Monday, March 29, 2010

Steinberg New Play Award: Congratulations, Bill Cain and "Equivocation"!

I just got back from the Humana Festival of New American Plays and I am buzzing with things to write about. Unfortunately, I am also buzzing with deadlines and projects I put off till after Humana. So that means I will get to reviews of the Humana shows ASAP, but for today, I am going to share the press release from the ATCA about the Steinberg prize:


The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) has named Bill Cain’s “Equivocation” winner of the 2010 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, which recognizes the best scripts which premiered professionally in 2009 across the U.S., but outside New York City. No play is eligible if it goes on in the same year (2009) to a production in New York.

The Steinberg/ATCA and two additional citations were presented March 27 at Actors Theatre of Louisville during the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Cain received a commemorative plaque and a cash prize of $25,000. The two citations, including plaques and $7,500 each, went to “Time Stands Still,” by Donald Margulies, and “Legacy of Light,” by Karen Zacarías.

“The long-standing partnership between the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust and the American Theatre Critics Association has recognized some of today's greatest writers, and helped identify the great playwrights of tomorrow,” said trustee Jim Steinberg. “We're delighted to help support the unique telling of tales on the American stage.”

Cain’s “Equivocation” is a highly-theatrical fantasy that mixes wry comedy and shattering drama. King James’ ruthless prime minister commissions Shakespeare’s company to write and perform the official (and highly suspect) government account of Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot. Shakespeare becomes increasingly skeptical, forced to weigh the relationship of art to government and artists’ personal responsibility to truth. It premiered April 18, 2009, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, later played at Seattle Repertory Theatre and is just completing a 2010 New York run at the Manhattan Theater Club.

Critic Misha Berson of The Seattle Times called it, “compelling fiction in its rich marbling of literary lore and a timely, astute portrayal of religious bigotry, political exploitation of terrorism and other burning matters. An erudite historical drama demanding three hours of your time, and many of your brain cells, is a rare property in the American theater. And in this case, a welcome one.”

Zacarias’ “Legacy of Light” was described by one critic as “an intellectual joyride” examining two women, an 18th century scientist and a 21st century astrophysicist, balancing their yearning for professional fulfillment and the complications of impending motherhood. The work premiered May 8, 2009, at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

“Time Stands Still” portrays married journalists trying to recover from the emotionally and physical damage wreaked during their coverage of the war-torn Middle East. They must weigh their socially important role against the seemingly irreconcilable quest for a normal life back home. It premiered at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles on Feb. 11, 2009, and is also just completing a run in N.Y.

The winners were selected from plays nominated by ATCA members and evaluated by a committee of 13 theater critics, led by chairman Wm. F. Hirschman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Other committee members were Misha Berson, Seattle Times; Bruce Burgun, Bloomington Herald Times and Back Stage; Michael Elkin, Jewish Exponent (Pa.); Jay Handelman, Sarasota Herald-Tribune; Pam Harbaugh, Florida Today (Melbourne, FL); Leonard Jacobs, New York Press, Back Stage, and Editor, The Clyde Fitch Report; Elizabeth Keill, Independent Press (Morristown, N.J.); Elizabeth Maupin, Orlando Sentinel; Wendy Parker, The Village Mill (Midlothian, Va.); Michael Sander, Back Stage (Minn.); Herb Simpson, (Rochester, N.Y.) and Tim Treanor, DC Theater Scene (Washington, D.C.)

"Once again, America’s regional theaters from Sarasota to Seattle proved themselves as important a source for vibrant and important new work as the five boroughs of New York City,” said Hirschman. “The nominated plays reflected an encouraging range of well-known names and newcomers, young voices and mature talents, the mainstream drama and the surreal. Themes of integrity and responsibility suggest that issues facing humanity one, two, even three centuries ago, still echo for the 21st Century with a deafening resonance.”

The New Play Awards began in 1977, when ATCA started to cite each year one new play produced outside New York City. In 2000, the award was renamed to recognize the Steinberg Foundation’s generous annual gift, which was raised to $40,000 in 2006. Honorees have included Lanford Wilson, Marsha Norman, August Wilson, Jane Martin, Arthur Miller, Mac Wellman, Adrienne Kennedy, Lynn Nottage, Horton Foote, Moises Kaufman and Craig Lucas. Last year’s honoree was E. M. Lewis for “Song of Extinction.” Each year’s winning plays are chronicled in The Best Plays Theater Yearbook, edited by Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, alongside the 10 best plays produced that year in New York City. For a complete list of the 83 plays cited from 1977 through 2009, go to, under Awards.

The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust was created in 1986 by Harold Steinberg on behalf of himself and his late wife. Pursuing its primary mission to support the American theater, it has provided grants totaling many millions of dollars to support new productions of American plays and educational programs for those who may not ordinarily experience live theater.

ATCA was founded in 1974 and works to raise critical standards and public awareness of critics’ functions and responsibilities. The only national association of professional theater critics who work for print, broadcast and online media, ATCA is a national section of the International Association of Theatre Critics, a UNESCO-affiliated organization. For more information on ATCA, visit

ATCA also presents the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award, honoring emerging playwrights, and the Francesca Primus Prize, funded by the Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation and honoring female artists who have not yet achieved national prominence. Annually it makes a recommendation for the Regional Theater Tony Award presented by the American Theatre Wing/Broadway League and votes on inductions into the Theater Hall of Fame.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Look for "Fertile Ground" Coming Up from Prairie Fire

"Fertile Ground," a brand-new opera commissioned by Bloomington-Normal's Prairie Fire Theatre, premieres this Sunday at IWU's Presser Hall. "Fertile Ground" was commissioned in 2006, and Nancy Brokaw, who wrote the libretto, and David Vayo, who composed the music, have been workshopping and fine-tuning the piece since then.

When I last saw it, "Fertile Ground" involved a farm family attempting to stay true to their roots and survive in a difficult world, with heartwarming characters and charming touches of humor throughout.

Performances are scheduled for March 28 and 30, and April 1 and 2. FMI:

Playwright Jason Wells Awarded 2010 Osborn Award

The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) has announced that playwright Jason Wells is the winner of the 2010 M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award for emerging playwrights. ATCA will give Wells his award Saturday, March 27 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky.

The Osborn Award goes to Wells for his play, "Perfect Mendacity," which premiered in May 2009 at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida. "Perfect Mendacity" was commissioned by the Manhattan Theater Club and developed as part of Steppenwolf Theatre’s fourth annual First Look workshop series.

Jason Wells is originally from St. Louis, but currently calls Chicago home. Wells is an actor and screenwriter as well as a playwright, and his first play, "Men of Tortuga" was also produced at Steppenwolf’s First Look workshop.

The Osborn Award is designed to recognize the work of an author who has not yet achieved national stature, or, to be more specific, someone has not had a significant New York production, been staged widely in regional theaters or received other major national awards.

"Perfect Mendacity" is a political thriller with a plot ripped from today's headlines. As Theatre in Chicago describes it: "When a top secret, internal memo from a scientific research facility is leaked to the media, Dr. Walter Kreutzer is forced to take a lie detector test about its origins. With his career on the line, Walter gets tangled up in investigations of bioterrorism and racially motivated killings. As suspicions escalate that Walter’s wife is involved, the play’s riveting plot twists uncover the insidious hypocrisy of government sanctioned discrimination."

For more information on the Osborn Award and ATCA, visit

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Everything's coming up Sondheim!

Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday is still two days away, but there are so many things happening to celebrate it that I thought I would put out an all-points bulletin just so those who are interested don't miss anything.

First up, starting at 10 am Central Time on the 22nd, his actual birthday, there's Wall to Wall Sondheim, a 12-hour webcast marathon from They're offering every single performance from the 2005 concert celebrating Mr. Sondheim's 75th birthday. Playbill has the whole schedule, but you'll tune in here.

Locally, Illinois Wesleyan is performing Passion, one of Sondheim's more controversial pieces, April 6-11. It's about Fosca, a painfully unattractive woman who feels very deep passion for Giorgio, a good-looking but somewhat shallow soldier who is already attached to gorgeous Clara, who is married to someone else. Will Fosca's overwhelming love be enough to convince Giorgio to return her feelings? Find out at IWU's McPherson Theatre in a couple of weeks, with Sarah Bockel as Fosca, Alex Pagels as Giorgio and Maia Diaz as Clara. The link for tickets is at left.

Further afield, the BBC will be honoring Sondheim in broadcasts from Monday the 22nd to Friday the 26th. Their press release tells us: "In the week of his 80th birthday, Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim discusses his life and work with Donald Macleod, in this week's Composer Of The Week offering." For more information, see their site.

Next is something from The Sondheim Review, a lovely little publication devoted to the works of the master composer and lyricist. Here's what they had to say:

A Little Night Music in Paris

As many of you know, the first ever Parisian production of A Little Night Music played several performances in February of 2010. It starred Leslie Caron and Greta Scacchi at Théâtre du Châtelet. Good news: It was recorded and will be re-broadcast on the internet on Wednesday, 24 March 2010 at 8:00 pm (20:00 hours) local time in Paris. Now that Daylight Saving Time has kicked in stateside, that means 3:00 pm New York time that same day. (But re-check that time for yourself, just to be sure.) Here's the link.

To listen to the broadcast at that time, a listener should select écouter le direct on the left-hand side of the screen.

Happily, that broadcast will be archived for your listening convenience in their archives for 30 days. To listen after the initial broadcast, listeners should instead select concerts à la réécoute on the left-hand side at the above link.

The Sondheim Review is also offering non-subscribers a peek at their interview with Angela Lansbury from earlier this year here.

Ongoing on Broadway (if you're planning a trip) are A Little Night Music with Catherine Zeta Jones and Angela Lansbury, West Side Story with the Sharks speaking (and singing) in Spanish, and a new revue called Sondheim on Sondheim, with the legendary Barbara Cook leading the cast in a limited run through June 13.

Although I'm guessing that most of us missed the 80th birthday concert at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City last week, we can hope it, too, gets its own cd or DVD. Until then, we'll have to enjoy Stephen Holden's review in the New York Times.

My friend Jon has offered two additions to this piece: 1) The production of A Little Night Music discussed above (the one with Catherine Zeta Jones) will get a cast recording from PS Classics in collaboration with Nonesuch, and is available for pre-order now, and 2) Anyone Can Whistle is coming up at New York's Encores in 3 weeks, with the pretty-much-perfect Sutton Foster, Donna Murphy, and Raul Esparza in the leads.

Thanks, Jon!

And another addition: While I was out and about today, I saw a poster for Side by Side by Sondheim at Community Players March 25-27, 2010. That's a revue featuring songs from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music and other Sondheim shows. Click here to buy tickets.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Looking for Rainbows: Two "Finians" for St. Patrick's Day

When Encores announced "Finian's Rainbow," a Broadway hit from 1947, as part of its 2009 season, I wasn't really sure what to think. Joy for an exciting new revival? Horror that they'd unearthed that old chestnut? Not really either. More curiosity, I guess.

"Finian's Rainbow" was a bit of a curiosity, even in 1947, mixing an old Irish gent with a stolen crock of gold, the leprechaun he stole it from, a mysterious girl who dances instead of talking and a bunch of poor sharecroppers in "Missitucky" who are looking to better their lives with a better brand of tobacco.

Like many people, I'd never seen a stage production of the show, and my only knowledge of it was the 1968 movie version, directed by a young Francis Ford Coppola. (Let's be honest here. It's a Fred Astaire movie. Of course I've seen it. I mean, duh. It's FRED ASTAIRE. Anyone who knows anything about me knows how I feel about Mr. Astaire.)

My main recollection of the film was Fred being charming and doing his best not to get sucked down by the creepiness of the subplot involving Keenan Wynn in blackface. But that's the thing about "Finian's Rainbow" -- the blackface that looks bizarre and horrific to us now was actually part of its message of racial tolerance. It's the bigoted cornpone senator who gets turned into a black man to show him what the racism he's been spouting feels like. It's still blackface, however. And that was problematic for me, even in 1968.

The weird thing is that I didn't remember much of the score from the Coppola movie, even though he included most of it. I'm used to Hollywood gutting the songs when they put stage musicals on screen, but "Finian's Rainbow" got a different treatment, what Coppola called the "road show" approach, where it played as much like a night out at the theater as possible. In fact, everything but "Necessity" seems to be there.

So how is it possible I had no memory of "Old Devil Moon," "Look to the Rainbow," "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" or "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love" as being part of "Finian's Rainbow"?

When I first played the cast recording from the Encores production that moved to Broadway, I kept saying "THAT'S from 'Finian's Rainbow'?" every few minutes. I think the difference is in who's singing these gorgeous songs and the overall style.

The movie has a 60s hippyish sort of feel in some places, especially when Petula Clark gets all folk-pop on "Look to the Rainbow" and when Dorothy Jeakins' costume design pulls in that seriously hideous wedding ensemble. I don't know who thought a veil made of fishnet trailing little daisies was a good idea. It wasn't.

And then there's Tommy Steele. Again, I don't know who thought it was a good idea to cast a cheesy pop, almost Music Hall performer like Steele as the show's sweet little leprechaun, but he is completely at odds with the more down-home, laid-back style of the rest of the film.

In contrast, the Broadway revival went back to 1947 in terms of the look and the sound. So Kate Baldwin's clear, bright soprano hits the perfect mood, as does Cheyenne Jackson's smooth baritone. Together, they make "Old Devil Moon" swoony and sexy and just plain beautiful. Sweeping me off my feet? You bet.

Kudos to Warren Carlyle, who directed and choreographed this new "Finian's," and also to musical director Rob Berman, for sticking with the 40s feel and making it sound so good. Carlyle's decision to cast a black actor as Senator Rawkins' double (avoiding the blackface problem) is also most welcome.

The funny thing is that even "Necessity" and "The Begat," the most old-fashioned songs in the score, sound fresh and new here. Even the "Dance of the Golden Crock," a total snoozefest of easy listening in the movie, is fun and engaging performed as a harmonica instrumental on this fizzy, fabulous cast recording.

It's tough for me to put aside my feelings for Fred Astaire and recognize that someone else fits the role better, but Jim Norton really does make a better Finian. I still love Fred, but Norton's "When the Idle Rich Become the Idle Poor" is more mischievous, more fun and more Irish.

Meanwhile, Christopher Fitzgerald's Og beats Tommy Steele's in so many ways it's not even funny.

When this new "Finian's" closed in January, I was dismayed that I hadn't managed to get to New York to see it in time. The good news is that PS Classics and executive producer Tommy Krasker recorded it for posterity. Krasker has not only brought the score to life, but he's included enough dialogue to make the story work and added a terrific little booklet offering pictures, complete lyrics, a synopsis and notes about the history of the show. PS Classics sweats the details and I couldn't appreciate that more.

So, no, I didn't get to see the revival. But I know what it sounded like, what it looked like and, yes, what it felt like. This cast recording is just that good.

To order the cd -- and you really should order this cd -- you can visit PS Classics. You might also want to take a look at some of their other offerings, including "Nine" done right and lesser-known gems like "Kitty's Kisses" and "Fine and Dandy." Yes, it's true. I love PS Classics. But they are completely deserving of that love.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"Natural Selection" a Natural at IWU

When I saw Eric Coble's "Natural Selection" at the Humana Festival a few years ago, I was quite taken with it. I'm not sure if it was the Navajo mythology about the end of the world, the engaging actor (Jay Russell) who played the main character (Henry Carson, a hapless curator swept out of an Epcot-like "Culture Fiesta" and into a metaphorical as well as literal hurricane), or Kris Stone's huge, spectacular sets that sealed the deal, but whatever it was, I was happy to go along for the wild, wonderful ride that was "Natural Selection" in Louisville.

Yep. I called it a "wild, wonderful ride" in my original review.

So I was curious how Illinois Wesleyan's Theatre Department and director Allie Beckmann would fit Coble's oversized experience into the black box confines of the E. Melba Johnson Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre. The good news is that Beckmann had a strong vision that informed her entire production, and her message -- that technology and separation from nature are turning us into robots -- came across loud and clear, even without all the quotes that said exactly that in the program.

The message was telegraphed the first time Neil Stratman, playing our hero Henry, moved his arms or took a step. With peculiar straight-arm gestures and funny little shuffle-steps, this Henry moved like a Ken doll. Marlee Turim, who played Henry's wife, a character who blogs her entire life even as it's happening, was much the same.

In contrast, the maybe/maybe-not Navajo who throws Henry's life into chaos, played by Roz Prickel, was much more fluid and human. Aha! She represents life and the force of nature, while the Carsons are about being stuck in a plastic world of technology. Or, you know, Barbie's Dream House.

Not that Lindy Randall's scenic design was anything like Barbie's Dream House. Randall's sets were a whole lot smaller and less spiffy than Rose's design for the Actors Theatre of Louisville, of course. Randall used basic boxes and a few platforms to create playing spaces for the actors that were versatile enough to get the job done and prove that you don't need an actual helicopter to stage a battle in one. Coble's message about technology might've played even better with a little more of it on-stage, but still... It worked.

The best thing about this production may've been the humor. Even in a pared-down production, Coble's script came off funny and fresh, and IWU's undergrad actors found the laugh lines just fine.

Beckmann chose to make Zhao Martinez, the wily Navajo trickster in the center of the hurricane, a woman for this production. I'm not sure that is totally successful. Specifically, there's a scene where Henry should be a little jealous that Zhao is tangled up with his wife, plus some tension about who is and isn't a "real man" and Zhao's indentification with the Coyote of Navajo mythology, who has womanizing among his traits. None of those elements came across very well with Zhao as a woman. But it was an intriguing choice, at any rate.

Beckmann has also gone with a cast of nine, instead of the six she could've gotten away with, and she's changed the gender of a minor character. No worries there. The key here is that the play is still provocative and entertaining, and it may even send you out of the theater looking for information on Navajo mythology or changing how you think of theme parks and the virtual world. One can only hope.

Note: The poster which appears with this entry is not from Illinois Wesleyan's production of "Natural Selection."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

World Premiere Dance/Music Event for Bloomington Artist Tony Rio

Artist Tony Rio is collaborating with Tim Veach, Artistic Director of the Columbus (Ohio) Dance Theatre, and Columbus-based composer Korine Fujiwara for a multi-media event combining "dancers + artists + musicians" to explore the "delicate and powerful dynamics of human hands."

This evening-length event will be performed at the Columbus Dance Theatre's Fisher Theatre on April 2nd and 3rd.

U of I Literary Festival March 15-17

The University of Illinois Creative Writing Program and Carr Reading Series are sponsoring an "Early Spring Literary Festival" March 15-17. It will include authors reading their own work as well as panel discussions on various topics of current interest within the publishing industry.

Participating authors include Eileen Favorite, recipient of two Illinois Arts Council Fellowships for poetry and prose; Bayo Ojikutu, an alumnus of the department of political science and the author of two novels, one of which received the Washington Prize for Fiction and the Great American Book Award; Jane Ciabattari, the president of the National Book Critics Circle; and English Department faculty member and author Audrey Petty.

Topics for discussion include “The Next Decade in Book Culture: The Rise of the E-book,” "Some Critical and Practical Issues in Translation Studies,” "The Art of the Book Review,” “The Truth of the Matter: On Creative Nonfiction and Literary Journalism,” “Independent Publishing" and “Where We’re At: Ninth Letter on Writing the Midwest.”

For more information and the schedule, see this article or visit the Carr Reading Series site.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Local Author Laurie Larsen Takes Home an Eppie Award!

Congratulations to Normal's own Laurie Larsen, who just won an Eppie Award, handed out March 6th in New Orleans at the Electronically Published Internet Connection (aka EPIC) Conference. Laurie won for her book, Preacher Man, published in January 2009 by Wild Rose Press. The Eppies are awarded to the best in electronically-published books of all genres, and Laurie's book was honored as the Best Metaphysical and Spiritual Romance of 2009.

Laurie's other titles include The Chronicles of Casey V, OR Mental Ramblings of the Most Awesome Summer of My Life, a Young Adult romance also from Wild Rose, published in July, 2009.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

How Well Does "History of the American Film" Play in Urbana?

This review ran originally in the Champaign News-Gazette on March 7, 2010.

Just in time for the Oscars, the U of I Department of Theatre brings us Christopher Durang’s “A History of the American Film,” a zany, kicky look at how the movies have informed our lives.

There are no real characters or plot in this frantic little play, as Durang goes for archetypes instead, sending ingénue Loretta (named for Loretta Young), tough guy Jimmy (a Cagney type), aw-shucks Hank (based on Henry Fonda) and bad girl Bette (for Bette Davis) spinning through a whirlwind of Hollywood genres and clichés. His script includes riffs on Warner Brothers’ hardboiled crime dramas, a Busby Berkeley musical, screwball comedy like “My Man Godfrey,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca,” some basic 50s atomic-bomb sci fi, “Psycho,” and eventually “Forrest Gump.”

There’s even a little song and dance, just to keep things moving and create the proper cinematic feel. So we have “Shanty Town Romance” instead of “As Time Goes By,” and “We’re in a Salad” instead of “We’re in the Money.”

Tom Mitchell seems to have cast actors who could sing rather than people who resemble the movie archetypes Durang has set down, which may be a problem for those who know their movies well. It’s just a little unsettling when this Loretta (Neala Barron) is closer to an Eve Arden or Alexis Smith than a standard Hollywood ingénue, while Eve (Lena Dansdill) actually looks a bit like Bette Davis, and Bette (Amanda Cabrera) is more the Norma Shearer type. Go figure.

Still, there’s good energy throughout the cast, and Barron and her frequent scene partner, Marty Scanlon, who plays Jimmy, sound great on their “Shanty Town” anthem. Jonathan Butler-Duplessis is also in fine voice, and he has fun with a string of ethnic stereotypes, from the black maid and piano player to Indian chief and Japanese butler, all of whom illustrate just how rotten the movies were to minorities.

Others of note include Christopher Sheard, who is properly folksy for Hank in the first half, and then pretty darn good when his character takes a “Psycho” turn after intermission; Dansdill, peppy and fun as various wise-cracking blondes reminiscent of Joan Blondell and Ginger Rogers; and Cabrera, who is consistently funny as bad, bad Bette.

There is actually a method to all the madness – Durang seems to be pretty clearly commenting on how we all use movies as our Fantasyland when the news is bad, times are tough or we can’t face reality. I’m not sure that point really comes across in this particular production, although things get so grim by the time Hollywood hits the 60s that I may be underestimating the audience and their perceptions.

Jack Magaw’s scenic design looks nifty, framing a mostly bare black stage with telescoping proscenium arches and then adding drops and set pieces as needed, while Jessica John’s costumes are striking, moving from black and white to pale green for the Salad girls and bright scarlet for Bette when she rolls into a Marilyn phase.

I found D.M. Wood’s aggressive lighting design less successful, mostly because it was often hard to see people’s faces, and Doc Davis’ sound design came off a bit too loud for my taste.

If you are a movie-lover, I have a feeling you will be happy to ignore the deep shadows and blaring music and follow along with the ending prayer. Say it with me: Our Father, Who Art in Heaven, Give Us This Doris Day…

Thursday, March 4, 2010

My Clandestine Affair with "Shakespeare in Love"

I intended to write a proper review of "Shakespeare in Love," which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1999, as a way of celebrating this Academy Award week.

But then a funny thing happened. I watched it again. And I found myself falling in love with "Shakespeare in Love" all over again, to the point where I was dreading writing about it, because I didn't want to share it. I just wanted to luxuriate in this affair for awhile, private and secret and special, and keep the rest of the world outside.

So I'm not going to write a proper review. I'm going to luxuriate instead.

On paper, "Shakespeare in Love" was perfect for me from the beginning. It's got Shakespeare, of course, which definitely pulls me in, and even better, he's shown as a young, impetuous, passionate playwright, spilling over with words even as he's blocked. He's also shown, you know, writing his own plays, so that's a bonus.

Plus Tom Stoppard, another brilliant writer, worked on the script. Stoppard and Marc Norman, the guy who had the idea in the first place, have never said who wrote what, but I choose to believe that everything I love the most in this clever, giddy, achingly romantic movie is Stoppard's work. So sue me. When you're in love, you get to be crazy like that.

And then there's Joseph Fiennes, who is pretty clever and achingly romantic himself. I hope Will Shakespeare was really like Joseph Fiennes. Wouldn't that be lovely? Millions of people have fallen in love with Shakespeare's words, as his characters came alive on the page or on the stage. But Joseph Fiennes and his ink-stained fingers bring it to a whole different level. Okay, fine. It's down a few levels, away from lofty ideas and right down to the earthy, the real, the sexual. I don't care. It works for me. Joseph Fiennes works for me.

I'm not a big fan of Gwyneth Paltrow in general, but she looks beautiful (her hair alone deserved the Oscar) and she has good chemistry with Mr. Fiennes. (Plus, you know, she's way better than Julia Roberts, who was apparently the go-to girl when the script first surfaced ten years earlier. Let us take a moment to give thanks that Julia Roberts and Daniel Day Lewis didn't work out. Because that would've broken my heart.)

And there are tons of other lovely actors to enjoy as they breeze by, with Geoffrey Rush, Tom Wilkinson, Simon Callow, Martin Clunes, Antony Sher, Rupert Everett and even Ben Affleck, of all people, each playing a pivotal role. One of my favorite performances comes from an actor named Mark Williams, who plays a stuttering tailor who wants his turn on the stage, showing us (as does Tom Wilkinson) just how each of the players is smitten by the magic and mystery of the theater.

Don't forget Colin Firth as the wrong man, practically twirling his mustache. Or Imelda Staunton and her real-life husband, Jim Clark, playing the real and stage versions of Juliet's nurse. (Clever touch, that one.) And, of course, Dame Judi Dench as what may be the best Queen Elizabeth ever.

So here I am, wishing once again I could time travel. This time I'd choose Shakespeare's world, just for a few hours. Long enough to see "Hamlet," maybe. Or the "Twelfth Night" we see Will starting to write at the end of the movie. I suspect the real one wouldn't be as much like Joseph Fiennes as I'd hoped. So it's probably better to watch the movie again, instead. It's just so hard to leave that world when the movie ends. Can't I stay awhile longer?

Monday, March 1, 2010

March Marches On

My top pick this month is the quirky little Eric Coble play coming up at Illinois Wesleyan. I was one of the few theater critics who totally loved "Natural Selection" when it was produced at the Humana Festival a few years ago. It's not an easy play, about the end of the world played out at a theme park very much like Epcot Center, with a hapless curator trying to collect an actual Navajo to put on exhibit. As I recall, it had a huge set and scenic effects in Louisville, with a sort of Jetsons apartment, a helicopter and canyons and then a looming glass structure that was cracking and leaking from all the apocalyptic weather conditions. How will IWU create that kind of atmosphere? I don't know, but I'd love to find out. "Natural Selection" will be performed March 8-11 at Wesleyan's E. Melba Johnson Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre.

For a different kind of quirky, look no further than the second "Rhinoceros" of the season, playing March 24-27 at ISU's Westhoff Theatre. I was supposed to review the first one, over in Urbana, but the flu kept me away from this absurdist comedy about the perils of conformity. I'm not going to miss this one, I promise.

Community Players is going with "Play It Again, Sam," the Woody Allen comedy about a schlemiel who brings the ghost of Humphrey Bogart alive to advise him on matters romantic. Thom Rakestraw plays the Woody role, while Kevin Wickart tries on Bogie's trenchcoat for size. Look for that one March 5-20.

There are three very different, very intriguing options at U of I's Krannert Center for the Performing Arts this month. First up -- something called "Abraham Inc.," featuring David Krakauer, Fred Wesley, and Socalled, AKA the Klezmer King, a funk pioneer, and the smoothest Yiddish-rapping mix master around, according to the press release. That's TOMORROW NIGHT only.

Then we've got Christopher Durang's "History of the American Film," a goofy mix of old Hollywood stereotypes and icons, all mashed together with music and over the top... Toppings. It should be funny, frothy, silly and lighter than air. Will U of I's theater department pull it off? I'll let you know after opening night, March 4, at Krannert's Colwell Playhouse.

My third choice is the Maly Drama Theatre/Theatre of Europe production of "Uncle Vanya" (presented in Russian with English subtitles) coming to Krannert's Tryon Festival Theatre on March 12th and 13th. My Russian is beyond rusty, but I'd still like to see Chekhov's play done with an authentic Russian feel.

I'm not sure what to make of "The Velvet Rut," James Sill's strange drama about a man in trouble who runs into into a strangely helpful (or maybe just strange) boy scout. Joi Hoffsommer directs Gary Ambler and Maxwell Tomaszewski through the play's odd camping trip to nowhere with a passel of performances from March 4th through 20th.

If you're a Rentaholic, your fave show is on stage from the CUTC (Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company) at the historic Virginia Theater March 11 to 13, while "Father of the Bride" fans can look to Parkland Theatre in Champaign March 3-14 for wedding-related fun.

I have to be honest -- nothing at the Normal Theatre is flipping my switches this month, which is kind of disappointing, it being Oscar season and all. Oh well. If you like the gowns and glam and you're intrigued by the fact that there are ten Best Pic noms this year, don't miss the big show itself on March 7th. I was going to pick "The Hurt Locker," Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep, but then there was an email scandal about "Hurt Locker," and I just don't care about "Avatar," so maybe I'll go with "Up in the Air" as the surprise choice. Fingers crossed for "Up in the Air."

Some things coming up in this blog: I'll review one or two of my favorite Best Picture winners as well as a movie or two about famous queens for Women's History Month. I will also be looking at the film version of "Finian's Rainbow" in time for St. Patrick's Day, and compare it to the newly released "Finian's" revival cast recording from PS Classics. Sneak peek: The score is gorgeous and Cheyenne Jackson and Kate Baldwin are to die for. Pick up your own copy and share your thoughts on or around St. Paddy's Day.

And if you're finishing off your schedule of what to see in March, don't forget that "Southern Comforts" is still playing at Heartland Theatre through March 7th. I posted a review of that a few weeks ago, so you can check in the archives to read more about it.

Mix in March Madness (that's high school basketball in my household) and it's a pretty packed month, isn't it?