generally a fizzy-pop extravaganza, with over-the-top performances punctuated by columns of fire, smoke, lasers, video projections, wind machines, wacky dance moves, eye-searing costumes, even shiny robots in strange headgear, an adorable group of grannies and a kinda/sorta vampire.

Ukraine was the host this time out since they won last year and they chose Kiev as the site. The theme was "Celebrate Diversity," even though the hosts were three white guys, which created some controversy.

Salvador Sobral with his Eurovision trophy
With a new (and apparently more complicated) scoring system in place, Portugal took the crown for the first time ever, with Salvador Sobral singing a sweet love song called "Amar pelos dois" or "Loving For The Both of Us." It's a melancholy, haunting ballad in the Portuguese Fado style, sung simply and softly, with no major frills in terms of explosions or milkmaids or disco balls. Not a driving dance beat to be found! And it's in Portuguese, which is unusual, since most of the songs entered are in English.

Bulgaria and Kristian Kostov's "Beautiful Mess" came in second, with Moldova, Belgium, Sweden, Italy, Romania, Hungary, Australia and Norway finishing out the Top Ten. There were plenty of unique (some might even say bizarre) choices, like Romania's yodel/rap/pop entry, "Yodel It!" by Ilinica featuring Alex Florea and Moldova's "Hey Mamma" performed by the Sunstroke Project featuring an "Epic Sax Guy" named Sergey Stepanov, just to keep you in a more typical Eurovision frame of mind.

Next year... Lisbon! In the meantime, it would be lovely if Sobral (and his sister, who wrote the song) get some international attention.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Humana Festival 2017: RECENT ALIEN ABDUCTIONS Continues to Haunt

If there is one play from this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays it's hard to forget, it's Recent Alien Abductions by Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, directed by Actors Theatre of Louisville Artistic Director Les Waters.

The thing is, Recent Alien Abductions isn't about alien abductions. Instead, Cortiñas unspools a story about family secrets, betrayal, and the violent aftereffects of American Colonialism, as a Puerto Rican man named Álvaro, played beautifully by Jon Norman Schneider, concocts a conspiracy theory around a 1994 episode of The X-Files called Little Green Men. That episode supposedly took place in Puerto Rico, even though Álvaro recognizes from the beginning that the foliage isn't remotely Puerto Rican, and the character he identifies with, a boy also named Álvaro, speaks English with a Mexican accent.

Most of us are familiar with that kind of dramatic license (or dramatic laziness), but to Álvaro, the errors bespeak something deeper. He also thinks that the episode in syndication has been changed from the one he saw the first time. And when he adds that up, he finds a message just for him, straight from The X-Files.

But the story Cortiñas is laying out doesn't stick with Álvaro or his X-Files obsession. Just as Little Green Men sent Mulder to a fake Puerto Rico, Cortiñas sends the action of his play to a fake Puerto Rican house created on the stage of the Pamela Brown Theatre, where we meet Álvaro's mother, who is in poor health physically and mentally, and his brutish brother Néstor, along with Néstor's wife and a friendly neighbor. Bobby Plasencia takes Néstor, a creep and a bully, to uncomfortable places, while Mia Katigbak is sad and affecting as his mother, Carmen H. Herlihy adds warmth as neighbor Beba, and Elia Monte-Brown does her best as Néstor's wife, whose role is somewhat underwritten.

The conflict arises with the arrival of a visitor from the United States, a woman named Patria played by Ronete Levenson with competing strands of strength and naivete. Patria knew Álvaro, who we now learn is dead, and she wants permission from his family to publish the stories he wrote -- science fiction, of course -- as a way of honoring her friend and creating a legacy for him. But there was a reason Álvaro left, a reason he never came back, and a reason he immersed himself in writing far-out stories. When the truth of his past was too hard to bear, Álvaro wrapped himself in fantasy and fiction.

Recent Alien Abductions sets its own pace, with quiet moments where you really need to pay attention, and an explosive scene of violence where you'd really like to look away. Cortiñas has built his play with significant challenges and landmines as part of its structure.

First, there's the 30+-minute monologue that opens the play, with Schneider alone on stage, framed by a ghastly green light around the proscenium. That sets a heavy burden for Schneider, since he is carrying the whole story without any technical bells or whistles to help. He is a very engaging performer and there is certainly justification for setting the character of Álvaro apart from the action. Still, that's a long time to sit with one image.

Jon Norman Schneider in Recent Alien Abductions
Photo by Bill Brymer
Later in the play, Cortiñas sets up an extended scene played off-stage, where we can hear the voices of actors Herlihy, Katigbak and Monte-Brown, but we can't see any of them. That, too, is well supported by the script, as unseen -- but heard -- action from the past is a critical piece of the mystery. But again, even if the reason for the scene is clear, it's somewhat difficult to follow as executed here.

There is no denying that Recent Alien Abductions is a tricky script from beginning to end. And yet... And yet, it is compelling, intense and haunting in the end.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Humana Festival 2017: Surviving a Wedding in I NOW PRONOUNCE

When I made my living writing romance novels, I wrote a lot of books set in and around weddings. Runaway brides, runaway grooms, bridezillas, bridesmaids hooking up with groomsmen, the bride and her identical twin sister switching places before the wedding... You name it, I wrote it. I did not, however, write anybody dropping dead at the altar.

That is the premise of Tasha Gordon-Solmon's I Now Pronounce, which was the first play I saw at this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays. At Actors Theatre of Louisville, Solmon's play starts with the rabbi who is officiating, played by the adorable Ray DeMattis, all alone in the middle of the Bingham Theatre. DeMattis has the skill and charm to hold the stage with ease, even as the rabbi he's playing goes farther and farther off track. He's so cute you don't mind that he's calling the groom something different every time he mentions him -- Aaron, Abraham, Anton -- or that he's really not well. And then disaster strikes. Before the "I do" part of the proceedings, the rabbi keels over, and we've lost him.

Ray DeMattis in I Now Pronounce by Tasha Gordon Solmon
Photo by Bill Brymer.
What happens next is the aftermath. Is the wedding cursed? Does anybody really want to get married in the wake of a dead rabbi?

The bride is holed up by herself, refusing to speak to anyone, while the groom is hanging out with two groomsmen, a cynical player who thinks marriage is a horrible idea, anyway, and a sweet but sloppy guy whose own marriage is in tatters. There are two bridesmaids, as well, trying to convince the bride to come out of hiding. One is very, very drunk and saying inappropriate things, while the other is a control freak. Neither has a date for the wedding, and that's an issue, too. We also see three tiny flower girls in matching outfits, shrieking and running around the wedding venue looking for ghosts and speculating on whether the rabbi's death means everybody else is going to drop dead, too.

By the end of the play, both bride and groom have pondered what it means to be committed to somebody else and have contemplated fleeing, insults are hurled, mortality is pondered, one couple has sex under the chuppah, and everybody pretty much gets skewered by everybody else. Most of the invective seems warranted as, all in all, they're a pretty unpleasant bunch without a whole lot of coping skills. Well, except for the flower girls. They're expected to be juvenile, after all.

Gordon-Solmon's script is especially hard on Eva, the controlling bridesmaid, as she gets ripped up and down for not being able to hang onto a man. Actress Satomi Blair makes Eva appealing enough that the attacks seem excessive, and when they're coming from Jason Veasey's slick groomsman Dave, they slide right over the line into misogyny. Against the backdrop of a wacky romantic comedy, the sexist tone doesn't play well, and the fact that both bridesmaids are desperate for a man heightens the problem.

The issues Gordon-Solmon raises are messy and complicated in a world where Say Yes to the Dress may never end, but Girls, The Mindy Project and New Girl -- all shows pitched to Millennials and centered on issues of growing up and finding or rejecting love and commitment -- are winding down*. And then there's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which takes the insanity of modern relationships one step farther.

Clearly people are still getting married. Clearly people are still breaking up. Clearly people are still pinning all their hopes and dreams on a fantasy wedding that may or may not end in disaster even if the rabbi doesn't meet his maker in the middle of the ceremony. There's conflict and real emotion to be mined there. I'm just not sure how much I Now Pronounce adds to the conversation.

*Girls just ended, The Mindy Project is finished after one more season, and New Girl is probably not coming back.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Playwright Lynn Nottage Wins Her 2nd Pulitzer Prize for SWEAT

The 2017 Pulitzer Prizes were announced yesterday, including three awards -- for international reporting on Vladimir Putin and Russia's criminal tactics to wield influence in other countries, C. J. Chivers' feature writing about a Viet Nam vet caught up in the legal system, and freelance photographer Daniel Berehulak's breaking news photography of a Chicago mother and son -- to The New York Times; a Pulitzer in national reporting to David A. Fahrenthold of The Washington Post for his stories on Donald Trump's shady use of his own charities; an award to the New York Daily News and ProPublica in the public service category for Sarah Ryley's stories on eviction abuses; and an editorial writing prize to Art Cullen of the tiny Storm Lake Gazette in Storm Lake, Iowa.

Theatre critic Hilton Als of The New Yorker was also singled out for his "bold and original reviews," including his pieces on bullies and pop psychology in Dear Evan Hansen, two looks at the "maddening sexist, racist, restless, complicated, and important dramas" of Eugene O'Neill, and "Gay Reflections, Onstage" in four very different theatrical pieces.When congratulating Als on his prize, The New Yorker's twitter account linked to a beautiful musing he wrote on the movie Moonlight, showcasing the lyrical style and deft analysis that characterizes Als' writing.

On the "Letters, Drama & Music" side of the Pulitzer equation, Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Underground Railroad, "a smart melding of realism and allegory that combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape in a myth that speaks to contemporary America." Whitehead's National Book Award winning novel creates a physical railway, with tracks and tunnels underneath American soil, taking former slave Cora from state to state, from one abomination to the next, one step ahead of dangerous slave catchers, as she tries to escape to both metaphorical and actual freedom.

And in my favorite category, Drama, Lynn Nottage, who happens to be one of my favorite playwrights, has won her second Pulitzer Prize, this time for Sweat, her "nuanced yet powerful drama that reminds audiences of the stacked deck still facing workers searching for the American dream." Nottage is the first woman playwright to receive the Pulitzer twice.

Lynn Nottage
Sweat was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as part of its United States History Cycle. After the Oregon production and a run at Arena Stage in Washington DC, Sweat moved to New York's Public Theater, where it was popular enough to be extended three times. The accolades the play received, including the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, earned Nottage her first trip to Broadway at the same time Paula Vogel, another Pulitzer winner, made it with her play Indecent. Plays written by female playwrights on Broadway are enough of a rarity that The New York Times interviewed both Nottage and Vogel about the phenomenon.

The Public Theater production of Sweat, directed by Kate Whoriskey, moved to Broadway's Studio 54, where it opened in previews March 4, 2017. Its official opening was March 26.

For more information on all of this year's Pulitzer Prize winners, check out the Pulitzer site here.