Tuesday, March 21, 2017

New Route Theatre Presents HER*STORY March 24 to 26


In keeping with its mission to create "professional quality theatre using a broad spectrum of artists who represent the community in all of its diversity," New Route Theatre focuses its energy and its productions on stories often overlooked by other theaters in the area

Heather Carnahan
This week, New Route Theatre will present something they're calling Her*Story, or "A Showcase of Original Personal Stories by Women from the Bloomington Normal Community." There's a lot of information packed in there, but it's important. Yes, these are her stories. They are new, they come from the heart, they represent what individual women find important, and they come from women in this community, like contributors Lauren Berry, Kat Gregory, Elaine Hill, Jajwanica Johnson, Genevieve Pilon and Diane Walker and co-creators Heather Carnahan and Rachel Lewis. Carnahan, a graduate of Illinois State University's Masters program in theatre, also serves as director.

Rachel Lewis
What will you see? Her*Story is composed of "original stories reflecting on moments that impacted the contributors’ lives. This performance piece provides insights into what it means to be a woman facing the challenges of today’s society. Stories elicit both laughter and tears, frustration and anger, as these remarkable women bravely share their stories of both joy and heartbreak."

Performance are scheduled for Friday and Saturday March 24 & 25 at 7:30 pm and Sunday the 26th at 2:30 pm at the First Christian Church located at 401 West Jefferson Street in Bloomington. And admission is also a bargain -- you can either donate any feminine care product you choose or $5.00 at the door.

For more information, click here to see the event's Facebook page.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Chicago's CONCERT FOR AMERICA: STAND UP, SING OUT! March 20


The Chicago version of Concert for America: Stand Up, Sing Out! -- billed as "a star-studded benefit concert highlighting the diversity and hope that is America at its best" -- will indeed be star-studded. The first two Concerts for America took place in New York, but this one, scheduled for March 20 at 8 pm at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, is Chicago's own.

The list of performers includes cast members from the blockbuster Chicago company of Hamilton as well as Alice Ripley, a Tony winner for Next to Normal, pop star Melissa Manchester, and Chita Rivera, a ten-time Tony Nominee who won for Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Rink. Rivera's daughter Lisa Mordente serves as director of the concert.

Ripley, Manchester and Rivera will be joined by Ana Gasteyer, probably best known for her years on Saturday Night Alive, although she's also done her share of Broadway shows and television and she headlined Wicked in Chicago, and Christine Pedi, a frequent Forbidden Broadway performer who is currently in Chicago as part of a Hamilton spoof called Spamilton.

From the world of television, you'll find Sharon Gless of Cagney & Lacey fame, actors Torrey DeVitto and Colin Donnell of TV's Chicago Med, and Miranda Rae Mayo and Yuri Sardarov of Chicago Fire. Donnell has a lot of stage credits, as well, starring in Anything Goes, Jersey Boys and Violet on Broadway and the Encores! version of Merrily We Roll Along opposite Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The list of performers should be considered tentative, but those are the people expected as of a few days ago.

Tickets for Concert for America: Stand Up, Sing Out! are available at my.auditoriumtheatre.org or at the Auditorium Theatre box office. The concert benefits five organizations devoted to protecting human rights: the NAACP, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, National Immigration Law Center, The Sierra Club Foundation and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

If you can't get a ticket or you're not close enough to Chicago to see the concert in person, you can catch it on Facebook Live or live-streaming at ConcertsforAmerica.com starting at 8 pm (Central time) on Monday, March 20.

Monday, March 6, 2017

American Theatre Critics Announce 2017 Steinberg New Play Award Finalists


The American Theatre Critics Association has announced the six finalists for this year's Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, which recognizes the best scripts that premiered professionally outside New York City during 2016. With $40,000 total presented during the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Steinberg/ATCA Awards represent the "largest national new play award program of its kind." Three playwrights will receive recognition, with a top award of $25,000 and two citations of $7,500 each.

The six finalists for 2017 include two plays first produced by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre and four productions total from Chicago theaters, which says a lot about the city's commitment to new work and theatrical excellence. Playwright Tracy Letts has been nominated before for his work with Steppenwolf, with a citation for Superior Donuts in 2009. Among the other playwrights in the group, Michael Cristofer took top honors way back in 1996 for his play Amazing Grace. For the complete list of previous honorees, click here.

This year's finalists are:


The Ice Treatment by Nate Eppler. Premiered at Actors Bridge Ensemble, Nashville. "'Compelling, with fast moving story and well-constructed dialogue...plus a cosmonaut,' opined one panelist of Eppler’s darkly funny take on celebrity, concerning a 'modern day, working-class monster—or is she?' 'Always on the verge of careening out of control, the tonal shifts are wild,' chimed in others of this 'interrogation of the American Dream' as an ice skater 'writes her own story, regardless of the truth.'"


in a word by Lauren Yee. Produced via the National New Play Network with a rolling world premiere at the San Francisco Playhouse, Cleveland Public Theatre and Straw Dog Theatrein Chicago. "'Important and honest questions are being asked, here,' commented one panelist. 'Yee’s masterful drama about a mother's living nightmare after a child's disappearance is a mystery of word puzzles' that are 'lyrical and haunting and very well-constructed.' 'To have an ending that is satisfying dramatically but still appropriately unresolved is a tough nut to crack and this one does it.'"


Man in the Ring by Michael Cristofer. Premiered at the Court Theatre, Chicago. With “the inexorable feel of a classic tragedy,” this drama “with its Caribbean songs and its rhythm and thrust, seems at first to be a play of beautiful and utter simplicity. But au contraire.” Based on the true story of a boxer who killed a man in the ring, “the playwright threads through guilt and tragedy, weaving past and present together seamlessly.” This rich play stays “within the playwright’s total control while allowing for the frayed edges that make it feel alive and not premeditated.”


Mary Page Marlowe by Tracy Letts. Premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago. "'Generous and incredibly specific,' Letts’ play drew panelists in 'by both the flawed, multifaceted woman at the play’s center and how the non-linear storytelling painted this vivid picture of her.' Added others: 'The beauty of this play, the originality, the well-crafted scenes – with a scope so much larger than so many "issue" plays' brought to life 'an imperfect, fascinating, stalwart character…who doesn’t yield her story to any of the people around her.'"

Time Is On Our Side by R. Eric Thomas. Premiered at Sympatico Theatre, Philadelphia. "Who gets to tell our stories? And why do they tell them? Those are some of the questions asked in Thomas' tale of podcasters who discover a hidden diary. The play features 'fantastic language,' and 'sharp wit' that 'could have become a sentimental mess at any moment but somehow always saved itself.'"


Visiting Edna by David Rabe. Premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago. "With 'extraordinarily constructed dialogues and monologues that are simultaneously wide-ranging and super specific,' Rabe’s play is primarily focused on a dying mother and her son but with characters including her TV…and Cancer itself. 'While aging and dying may be all around us in the theater, right now,' commented one panelist, 'I found this play particularly brave and honest and deep, without getting sentimental or trying to be existentially profound, about what it means to face death (both for mother and son). I can’t shake this play. And I don’t want to.'"

The finalists were selected from eligible scripts recommended by ATCA members and evaluated by a committee of 17 ATCA members led by Lou Harry of the Indianapolis Business Journal/IBJ.com.

Awards will be presented on April 8, 2017, during the last weekend of Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN: Week 3 of the 6 Week Film School at the Normal Theater

Strangers on a Train, the 1951 psychological thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is a direct descendant of the first movie in the Normal Theater's Six Week Film School -- Shadow of a Doubt -- with the same rapid escalation of tension, the same kind of charmingly psychotic killer, and the same cruelty towards the women in its cast of characters.

What Strangers on a Train has that Shadow of a Doubt doesn't is a diabolically good hook. Strangers on a Train is what you might call "high concept" before that idea became popular. What it's about -- two strangers meeting on a train and one proposing they "exchange" murders so they can both get rid of inconvenient people without getting caught -- is right there in the title.

Yes, Guy and Bruno are strangers. And they meet on a train. What seems like an innocuous conversation turns creepy quickly, however, when Bruno, the affable psychopath, offers to kill Guy's greedy wife (she's pregnant, but not by him, and she won't divorce him), if Guy will knock off Bruno's annoying father. It's based on a Patricia Highsmith novel of the same title. Highsmith's Strangers has some significant differences, even if the basic idea -- the murder swap that Bruno proposes -- is the same. Highsmith makes it grimmer and more cynical, but I prefer Hitchcock's version, created by screenwriter Czenzi Ormonde from a treatment by Whitfield Cook after Hitchcock reportedly tossed out what famed mystery novelist Raymond Chandler had provided.

Highlights of the film include Farley Granger's performance as Guy, the handsome tennis star with decent impulses but some definite shades of gray, Robert Walker taking Bruno into unsavory territory and then some, a famous back-and-forth tennis match, more than one pair of eyeglasses, a distinctive lighter, and a dizzying carousel ride. If you're a fan of TV's Bewitched, you may also enjoy seeing Samantha's Aunt Clara (Marion Lorne) as Bruno's indulgent mother.

Strangers on a Train is really, really good at ratcheting up suspense. That will be even more apparent on the big screen at the Normal Theater, offered free tonight at 7 pm as part of Professor Bill McBride's Six Week Film School. You'll find supporting materials and food for thought here on the Normal Theater website.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Six Week Film School Features Bergman and Grant in Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS


Tonight is Week 2 of Bill McBride's Six Week Film School at the Normal Theater. Professor McBride hosted a Film Noir series last fall, but this time he's focusing on Alfred Hitchcock. It doesn't get any better for film students than Hitchcock, the master of suspense who was also a master of "the stylized language of cinema." You'll find Hitchcock movies on almost every film school syllabus because he employed so many different cinematic techniques to create suspense and keep his audience connected as well as recoiling. 

I'm sorry I'm a week late to talk about Shadow of a Doubt, the creepy "Merry Widow Murderer" movie that centers on a family in a small town and how young Charlie (played by Teresa Wright) unravels the mystery of her charming Uncle Charlie (the reason she got her name) and just why he's come to visit after so long. Joseph Cotten, a warm, appealing actor, creates a portrait of Uncle Charles that's all the more creepy because he seems like such a regular guy. Hitchcock casts evil into the midst of an apple-pie sort of town, with a Little Charlie/Big Charlie duality that makes all of us feel guilty.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman steam up the screen in Notorious.
Notorious, this week's Hitchcock, is one of his best, too, with another sympathetic villain in Claude Rains' Alexander Sebastian, who happens to be a rich Nazi hanging out in South America in 1946. The minute I said "Nazi" I'm sure you jumped back with "Sympathetic? A Nazi?" but it's Sebastian's love for Alicia Huberman, the "notorious" woman in the title, played by Ingrid Bergman at her most luminous, that makes him sympathetic even as it proves his undoing. Alicia is the daughter of another Nazi, one who's been uncovered and prosecuted in Florida before the movie starts. Dark and devilish spy Cary Grant (it's no coincidence his character's name is Devlin) puts Miss Huberman between a rock and a hard place (sexual innuendo intended) when he forces her to get close to Alexander Sebastian to infiltrate the gang of bad guys.

The sexual politics in the film are definitely dicey -- let's just say in today's world it could've been called "Slut Shaming" just as easily as "Notorious" -- and Devlin is a rat if ever there was one. Because of her father's crimes and her own reputation as a party girl, Alicia is a pawn in a game created by a whole lot of controlling, judgmental, cruel men. It doesn't matter to Devlin if he punches her or pimps her out or almost kills her. He's handsome. He's cynical. His important big-guy spy stuff is much more important than any woman. And, in fact, the notion that all the punishment Alicia gets may just be what she deserves to clean away the "spots" of her sexuality is definitely present.

Hitchcock was often creepy about his female characters and the way he treats Alicia Huberman is no exception, even as she does show a certain agency as a sleuth and we are given some focus on her point of view. Bergman's big-screen persona and charisma function to give her character both sensuality and virtue, to make her seem like a real, three-dimensional human being, no mere victim or paper doll to be cut to size. We know she's good and honorable, no matter how notorious she is or how many smutty comments a roomful of American agents toss her way. In the end, the fact that she has been known to drink to excess and have sex, including with Devlin and Sebastian, makes her more sympathetic and attractive, not less.

It doesn't hurt that Cary Grant has his own big-screen persona and charisma working on all cylinders and the sparks Bergman and Grant create together make Notorious work really, really well.

The famous sweeping shot to a key in Bergman's hand, a huge coffee cup, smoke and mirrors, the use of light and shadow, off-kilter angles, flipping point-of-view, a staircase of doom, the MacGuffin in a wine cellar... And the sexual politics. All fodder for a ripping good discussion of Hitchcock as a cinematic artist.

Notorious will be screened tonight at 7 pm at the Normal Theater. The movies included in the Six Week Film School are offered free of charge, and the program includes a post-show discussion with Professor McBride. Click here for McBride's notes on the film, including links to some excellent reading material.

Next week: Strangers on a Train. After that, McBride's schedule includes Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

LA LA LAND Leads Oscar Nominations


The 2017 Oscar nominations were announced online this morning with a global event filmed in six different cities.

Moving the Academy away from the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, seven actors of color were nominated this year, with Denzel Washington in the race for Best Actor for Fences and Loving's Ruth Negga earning a nomination as Best Actress. In supporting categories, actresses Viola Davis (Fences), Naomie Harris (Moonlight) and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) were nominated along with actor Mahershala Ali (Moonlight). English-Indian actor Dev Patel is also in the Best Supporting Actor race for Lion, and Moonlight's director Barry Jenkins was nominated, only the third African-American in Oscar history in the Best Director category. Who are the others? John Singleton was nominated in 1991 for Boyz in the Hood, followed by Lee Daniels in 2009 for Precious. In 2014, England's Steve McQueen became the first black Brit to earn a Best Director Oscar nod. His film, 12 Years a Slave, won Best Picture that year, although Mexico's Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for Gravity, making Cuarón the first Latin American man to win in that category.

La La Land and its whopping 14 nominations -- tying All About Eve and Titanic for the most ever -- shows that it doesn't hurt your Oscar chances to keep Hollywood and a reverence for old movies front and center in your film. That didn't help the Coen Brothers' Hail Caesar, however, which took only one nomination, for its production design.

If there were any surprises on the list, it was probably that the Hollywood Powers That Be have apparently forgiven Mel Gibson for his many public transgressions, nominating him for Best Director for Hacksaw Ridge, while overlooking Amy Adams, considered a likely prospect for a Best Actress nod, Finding Dory, not one of the choices for Best Animated Feature, and Martin Scorsese and his film Silence, greeted with a whole lot of silence instead of nominations. Silence did earn a cinematography nod for Rodrigo Prieto.


At the moment, given all its nominations and the buzz going in, La La Land is certainly the front-runner for Best Picture. But it has engendered some controversy for its lily-white take on jazz as an art form as well as some unapologetic mansplaining, so the stunner that is Moonlight might just sneak in there by the time the Oscar ceremony rolls around on February 26th. I hope so. Moonlight deserves it.

Here's a list of nominees in major categories:

BEST PICTURE
Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

BEST ACTOR
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences

BEST ACTRESS
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Emma Stone, La La Land
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel, Lion
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

BEST DIRECTOR
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Luke Davies, Lion
Eric Heisserer, Arrival
Barry Jenkins, Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, Hidden Figures
August Wilson, Fences

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou, The Lobster
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Mike Mills, 20th Century Women
Taylor Sheridan, Hell or High Water 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Greig Fraser, Lion
James Laxton, Moonlight
Rodrigo Prieto, Silence
Linus Sandgren, La La Land
Bradford Young, Arrival 

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
Land of Mine (Denmark)
A Man Called Ove (Sweden)
The Salesman (Iran)
Tanna (Australia)
Toni Erdmann (Germany)

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle
Zootopia


For the complete list of nominations and more information about the February 26 Oscar ceremony, click here for the Academy Awards official site.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

New Year's Means Fred and Ginger and HOLIDAY... Always.

I am bumping up two old pieces I wrote about what I watch on New Year's Eve. As it happens, neither is on my dial this year -- the closest thing is the mini-marathon at Turner Classic Movies with the three iterations of That's Entertainment plus That's Dancing from 7 pm to about 4 am Central time -- but that doesn't mean I can't do my own film fest right here at home.

First, my take on Swing Time, one of the classic Fred-and-Ginger pics that I like to watch every New Year's Eve. This was written in 2010, when Swing Time was the only Fred-and-Ginger I could find airing that night. Left to my own devices (and DVDs) I will probably watch three or four from my collection, maybe starting with Flying Down to Rio (1933) and ending with Shall We Dance (1937).

After that, some notes on why I love Holiday, a movie that is my idea of perfection. And, yes, I also own a copy of that. One cannot depend upon the vagaries of television programmers when planning one's New Year's Eve.



Anybody who knows me knows I love Fred Astaire movies. I don't know if it's in my gene pool (my mom was also a fan) or a learned thing (my mom and I watched a lot of his movies together) but... Whatever the reason, I'm glad I have this thing for Fred Astaire.

Back in the 70s, one of the Chicago TV stations used to run Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers marathons on New Year's Eve. I remember several times telling my date I had to be home by midnight so I didn't miss Top Hat or Shall We Dance or The Gay Divorcee. They don't seem to be doing that anymore, but to me, Fred & Ginger need to be dancing on New Year's Eve or it isn't New Year's Eve.

...Swing Time is not actually my favorite among the Fred movies (I don't like second banana Victor Moore, I don't like the silly forced laughing bit, I don't really like Fred wearing a bowler hat, and parts of the plot are very silly, especially the one involving whether formal trousers need cuffs) but it does have its charms (the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields score, some gorgeous dances, and dances used beautifully to advance the plot).

Although "The Way You Look Tonight" has become somewhat overexposed in a whole lot of movies and TV shows, it's still a lovely song, and it's quite appealing when Fred (as Lucky Garnett, dancing gambling man) sings it to Ginger (as Penny Carroll, a dance instructor), even if her hair is covered in shampoo and bubbles. Mr. Astaire always had a way with the sincere songs, and his delivery is as sweet and charming as it gets on "The Way You Look Tonight." Breathless charm, indeed.

"Never Gonna Dance" is also a classic for good reason; it gets a big, swoony production number involving sweeping Art Deco staircases and it involves all kinds of angst and heartache because of its place in the plot. There are all kinds of backstories on this dance that say they filmed endless takes into the wee hours and Ginger was bleeding into her shoes and all sorts of things... Whether you believe them or not, it's still a moving and lovely piece of dance and romance on film.

But my favorite number is "Pick Yourself Up," a sprightly piece where Lucky pretends to be a bad dancer who improves amazingly quickly in order to save Penny's job. They dance all around a dance studio under the disapproving eye of Eric Blore, an adorable supporting player you'll see throughout the Astaire/Rogers flicks, so that's one reason to enjoy it. Number 2: Ginger got a flippy black dress that makes her look as cute as she ever looked. And number 3: I absolutely love the little lifts back and forth over a tiny fence around the dance floor. They both look like they're having a great time, and when Fred pops out the real Astaire dance moves, there is a joy of performance that just zings off the screen. I'm smiling just thinking about it.



Holiday (the 1938 film based on a Philip Barry play, starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, not the more recent thing with Kate Winslet, Jack Black and Jude Law) is one of my favorite movies of all time. Maybe THE favorite.

I've been asked more than once why I like Holiday so well or why I like it better than The Philadelphia Story or Bringing Up Baby, better-known Grant/Hepburn collaborations. The answer is partly grounded in the fact that I got attached to Holiday when I was ten or eleven, and you really don't know why you like things at that age. You just do. But there's more to it than that.

I like Cary Grant, of course. He's at his most fetching here, as Johnny Case, man of the people, who came from nothing and worked really hard at some vague financial job that has made him a nice amount of money, so now he wants nothing more than to take his money and take a holiday around the world. It's sort of an anti-capitalist philosophy. Or maybe "capitalism that knows when enough is enough and then wants to have some fun." I like that refreshing attitude. Cary is also not terribly serious in this movie; he does acrobatic tricks, he messes up his hair, and he lets himself get kicked in the bootie to show he hasn't turned stuffy or puffed-up. But he still looks really good in a tux.

And then there's Kate. The plot of Holiday treats her far better than The Philadelphia Story where everybody keeps telling her that she's too perfect, she's an ice queen, she's judgmental, she needs to change while the male philanderers (her father) and alcoholics (her ex) are just fine the way they are. That always struck me as sexist and unpleasant and not very nice. Here, she's trying to do the right thing and find her own way, stuck in a pretentious, wealthy family she doesn't like much and at the same time desperately attracted to the man her sister has brought home as a fiance. As Linda Seton, Ms. Hepburn is as lively and vivacious as ever, plus she's warm and funny and nobody is blaming her for anything.

I also like the supporting cast, with Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon as an amusing pair of Johnny's friends who like Linda far better than her prissy sister and Lew Ayres as Linda's unhappy brother. Plus Binnie Barnes and Henry Daniell are hilarious as snooty relatives that Linda calls the Witch and Dopey.

There are serious issues here, and yet it's all treated lightly and sweetly, with enough romance ("Happy New Year, Johnny" and the almost kiss is my favorite) and funny stuff (with everybody doing gymnastic stunts and Punch and Judy in the old playroom) to keep the story moving. George Cukor's direction is dandy, with the emphasis on just how attractive Grant and Hepburn are. It's also really cool to see what the privileged set lived like in 1938. Special ties, special church, special parties... And that Manhattan mansion is pretty swell.

Holiday ... [is] part of a Cary Grant box set. I plan to watch it on New Year's Eve, since that's the holiday I like the best in the movie. I should also note that the title Holiday does not refer to Christmas or New Year's, but to Johnny's plan to take a long holiday, a vacation, now that he's made the money he wants.

When it's Cary Grant playing Johnny, it's hard not to support his holiday. It's hard not to try to book a cabin on that ship and go right along with him. As Linda says, "If he wants to dream for a while, he can dream for a while, and if he wants to come back and sell peanuts, oh, how I'll believe in those peanuts!"

Right there with you, sister.



And that, my friends, is what I'll be doing New Year's Eve!