Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Silk Road Rising Visits ISU This Week

Chicago's Silk Road Rising, a company of artists devoted to creating live theater and video pieces that "tell stories through primarily Asian American and Middle Eastern American lenses" is heading to Illinois State University for a guest artist residency this week. Those guest artists include ISU alums Corey Pond, Silk Road Rising's production manager, and Neal Ryan Shaw, the company's resident dramaturg, as well as Jamil Khoury, Founding Artistic Director, and Malik Gillani, Founding Executive Director.

Speaking in a video about the Silk Road company and its goals, Gillani says, "In representing communities that intersect and overlap, we are advancing a polycultural worldview." That view is on display in each of the three pieces these artists are bringing to Bloomington-Normal, with Mosque Alert, a video play about the conflict that arises among neighbors when a mosque is built in their town, set for Westhoff Theatre on Thursday, April 24, beginning at 4 pm; Precious Stones, a stage play that focuses on a love story between two women -- one Muslim and one Jewish -- trying to find common ground as battle rages in the Mideast, scheduled at 2 pm on Friday the 25th in Westhoff Theatre; and Sacred Stages, a film that tells the story of Silk Road Rising's relationship with the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple. Fittingly, Sacred Stages will be shown in a church -- the Mennonite Church of Normal on Cottage Avenue -- on Friday at 7 pm.

Discussions will follow the films Mosque Alert and Sacred Stages, and all three events are free and open to the public. For more information, click here to see the Redbird Story or visit ISU's School of Theatre Facebook page.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Auditions Tonight & Tomorrow for FOWL PLAYS at Heartland

Heartland Theatre is gearing up for its annual 10-minute play festival with eight winning plays written on the theme FOWL PLAYS set for production all four weekends in June. A festival with eight different plays means lots of roles are available, covering a range of ages in a range of styles, and auditions for all those roles are set for tonight and tomorrow from 7 to 9 pm.

The plays under the FOWL PLAYS umbrella are detailed below, including general descriptions of the characters. Note that Heartland often casts actors in more than one role, and sometimes casts more than one actor in the same role to cover conflicts in the busy month of June. Ages given below are the approximate ages of the characters, but not necessarily the ages of the actors. That means if you think you might be interested but you have a conflict or you are not the exact age listed but think the FOWL PLAYS sound cool, it's best to come out and audition just in case. The more actors at auditions, the more options directors have.

Here are the winning FOWL PLAYS:

BIRD ON A FERRY by Blaise Miller, Frisco TX.
A couple on a blind date is confronted by a disheveled man carrying a small box with a bird inside. But appearances can be deceiving.
One woman, 25-35. Two men, 25-35. One man, any age.

THE CAW CAW CONSPIRACY by Claire BonEnfant, Toronto ONT Canada.
When Earl takes a page from Hitchcock and The Birds to get rid of a neighbor he doesn’t like, he may be hoist with his own paper crow.
One woman, 40-70. One man, 40-70. One man, 20-40.

THE DECOY by Joe Strupek, Bloomington IL
A hand-carved duck decoy could be a very valuable thing. It could be the one spark in Drew’s very lousy day. Or it could just be a decoy.
Three men, any ages.

FLY GIRL FLY by Brigitte Viellieu-Davis, West New York NJ
A young graffiti artist discovers what it means to be “something” when she runs into a woman in the park sketching birds.
One woman, 18-22. One woman, 40s-60s. One man or woman, any age.

THE MURDER OF CROWS by Nancy Halper, Summit NJ
Divorced parents Debra and Greg aren't sure what to make of their child’s strange drawing of crows at a parent-teacher conference.
One women, 25-40. One woman, 25-70. One man, 25-40.

POLLY by Ron Burch, Los Angeles CA
John wants to introduce his new girlfriend to his best friend Maureen. But his girlfriend Polly is a parrot. Or is she?
Two women, 20-40. One man, 20-40.

TWO IN THE BUSH by Tim West, San Diego CA
Some birds mate for life. Some mate seasonally. And some couples have a hard time keeping it together when they try to catch an eagle with a camera.
One man and one woman, 30-60, as long as they match each other.

WHOOOO? by Russell Weeks, Seattle WA
A man tells his psychiatrist that he has lost his beak, his wings and his feathers as part of a transition from owl to human. What kind of doctor would believe him?
One man and one woman, any age.

Directors will rehearse on a rotating schedule during May, with performances from June 5 to 29. Auditions will consist of cold readings from scripts, and will take place at Heartland Theatre tonight and tomorrow night from 7 to 9 pm.

If you would like more information, send an email to playfest@heartlandtheatre.org or click here to see the FOWL PLAYS page on Heartlands website.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Poetry to Sustain the World April 22 in Normal

It's National Poetry Month! Take a moment and recite a poem to yourself. Any poem. Mary Had a Little Lamb. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. Tyger! Tyger! burning bright. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Once upon a midnight dreary... "Hope" is the thing with feathers. If. O Captain! My Captain! somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond... No Man Is an Island. How do I love thee? Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?

What poetry sounds like and what role it plays may have changed over the years, but there has always been poetry and there will always be poets.

In celebration of National Poetry Month as well as Earth Day, which happens on April 22, local poet Kathleen Kirk, who is also poetry editor at international online arts magazine Escape Into Life, will join Scott Poole, a poet from Vancouver, Washington, who also works with Escape Into Life, along with Central Illinois poets Judith Valente and Susan Baller-Shepard, for a program they are calling "News That Stays News: Sustaining Our World Through Poetry."

This poetry reading, which will take place on Tuesday, April 22, from 7 to 8:30 pm at the First United Methodist Church on School Street in Normal, is hosted by Bruce Bergethon, General Manager of WGLT and producer of "Poetry Radio."Admission is free and open to the public. The event is sponsored by the Parret Endowment for Religion, Culture & the Art.

For more information on "New That Stays News" or the poets who are participating, click here. While you're there, you may want to check out other arts and art forms at Escape Into Life. Definitely a nice place to visit!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Annie Baker's THE FLICK Takes the Pulitzer Prize for Drama 2014

The Pulitzer Prize for Drama for 2014 has gone to Annie Baker's play The Flick, which played at Playwrights Horizons in early 2013. The Pulitzer is awarded to "a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life." In choosing it, the Pulitzer committee described The Flick as "a thoughtful drama with well-crafted characters that focuses on three employees of a Massachusetts art-house movie theater, rendering lives rarely seen on the stage." The Playwrights Horizons run was directed by frequent Annie Baker collaborator Sam Gold.

The Flick garnered praise from critics like Charles Isherwood in The New York Times, who noted that this "lovingly observed play will sink deep into your consciousness, and probably stay there for a while." Other prominent sources were equally enamored of the play, and it won Baker an Obie as well as the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.

But it was not without its detractors. Baker purposely wrote a play without traditional theatrical action, where characters are revealed through menial, everyday activities ("walking and sweeping and mopping and dust-pan banging," according to Baker) and by what they don't say as much as what they do. She wrote about characters -- regular old people -- she felt are often left out of American theater, and she let The Flick spool out in its own time, which was about three hours. With the combination of length, languid pace and frequent silences, some Playwrights Horizons' patrons complained, walked out at intermission and threatened to cancel their subscriptions. And then Playwrights Horizons Artistic Director Tim Sanford sent an email blast to all 3000 subscribers to explain why and how The Flick suited the new-play and playwright focused theater and why they were standing behind it even in the face of so much criticism. No apologies, just an explanation. Still, that's not something that happens every day.

Given all of that, the Pulitzer committee seems to be telling us that they are behind game-changers and boundary-breakers like Annie Baker and The Flick.

It is worth noting that the other two nominees for this year's Pulitzer were also created by female theater artists. Those runners-up were Madeleine George's The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, "a cleverly constructed play that uses several historical moments -- from the 1800s to the 2010s – to meditate on the technological advancements that bring people together and tear them apart," and the musical Fun Home, with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Tesori, which the Pulitzer site calls "a poignant musical adaptation of a graphic memoir by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, exploring sexual identity amid complicated family constraints and relationships." Fun Home enjoyed a Public Theatre production that starred Tony Award-winner Michael Cerveris and three-time Tony Award-nominee Judy Kuhn.

Both The Flick and Fun Home made Playbill's list of possibilities for the Pulitzer, but Watson Intelligence, another Playwrights Horizons show, was perhaps less expected. In another interesting footnote, playwrights Lisa Kron and Madeleine George are a couple, married last year, meaning there are two Pulitzer citations in their household in 2014.

PS Classics has produced a cast recording for Fun Home if you're interested in revisiting or understanding its "shining clarity that lights up the night."

Monday, April 14, 2014

Hnath's CHRISTIANS Shows the Theatrical Side of Faith

From the moment the stage was revealed for Lucas Hnath's The Christians, a Humana Festival play set in Actors Theatre of Louisville's Pamela Brown Auditorium, it was obvious we were going to church.

Instead of a theatrical stage, this was an evangelical one, with pretty blue carpet rising in tiers, a choir at the back, a pulpit, a couple of screens showing off images of doves and blue skies, and a few posh chairs facing us, flanked by microphones. It was quite clearly the chancel of a prosperous mega-church. All it needed were the worship leaders. And in they marched.

One of them, Pastor Paul, took the mic, starting a sermon. That began the particular convention of this play, that we would hear almost everything -- dialogue, monologues, inner thoughts, even a dialogue tag or two -- through microphones. I can recall exactly two lines where a character dropped the mic. One involved a parishioner expressing distrust, and the other occurred when a rival preacher demonstrated his own vocal strength didn't require amplification.

But all that dialogue delivered from the altar plus the microphones translated to one thing: church as theatre. Pastor Paul is used to using his voice and his calm, comforting persona to bring in new parishioners and keep the old ones happy. Pastor Paul is playing a role.

As his church has grown, the pastor has done his best to keep the coffers full. But now, with their building fund debt paid off, he feels free to discuss a crisis of conscious. He doesn't believe in hell anymore. That's a huge deal for this particular church and a huge betrayal for some of his parishioners. Those debates, those faith-based conflicts, are played out in the same way, as if they were announced right there in church, in front of God and everybody.

To Hnath's credit, he doesn't stack the deck. Each side gets its due and its arguments on the central issue. How do caring people who believe that Jesus is the one path to Heaven deal with the innocents in other cultures and other faiths who are then consigned to the fires of Hell as non-believers?

If this is an issue that has never occurred to you before, The Christians may be an eye-opener, an impassioned debate, a revelation as to what happens to one man when a crack appears in the foundation of his life built on faith. His ambitious assistant pastor is the first to go. Members of the congregation follow. The church's leadership is wavering. And the pastor's wife, a woman of faith, is beginning to wonder where her greatest loyalty lies.

Faith vs. love. Faith vs. ambition. Faith vs. humanity. As the pastor grapples with what he believes and why he believes it, as well as just how much he's willing to lose in the name of his newly found religious convictions, The Christians becomes more than an academic exercise. As the pastor in the center of The Christians, Andrew Garman is very strong and smooth, and his conversations with his wife, played by Linda Powell, who is silent for a good, long time, are some of the most affecting in the play.

The idea of casting religion in theatrical garb certainly makes it point about the artifice, the decorations and finery that decorate and amplify churches to make them palatable to the public, and the various conflicts are well articulated. Still, the way this play is staged -- with people either just sitting or standing around the altar and talking mostly to us instead of each other -- tends to create the very distance Pastor Paul says he feels.

In the end, The Christians sets up some impossible but compelling questions, but few answers. But isn't that the way of faith?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Funny and Fizzy CHAPERONE at IWU

If you grew up with a love for musicals even though you were in no position to actually see them on stage, you'll understand Man in Chair, the narrator in The Drowsy Chaperone. He sits alone in his apartment, listening to his beloved cast recordings of shows he never saw, conjuring up the entire shows in the living room of his imagination.

The show Man in Chair is creating for us is, not surprisingly, also called The Drowsy Chaperone. The musical inside the musical involves a house full of people getting ready for a wedding. It seems that Broadway sensation Janet Van de Graaf is quitting the stage to marry rich, handsome Robert Martin, although producer Feldzieg (Ziegfeld backwards, get it?) knows he'll be ruined if his big star decamps. That brings in various people trying to keep the wedding going or break it up, including an anxious best man, the flighty lady who owns the house and her butler, a pair of gangsters dressed as bakers, a Latin lover intent on seducing the bride, and, of course, her chaperone, who is generally more what I would call soused than drowsy.

There are in-jokes for fans of stage musicals of the 20s, like a throwaway bit about "Ukulele Lil," supposedly the stage name of the actress playing Mrs. Tottendale. Ukulele Lil sounds a lot like Ukelele Ike, AKA Cliff Edwards, who did his specialty ukulele numbers in musicals like Lady Be Good before becoming the voice of Jiminy Cricket. And in telling you that, I sound a lot like Man in Chair, who pops up as the show proceeds to fill in the blanks on the forgotten performers who populate The Drowsy Chaperone's show-within-the-show.

There's also the over-the-top Lothario, the character called Aldolpho (he has a whole song about his name) supposedly played by an actor named Roman Bartelli who specialized in playing ladies' men with heavy accents. The accent and general demeanor are reminiscent of Erik Rhodes, who played Tonetti -- a hired co-respondent with a personal motto in the neighborhood of "Your wife she is safe with Tonetti, he prefer spaghetti" -- in Gay Divorce on Broadway and The Gay Divorcee on film.

All of that means that The Drowsy Chaperone is a gold-mine for fans of old musicals. It's also a lot of fun for people who don't know anything about that sort of thing, however, with its sunny, silly production numbers and fizzy performances.

Illinois Wesleyan director Thomas Quinn and his musical director, Sandy DeAthos-Meers keep the music coming and sounding delightful throughout their Drowsy Chaperone, with especially good vocals from Marek Zurowski as the groom inside Chaperone. He gets to roller skate and tap dance, too, and he does a fine job all around.

Jenna Haimes also stands out as the chaperone, the one who drinks too much but always manages to belt out an uplifting anthem somewhere or other, and she has an excellent comedy partner in Jordan Lipes, who has higher hair than Elvis as the ridiculous Aldolpho.

Erica Werner's Janet van de Graaff is brassy and fun, and she sounds great on her second-act torch song about putting a monkey on a pedestal. (Yes, The Drowsy Chaperone has a number about monkeys.)

Others with good contributions include Steven Czajkowski and Nick Giambone as the two gangsters with a "Toledo Surprise," Will Henke as bouncy best man George, and Halimah Nurullah as Trix the Aviatrix, who is sort of a deus ex machina in an airplane.

In the end, however, every Drowsy Chaperone depends on its Man in Chair. He's the one who runs the show. He's the one who gives it a heart and makes it amount to more than just a spoof of 20s musicals. For IWU, Elliott Plowman, gives us a sweet and dippy version of Man in Chair, someone with a frantic edge and a definite temper. He has the audience pulling for him and his musical, and that's what counts by the time we get to the "Finale Ultimo."

Music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar

McPherson Theatre
Illinois Wesleyan University

Director: Thomas A. Quinn
Set Designer: Curtis C. Trout
Costume Coordinatorr: Marcia K. McDonald
Lighting Designer: Matthew W. Hohlmann
Sound Designer: Carlos Medina Maldonado
Music Direction/Conductor: Saundra DeAthos-Meers
Choreographer: Jessica Riss-Waltrip

Cast: Elizabeth Albers, Kelsey Bearman, Julia Cicchino, Steven Czajkowski, Nick Giambrone, Jenna Haimes, Will Henke, Jordan Lipes, Chris Long, Halimah Nurullah, Elliott Plowman, Heather Priedhorsky, Ian Scarlato, Ian Stewart, Adam Walleser, Erica Werner and Marek Zurowski.

Running time: 2 hours, with one 10-minute intermission

Remaining performances: April 12 at 8 pm and April 13 at 2 pm.

For more information or to make reservations, click here.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Probing PARTNERS at Humana Festival

The word partners carries a lot of weight if you think about it. We call romantically involved people partners, gay, straight, married or otherwise. We call people who put a business together or dance together or play cards together or write a book together or take their act on the road together partners. But what does that mean in terms of the basic qualities -- loyalty, honesty, trust, support -- we expect from a true partner?

Those are some of the things Dorothy Fortenberry investigates in her play Partners, one of this year's selections at the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Fortenberry is mostly interested in domestic partners -- one married straight couple, one unmarried gay couple -- and how their choices at home echo through another partnership, a longtime friendship between the straight wife and one of the gay men.

Clare, who went to culinary school and has a real talent for things like fig foam and teeny tiny pork belly bits on a cracker, has been besties with Ezra for absolute ever. Ezra has a plan to launch a food truck based on Clare's recipes and his entrepreneurial ideas. But Clare has been missing meetings, dragging her feet on the video Ezra needs to sell their idea to potential backers, and in general, letting Ezra down.

Clare is much more eager to talk about Ezra marrying his boyfriend Brady than she is to talk about the food truck. She also seems much more invested in their relationship than her own with her husband, Paul, an IT guy for a law firm who we're told doesn't pull in much money. Clare's own job arranging food for photos is also not lucrative, meaning she and Paul are not exactly living high on the pork belly.

Over in the other household, Ezra temps here and there and Brady teaches at a school with disadvantaged children, a job that's is more rewarding than remunerative, even though his wealthy parents do help out now and again.

All of this sets up the first of Fortenberry's major focuses, which is money and how we share it with our partners. Who pays for whom? Who owes whom? Paul's modest salary keeps his life with Clare afloat, but when Clare gets a financial windfall, she isn't all that into sharing the news or the money with Paul. Ezra wants Clare and Paul to kick in some cash for the food truck or at least lend him a credit card. Brady's parents don't want to subsidize Ezra. And Ezra doesn't want to marry Brady just to get the health insurance he otherwise can't afford.

The other elephant in the room is sex. Or lack of it. Clare is fascinated by what she imagines of Ezra and Brady's hot life, while we find out late in the play that her romantic life with her husband leaves a lot to be desired. Meanwhile, back in Brady-and-Ezra-ville, when marriage is put on the table, issues of monogamy and fidelity serve as a major obstacles toward wedded bliss.

And then there's the bigger issue: When it comes to sex, money and how we support a partner financially and emotionally, how do we know and articulate what we really want?

There are some interesting ideas floating around in Partners and all three relationships (Clare/Paul, Ezra/Brady and Clare/Ezra) have their moments of clarity and conflict in director Lila Neugebauer's Actors Theatre of Louisville production. But I found myself wishing Clare had been written with the sparks of charm and reason the male characters get. We see and hear about her acne, the medical woes in her past, her lies of omission and some serious self-sabotage. No matter how many times Ezra tells us that Clare is too adorable to be mad at, she comes off miserable, dishonest, and a little whiny instead. I wanted Ezra and Paul to hold her accountable for her passive aggressive ways and unwillingness to step up and tell the truth. Neugebauer is working with an actress, Annie Purcell, who really is kind of adorable, but the way Fortenberry's script treats Clare undermines the actress's personal charm.

In contrast, the Ezra we see is a lot of fun, if sometimes maddeningly unable to read people, and Kasey Mahaffy navigates the tricky bits nicely, especially as the conflict in his relationships escalates. The two partners -- Clare's husband Paul and Ezra's boyfriend Brady -- come off quite well throughout, with a strong performance from David Ross that makes Paul seem forthProbing right and complicated in all the rights ways and good work from LeRoy McClain that gives some heft to Brady's life and opinions.

In the end, Partners looked beautiful, with a sleek set from Daniel Zimmerman that framed the action on the ground and in the air, but seemed a bit unformed or overstuffed as it played out. Why did these two marry each other? Why did these two move in and hook their lives together? And why in the world did these two stay friends so long?

Those are not questions Partners deals with. They're just the ones that nagged at me.