Sunday, August 29, 2010

Guster is Easy and Wonderful at Lincoln Park Zoo

Please welcome Scott Johnson, my husband, who is guest-blogging about Guster at Lincoln Park Zoo, a concert we attended last Friday night. I told him I would go with him if he blogged about the concert for me, and so he did. Scott's an excellent writer and I think you'll enjoy his Guster musings. I confess I am now a Guster convert, based both on Scott's enthusiasm and one heck of a concert.

I'll be upfront about this: I lost my musical mojo around 1984. In the MTV era my LPs warped in their orange crate and my turntable froze solid from inactivity. My car rides were purposefully noiseless, broken up only occasionally by the chatter of public radio or sportstalk (when the Sox were winning). My knowledge of current acts came mostly from SNL and Letterman. So how did a 50-something whose last musical crush was Steely Dan end up jumping with both feet on the bandwagon of a quirky, onetime acoustic, now mostly alt-rock quartet from Boston?

Well, the iPod. And the ability to buy some of my favorite songs in a fourth (and final) format. And the Internet. And the ability to quickly find and try out new music. And Pandora. And Wikipedia. So I followed an odd path that bounced around slowly from Death Cab to the Shins to Weezer to Jonathan Colton and finally to Guster. And within a few minutes of listening to their music, I was hooked.

Hooks are a big part of the pop music experience. Guster writes melodic hooks in spades, adds superb musicianship, sweet harmonies, and intelligent lyrics, and rolls the whole mess into, so I had read, a great stage show. All by a band that promotes greenness. What was not to like? Checking out "Guster on Ice," the band's combined DVD/CD of a live performance in Portland, Maine, in 2003, I was inspired to do something I had not done in a generation – buy tickets to a concert.

Friday night's event took place on the grounds of Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago on a grassy knoll full of blankets – just like the old days at Ravinia or Alpine Valley, but much more intimate. By my guess, about 1500 to 2000 Guster fans packed the small area. My fears of being the oldest dude in the crowd were quickly laid aside. Although most of the concertgoers were in their late 20s or early 30s, there were plenty of middle-aged rockers as well, including the couple next to us, who had also traveled from Bloomington-Normal to lie under the stars on a perfect evening. One welcome difference from the 70s: the almost total absence of smoke of any sort, save a few hints of pot coming from back and the left. The only other smells were bug spray, the apple-scented hand sanitizer from the Port-a-Potty, and an occasional whiff of rotting flesh, which I can only hope was coming from the nearby lion exhibit.

Guster responded to the comfortable setting with a energetic set of 20 songs. The front-stage vocal trio of Ryan Miller, Adam Gardner, and Joe Pisapia displayed their instrumental versatility by swapping between lead, rhythm, bass, and keyboards on practically every number. Adam even threw in a few toots on a trumpet late in the evening. At the back of the stage, stealing the show on occasion, was Brian Rosenworcel's frenetic, mostly stickless percussion. He was accompanied on several songs by a conventional drummer introduced only as Scooter, "rescued from Haiti."

While Guster's new album, Easy Wonderful, is due out in October, by my count the band played only three songs from it: the already released single "Do You Love Me?", "This Could All Be Yours Someday," and a third song whose title I'll have to wait to decode. The rest of the evening the band stayed close to its playlist of fan favorites, leading off with "The Captain", with echoes of the country rock of yore, to the insistent anthem of self-indulgence "Center of Attention," to the group's most recent (2006) single, the dreamy, wistful "Satellite" (which has a hypnotic video). In the shortened format (the zoo had us out and on the road home by 10:30), Guster didn't have any time for the antics that are part of some of their shows, instead strumming and drumming out crowd-pleasers such as "Careful" (the song that hooked me), "Barrel of a Gun," and "Happier," featuring Adam and Ryan's soulful counter-melodies. Only on "Airport Song," an indictment of religious cults, did the group stray very far from the recorded version, adding Darth Vader-like effects to Ryan's malevolent invocation.

I was only a little disappointed that Guster omitted their two biggest hits: "Amsterdam" and "Fa Fa." No doubt they need to give those a rest once in a while.

I've seen Guster categorized as "geek rock", but that's way off base as far as I'm concerned. There's nothing overtly geeky about the music or their act – not striving to be funny like They Might Be Giants, not defiantly against convention like Weezer, not over the top like Devo, for Pete's sake. Yes, this was a crowd I think my fellow programmers would have felt comfortable in 25 years ago. But the songs touch on broad themes anyone can relate to, and almost always with a cheerful hook and chiming guitar riff.

So why isn’t Guster a household name? Good question. They're fun, accessible, and hard-working (up to 250 dates a year). But then Guster at Assembly Hall or the Peoria Civic Center wouldn't be nearly as much of a treat as watching them play on a smooth summer evening, under the trees, with a cool breeze off Lake Michigan.

If you'd like to see what I'm talking about, use your Netflix to check out "Guster on Ice." Or watch the first three songs of the Friday's concert here, here, and here.

Thanks to Jenn Winter for the use of the concert photo. Check out her blog at

And thanks to Scott for the review!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Chicago's Neo-Futurists & Their Neo-Obama Portrait-O-Rama

Chicago's Neo-Futurists, the troupe responsible for the long-running "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind," have announced that they're looking for portraits of President Barack Obama (or one portrait, at any rate) to add to their "Hall of Presidents."

They've got a piece of art for each and every U.S. president so far, ranging from a tiny bust of George Washington placed next to a tiny set of false teeth to a collage of pitted cherries on paper representing Zachary Taylor. You can see Herbert Hoover and Warren G. Harding looking a bit more like themselves in the picture of the entire display above, but beware Eisenhower, who looks kind of zombiefied, and W, who has an oil well spouting out the top of his head.

Here's John Quincy Adams, looking a bit like Bob Hope, as portrayed by artist Steve Musgrave.

If you can create the winning Obama (submissions due September 24th), you could win $250 from the Neo-Futurists, and your portrait will hang alongside all the others in their Hall of Shame. Er, Fame.

Judges include Miss Mia, the host of "Chic-A-Go-Go," several gallery owners, a member of the Neo-Futurists ensemble and Oli Watt, faculty member at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, whose own art appears in the Hall of Presidents in the form of George W. Bush and his oil wells.

For all the details, visit the Neo-Futurists and be sure to take a look at all the presidents already on display. They're wacky! They're scary! They're funny! They're inspiring! They're depressing!

Note that nobody has done Peeps or macaroni portraits yet, so the field is wide open.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Zombies Are Coming! The Zombies Are Coming!

I had a chance to ask Jesse Petersen, the author of MARRIED WITH ZOMBIES, the first book in a terrific new series from Orbit, a few questions about the book and her writing life in general. I think you'll enjoy hearing what Jesse (pictured at right) had to say.

Julie Kistler: First off, let's talk a little about your career. I seem to remember that your college degree is in psychology. How did you go from that to a career in writing? Was writing something you always wanted to do?

Jesse Petesen: I always dreamed of being a writer. I actually won a Young Authors award when I was a kid. But I figured it wasn't something I could really do. I needed a back up. I really enjoyed studying psychology and had every intention of becoming a marriage counselor but the more I did field work, the less happy I was. Writing really kept calling to me and finally my husband said I should just do that. So I was very lucky to have a supportive partner who believed in my dream even when I sometimes didn't.

JK: You've had a how-to website for prospective writers called Passionate Pen for some time. How did that get started? Do you think that helped you along your own journey to selling the first book?

JP: Yes, I've done The Passionate Pen for eleven years now. I really just put together a site full of resources I wanted as an aspiring author and figured might be useful to other people. Over the years, it grew to include even more resources, including my diary toward and beyond publication. I think it definitely made me more aware of the publishing industry, which helped while I was unpublished. Plus, once I sold my first book I definitely had potential readers who already knew who I was.

JK: When did you sell your first book? Tell us about that.

JP: In 2004 I had a new agent and a historical romance that I wanted to sell (it was my tenth historical manuscript). She pitched the book around and called me one day in September to tell me Avon had made an offer on two historical romances. My first, SCANDALOUS, came out in 2005 and my 14th and 15th books with them will come out this year and next. So it's been a very nice ride.

JK: Given all the historical romances, MARRIED WITH ZOMBIES is quite a departure for you. Can you tell us where you got the idea and what prompted this zombie invasion?

JP: I always say I didn't mean to write a zombie book! It just happened. My husband and I had gone to "Zombieland" with some friends. I really loved the movie and the next night I found a scene coming to me. The opening scene of MARRIED WITH ZOMBIES where David and Sarah realize their marriage counselor is now a zombie and they have to kill her. Once I started writing, the book just flowed from me. I was so excited to write it and now I'm equally excited for everyone to read it.

JK: You start off the book with a very unhelpful marital counselor. Is that a callback to your past studying psychology?

JP: Everyone keeps asking me that. I probably wouldn't want to know what a real psychologist would say about me killing the thing I once thought I'd be. I'm sure it means something. But honestly, I just had such a strong image of David and Sarah's story starting with their marriage counselor that I just had to do it.

JK: The fact that Sarah and David have not been getting along as a married couple really gives the book a different twist from other zombie books, and you've incorporated that into little helpful hints at the beginning of each chapter, like my favorite: "Balance the workload in the relationship. No one person should be responsible for killing all the zombies." Where did the idea of combining marital discord and zombies come from?

JP: Really just from that first image in my head. And the idea that Sarah and Dave would use their dead counselor's advice to escape the apocalypse. That made each chapter header very easy to write and the story flow pretty naturally from that concept.

JK: I know you grew up in Idaho, but lived in Seattle, just like Sarah and David in the book. And now you're in Illinois. Where do you feel is really home at this point? Why did you decide to set MWZ in Seattle? What makes it more zombie-riffiic?

JP: Well, we've lived in Illinois for almost 9 years so it's home, at least for now. I'm not really like Sarah in that wherever my husband is, that's where I'm home (though Sarah certainly learns some lessons by the end of the book). As for why Seattle, I wanted to set the story in a large, urban environment and I'm still most familiar with Seattle. Plus, it's Seattle. By definition it's cool! And beautiful (except for those pesky zombies).

JK: I'm used to your angsty historical romances, and this is ultra-contemporary, irreverent and hilarious. If I didn't know you better, I would say MWZ was totally your real voice as a writer. It sounds SO you. Or maybe you're just multi-voiced? What do you think?

JP: I think they're both my real voice. I've tried writing lighter historicals and it just never worked. My natural voice in historicals is dark and sensual. But with the zombies, they just came out so funny and so irreverent. So I guess multi-voiced is the way I am.

JK: What can we expect from books 2 and 3 in this series? Same characters? The continuation of Zombiebusters Extermination, Inc? And when will are those books scheduled to be out?

Yup! Same characters throughout the series. In the second book Dave and Sarah have created Zombiebusters Exterminators, Inc and are working full-time as zombie exterminators. But then there's a mad scientist and a potential cure and all kinds of hijinks. And I'm writing the third now, but let's just think zombie benefits without the zombie side-effects and stalkerazzi reporters and washed up rock and roll stars. I'm having such fun working on it. FLIP THIS ZOMBIE is the second and is scheduled for January 2011. THE ZOMBIE WHISPERER is due out in June 2011.

JK: Anything else you'd like to tell readers about MARRIED WITH ZOMBIES or the Jesse Petersen Writing Experience?

Well, if they like irreverent, sarcastic, slightly gory comedy involving death, divorce and raving zombies, I hope they'll pick up a copy of MARRIED WITH ZOMBIES and enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Thanks, Jesse!

You can pre-order MARRIED WITH ZOMBIES at Amazon or Barnes & Noble right now or look for it in your friendly neighborhood bookstore in September.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ayckbourn's "Comic Potential" Pays Off at Peninsula Players

If I could choose to suddenly write like somebody other than me, I’d probably pick British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. I’m not into farces at all, and that’s what most people think of when they think of Ayckbourn, so that may seem odd. But the reality is, he really isn’t that farcical. He’s funny. He writes about real, sad, silly people under the laughs, but he never apologizes for the laughs, and he happens to think that comedy is just as important as – or maybe even more important than – tragedy.

Among his plays, “Comic Potential,” a charming boy-meets-girl where the boy is human but the girl is an android, stands out as a perfect illustration of that point. Ayckbourn writes that “Comic Potential” was written “to answer all those people who keep asking me why I didn't write a serious play. I'm very happy to be privileged enough to write comedy. It doesn't mean seriousness has to go out of the window."

And in “Comic Potential,” which is packed full of gags from the classic comedy playbook, including double and triple takes and even a pie in the face, there is definitely some seriousness going on. As he looks into what might happen if an android (in this case, a soap opera actor or actoid named JC-F31-333) began to exhibit a surprising sense of humor, Ayckbourn finds ways to talk about love, connection, life, death and the very nature of comedy.

“Comic Potential,” is, as he puts it, a comedy master class.

The play is set in the foreseeable future, when actors have been replaced by actoids, and a once-famous director named Chandler Tate is stuck in the hinterlands directing a flea-bitten soap opera called “Hospital Hearts.” Writer Adam Trainsmith, a big fan of Buster Keaton and other Golden Age comedians, arrives, hoping to learn something at the great man’s knee. But Tate is too far round the bend to have any interest in mentoring a bright-eyed newcomer like Adam.

The master class part comes when Adam notices that JC-F31-333, or Jacie Triplethree, starts laughing when a fellow actoid screws up his lines. But actoids can’t laugh unless they’re programmed to. So what in the world is wrong with Jacie Triplethree?

Adam sees her sense of humor as comic potential, and he begins to teach her the ways of comedy on the side, hoping to create a career for her and himself, and rejuvenate Chandler Tate’s directorial prowess. Adam also begins to fall in love a little, and Jacie’s internal soundtrack (music that comes soaring out of her chest at emotional moments) indicates she just might be feeling the same way.

The plot is complicated by a battle-ax of a superior named Carla Pepperbloom, who thinks JC/Jacie is malfunctioning and annoying and ought to be melted down. So Adam takes Jacie on the run to save his android lady love, the movie he wants to make, and his hope for the future of comedy.

As directed by Peter Amster for Peninsula Players in Door County, Wisconsin, “Comic Potential” is quite adorable. Amster’s directorial mission is aided immensely by Erica Elam, who plays Jacie with energy, enthusiasm and loads of charm. She’s believable as a robot – sort of – and yet also appealing enough for us to understand why Adam (winningly played by Sean Fortunato) would run off with her. Whether she’s dressed in a garment bag or boogying down like she got stuck inside Dance, Dance Revolution, Elam’s Jacie is sympathetic and genuine, a heroine you can root for.

Tim Monsion is just the right degree of scruffy and cynical for Chandler Tate, the washed-up director who used to be somebody, and Carmen Roman was made for snappy roles like Carla Pepperbloom, the exec who eats underlings for breakfast. Linda Fortunato (who also choreographed Jacie’s bravura dance performance), Neil Friedman, Andrew Keltz, Kevin McKillip and Karen Jane Woditsch are all good in multiple roles as soap opera actoids and assorted nuts and bolts Adam and Jacie meet on their travels.

Rachel Laritz’s costumes are fine (I especially liked the tall white wedgies on our girl Jacie when she was acting as a nurse), but I wasn’t crazy about Jack Magaw’s set design. Pieces moved on and off swiftly, always a bonus, but the TV set looked too much like a barn for my taste, and some of the smaller pieces, like the bed from a seedy flophouse, weren’t really trashy or flashy enough.

My only quibble otherwise involves timing. At 2:20, it’s about 20 minutes too long. I’d have trimmed the clothes-trying-on and Bible-reading scenes myself, plus the indelicate part where Adam has to duck under the table to empty Jacie’s, er, waste bin, is funnier than I expected, but a bit too long, as well. I saw Peninsula Players’ “Comic Potential” on opening night, and it may be that they'll work out some of the comic timing kinks as they move on through the run. Hope so. It’s already a cute, sweet, funny show. It just needs a bit more speed to reach its full... Comic potential.

“Comic Potential” continues at Peninsula Players through September 5th. If you’re planning a trip to Door County, take some time out and discover this show. (Peninsula Players has kindly offered a video preview.) The actors and the material are terrific, and the setting at Peninsula Players is pretty terrific, too.

If you aren’t going to Wisconsin, but you’d still like to see some Ayckbourn, our very own Heartland Theatre offers “Woman in Mind,” opening September 16th.

Friday, August 20, 2010

"A Little Night Music" Finishes Its Weekend in the Country

When I last saw "A Little Night Music," the charming and captivating musical based on the Swedish film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” I was in New York and Desirée Armfeldt, the one who gets to sing “Send in the Clowns,” was being played by international film star Catherine Zeta-Jones. I say “being played” with more meaning than one. Ms. Zeta-Jones was flinty and tough and not at all right for Desirée (see my review here) but she somehow managed to make enough of an impact on (or completely bamboozle) the Tony Awards voters to nab an award for the role. Did she deserve it? Not in the least. What did they see that I didn’t? I have no idea.

In any event, this time, deep in the wilds of Wisconsin at a theater called Peninsula Players, a veteran Chicago actress named Carmen Roman played the enchanting Desirée. She couldn’t be more different from the glamorous Catherine Zeta-Jones if she tried, and “A Little Night Music” was all the better for it. Neither one is your typical Desirée, if there is such a thing, but Roman, who is tall and thin and not a drop-dead beauty like Zeta-Jones, made me believe that she was an actress touring in the provinces, that she had once loved and lost Fredrik Egerman, and that she did indeed rue the mess that her life had become. Instead of the softer, curvier Glynis Johns/Jean Simmons/Elizabeth Taylor type, Roman reminded me more of the mature Audrey Hepburn, with a wry wisdom that worked very well for Desirée.

I love Stephen Sondheim’s score and Hugh Wheeler’s book for “A Little Night Music,” where at least three mismatched pairs twirl onto the stage, waltzing through a series of misadventures caused by their own poor choices, eventually twirling off again with better results. There’s Desirée, who wants to rescue her old love Fredrik from his immature wife, Anne, and also dump her current lover, Count Carl-Magnus, a dragoon and a buffoon. Carl-Magnus treats his wife Charlotte terribly, while Anne continues to rebuff her husband’s efforts to consummate their marriage, even as she teases her stepson, gloomy Henrik, who is closer to her own age. Toss in Desirée’s daughter Fredrika (you can guess where she gets her name), Desirée’s mother, the formidable Madame Armfeldt, and frisky servant girl Petra, plus a quintet of singers who stroll into view every so often with cynical observations about the nature of love and memory and a sun that never sets, and you have the full tableau.

This is not a neat or tidy show, but the lush score and romantic darkness around the edges makes it a sardonic, intoxicating experience nonetheless. For Peninsula Players, located near Fish Creek in Door County, Wisconsin, Artistic Director Greg Vinkler directed “A Little Night Music” in a sort of straight-ahead, no-nonsense manner. He was aided by a terrific cast, featuring wonderful voices for the most part, as well as strong acting skills and good comic timing.

Along with Carmen Roman’s lovely Desirée, James Rank showed off a gorgeous singing voice, even if he was also the best-looking and least stuffy Fredrik I’ve seen, and Sean Fortunato sounded great and found all the right comedic moments as puffed-up soldier Carl-Magnus. I also enjoyed Jessie Mueller’s take on Anne, who has a tendency to come off like a simpering (and annoying) ninny. Here, Mueller made her young and a bit giddy, but also appealing and understandable. That’s no easy feat.

The masterful Peggy Roeder created a delicious Madame Armfeldt, the one with a past full of “Liaisons” who explains that the night will be smiling three times; Cassie Wooley’s servant girl Petra was jolly and robust, a little different from most but actually better this way; Karen Jane Woditsch’s acerbic Charlotte was right on target; and Andrew Keltz made for a somewhat sloppy but sweet Henrik.

All five of the Liebeslieders (Neil Friedman, Harmony France, Kathleen Gibson, Ian Toohill and McKinley Carter) had excellent voices and made an impact as a cynical counterpoint to the main action. I have to admit, I don’t usually notice the Liebeslieders, but they were quite present and quite good in this production.

I also enjoyed the sparkling white turn-of-the-century costumes created by Karin Simonson Kopischke, although Carl-Magnus could’ve looked more military and Desirée could’ve looked less bridal when they got to the country.

Among the musical numbers, “Now/Later/Soon” and “You Must Meet My Wife” stood out in the first half, with “It Would Have Been Wonderful,” a snarly sort of duet between the two rivals, Fredrick and Carl-Magnus, coming to life beautifully in Act II.

All in all, seeing “A Little Night Music” against a backdrop of birch trees and towering pines was a pleasure. Peninsula Players can be proud of pulling off a complicated, delicate show with good humor, amazing music and just enough romance to tug at the heartstrings long after the elusive sun has finally set. I worry about Anne and Henrik and how they're going to survive, I don't think Charlotte gets a very happy ending, and I already miss Madame Armfeldt, but still... A pleasure.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Fall (or Crumble) into the New Semester of IWU Theatre

Illinois Wesleyan’s School of Theatre Arts has announced its 2010-11 schedule, with “Crumble (lay me down Justin Timberlake)” kicking off the season in September at McPherson Theatre (seen below).

The full schedule includes:

Crumble (lay me down Justin Timberlake) by Sheila Callaghan
Directed by Dani Snyder-Young
September 21-25 at 8 pm, September 26 at 2 pm
McPherson Theatre
When it played at the Cleveland Public Theater, “Crumble” was described as a “quirky comedy about an old house and Janice, a twelve year old girl whose Christmas wish list includes bleach, paraffin and other bomb-making materials. It's been a year since the untimely death of Janice's father, and to deal with it all, she holds spiteful conversations with her dolls and dreams of Justin Timberlake, while her mother fantasizes about Harrison Ford and relies on her superior baking skills to hold herself together. Throw in an apartment that starts to plot murder and you're left with a wild and crazy ride to redemption and healing.”

Attempts on Her Life by Martin Crimp
Directed by Ally Moravec
October 28-30 at 8 pm
E. Melba Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre
Subtitled “17 Scenarios for the Theatre,” “Attempts on Her Life” is a bit of a mystery wrapped in an enigma, as some number of actors discuss what may or may not be attempts on the life of an unseen “Her” who may be named Ann, Annie, Anushka or Anya and may be a young woman who committed suicide, a porn actress, an artist, a terrorist or a new kind of car. Or none of the above. Experimental, non-linear... Definitely different.

Once Upon a Mattress, with music by Mary Rodgers and lyrics by Marshall Barer, and book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer
Directed and choreographed by Scott Susong
November 17-20 at 8 pm, November 20-21 at 2 pm
McPherson Theatre
“Once Upon a Mattress,” a musical adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale The Princess and the Pea, opened on Broadway in 1959 with Carol Burnett as Princess Winnifred, a noisy, gawky sort of girl who swims across the moat to get to the castle to woo Prince Dauntless. She is tested (with the old pea under the mattress trick) to see if she’s the right girl for the prince. Fun, fizzy musical hijinks ensure.

The Trojan Women by Euripides
Directed by Tom Quinn
February 15-19 at 8 pm, February 20 at 2 pm
McPherson Theatre
Fresh off the movie he was filming around Bloomington-Normal, Tom Quinn directs this classical tragedy about what happens to the women of Troy in the aftermath of a terrible war. Their city lies in ruins, their husbands have been killed, and everyone left behind will be enslaved as spoils of war. Modern versions have been done (I saw one set in 1950s Eastern Europe ten or fifteen years ago, with the Trojan wives in Donna Reed dresses, beating out their sorrows on fetching little train cases instead of drums), illustrating the notion that war and its destructive power never go out of style.

Spitfire Grill, with music, lyrics and book by James Valeq and Fred Alley
Directed by Nick Reinhart
May 20-21 at 8 pm, May 22 at 2 pm
E. Melba Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre
Based on the 1996 film starring Alison Elliott and Ellen Burstyn, “Spitfire Grill” tells a story about a young woman released from prison who tries to make a fresh start working at a restaurant in a small Maine town called Gilead. (The name of the town is not the only thing with religious or Biblical significance in the story.) Our young ex-con is a catalyst for change in the town and its citizens in this story of human connection, sacrifice and redemption. The musical version came to New York’s Playwrights Horizons in 2001, adding songs and a happier ending to the original material.

One more show will be added later, to be directed by Nancy Loitz in March at the E. Melba Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre. Once IWU’s semester begins, you can reach the box office at 556-3232.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

For Anyone Who Thinks Writing a New Play Should Be Simple...

As part of its mission to recognize and support new plays and playwrights, Heartland Theatre Company has announced the theme and details for its 2011 "New Plays from the Heartland" playwriting competition. Heartland is looking for short one-act plays from playwrights in eight Midwestern states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin) on the theme of "I thought it would be simple."

Performances will be in the form of staged readings on Friday, May 13 and Saturday, May 14, 2011 at 7:30 pm. Heartland's Managing Artistic Director Mike Dobbins will cast and direct the plays.

Here's how Heartland defines its theme:

"It seems like a no-brainer. Putting a bike together. Finishing your novel. Asking her to marry you. Telling him to move out. Staging a coup to take over the garden club. But just when it’s looking like a walk in the park, things have a way of getting complicated.

It should be a piece of cake to write us a one-act, on any subject you like, as long as it includes the line I thought it would be simple.

At the beginning. In the middle. At the very end. I thought it would be simple.

Whispered. Shouted. Written on the blackboard. Carved into the side of the baby bed that was supposed to go together in three easy steps.

I thought it would be simple.

Did you? Did you really?"

Entries are due January 1, 2011, and those in by December 1, 2010, may be offered revisions if the judging committee feels it would enhance their chances of qualifying for the competition. For more information on all the rules and regulations (and to make sure that your entry is right on target) visit Heartland’s website.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Why You Should be Seeing "I'll Be Seeing You" (by Kevin Wickart)

I asked Kevin Wickart (pictured at left), someone I know from his stellar performances in ten-minute plays, to tell me a little bit about "I'll Be Seeing You," the 1940s-style revue Kevin is appearing in with Prairie Fire Theatre. Here's what Kevin had to say...

Take exciting arrangements of World War II-era pop music – a lot of swing, a touch of the blues, and a dash of boogie woogie – wrap it up it up in a lighthearted story by Nancy Steele Brokaw, serve it up on some of the best voices in town, and what have you got? You've got "I'll Be Seeing You," Lloyd Farlee's tribute to the music of the 1940's. A cast of ten vocalists (including yours truly) and a six-man instrumental combo delivers Farlee's jazzy arrangements of old standbys like "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby," "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and "Blue Moon." Soloists and smaller groupings offer up songs such as "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," "Slow Boat to China," "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Comin' In On a Wing and a Prayer." The show includes thirty songs, nearly all of them arranged by Farlee.

Here's the story: The "Prairie Fireside Theatre" troupe, led by Bobby Mingle (Bob Mangialardi), is looking for ideas for their next show – something that could take them to Las Vegas or even Broadway. The mostly young members all want to do a show featuring 1940's music, but Bobby doesn't think that there's an audience for it. After finding a box of Lloyd Farlee's arrangements of war-era songs, the members – led by 1940's aficionado Ike (Mike Schneider) and young ingénue Deenie (Dana Anderson) –convince Bobby to mount the show. Weeks later they perform it before a live audience, uncertain as to its fate – until Bobby receives information that could drastically change their lives.

But even in the rush of preparing a new show there's time for drama, romance and intrigue. Bobby's wife Mandy (Mindy Mangialardi) isn't thrilled about losing her husband to Yet Another Musical, but taking an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude, and being no slouch in the vocal department herself, she adds her talents to the mix. Meanwhile love is blooming as the tomboyish Carly (Chelsey Coombs) tries to attract the attention of the almost terminally oblivious Skeebo (Matt Skibo), with the help of the older, world-weary diva Miss Christie (Cristen Susong). In similar fashion Smitty (Jonathan Smith) unexpectedly finds himself falling for the bubbly-but-ditzy Amulele (Aimee Kerber). Adding a little mystery to the mix is the presence of newcomer Wick (that would be me), a retired accountant who shows up unexpectedly in the middle of the opening number.

Producer/Director Bob Mangialardi and Musical Director Steve McClary are both friends and former students of Lloyd Farlee, so for them this show is a labor of love. They have often spoken of the joy of finding so many vocal "gems" among the cast, which are given their chances to sparkle in numerous solo numbers. All are excellent, but if there's a standout it has to be Cristen Susong. Her clear, pure tone has a strength that makes her featured songs "Bewitched or If I Love Again" and "The Joint is Really Jumpin'" unforgettable.

And what do I get to do, you ask? As Wick, I sing in all the ensemble numbers including a brief (but critical) solo turn in "Chattanooga Choo Choo." I also get to perform an all-male arrangement of "Embraceable You," as well as singing the Lead part in our barbershop-style rendition of "Comin' In On a Wing and a Prayer." Bob and I sing (and dance!) a duet to a mashup of "April Showers" and "Singin' In the Rain;" but my big moment is a solo performance of the Gershwin/Weill patter song "Tchaikovsky (and Other Russians)". This number is from the musical "Lady In the Dark," and was a staple of Danny Kaye's repertoire for decades.

Though all of the solo and smaller ensemble work is excellent, it is the nine full-cast numbers that demonstrate the real talents of the cast, crew, and arranger. They are what audiences are most likely to remember for years to come. Doc would be proud.

Lloyd Farlee, or "Doc," as he was known to his friends and students, was an icon of the Music Department at Illinois State University. He joined in 1962, teaching varied courses as well as giving voice lessons for more than a quarter of a century. But his unquestioned passion was for the Men's Glee Club, which he directed for 15 years. He served on the board of Prairie Fire Theatre and wrote three musicals for them, including "I'll Be Seeing You." His love of music carried through his World War II Army service, leading him to turn his considerable talents as a composer and arranger to the music of the 1940's. Doc passed away in December of 2007, but his music, his passion for life, and the memories of him as teacher, mentor and friend continue to be passed along to new generations.

"I'll Be Seeing You" runs through August 15th, with all performances at the 1st Presbyterian Church of Normal, 2000 East College Avenue. Visit Prairie Fire's website, linked at left, for more information or to make reservations.

"Dr. Strangelove" Still Potent After All These Years

I was going to start this out by suggesting that America had, indeed, learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, as "Dr. Strangelove" tells us in its subtitle. I remember the Civil Defense Shelter at the Health Department where my dad worked back in the 60s, as if we could all pile in there in case of nuclear attack. We also had drills at school, where we were told you could hide under your tiny little desk and be safe from the Big One. I certainly hope you don't see that anymore.

But in the wake of terrorist scares, I feel certain that bomb shelters and piles of canned goods and bottled water aren't going anywhere. Survivalists may be looking for backpack bombs or the Apocalypse instead of a sneak attack from the Russkies, but they still think the end of the world is imminent, and they share the philosophy of Dr. Strangelove himself, who counsels going underground and starting a new civilization of just the cool kids like himself. Ten women for every man! Lots and lots of sex to people the new world! It’s thrilling stuff for generals and politicians.

I think I first saw "Dr. Strangelove" back in the late 70s, when I was in college, and I thought it was hilarious and not scary in the least. That's a little strange, considering we were still in the midst of the arms race and discussions of “mutual assured destruction” then, but maybe it was the folly of youth, or a kind of post-traumatic-stress giddiness that came from being a child during the Cuban Missile Crisis, three horrific assassinations and the Viet Nam War.

Or maybe it was just that Stanley Kubrick clearly intended the film to be funny, and there's no other way to look at Peter Sellers in three different roles, including the titular wheelchair-bound German rocket scientist called Dr. Strangelove; George C. Scott in the most over-the-top performance of his career (yes, even more than Patton) as a gung-ho Air Force general; Slim Pickens in the best performance of his career as a down-home cowpoke of a fighter pilot; and Sterling Hayden as a psycho nutball with a thing for precious bodily fluids. Kubrick and screenwriter Terry Southern gave us characters named things like Jack D. Ripper, Buck Turgidson, Bat Guano and T.J. “King” Kong, cluing you in right there that it's supposed to be a comedy.

This time, with more hours ticked off my inner Doomsday clock, I still found it funny, but really frightening, too. Maybe some things have changed. But not nearly enough. I guess I do believe that one crazy general – or one crazy anybody, really – can destroy the world. We may’ve cooled our jets on nuclear weapons, but more, smaller, less stable countries have picked them up, global warming is screwing things up, anyway, and... Yeah, the world is every bit as scary as when Kubrick put together this chilling, hilarious, amazing movie.

The plot is simple – a general (that would be Jack D. Ripper, played with relentless insanity by Sterling Hayden) who thinks fluoridating the water is a Russian plot issues an order to an entire wing of bombers to set forth and drop their nukes. Once his superior, General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott in gum-chomping, wild-eyed glory) discovers what’s happened, he tells President Merkin Muffley (another of Sellers’ roles, apparently based on Bloomington’s own Adlai Stevenson) and the rest of the War Room, and they scramble to find the code to get the bombers to turn back. Meanwhile, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (the third Peter Sellers’ role), a British RAF officer assigned to General Ripper, has realized that Ripper has gone off the rails, and he, too, attempts to get the code. In one of the film’s best and silliest scenes, Mandrake tries desperately to make a phone call to the president the old-fashioned way, by feeding quarters into a pay-phone, with very little help from Keenan Wynn’s bull-headed Colonel Bat Guano.

Kubrick does a terrific job racheting up the suspense, even if you already know the ending. I found myself worrying about the men in the fighter plane (including Slim Pickens and James Earl Jones), and about poor President Muffley and Captain Mandrake, who keep trying to do the right thing. With the Doomsday Machine looming in their future, it really doesn’t matter if they’re nice or loony tunes or evil, but I was biting my fingernails worrying about them nonetheless.

For a film about the fecklessness of people who put too much faith in machines, “Dr. Strangelove” still sets up wonderful characters. Humanity on parade, with all its foibles. One man and the machinery he puts in motion can blow up the world, but the bombs didn’t do it by themselves, did they?

I’m not a big fan of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” even though the message is somewhat the same. But there’s no denying the brilliance of “Dr. Strangelove” or the performances in it. It has its own style, from the credits to the visual pictures to the amazingly evocative music. (The use of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” is genius all by itself.) And that style works. Brilliant. Scathing. Darkly funny. So, so very dark.

“Dr. Strangelove” has got to be seen. You have one more chance to catch it on the big screen at the Normal Theater tonight at 7 pm. Seriously. Don't miss it.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Watch Out for the Zombie Invasion -- August 31!

My friend Jesse Petersen, who has written a lot of historical romances and erotica under other names, is now doing cool zombie books under her very own name. The first in her zombie series was supposed to come out in September, but is now telling me it's available August 31, which classifies it as August news, don't you think?

So here's a look at Jesse's adorable "Married with Zombies," in which Sarah and David attempt to keep their shaky marriage going at the worst possible time, a Zombie Apocalypse. First their marriage counselor goes over to the undead side, and that seriously affects her ability to offer guidance, you know? And all the gore and horror around them is putting even more of a strain on the relationship. Bickering over whose turn it is to wash the dishes pales in comparison to complaints about not properly securing the doors against the undead! Keeping their wits (and their brains) about them won't be easy, but hopefully the couple who slays together stays together.

Will Sarah and David make it out alive? Will their marriage crumble before their brains get eaten? We'll all find out August 31st.

I will talk more with Jesse in this space when it's closer to her lay-down date, but I wanted to whet your appetite now for her fun and fierce zombie marriage manual.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Celebrate August!

My birthday and my anniversary fall in August, making it my favorite month. I get cake and presents and then more presents. What's not to love? I'm lucky that the entertainment options are good this month, too, which means I get to pick what I want to see and where I want to go and not even worry if my husband will like what I chose. Why worry? August is all about me!

So what am I looking out for?

First and foremost, the fabulous “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott and the adorable Slim Pickens, plays at the Normal Theater on Thursday, August 5th and Friday, August 6th. This is a Do Not Miss. DO NOT MISS. If you love movies, you have to see “Dr. Strangelove” on the big screen. This Cold War story of nuclear politics, leftover German rocket scientists, the military run amok and no fighting in the war room is funny, scary and totally brilliant. We’ll meet again, Dr. Strangelove. We’ll meet again.

Speaking of 1940s music, Prairie Fire Theatre brings us “I’ll Be Seeing You,” subtitled “The Best of Lloyd Farlee’s Salute to the 1940s” August 6th through the 14th, with all performances at the First Presbyterian Church of Normal at 2000 East College Avenue. I saw their “I’ll Be Seeing You” revue the first time, and it was full of music my mother loved, like the title song, as well as some Crosby and Hope shtik and other classic patter between songs. It reminded me a great deal of my mom, and I found it quite emotional for me for that reason. Farlee himself was at the piano when Prairie Fire first did his show, and bringing it back seems to be a memorial of sorts for this beloved member of the Bloomington-Normal community who passed away in 2007.

Performances at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival continue through August 8th. If you haven’t seen “The Three Musketeers,” “The Tempest” or “Merry Wives of Windsor” yet, this week is your last chance. I especially recommend director Karen Kessler’s take on “The Three Musketeers,” which I found entertaining and fun back in June.

Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company, also known as CUTC, will offer the musical “Footloose” on stage at Parkland College Theater from Thursday, August 5th to Sunday, August 15th. Jaise Allen plays Ren, the boy who wants to get footloose, with Asia Woodward as Ariel, whose dad says no to dancing and to Ren. CUTC is offering tickets on-line now, if you click on the button on their website’s main page.

I happen to be a big fan of reading, so I’m intrigued by the Missoula Children’s Theatre and its pop musical version of “Robinson Crusoe” coming to the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, August 6th at 7 pm. As the BCPA describes it, “This new adaptation of the classic story takes place on Robinson’s island years after his shipwreck. The island has become a tourist destination centered around a lovable singing leopard, a tribe of natives known for their colorful coifs, Friday’s Seaside Resort and, of course, the legend of Robinson Crusoe. But all is not perfect in paradise, and the story teaches the lesson that our differences need not stand in the way of our friendships.” It also has lessons about the difference between sitting in front of the tube and experiencing a story on the page, with the ultimate message that “[u]nlike TV and movies, which provide every detail, a book allows the reader the luxury and the joy of imagination.”

“The Girl Who Played with Fire,” the second film in the Swedish “Girl Who” trilogy – I reviewed the first film here – comes to Champaign’s on August 20th. I’m not a big fan, but the books have been ridiculously popular, so I thought I would let you know where you can see the second one the most quickly, if you’re so inclined.

The Original Wailers, a group founded by two members of Bob Marley’s original band, guitarist Al Anderson and lead vocalist Junior Marvin, will be coming to the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts’ outdoor stage on August 28th at 6:30 pm. The band will play all of Marley’s most familiar songs, including “Get Up, Stand Up,” “Waiting in Vain,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” and “No Woman, No Cry.” They’ll be joined by opening act e3po, a “reggae rawk” band from Chicago’s south side. The concert will take place on the BCPA Green, which is located on the corner of Douglas Street and Northbound Business 51, directly south of the BCPA. General admission tickets are $10.

Also on the 28th, University of Illinois’s Department of Theatre opens up its Krannert Center costume vaults for its Biennial Costume and Prop Sale. You can pay $3 and get first crack at the Viking helmets and dragon’s tails from 9 am to noon, or enter for free at 1 pm. I once found a hoop skirt and a Regency mermaid dress at that costume sale, although pickings have been slimmer in recent years. But it’s still the best rummage sale around for all things theatrical. Click here for more information.

As for me, I will be taking a vacation in Wisconsin's Door County and working in a bit of theater while I'm there. Watch for my reviews of Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" and Alan Ayckbourn's "Comic Potential," both in the beautiful outdoor theater at Peninsula Players, which is celebrating its 75th birthday this summer season. The Stage Channel has a video preview of "A Little Night Music" if you'd like a sneak peek at what I'll be seeing.