Friday, October 29, 2010

"Measure for Measure" Raises Thorny Questions at ISU

For every ten “Macbeths” and “Midsummer Night’s Dreams” in the world, you might find one “Measure for Measure.” Originally called a comedy, this story about corruption, sin and hypocrisy is now usually lumped with Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” the ones that lie in a thorny area between comedy and tragedy, not sitting well in either place. There may be social issues or problems to resolve, but in my mind, the “problem” in a problem play is usually how tough it is to pull off.

And yet… And yet there’s an awful lot of good stuff in “Measure for Measure.” The role of Angelo is right there at the top of the list.

Angelo is the one at the center of the plot, the moralistic official who sentences a young man named Claudio to death for premarital sex. And then, when Claudio’s sister Isabella, on the brink of becoming a nun, comes to Angelo to plead for the life of her brother, our man Angelo says, okay, he’ll save him, but only if the fair Isabella will sleep with him.

A politician trying to trade influence for sex in the most corrupt, duplicitous way possible? That’s somebody we can all recognize. It’s also the kind of juicy, conflicted role actors like to sink their teeth into.

Isabella is another one. She’s strong in her need to stay pure, with no shilly-shallying whatsoever. Sorry, bro. There’s no way Isabella will save you if it means putting her own chastity (and her immortal soul, to her way of thinking) on the line. But what could be self-righteous or sanctimonious has to come off sympathetic and right to make Isabella work.

And then there’s the Duke. He’s the one who left Angelo in charge, although we’re never sure why. He says he’s leaving Vienna for a break (Poland is where he pretends he’s off to) but really hangs around to watch what happens, hiding out in a friar’s habit. When he finds out what Angelo is up to with regard to Isabella, he can’t help but jump in and try to maneuver things to make it all turn out all right.

So who is this duke on the downlow? Why does he go for tricks and disguises when he could just fix things immediately if he would pop back up as himself? I don’t know. Duke Vincentio is a weird one, that’s for sure.

But after seeing ISU’s “Measure for Measure,” directed by Brandon Ray and with Jake Olbert as the Duke, I have a theory. Ray’s spartan production has lots of shades of gray, from the squares on the floor (courtesy of Emily Wilken’s scenic design) to all the stern business suits (a central part of Judith Rivera Ramirez’s costume design).

Olbert’s Duke spends his time undercover in a black-and-white habit, with no gray areas, yet he is the most shadowy character of all. In Olbert’s performance, the Duke seems removed from the power he wields, unsure, almost reluctant at the onset. He seems to be taking a breather to get back his moral conviction, but then he finds it’s even more difficult than he thought to draw bright lines around law and morality. What’s more important, preserving life or punishing sin? What does it take to be a good ruler?

And what does he do now that he, too, is attracted to the pure and luminous Isabella? Is he any better than that sleazeball Angelo if he comes on to the girl?

That very question is why “Measure for Measure” is so fascinating and so aggravating all at the same time. Ray’s cast – especially Brian Garvens as Angelo, Molly Rose Lewis as Isabella and Olbert as Duke Vincentio – do excellent work with their characters, gaining steam as the play progresses, nicely defining all those moral lines and questions.

Cady Leinicke is also a bright note when she enters the action as Mariana, the woman scorned by Angelo who may just be the answer to Isabella’s dilemma. Leinicke brings into sharp relief one of the problems modern audiences have with this plot – why would we wish the likes of Angelo on this lovely woman? – with her vibrant performance.

On the comic side, Matthew Bausone makes a wily, glib Lucio, the would-be hipster with a major inability to read the room; Jason Raymer brings good energy to Elbow, a dim constable whose wife may be a hooker; and Owais Ahmed seems to enjoy being Pompey the procurer for his time on stage.

All in all, this “Measure for Measure” is a good effort with solid production values and performances. It raises all the right questions, and that’s all you can ask of this “problem play.”

Measure for Measure
by William Shakespeare

ISU Westhoff Theatre

Director: Brandon Ray
Scenic Designer: Emily Wilken
Costume Designer: Judith Rivera Ramirez
Lighting Designer: Marty Wooster
Sound Designer/Composer: Joe Payne
Dramaturg: Melissa Scott

Cast: Jake Olbert, Danny Rice, Katie Schutzkus, Brian Garvens, Matthew Bausone, Luke Simone, Mike Graf, Terri Whisenhunt, Owais Ahmed, Patrick Gerard Cooper, Paula Nowak, Raquel Rangel, Ware Carlton Ford, Molly Rose Lewis, Jason Raymer, Amanda Rogowski, Anthony Ballweg, Akeila LeClaire, Cady Leinicke.

Running time: 2:35, including one 15-minute intermission

Remaining performances: October 29 and 30 at 7:30 pm; October 30 and 31 at 2 pm

Ticket information

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Young at Heartland Live and in Person 10-29

Young at Heartland, Heartland Theatre Company's acting workshop for seniors 55 and over, will offer a free performance, open to the public, at the Normal Public Library, 206 West College Avenue, on Friday, October 29th. The performance will take place in the library's Community Room from 2 to 3 pm, with senior actors taking on selections from famous plays like A. R. Gurney's "The Dining Room" as well as scenes written just for them by local authors and actors.

Young at Heartland is an extremely popular creative outlet for senior actors, with fall and spring classes and performances every year. This year, Young at Heartland founder and program director Ann White reports that class enrollment was completely full with 30 students and she had to turn other applicants away.

For more information about Young at Heartland, visit the Heartland Theatre Company website or read a recent Pantagraph article about the troupe.

Young at Heartland
Normal Public Library Community Room
Friday, October 29th
2 to 3pm

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Three for the Show" Ready to Go at Heartland

Local audiences are familiar with Jared Brown, Illinois Wesleyan University Emeritus Professor of Theatre Arts, as an author, director and actor. In THREE FOR THE SHOW, Brown takes on the role of playwright with three short, provocative plays, coming very soon to Heartland Theatre Company in Bloomington-Normal.

There’s offbeat romantic comedy in MÉNAGE À TROIS, a dip into suspense with RAGE, and a fizzy, funny farce, complete with musical numbers in GEORGE AND IRENE. Brown’s three plays couldn’t be more different, but each features three characters, and those characters will be played by the same three actors (Megan Brown, Gregory Hicks and Rhys Lovell). All’s fair in love and war in Brown’s irreverent look at relationships times three!

THREE FOR THE SHOW opens November 4th with an open dress rehearsal on Pay What You Can Night, with regular performances November 5-7, 11-14 and 18-21. Curtain is at 7:30 pm Thursday through Saturday and 2 pm on Sundays.

There will be a special post-show discussion with playwright Jared Brown after the Sunday matinee on November 7th. Estimated time for the discussion to begin is 3:45 pm if you've already seen the show or plan to see it later but would like to join the discussion.

You may call 309-452-8709 for reservations, or visit the Heartland Theatre Company website for more information.

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Fiddler" Plays Like a Virtuoso

I have been taking some time off, letting my brain (or possibly my spirit) rest a bit, but I intended to review and/or write about the touring company of "Fiddler on the Roof" that played in Peoria last week, as well as some other things ("Mad Men" season finale! New "Sherlock Holmes" on PBS! Outrageous happenings on "Project Runway," a show I both love and hate and sometimes in between!) well before now. So, yes, I'm behind.

But let's begin with "Fiddler," shall we?

I have a soft spot for "Fiddler on the Roof," since my Aunt Mary says that my grandmother (her mother), the diminutive and yet feisty Nettie Cohen Caplan, always claimed that "Fiddler on the Roof" was exactly like she remembered her early life in the Old Country. That isn't really a good thing, I suppose, what with the marauding Cossacks and Jewish people getting forcibly removed from their homes and the general upheaval of a most unhappy kind that keeps punctuating the plot of this musical. But there's also humor there. And faith. I hope my Grandma Nettie remembered and recognized that, too, and that the character of Tevye, the milkman who would like a better life for his family, the one who gives "Fiddler" so much of its warmth and joy, reminded her of her father a little.

As it happens, the touring company that came through the Peoria Civic Center was quite wonderful, with plenty of that warmth and joy from the top of the company (John Preece, who makes a terrific Tevye) down to its smallest member (adorable Melanie Siegel, who plays both Tevye’s daughter Bielke as well as nightmare figure Grandma Tzeitel).

Preece leads the cast with a sure persona and a fabulous voice, channeling Topol’s sparkling presence with just a dash of Zero Mostel. The most familiar tunes – “Sunrise, Sunset” and “If I Were a Rich Man” – seem robust and fresh, which is even more amazing when you consider that Preece has played Tevye some 1500 times in his career. Yet here he is, still giving Tevye all the oomph and energy of a new performance.

I also enjoyed Tevye’s three eldest daughters, each of whom rebels in her own way, as portrayed by Lauren Nedelman, Julianne Katz and Chelsey LeBel, as well as their three suitors, each sympathetic in his own way, played by Andrew Boza, Kevin Stangler and Ben Michael. If I were one of the girls of Anatevka, I’d have a hard time choosing between sweet Motel the tailor (Boza) and idealistic student Perchik (Stangler) myself.

For the touring production, director Sammy Dallas Bayes has reproduced the original Jerome Robbins choreography, and it looks very good on stage, with the familiar bottle dance at the wedding and the fantasy sequence with ten-foot-tall Fruma Sarah both coming off well. Steve Gilliam’s scenic design and Tony Ray Hicks’ costumes are also warm and appealing, creating the right look without wasting a lot of time on scene or costume changes.

This “Fiddler,” produced by Matchmaker Touring LLC, will continue to hopscotch the country till next spring, with dates in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana coming up next, and a return to the Midwest when it hits Cedar Rapids on December 1st.

Fiddler on the Roof
Book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick

Original Broadway production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins.
Produced on the New York stage by Harold Prince.

Nicholas Howey for Matchmaker Touring LLC

Director: Sammy Dallas Bayes
Musical Director: David Andrew Rogers
Scenic Designer: Steve Gilliam
Costume Designer: Tony Ray Hicks
Lighting Designer: Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz
Sound Designer: Duncan Robert Edwards
Jerome Robbins’ original choreography reproduced by Sammy Dallas Bayes

Cast includes: John Preece, Nancy Evans, Lauren Nedelman, Julianne Katz, Chelsey LeBel, Kimberly Hirst, Melanie Siegel, Birdie Newman Katz, Andrew Boza, Kevin Stangler, Frank Calamaro, Megan Mekjian, Ben Michael and Liam Quealy.

Thanks to "eldemila" for catching my error on the identification of Tevye's daughters!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Stunning Backstage "Macbeth" Impresses at U of I

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes…

Wickedness doesn’t have to be complicated or given to excess, demonstrated quite clearly by the stripped-down, inside-out “Macbeth” on stage at Krannert Center’s Colwell Playhouse. And when I say “on stage,” I mean exactly that. Not only is the murderous action of “Macbeth” on stage – so is the audience.

Director Robert G. Anderson, a fine Shakespearian actor himself, has chosen to place the audience on risers at the very back of the stage, with all the backstage ropes and pulleys visible. Most of the first act plays on the stage directly in front of the audience, behind the proscenium curtain, with that curtain opening up and action moving into the wide vista of the Colwell Playhouse auditorium after intermission.

Anderson goes for spare, stark stage pictures, with limited props and scenery. Lighting Designer Devi Carroll uses hand-held work lights and bare, blazing spotlights to throw deep shadows, while Sound Designer Theresa Huber adds strange, strident sounds, with light and sound both contributing to the harsh, ominous mood of the play. Grant Bowen’s scenery is equally utilitarian and bold, with almost everything given a raw rehearsal look. Among the pieces that work the best are a red velvet throne suspended in air to symbolize the prize everybody wants, a dining table that splits apart at just the right moment, slamming trap doors, and a plain white bathtub that becomes a cauldron, a percussion instrument and a hiding place for a child as the evening progresses.

Annaliese Weber’s costumes continue the stripped-down motif, putting the men in generic military jackets worn with jeans and boots and the women in layers of Victorian underwear. There’s a lot of white, cream and gray on display here, with only the red throne and Duncan’s regal yellow cape breaking out.

It’s all quite dramatic and theatrical, underlining and ratcheting up the tension of the plot, as Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth up the ante of their ambition and its attendant madness.

Christopher Sheard and Bri Sudia are fierce and compelling as Macbeth and his lady, going right for the passion and the crazy and never letting up. Lisa Gaye Dixon’s gender-bent Duncan is also noteworthy, as is Ethan Gardner’s stalwart Macduff.

Anderson gives us a different take on the three witches, going for a trio of freaky street kids who waft in and out of scenes like dark spirits planting seeds of discord. Witch #1 (Katie Bellantone) is a sideways-skewed woman who appears to be having sextuplets (sort of if Smike from “Nicholas Nickleby” had a huge hysterical pregnancy), Witch #2 (Luke Grimes) is a mincing evil queen, and Witch #3 (Michelle Grube) is a dainty, demented child in petticoats. They’re all plenty frightening and weird, and Bellantone gets major kudos for twisting herself into a knot like that and committing to the posture.

What really works for this “Macbeth” is how consistent the vision is and how well the pieces fit together. It lays bare the machinations of theater and yet uses those tricks to make the play even more theatrical. That’s no mean feat. And this is no mean “Macbeth.”

by William Shakespeare.

Colwell Playhouse, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts

Director: Robert G. Anderson
Scenic Designer: Grant Bowen
Costume Designer: Annaliese Weber
Lighting Designer: Devin Carroll
Sound Designer: Theresa Huber

Cast: Aurora Adachi-Winter, Katie Bellantone, Joe Boersma, Ron Bowden Jr, Richard Calk, Lucy Chmielewski, Mike DiGirolamo, Lisa Gaye Dixon, Ethan Gardner, Luke Grimes, Michelle Grube, David Kaplinsky, Deandria Janice Kelley, Charlie Lubeck, Kelson Michael McAuliffe, Robert Montgomery, Julian Parker, Tyrone Phillips, Jess Prichard, Kayln N. C. Rivers, Christopher Sheard, Bri Sudia, Tyler Voss, Coy Wentworth, Mark West, Mercedes White.

Remaining Performances: 7:30 p.m. October 15-16 and 20-23; 3 p.m. October 24

Running Time: 2:25, including one 20-minute intermission

Box office: 333-6280,

This review originally appeared in the Champaign News-Gazette.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Actors Prepare: "Circle Mirror Transformation" at the Station

Annie Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation" took New York by storm last year, with a Playwrights Horizon production that won the Obie for best new play, best director and best ensemble. After New York, "Circle Mirror Transformation" has been everywhere in one short year, from the Guthrie in Minneapolis to South Coast Rep in California to a current production in New Jersey starring Sandy Duncan. Yes, that Sandy Duncan. The play is also slated for inclusion in the Best Plays Theater Yearbook.

What's so special about "Circle Mirror Transformation"? And what the heck does that title mean?

The play is popular, for one reason, because it seems fairly easy on its face to produce. Small cast (five), easy set (a plain room with an exercise ball and a hula hoop and maybe a few chairs), and a central theme that strikes an immediate chord (how we connect to each other). It doesn't hurt that it's about a theater class, filled with five regular old people, and people who work on theater are likely to find the class and the goofy exercises its members take on (the reason for the title) very familiar.

What is really special about the play, though, is how Annie Baker uses those exercises and seemingly small, unimportant interactions among these drama students to flesh out her characters and their lives, to make us care about Schultz, recently divorced and very much alone; Lauren, a teenager with some problems at home who wants to be an actress or maybe a veterinarian; and Marty, a sort of earth mother in yoga wear who runs the class. I have to admit, I care less about the two other, flashier members of the class. There's James, married to Marty, someone who went to law school but decided the legal world was too traditional and compromised for him, and beautiful Theresa, who was an actress in New York for awhile but now finds herself in Vermont with the rest of these folks. She's coming off a bad relationship and maybe looking for a new one. Or maybe not. Or maybe she wants to be a massage therapist. Or maybe she doesn't.

"Circle Mirror Transformation" is the perfect kind of show for Urbana's small Station Theatre, given its set and cast requirements, and director Mikel Matthews creates the right mood, with an emphasis on character and the psychology of the piece. This is a delicate play, dependent upon moments of recognition and bittersweet comedy to get the point and the characters across, and that works well for the most part, especially when David Barkley is on stage. His portrait of Schultz is deep enough and sweet enough to pull the audience along.

The only downside is that Baker's script includes a lot of pauses, especially when the characters are supposed to lie in a circle and do a group count to ten (yes, this exercise is as odd as it sounds). Those pauses, as well as frequent blackouts for everybody to change clothes, slow down the pace a bit too much.

Still, this is a clever, poignant show, well worth the two hours you'll spend with it. Due to scheduling issues, I didn't get to "Circle Mirror Transformation" until the last night of its run, which means you will no longer be able to catch the Station production. Given how many productions it's already had and how many more are scheduled at various theaters (including Victory Gardens in Chicago next February), I doubt it will be hard to find a production of “Circle Mirror Transformation" if you really want one. And anyone who's ever had a theater class is going to want one.

Circle Mirror Transformation
by Annie Baker

The Station Theatre

Director: Mikel L. Matthews Jr.
Scenic Designer: Wes Huff
Costumer: Malia Andrus
Lighting Designer: Jesse Folks

Cast: Debbie Richardson, Lincoln Machula, David Barkley, Katie Baldwin, Liesel Booth.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Spelling E-X-C-E-L-L-E-N-C-E at ISU

There's a character named Olive in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," the fizzy and fun musical with book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn. Olive is a fan of the dictionary, and she notes that her own name is an anagram for "I love." Well, Ms. Sheinkin and Mr. Finn, I definitely, positively love "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."

I think I've seen it three times now, although it might be four, and each one has been a little different, with a different character affecting me the most. But every production has been bright, charming, funny, sweet and a little sad, as we see six children (played by adults) angst over the nature of achievement, of being loved whether you win or not, and how hard it is to live up to expectations. And they do this while spelling impossible words and singing and dancing. And managing the four audience volunteer spellers who get dropped into the mix.

There are adult characters, and they're important, too, with a former spelling bee champ who has returned to run this one, a vice principal with anger management issues, and a tough guy parolee who acts as "comfort counselor," handing out hugs and juice boxes to departing spellers.

In the Illinois State University production, winningly directed by Cyndee Brown at the Center for the Performing Arts, everybody gets his moment to shine. The staging is mostly the same as the other productions I've seen, with a desk for the adults and simple bleachers for the kids that roll around when needed, but it still looks fresh and new with Adam Spencer's nifty high school gym set, with banners hanging from the rafters and doors that open onto a hallway of lockers.

What's most impressive is the voices in this cast. They're all terrific. I especially enjoyed the warmth and color in Cristen Susong's singing. She plays Rona Perretti, the former champ who still remembers her spelling triumph so long ago, and gives Ms. Perretti an irresistible sparkle. It's no wonder schlumpy Vice Principal Panch has a crush on her.

I was also taken with Abby Vombrack's bouncy take on Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, the socially conscious girl with two gay dads and a whole lot of pressure to win. Logainne has been more buttoned-down in previous productions, and I appreciated Vombrack's fresh spin.

Among the kids, Justin Treizenberg does very well with loopy Leaf Coneybear (my favorite character, I must admit), a sweet boy who sort of fell into the bee even if he isn't very smart; Latrecia Moffett is polished and serene as perfect Marcy Park; Danny Brooks is as annoying as he needs to be as William Barfée (pronounced Bar-FAY, as he tells us constantly), the boy whose magic foot powers him through the competition; and Andy Hudson has a lot of boy scout bravado as Chip Tolentino, last year's champ who has to cope with puberty this year. Clayton Joyner is really lovely and sings beautifully as Olive Ostrovsky, the neglected girl whose mother is off at an ashram in India; she gets a lot of emotional stuff to do and she carries it off quite well. Joyner doesn't make Olive as shy or self-conscious as usual, but she makes up for it with that big voice. The fact that she's beautiful doesn't hurt, either.

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is a favorite with smaller theater companies as well as schools because of the fairly small cast and easy staging, so if you miss one of the few performances left at ISU, don't despair. Another "Bee" will come along before you know it. But in the meantime, if you can get a ticket to this one, I would suggest you spell T-I-C-K-E-T-S and get yourself to the CPA.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin

ISU Center for the Performing Arts

Director: Cyndee Brown
Musical Director: Dennis Gotkowski
Scenic Designer: Adam Spencer
Costume Designer: Lauren Roark
Lighting Designer: Adam Spencer
Sound Designer: Sarah Putts
Choreographer: Becky Murphy

Cast: Cristen Susong, Andy Hudson, Abby Vombrack, Justin Treizenberg, Danny Brooks, Latrecia Moffett, Clayton Joyner, Jared Mason, LaRoyce Hawkins.

Remaining performances: October 15-16 at 7:30 pm

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Glorious Gilbert and Sullivan Opening at Prairie Fire

I asked Kevin Paul Wickart to tell me a little about the upcoming Gilbert and Sullivan show from Prairie Fire Theatre, and here's what Kevin had to say:

"It is, it is a glorious thing to be a Pirate King!" The glory of some of the best music and lyrics of all time comes out in Prairie Fire's lastest show, "An Evening of Gilbert and Sullivan," aka "Gilbert and Sullivan a la Carte." The revue features 29 songs from G & S comic operas, including "The Major General's Song," "Willow, Tit-Willow," and "The Lost Chord."

The songs are brought to life by a trio of vocalists--soprano Danelle Ekhart, tenor Paul Cochran, and baritone Kevin Paul Wickart--under the musical direction of Michael Schneider and accompaniment by Charlie Berggren. The overall production is directed by Phil Shaw.

Rather than grouping the songs by show, the revue instead uses them to highlight the history of the great songwriting duo. The audience is taken on a journey through their triumphs and tribulations as the cast assumes the roles of Gilbert (Wickart) and Sullivan (Cochran), with Ekhart serving as occasional narrator and incidental characters.

Whether you like Gilbert and Sullivan or not--or if you simply aren't sure--you are certain to enjoy the energy and playfulness evident on the stage.

Thanks, Kevin, for the info! I'm a big fan of the movie "Topsy Turvy," which gives a backstage look at Gilbert and Sullivan and some of the performers and personages around them, so Prairie Fire's revue sounds very appealing. Plus, Prairie Fire always excels at G & S. The show opens tomorrow, October 15th, and runs through the weekend, with performances at Westbrook Theater in Presser Hall on the Illinois Wesleyan campus. Tickets are available online or at the door. For more information, visit the Prairie Fire Theatre website.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"As You Like It" Goes Wiild at Eureka College

It’s a cool idea, on paper, to turn the wrestling match in “As You Like It” into Wii boxing and the music into Rock Band. After all, the main characters, lovestruck Rosalind, on the lam from her wicked uncle’s machinations, and brave Orlando, who has been mistreated by his older brother and needs to find his own place in the world, are young, energetic and loose in the Forest of Arden without parental supervision. Rosalind is disguised as a boy, and she’s brought along her cousin Celia and the fool Touchstone, and then meets up with Orlando, someone she already fell in love with at that wrestling match (which he won) and pretends to teach him how to woo her real self. It’s mostly good fun, with another romance from a smitten shepherd and a surly shepherdess tossed in, plus the melancholy Jacques, a forest philosopher attached to Rosalind’s dad, the exiled Duke who hangs out in the woods with his merry men.

The characters are young, their toils are not so different from today’s texting and twittering teens, and putting Playstation and X box into the mix seems like a fun, fresh idea. At Eureka College, director Holly Rocke not only adds video game touches, but gives her actors cell phones to snap pictures with and Homer Simpson slides as a backdrop.

There were a lot more projections than just Homer Simpson, but I’m afraid I’m not a video game person, and I have no idea what most of them were. Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings” popped up. So did actor Orlando Bloom to give us an idea how dishy the Orlando in the play is. But the rest? I just don’t know my Pokemon from my Mortal Combat or any points in between.

And therein lies the rub with this fun idea to bring “As You Like It” into the 21st Century. Adding the pop culture references is great for the kids in the audience, but I fear they lose sight of the Shakespeare, while the old folks can do the Shakespeare, but are lost in the Myst. It might’ve been better to write a new play with the same basic “As You Like It” plot – banished girl, evil uncle, hot guy who falls for her the minute he sees her – and play it out with modern English that suits the light sabers and joysticks the kids are wielding. Kind of like Hollywood turning “Twelfth Night” into “She’s the Man” and “The Taming of the Shrew” into “10 Things I Hate About You.”

But this way… There’s life and joy here, but the language seems well beyond these youthful actors’ range. As a result, the story gets lost, and all anybody is going to remember is that Rosalind was in a football uniform, Orlando dressed like Indiana Jones, and Celia dragged around an adorable yellow stuffed animal that I think came from Pokemon. Oh, and everybody sang “YMCA” at the end.

As You Like It
by William Shakespeare

Pritchard Theatre, Eureka College

Director: Holly Rocke.
Scenic Designer: Marty Lynch
Costume Designer: Nicole Wheeler
Lighting Designer: Marty Lynch
Sound Designer: Emily Simpson
Stage Manager: Chris Funk

Cast: DJ Blume, Rahmell Brown, Caitlin Closner, Erin Cochran, Becky Collins, Jacob Coombs, Cat Davis, Tiffany Davis, Bradley Gabehart, Julie Gautschy, Taryn Hefley, Scott Herman, Sami Hubbard, Tim Jenkins, Kayla Koeppel, Kesenia Marten, Alyssa Martin.

Running time: 2:15, including one 10-minute intermission

Box office: 309-467-6363

Remaining performances: October 13-16 at 7:30 pm, October 17 at 2 pm, with a post-show discussion following the October 14th performance

Monday, October 11, 2010

"The Bald Soprano" and "The Lesson": Going in Circles at Krannert Center

At some point in my academic life, I had a French language textbook written by absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco. I don’t remember much about it, except that instead of the usual “How are you today?” and “Can you tell me how to get to the library?” it contained interesting dialogue like “Your nose looks like a circular staircase.”

For me, that pretty much sums up Ionesco. He’s going to go a direction you don’t expect, he isn’t going to make a whole lot of sense, and the people in his plays may end up going in circles. “The Bald Soprano” and “The Lesson,” the two one-acts chosen by the U of I Department of Theatre to open their fall season, are quite different from each other, but either one could contain the line “Your nose looks like a circular staircase” with no problem at all.

“The Bald Soprano” is the more absurd of the two, with no plot and no real characters, just a quartet of proper British people, a maid and a fireman, and a lot of nonsensical dialogue about buttered potato jackets, a family where everybody is named Bobby Watson, the curative powers of yogurt, how baffling it is to run into your spouse, and a desire for fire. Commentators have suggested that it illustrates the futility of language and communication, and that certainly seems apt.

“The Lesson” is more sinister, with an increasingly frustrated professor, an impossible student, and a maid whose main function seems to be to act as the professor’s clean-up crew after he loses his temper.

Both are directed by Tom Mitchell on a bright white pop art set designed by Moon Jung Kim. “The Bald Soprano” gets four off-white comfy chairs and a big clock with only one hand, while “The Lesson” has a blackboard and sturdy wooden tables and chairs, but it’s still minimalist and strange enough to create the mood.

The best part of “The Bald Soprano” is the over-the-top gestures from Jeremiah Lowry and Neala Barron that bring to mind Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. Except this would be the Ministry of Silly Gestures. That part is funny and fresh and definitely works to set up the absurdity. Still, this production, using a new translation by Tina Howe, seems too long by at least 15 minutes and moves from absurdity to annoyance well before the curtain.

After the break, we see “The Lesson,” which is also funny at first, with Doug West and Jaclyn Holtzman nicely showing how inane education can be. The opening night audience, filled with both professors and students, understood that part of “The Lesson” quite well. But then the play gets darker and creepier, and the pace speeds up and then slows down, and Howe’s translation goes completely off the rails. I’ve never seen audience members leave during a performance at the Studio Theatre, but we had several departures this time. Forewarned is forearmed: There is shouting and violence in “The Lesson.” It gets ugly.

Remember what I said above, about being too long and moving from absurdity to annoyance? That goes double for "The Lesson."

If you like Theatre of the Absurd, if you have seen “The Bald Soprano” and “The Lesson” before and you know what you’re in for, you may very well appreciate this double bill. Otherwise… You may find these plays like a circular staircase that goes absolutely nowhere.

The Bald Soprano and The Lesson
by Eugène Ionesco, translated from the French by Tina Howe

Studio Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts

Director: Tom Mitchell.
Scenic Designer: Moon Jung Kim.
Costume Designer for “The Bald Soprano”: Amy Senffner.
Costume Designer for “The Lesson”: Jessica Trier.
Lighting Designer: Brianna Sue Johnson.
Sound Designer: Robert Dagit.

Cast of “The Bald Soprano”: Jeremiah Lowry, Neala Barron, Nile Hawver, Julia Skeggs, Anastasia Pappageorge, Evan Johnson, Thomas A. Schleis.

Cast of “The Lesson”: Doug West, Jaclyn Holtzman, Sara Heller.

Running time: 2:25, including one 20-minute intermission

Box office: 217-333-6280,

Note: This review originally appeared in the Champaign News-Gazette.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Discovery Walk, Part the Third

Today has been my day off from the Discovery Walk, after six days in a row of performances. We have two more days, with 16 performances each day, and then we will all say goodbye to the Discovery Walk for 2010.

I have mixed feelings about this. It's been fun, I love the actors and volunteers I've been hanging out with, and I love Lucy Orme Morgan, the person I'm portraying. She is a force of nature, and it's really fun to play her. But it's also been challenging, with freezing temperatures last weekend and the prospect of hot hot hot happening tomorrow and Sunday, plus a whole lot of interesting things popping up along the way. I've been interrupted by squirrels throwing acorns, a very long siren, a few trains, and a pair of tap-dancing teens. (I think they were communicating in Morse Code, but I'm not sure.) One early day, I was visited by about a dozen people who spilled out of two vans right next to where I was performing to visit the graves of their ancestors. My character was related to them, too, and when I told them that's who I was, one of them said, "I know you!" as if I really were Lucy Orme Morgan. That's not something that happens every day.

Since this may be the only time I ever do this, I already know it will be bittersweet turning in these final performances.

Until then, I thought I would tell you about a few more of the characters you'll meet if you decide to come out to Evergreen Cemetery on Saturday or Sunday. This trio includes tragedy and comedy, as befits theatrical proceedings. First up is Helen Davis Stevenson, the lady of constant sorrows. Unhappily married, this prominent citizen became a little too attached to her children, following them to college and worrying about them to excess even when her own health became compromised. Kathleen Kirk wrote the piece and plays Helen, in what Judy Brown, who runs Illinois Voices Theatre and shepherds the entire dramatic process, calls an Oscar-worthy performance. It's good to add a few tears to the mix, and Kathleen definitely provides those.

William Van Schoick, one of the founders of the Bloomington Pork Packing Company, is on the lighter side of the theatrical aisle. His pork place was more than a little smelly, and it caused quite a stir among Bloomingtonians who didn't appreciate the stench in their neighborhood. Ron Emmons plays Van Schoick with an irascible wit and good curmudgeon spirit. Emmons also wrote the Van Schoick speech, so if you visit, be sure to yell "Hogwash!" at him.

And last up today is Daniel Foster, a larger-than-life political character who served several terms as mayor, pulled in support from both parties, and definitely knew his way around palm-greasing, vice and liquor as a way to get out the vote. Todd Wineburner gives Mr. Foster a Dickensian polish, with a shiny badge on his lapel that says "Mayor," just in case anybody forgets the office Foster once held. He's funny and energetic, with a politico's bluster and a way with words. John Kirk wrote the Foster piece, a full-bodied rant about blue-nosed Republicans and ladies of the evening as well as the bogus (in his opinion) charge that got him indicted for official misconduct.

That's Todd over there on the right, showing off his best Daniel Foster oratorical style, complete with "Mayor" badge.

Remember, you only have four chances left to catch the 2010 Discovery Walk at Evergreen Cemetery. Your last chances are at 11 am and 2 pm on Saturday and Sunday.

See you at the cemetery!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Discovery Walk, Part Deux

As I write this, we are past the halfway point, with some 56 performances of our individual pieces left. Tomorrow, we'll see more school groups, with the general public returning to Evergreen Cemetery on Saturday and Sunday.

Whew. I knew this would be a challenge, to keep my wits about me during all these repetitions of my speech, and I was right! But the weather today was so impossibly gorgeous that I can't complain. I'm not usually outside that much, so getting to sit in a beautiful place with sun and breezes and charming squirrels trying to pelt me with walnuts... Well, it was quite pleasant, as my character, Lucy Orme Morgan, might say.

From chatting with my husband, who was a tour guide yesterday, and some of the children who've passed through, I now know that there are two characters who stand out as audience favorites for the younger set. They seem to like Grace Jewett Austin, the society reporter and fashion columnist who had a thing about elephants, and Christoph Mandler, the German immigrant who rolled cigars for a living and also sang and danced with a home-made dance partner.

That's Grace up top, portrayed by Irene Taylor, resplendent in her red cape. She extols the virtues of wearing color, tells a bit about her life as a reporter, and fills the audience in on her elephant collection. I happen to know she has already received a lovely picture of several elephants as a contribution to the collection, with another offer to bring some sort of elephant toy back later. Her costume is also a big hit, but you'll have to come to the walk if you want to know the particulars. And if you've already done the walk and you know the big secret, don't spoil it for everybody else, okay?

Christoph, played by Michael Pullin, does some show and tell, as well. He not only dances with Matilda, his doll of a dance partner, but he shows his audiences how to make their own cigars. That's not something you see every day. Michael reports that he hasn't yet sent any cigars home with the youngsters, but he thinks he could probably get a few new customers if he tried. I'm sure their parents are happy he hasn't actually sold any cigars, though.

So that's what awaits you at the Discovery Walk. Come out Saturday or Sunday, at 11 am or 2 pm, to see Grace and Christoph and the other six folks who are not offering elephant or cigar madness!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

All Kinds of Discoveries at the Discovery Walk

As you know if you've been keeping track of my blog, I am performing in this year's Discovery Walk at Evergreen Cemetery. I am playing a lovely woman named Lucy Orme Morgan, a suffragette (apparently "suffragist" was a less derogatory term at the time, but "suffragette" was sort of adopted by the women themselves, losing the negative connotations. I like "suffragette" because it reminds me of "Suffragette City," a song by David Bowie. I never have had a clue what "Suffragette City" means, but it was a fun song when I was 12) and social reformer who played a crucial role in organizing and creating a home for girls in the late 19th century.

This is my first experience as an actor in the Discovery Walk, although I have written for them before and acted as a tour guide. My husband is a tour guide again this year, and I am enjoying seeing his friendly face at the head of a group when they round the bend in front of me.

So far, we have completed one weekend, with a total of 32 performances each, and two weekdays, with a total of 48 performances each. We are, as it happens, at the halfway point. I wasn't sure how difficult that would be, with so many repetitions, and I have to say, it is definitely challenging! But today, while we had school groups in attendance, the weather was gorgeous, the kids were great audiences, and I definitely enjoyed myself. It helps that my character's great passion was taking care of children. I think how Lucy Orme Morgan would've reacted to all those charming faces, and that makes me smile when I'm looking out at them.

There are eight groups traversing Evergreen Cemetery during a session, and eight characters for those groups to visit. The characters include a longtime zookeeper at Miller Zoo (played by Bob Thurmond, shown above with Tori Allen as the Griotte who helps tell his story); the mother of a presidential candidate; a society reporter and fashion columnist with national influence (I wrote this one); a (possibly) corrupt mayor; a singing and dancing German immigrant who made and sold cigars; a man invested in packing pork until the stench angered his neighbors; and an incredibly successful inventor with vision problems who could barely see his own customers.

The Discovery Walk has been fascinating in each of the roles I've played, mostly because I am not originally from Bloomington-Normal, and I don't really know its history all that well. I love history, though, so I enjoy getting to meet the characters who made these towns and this area what it is. Plus, Judy Brown, who runs the creative side of the proceedings for Illinois Voices Theater, attracts some terrific actors to play these folks. So you'll see sterling performers like Kathleen Kirk (playing Helen Davis Stevenson this time), Rhys Lovell (as inventor William White, seen above showing off one of his inventions), and Todd Wineburner (taking the role of former mayor Daniel Foster).

Schools will continue to visit this week, with public performances open again on the weekend.

I will blog again about my Discovery Walk experience, so look for more posts and more pictures later. In the meantime, buy your tickets at the McLean County Museum of History, the Garlic Press or Evergreen Cemetery, and come out to Evergreen Cemetery to join us at 11 am and 2 pm on Saturday and Sunday. I'll be the one with the big red rose on my hat!

Friday, October 1, 2010

On the Horizon in October

I've already discussed the Evergreen Cemetery Discovery Walk 2010 (instead of just writing or acting as a tour guide, I'm performing this time) and it starts TOMORROW. Do not miss! I'm playing Lucy Orme Morgan, a strong proponent of social welfare programs for children, one of eight characters from Bloomington-Normal's past featured this year. You'll find tour times and ticket prices here. As a sneak peek, I'm showing you the picture (at left) of me in my Lucy Orme Morgan finery.

Urbana's Station Theatre continues Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation, which may be this year's hottest play, through October 16th. Director Mikel Matthews was kind enough to share a script with me (it still hasn't been published as far as I know, although it's been tapped for the 2010 Best Plays yearbook) and I can verify that Annie Baker's writing is crisp, funny and insightful, and she makes a lot out of those silly exercises anybody who's ever been in an acting class is familiar with.

The Art Theater in Champaign is showing Oliver Stone's South of the Border, what they are calling a "divisive documentary about Latin American leaders." The Art promises speakers for almost every showing from tonight through October 6th. FMI or the full schedule, try their website.

The Normal Theatre opens its LGBT FEST with a new documentary called Stonewall Uprising on the 5th and 6th, followed by Howl, starring James Franco as poet Allen Ginsberg, on the 7th, and Leading Ladies, a ballroom dance movie filmed right in Champaign-Urbana, on the 8th.

One of my favorite musicals, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, opens at ISU's Center for the Performing Arts October 6th, directed by Cyndee Brown. If you get there early, you might be chosen as a guest speller, and you'll get to go right up there on stage with ISU's performers. You don't get to sing, but you should get to dance around a little. And spell, of course. I was picked when I saw the show in Chicago, and they asked me to spell jihad, balmacaan and Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, in case you'd like to study ahead. "Putnam County" runs through October 16th, which includes performances on Homecoming weekend, so you are forewarned to get your tickets now.

Do you dance in the garden in torn sheets in the rain? Do you wear your hair in a beehive? Did your ear lobe ever fall into the deep and turn into a lobster? If you answered yes to any of those, you'll want to attend the B-52s concert at the BCPA on the 6th. Love Shack, baby!

U of I opens its fall season with two short absurdist comedies, The Bald Soprano and The Lesson, from Eugene Ionesco on October 7th in the Studio Theatre, and then brings Macbeth right behind in the Colwell Playhouse on the 14th.

In a very different direction, the Champaign Urbana Theatre Company (CUTC) is offering the Elton John/Tim Rice musical Aida in concert at Urbana's Lincoln Square from October 7-10.

I am definitely looking forward to Eureka College's 21st Century version of Shakespeare's As You Like It, directed by Holly Rocke, opening October 12 in Pritchard Theatre. Rocke promises that Rosalind will be in a football uniform and we'll see Wii Boxing instead of wrestling.

Prairie Fire Theatre goes back to what it does best with An Evening with Gilbert & Sullian October 15-17, at Westbrook Theater in Presser Hall on the IWU campus. Prairie Fire promises "a glorious night of all your favorites."

In its second show of the month, ISU brings Shakespeare's Measure for Measure to Westhoff Theatre October 27-31. "Measure for Measure" is the one with the corrupt judge, the novice nun he tries to blackmail into sleeping with him, and a whole lot of rotten in the duchy of Vienna.

Illinois Wesleyan continues its fall season with Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life, a post-modernist piece of theater that stretches the definition of "play," in performance October 28-30 in the E. Melba Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre. Ally Moravec directs for IWU.

Just in time for Halloween, Dracula comes to Community Players. Performances run from October 29 to November 13, and Paul Vellella plays the dark count who wants to suck your blood.

And if you can make it to all of that, you will have one very full October!