Friday, July 30, 2010

"Little Dog" Gets His Day at Urbana's Station Theatre

Douglas Carter Beane's "The Little Dog Laughed," a scathing satire of Hollywood and its lack of morals, (What? Hollywood has no morals? It's shocking!) is playing at Urbana's Station Theatre for one more week.

Caveat: I caught half of the show last week. I wasn't feeling well – nothing to do with the show – and left at intermission, so I can only tell you about the first half of the Station's production, although I can discuss the play as a whole, since I've read it, and I've now seen how the first half plays, anyway.

On paper and in performance, it's a funny play, with issues that are as in style today as they were fifty years ago, about a voraciously ambitious agent, her client, an up-and-coming star who "suffers from a slight recurring case of homosexuality," the rent boy he falls in love with, and the rent boy's sort-of-girlfriend, who doesn't seem to mind that the guy she wants makes his living sleeping with men for money, but does mind if he's in love with one of his tricks.

Complicated, yes. Stylish and funny, yes. Sad, yes. All of that. The script is very clever and well-constructed, and it offers an amazing showcase to the actress who plays the agent. Julie White won a Tony for it. Everybody else who's done well with it has also made a huge impression. It's not that the role is anything we haven't seen before ("Entourage," "Laura," even "Ruthless") but that she's talking directly to us a lot of the time and she's so cheerfully evil and manipulative, so convoluted and yet so direct as she goes about achieving her schemes and her desire for her version of a fairytale happy ending. It's just that her fairytales are more warped than other people's.

So when Diane, the agent, says she wants a happy ending, she tells us she means a real "Hey Diddle Diddle" kind of thing, where the little dog laughs and the dish runs away with the spoon. Or, in her mind, where she can keep her client looking heterosexual in public, acquire a smash play for him to star in, maneuver the playwright into butching up his characters for a film version, and sweep the love interest and his girlfriend up in a neat bundle of dishes and spoons.

Don't worry. It doesn't have to make sense. It's just supposed to be ironic and cynical and wickedly funny.

Although Chris Taber chews up and spits out Diane nicely, and Katie Baldwin is terrific as Ellen, the maybe-maybe-not girlfriend, the "Little Dog" directed by Mathew Green for the Station comes off more amusing than hilarious. That may be the crowd (we're not coastal) or the setting (the Station is quite small and intimate, and the unpleasantness of all of the characters, as well as the nudity, is very in-your-face) or just that it's hard to pull off without a proscenium stage and all the bells and whistles of stage magic that a Broadway theater can offer.

Or maybe it's just me, and I find the idea of people who can't be who they really are, who are willing to give up who they really love, just to achieve stardom in a place as silly as Hollywood, too tragic to make me really howl with laughter.

Complicated, yes. Stylish and funny, yes. But sad, too. Very sad.

“The Little Dog Laughed” continues at the Station Theatre in Urbana through next Saturday, with all performances at 8 pm. For more information or to reserve tickets, see the Station's website at left.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

End-of-July Quickies

I've been getting a lot of notices lately, and I thought I would share.
  • The Peoria Journal-Star has launched a new theater blog called THINK THEATER for area community theaters to keep everybody updated on their comings and goings and general doings, and I'm blogging for Heartland Theatre Company. Holly Rocke is blogging for Eureka College Theatre, too. You'll want to read all about Rally 4 Rolly, Young at Heartland, Heartland's new season, Eureka's new season, and everything else that struck us as fun to blog about.
  • Jared Brown has announced auditions for his new play "Three for the Show," which will take the stage at Heartland Theate Company in November. Audition dates are August 4 and 5, 2010, from 7 to 10 pm both nights. August 4th is an open call for all interested actors, with callbacks on the 5th (or open call for those who couldn’t audition on the 4th).Tentative rehearsal period is September 15 to November 2 with numerous “off-days,” and performances are scheduled for November 4-7, 11-14, and 18-21, with all performances at 7:30 pm, except for November 7, 14, and 21 (Sundays), which will begin at 2 pm. FMI, visit HTC's website, linked at left, or click on the THINK THEATER blog link above. The movie poster that accompanies this blog is not Jared's "Three for the Show," but it actually looks a bit like the plot of one of the three plays that makes up this program.
  • Rehearsals have begun for New Route Theatre's upcoming workshop performance of "Our David" by Ian Mairs.
  • Urbana Park District Presents "Once Upon a Mattress" at Foellinger Auditorium on the U of I Quad. Performances are tonight, Wednesday, July 28, at 7:30 pm, Thursday, July 29, at noon, Friday, July 30, at 7:30 pm, and Saturday, July 31, at 7:30 pm. See the link in this paragraph for ticket prices and information.
  • The Living Canvas: Demons continues performances through August 14th. Nudity! Dancing! Art! Woo woo!
  • Urbana's Station Theatre opens "And the Little Dog Laughed" by Douglas Carter Beane this week. Performances run till August 7th, with all shows at 8 pm.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Though This Be MAD MEN, Yet There Is Method In't.

Last night, "Mad Men" launched its fourth season on AMC, and I was waiting with bated breath. I’m not sure if it’s because I lived through the 60s (I think I’m the same age as Bobby Draper, who is currently about 8 on the show) so the furnishings and clothes flip my nostalgia switches, because I love New York City and would love to step onto Madison Avenue, circa 1964, or because the advertising milieu is so interesting. (I did once work in advertising, although only in a managerial capacity. But I was good at copywriting, if I do say so myself.)

Honestly, I don’t think the appeal of “Mad Men” comes from any one of those things. Not even the beauty of Jon Hamm, the actor who plays protagonist Don Draper, could do it by itself. No. I think this is a case of creator Matthew Weiner knowing exactly what to do in terms of keeping the writing at the highest level, and creating characters and situations that are sometimes dire, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, but always quite human. I want to know what happens to them next. Okay, not Betty so much. I have found the character and the actress (January Jones) quite limited from the beginning, and that hasn’t changed as we head into Season 4.

So what’s changed since now that we’ve vaulted to Thanksgiving, 1964? On the home front, Don and Betty’s marriage is totally and completely kaput. Thank goodness. The kids are growing up, with Sally (Kiernan Shipka) more rebellious and Bobby less of a nonentity. Betty is even chillier and less motherly than before, and her new marriage with Henry Francis is even more annoying than her old affair with him. Betty also has a new mother-in-law to contend with, and we saw that Mrs. Francis the Elder does not like Betty one bit. Good for her.

At the office, Sterling Cooper has gotten leaner and meaner as it’s morphed into Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, with a hot little SCDP on the lighter, brighter walls. The team that broke away from Sterling Cooper – like Peggy, Pete, Harry and Joan – is still there, although they’ve all already moved forward, taking on more responsibility and more confidence in their new roles at SCDP. Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) are also sporting nifty new hairdos, which doesn’t hurt.

Roger Sterling, my favorite reprobate who always gets the best lines, is in fine form, even if he doesn’t seem to have changed a bit. John Slattery is so good at playing Roger that I’m not sure the general audience realizes he’s acting. He makes it look effortless and he deserves every award there is out there for making a very unattractive character so engaging.

And then there’s Don... As the episode opens, Don has an interview with Advertising Age, but he doesn’t want to answer questions about himself. How can the quintessential Ad Man not want to advertise himself? The enigma that is Don doesn’t want to share any information whatsoever.

Still, I get the feeling that the question “Who is Don Draper?” – the first words of the new season – will continue to recur as we move on into 1965. I’m not sure Don Draper knows who he is, either. Except one majorly screwed up guy.

With no family and no home in the suburbs, Don has a nice, if tiny, apartment in Greenwich Village. He’s not really dating anyone, although he does have an awkward first date with an actress who lives at the Barbizon (famous for onetime resident Grace Kelly, who was apparently the wildest child ever to live there) and a hookup with a hooker, where Don seems to be looking for degradation as much as pleasure.

But even so... There’s a definite feeling of moving forward, finding self-knowledge, even if only a little, in this episode, whose title, by the way, is “Public Relations.” Peggy and Pete pull a PR stunt involving a fight over ham, but it’s a step into the future of advertising, where PR is part of the landscape. Don tells Betty that she and her husband need to move out of his house, and he also tells a potential client that SCDP isn’t interested in their traditional, moldy, prudish account. Onward and upward! And by the end of this episode, he’s giving a much franker, more exciting interview, telling the truth about the coup that formed SCDP and revealing more about himself.

I’m hoping that Don’s realization that it’s important to market himself and to take credit for his successes and his showdown with Betty and Henry over the house mean he has acquired enough forward momentum to clean up his life a bit, too. I hope, at least, he’s moved past chilly blondes (including the Barbizon girl, played as a snippy little twit by Anna Camp, who seems to specialize in characters like that) and hookers with slapping skills (although she was still more appealing than either Betty or Miss Barbizon).

As usual with “Mad Men,” I can’t wait to see what happens next. Will Peggy start a flirtation with her cute new office-mate? Will Pete’s wife, Trudy, show up, now that the actress who plays her (Alison Brie) is on another show? Will Roger stick with his too-young wife? Will Betty get the hell out of Don’s house and take her insufferable husband with her? Will Sally and Bobby come live with Don, and bring their former housekeeper, Carla, with them, since she was pretty much the only mother they ever knew?

More importantly, will Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce get any new accounts so Lucky Strike won’t continue to comprise 71% of their client pool?

How long till next Sunday?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Cary Grant Will Steal Your Heart in "To Catch a Thief"

Cary Grant is in town, in the form of “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” and “To Catch a Thief” at the Normal Theater. “Mr. Blandings” was there last night and will be there tonight, with “To Catch a Thief,” my choice between the two, on Saturday and Sunday.

I’m not sure if all this Cary Grant action is in honor of “Mad Men” and its 4th season premiere on Sunday, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Don Draper, the mysterious ad man in “Mad Men,” is the heir apparent to Cary Grant’s John Robie, international jewel thief and romantic icon. The movie came out in 1955, so the milieu is a little too early for “Mad Men,” which is up to 1964 this year, but the elegant, dangerous, dishy feel is definitely there.

The movie itself, with its bad boy hero and criminal hijinks, spawned some of my favorite TV shows of days past, like “It Takes a Thief” and “Remington Steele.”

Here’s what you need to know about the first ten minutes of “To Catch a Thief”:

John Robie (played by Cary Grant at his most delicious) was a hero in the French Resistance and then a famous jewel thief called The Cat. (Cat = cat burglar, you see?) He’s supposedly retired, but there have been a rash of new burglaries on the Riviera with his name all over them. The French police try to bring him in, but he stages a ruse and escapes. During the escape, much fabulous scenery is displayed, and director Alfred Hitchcock pops up as a passenger on the bus next to the beautiful Monsieur Robie.

Et voila! After that exposition, we’re off and running. Robie gets ten days from the local constabulary to find the real culprit(s) or go straight to jail, he finds his old criminal associates to see if one of them is back in business using his signature moves, and he forges an alliance with a friendly insurance man who can furnish a list of potential victims, including a wealthy widow (the wonderful Jessie Royce Landis) and her dewy daughter (an unbelievably lovely Grace Kelly). The person who has taken his place as The Cat isn’t too pleased he’s hanging around mucking things up, either.

As Robie sums it up, “The police want me in jail, my old friends want me dead, and The Cat wants me out of town.”

I have a fondness for the romance and dash of jewel thievery plots. I have a fondness for the romance and dash of Cary Grant. “To Catch a Thief” takes full advantage of both, with Hitchcock offering plenty of scenery for everybody in terms of the Riviera and its vistas, Cary Grant in a bathing suit and a dinner jacket more than once, and a fabulous array of outfits designed for Grace Kelly by Edith Head. Ms. Kelly could walk down Fifth Avenue dressed like that today and the fashion reporters would still swoon.

“To Catch a Thief” depends almost entirely upon style, seduction and the joy of watching two impossibly beautiful people play cat-and-mouse with each other. I must admit I am not the world’s biggest Grace Kelly fan, and the first time I saw “To Catch a Thief” when I was young, I found her vapid and uninteresting, as well as not nearly good enough for Cary Grant.

Upon rewatching, I like her a lot better than I did then. It’s not just her beauty, but the mischievous humor she projects. She and Mr. Grant are a good match, even if he is clearly too old for her. (He was often too old for his leading ladies, and it doesn’t seem to matter a bit.)

All in all, "To Catch a Thief" is a fun, frothy way to spend 106 minutes. And a great way to get ready for Don Draper & Co. to return on Sunday.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Monster Maché: Build Your Own

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival is offering a unique hands-on opportunity to learn about stagecraft. As part of community support for Rolly Turner, a central Illinois theater enthusiast whose home burned down, injuring him and destroying all of his possessions, the ISF is hosting a puppet-making workshop for “kids (5 and up), artists, educators, theatre-makers, and anyone else who might like to build their own 7-foot-tall paper mache rod puppet!”

Yes, you read that right. They’re not talking about just any puppets, but 7-foot-tall puppets. These huge, ugly faces, hoisted on poles like broomsticks, can make great monsters on stage.

The ISF flyer connects this to their current production of “The Tempest,” “in which the sorcerer Prospero rules an island inhabited by spirits and monsters.” So this workshop will allow participants in the workshop to create their own monsters, suitable for Prospero’s island, and when they’re finished, they can take their very own monsters home to scare their brothers and sisters or put on "The Tempest" (or boogie down to "The Monster Mash") in the back yard.

The monster-building workshop takes place on two Sunday afternoons in a row – July 25 and August 1 – from 3 to 5 pm, with potential puppet masters required to attend both Sunday sessions. They’ll build on the first one and paint on the second. Cost is $20 per person, and they will provide all the materials, working space, and skilled professionals to lead the way. Maximum capacity is 60 participants, so reservations are required. Call 438 2535 for reservations or more information.

And, as I noted up there at the top, anything they collect will go to benefit Rolly Turner, who is the center of the Rally 4 Rolly campaign as he attempts to put his life back together following the fire.

Good cause, good fun, good skills to learn!

Monday, July 19, 2010

"As You Like It" for the Younger Set at ISF

As a rule, I don't review children's theater. Yes, I'm a bit of curmudgeon, but it also doesn't really work to critique young casts (you can't really hold children to the same standards as adults) or to try to figure out what works for an audience under 10 when you are not among them. But I was intrigued by the idea of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival's initiative to bring brief, breezy versions of Shakespeare plays to kids for free. This means that the ISF's usual terrific actors are offering their talents FOR FREE to anyone who wants to make a reservation and toddle on over to the courtyard at Ewing Manor (seen in the picture posted here, which I snapped on my Blackberry before the show began) at 10 am on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

So last Saturday, I ventured over to Ewing Manor to see the children's version of "As You Like It," where I saw a pretty good show, with an audience comprising lots of young ones, from a few months to maybe 11 or 12, the adults who accompanied them, a few umbrellas for shade, and a strange assortment of lawn chairs and blankets to throw down on the hard stones.

The cast, led by Megan Storti as Rosalind, my favorite Shakespearean heroine; Drew Vidal as Orlando, the lovestruck hero; and Rhys Lovell as both evil Duke Frederick and his older brother, Duke Senior, is top-notch and committed to presenting the material, even in less-than-ideal circumstances. And by that, I mean an outdoor courtyard in bright sun, with most of them in layers of costumes, and an audience full of children who aren't really old enough to understand what's being said to them. The show was an hour long, which might be okay in cooler conditions, but seemed to be pushing the envelope at almost 90 degrees. In fact, a lot of the kids skipped out and went to play on the grass or hide out in the shade in one of the tunnels, although they all came back for the closing moments, when bubbles were released. Yes, the bubbles pulled all the children back to the stage, a stronger lure than any songs or hijinks the actors got up to.

In general, I would say this shortened, spritely version of "As You Like It" was a success for the parents in the crowd, and maybe for the older children. I doubt the really young ones got much out of it. Except the bubbles.

But kudos to the cast for trying their hardest and giving it their all. And kudos to the ISF for offering this kind of programming. If it reaches one child among the many, it's probably worth it to keep audiences growing and sow some seeds for future actors and directors. Who knows? Maybe somebody chasing bubbles today will be auditioning to be a fairy in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" tomorrow.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

ISF's "Merry Wives" Creates Frisky Fun

The one thing that “The Merry Wives of Windsor” needs to be is merry. If the tricks two suburban housewives play on the story’s drunken buffoon (who fancies himself a lothario) don’t bring down the house, there’s just no point in putting on the show.

Director Catherine Weidner has chosen to set her “Merry Wives” in the 1920s, in a town something like Windsor, Illinois, if such a thing existed. The real Windsor is a suburb of London, and it was a prosperous village with lots of hotels and inns and a few religious relics that were attractive to pilgrims in Shakespeare’s day.

“Merry Wives” is set in and around the Garter Inn, where Falstaff, the larger-than-life clown mentioned above, is hiding out after piling up debts he can’t pay. To get his hands on some cash, Falstaff decides to romance both housewives, Mistresses Ford and Page. Master Ford is irrationally jealous, while Master Page is irrationally not jealous. But their wives are cheery, mischievous types, and they concoct a scheme of their own to make Falstaff look even more of a fool.

And then there’s the subplot about lovely Anne Page, the daughter of Master and Mistress Page, who has three suitors, including a silly French doctor her mother likes, a doofus with good connections her father likes, and the more normal boy she herself likes. Mistress Quickly, who works for the doctor, gets involved in all the plots and counterplots, delivering notes and messages hither and yon.

Weidner’s cast looks good and keeps the mood frisky in their pretty 20s attire, including the ladies in summer frocks and hats, Slender, the doofus, in a straw boater and high-water pants, and Master Ford, who affects a Charlie Chaplin bowler hat and thick mustache when he pretends to be someone else.

Fred M. Duer’s set is painted in the same creams, beiges and pinks as the costumes, offering slightly tilted small-town storefronts that fold and unfold to show the inn, the doctor’s office and the Ford household and setting the right light and comical mood.

Among the cast, George Judy stands out as Falstaff, the much put-upon old goat who drives the plot, with a voice and persona as rich and robust as Falstaff himself.

He has good chemistry with Magdalyn Donnelly’s delicious Mistress Quickly as well as Demetria Thomas and Kathy Logelin, plenty cheeky and spirited as Mistresses Ford and Page.

Probably the funniest character is Gerson Dacanay’s bizarre little Dr. Caius, a popinjay and martinet who brings to mind Hercule Poirot if he were blended together with Mickey Rooney. He’s hilarious and over the top in all the right ways.

Drew Vidal as hopeless suitor Slender, Kevin Rich as the proprietor of the Garter Inn, and Max Ganet as a very dim servant named Simple also make a good impression.

This “Merry Wives” is just for fun, but it’s still Shakespeare, which means it’s not appropriate for youngsters. Besides, it's full of sexual references and language jokes that are way over their heads. They'll be bored silly and they'll take it out on everyone within ten rows of you. In other words – if you have children, leave them at home, please. It’s unfortunate when crying babies or fussy toddlers ruin everybody’s evening, especially when the actors and designers are working so hard to bring us all a good show.

Your kids and your fellow theater-goers will appreciate it if, instead of creating a black hole of discord in the audience at a full-length Shakespeare play, you take the younger crowd to Community Players’ “Fantastic Mr. Fox” or the children’s version of “As You Like It” currently playing on Saturdays and Wednesday mornings in the Ewing Manor courtyard. The latter is free and it’s meant for kids.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor”? Is not.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor,” by William Shakespeare
Performed in repertory by the Illinois Shakespeare Festival through August 7

Director: Catherine Weidner
Costume Designer: Rachel Laritz
Scenic Designer: Fred M. Duer
Lighting Designer: Julie Mack
Sound Designer: Jason Knox
Stage Manager: David Solotke
Vocal Coach: Connie DeVeer
Fight Director: Kevin Asselin

Cast: Chris Amos, Kareem Bandealy, Kyle Cameron, Benjamin Cole, Gerson Dacanay, Nick Dargis, Magdalyn Donnelly, Max Ganet, George Judy, Anthony Kayer, Katrina Kurtz, Kathy Logelin, David Marcotte, Ken Mooney, Patrick New, Kevin Rich, Brian Rooney, David Sitler, Nathan Stark, Demetria Thomas, Drew Vidal and Steve Wojtas.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

POPTARTS (by Joel Dwight Shoemaker)

When I asked Joel Dwight Shoemaker to write a piece about his experience in "Fantastic Mr. Fox" at Community Players, I already knew he was hilarious as an actor. But who knew he was this hilarious as a writer? So here's a short piece from the Fantastic Mr. Joel, all about Poptarts, Toasters, Foxes and Rats, oh, my!

Firstly, a great many thanks to Julie for asking me to write this brief article for her blog. This is something that I promise I would have said all along, but perhaps even moreso after this posting – this is one GREAT blog with OUTSTANDING content! So, thanks Julie. And thanks for promoting the arts in general throughout our community.

Secondly, did you know they were 200 calories? Poptarts, that is. I believe blogs are still calorie-free.

Used to be, I would eat two for breakfast. This seemed to me a good idea as there were two to a pouch, but, I don't do this anymore. No, three cups of coffee and but one calorie-packed poptart shall do just fine. I prefer the cherry flavor. Ice cream sundae doth intrigue me, but probably not for breakfast.

Most mornings you'd find me at work on my second cup of coffee by 7:30 AM. And, these days, the second cup of coffee cues the cherry poptart. It's artificial cherry and I'm pretty sure that's why I like it. I usually find myself pretty busy in the morning so I either rip open or unfold the top of the silver packet, extract the pastry and quickly dispose of or place the packet into the box, as needed.


That is most mornings. However, this morning I took an extra second to look at the packet. And did you know there are cartoons on the package? It's actually a toaster AND a poptart, just like the consumable ones save for the arms, legs and face the cartoon includes. They're really quite hilarious. Today, Mr. Poptart was in combat mode, arms extended above his head, stick-leg in the air, ready to put some serious karate moves on the defenseless, limbless, faceless toaster. Poor chap.

The karate move is EXACTLY like one we see in Fantastic Mr. Fox, now playing at Community Players (remaining performances are June 15-18 and June 22-25, nightly at 7:30, Sundays at 2:30).

You knew this had a point, right?

And, in EXACTLY the same manner, both the cartoon this morning and the fight-scene I see from the wings nightly put into motion one massive smile upon my face, along with some good ol'-fashioned healthy laughter.

I don't know what you expect from live theater. I know often I attend expecting to be challenged. Educated. Given choices. Made to think. Moved. Provoked. Whatever.

But this show is a little different than most of those things I've seen or of those that I have been a part. The cast is thirty-some strong and probably seventy percent children under 12. It's directed, assistant directed, produced, lit and costumed by first-timers. The cast is often mothers or fathers alongside their children. It's short. It's a play, but we sing songs. And, its target audience is probably children. Although I think it's great for adults as well.

Oh, I feel I should mention that the karate fight is performed by foxes and rats rather than poptarts and toasters. You know, so that's more normal.

So, I beg you not to expect to be challenged or educated or made to think too much. Except for maybe to enjoy yourself quite a bit for an hour or so. And to leave with one massive smile upon your face.

Cast of "Fantastic Mr. Fox" in action: Left to right, Hunter Bartram, Melea Hauck and Vivian Johnson.

All My Children Meets Ottawa Riverfest

Are you a fan of TV's long-running soap, "All My Children"? The one with Erica Kane and all nine husbands? (She may be over nine by now. I admit I haven't watched in awhile.) One of her former husbands, the stalwart Jackson Montgomery, is played by Walt Willey, a native son of Illinois. And one of Erica's chief rivals over the years was Brooke English, played by the lovely and charming Julia Barr.

Willey is coming back to Ottawa, Illinois, and bringing Barr with him, as the two will perform in Joseph Kesselring's screwball classic "Arsenic and Old Lace" at the Ottawa High School auditorium. They'll be joined by Kim "Howard" Johnson, Willey's childhood friend, billed as a "noted Monty Python diarist and improvisational actor."

The production is part of Ottawa's Riverfest with performances on Friday, July 23, Saturday, July 24 and Sunday, July 25, 2010 in the OHS Auditorium.

Willey, Barr and Johnson will play three members of the crazy Brewster clan, with Willey as Mortimer, the only sort-of-normal one, Barr as his Aunt Abby (even though she's only two years older than he is in real life) and Johnson as Jonathan, the creepy one who looks like Boris Karloff. Ottawa actors will fill out the rest of the cast, including Mortimer's love interest, Elaine, and adorable Uncle Teddy, who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt and the Panama Canal is in the basement.

Riverfest's press materials note that "Arsenic and Old Lace" is WilleyWorld Community Productions’ second annual effort in developing a self-sustaining theater for the Ottawa community as well as a mentorship program for youths in the Ottawa area.

For more information, visit the Riverfest link above. Or pick up a copy of "Arsenic and Old Lace" at your local bookstore and get a headstart on the plot before you go. It's a fun, crazy play, perfect for all audiences.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Jane Austen, Online in Her Own Hand

A friend has alerted me to an exciting new development from the University of Oxford and King's College London.

To be brief, it's Jane Austen's original manuscripts, now digitized and available online! We can all gaze on her own script, her own words, and dig into her writing process. The goal of this Jane Austen Manuscripts site is to "create a digital resource reuniting all the known holograph surviving manuscripts of Austen’s fiction in an unprecedented virtual collection." And it's gorgeous.

The site describes the project this way:

Jane Austen’s fiction manuscripts are the first significant body of holograph evidence surviving for any British novelist. They represent every stage of her writing career and a variety of physical states: working drafts, fair copies, and handwritten publications for private circulation. The manuscripts were held in a single collection until 1845, when at her sister Cassandra’s death they were dispersed among family members, with a second major dispersal, to public institutions and private collections, in the 1920s.1 Digitization enables their virtual reunification and will provides scholars with the first opportunity to make simultaneous ocular comparison of their different physical and conceptual states; it will facilitate intimate and systematic study of Austen’s working practices across her career, a remarkably neglected area of scholarship within the huge, world-wide Austen critical industry.

Many of the Austen manuscripts are frail; open and sustained access has long been impossible for conservation and location reasons. Digitization at this stage in their lives not only offers the opportunity for the virtual reunification of a key manuscript resource, it will also be accompanied by a record in as complete a form as possible of the conservation history and current material state of these manuscripts to assist their future conservation.

So far, I've only looked at the front board of Volume the First. In her own hand! Excitement!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Still Time to See Kathleen Kirk Reading from Living on the Earth Today at Heartland Theatre!

I don’t know whether to blame jet lag or general discombobulation from being in a different time zone all week, but somehow I have failed to preview Kathleen Kirk’s poetry reading at Heartland Theatre at 2 pm this afternoon.

But if you work quickly there is still just enough time to put on your best poetry-appreciation attire (Purple poetry pumps? Pink poetic parka?) and head over to Heartland, where Kathleen will be performing poems from her newest chapbook, Living on the Earth, published by Finishing Line Press. Admission is free, and you can buy a copy of Living on the Earth at the reading, or get an autograph from Kathleen if you already have a copy of the chapbook.

Kathleen shared this information about Living on the Earth with us back in February:

“This is a book, quite simply, about ‘living on the earth’ in some pretty basic ways: standing and walking with the earth’s gravity, eating what grows on the earth and even cultivating our food, living among the beauties of nature, living with earth’s various creatures, living with other humans, and living with our own struggles and imperfections.

“Sometimes it even means living with alienation—there’s a poem called ‘Living on the Moon’ in which I imagine literally living on the moon as a way of expressing the feeling of being alienated from fellow citizens of earth. There’s another called ‘Resurrection on the 4th of July’ in which I imagine I have come back to life (like a lady Lazarus) from some period of deathlike estrangement.

“But most of the poems are set in nature or my own backyard, observing the gently cultivated nature of gardens, say, or a spider interacting with a water bottle or a laundry basket. In another poem I encounter a coyote in the parking lot of a swimming pool in my own hometown; he’s hungry enough to come into town for pigeon roadkill. What does that say about 21st-century American life? In this book I look at cornfields and wildflowers, I listen to women and crickets singing, and sometimes I become things other than myself.”

The book is also available at Babbitt’s Books in Normal, if you are unable to make the signing, or online at Her previous chapbook, Broken Sonnets, is also at Amazon. Babbitt’s also carries Kathleen’s first poetry chapbook, Selected Roles, which contains theatre and persona poems and references to Heartland Theatres in its “program notes.”

Sample Poem:

Blind Gentian

I was ready to open: dew hung from my leaves.
I was like all the others
in a wet thicket beside the tall trees.
A boy asked me why I didn’t kiss him—
so I did, his lips soft as petals, closed.

I waited.

You are waiting now for what will happen
next. I cannot tell you. I wait, still.
I have spread into the damp meadow now,
toward the ragged creek. The meek, the meek,
I pray daily, bare toes digging in

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Sweet Life: Sugar Creek Arts Festival in Normal This Weekend

Uptown Normal's annual arts extravaganza – the Sugar Creek Arts Festival – returns tomorrow and Sunday, with 149 booths worth of paintings, photography, ceramics, sculpture, glass, fiber and jewelry offered by artists from all over the Midwest.

The Festival opens Saturday, with art, food and music from 10 am to 5 pm, and then starts up again on Sunday, opening at 11 am and closing at 4 pm.

Artists’ booths center around North Street and Beaufort between Fell and Linden, snaking around the new traffic circle in the middle of Uptown. See the McLean County Arts Center’s map of all the goodies here, including food vendors on the south-east side of the circle.

Musical acts will be stationed at North Street and Broadway, with performers ranging from the Sugar Creek Cloggers to Southside Cindy & the Sliptones and the Sally Weisenburg Trio. It's always nice to have a little musical accompaniment as you select your art!

Of special note is how Babbitt’s Books is participating this year. On Saturday, during the Festival, poet Kathleen Kirk will offer guidance in making collages (collage poems or bookmarks) from “Things Found in Books.” Kathleen says that materials will be provided. “Meaning glue, cardstock, my fabulous wheel of trim scissors, and actual things found in books we receive at Babbitt's.” She invites all comers to “Cut stuff up, glue it together, and take it home. Free! (And the books are cheap if you want some!)”

She’s also thoughtfully provided examples.

This year, not only can you shop for all kinds of art made by other people, you can make your own. What a deal!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox Steals His Way Onto Community Players' Stage

You might've seen the film version of "Fantastic Mr. Fox" last year, an animated little romp featuring the voices of George Clooney and Meryl Streep as Mr. and Mrs. Fox, with the likes of Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Michael Gambon (AKA The Great Gambon) rounding out the vocal cast.

The film and the play version opening this weekend at Community Players are both based on a Roald Dahl story by the same name. Here's a look at the film and the book art, which illustrates some of their differences:

The film is a little slicker, with an expanded plot and those celebrity voices, while the book and the play are going for something a bit more folksy. All three involve a Fox family that has a habit of stealing food (including chickens and ducks, crossing the animal solidarity line) from three wealthy farmers, which makes the farmers cranky enough to try to destroy the Fox family home and demolish a whole lot of other animals' warrens and dens while they're at it. So the animals launch their own counter-plots in an attempt to end the siege, save their houses and snatch some food right out from under the evil farmers' noses.

The play version, adapted for the stage by David Wood, opens with a preview tomorrow night and runs through July 25 on stage at Community Players. It stars newlyweds Nick and Laura McBurney, the Bloomington-Normal version of George and Meryl, as Mr. and Mrs. Fox, with the always-amusing Joel Dwight Shoemaker as Badger, a co-conspirator, and Desiree Taylor, Kiley Bronke and Thom Rakestraw as the bad guys.

Community Players, currently in its 88th season, bills "Fantastic Mr. Fox" as "Theatre for Young People," with some younger actors in the ensemble as well as expected in the audience. Evening performances are at 7:30 pm, with Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm. Tickets are available on-line -- just click on the Community Players link at left and follow your way to "Fantastic Mr. Fox."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Wondering What To Do in July?

Better grab a pencil and get out your calendar. July is already here, and it's packed full of fireworks, theater, movies and music. Not to mention art, bookmarks, poetry, ice cream and hot guys!

First up, of course, is the 4th of July. There are concerts and celebrations all over central Illinois, starting with music and an ice cream social in Bloomington's historic Franklin Park tonight at 6.

Also in Bloomington, the Pantagraph Holiday Spectacular will Celebrate America at the Miller Park Bandstand at 7 pm on both Saturday and Sunday, and the Normal Theater will offer "Yankee Doodle Dandy," the shiny bright 1942 musical all about George M. Cohan, the All-American song-and-dance man who is often called the father of the musical comedy. In "Yankee Doodle Dandy," Cohan is portrayed by James Cagney in what has to be his tappiest, fizziest performance on film. That's also playing Saturday and Sunday at 7.

Normal will celebrate on the 4th, with splashy water fun and activities at Fairview Park's Family Aquatic Center during the day, a concert from The Bygones, a nostalgia rock act, at 6, and the big fireworks display after the sun goes down.

And, of course, many other towns will set off their own fireworks, including Peoria, where I grew up, with its Red, White and Boom Festival held on the banks of the Illinois River. This year, the good old Marshall Tucker Band ("Heard It in a Love Song," "Fire on the Mountain") will perform Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 8 pm at Riverfront Festival Park.

If you prefer to head east, you can try Champaign-Urbana instead. The Champaign County Freedom Celebration begins at 9:30 am on the east side of the Assembly Hall with a Youth Run and goes on all day, launching fireworks at approximately 9:15 pm.

You can find other 4th Festivities in LeRoy, Downs, Heyworth, Eureka, Towanda, Lincoln, Pontiac and Chenoa. FMI, the Pantagraph has kindly listed all the pertinent times and locations.

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival continues its magical "Tempest" and smashing "Three Musketeers" into July, as well as the "theater for young audiences" version of "As You Like It" that plays every Wednesday and Saturday at 10 am. The ISF opens its third show, "The Merry Wives of Windsor," directed by Catherine Weidner, on Friday, July 16th with an 8 pm performance.

Don't forget there are also ice cream socials, live jazz performances, green shows and madrigals, backstage tours and other special Shakesperiences offered throughout the summer.

Heartland Theatre's Young at Heartland acting troupe continues its performances throughout the month, as well. This year's theme is Surprises, and the vignettes and scenes performed by senior actors will definitely surprise you. You can catch YAH between July 12 and 23 at various locations around town.

If you're looking for theater to take the kids to, Community Players and "Fantastic Mr. Fox" will surely fit the bill. This charming play, adapted from the Roald Dahl story by David Wood, opens July 9th and runs through the 25th.

Community Players is also collaborating with Heartland Community College to offer Theatre Basics for Adults, a theater enrichment class for adults beginning July 12. The Community Players website has more information on class times and cost.

Big news in July is the Sugar Creek Arts Festival, the annual arts extravaganza held on the streets of Uptown Normal. Music, food, artwork... Heaven! That's July 10 and 11, and as always, a do-not-miss occasion. Babbitt's Books has announced a fun new addition to the festivities, inviting everyone in to make a bookmark (or some other piece of art) out of "Things Found in Books." That'll be held on Saturday, July 10th from 10 am to 6 pm. Who can resist the power of art found in serendipity?

Kathleen Kirk, the poet who will be leading the "Things Found in Books" fun, will also read from and sign copies of her new poetry chapbook, Living on the Earth, from Finishing Line Press, on Sunday, July 11, at 2 pm at Heartland Theatre in Normal. It's free and you get theater AND literary merit.

Speaking of irresistible... "Mad Men," my favorite TV show, returns on AMC on July 25th. I have a major crush on Jon Hamm, who plays the Cary Grant-like Don Draper, the charismatic ad man who can't be stopped in the board room or the bedroom. This season, we find out what happens with the new advertising agency that Don and his clever, rebellious colleagues are creating. Look out, world! It's Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce!

Is it a coincidence that the Normal Theater has scheduled Cary Grant movies ("Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" and "To Catch a Thief") that very same week? Jon Hamm's take on Don Draper is as close to Cary as we're going to get in 2010, so I choose to believe this mini Cary Fest at the Normal Theater from July 22-25 was very much planned. And I will definitely be there!