Wednesday, April 28, 2010

ISU Spring Dance Concert April 29 - May 1

Illinois State Dance Theatre's spring concert, including choreography by students, faculty and recent guest artist Jon Lehrer, springs to life April 29, 30 and May 1. All three performances -- 7:30 p.m. on the 29th and 30th and 2 p.m. matinee on May 1 -- are scheduled to take place in ISU's Center for the Performing Arts.

Tickets are $15 for the general public and ISU faculty-staff, and $10 for students and anyone 60 years and older. They can be purchased at the Center for the Performing Arts box office at (309) 438-2535.

Jon Lehrer is founder and artistic director of Lehrer Dance in Buffalo, N.Y. During his five-day residency at Illinois State in March, he created an original work, “Hearth,” around members of ISDT. "Hearth" will premiere in this concert, and Lehrer will restage the work with his own dance company next season. "Hearth" is performed to music by Damien Simon.

As a professional, Jon Lehrer has danced with numerous companies, including the Radio City Rockettes Christmas Spectacular. After three years with Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, he was promoted to rehearsal director and, two years later, associate director. During his 10 years with Giordano, Lehrer also became the resident choreographer, creating seven original works on the company that received rave reviews all around the world. In July 2007, he moved to Buffalo to begin his professional dance company, a company that showcases his unique choreography and definitive style. In its short history, LehrerDance has received international recognition, and the company teaching master classes throughout the U.S. and around the world.

2004 ISU alumna Marideth Wanat, principal dancer and founding member of Lehrer Dance, accompanied Lehrer during his ISU residency. Wanat was also named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch – Who Will Shine in ’09” in January of last year.

Other pieces in the spring ISDT program include “Rug with Tea” and "Last Push," created by ISDT director Sara Semonis. "Rug with Tea" will be performed to music by Schubert, while "Last Push" will be danced to music from the Japanese drum group Kodo.

Also on the program are “Please Don’t Leave Me (if we ever were to be)” to the music of Bessie Smith and Gertrude Lawrence, choreographed by senior Kelly Hume, and “Ecstasy at the Last Supper,” which dance faculty member Leslie Pamela Walden choregraphed to music by British composer Jocelyn Montgomery.

Bonnie Christine Willis, a senior from Normal, choreographed “Pinnacle or Precipice” to music composed by Terry Riley. It will be followed by a piece titled “Passages” by dance faculty member Darby Wilde to the music of Antonio Vivaldi.

Faculty member Greg Merriman choreographed the final two pieces on the program. The first, “Four Female Variations” presents the female variations from “Flower Festival,” “Grande Pas Classique,” “La Esmeralda” and “Le Corsaire.” Merriman choreographed the piece after famed choreographers August Bournonville, Marius Petipa, Jules Perrot and Joseph Mazilier. The music is composed by Helsted, Auber, Pugni and Adam. His second piece is “The Queen is Dead” to the first movement of Mozart’s Horn concerto No. 1.

Julie Mack did the lighting design for the entire show, while faculty members Lauren Lowell and Rob Goode and students K. Claire Kemock, Brittany Smith, Shana Hall, Brittney Nicole Smith, Lisa Hempel and Judith Rivera-Ramirez contributed costume designs.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Is There a Writers' Workshop Out There for You?

There are dandy opportunities out there for writers every summer, some with scholarships or fellowships or other ways to get there on the cheap.

The most well-known is probably the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, associated with the University of Iowa and held on their campus in Iowa City. They offer workshops on topics all over the map -- creativity, humor, character, imagery, etc. in areas like fiction, non-fiction, poetry, playwriting and children's books -- ranging in price from $280 to $560, depending on the whether you choose a weekend or a whole week. If you register early enough, you can get a room at the Iowa House, the hotel inside the Iowa Memorial Union on campus, or the Sheraton in downtown Iowa City. Otherwise, you may find yourself staying a bit further afield and driving in for your sessions.

The Iowa Summer Writing Festival is open to anybody over 21, and you can register at the link above. The first workshops begin June 13 and the last ones end July 30.

If you prefer to head east instead of west, you might want to try the Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie, Indiana. (Any "Hudsucker Proxy" fans out there who want to visit Muncie? Fight on, fight on, dear old Muncie!) MWW is a two-day affair, with a one-day intensive session with workshops that seem to be devoted more to craft scheduled for July 29, or extra days that include more selling and marketing information on the 30th and 31st. Full workshop information is available here. Part I only is $115, Part II only is $240, and the package that includes Parts I and II is $325.

There are also conferences and classes out there if you prefer something in a specific genre.

Romance Writers of America's national conference, which attracts about two thousand published and unpublished writers as well as related professionals like agents and editors every summer, will be in Nashville this year, from July 28 to 31. The RWA conference features lots of individual workshops plus a huge autographing party that benefits literacy and the industry's marquee events, the Rita Awards Ceremony. FMI, visit the RWA website.

Mystery writers will be heading to the Edgar Symposium in New York City this weekend (April 28-29), and perhaps scooting right down to Arlington, Virginia, for Malice Domestic immediately afterwards. Malice Domestic, featuring Guest of Honor Parnell Hall, Toastmaster Rhys Bowen and Lifetime Achievement Award winner Mary Higgins Clark this year, takes place April 30th to May 2nd at the Crystal Gateway Marriott Hotel, Arlington, Virginia. You'll find out who won the Edgars and the Agathas after these events.

Other mystery events: Crimefest 2010 in Bristol UK May 20-23, Mayhem in the Midlands in Omaha May 28-30, Thrillerfest V in New York City July 7-10, and Killer Nashville August 20-22.

If you'd like a more fan-oriented mystery conference, Bouchercon is the biggie. It will be held October 14-17 in San Franciso. Closer to home, Bouchercon 2011 is scheduled for St. Louis, with Chicago's Sara Paretsky receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (commonly known as SFWA, pronounced sif-wah) host the Nebula Awards Weekend in Cocoa Beach, Florida, May 14-16. That ties in with the launch of the space shuttle scheduled for the 14th and a simulcast of the Nebula Awards ceremony to a screen in New York City.

Lynn Frewelling, author of "The White Road," is inviting SFF writers to a cruising conference called Writing on the Waves Workshop Cruise May 23-30 if you'd like to get some work done on the high seas. If the Caribbean counts as "the high seas." I really have no idea!

There's also Hypericon in Nashville June 4-6, and Wyrdcon in California June 11-13 for those who like to dress up and role play with their science fiction and fantasy.

The Clarion Writers' Workshop, an intensive six-week program at UC San Diego for those who want to write short science fiction, fantasy or horror, is tough to get into and very prestigious if you do. You needed to apply by March 1 for this year's workshop (June 27 to August 7) but you can plan ahead and polish your submission for next year now.

And way out there, the 68th World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), called Aussiecon Four this year, will be held September 2-6 in the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. That's where the Hugo Awards will be handed out.

If you know of any other writers' conferences or workshops coming up, be sure to let me know and I will add them to the list. No matter who you are, it doesn't hurt to polish up your skills or commune with other writers to get the wheels turning...

Addendum: My friend John Chu, who is attending Clarion in San Diego this year, notes that Viable Paradise, the annual science fiction writing workshop held on Martha’s Vineyard, is a terrific one-week option with good information on writing and selling commercial science fiction and fantasy. Viable Paradise is scheduled for October 3rd-8th, 2010. You must apply to attend; the submission period closes June 30th.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"Trip to Bountiful" Brings Texas Charm to Heartland

How much have things changed since 1953? A lot in some ways. Not so much in others.

Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful” is about a senior citizen named Carrie Watts. Carrie is trapped in a small Houston apartment with her son and odious daughter-in-law, but she longs for the days when she could touch the earth and feel a sea breeze on her face. Carrie longs to go home to a small town called Bountiful, where she had a house and trees and a whole, big, bountiful life to call her own.

Carrie’s son, Ludie, is afraid that his mother is too frail to travel, and the odious daughter-in-law, a piece of work named Jessie Mae, isn’t going to let Carrie’s pension check get out from under her control. With them watching her every move, Carrie has no chance of taking her trip to Bountiful.”

Foote wrote “Bountiful” as a teleplay in 1953, and it hit Broadway (with beautiful, fragile silent film star Lillian Gish as Carrie) later that same year. But “Bountiful” survived and seemed fresh in 1985, when Geraldine Page played Carrie – and won the Best Actress Oscar – in the film version of the play.

Here we are, 25 years later, and we still see generations in conflict when they have to share the same space, painful decisions being made about elder care, and too many people dying a little inside for every precious day wasted in a place they hate.

Sandra Zielinski directs the stage version of “Bountiful” for Heartland Theatre with a slightly different focus than the film. Her Carrie, played with charm and spirit by Uretta R. Lovell, matriarch of the local Lovell acting dynasty, seems less soft, less flighty than Page, with a flinty core that makes it easy to see her digging in the dirt and raising her son by hook or by crook in her younger years. That gives Carrie a more real, less romanticized feel, opening up the script to a few more comic moments as well as some real heart.

John Fischer looks and acts just right for worrier Ludie, the son unwilling to buck his controlling wife, lending sympathy to a fairly unsympathetic character, while Connie de Veer keeps Jessie Mae just as annoying and self-indulgent as Foote wrote her. I wish Jessie Mae were a caricature, but I think we’ve all met a few too many Jessie Maes in our lives to think so. My only quibble is that deVeer’s hair is too pretty and natural for a 1940s beauty parlor addict. More Aqua Net, please!

I also liked Rebekah Strauss, George Freeman and John Kirk as kind-hearted strangers Carrie comes across, and Kate McDermott’s work as a dialect coach to get just the right Texas sound was a welcome contribution.

Steven House’s spare scenic design, with wood frames that can look like the bars of a jail cell or the bones of a house, and Jesse Folks’ usual stellar lighting design create simple, effective stage pictures, set the right mood, and move us from one location to the next with ease.

Heartland’s “Trip to Bountiful” is low-key, sweet, heartfelt and heartwarming. It’s exactly the kind of show Heartland does well, and a fine revival of a classic piece of Americana.


“The Trip to Bountiful,” by Horton Foote

Cast: Uretta R. Lovell, John Fischer, Connie de Veer, Rebekah Strauss, George Freeman, Kevin Woodard, Ben Hackett, Kathleen Weir and John Kirk

Director: Sandra Zielinksi
Assistant Director: Kathleen Weir
Scenic Designer: Steven House
Costume Designer: Judith Rivera-Ramirez
Lighting Designer: Jesse Folks
Sound Designer: James Waggoner
Properties Master: Mark Gartzman

Heartland Theatre, 452-8709,
Performance dates: 7:30 pm April 22-30 and May 1; 2 pm May 2
Tickets: $12 Friday and Saturday nights; $12 general admission, $10 seniors, $6 students all other performances
Running time: 2:10, including one 10-minute intermission

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Heartland Theatre's Gail Dobbins a "Woman of Distinction"

Every year, the McLean county YWCA nominates 24 women as "Women of Distinction," honored at a banquet in the spring. This year, their nominees include Gail Dobbins, marketing maven, costume designer, 10-minute Play Festival coordinator and all-around volunteer extraordinaire at Heartland Theatre Company.

The Women of Distinction Award is a YWCA national initiative, and it recognizes the professional and personal achievements of women who "have made their mark on our community." Gail is a perfect example of someone who goes the extra mile, offers her time and services unstintingly, and continues to help make Heartland Theatre stand out.

If you have a postcard from a show at Heartland, if you've sponsored a show there, if you contributed to the fundraising campaign to redo the theater or offered your opinion as part of the long-range planning initiative, or even if you've ushered or bought a t-shirt, you've experienced Gail's contributions to Heartland Theatre. It's pretty much impossible to interact with Heartland in any way and not come across something Gail has worked on.

Gail's professional excellence and amazing volunteer spirit make her a "Woman of Distinction" every year. It's about time she got recognized for it!

Women of Distinction
21st Annual Awards Banquet
Thursday, May 27, 2010

Illinois State University
Bone Student Center
Brown Ballroom
Normal, IL

5:30 pm Social Hour
6:30 pm Dinner & Keynote Speaker

Keynote Speaker:
Mavis Nicholson Leno

$50.00 per person (by May 19)
$60.00 per person (after May 19)

For reservations, visit the YWCA site.

Play Reading Coming Up -- "Bessie and Louise," by Marty Seigel

Marty Seigel, local writer, director, and theatre teacher, has announced a reading of her new play, "Bessie and Louise" next week. Seigel describes the play as "about a couple of salty seniors and a dumpster diver who conspire to take back the 'hood!"

The reading, scheduled for 6:30 p.m., Monday, April 26, at TheatresCool, 403 North Main Street in Bloomington, is open to the public.

I read a few small roles and some stage directions in a workshop version of the play back in February, and at that time, Marty's play struck me as funny and tart, kind of a cross between "Arsenic and Old Lace" and "Dead End." That's not a common cross, and "Bessie and Louise" is well worth a look for theater enthusiasts.

FMI, contact TheatresCool at the link at left.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Local Playwright Terri Ryburn to Sign Books at Heartland Theatre

Terri Ryburn, an actress and playwright in Bloomington-Normal, will be signing copies of a collection of her plays called “Age on Stage: 10 Minute Plays,” published by ArtAge Publications’ Senior Theatre Resource Center. ArtAge notes that Terri's plays, written for and performed by Young at Heartland, the senior acting program associated with Heartland Theatre Company, were selected from 160 submissions.

Terri's book will be available for purchase at the signing, scheduled for Sunday, April 25, from 5-6 p.m. at Heartland Theatre, One Normal Plaza, 1110 Douglas Street, Normal. Terri will discuss her inspiration for the plays, and one of them will be performed at the event.

Terri is a member of Young at Heartland, currently in its seventh season of theater programs for seniors. Young at Heartland focuses on continuing education, creative self-expression, and community outreach. Class sessions are dedicated to the study of the craft of acting, ending with performances at senior activity centers, local libraries and other venues in the area.

There is no admission fee and no obligation to purchase the book. If you are unable to attend the function but wish to obtain a copy, you may contact ArtAge Publications at 800-858-4998 or emailing ArtAge's Bonnie Vorenberg at

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Pulitzer Prize Awarded to "Next to Normal"

In a controversial decision, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama has been awarded to "Next to Normal," a musical about a woman with bipolar disorder and how she and her family struggle to deal with her illness. Tom Kitt wrote the music, while Brian Yorkey created the book and lyrics.

Both Kitt and Yorkey took home Tony Awards for their work on "Next to Normal." The show won 2009 Tony Awards for Best Original Score, Best Orchestration and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, awarded to Alice Ripley. "Next to Normal" was nominated for a total of 11 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The Pulitzer Board deemed it to be, "a powerful rock musical that grapples with mental illness in a suburban family and expands the scope of subject matter for musicals."

Nominated as finalists in this category were “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” by Kristoffer Diaz, a play invoking the exaggerated role-playing of professional wrestling to explore themes from globalization to ethnic stereotyping, as the audience becomes both intimate insider and ringside spectator; “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” by Rajiv Joseph, a play about the chaotic Iraq war that uses a network of characters, including a caged tiger, to ponder violent, senseless death, blending social commentary with tragicomic mayhem; and “In the Next Room or the vibrator play,” by Sarah Ruhl, an inventive work that mixes comedy and drama as it examines the medical practice of a 19th century American doctor and confronts questions of female sexuality and emancipation.

The controversy arose because "Next to Normal" was not nominated by the jury who chose the three nominees listed above. In fact, the Pulitzer Board notes on its citation that "Next to Normal" was "moved into contention by the Board within the Drama category," and LA Times theater critic Charles McNulty, who was the chairman of the jury whose recommendations were overriden, has now written an editorial in his newspaper to express his displeasure with the Pulitzer Board for overridding its nominations and awarding the prize on "Next to Normal" instead.

McNulty is hopping mad, but New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley, who himself chaired a Pulitzer jury whose recommendations were ignored (the Pulitzer Board chose David Lindsay-Abaire's "Rabbit Hole" over Brantley's jury's less accessible nominations) is more sanguine. In his own piece about the brouhaha, Brantley notes: "Any annoyance I felt then was tempered by a weary awareness that the Pulitzers have usually gone to firmly middlebrow works, the majority of which are highly unlikely to blaze in the annals of posterity as daring innovators. They can be read as an index of solid bourgeois tastes over the years but not much more."

Last year's winner was "Ruined" by Lynn Notage, with Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" taking the prize in 2008.

"Next to Normal" becomes only the eighth musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, after:

1) "Of Thee I Sing," with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, winner in 1932
2) "South Pacific," with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, and book by Hammerstein and Joshua Logan, winner in 1950
3) "Fiorello!" with music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and book by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, winner in 1960
4) "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert, winner in 1962
5) "A Chorus Line," with music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Ed Kleban, and book by James Kirkwood, Jr. and Nicholas Dante, winner in 1976
6) "Sunday in the Park with George," with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, winner in 1985
7) "Rent," with music, lyrics and book by Jonathan Larson, winner in 1996.

ISU's 3rd Annual Postcard Art Fundraiser Saturday, April 17

Illinois State University's Friends of the Arts announce their third annual PostCard Art exhibit, taking place on April 17, 2010. Tickets are $60 per person, and the ticket price includes one postcard-sized (4 inches X 6 inches) piece of art. You won't know who the artist is for your postcard until after you've chosen it. "That's what makes this event so unique," Lin Hinds emails. "Imagine owning a piece of art – postcard size – that may have been created by a well-known artist or celebrity! That’s what Postcard Art is about."

You’ll get to keep your one-of-a-kind artwork while also helping to provide scholarships for students in the College of Fine Arts.

To reserve a ticket or get more information, call 438-8321 or visit:

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sondheim's "Anyone Can Whistle" Gets an Encore

Jon Alan Conrad reviews "Anyone Can Whistle" at City Center's Encores!

Anybody up on Sondheim lore knows the legend of “Anyone Can Whistle”: a one-week flop in 1964 that was preserved on a recording and remains one of the least-revived of all his titles. And not unfairly: the musical mastery that would click into place so consistently 6 years later in “Company” is still in its formative stages here, and the lyrics, however masterfully crafted (he had after all already written the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy), are placed at the service of Arthur Laurents's jejune book.

This "musical fable" takes place in a bankrupt town whose venal mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper stages a miracle (water from a rock) to attract visitors and income. The scientifically-minded nurse at the local looney bin, Fay Apple, is determined to expose the miracle for the fraud it is. In the process, her charges mingle unrecognizably with the townspeople, and it takes a newcomer to town, J. Bowden Hapgood, to straighten things out. Or confuse them even more.

This premise serves to launch a number of statements that Laurents wanted to make: about the pervasiveness of government corruption, about the importance of individual rebellion against authority, and (the most tiresome and omnipresent of all 1960s clichés) that those commonly deemed “insane” are in fact saner than “normal” people.

Fortunately, the authors also wanted to play with possibilities of theatricality, and this “fun” side of the show has worn better: alternation between different ways of storytelling (narration, pantomime, regular action, parodistic exaggeration); random stylistic jumps (one scene is spoken in French, with English subtitles); and at one point, a reversal of roles between audience and actors (they sit in theater seats and applaud us as the lights come up for intermission).

The side of “Anyone Can Whistle” that aims to educate us on a few important things will never do much for me, but I can certainly have a good time with its showbizzy, spoofy side, especially with Stephen Sondheim’s alternately quirky and moving score to help.

The other thing that can help is the caliber of performance that the New York City Center “Encores!” series provided in the five performances on April 8 through 11. These semi-concert productions of musicals that deserve another viewing (actors carry scripts after a week’s rehearsal, the orchestra is onstage behind them, the book is slightly adapted to suit the situation, sets and costumes are only suggested) have become a most welcome three-times-a-year institution -- “Anyone Can Whistle” ended the 17th season.

Director Casey Nicholaw carried the concept of the onstage theater seats (for that “role reversal” moment at the end of Act I) throughout the entire production as its visual motif. He and script adapter David Ives also extended the narrator roles from the opening scene to the show, to fill us in on missing visual elements (like water gushing from a rock). He organized the crazy goings-on so that they made as much sense as they can. And he choreographed entertainingly, for the four omnipresent backup boys who turn Cora’s every song into a period nightclub number, and especially for the climactic “Chase” ballet (Cora tells her police force “I expect you to be on your toes!” and up on pointe they go).

We also had a splendid company of principals. Cora’s three henchmen (comptroller, treasurer, chief of police) assumed appropriately cartoonish size with the vivid and contrasted presences of Edward Hibbert, Jeff Blumenkrantz, and John Ellison Conlee. The Mayoress herself benefited from the gifts of Donna Murphy, a classier and more controlled performer than the camp divas often entrusted with the part, yet able to put her over-the-top numbers across with panache (and at times visually reminiscent of Andrea Martin’s “Edith Prickley” from SCTV).

Best of all, we had Sutton Foster and Raúl Esparza as Fay and Hapgood. She launched a fine fiery tirade in her first scene, then broke our hearts with a sensitively understated rendition of the title song. He commanded the stage with an easy charisma from his first entrance, finishing with a simple and sincere “With So Little To Be Sure Of.” The combination of the two of them provided the peak moments people will be talking about in years to come.

Amazingly, this is the fourth production I’ve seen of “Anyone Can Whistle.” In a sense, it will never really “work,” but for many portions of it, I never expect to see it done better than this.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Impassioned "Passion" at IWU

"Passion" is a bit of a weird duck. Stephen Sondheim's music is gorgeous, no question. But James Lapine's book... And the whole premise of the show...

This "Passion" is based on the film Passione d'Amore , directed by Ettore Scola, which was itself based on a novel called Fosca by Iginio Ugo Tarchetti. This means we can blame neither Sondheim nor Lapine for the plot, but we can blame Sondheim for picking up on it and wanting to write a musical about it.

"Passion" begins when a handsome army officer named Giorgio Bachetti is sent from Milan and the loving arms of his beautiful mistress, Clara, to a remote military outpost in the mountains. Giorgio doesn't feel he fits in with the other soldiers, who talk of nothing but women and horses, and he doesn't know what to make of strange screams coming from upstairs, above the dining room where everyone collects to eat together. Dr. Tambourri, the post's medical officer, explains that the screams are coming from Fosca, the cousin of their commanding officer, Colonel Ricci. Dr. Tambourri says that Fosca, a wretched and ugly woman, has been very ill for a long time, that she feels everything more strongly than normal people, as if her nerves are too close to the surface.

And this is where Giorgio's life begins to unravel. Because he misses his lovely mistress and is unhappy in general, he paces outside on the grounds, and upstairs, Fosca sees him and develops a mad passion for him. Mad being the operative word. Even though he makes it clear his heart is not free, Fosca begins coming down to dinner, sitting close to him, trying to engage him in conversation, and pushing herself at him in every way possible.

Giorgio tries to be kind, and then pushes her away as best he can, relenting only after the doctor argues that she is ill and will surely die unless Giorgio goes to her. With him at her bedside, Fosca survives. She now contends that she loves him completely, that no one will ever love him as deeply as she does, and at some level, at some point, Giorgio agrees that her love is so consuming and overwhelming he has no choice but to love her back.

And there's the rub. Do we really need a lush, darkly romantic musical about a man who succumbs to his stalker? Sondheim wrote that from a different angle in "Assassins," where John Hinkley sings about feeling fire, drinking poison, tearing his heart in two, if that’s what it takes to earn the love of Jodi Foster, the object of his obsession.

But Sondheim says that’s not what “Passion” means, that this is not a happily-ever-after for either the stalker or the stalkee. Instead, he’s said in interviews that it’s about how destructive love can be, and indeed, Giorgio does end up ruined, wrecked, alone.

I don’t have any answers for those who question the plot, and honestly, every time I’ve seen this show, the audience has laughed at Fosca and her smothering, ridiculous idea of love. It’s clearly a tough one to pull off, and kudos to Illinois Wesleyan and director Scott Susong for doing as well as they do.

Somebody decided that the production needed an Art Nouveau look, and it’s especially notable in Bridget Gavlin’s lovely costumes for Clara.

Kelly Rice’s set design, with a gallery used for multiple purposes and tables and beds that roll on and off at the speed of light, also works well, except for a silly little disc dropped behind Clara when she’s supposed to be in her boudoir. There’s no need for it, and the way it pops on and off is distracting.

Gary Echelmeyer’s lighting design plays a huge role, creating mood and storms as backdrops. The only weakness on the production side is the sound – there were microphone and volume issues throughout the show on opening night, and that was a shame. I’m not sure why there was a need for microphones in an intimate setting like IWU’s McPherson Theatre, especially since all of the voices were so good.

Maia Diaz sounds and looks beautiful as Clara, and Alex Pagels is sympathetic and strong as Giorgio. The chorus of soldiers is good, as well, with Michael Hansen’s Lieutenant Torasso a standout.

As Fosca, Sarah Bockel sings well, but it’s her acting that has to carry the burden of the show. Fosca is a pretty impossible character, this maddening woman who is physically repulsive, selfish and histrionic, and yet somehow loveable to Giorgio. Bockel is probably too pretty for the role, but she fully commits to the physical and emotional wretchedness, and she is every bit as intense as I remember Donna Murphy, who won a Tony for the original “Passion” on Broadway.

I’m not sure I’m ever going to be a fan of “Passion” – I feel too strongly about the distasteful nature of the premise – but IWU’s production certainly brought home the fact that the music is amazing and needs to be heard.

Performances continue until April 11th. For more information or to reserve tickets, click on the link at left.

2010 Humana Festival, Part 3: Memory, Method and Madness

This year's Humana Festival featured two free-form, ensemble pieces performed by innovative theatrical troupes. And, no, neither of them involved Anne Bogart or her SITI Company. A third show also involved an ensemble, although it was a different sort of group, and much more traditional story-telling.

First up was “Fissures (lost and found),” a moody little piece on the nature of memory, created by a whole team of playwrights, including Steve Epp and Dominique Serrand, former co-Artistic Directors at Minneapolis’ Theatre de la Jeune Lune. That theater’s influence (including a vibrant performance by Serrand) is written all over “Fissues,” with its spare, poetic movements and surrealistic style.

There isn’t much to “Fissures” in terms of character or action, but what it has is mood and emotion. Memory is a tricky thing, after all, with remembering and forgetting hidden in dark corners of our brains, resonating in both sad and happy ways. Reflecting that, “Fissues” includes some beautiful, poignant moments, as the white-clad actors wander in and out of the all-white set, sticking Post-Its hither and yon one moment, marking out the lines of a forgotten street in black marker the next, or just sitting down to talk to us about the ghosts in our collective memory.

The Actors Theatre of Louisville production, also directed by Serrand, got a little repetitive, a little too artfully quirky for me at times, but the overall evocative, contemplative mood has stayed with me, and I suspect that was the whole point. I keep thinking about one particular speech delivered by Emily Gunyou Halaas, telling us how memory is like a folded and unfolded map, illustrating how points in time can overlap. Terrific writing, perfectly delivered.

“The Method Gun,” a product of an Austin Texas troupe called the Rude Mechanicals (Rude Mechs, for short) is an animal of an entirely different color. In performance, this one was brash and silly, lampooning the techniques of an acting guru named Stella Burden who supposedly disappeared in the 70s, leaving her actors, a gun inside a bird cage, a soapstone tiger, and some very strange acting exercises behind. After their mentor departed, “The Method Gun” tells us that the Burden disciples kept rehearsing the piece they’d already started – “A Streetcar Named Desire” without Blanche, Stanley, Stella or Mitch – for nine years, until they finally managed one performance.

The Rude Mechs’ take on Stella Burden’s “Approach” is highly theatrical and a little crazy, showing us some of the bizarre exercises Burden put her actors through. If any of this really happened. I honestly have no idea if Stella and her Approach are real or made-up. And maybe it’s better that way.

I found “The Method Gun” and its hippy, dippy nonsense entertaining throughout, but everything that came in the first 3/4 was trumped by the absolutely breathtaking ending sequence. It involved swinging lights, the iconic, oddball “Streetcar” we’d been promised, and then a small homage to teachers and mentors everywhere. I found myself unexpectedly moved by that ending.

Again, I am guessing that was the intended effect – to demonstrate the power and beauty that can lurk under even the most misguided, out-there kind of theater.

Like “Fissures,” “The Method Gun” has no hope of being produced by anybody else anywhere else. Both pieces were inextricably tied to the collaborative process and to the performers who lived, breathed and moved through the words.

And now for something completely different... The third ensemble piece of the weekend, “The Cherry Sisters Revisited,” looked a lot more like a standard musical comedy at first glance. As the lights came up on the nifty barn set designed by Scott Bradley, former scenic designer at U of I and the Station Theatre, “Cherry Sisters” seemed as if it might be some pseudo-“Annie Get Your Gun” romp.

Instead, Dan O’Brien’s script tried to be a ghost story, a comedy, and a look at the delusions of fame, with a few songs and “fruit and veg” thrown in for good measure. A kitchen sink, what appeared to be entrails, and a wooden leg were also thrown on stage to express the audience’s displeasure with the sisters and their terrible, terrible vaudeville act.

Although I can’t say for sure that Stella Burden existed, the Cherry Sisters definitely did. They were five Iowa farmgirls who leapt onto the stage in the 1890s. They couldn’t sing or dance, they weren’t good-looking, they showed no evidence of talent whatsoever, and in fact, their performances were dreadful. But audiences came out in droves to see (and throw things at) these delusional vaudeville “stars.”

How could these women not know how bad they were? Were they fully aware of their own shortcomings, cynically pocketing the public’s cash and laughing all the way to the bank? Or did they tromp out onto the stage every night, blissfully unaware of the reality?

It’s a fascinating premise, directly related to the William Hungs and other talent show caterwaulers of the current age, but none of that really comes across in O’Brien’s script, as directed by Andrew Leyne. O’Brien messes with history a little, although those changes don’t matter all that much. But playing it as a ghost story or some vague dreamscape where Effie (here the youngest sister, although she wasn’t in real life) remembers how it used to be, good and bad, doesn’t really work, either.

Renata Friedman’s Effie was certainly sympathetic, but also a bit too twitchy and gloomy to seem related to the others. I loved Cassie Beck’s warm take on Ella, the “slow” sister, and Katie Kreisler, Kate Gersten and Donna Lynn Champlin provided sharp characterizations as the other sisters. But their drunken lout of a father and fast-talking agent, played as comic caricatures by John Hickok, seemed as if they belonged in a different show. “Paint Your Wagon” by way of “Cat Ballou,” maybe?

It was that uneasy mix of pop culture hijinks with a psychological study of the fame bug that made “The Cherry Sisters” falter for me. I love the idea. I wanted to love the play. I didn’t.

I do find myself wondering what O’Brien might do to further develop this work, however. Michael Friedman’s songs were fun and fizzy, and went fine with that half of the story. If O’Brien can get the unwieldy book under control and find a narrative thread that showcases his premise better, “The Cherry Sisters Revisited” will really have something to say.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

2010 Humana Festival, Part 2: "Sirens" Is the Best of the Bunch

I don't think it's ever happened this way, but the first show I saw at this year's Humana Festival turned out to be my favorite of the festival.

Deborah Zoe Laufer's "Sirens" resonated with me on several levels, not the least of which was the long-married-couple-kvetching-about-what-to-do-for-their-anniversary opening scene. In that opening scene, Sam and Rose Abrams are sitting at a travel agency, trying to decide how they should celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. But Sam is distracted, both by the nubile young travel agent who reminds him of his high school girlfriend, and by the hit song he can't quite reach.

A little more than 25 years ago, Sam wrote a song that was a huge hit. It was called "Rose Adelle," written for his very own Rose, and in the ensuing years, it's been covered by everybody under the sun, continuing to keep Sam's coffers full. (One of the conceits of the script is that different versions of "Rose Adelle," sounding like Perry Como one minute, then Springsteen or Blondie the next, fill the scene changes.) But Sam has been unable to write anything as big or as good as "Rose Adelle." Now he's turned to Facebook and Myspace to reconnect with his youth -- or maybe just some young women who remind him of his youth -- to find that elusive second hit.

Rose is annoyed with him and his midlife crisis, but she plans a cruise of the Greek isles to pull him back into their marriage and celebrate their anniversary. Unfortunately, once they’re out to sea, Sam hears a Siren’s call, the very song he’s been trying to pull together in his mind, and he tunes Rose out completely. Sam jumps overboard, washing up next to an actual Siren, just like the one who tortured Odysseus and his ship full of travelers, but she won’t sing her song for Sam. She’s not very nice in general, and she makes it clear that her one purpose in life is to sit on that island and belt her irresistible song at passing ships, making them crash and fall into the ocean.

She does have one other hobby, though. A handheld computer game of some sort floated her way, and she loves playing solitaire. That solitaire habit holds the key to Sam getting a ride home, but is also one of the funniest moments in the script, throwing today’s world into the crosshairs of Greek mythology.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Rose is furious that Sam jumped off a ship rather than pay attention to her, and she decides to do a little Facebook exploring of her own.

There are bits of the Odyssey in “Sirens,” which is appropriate for a commentary about long-married folks, and I like Greek mythology, so that all worked for me. I also enjoyed the small touches director Casey Stangl came up with, like dressing Sam and Rose in a matching vest and sweater, since Rose runs a knitting shop and is always seen with needles and yarn, working away. The knitting motif recurred in a vision of Rose Sam has while marooned on the Siren’s island and again late in the show, when she lashes him to the mast to ward off Sirens. Again, it came off imaginative and funny.

The many different versions of “Rose Adelle” worked for me, too, and I think composer Matt Callahan did a fine job creating a song that sounded like a hit single.

As Sam, Brian Russell was fun and schlubby, but also believable as a man trying to find what he once had. It was Mimi Lieber, however, who stole the show, as the original Rose Adelle. She was cute and spunky, as well as sympathetic and snappy, and I loved her performance.

Although his role was smaller, Ben Hollandsworth made a very good impression as a man from Rose’s past, and he certainly knew how to sell the long in “Long Island.”

Rounding out the cast, Lindsey Wochley did a fine job as the Siren, the travel agent and a random waitress, although the fact that her Siren was stuck on one rock and my seat was behind her meant that I missed about 90% of her Siren performance.

Actors Theatre’s black box Bingham Theatre has seating on all four sides, and that didn’t work all that well for this particular show, even though Michael B. Raiford’s bluer-than-blue scenic design with a railing or a vanity carried on and off by pretty girls was fetching and fun to look at.

I can see “Sirens” showing up in just about any theater, and I hope it has a long life in regional rep. The humor and warmth, as well as the understanding of what it means to be married a long time, are things that never go out of style.

Monday, April 5, 2010

"He and She" Brings the Battle of the Sexes to Krannert's Studio Theatre

Note: This review ran in the Champaign News-Gazette on Sunday, April 4, 2010.

For "He and She," the U of I Department of Theatre reaches out to Bloomington, its neighbor to the northwest. Not only was the play written by Bloomington native Rachel Crothers, but guest director Deb Alley is Associate Professor of Theatre at Illinois State University and Artistic Director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington.

It's curious in some ways that Crothers was born and bred in Bloomington-Normal. We don't necessarily think of sophisticated, early 20th century Broadway playwrights springing from the Heartland. But Crothers went in for the kind of upper class relationship play you might expect from Philip Barry or even Noel Coward. Like Barry, she wanted to examine the role of gender in American society, and what exactly it meant to be a woman or a man within the confines of marriage.

If that sounds dire or dreary, "He and She" definitely isn't. It has some heavy issues and some speechifying on whether woman should put family over career or artistry, whether men should make families with women who seek fulfillment in jobs outside the home or only accept happy homemakers, but it's also got some amusing, lighter moments.

The amazing thing is that Crothers wrote the play in 1911. We have a tendency to think that working women popped up in the 40s when America went to war, and then got shoved back into the kitchen in the 50s. "He and She" is a valuable lesson that women who yearn for careers and face conflict because of it is nothing new.

Deb Alley does an excellent job keeping the pace moving and creating snap and crackle between her players, and Moon Jung Kim's scenic design creates a lovely studio and even lovelier Edwardian living room inside Krannert's Studio Theatre.

It's often difficult for 21st century actors to acquire the right posture and attitude to properly play these kinds of soignée, society folks from a lost time. Alley's cast does just fine, adding just a tiny bit of today's spirit to yesterday's characters.

As Ann Herford, the sculptress who aspires to the same artistic heights as her husband, Carley Cornelius looks and acts a bit like screen star Norma Shearer, who was exactly the kind of actress who would've taken on a role like that. She has enough fire and intelligence to make Ann seem believable, and she has good chemistry with both Jess Prichard, handsome and properly aristocratic as husband Tom Herford, and Jaclyn Holtzman, who is giddy and charming as their teenage daughter.

Bri Sudia gets some of the best scenes and creates excellent tension as Daisy, Mr. Herford's sister, who can't admit she'd love to fall in love, and she plays well off Tyrone Phillips' clueless Keith McKenzie, who is engaged to the wrong sort of woman for him. Jenny Nelson plays that woman, an ambitious magazine editor named Ruth, and she, too, has good energy and strength.

Doug West rounds out the cast as Ann's father, and although he's clearly too young to take on this Charles-Coburn-meets-Lewis-Stone father figure, he has the right hair and humor to make it work.

By the end, "He and She" is entertaining and intriguing, offering a window into the world of women in 1911. It's a bit depressing, as well, as we look back and realize a women of 2011 might face exactly the same problems. Can my marriage last if I'm better than my husband at our shared occupation? Can I follow my artistic vision if it means splitting my attention between my art and my child? Rachel Crothers provides one answer for one woman. Let's hope today's women can find more of a variety of answers.

Baffling/Brilliant/Banal -- The Ten-Minute Plays at the 2010 Humana Festival

The Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville has been a champion of the ten-minute play format, presenting some of the best examples of ten-minute plays ever as part of their annual festival, and also handing some lucky playwright a thousand dollars and the Heideman Award every year.

Most times, when attending the Humana Festival, I've found that the choices sort of cover the waterfront. That was absolutely true this year, with four short plays on stage in ATL's Pamela Brown Auditorium that ranged from banal to brilliant, with a little bit of baffling (in the sense of "Why the heck did they choose this play?") thrown in for good measure.

I liked but didn't love Gamel Abdel Chasten's "Let Bygones Be," directed by KJ Sanchez, a musing on American life as seen through individual relationships to transportation.

Weaknesses: It seemed to still be in the development stage and a lot longer than ten minutes. Plus the section on people whose jobs (auto worker, Pullman porter) have been phased out as we move into the 21st century didn't work for me, considering it hasn't been that long since I rode a train and saw a conductor/porter with my own eyes. Job that doesn't exist anymore? Really?

The other problem was that it sort of limped to a conclusion and the audience wasn't exactly sure it was over, which is never a good sign.

Still, David Darrow did an excellent job as a singing cowboy, and the songs themselves were intriguing. Actually, the whole premise was intriguing, and I liked the clearly-added-at-the-last-minute WalMart worker (Natalie Allen) who was fired and ended up sleeping in her car, bringing the transportation theme full circle.

Next up was "Post Wave Spectacular," by Diana Grisanti, directed by Amy Attaway, the weakest play, the one that raises the "Why, Literary Manager, why?" question. It involved three women, all involved at some time in the past with an unnamed casanova who'd treated them poorly, who lure a fourth woman into their parlor to...

Okay, here's where it gets silly. They lure her there to trap her and keep her away from Casanova. And this all has to do with tea -- they serve tea and have a huge cabinet full of more tea -- and female empowerment and imprisoning this poor fourth woman for her own good. I'm quite supportive of female empowerment myself, but what part does tea play in this? Why are they all stuck there for a year? Don’t they have families? Is staying away from one bad boy so important that they’ve structured this elaborate ruse and trap around him?

But my questions make it sound like the play was a lot more provocative than it actually was. The words "pointless" and "annoying" come to mind as well my original "baffling."

“Lobster Boy,” written by Dan Dietz and directed by KJ Sanchez, is a one-actor play, as a young man, here winningly portrayed by Trey Lyford, gives a lecture on lobsters, the ability to feel pain, psychology and brotherly love. I’m not going to say too much about the plot, as it has its surprises, but I found it both funny and moving, and maybe even a little creepy. It’s a worthy winner of this year’s Heideman Award.

But it was the last play that made the whole evening worthwhile. I’ll say it right now – Greg Kotis is freaking brilliant. Kotis, probably best known for “Urinetown,” which I also think is brill, wrote “An Examination of the Whole Playwright/Actor Relationship Presented as Some Kind of Cop Show Parody.” The title says it all, really, but doesn’t convey how hilarious or clever this play comes off in performance, or how much it has to say about the current state of affairs for playwrights. There’s even an unspoken jab built in, since so many playwrights seem to be turning to the “Law & Orders” of the world to make a living they can’t in the legitimate theater.

Sean Daniels’ direction was spot-on, and actors Kotis, Gamal Abdel Chasten and Gregory Maupin made the most of their ten minutes, with Kotis playing himself, the playwright who gets knocked around and given the third degree for the shortcomings in his script. That adds a whole other level to the metahumor.

I’d love to see this “Examination” presented in ten-minute play festivals everywhere, although I fear it will never be as good without the actual playwright as an actor.

Here is info on the Heideman Award in case you have a ten-minute play you'd like to submit.

Don’t forget that our very own Heartland Theatre also has a ten-minute play contest every year. For 2011, the theme will be BACK TO THE PORCH, with all plays required to be set on a back porch. That theme was chosen to honor the tenth anniversary of the first-ever ten-minute play festival at Heartland in 2001. Because there is a huge lag time between when you enter the Heideman and when you find out (a year and a half?) feel free to write a porch play and send it to both contests.

When it comes to my own writing, I know I will never write a ten-minute play as well as Greg Kotis does. But I intend to keep trying. Maybe I will even send off an entry to the Heideman Award contest. Can’t win if you don’t enter! And then other critics can feel free to call me banal or baffling. Brilliant is okay, too.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy April!

So far, I like April a lot. Yes, I've been crazy busy, but the weather has been awesome and there's plenty of good entertainment happening all over Central Illinois. What's not to like?

Before it's too late to tell you about "Easter Parade" at the Normal Theater – one last screening tonight -- let me get that in. It’s Fred Astaire. It’s a no-brainer. It may not be my favorite Fred – I don’t think he has great chemistry with Judy Garland and he wasn’t meant to play a hobo (“Just a Couple of Swells”) – but it also has a dandy Irving Berlin score, including “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” and it doesn’t get much better than that particular song and dance. Look for "Easter Parade" tonight at 7 at the Normal Theater.

Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” based on the novella by Voltaire about a naïve young man who goes looking for the best of all possible worlds, plays at ISU’s Center for the Performing Arts through April 11th. This “Candide” is best known for its its gorgeous music, but I am also fond of the story, echoing Voltaire’s original with its picaresque plot and sarcastic tone.

“He and She,” a 1911 play by Bloomington’s own Rachel Crothers, continues at U of I’s Krannert Center through the 11th. I saw it and reviewed it for the Champaign News-Gazette, and I definitely think it should be of interest to all of us who work in theater in this area, not only because we rarely get to see Crothers’ work (she was one of the founders of Community Players and supposedly wrote “Susan and God” as a comment on Bloomington’s Julia Scott Vrooman of Vrooman Mansion fame) but also because it’s fascinating to see that women were grappling with career vs. family issues even in 1911. “He and She” was guest-directed for U of I's Deparment of Theatre by Deb Alley, Associate Professor of Theatre at ISU and Artistic Director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.

After all the Sondheim parties in March, Illinois Wesleyan is bringing a little more Sondheim to Bloomington-Normal, with a production of “Passion,” one of his more controversial pieces, opening April 6th at McPherson Theatre. Like “Candide,” the music is beautiful. But the book... It’s about Fosca, a woman who lives under a dark cloud of moodiness and distress. She develops a major crush on Giorgio, a handsome soldier, even though he is already attached to the lovely Clara. Can Fosca convince Giorgio that her passion is so great it must be returned? Or will he see her as the nutball stalker she really is? (That last bit is my editorial comment, not really part of the show.) If you want to form your own opinion, and I hope you do, “Passion” plays at ISU for six performances only. I suggest you see it and come back here to argue about it with me. Is Fosca a stalker? Or is what she feels for Giorgio true love? Is Fosca impossibly self-indulgent? Or are her feelings just deeper than anybody else’s? See what you think.

On April 8, a company called DanceBrazil (billed as “direct from Salvador”) will take the stage at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts. BCPA describes the show this way: “The richly colorful music and costumes, samba-inspired dance, and whiplash movement of capoeira - that is the glory of DanceBrazil.” For tickets or for more information please visit the website or call the BCPA at 309-434-2787.

Also coming up this month, the Bloomington and Normal Public Libraries team up for their annual Community Reading Program called “A Tale for Two Cities.” This year, participants will be reading Warren St. John’s "Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference." St. John will also speak at the Bloomington-Normal Marriott Hotel & Conference Center in Uptown Normal on April 12 from 7 to 9:30 p.m.

In addition to “Candide” above, ISU is also tacking “Macbeth” in April, with five performances at Westhoff Theatre from the 14th to the 18th. It makes a nice contrast to the lighter fare planned for this summer’s Shakespeare Festival, and it’s always intriguing to see what college-age actors can do with complicated characters like Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth. Ambition, murder, sleepwalking, guilt and tragedy – who can resist?

A “don’t miss” has to be Heartland Theatre’s production of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful,” directed by Sandi Zielinski, opening April 15th and playing until May 2nd. Geraldine Page won an Oscar for her performance in the 1985 film version, playing Carrie Watts, an elderly woman stuck in 1940s Houston with her overly protective son and his overly controlling wife. Carrie is desperate to return home to Bountiful, the small Texas town where she grew up. Can Carrie stage a successful escape and find her way back home?

The Normal Theater will be offering “The Last Station,” later this month. Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren both received Oscar nods this year for their roles as Leo Tolstoy and his wife, trying to balance the ideals that permeate his work against fame and wealth. “The Last Station” plays April 22-25.

If you like the Flying Karamazov Brothers, they will take their crazy antics to the Bloomington CPA for one performance on April 24th. I’ve seen them perform, and their juggling and comedy is really quite astonishing. This show features two of their favorite tricks: “The Danger Trick,” where the brothers pretend to cook a meal and drink champagne while continuing to juggle, and “The Gamble,” where they will juggle items offered by the audience. FMI visit the website linked at left or call the BCPA at 309-434-2787.

Those are my highlights for April. Let me know if there’s something you’re really looking forward to that I missed.