Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Warnings and Portents and Evils Imminent... Time for SHAKESFEAR!

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival's annual Shakesfear event -- mixing some of Shakespeare's characters with the basic structure of a haunted house -- starts tomorrow night at Ewing Cultural Center in Bloomington.

There are two options: a half-hour "Haunted Tour" kicked off by the immortal Bard himself, after which brave souls will be guided around the grounds to see frightening scenes from Shakespeare recreated for them, or the "Enchanted Courtyard," which offers crafts and treats and less scary performances for everyone under the age of 8 and anyone not looking for the scary stuff.

The tours leave every ten minutes beginning at 7 pm on October 27, 28 or 29, with the last group setting out at 9:30 pm. The scenes they'll see may be on the balconies, in the gardens or even backstage at the Festival theater, wherever seems appropriate for the likes of drowned Ophelia and her seaweed-dripping locks, mad Lady Macbeth and her bloody hands, or perhaps Richard III haunted by the ghosts of everyone he murdered. Who and what will be performed this year hasn't been leaked yet, but the body count from plays like Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet and Titus Andronicus is high enough to provide plenty of material. Witches, apparitions, murderers and mischief-makers abound!

"Haunted Tours" have sold out in the past, so you are advised to make a reservation by calling the Illinois State University box office at 309-438-2535 or 866-IL-SHAKE. Buying ahead not only gets you a reserved spot at a specific time, but a lower ticket price. It's $7 for adults who plan ahead and $10 at the door (cash only) if there are spaces left. Admission for children and students is $5 either in advance or at the door.

The Ewing Cultural Center is located at 48 Sunset Road in Bloomington. Parking is available at St. John’s Lutheran Church across the road on Emerson Street. You are asked to cross the street at Emerson and Towanda Avenue so as to avoid traffic.

Please also note that special effects used in this program may include strobe lighting and loud sound and noise. Persons with conditions that can be aggravated by strobe lightning and loud noise should not attend this program. No pets or skates are allowed on the grounds of Ewing Cultural Center. If you need special accommodations to fully participate in this program/event, please contact the Illinois Shakespeare Festival at 309-438-2535. Please allow sufficient time to arrange the accommodation.

For more information, visit

Sunday, October 23, 2016

IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE -- Or Can It? ISU Hosts Staged Reading Tomorrow at 7:30

Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel called It Can't Happen Here -- "a cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy" -- in 1935, with Hitler on the rise in Germany, a controversial politician from Louisiana named Huey Long beginning a presidential campaign, and the Great Depression and its economic woes opening the door for demagogues promising America "a return to greatness."

Lewis wrote the book to wake up the American public to the idea that it could happen here, a notion that has kept It Can't Happen Here timely (and scary) ever since. More than one voice in the media has noticed the similarities to Donald Trump's campaign.

Signet Classics put out a new edition in 2014, noting that It Can't Happen Here "juxtaposes sharp political satire with the chillingly realistic rise of a president who becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, sex, crime, and a liberal press. Called 'a message to thinking Americans' by the Springfield Republican when it was published in 1935, It Can't Happen Here is a shockingly prescient novel that remains as fresh and contemporary as today's news."

The book spawned a stage adaptation very quickly, with Lewis himself and John C. Moffitt offering a play version that opened across the country in a flurry of simultaneous productions in October 1936. There were various attempts to make a movie out of the book, but they all faded away, although a TV movie did surface in 1968. There's at least one account that the TV miniseries (and subsequent series) V was originally intended as an adaptation of It Can't Happen Here, but the network felt that the American populace would respond better to a show where reptilian aliens were the bad guys instead of home-grown fascists. Go figure.

Earlier this year, with politicians flinging around the same rhetoric used by Lewis's characters, Berkeley Rep staged a new adaptation of the play written by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen. The central character in It Can't Happen Here, one Berzeluis "Buzz" Windrip, is charismatic and ambitious, ready to use whatever weapons he can grab -- hate, fear, lies, hysteria, bigotry -- to put himself in power. And once he's there, his weapons just get bigger and scarier to maintain his position and his empire.

To underscore the timeliness of the material, the Sinclair Lewis Foundation/Society is hosting nationwide staged readings of the Taccone and Cohen version of the play. Right here in Bloomington-Normal, we can see a staged reading of this incredibly important play, directed by Illinois State University professor Lori Adams and Ball State's John Tovar, at 7:30 pm in ISU's Westhoff Theatre.

Adams and Tovar will also serve as narrators, leading a cast of sixteen that includes Mark de Veer reading the role of demagogue Buzz Windrip, Dean Brown taking on Vermont newspaperman Doremus Jessup, who finds himself a large part of the New Underground opposition, and Robert McLaughlin as Senator Walter Trowbridge, an early opponent of Windrip's divisive brand of politics. Everyone in the cast will read multiple roles, with actors Duane Boutté, Spencer Brady, Cyndee Brown, Connie de Veer, Nathan Gaik, Alex Levy, Colleen Rice, Danny Rice, Julie Riffle, Don Shandrow and John Stark joining Mark de Veer, Dean Brown and McLaughlin to give voice to Lewis's characters.

This event is free, which means tickets are not being sold and you will need to get there on time to ensure a seat. For more information on the Normal take on It Can't Happen Here, click here to see the event's Facebook page.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

ROCKY HORROR X 3 (or Maybe X 100)

It's that time of year again. Rocky Horror time, of course. As Halloween looms, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and its variations show up. And by variations, I mean the movie plus costumed audience members, the movie with newspapers and squirt guns and toast, the movie with a whole cast in front of it acting it out, and now, a new TV version on Fox where you are encouraged to wear a costume, make props and act it out at home.

First up this year is the TV show Rocky Horror, with Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox as Frank-N-Furter, the mad bustier-wearing scientist from Transylvania who is trying to create a hot guy in his laboratory. The original Frank, Tim Curry, shows up as the narrator, while Broadway stars Ben Vereen, Annaleigh Ashford and Reeve Carney add plenty of talent to the cast as Dr. Scott, Columbia and Riff Raff. To get ready, you can sneak a peek at clips, peruse the cast list or download a diagram to guide you through the interactive activities. This Rocky Horror Picture Show (maybe it should be called The Rocky Horror TV Show) airs tonight at 8 pm Eastern/7 Central on Fox.

And if a new version of the cult classic isn't filling you with antici...pation, you'll have plenty of opportunities to see the 1975 original. The Normal Theater will air it in all its Time Warped glory on October 27, 28 and 29, with a 7 pm show the first night and two shows -- 7 and 10:30 pm -- on the 28th and 29th. All five shows will feature a full "shadow cast" from Illinois State University's Theatre of Ted, plus there will be a limited number of goodie bags for sale (presumably including things like playing cards and party hats, but not rice, water pistols, toast or lighters, since they have a "No food, no water and no fire" rule happening) for t.

Meanwhile, over in Champaign, the Art Theater Co-op will screen the film four times, with shows October 21, 22, 26 and 27 at 10 pm. Their shows will also be fronted by live performers, this time from Illini Student Musicals.

If you can get from Normal to Champaign in an hour and 20 minutes on the 27th, you could conceivably see The Rocky Horror Picture Show nine times between tomorrow and the end of the month. And if you add in an unlimited number of reruns (or restreams) for the Fox TV movie, well, it could be a very Rocky Halloween.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

She's Baaaaack... Watch out for CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND's Fall Premiere Friday

Rebecca Bunch, the character who brings the crazy to CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND, will be back in a new time slot this Friday, October 21, at 9 pm Eastern/8 Central. It's probably not good news for the show that it's been shipped to Fridays, a TV wasteland, but it's good news for people like me who aren't averse to watching something during that wasteland.

Creator Rachel Bloom plays Rebecca in all her off-balance glory, with a boffo musical number or two every episode. My favorite last season was the Fred-and-Ginger inspired "Settle for Me," where one of the men in Rebecca Bunch's life, Greg (played by the amazing Santino Fontana) tried to get her to give him a shot even though they both knew he wasn't her first choice. There was lots to choose from, however, including "A Boy Band Made Up of Four Joshes," which put Rebecca's fantasy man, Josh, as every member of a bouncy boy band and gave Vincent Rodriguez III a great spotlight for his dance talents.

This season, we're getting a new theme song to illustrate that Rebecca's life has changed from moving all the way from New York to West Covina to be near her teen crush Josh to actually thinking he's in love with her and all her dreams are coming true. The AV Club describes the new song this way: "Rebecca, done up like a 1930s showgirl, croons about how she can’t be 'held responsible' for the insane things she does because she's in love." In other words, Rebecca is just as unhinged as ever and hijinks will ensue.

If you want a hint as to what that will mean in the first episode, Rebecca will sing a song spoofing Beyonce and "Lemonade" song about supposedly being satisfied with the tiny droplets of affection (or "Love Kernels") she gets from Josh. As with most of the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend musical numbers, there is something sharp and pointed underneath the zippy lyrics.

I wasn't that happy with Season 1's final episode, where Greg acted stupid at a wedding reception and Rebecca and Josh got together for sexy time, whereafter Rebecca confessed that she only moved to West Covina for him. But it does set up some interesting plot possibilities for Season 2, now that Josh knows the truth, Greg has to deal with Josh and Rebecca as a couple, and Rebecca is no more in touch with reality than she ever was. Plus the musical numbers are worth the DVR space all by themselves.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and its new theme song (plus its "Love Kernels") premiere Friday at 8 Central on the CW.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


If you'd love to see Hamilton -- the must-see Broadway show that has dazzled presidents and critics and audiences alike, the one that won 11 Tony Awards and a Pulitzer -- but haven't been able to score tickets for the show in New York or Chicago and the 2017 stop in LA isn't looking good, either, PBS is here to help. No, they won't get you in the door and no, they aren't bringing the show itself to the small screen. But they are offering a documentary called Hamilton's America on Great Performances to kick off their 2016 PBS Arts Fall Festival. This documentary goes behind the scenes to bring "history to vivid life through the lens of Lin-Manuel Miranda's pop culture Broadway phenomenon Hamilton."

In addition to the teaser video above, PBS has described their program in enthusiastic detail:
"Produced by Academy Award® and Emmy Award®-winning producers RadicalMedia (What Happened, Miss Simone?, Keith Richards: Under The Influence, In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams for PBS) and directed by Alex Horwitz, Hamilton's America delves even deeper into the creation of the show, revealing Miranda's process of absorbing and then adapting Hamilton's epic story into groundbreaking musical theater. Further fleshing out the story is newly shot footage of the New York production with its original cast, trips to historic locations, such as Mt. Vernon and Valley Forge with Miranda and other cast members, and a surprising range of interviews with prominent personalities, experts, politicians, and musicians including President Barack Obama, President George W. Bush. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Secretary Hank Paulson, Secretary Timothy Geithner, Questlove, Black Thought, Jimmy Fallon, John Weidman, Nas and Stephen Sondheim.
"Hamilton’s America shows just how timeless the hot-button issues of today's America are: immigration, States' rights, debt, income inequality, and race relations. These were the same fights that defined Hamilton's time, and they are the driving force of Miranda's historic work. The film endeavors to brush the dust off American history, much as the musical does, and provide a unique new way for us to view our national heritage and current political landscape.
"A unique window into the artistry and research involved in making the show, viewers will witness Miranda at the White House in 2009 performing an early version of what would become "Alexander Hamilton," the first number in the musical and they will also be given an inside view of Miranda as he composes songs in Aaron Burr's Manhattan bedroom. They will travel to Virginia with Christopher Jackson – who was Tony®-nominated for his portrayal of George Washington in the musical – as he reveals his personal struggle preparing for the role, while grappling with our Founders' legacy of slavery. Back in New York, Miranda, who originated the Tony®-nominated role of Hamilton in the musical and Leslie Odom, Jr. –  who won a Tony Award® for his portrayal of Aaron Burr – visit the Museum of American Finance to get a deeper understanding of the historical figures they are depicting on stage, including a memorable moment from this research trip, when the two actors brandish authentic 19th-century dueling pistols."
All of which adds up to a Don't Miss for history lovers, Broadway aficionados, Lin-Manuel Miranda fans and pretty much everybody else with a pulse.

Hamilton's America will air at 9 pm Eastern/8 Central on Friday, October 21 on both our local PBS stations. WILL-TV in Urbana will repeat the program immediately after the first showing, with another chance to see it at 1 am.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Diving Into DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA with Illinois Theatre

You'll find some deep water and deep issues in Nathan Alan Davis's Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, a stunning piece of work about African-American identity in 2016, about the need for roots and history, about how we live and interact with the world around us.

The story follows a young man named Dontrell who has a strange, shocking dream one night, filled with haunting images of ancestors he has no waking knowledge of. In Dontrell's dream, a man who looks very much like his father jumps overboard from the slave ship where he is imprisoned, finding a kind of freedom in the briny deep. This ancestor leaves behind a pregnant woman who will finish the journey to America with her child, beginning the saga of Dontrell's family on this continent. Dontrell knows his parents don't want to hear about this dream or how it continues to push him into deeper and deeper waters. Someway, somehow, Dontrell must find the spirit of that ancestor, lost somewhere in the Atlantic so long ago.

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea is an award-winning play which earned a slot in the New Play Network's Rolling World Premiere project, launching it into five different productions in 2015 in regional theaters from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles, from Indianapolis and Cleveland to Eugene, Oregon.

Although Dontrell rolled from coast to coast last year, the play has some serious Illinois connections. Playwright Nathan Alan Davis is a native of Rockford, Illinois, and he earned his BFA at the University of Illinois. His plays are set in places like Rockford and southern Illinois and he has worked with Chicago Dramatists.

For Illinois Theatre, Dontrell is directed by Tyrone Phillips, another U of I alum as well as one of the founding members of Chicago's Definition Theatre Company. Phillips has emerged as a major director in Chicago, with accolades and honors for shows like his Byhalia, Mississippi, which earned six Jefferson Awards, including one for his direction.

As Dontrell unfolds in the Studio Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, it's clear Phillips is the perfect match for this particular play at this particular moment, giving it a vivid, expressionistic style and a strong heartbeat. He has directed his ensemble so tightly (and they are working together so tightly) that we can hear them breathe as one in the small space of the Studio Theatre. It's astonishing.

Among the cast, Vincent Williams hits a sweet note of naivete with Dontrell and Diana Gardner has the right mix of steel and quirkiness to make lifeguard/soulmate Erika appealing. Raffeal A. Sears, Noelle Klyce, Marlene Slaughter and Maya Vinice Prentiss are important pieces of the puzzle as Dontrell's alternately supportive and despairing family, while Xavier Roe is a revelation as Robby, a childhood friend with all the right moves. In the ensemble, Ryan Luzzo and Christian Wilson look like clockwork throughout, and Madison Freeland, Brienna Taylor, Alexis Walker and especially Danyelle Monson bring Dontrell home with their fierce moves.

C. Kemal Nance's dynamic choreography -- along with the cast's commitment to it -- is a major part of what keeps the story of Dontrell and his mystical search for his ancestry afloat. The physical part of the show is beautifully realized, with individual pieces that take your breath away, from a repeated gunshot and fall at the beginning to a fantastic fantasy ending. And, oh my, that end! When Dontrell finds the place in the ocean he's been looking for, the theatrical meets the emotional in a swirling celebration of ancestry, identity and validation.

Phillips' designers also add to the overall Dontrell experience, with Luke Parker's evocative, submersive sound design, Paul Kim's colorful array of costumes, Eric Van Tassell's assertive lighting and Nicholas James Schwartz's simple, creative scenic design combining to make a big impact. I especially liked the overlapping images that tie together theater, ships and slavery, with ropes looped around the gallery and from the ceiling, fabric that brings to mind sails as well as stage curtains dropping into the playing space, and weathered wood planks that move to form a dinner table, a boat or a bed from one scene to the next. It's all imaginative and on target as part of the thought-provoking Dontrell experience.

Kudos to the ATCA/Steinberg Awards, the New Play Network and Illinois Theatre for picking Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea and giving it the spotlight it deserves and to Tyrone Phillips and his team for bringing it alive at Krannert Center.

By Nathan Alan Davis

The Studio Theatre
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts

Director: Tyrone Phillips
Choreographer: C. Kemal Nance
Voice and Speech Coaches: Susan Schuld and Adam Thatcher
Scenic Designer: Nicholas James Schwartz
Costume Designer: Paul Kim
Lighting Designer: Eric Van Tassell
Sound Designer: Luke Parker
Properties Master: Kristen Nuhn
Stage Manager: Cathy Fazio
Technical Director: Dylan Kind

Cast: Madison Freeland, Diana Gardner, Ryan Luzzo, Noelle Kyce, Danyelle Monson, Maya Vinice Prentiss, Xavier Roe, Raffeal A. Sears, Marlene Slaughter, Brienna Taylor, Alexis Walker, Vincent Williams and Christian Wilson.

September 29 to October 14, 2016.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Young at Heartland Fall Showcase Looks at "Life's Choices" Next Wednesday

Young at Heartland's Acting Troupe
Young at Heartland, Heartland Theatre’s senior acting troupe, is now a teenager! As YAH celebrates its 13th year of "continuing education, creative self-expression, and community outreach" through the vehicle of theater, the troupe will once again show off their talents in a performance at Heartland Theatre.

Young at Heartland's Fall Showcase will take the stage at Heartland Theatre on Wednesday, October 19 at 7:30 pm. There is no set charge for admission, although donations are accepted at the door to help with program expenses. Note that these performances tend to be well-attended, so you are advised to be there early to get a good seat.

If you are unable to attend the evening performance, Young at Heartland will offer another show open to the public at the Normal Public Library at 2 pm on October 28.

This year's theme -- a unifying idea that runs through all the scenes the senior actors will be performing -- is "Life’s Choices." The YAH press release explains:
Every day brings us choices, some small and others big, so the Young at Heartland senior acting troupe’s program will be exploring the complications and pleasures of Life's Choices. These brand new short scenes and plays are performed by the Young at Heartland senior acting troupe traveling through our community delivering lighthearted fun. Come see how they light up the stage.
Heartland's website indicates that the scenes being performed include several pieces by members of the troupe, including Cemetery Walk and Goosed by Bruce Boeck, Going Postal by Lynda Straw, Helpful Hints and What's for Dinner? by Elsie Cadieux  Skinfall and Telephone Tango by Joy Schuler and 'Tis The Season by Holly Klass.

Young at Heartland Hijinks
The actors in the troupe have participated in a two-month acting workshop led by retired Illinois State University professor Sandra Zielinski, with ISU alum Terri Whisenhunt assisting.

For more information (and more pictures) of the irrepressible Young at Heartland acting ensemble, click here.