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.

David Ian Lee: The Fun Ride in PERICLES

With The Exonerated just concluded and Mrs. Packard running right now in the Center for the Performing Arts at Illinois State University, ISU's Department of Theatre and Dance has been very busy. Next up: Pericles, the roving Shakespearean (or maybe Shakespearean -- more about that later) adventure play about a man named Pericles who finds himself up and down, lost and found, as he travels through a wild world of possibilities and drama. Second-year MFA directing candidate David Ian Lee is navigating the stormy seas of this Pericles, and I posed a few questions to Lee to see what I could expect from his version of this journey.

As a director, what attracts you to material like Pericles? At its heart, what do you think this play is about? 

Pericles tells the story of a charming, roguish prince who sails from kingdom to kingdom, pursuing adventure and wooing princesses. He’s a bit of a narcissistic twit, who along the way is humbled, falls in love, and becomes a father. And that’s when Fortune chooses to take from Pericles all that he holds dear. This is a story about growing up. It’s about dads and their kids, and that’s what makes it personal for me. Our play is about how children may redeem their parents, and about the responsibility each of us bears for one another. But, also: There are pirates and prostitutes and shipwrecks and swordfights! There’s birth, death, and a couple of rebirths. There’s magic. This is a story set "once upon a time," with all the fun and adventure of an Indiana Jones movie.

Pericles is not among the most familiar or most frequently performed of Shakespeare plays. There are also different theories about how much of the play, if any of it, Shakespeare wrote. Does any of that make a difference in how you approach directing it?

Scholarship suggests that Shakespeare collaborated with the English dramatist George Wilkins on Pericles; we joke in the room that Shakespeare wrote the middle acts, and that Wilkins worked on the (trickier, more erratic) first and final acts. The truth, of course, is that what we recognize as “Shakespeare’s plays” come to us by way of four-hundred years of editing and revision. But we’ve approached the piece the same way we would any other play: How do we best tell this story?

David Ian Lee, director of ISU's Pericles
As written, Pericles is set in ancient times in lands and seas around Greece and Phoenicia, but It's interesting that the modern versions of the places Pericles visits would be in Turkey, Libya and Lebanon. How does the setting inform your production? What are you doing with the period of the play?

There seem to be two prevailing aesthetic preferences when staging Shakespeare today: "In the period" -- which loosely translates as "about 1600ish" – or in a place or time that creates a metaphoric framework for the show, and that’s how we get post-apocalyptic King Lears or Romeo & Juliets set during the American Civil War. We went in a different direction. Our design team created the six different cultures of the play "from the ground up," imagining a fantastical realm of antiquity. Shakespeare traded in cultural appropriation, to be sure, so we didn't concern ourselves with "What would an Antiochian or a Pentapolean look like?" but rather "How would an Elizabethan audience member have received these various exotic cultures, and how do we create worlds that achieve the same effects?" It’s an exciting experiment, and the results are evocative and unique!

This will be your second show in a row (after last semester's Angels in America: Perestroika, performed in ISU's Centennial West 207) where you will be working with the journey and scope of a huge, epic play. This time you have a bit more space in Westhoff, but what do you do as a director to bring alive the scope of an epic play in a small space?

This play brings a whole heap of challenges: Swordfights, dances, songs, music, dumbshows, sailing sequences, mystical sequences… There’s a lot of stuff in Pericles! What’s wonderful about the play as a celebration of theatre is that all the spectacle is in the service of telling the story of a human being. I think that connects Angels and Pericles; both tell big stories that play across epic landscapes, but the plays focus on people in locked combat with forces seemingly greater than they. That’s something I’m drawn to: We are such fragile, imperfect things, but we are capable of grace and greatness.

Finally, what would you like audiences to know before they come to see your PERICLES? What should they expect? 

I love Shakespeare in performance because of the opportunities for audience utilization and interaction. I once took a master class with John Barton, who described the experience of playing Shakespeare as being alone with three hundred of your closest friends. We’ve no "fourth wall" in our production, so we’ll talk to you, but we may also touch or climb on you. Pericles makes for a fun ride!

Thanks, David!

Pericles will be in performance at Westhoff Theatre from April 17 to 26. For information, click here or here.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Weighing a Life in brownsville song (b-side for tray)

One of the best things about the Humana Festival of New American Plays, held annually at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, is the mix of works presented. There's almost always something a little (or a lot) out there, something crazy, something sad, something sweet... And something more traditional.

This year, even though playwright Kimber Lee has given her play brownsville song (b-side for tray) an unusual title and even though the structure of the play is nonlinear and fragmented, brownsville still plays like a traditional, heartfelt, earnest piece of American theater.

It starts at the end, with a grandmother who does not want to talk about the loss of her grandson, Tray, lost to stupid, tragic violence on the streets in Brooklyn. The actions plays out in short, overlapping scenes from now and then that show us who Tray was, who was important in his life -- his little sister; the grandmother who has mostly raised the two of them; and Tray's one-time stepmother, re-entering their lives after she fell off the deep end but has tried to reclaim herself -- and the hole he's left behind. We understand that it's a tragedy that Tray is gone and we root for these conflicted, interesting people to find a way.

But brownsville never really rises above the issues presented. We are told early on that Tray is not just some statistic, one more name on the list of kids lost in America's inner-city wars. His grandmother argues that he was different, he was special, he was not just one more like all the other faceless, nameless victims. As embodied by John Clarence Stewart, Tray is charming, vibrant and alive. And in that, this story succeeds in telling us that his death was as wrong as wrong can be. 

Actors Theatre Associate Artistic Director Meredith McDonought directs, eliciting fine performances from her entire cast. Cherene Snow effectively etches the grief and anger fueling Lena, the grandmother who wants Tray to be remembered, while 10-year-old Sally Diallo is adorable as Devine, the little girl who keeps getting left behind by the adults in her life. Jackie Chang does good work with the difficult role of Tray's former stepmother, but who exactly she was to Tray is unclear for much of the play, and her appearances seem coincidental and forced at times. 

And in the end... brownsville song doesn't sing. The play is earnest. Its heart is most definitely in the right place. It makes its case that random violence is tragic and terrible. But the scenes Lee has written don't build intensity or make a case for Tray beyond "just another kid," the very thing it set out to do. Yes, he was a great kid. Yes, he had a bright future. But how is that different from the others, the ones whose names we don't know? Lee's script doesn't gives us that spark.

Dane Laffrey's set, with sliding panels and moving pieces that fill all of the stage (and some offstage) spaces at the Pamela Brown Auditorium, Actors Theatre's biggest space, is slick and smooth in terms of transitions, but its size and mechanics create a certain distance from the audience, another reason brownsville doesn't make the emotional impact it's trying to achieve.

In the end, it's easy to understand the heartbreak in brownsville song (b-side for tray) but hard to truly give it your heart.