Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in Review

Since this is the end of my first year at this blog, I decided I really needed to sum it all up somehow. Should I write a best-of? Expectations and disappointments? Some sort of free-form essay on How I Spent My Year Blogging?

I dunno. None of that really appeals to me. And yet I need to mark this one-year anniversary thing somehow. Before January 2010, I had never blogged. And now I'm doing two of them. I've had a good time writing one for Heartland Theatre under the Think Theater banner at the Peoria Journal-Star online, and I think it's pretty cool to be able to see Heartland's story in the second half of the year by putting together all those blog posts.

As for A Follow Spot, my own personal blog... It's harder to assess.

Is it what I expected? I don't think I necessarily knew enough about blogging to have any expectations.

Is it good? I may be a critic, but that doesn't mean I can judge whether my own work, well, works. I hope so. I hope I've done what I set out to do, which was give a spotlight -- even a small one -- to some of the artists and works of art I came across this year. Print media is in even worse shape than when I started, so maybe my blog has been a step in the right direction to keep talking about actors and artists and authors. And maybe we can brighten that spotlight in 2011.

I can tell you that I have enjoyed the heck out of having a place to write what I want to write, cover the shows and movies and books and music I want to cover, and in general, engage in a spirited discussion with my friends and colleagues. I wish the discussion involved more people. I know you're reading out there -- I see the stats -- but not as many people as I would like feel moved to comment. Or maybe people think registering is too tough (you can always post anonymously without registering) or too intimidating (I love discussion and disagreement, as long as it's not nasty or unpleasant or personal) or just too all-around complicated. But if you want to comment, please do. I'd love to hear from you.

As for 2010... Looking back, some of the shows that stand out for me are ISU's strong, emotional "Playboy of the Western World" and their bright and sassy "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" as well as IWU's fresh, fun take on "Once Upon a Mattress," U of I and director Robert G. Anderson's stunning backstage, backwards"Macbeth" and Robert Quinlan's fierce "Iphigenia and Other Daughters," and Heartland's searing "Woman in Mind" with Lori Adams as the Alan Ayckbourn heroine who's spinning out of control. The Normal Theater has also had a good year for me, with all kinds of treats, like "Top Hat," "Sabrina," "Dr. Strangelove" and now "The Thin Man," among their offerings.

Outside central Illinois, I was impressed with Deborah Zoe Laufer's "Sirens" and Greg Kotis's "Examination of the Whole Playwright/Actor Relationship" at the Humana Festival, I loved every minute of the year-long Sondheim celebration and especially "Sondheim on Sondheim" on Broadway and his new book, "Finishing the Hat," and I was riveted by the entire season of "Mad Men" on TV.

I can't wait for the revival of "Arcadia," Tom Stoppard's amazing play, on Broadway, or the return of "Parks and Recreation," including U of I alum Nick Offerman, on NBC. Plus, of course, another season of "Mad Men," seeing how they write out Steve Carell on "The Office," and continuing my affair with my TV boyfriend Jon Stewart. And Jon Hamm. And Hugh Laurie.

Eleven is my favorite number, after all. So let's what 2011 can do to become my favorite year!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Celebrating New Year's Eve with "The Thin Man"

My husband and I like to go out to an unusual movie on New Year's Eve. By unusual, I mean something a little different, a little out of the ordinary. Our choices have ranged from "Titanic" (a terrible idea for New Year's Eve, when the last thing you need to see is the hero turning into a Popsicle) to "Enchanted April" (all about rediscovering the joy in life, even inside marriage -- what a concept! -- plus we left Champaign's Art Theater to a softly falling snow that was quite romantic, making this one perfect for the bittersweet last day of the year.)

This year, I've chosen "The Thin Man," a romantic comedy/mystery classic playing tonight and tomorrow night at the Normal Theater. It's been a long time since I've seen "The Thin Man" and I'm not sure I've ever seen it on a big, beautiful screen like that. I love it for its portrayal of a married couple who are fizzy and romantic as well as smart -- they solve crimes together while never missing a chance to knock back a cocktail or two or three -- and for its lighter-than-air, irreverent tone.

Oh, and I also love the dog. Nick and Nora Charles, played by the bright and breezy William Powell and Myrna Lowell, have a wire-haired fox terrier named Asta who became one of the most famous canines in filmdom. He's adorable. He made me yearn for a wire-haired fox terrier of my own, and I'm not even a dog person. I'd still take Asta, though. In a minute.

"The Thin Man" does not refer to Mr. Charles, by the way. It refers to the missing person, an old friend (or possibly just an acquaintance) of Nick's. He's the guy who gets the puzzle going, as Nick tries to figure out what happened to this thin man, uncovering a murder or two and running into the thin man's daughter, played by Maureen O'Sullivan, whose children in real life include the actress Mia Farrow. You may've seen Ms. O'Sullivan as a mere slip of a girl in the old Tarzan movies or as a septuagenarian in "Hannah and Her Sisters." So feel free to watch "The Thin Man" and then look for "Hannah" so you'll know what she looked like 52 years later.

But the joy of "The Thin Man" is its careless, carefree charm, as we watch two wonderful movie stars sail through the plot with a sense of frisky fun. William Powell is elegant, tipsy and completely himself, while Myrna Loy is sharp as a tack as well as pretty darn slinky in her lovely satin gowns. How often do you get the chance to see witty romance and double entendre mixed with murder, high society, champagne and fabulous fashion? Somehow screenwriters Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich and director W. S. Van Dyke hit just the right notes when they made "The Thin Man" and half of Hollywood would spend the rest of the 20th Century trying to copy it.

And that's why I'll be spending the first few hours of my New Year's Eve at the Normal Theater with Nick and Nora. And Asta, of course.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My Favorite Holiday Movies: "Holiday"

"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" will be playing on TCM this afternoon, and it's also available as an Instant View on Netflix through January 1. I've got my own copy, 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.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

My Favorite Holiday Movies: "Elf," "Miracle on 34th Street" and "Scrooged"

In my on-going series on the holiday movies I like (note that "It's a Wonderful Life" has not and will not appear), I am moving on to some better-known titles, the ones that frequently pop up on your TV schedule. They're very different from each other, but they share a good sense of humor, a certain charm and a decided lack of schmaltz. Sentiment, yes. Schmaltz, no.

Up first: "Elf," the 2003 film with ex-SNL comedian Will Ferrell as Buddy, a full-size guy who's had a hard time getting by as an adopted child in the teeny-tiny elf world at the North Pole. An outcast for his inability to be a proper elf, Buddy shows up in New York, where he learns about real people, romance and families, with a marvelous supporting cast in both worlds. I can take or leave James Caan, although he's fine as Buddy's real dad, but it's lovely to see Bob Newhart as his elf papa and even lovelier to see Ed Asner (I still have kind of a crush on him from his "Lou Grant" days) as Santa. "Elf" is sweet and silly, never cloying, with Ferrell deftly playing Buddy as a wide-eyed naif who means well, even if he and his big feet step in all the wrong places.

You'll find "Elf" on the USA network on Christmas Day, on SYFY on the 27th and 28th, and on Oxygen on New Year's Eve.

"Miracle on 34th Street" (the 1947 version) is one of the most recognizable holiday movies around, so everybody should know its story about a cynical little girl named Susan (played by the unbelievably cute Natalie Wood) and her hard-working single mother (Maureen O'Hara), neither of whom believes in Santa Claus. But then what appears to be the real Kris Kringle (played by the even more adorable Edmund Gwenn) arrives at Mom's department store and a firestorm of controversy erupts. Is he crazy? Is he the real deal?

A handsome lawyer (John Payne) lends a hand when Kris has a sanity hearing, Mom gets a romance, Susan starts to believe that wishes can come true, and everybody has a Merry Christmas. Well, maybe not the cranky pencil pusher who put Santa Claus on trial.

It's a classic for a reason: All the elements work perfectly, the players are terrific and just what they need to be, and both Edmund Gwenn and Natalie Wood knock it out of the park.

You can find "Miracle on 34th Street" showing three times on Christmas Eve and once on Christmas Day on AMC, as well as once on Christmas Eve on WGN America.

My last holiday movie is darker and edgier, shoving Bill Murray into an updated Christmas Carol set in the world of TV production in 1988.

Murray's character, Frank Cross, is too busy ordering people around for a live "Christmas Carol" broadcast to notice that he has no friends, his girlfriend (Karen Allen) left long ago, and he seriously needs a wake-up call on how to behave like a human being. The best part of the movie is its crazy take on his ghosts, with Buster Poindexter (credited here under his real name, David Johansen) as a ferocious cab driver Ghost of Christmas Past and Carol Kane looking pretty but packing quite a punch as the Ghost of Christmas Present. She wallops Cross in the face with a toaster in a moment that resonates long past the movie.

Bill Murray's brothers John, Joel and Brian Doyle Murray show up in cameos, plus you get to see a parade of wacky stars (Buddy Hackett, Robert Goulet, Lee Majors, John Houseman) in the TV extravaganza Cross is supposedly putting on.

"Scrooged" is cynical and irreverent, with that snarky edge Bill Murray does so well. It's like a crazy ride in Buster Poindexter's Hellcab. But it's also hella funny and a welcome companion to all the other "Christmas Carols" out there.

"Scrooged" repeats seven times (SEVEN!) on AMC on Christmas Day, with another three showings the next day.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Feel Like a Little Christmas Caroling?

This just in! Community Players is inviting anyone who wants to sing to join them for Christmas caroling tomorrow night at 6 pm at that big roundabout in the middle of Uptown Normal, right between the Marriott and the Children's Discovery Museum. It's also just a block or two away from Babbitt's Books, which is still running its Days of Christmas specials. (That first Matisse book is calling my name.)

I've also been told that the Garlic Press will be offering free hot chocolate in addition to their usual assortment of goodies in their Market Cafe, and they're staying open till 8 pm just to accommodate the carolers coming from the roundabout.

So jot this one down in your datebook: Community Players' caroling event happens tomorrow night, December 22nd, at 6 pm.

According to the Uptown Normal website, sheet music will be available at the caroling event in case you need a cheat sheet to remember the second verse of "Rudolph," plus they're offering battery-powered candles to help you guide your sleigh tonight. Okay, I'm guessing the candles are really to create the proper festive mood and brighten the group in general, plus I'm not privy to their set list, so... "Rudolph" may not be included and you probably won't be asked to guide Santa's sleigh, even if you do have a candle.

But singing definitely will be included. And if you want to sing for about 45 minutes and then hop down to the Normal Theater, they're offering "It's a Wonderful Life" at 7 pm all week. What could be more Christmasy?

Monday, December 20, 2010

My Favorite Holiday Movies: "Swing Time"

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.

I haven't found any of the Fred & Ginger classics on the schedule for New Year's Eve, but I did find "Swing Time" listed on Turner Classic Movies for tomorrow. "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.

TCM has "Swing Time" on the schedule at 10 pm Eastern on December 21st. If you haven't seen it... Well, why not? If you have, you'll know not to miss this opportunity, either.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Favorite Holiday Movies: "Christmas in Connecticut"

One of my favorites for the holidays, "Holiday Inn," showed up at the Normal Theater and on TV (AMC channel) last weekend. Now it's time for another of my favorites, the charming "Christmas in Connecticut," which hits AMC on Sunday and Monday.

"Christmas in Connecticut" is a lesser-known holiday gem than "Holiday Inn," but it went over well enough to spawn a remake. Still, it's the 1945 version, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan, that deserves your attention. The 1992 TV movie, with Dyan Cannon and Kris Kristofferson? Just don't go there.

But let's not talk about that one. Let's go back to the '45 original, with a screenplay by Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini, based on a story by Aileen Hamilton. Its wartime setting informs the plot, about a magazine writer named Elizabeth Lane, played by Barbara Stanwyck, who is a bit of a know-it-all on paper. She writes about cooking and homemaking and all sorts of warm, fuzzy things. She's sort of the Martha Stewart of her time, with the addition of a made-up husband and a baby and cozy house in Connecticut. Emphasis on the "made-up" part. Our girl Elizabeth is a single city girl who can't even boil water. But then a heroic GI, one Jefferson Jones, played by the very handsome Dennis Morgan, decides that all he wants for Christmas is to spend his holiday leave with a real family like Elizabeth's. Except, of course, it isn't real.

This being the movies, Elizabeth can't possibly out herself as a fake, so she and her friends, including a chef played by the adorable S. Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, scramble to put together the elements -- home, husband, baby, delicious holiday feast -- to keep her image alive.

I love this movie. I used it as a starting point for one of my own books, "Fantasy Wife," where the Martha Stewart-like character (definitely fake, definitely know-it-ally) is not the heroine. Instead, it's her assistant, who has really been writing all her boss's how-to books, who gets involved with the guy, a busy executive who thinks a know-it-all is the solution to his childcare woes. Obviously, I took the idea (fake home-making expert) in a very different direction, and I didn't involve Christmas or a war hero, but my inspiration was my love for "Christmas in Connecticut."

One of the best things about the movie is the supporting cast, like Cuddles Sakall, with Sydney Greenstreet as Elizabeth's pushy publisher, Reginald Gardner as her unctuous faux-husband, and Una O'Connor as a helpful housekeeper. Barbara Stanwyck is warm and delightful, she has good chemistry with Dennis Morgan (who looks great in a uniform and gets to sing a little, too) and the movie works like a holiday charm.

"Christmas in Connecticut" gets 4 stars from me. Look for it on American Movie Classics on Sunday, December 19, at 9:15 am (right after another showing of "Holiday Inn") or 11:30 pm, or on Monday, December 20, at 2:15 pm. All times listed are Central Standard Time.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sondheim's Coming to "The Colbert Report" Tomorrow

"The Colbert Report," the late-night faux news show starring Stephen Colbert, adds another Stephen tomorrow night. Colbert is used to playing off Steve Carell and he had Steve Martin on to talk about fine art just a few days ago, but he may just be playing "Even Stephen" with Stephen Sondheim this time.

Capping off what's been a great year, Mr. Sondheim will guest on "The Colbert Report" on Tuesday, December 14th. "The Colbert Report" airs at 10:31 pm Central time on Comedy Central (Channel 42 on our local Comcast cable).

I hope they don't sing together, but even if they do, I'll be glued to the TV. I suggest you set the DVR, although we can hope the video will be on the website on Wednesday, right there with the search for King Tut's penis, assessing blame for shark attacks, and Colbert's Best Marijuana Moments.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Happy Holidays with "Holiday Inn"

I'm not sure if anybody will be able to get out to the Normal Theater in our current blizzard-like conditions, but it'd be a major shame if everybody has to miss "Holiday Inn." It's not a perfect movie (there's the issue of that blackface number when Bing Crosby's character chooses to use that unfortunate make-up choice to disguise his girlfriend from Fred Astaire's character's advances, plus some really silly plot choices and some fairly mediocre leading ladies) but still...

Fred Astaire gets to tap-dance with firecrackers as well as dance in a pretend-drunk state, both of which are pretty nifty, and Der Bingle gets to sing "White Christmas" and "Happy Holidays." There's a lot of nice snow and a very pretty inn in Vermont, so... All in all, I find myself looking for "Holiday Inn" every year about this time. The option of seeing it on the big screen at the Normal Theater instead of in my living room is even more appealing. If only it would stop snowing for real!

I should probably tell you that "Holiday Inn" the movie has nothing to do with the hotel chain. Instead, it's about a successful song-and-dance trio consisting of singer Jim Hardy (Bing), dancer Ted Hanover (Fred) and their sorta snotty third wheel, Lila (Virginia Dale). Jim wants to retire and take Lila with him, but Ted steals her at the last minute. Those two continue the act as a duet, while Jim goes off to Vermont and tries to be a farmer. He's a flop. He does come up with an idea to open a sort of combination inn and night club that only has shows on holidays. But then Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds), a pretty girl from a flower shop, arrives at his inn to try to be a star, the two fall in love, and if it weren't for Jim constantly acting like an idiot, their lives singing holiday songs at the inn would be complete.

But he does act like an idiot. (See: Blackface as well as some other nefarious schemes.) Lila also dumps Ted, he comes looking for a new partner and tries to woo Linda, there's something about a Hollywood version of the inn, and everything turns out okay.

I'm not thrilled with the idea that Jim gets the girl or that Ted (my beloved Fred) gets stuck with the odious Lila again, but... That's Hollywood. It's all just an excuse to air some lovely Irving Berlin tunes, to introduce "White Christmas," the song, to the world, and to let Fred loose with his dancing shoes. That's what "Holiday Inn" is selling, and I will buy it every time.

"Holiday Inn" plays at 7 pm tonight at the Normal Theater. If you are snowbound and unable to attend, you'll find it popping up on the small screen, too. It's not as much fun, but as I often say, any Fred is better than no Fred.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

"Major Barbara": The Shaw Must Go On

"Major Barbara," the somewhat comic, very talky play by George Bernard Shaw, is all about money, morality and munitions, subjects that never go out of style.

To frame those issues, Shaw sets up Major Barbara, a Salvation Army leader, against her estranged father, Andrew Undershaft, a wealthy arms manufacturer. Barbara's mission may be forced to close if they don't get a quick infusion of cash. Barbara's father is happy to offer that cash. But is it morally acceptable for a true believer to take money from someone who made that money off death and destruction? Which is more virtuous, giving food to homeless people in the hopes of converting them to your religion, or giving them jobs when those jobs involve making guns and ammo?

Underlining the timeliness of the play's moral conundrum, director Sandra Zielinski gives "Major Barbara" a current setting in her production for ISU's Westhoff Theatre, including updating Shaw's sturdy prose to add references to NATO and Glock pistols and making Barbara's dad a billionaire instead of a mere millionaire. Eric Moslow's scenic design moves from a traditional upper-crust drawing room that could suit 1910 or 2010 to a streamlined factory piled with boxes. The costumes, designed by kClare Kemock, also mix vintage and new, and the snappy pieces on young socialite Sarah wouldn't look out of place on "Project Runway."

Still, Shaw's voice isn't a 21st Century voice. His arguments don't really seem modern even with oil substituted for gunpowder as the currency of the day, and the long, didactic speeches he gave Andrew Undershaft to enlighten us all on the righteousness of capitalism and war are not very compelling.

Nonetheless, Zielinksi's cast adds energy and spark to the text, and the scenes at Barbara's mission especially stand out, with good work from Tommy Malouf, Brynne Barnard, Jonathan Oleksinki and Frank Huber as members of the underclass caught up in the struggle between Barbara and her dad.

On the other side of the class divide, Tori Allen, Eliza Morris and Brody Murray are properly posh and silly as Barbara's mom, sister and brother, while Kate McDermott is lovely and strong as the idealistic Major herself. The role of Barbara's fiance, a professor of Greek named Adolphus, is tricky, since his motives and arguments are somewhat confusing, but Mitch Conti does a nice job negotiating the gray areas. I still don't exactly understand Adolphus or why he decides what he decides, but Conti made the journey fun, anyway.

Mike Gamache has the right plummy voice to make Andrew Undershaft, the antagonist of both Barbara and Adolphus, sound convincing, but Gamache also has a very youthful presence that works against his credibility as a powerful, self-satisfied patriarch. That's always the danger of college productions, with 20-somethings stepping into roles better suited to 60-somethings, and in this case, Gamache is also fighting all those words Shaw piled on top of each other for his alter ego. It's hard to make that kind of bloviation work even if you're Robert Morley, Charles Laughton, David Warner or Simon Russell Beale, who've all played the elder Mr. Undershaft.

In the end, this is a polished, handsome production of "Major Barbara," making the most of Westhoff Theatre's intimate space.

Major Barbara
By George Bernard Shaw

ISU Westhoff Theatre

Director: Sandra Zielinski
Scenic Designer: Eric Moslow
Costume Designer: kClare Kemock
Lighting Designer: JM Montecalvo
Sound Designer: Adam Fox
Media Designer: Matt Harter
Hair and Makeup Designer: Lisa Hemple and Judith Rivera Ramirez
Voice and Dialect Director: Connie deVeer
Dramaturg: Jesse Cannady, Tyler Wilson
Fight Director: Paul Dennhardt
Stage Manager: Michael McLinden

Cast includes: Kate McDermott, Mike Gamache, Mitch Conti, Tori Allen, Brody Murray, Eliza Morris, Zack Powell, Tommy Malouf, Brynne Barnard, Jonathan Oleksinski, Frank Huber, Jessie Swiech, Caitlin Boho, Joey Fitzpatrick.

Running time: 2:50, including one 15-minute intermission

Remaining performances: December 9, 10, 11 at 7:30 pm; December 11 at 2 pm

Ticket information

Monday, December 6, 2010

Talking with Dave Krostal: "Tuna Christmas" and Other Fun Stuff

I did this interview for the Peoria Journal Star's THINK THEATER blog, where I post about once a week on behalf of Heartland Theatre Company. I enjoyed the piece so much that I thought I would run it here, too, on my own blog, as a lead-up to "A Tuna Christmas," opening on Thursday.

Dave Krostal is half of the cast of Heartland Theatre’s upcoming production of "A Tuna Christmas," opening December 9th, and running through the 19th. This is Krostal’s second take on "Tuna Christmas"; he and co-star Don Shandow did the play before and are bringing it back to Heartland as a special benefit show. (That's Dave up there on the right, with Don Shandow on the left, in the previous production they did together.) I had a chance to ask Dave some questions about himself, his playwriting career and, of course, "A Tuna Christmas."

Tell us a little about your interaction with Heartland Theatre.

Tuna is my 25th show at Heartland starting with "Death of a Salesman" in 1991 (directed by Don Shandrow incidentally) and my 63rd play total. I have directed 3 times at Heartland. "Elephant Man," "Compleat Works of William Shakespeare Abridged" (with Dave Flanders) and two of the three acts of "Stages" by John Kirk.

You’ve also written for Heartland. I know about "If Only," the winning 10-minute play.

I have only submitted one play to the playwriting contest but plan on doing another one to submit for this summer’s 10-Minute plays. I have only been writing plays for about 3 years. A group of us get together about four times a year and submit and act out the plays we write. The group is called Write Club and it is a group of actors, writers and just fun people who enjoy the the writing and acting process.

Where did you get the idea for "If Only"?

It was getting close to the holidays and I was spending time with family. Wondered what it would be like not to know who my dad was. That was the impetus. I then just rolled ideas around in my head to see how that might fit into the theme. It was my first submission. I have an idea for this year’s theme. They always sound much better in my head then they do when I write them. It is a real process. I always feel like they are never done. That I can always improve the dialogue. It is both exhilarating (when it all comes easy) and frustrating (when I stare at the computer waiting for something to happen).

What it was like to see your work realized on stage?

It is VERY exciting to see your work come alive on stage. I just remember being engrossed with watching the show. It is really like nothing else I have experienced on or off stage. It was like teaching my daughters how to ride their bikes and seeing them finally get it.

What do you think is the value to a playwright of entering this kind of competition?

The great thing about the 10-Minute Play Contest is that allows one to get feedback on their work. To see how it plays differently than how I may have imagined it while writing it. I had two wonderful actors (Todd Wineburner and Gregory Hicks) and an insightful director (Holly Rocke) producing the play. I could not have been more pleased with how it was done.

Okay, now about you! Is your academic background in theater?

Started taking acting classes at St. Nicholas Theater Company in Chicago after high school. I was there for a year and half then began at ISU in Jan. 1980 as an acting/director major. I changed to Theatre Ed. my second semester sophomore year mostly due to the fact I was not getting cast in main stage shows there. (Note: Dave jokingly asked me if he sounded bitter. I don’t think so!)

You teach at Washington High School, is that right? What do you teach?

I taught English for about 14 years. I have been teaching Psychology (I have a Masters in Counseling from ISU) for the past 9 years. I taught Theater and English in Texas for 4 years in a town similar to Tuna. I also did an exchange in Calgary Canada for a year where I taught theater.

How does that inform your acting or play writing?

Through teaching I have been able to do a lot of traveling around the world which gives me a great base for ideas. Being a teacher is also a lot like being on stage. You are in a sense performing. Always trying to get students to understand what you are teaching and fighting hard to keep their attention. :-)

You will be appearing very soon in "A Tuna Christmas" at Heartland Theatre. You’ve done this play before, right?


Was Don Shandrow the other half of the cast then, too?


What do you like about the Tuna world and the whole parade of characters you play?

Honestly, we have a LOT of fun rehearsing the show. So much of it is “over the top” and I could not ask to work with a better co-star. Don is a BLAST to work with. The show really allows you to kick back, have some fun, be goofy, and, hopefully make a whole lot of people laugh. It is one of the more technically challenging shows I have done. 11 characters, 25 costume changes. I leave mentally and physically wiped out every night. It’s a great work out!

Do you have a favorite Tuna personage?

Ummmm….not really. All the characters have their own little gems.

Does it feel the same to play these characters opposite Don again?

It has certainly been a bit easier. The lines came back easier than I thought. We both have discovered, though that the play is mostly about…. hair. This changed our whole approach to the show. :-)

Anything else you want to tell us?

As Mike Dobbins (Heartland Theatre Company Managing Artistic Director) always says, "If you enjoy the show half as much as we enjoyed bringing it to you, tell two friends." Enjoy!!!!!

"A Tuna Christmas" opens this week. Remember, it’s a special benefit and not part of Heartland’s regular season, so flex passes will not be accepted. All tickets are $12, although that flex pass will get you $2 off the regular price if you have one. For reservations or more information, visit the Heartland website here.

Friday, December 3, 2010

December Addenda

It's getting to be a habit that I leave things out of my monthly previews, either because they were on the wrong list or I didn't know about them on the first of the month. But that doesn't mean they're any less worthy of your time or attention!

Here are this month's quick additions...

On this busy weekend, you have a lot of choices for entertainment. You also have a choice for shopping when Sheila Allen and Gayla Betts, a local artist and jewelry maven, offer their 5th Annual Holiday Open House. They're featuring art, jewelry, ornaments, and cards at 903 Broadway in Normal this Saturday the 4th from 10 am to 5 pm and Sunday the 5th from noon to 4. Gayla promises, "We'll have lots of unique gifts and plenty of holiday cheer!"

For more information about their art and jewelry items, you may visit Sheila's site or Gayla's site.

The McLean County Museum of History is also gearing up for a holiday celebration with Christmas at the Courthouse this Saturday from 11 am to 4 pm. This year’s theme is "Christmas through the Years," and they're planning a visit from Saint Nick, craft-making opportunities for kids, and musical performances from the Bloomington High School Quartet, Loving Missionary Singers, State Farm Singers and a barbershop quartet. Mike Lockett, the Normal Storyteller, and Mike Matejka and his magical model trains will also return. Plus they're promising homemade holiday refreshments.

All exhibits will be open for visitors to explore, along with the the Museum’s gift shop. In the spirit of giving, the Museum also will be collecting canned goods for Clare House. You are invited to "Bring your canned food items and enjoy a great McLean County holiday tradition this Saturday at the Museum of History located in the old courthouse on the square in historic downtown Bloomington. This event is held with support provided by State Farm Insurance Companies and is free and open to the public.

My next one -- and I can't believe I left this out the first time -- is the Pantagraph Holiday Spectacular, written by Nancy Steele Brokaw and directed by Lori Adams, scheduled for December 10 and 11 at 7:30 and December 12 at 2. "Come see a cast of 150 as they act, sing, dance and tell a holiday story about the magic of giving," they invite. "Be astonished by the precision of the Wooden Soldiers and the tapping Raggedy Ann dolls. See the Nativity story in a fresh new way. Enjoy the Christmas musical standards and some new songs, too, presented by our soloists and ensemble groups. Santa, Frosty and many, many more – they’ll all be on stage in the 2010 Holiday Spectacular."

You can purchase tickets for the Holiday Spectacular at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts box office or click here to buy tickets online.

Do you know the play "Proof" by David Auburn? Buckets of Tonys, a Pulitzer, all that good stuff? It was on Broadway with Mary Louise Parker and on screen with Gwyneth Paltrow as the depressed daughter of a deceased mathematical genius. He was brilliant but also mad, and she's afraid if she inherited his math prowess, the madness will come along with it. Heartland Theatre will be producing "Proof" in February, but auditions are coming up very soon. Director Cyndee Brown is looking for four actors: a woman in her mid-to-late 20s to play Catherine, the Mary Louise/Gwyneth role; a woman in her later 20s or early 30s to play Catherine's more together sister; a man in his late 50s or early 60s to play the genius dad; and a man in his late 20s to play a former grad student of the father's who develops an interest in both Catherine and the existence of a possible last proof from the dad.

Auditions for "Proof" will be held at Heartland Theatre on Monday and Tuesday, December 13 and 14, at Heartland Theatre. Performances are scheduled for February 17th through March 6th. If you have questions, you are invited to email or visit the website for more information.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Don't Be a Scrooge! Head over to "A Seedling Christmas"!

You may've noticed information about Seedling Theatre and its Christmas show (opening tonight!) in yesterday's December preview. I got a chance to ask Donna Anhalt, Seedling's Artistic Director, more about the program and about herself.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. What other theater things in town have you been involved with? Any favorites come to mind?

My name is Donna Oles Anhalt, born and raised on the south side of Chicago and married for 28 years to a wonderful fellow south sider who is a pilot for US Airways. My great kids are: Matthew, who works at CIRA, Elizabeth, who is teaching for Disney English in Shanghai, Catherine, a full-time art student at ISU, and Joseph, a full-time advertising/Public Relations major at DePaul University. I have loved theatre since I was very young and seriously was going to be "a movie star" someday, but that all fell apart when I began doing volunteer work with special needs kids in high school. Since then I have worked at Misericordia, Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind, and my husband and I were also house parents for special needs young adults in Champaign and Bloomington.

I have been involved in just about every theatre in town, including ISU when I was a theatre student there in the mid 90's, in some way, shape or form - acting, directing, running sound boards, fundraising - you name it, I may have done it. I guess you might call me a "Jack of all trades, master of none" in theatre. Besides what I do now with Seedling and Penguin Project, I'd say my favorite role was playing Charlotte in" Charlotte's Web" about 18 years ago at Players. What fun that was! "Steel Magnolias" is pretty much up there, too.

Now how about some details about Seedling Theatre? How did it get started? What is it all about?

Seedling Theatre is a member unit of Illinois Theatre Consortium which has brought the Discover Walk to Bloomington/Normal for the past 16 years. I am also involved with that as assistant to the director, Judy Brown and I explain my job as - "I just do whatever Judy tells me to" and I love it! I became involved with Seedling about 3 years ago when the Consortium offered me the position of Artistic Director of Seedling Theatre. My dream has for some time been to have a children's theatre in town so when the opportunity arose to take on Seedling it was a no brainer. Also, because of my work with the Penguin Project (I directed their first production in town "Annie, Jr.") I decided that the special needs population would become a big part of Seedling, thus, "special theatre for the young at heart" was added to the Seedling Theatre name. My theatre combines special needs children and young adults with their able-bodied peers to enjoy the fun and challenge of theatre. The combination of the two has been extremely successful and such a growing experience for all participants.

What have you worked on with Seedling so far?

Last Christmas was our first Seedling production of an original play adapted from the book "The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey" and "Little Women - A Christmas Version." Fourteen children were involved, nine of whom were special needs. Many of those kids have come back for our show this year, too. Seedling also had a summer camp this past July. Fifteen children attended and all but one were special needs. We had such a successful and fun week it will be extended to a two week camp in summer 2011. We also had a Saturday morning workshop in late October. We focused on theatre basics and again had a great time. Twelve participants attended, nine were special needs.

Tell us about "Scrooge" and "A Special Seedling Christmas." What will we see if we come out to the show?

"Scrooge" and "A Special Seedling Christmas" – which is our first original play written by ISU English professor, Dr. Claire Lamonica – will be opening on Thursday, December 2nd at 7 pm and continues on Saturday, December 4th at 7 pm and Sunday, December 5th at 3 pm, at the First Christian Church in downtown Bloomington. (The address is 404 West Jefferson, but you should enter on Monroe Street.) Tickets can be purchased at the door for $10 for adults and $5 for college age and under. Please come, you will be amazed!!

What's up next?

An additon to Seedling just recently is piano and voice lessons taught by Juliet Wright. Juliet and I have been friends and "partners in crime" in theatre for many years in the community. She was a part of the summer camp, the October workshop and is also directing "A Special Seedling Christmas."

Anything else you want to tell us?

I think I've "said" enough now except to thank you for another opportunity to spread the word about Seedling Theatre...special theatre for the young at heart and the wonderful kids who participate in fun and excitement of theatre!

Thanks, Donna!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Heading for a Holly, Jolly December

Almost all the December events I find most interesting are happening now, in the early part of the month. So put on your skates and get ready to race!

Right now, the Art Theater in Champaign is showing a very intriguing movie called "Catfish." It purports to be a documentary, it involves the weirdness of internet communication and connections, and it's caused a lot of controversy over truth, fairness and art. I'm not going to tell you any more about the plot, because the surprise factor is a big part of the appeal. "Catfish" plays at the Art Theater tonight and tomorrow night at 7:30 pm.

Also at the Art this month -- that thing where James Franco saws off his arm, from December 3-13, and the third movie in the Swedish "Girl Who" trilogy, opening December 17th.

Our own Normal Theater takes a different tack to open the month, with the schmaltz-tastic "White Christmas" playing December 2-5. Der Bingle! Danny Kaye! Rosemary Clooney! Vera Ellen! A nifty Irving Berlin score packed with goodies! And if you really like hearing Bing Crosby sing the title song, you'll have another chance this month when "Holiday Inn," the Fred Astaire/Bing Crosby classic, hits the Normal Theater on December 11th and 12th. "Holiday Inn" is followed by the 1935 version of "A Christmas Carol" with Reginald Owen on the 16th and 17th, "It's a Wonderful Life" from the 18th to the 26th, and the smart, sophisticated "Thin Man" on the 30th and 31st for New Year's Eve.

Seedling Theatre, one of the theaters under the Illinois Theatre Consortium umbrella, offers "Scrooge" and "A Special Seedling Christmas" on December 2nd, 4th, and 5th at 7pm, with a 3 o'clock matinee on the 5th. Donna Anhalt, Seedling's Artistic Director, invites you to come out to the First Christian Church at 401 West Jefferson(the entrance is on Monroe Street) in Bloomington to support these specially abled young actors and actresses. Donna says, "Please invite your friends! These kids have worked very hard and deserve an awesome audience!" Tickets are available at the door. If you'd like more information, you may visit this page, or email Donna at

ISU is also celebrating the holiday season, with three performances of Music for the Holidays (Dec. 3-5) as well as the annual Dance Theatre Fall Concert (Dec. 9-11) featuring Martha Graham's "Diversion of Angels" at the Center for the Performing Arts. You might also be interested in the 55th Anniversary Madrigal Dinner December 8-11 in the Alumni Center or the School of Theatre's "Major Barbara" December 8-11 at Westhoff Theatre.

"Major Barbara" is a George Bernard Shaw play involving one Major Barbara Undershaft, a woman with strong religious and charitable convictions who faces a moral dilemma over whether her organization should accept donations from a munitions manufacturer who just happens to be her father. Love, family, money, right and wrong... It's all there in Shaw's lively stewpot. The ISU ticket office is available at the Center for the Performing Arts, by phone at 309-438-2535 or here online.

I'm also looking forward to the reprise of "A Tuna Christmas" at Heartland Theatre, where Dave Krostal and Don Shandrow will once again portray all the oddball denizens of Tuna, Texas, the third smallest town in that great state. Everybody in Tuna is focused on the annual yard decorating contest and a mysterious phantom who seems to be destroying the leading contenders' displays, plus the local production of "A Christmas Carol" is getting undue attention from the Smut Snatchers, who think the play is obscene. Oh, and juvenile delinquent Stanley Bumiller is worried about having to go back to reform school, while his mother Bertha is attracting the attention of a new suitor. (It's all about the way the tube light bounces off her bouffant.) Phil Shaw directs, with performances scheduled from December 9 to the 19th. This is a special benefit show, not part of Heartland's regular season, which means flex passes are not accepted. But flex pass holders do get a $2 discount off the regular $12 tickets.

I will close with a Tuna quote from Didi Snavely, a twisted lady who sells used guns and ammo with the store motto "If we can't kill it, it's immortal." As she says: "Heaven forbid during this joyous season that you should be the victim of a holiday robbery. But wouldn't you rather shoot somebody than watch 'em run off with your new toaster oven? I know I would. Didi's Used Weapons has weapons for the car, the home, and the workplace. At Didi's Used Weapons you'll have a Holly Jolly Christmas, and the criminal will have a Silent Night!"

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Curiosity of 10-Minute Plays at the Phoenix Theatre

I love 10-minute plays. They're short, of course, but the good ones give us interesting characters, make a point and tell a whole story in that brief ten minutes.

For what I think is the first time, Illinois Wesleyan's two directing classes, under the tutelage of professors Scott Susong and Nancy Loitz, are presenting a slew of 10-minute plays. I counted 19 plays in all, directed by students in Susong's and Loitz's Fundamentals of Directing classes. They've split up the plays over three nights, with the first session, consisting of six plays, last night. These student-directed and student-acted pieces will continue on Thursday and Friday nights back in the cozy confines of the Phoenix Theatre, tucked underneath the Memorial Center on the IWU campus.

Last night, I think we saw the following performances:

Black Paintings (#1) by Neil Olson
Krystal Martinez, director
Male: Aaron O’Neill
Female: Kate Fitzgerald

Blue Skies by Marvin L. Cotlar
Allison Sutton, director
The Painter: Alyssa Julien
The Man: Joseph Chu

What I Learned From Grizzly Bears by Jessica Lind
Laura Martino, director
Bernadette: Rae Brattin
Husband: Jacob Krech

Blue in the Face by Kayla Cagan
Brooke Trantor, director
Andrew: Marek Zurowski
Marion: Bri Sarkcioglu

She’s Fabulous by Jack Neary
Antonio Gracias, director
Clarisse: Chantericka Tucker
Bethyl: Elaina Henderson

Black Paintings (#2) by Neil Olson
Mary Holm, director
Male: Patrick Burke
Female: Morgan Latiolais

Because I love 10-minute plays and work with them extensively every year (I chair a committee that runs an annual 10-minute play competition and festival at Heartland Theatre), I find it fascinating to see which ones stand out for other people, which ones work and why they work, and just how much the direction and performances can make of these slender scripts.

All of the plays directed by Wesleyan's directing students come from one volume, D. L. Lepidus's "The Best Ten-Minute Plays for Two Actors." It's curious we saw two versions of "Black Paintings" in the same night, but it's a dandy little play and I can understand why students would be attracted to the material, about an artist who wants back some black paintings he left with his former mentor. His ex, the daughter of that mentor, isn't willing to give them back, and that creates some snappy dialogue and a whole lot of conflict.

The other script I liked was "She's Fabulous" by Jack Neary, where two actresses sit in the audience at "Death of a Salesman," sniping at the rival who snared the role of Linda that they both coveted. It's an in-joke for actors, but well-written and a lot of fun.

It's a great idea for IWU to offer this kind of showcase for its students and give them the opportunity to see how their directing efforts pay off on stage. I'd love to see them expand it, add a playwriting class, and have the directors and actors work on plays created (and workshopped) by classmates. They can try plays for Heartland's 10-Minute Play Fest while they're at it.

For more information about the Fall 2010 Fundamentals of Directing Ten-Minute Play Festival, try their Facebook page. I'm guessing they'll be starting at 8 pm on Thursday and Friday as well, but you should get there early if you want a seat. Every seat was filled at last night's performance.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Celebrating Sondheim

This year has been one big Stephen Sondheim fest, celebrating the composer-lyricist's 80th birthday back in March. After all the concerts and shows and general festivities that have happened this year, Sondheim fans can keep the party going by catching up with:

Sondheim's new book, FINISHING THE HAT. The subtitle says it all: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. It's insightful, candid, maybe a little catty (but only about people who are already dead) and altogether a fascinating look at how he does what he does.

I particularly enjoyed his discussion about (and rules for) rhyming, and that's only the introduction!

EVENING PRIMROSE, just released on DVD. It's a curious little piece of Sondheimiana, an hour-long TV musical that aired once, on a show called ABC Stage 67, in November, 1966. The plot is reminiscent of a "Twilight Zone" episode, with an antisocial poet, played by Anthony Perkins, who decides to hide out inside a department store to get away from the troublesome world outside. He finds there is already a secret society living there, deep in the bowels of the department store, bound by their own rules and rituals. They are willing to admit him into their odd little colony. But they are very clear; once he's joined, he can never leave.

The teleplay for EVENING PRIMROSE was written by James Goldman, probably best known as the playwright of "A Lion in Winter." Goldman also wrote the libretto for my favorite Sondheim musical, "Folllies." Sondheim's contribution to EVENING PRIMROSE amounts to four lovely songs, including "I Remember" and "Take Me to the World," which have been sung by countless artists in cabarets and concerts, with recorded versions of the former by Barbra Streisand and the latter by Dawn Upshaw.

I can't say this is the most satisfying hour of theater I've ever seen, but it's worthwhile just as a curiosity. The story is compelling, if strange, and it's cool to see Anthony Perkins as a singer, paired with Charmian Carr, who was Liesl in "The Sound of Music."

SONDHEIM, THE BIRTHDAY CONCERT, showing up on PBS's Great Performances tonight in most areas. Peoria's WTVP and Urbana's WILL are scheduled to show the concert at 8 pm tonight.

This Birthday Concert took place last March at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, with David Hyde Pierce acting as host. The New York Philharmonic, conducted by longtime Sondheim musical director Paul Gemignani, plays about two dozen Sondheim pieces, with performances by everybody from Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin to Victoria Clark, Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien, Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone, George Hearn, and dancers from the American Ballet Theatre.

The program was released on DVD and Blu-Ray November 16th, and I've already perused my copy. Some of the performances are fabulous (Laura Benanti, Donna Murphy, Audra McDonald and Nathan Gunn are particularly moving) and some aren't all that exciting. (Why in the world would they close the solos with Elaine Stritch, the worst singer and most self-indulgent performer of the bunch?) But it's the end, a soaring group number on "Sunday" from "Sunday in the Park with George," that really made an impression. Yes, I will be rewatching it when it's broadcast tonight, even though I've already played and replayed the DVD. Somehow, the communal experience is always better.

Happy 80th birthday, Mr. Sondheim! Thanks for letting all of us celebrate it with you.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sunday at the Library with Poetry

Most of us think of poetry as reading material or perhaps food for thought more than performance art, but the program last Sunday at the Normal Public Library, featuring three local poets reading from their own work, clearly succeeded as all three.

Tim Hunt, Kathryn Kerr and Kathleen Kirk displayed different voices through their poems, with subject matter and points-of-view varying among them, although they shared a certain warmth and humor that was very appealing. (They've also all had cover art from photographer Ken Kashian, who happened to be in the room, which was a nice bonus. That's Kasian's work above, on Kathleen Kirk's LIVING ON THE EARTH.)

At this Normal occasion , I found myself laughing along with some poems, nodding in recognition at others, and in general, quite enjoying these diverging views on where poetry lives now, right among us, whether we know it or not.

Hunt is a professor of English at ISU, while Kerr teaches writing there. Kirk is well-known in this area as an actress and writer, and her performance training stands her in good stead, whether highlighting the fragility of a spider web or the piquant joy of an avocado refrigerator. And because poetry is an intensely personal medium, Hunt and Kerr do very well fitting their delivery style to their words, as well.

Hunt (who has a website that tells you a lot more than I can about his distinctive voice) used a kind of dark, whip-smart, folksy wisdom to tell us about Jimi Hendrix, truck stops in Kansas and the value of REDNECK YOGA, which just happens to be the title of his new chapbook from Finishing Line Press. As David Amram says on that website, "Tim Hunt paints us a portrait of our surroundings and makes you want to celebrate life and write a poem yourself."

Using her Finishing Line chapbook, TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN, as her guide, Kerr made it clear that the turtle at the center of those poems is her alter ego, whether that turtle is having lunch at a fancy tea room or riding down the highway in her red shell of a car, blasting music and singing out loud about the joys of romance with younger men. Kerr's self-deprecating humor and everywoman demeanor brought her turtle to life nicely.

I've seen Kathleen Kirk perform her poems before, and she is always in the moment, charming and fresh, with work that tells a lot about life in the Midwest, flowers, laundry baskets and the small moments that make life beautiful. Her poem, Cornfield in Winter, which appears in LIVING ON THE EARTH, the chapbook pictured at the top of this post, was especially poignant to me at this performance. We are heading toward a Central Illinois winter. I will soon be seeing the picture she paints. And it is beautiful.

Cornfield in Winter

I am in love with the evidence
of what has gone before us
and what we are now: long stretches of golden time
piercing the snow in pools of blue shadow.
I know how dangerous they are.
the cornstalks not yet plowed under,
but I am in love with them anyway.
They are beautiful.

I am in love with the big blank sky.
the blue gradations and the high small moon.
I love the moon for its integrity
without us.

I am in love with the whole picture:
the small and dubious actions
of men and women, farmers and astronauts,
photographers and poets;
the way the sky goes on and on, a clarity extended beyond our view;
beneath us, the earthworms and hidden ants
holding us all together;
the way the complexity of the list
requires not just commas but semi-colons
and a nearly full stop of moon.
I love it all: the balance.
the composition, the chaos, the grammar.
It is all beautiful.

Now don't you wish you'd been there to hear this out loud?

This poem is reprinted by permission of the author. You can buy (or pre-order) copies of LIVING ON THE EARTH, REDNECK YOGA and TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN at Finishing Line Press. Kathleen Kirk's books are also available at Babbitt's Books in Uptown Normal, and you can see how to purchase Hunt's books at his website. If you scroll down, you will see information on Kathryn Kerr's books here.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Beautiful Bouncing "Once Upon a Mattress" at IWU

“Once Upon a Mattress” is an unusual spin on the classic Broadway musical, what with its fairy tale setting and its heroine, the princess who sleeps on a pea, who isn’t exactly a demure ingĂ©nue (famously played by Carol Burnett off-Broadway, on Broadway and in the first TV movie.)

Although the show hit Broadway in 1959 with a somewhat wacky medieval look – long, sweeping gowns with pointy sleeves, twisty hats, boys in tights, that kind of thing – director Scott Susong chose to go a different way for his production at Illinois Wesleyan’s MacPherson Theatre. That means we get a beautiful, high-fashion 50s look, with dresses and hats you might expect to see on Suzy Parker in the pages of Vogue in 1955. Or on Betty Draper in the early season of “Mad Men.”

At first, all the gorgeous dresses, all the dishy suits and tuxedos, are in shades of black and white. It takes our plucky heroine, Princess Winnifred (called Fred for short), to disturb that palette. Fred pops up in a green-and-orange bathing suit with her bright red Lucy curls escaping from a swim cap, definitely breaking up the monotony at the castle.

Answering a call for possible brides for Prince Dauntless, Fred swims the moat outside his castle to make her case. Although no one in the kingdom can marry until Dauntless is safely hitched, his cranky mother, Queen Aggrivain, has been keeping matrimony out of reach, forcing potential brides to survive whatever impossible tests she dreams up. For Fred’s test, Queen Aggrivain decides to make her sleep on ten mattresses with one tiny pea tucked under the bottom one. If she sleeps through the night (and the queen tosses in lots of energetic dancing beforehand, a sleeping draught, incense and a serenade from a nightingale to make sure she does), Fred will flunk the “sensitivity” test a real princess would pass. But if that tiny pea keeps her awake, then Fred can marry Dauntless, everybody else in the kingdom can marry, too, and we may just get our Happily Ever After ending.

Along with Fred, Dauntless and his battle ax of a mother, there’s a silent king who keeps chasing the chambermaids, studly Sir Harry and his pregnant girlfriend, Lady Larken, a jester and a minstrel, and a puffed-up factotum who used to be a magician.

Susong does a very good job keeping the right 50s feel, aided by Nicholas Bursoni’s nifty costumes and Andrea Healy’s pretty castle courtyard set. The adorable black-and-white video piece that opens the story and the use of the original orchestrations from Hershey Kay and Arthur Beck also keep the proper mood going, as do the inclusion of all the specialty numbers, like the jester’s dance with the ghost of his father and even a little magic from Merton the Major Domo. It’s to Susong’s and his cast’s credit that all of that works, and works well.

Everybody in the company is up to the challenge, with especially good work from the bouncy, bright Erika Lecaj as Princess Fred; Andrew Temkin, who offers a sweet, charming presence as Dauntless; Melina Rey, not afraid to go big as the pushy queen; Josh Levinson adding panache as the miming king; Vince Gargaro, whose gorgeous voice makes the minstrel more than just a walk-on; dapper dancing Nicholas Reinhart as the jester; Blake Brauer, another fine dancer as the soft shoe ghost; and Caitlin Borek, who is quite beautiful as the Nightingale of Samarkand.

Lecaj’s “Shy” and “Happily Ever After” are highlights, as are Gargaro’s “Many Moons Ago” and the “Spanish Panic” dance stylings of Ian Coulter-Buford and Abigail Root.

With terrific performances and sharp production values, this “Once Upon a Mattress” shows once again that Illinois Wesleyan’s School of Theatre Arts knows exactly what to do when it comes to musicals.

Once Upon a Mattress
Music by Mary Rodgers, Lyrics by Marshall Barer and Book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer

Based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale "The Princess and the Pea"

IWU McPherson Theatre

Director: Scott Susong
Musical Director: Saundra DeAthos-Meers
Choreographer: Jessica Riss
Scenic Designer: Andrea Healy
Costume Designer: Nicholas Bursoni
Lighting Designer: Shawn Mallot
Sound Designer: Kirsten Andersen
Video Designer: Jeff Feasley
Orchestrations by Hershey Kay & Arthur Beck

Cast: Vince Gargaro, Chase Miller, Kristen Evensen, Laura Martino, Julie Tucker, Abigail Root, Laura Williams, Melina Rey, Josh Levinson, Andrew Temkin, Nicholas Reinhart, Blake Braurer, Zach Mahler, Peter J. Studlo, Erikia Lecaj, Ian Coulter-Buford, Isaac Sherman, Caitlin Borek, Angela Jos, Lizzie Rainville, Patsita Jiratipayabood, Amy Stockhaus, Annie Simpson, Roz Prickel.

Running time: 2:20, including one 15-minute intermission

Remaining performances: November 18-20 at 8 pm and November 20-21 at 2 pm.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Don't Forget: Finishing Line Poets Will Be Reading on Sunday

Three local poets who have published chapbooks with Finishing Line Press will read from their work at the Normal Public Library on Sunday afternoon, November 21, from 2-4 pm. The library is located at 206 W. College Avenue in Normal.

The event at the library includes a one-hour poetry reading, plus time afterwards to get a book signed or chat with the poets. This program is intended for adults. It is free and open to the public and refreshments will be served.

The three poets offering readings on Sunday are Tim Hunt, the author of Redneck Yoga, Kathryn Kerr, the author of Turtles All the Way Down, and Kathleen Kirk, the author of Living on the Earth.

A fourth generation native of Northern California, Tim Hunt was born in Calistoga and raised primarily in Sebastopol, two small towns north of San Francisco. Educated at Cornell University, he has taught American literature at several schools, including Washington State University and Deep Springs College. He is currently Professor of English at Illinois State University, in Normal, Illinois. He and his wife Susan, a respiratory therapist, have two children: John, a visual artist, and Jessica, a musician and composer. Hunt's publications include the collection Fault Lines (Backwaters Press), the chapbooks Lake County Diamond (Intertext) and White Levis (Pudding House Press), and numerous poems in magazines. His scholarly publications include Kerouac's Crooked Road: Development of a Fiction and the five-volume edition The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers.

Kathryn Kerr, daughter of a nurse and a sailor, was born during a thunderstorm in St. Louis, Missouri, soon after World War II. She grew up on a hill farm overlooking Cache River in southern Illinois. Ever a lover of nature and books, she has degrees in English, botany, and creative writing. She has worked as a field biologist, an editor, a photographer, and at many other jobs. She has raised two amazing daughters and keeps three cats and a turtle. Currently she teaches writing at Illinois State University.

Kathleen Kirk is the author of Broken Sonnets, also published by Finishing Line Press, and Selected Roles (Moon Journal Press, 2006), a chapbook of theater and persona poems. Her poems appear regularly in such print and online literary journals as After Hours, Common Review, Greensboro Review, Leveler, Poems & Plays, Quarter After Eight, and Spoon River Poetry Review. Kirk has taught English at DePaul University and Lincoln College. Formerly on the editorial staffs of Poetry East and RHINO Magazine, Kirk is currently the poetry editor of Escape Into Life, an online art and culture magazine. She is married to the artist Tony Rio, a local volleyball coach, and they have two children.

Hunt and Kerr teach at Illinois State University, and Kirk works at Babbitt’s Books in Normal and appears on the Heartland Theatre stage and in the annual Evergreen Cemetery walk sponsored by Illinois Voices and the McLean County Museum of History.

Because of the similarity of their names, Kathryn Kerr and Kathleen Kirk especially appreciate this chance to appear in public in the same place at the same time, proving that they are separate people! By coincidence, two out of three of these poets tend to appear in the same literary magazine at the same time. As Kirk says, "Poetry is fun, not scary, so come hear some!"

For more information, call the library at (309) 452-1757, or visit the library website and click on the Calendar.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Immorality Part Deux: "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" at ISU

It's interesting that ISU's School of Theatre scheduled Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" and Christopher Hampton's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" back to back, since both involve illicit affairs, sexual trickery and immorality. The difference is that Hampton (and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, who wrote the epistolary novel upon which Hampton's play is based) wrote about characters who really don't struggle with right and wrong. These French aristocrats gleefully wallow in wrong, splashing cruelty, deception and betrayal around like fine champagne.

In their world, sex isn't really about pleasure, but more about power and control, even degradation and humiliation if it suits their fancy. And it definitely suits the two main characters, the reprobate Vicomte de Valmont and his beautiful, evil pal, the Marquise de Merteuil, as they plot to seduce and ruin young innocents just because they can.

Director Jon Ferreira, an MFA candidate, puts the emphasis on facades and artifice in his production for ISU. The set, designed by Alex K, is all pretty pastels and rococo flourishes, almost like a dollhouse. Or maybe like the George Barbier illustrations that accompany the 1934 edition of the Choderlos de Laclos novel. The set is almost too pretty, just like the grand gowns from costume designer Lauren Lowell and the oversized wigs from hair designer Tina Godziszewski. It's as if all the people on stage are hiding behind a wall of opulence and glitter. Fake, fake and more fake.

The original British production of Hampton's play took a different tack, paring it down and using a lot of white and neutrals in the costumes and set pieces. That approach worked to make Valmont look more attractive to our modern eyes (big wigs don't do much for men unless they're going for an Elvis or Mozart look) and also to make the action feel more raw and dangerous, less arch. Ferreira's concept is clearly to hightlight the fakery, but still... It's a bit distancing.

As Valmont and Merteuil, Josh Innerst and Jessie Dean come off clever and seductive, playing somewhat younger, more headstrong versions of the characters than you may be used to if you've seen the movies with John Malkovich and Glenn Close or Colin Firth and Annette Bening in those roles. It doesn't hurt that Dean looks absolutely gorgeous in her pre-Revolution French finery.

Credit is also due to Innerst, Emily Nichelson (as young Cecile Volanges) and Hannah Brown (as a different playmate of Valmont's) for jumping head-first into the sexy stuff and making it work.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses
by Christopher Hampton
based on the book by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

ISU Center for the Performing Arts

Director: Jon Ferreira
Scenic Designer: Alex K
Costume Designer: Lauren Lowell
Hair and Makeup Designer: Tina Godziszewski
Lighting Designer: Cassie Mings
Sound Designer: Jason Tucholke

Cast: Hannah Brown, Jessie Dean, Josh Innerst, Alex Kostner, Jared Kugler, Colleen Longo, Uretta Lovell, Deirdre McNulty, Becky Miller, Emily Nichelson, Steve Ullstead, Chana-Lise Wilczynski, Antonio Zhiurinskas.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A True Confession, Wherein Your Intrepid Reporter Goes to See an American Idol in Chicago

Okay, I admit it. I watch "American Idol" from time to time. This fact always surprises people who know I'm a bit of a snob about movies and theater. No Matrix, no Porky's, no Andrew Lloyd Webber. And yet I like "American Idol."

Well, I don't like it like it. Its tactics and manipulations are often reprehensible. Simon Cowell and his snotty comments are not my cup of tea. I often dislike the pampered pets they try to sell me the hardest. And I never, ever go for the schmaltzy or bombastic voices they seem to think define the very essence of an American Idol. But I do find myself rooting for underdogs from time to time, especially the people the producers and judges seem to be ignoring, and I have even been motivated to vote when somebody takes my fancy. It's a sickness, I know. Or just a weakness.

A couple of seasons ago, I was quite taken with unassuming Kris Allen, the sweet kid from Arkansas who managed to make it past all the flashier contestants who'd been given all the screen time through the audition rounds. Allen didn't get what is commonly known as the "pimp" spot (singing last) as many times as the big faves, he wasn't a very good interview (not being incredibly perky or slick) and yet he seemed genuine and modest and charming. And I really liked how he sang. (Yes, I know. "American Idol" tries to make it about anything but how they sing. Still, sometimes, it's the singing that draws you in.)

After all the ups and downs and a whole lot of craziness, my fave actually ended up winning that season of "American Idol." And then he put out the de rigeur album, and I even liked it!

Allen and his band came to Chicagoland last summer, but I happened to be a thousand miles away at the time. So when I heard that he was returning in November as the opening act for Lifehouse, I jumped at the chance to buy tickets. This made no sense to my husband, so I asked my niece, Nicoletta, a charming singer and performer herself, if she wanted to go. She did. We set out for the Chicago Theater on time, meaning we got settled in our lovely seats (my jumping act meant I nabbed very good seats) and caught the opening act, a young woman named Alyssa Bernal who is billed as a "Youtube sensation." I don't know what that means, but she was very cute and could actually sing, and when it comes to young singers, that's always a plus. The downside was that the sound wasn't mixed properly, muddying things a bit, and it seemed strange that a singer/songwriter with a knack for pretty melodies and earnest lyrics had a dramatic mohawked punk guy playing bass and drawing focus behind her. I liked her stuff, though, especially a duet with her keyboard player and her single "Cali Cali Cali," a breezy little song about (as you might expect) California.

But the main event for me was Kris Allen, and I was happy to see not only that he performed like a champ, but that he was very well-received by an audience mostly there for Lifehouse. His singles "Live Like We're Dying" and "Alright With Me" got a lot of enthusiastic singalong happening, and my personal favorite, a breakup song called "Is It Over," was absolutely epic, with a sensational solo from lead guitarist Andrew DeRoberts.

Allen's set was just under an hour, and I knew I would be leaving shortly afterwards since I wasn't all that interested in Lifehouse, anyway, but I absolutely felt I got my money's worth. Kris Allen and his band were polished and energetic, as well as a whole lot of fun, and they communicated a real joy of performance that was also a joy to watch. By the time Allen closed with the Beatles' "Come Together," spilling into the audience to high-five and generally commune with the hoi polloi, I was ready to deem my concert-going experience a rousing success.

I'd like to see the Kris Allen Band as a solo act the next time, and I'd like them to come a little closer than Chicago. Surely somewhere in Bloomington-Normal or Champaign-Urbana has a venue that fits this feisty little band. Fingers crossed!