Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Curiosity of 10-Minute Plays at the Phoenix Theatre

I love 10-minute plays. They're short, of course, but the good ones give us interesting characters, make a point and tell a whole story in that brief ten minutes.

For what I think is the first time, Illinois Wesleyan's two directing classes, under the tutelage of professors Scott Susong and Nancy Loitz, are presenting a slew of 10-minute plays. I counted 19 plays in all, directed by students in Susong's and Loitz's Fundamentals of Directing classes. They've split up the plays over three nights, with the first session, consisting of six plays, last night. These student-directed and student-acted pieces will continue on Thursday and Friday nights back in the cozy confines of the Phoenix Theatre, tucked underneath the Memorial Center on the IWU campus.

Last night, I think we saw the following performances:

Black Paintings (#1) by Neil Olson
Krystal Martinez, director
Male: Aaron O’Neill
Female: Kate Fitzgerald

Blue Skies by Marvin L. Cotlar
Allison Sutton, director
The Painter: Alyssa Julien
The Man: Joseph Chu

What I Learned From Grizzly Bears by Jessica Lind
Laura Martino, director
Bernadette: Rae Brattin
Husband: Jacob Krech

Blue in the Face by Kayla Cagan
Brooke Trantor, director
Andrew: Marek Zurowski
Marion: Bri Sarkcioglu

She’s Fabulous by Jack Neary
Antonio Gracias, director
Clarisse: Chantericka Tucker
Bethyl: Elaina Henderson

Black Paintings (#2) by Neil Olson
Mary Holm, director
Male: Patrick Burke
Female: Morgan Latiolais

Because I love 10-minute plays and work with them extensively every year (I chair a committee that runs an annual 10-minute play competition and festival at Heartland Theatre), I find it fascinating to see which ones stand out for other people, which ones work and why they work, and just how much the direction and performances can make of these slender scripts.

All of the plays directed by Wesleyan's directing students come from one volume, D. L. Lepidus's "The Best Ten-Minute Plays for Two Actors." It's curious we saw two versions of "Black Paintings" in the same night, but it's a dandy little play and I can understand why students would be attracted to the material, about an artist who wants back some black paintings he left with his former mentor. His ex, the daughter of that mentor, isn't willing to give them back, and that creates some snappy dialogue and a whole lot of conflict.

The other script I liked was "She's Fabulous" by Jack Neary, where two actresses sit in the audience at "Death of a Salesman," sniping at the rival who snared the role of Linda that they both coveted. It's an in-joke for actors, but well-written and a lot of fun.

It's a great idea for IWU to offer this kind of showcase for its students and give them the opportunity to see how their directing efforts pay off on stage. I'd love to see them expand it, add a playwriting class, and have the directors and actors work on plays created (and workshopped) by classmates. They can try plays for Heartland's 10-Minute Play Fest while they're at it.

For more information about the Fall 2010 Fundamentals of Directing Ten-Minute Play Festival, try their Facebook page. I'm guessing they'll be starting at 8 pm on Thursday and Friday as well, but you should get there early if you want a seat. Every seat was filled at last night's performance.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Celebrating Sondheim

This year has been one big Stephen Sondheim fest, celebrating the composer-lyricist's 80th birthday back in March. After all the concerts and shows and general festivities that have happened this year, Sondheim fans can keep the party going by catching up with:

Sondheim's new book, FINISHING THE HAT. The subtitle says it all: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes. It's insightful, candid, maybe a little catty (but only about people who are already dead) and altogether a fascinating look at how he does what he does.

I particularly enjoyed his discussion about (and rules for) rhyming, and that's only the introduction!

EVENING PRIMROSE, just released on DVD. It's a curious little piece of Sondheimiana, an hour-long TV musical that aired once, on a show called ABC Stage 67, in November, 1966. The plot is reminiscent of a "Twilight Zone" episode, with an antisocial poet, played by Anthony Perkins, who decides to hide out inside a department store to get away from the troublesome world outside. He finds there is already a secret society living there, deep in the bowels of the department store, bound by their own rules and rituals. They are willing to admit him into their odd little colony. But they are very clear; once he's joined, he can never leave.

The teleplay for EVENING PRIMROSE was written by James Goldman, probably best known as the playwright of "A Lion in Winter." Goldman also wrote the libretto for my favorite Sondheim musical, "Folllies." Sondheim's contribution to EVENING PRIMROSE amounts to four lovely songs, including "I Remember" and "Take Me to the World," which have been sung by countless artists in cabarets and concerts, with recorded versions of the former by Barbra Streisand and the latter by Dawn Upshaw.

I can't say this is the most satisfying hour of theater I've ever seen, but it's worthwhile just as a curiosity. The story is compelling, if strange, and it's cool to see Anthony Perkins as a singer, paired with Charmian Carr, who was Liesl in "The Sound of Music."

SONDHEIM, THE BIRTHDAY CONCERT, showing up on PBS's Great Performances tonight in most areas. Peoria's WTVP and Urbana's WILL are scheduled to show the concert at 8 pm tonight.

This Birthday Concert took place last March at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, with David Hyde Pierce acting as host. The New York Philharmonic, conducted by longtime Sondheim musical director Paul Gemignani, plays about two dozen Sondheim pieces, with performances by everybody from Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin to Victoria Clark, Joanna Gleason, Chip Zien, Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone, George Hearn, and dancers from the American Ballet Theatre.

The program was released on DVD and Blu-Ray November 16th, and I've already perused my copy. Some of the performances are fabulous (Laura Benanti, Donna Murphy, Audra McDonald and Nathan Gunn are particularly moving) and some aren't all that exciting. (Why in the world would they close the solos with Elaine Stritch, the worst singer and most self-indulgent performer of the bunch?) But it's the end, a soaring group number on "Sunday" from "Sunday in the Park with George," that really made an impression. Yes, I will be rewatching it when it's broadcast tonight, even though I've already played and replayed the DVD. Somehow, the communal experience is always better.

Happy 80th birthday, Mr. Sondheim! Thanks for letting all of us celebrate it with you.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sunday at the Library with Poetry

Most of us think of poetry as reading material or perhaps food for thought more than performance art, but the program last Sunday at the Normal Public Library, featuring three local poets reading from their own work, clearly succeeded as all three.

Tim Hunt, Kathryn Kerr and Kathleen Kirk displayed different voices through their poems, with subject matter and points-of-view varying among them, although they shared a certain warmth and humor that was very appealing. (They've also all had cover art from photographer Ken Kashian, who happened to be in the room, which was a nice bonus. That's Kasian's work above, on Kathleen Kirk's LIVING ON THE EARTH.)

At this Normal occasion , I found myself laughing along with some poems, nodding in recognition at others, and in general, quite enjoying these diverging views on where poetry lives now, right among us, whether we know it or not.

Hunt is a professor of English at ISU, while Kerr teaches writing there. Kirk is well-known in this area as an actress and writer, and her performance training stands her in good stead, whether highlighting the fragility of a spider web or the piquant joy of an avocado refrigerator. And because poetry is an intensely personal medium, Hunt and Kerr do very well fitting their delivery style to their words, as well.

Hunt (who has a website that tells you a lot more than I can about his distinctive voice) used a kind of dark, whip-smart, folksy wisdom to tell us about Jimi Hendrix, truck stops in Kansas and the value of REDNECK YOGA, which just happens to be the title of his new chapbook from Finishing Line Press. As David Amram says on that website, "Tim Hunt paints us a portrait of our surroundings and makes you want to celebrate life and write a poem yourself."

Using her Finishing Line chapbook, TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN, as her guide, Kerr made it clear that the turtle at the center of those poems is her alter ego, whether that turtle is having lunch at a fancy tea room or riding down the highway in her red shell of a car, blasting music and singing out loud about the joys of romance with younger men. Kerr's self-deprecating humor and everywoman demeanor brought her turtle to life nicely.

I've seen Kathleen Kirk perform her poems before, and she is always in the moment, charming and fresh, with work that tells a lot about life in the Midwest, flowers, laundry baskets and the small moments that make life beautiful. Her poem, Cornfield in Winter, which appears in LIVING ON THE EARTH, the chapbook pictured at the top of this post, was especially poignant to me at this performance. We are heading toward a Central Illinois winter. I will soon be seeing the picture she paints. And it is beautiful.

Cornfield in Winter

I am in love with the evidence
of what has gone before us
and what we are now: long stretches of golden time
piercing the snow in pools of blue shadow.
I know how dangerous they are.
the cornstalks not yet plowed under,
but I am in love with them anyway.
They are beautiful.

I am in love with the big blank sky.
the blue gradations and the high small moon.
I love the moon for its integrity
without us.

I am in love with the whole picture:
the small and dubious actions
of men and women, farmers and astronauts,
photographers and poets;
the way the sky goes on and on, a clarity extended beyond our view;
beneath us, the earthworms and hidden ants
holding us all together;
the way the complexity of the list
requires not just commas but semi-colons
and a nearly full stop of moon.
I love it all: the balance.
the composition, the chaos, the grammar.
It is all beautiful.

Now don't you wish you'd been there to hear this out loud?

This poem is reprinted by permission of the author. You can buy (or pre-order) copies of LIVING ON THE EARTH, REDNECK YOGA and TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN at Finishing Line Press. Kathleen Kirk's books are also available at Babbitt's Books in Uptown Normal, and you can see how to purchase Hunt's books at his website. If you scroll down, you will see information on Kathryn Kerr's books here.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Beautiful Bouncing "Once Upon a Mattress" at IWU

“Once Upon a Mattress” is an unusual spin on the classic Broadway musical, what with its fairy tale setting and its heroine, the princess who sleeps on a pea, who isn’t exactly a demure ingénue (famously played by Carol Burnett off-Broadway, on Broadway and in the first TV movie.)

Although the show hit Broadway in 1959 with a somewhat wacky medieval look – long, sweeping gowns with pointy sleeves, twisty hats, boys in tights, that kind of thing – director Scott Susong chose to go a different way for his production at Illinois Wesleyan’s MacPherson Theatre. That means we get a beautiful, high-fashion 50s look, with dresses and hats you might expect to see on Suzy Parker in the pages of Vogue in 1955. Or on Betty Draper in the early season of “Mad Men.”

At first, all the gorgeous dresses, all the dishy suits and tuxedos, are in shades of black and white. It takes our plucky heroine, Princess Winnifred (called Fred for short), to disturb that palette. Fred pops up in a green-and-orange bathing suit with her bright red Lucy curls escaping from a swim cap, definitely breaking up the monotony at the castle.

Answering a call for possible brides for Prince Dauntless, Fred swims the moat outside his castle to make her case. Although no one in the kingdom can marry until Dauntless is safely hitched, his cranky mother, Queen Aggrivain, has been keeping matrimony out of reach, forcing potential brides to survive whatever impossible tests she dreams up. For Fred’s test, Queen Aggrivain decides to make her sleep on ten mattresses with one tiny pea tucked under the bottom one. If she sleeps through the night (and the queen tosses in lots of energetic dancing beforehand, a sleeping draught, incense and a serenade from a nightingale to make sure she does), Fred will flunk the “sensitivity” test a real princess would pass. But if that tiny pea keeps her awake, then Fred can marry Dauntless, everybody else in the kingdom can marry, too, and we may just get our Happily Ever After ending.

Along with Fred, Dauntless and his battle ax of a mother, there’s a silent king who keeps chasing the chambermaids, studly Sir Harry and his pregnant girlfriend, Lady Larken, a jester and a minstrel, and a puffed-up factotum who used to be a magician.

Susong does a very good job keeping the right 50s feel, aided by Nicholas Bursoni’s nifty costumes and Andrea Healy’s pretty castle courtyard set. The adorable black-and-white video piece that opens the story and the use of the original orchestrations from Hershey Kay and Arthur Beck also keep the proper mood going, as do the inclusion of all the specialty numbers, like the jester’s dance with the ghost of his father and even a little magic from Merton the Major Domo. It’s to Susong’s and his cast’s credit that all of that works, and works well.

Everybody in the company is up to the challenge, with especially good work from the bouncy, bright Erika Lecaj as Princess Fred; Andrew Temkin, who offers a sweet, charming presence as Dauntless; Melina Rey, not afraid to go big as the pushy queen; Josh Levinson adding panache as the miming king; Vince Gargaro, whose gorgeous voice makes the minstrel more than just a walk-on; dapper dancing Nicholas Reinhart as the jester; Blake Brauer, another fine dancer as the soft shoe ghost; and Caitlin Borek, who is quite beautiful as the Nightingale of Samarkand.

Lecaj’s “Shy” and “Happily Ever After” are highlights, as are Gargaro’s “Many Moons Ago” and the “Spanish Panic” dance stylings of Ian Coulter-Buford and Abigail Root.

With terrific performances and sharp production values, this “Once Upon a Mattress” shows once again that Illinois Wesleyan’s School of Theatre Arts knows exactly what to do when it comes to musicals.

Once Upon a Mattress
Music by Mary Rodgers, Lyrics by Marshall Barer and Book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller and Marshall Barer

Based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale "The Princess and the Pea"

IWU McPherson Theatre

Director: Scott Susong
Musical Director: Saundra DeAthos-Meers
Choreographer: Jessica Riss
Scenic Designer: Andrea Healy
Costume Designer: Nicholas Bursoni
Lighting Designer: Shawn Mallot
Sound Designer: Kirsten Andersen
Video Designer: Jeff Feasley
Orchestrations by Hershey Kay & Arthur Beck

Cast: Vince Gargaro, Chase Miller, Kristen Evensen, Laura Martino, Julie Tucker, Abigail Root, Laura Williams, Melina Rey, Josh Levinson, Andrew Temkin, Nicholas Reinhart, Blake Braurer, Zach Mahler, Peter J. Studlo, Erikia Lecaj, Ian Coulter-Buford, Isaac Sherman, Caitlin Borek, Angela Jos, Lizzie Rainville, Patsita Jiratipayabood, Amy Stockhaus, Annie Simpson, Roz Prickel.

Running time: 2:20, including one 15-minute intermission

Remaining performances: November 18-20 at 8 pm and November 20-21 at 2 pm.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Don't Forget: Finishing Line Poets Will Be Reading on Sunday

Three local poets who have published chapbooks with Finishing Line Press will read from their work at the Normal Public Library on Sunday afternoon, November 21, from 2-4 pm. The library is located at 206 W. College Avenue in Normal.

The event at the library includes a one-hour poetry reading, plus time afterwards to get a book signed or chat with the poets. This program is intended for adults. It is free and open to the public and refreshments will be served.

The three poets offering readings on Sunday are Tim Hunt, the author of Redneck Yoga, Kathryn Kerr, the author of Turtles All the Way Down, and Kathleen Kirk, the author of Living on the Earth.

A fourth generation native of Northern California, Tim Hunt was born in Calistoga and raised primarily in Sebastopol, two small towns north of San Francisco. Educated at Cornell University, he has taught American literature at several schools, including Washington State University and Deep Springs College. He is currently Professor of English at Illinois State University, in Normal, Illinois. He and his wife Susan, a respiratory therapist, have two children: John, a visual artist, and Jessica, a musician and composer. Hunt's publications include the collection Fault Lines (Backwaters Press), the chapbooks Lake County Diamond (Intertext) and White Levis (Pudding House Press), and numerous poems in magazines. His scholarly publications include Kerouac's Crooked Road: Development of a Fiction and the five-volume edition The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers.

Kathryn Kerr, daughter of a nurse and a sailor, was born during a thunderstorm in St. Louis, Missouri, soon after World War II. She grew up on a hill farm overlooking Cache River in southern Illinois. Ever a lover of nature and books, she has degrees in English, botany, and creative writing. She has worked as a field biologist, an editor, a photographer, and at many other jobs. She has raised two amazing daughters and keeps three cats and a turtle. Currently she teaches writing at Illinois State University.

Kathleen Kirk is the author of Broken Sonnets, also published by Finishing Line Press, and Selected Roles (Moon Journal Press, 2006), a chapbook of theater and persona poems. Her poems appear regularly in such print and online literary journals as After Hours, Common Review, Greensboro Review, Leveler, Poems & Plays, Quarter After Eight, and Spoon River Poetry Review. Kirk has taught English at DePaul University and Lincoln College. Formerly on the editorial staffs of Poetry East and RHINO Magazine, Kirk is currently the poetry editor of Escape Into Life, an online art and culture magazine. She is married to the artist Tony Rio, a local volleyball coach, and they have two children.

Hunt and Kerr teach at Illinois State University, and Kirk works at Babbitt’s Books in Normal and appears on the Heartland Theatre stage and in the annual Evergreen Cemetery walk sponsored by Illinois Voices and the McLean County Museum of History.

Because of the similarity of their names, Kathryn Kerr and Kathleen Kirk especially appreciate this chance to appear in public in the same place at the same time, proving that they are separate people! By coincidence, two out of three of these poets tend to appear in the same literary magazine at the same time. As Kirk says, "Poetry is fun, not scary, so come hear some!"

For more information, call the library at (309) 452-1757, or visit the library website and click on the Calendar.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Immorality Part Deux: "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" at ISU

It's interesting that ISU's School of Theatre scheduled Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" and Christopher Hampton's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" back to back, since both involve illicit affairs, sexual trickery and immorality. The difference is that Hampton (and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, who wrote the epistolary novel upon which Hampton's play is based) wrote about characters who really don't struggle with right and wrong. These French aristocrats gleefully wallow in wrong, splashing cruelty, deception and betrayal around like fine champagne.

In their world, sex isn't really about pleasure, but more about power and control, even degradation and humiliation if it suits their fancy. And it definitely suits the two main characters, the reprobate Vicomte de Valmont and his beautiful, evil pal, the Marquise de Merteuil, as they plot to seduce and ruin young innocents just because they can.

Director Jon Ferreira, an MFA candidate, puts the emphasis on facades and artifice in his production for ISU. The set, designed by Alex K, is all pretty pastels and rococo flourishes, almost like a dollhouse. Or maybe like the George Barbier illustrations that accompany the 1934 edition of the Choderlos de Laclos novel. The set is almost too pretty, just like the grand gowns from costume designer Lauren Lowell and the oversized wigs from hair designer Tina Godziszewski. It's as if all the people on stage are hiding behind a wall of opulence and glitter. Fake, fake and more fake.

The original British production of Hampton's play took a different tack, paring it down and using a lot of white and neutrals in the costumes and set pieces. That approach worked to make Valmont look more attractive to our modern eyes (big wigs don't do much for men unless they're going for an Elvis or Mozart look) and also to make the action feel more raw and dangerous, less arch. Ferreira's concept is clearly to hightlight the fakery, but still... It's a bit distancing.

As Valmont and Merteuil, Josh Innerst and Jessie Dean come off clever and seductive, playing somewhat younger, more headstrong versions of the characters than you may be used to if you've seen the movies with John Malkovich and Glenn Close or Colin Firth and Annette Bening in those roles. It doesn't hurt that Dean looks absolutely gorgeous in her pre-Revolution French finery.

Credit is also due to Innerst, Emily Nichelson (as young Cecile Volanges) and Hannah Brown (as a different playmate of Valmont's) for jumping head-first into the sexy stuff and making it work.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses
by Christopher Hampton
based on the book by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

ISU Center for the Performing Arts

Director: Jon Ferreira
Scenic Designer: Alex K
Costume Designer: Lauren Lowell
Hair and Makeup Designer: Tina Godziszewski
Lighting Designer: Cassie Mings
Sound Designer: Jason Tucholke

Cast: Hannah Brown, Jessie Dean, Josh Innerst, Alex Kostner, Jared Kugler, Colleen Longo, Uretta Lovell, Deirdre McNulty, Becky Miller, Emily Nichelson, Steve Ullstead, Chana-Lise Wilczynski, Antonio Zhiurinskas.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A True Confession, Wherein Your Intrepid Reporter Goes to See an American Idol in Chicago

Okay, I admit it. I watch "American Idol" from time to time. This fact always surprises people who know I'm a bit of a snob about movies and theater. No Matrix, no Porky's, no Andrew Lloyd Webber. And yet I like "American Idol."

Well, I don't like it like it. Its tactics and manipulations are often reprehensible. Simon Cowell and his snotty comments are not my cup of tea. I often dislike the pampered pets they try to sell me the hardest. And I never, ever go for the schmaltzy or bombastic voices they seem to think define the very essence of an American Idol. But I do find myself rooting for underdogs from time to time, especially the people the producers and judges seem to be ignoring, and I have even been motivated to vote when somebody takes my fancy. It's a sickness, I know. Or just a weakness.

A couple of seasons ago, I was quite taken with unassuming Kris Allen, the sweet kid from Arkansas who managed to make it past all the flashier contestants who'd been given all the screen time through the audition rounds. Allen didn't get what is commonly known as the "pimp" spot (singing last) as many times as the big faves, he wasn't a very good interview (not being incredibly perky or slick) and yet he seemed genuine and modest and charming. And I really liked how he sang. (Yes, I know. "American Idol" tries to make it about anything but how they sing. Still, sometimes, it's the singing that draws you in.)

After all the ups and downs and a whole lot of craziness, my fave actually ended up winning that season of "American Idol." And then he put out the de rigeur album, and I even liked it!

Allen and his band came to Chicagoland last summer, but I happened to be a thousand miles away at the time. So when I heard that he was returning in November as the opening act for Lifehouse, I jumped at the chance to buy tickets. This made no sense to my husband, so I asked my niece, Nicoletta, a charming singer and performer herself, if she wanted to go. She did. We set out for the Chicago Theater on time, meaning we got settled in our lovely seats (my jumping act meant I nabbed very good seats) and caught the opening act, a young woman named Alyssa Bernal who is billed as a "Youtube sensation." I don't know what that means, but she was very cute and could actually sing, and when it comes to young singers, that's always a plus. The downside was that the sound wasn't mixed properly, muddying things a bit, and it seemed strange that a singer/songwriter with a knack for pretty melodies and earnest lyrics had a dramatic mohawked punk guy playing bass and drawing focus behind her. I liked her stuff, though, especially a duet with her keyboard player and her single "Cali Cali Cali," a breezy little song about (as you might expect) California.

But the main event for me was Kris Allen, and I was happy to see not only that he performed like a champ, but that he was very well-received by an audience mostly there for Lifehouse. His singles "Live Like We're Dying" and "Alright With Me" got a lot of enthusiastic singalong happening, and my personal favorite, a breakup song called "Is It Over," was absolutely epic, with a sensational solo from lead guitarist Andrew DeRoberts.

Allen's set was just under an hour, and I knew I would be leaving shortly afterwards since I wasn't all that interested in Lifehouse, anyway, but I absolutely felt I got my money's worth. Kris Allen and his band were polished and energetic, as well as a whole lot of fun, and they communicated a real joy of performance that was also a joy to watch. By the time Allen closed with the Beatles' "Come Together," spilling into the audience to high-five and generally commune with the hoi polloi, I was ready to deem my concert-going experience a rousing success.

I'd like to see the Kris Allen Band as a solo act the next time, and I'd like them to come a little closer than Chicago. Surely somewhere in Bloomington-Normal or Champaign-Urbana has a venue that fits this feisty little band. Fingers crossed!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Take Yourself Out to the Ballgame in C-U

October may be over, but you can still "batter up for baseball music" at U of I's Krannert Center for the Performing Arts this week. This special Baseball Music Project, hosted and narrated by superstar Dave Winfield, features the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra with Bob Thompson, conductor, and Steven Larsen, Music Director.

Look for "The Baseball Music Project" at the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center on Friday, November 12, at 7:30 pm.

Krannert's press release bills the event as a "symphonic tribute featuring cherished photography, inspiring film footage, and live narration by Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. Gather your whole team, don your favorite jersey, and get
ready to rally for a nostalgic evening of musical Americana."

They're also offering pre-game activities as a warm-up to the main event, including a meet-and-greet with the University of Illinois men’s baseball team, a discussion with Dr. Robert A. Bane on the topic of sports medicine, and a talk by Professor Emeritus Alan Nathan entitled "Revisiting Mantle’s Griffith Stadium Home Run, April 17, 1953—A Case Study in Forensic Physics."

For the main program, they're promising "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" as well as other familiar baseball anthems on the bill, along with video and photo accompaniment.

Other highlights include:
• Representatives from the Illini Union Bookstore will be selling baseball books and memorabilia
• Associate Professor Adrian Burgos Jr. will sign copies of Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line and will be ready to field your questions
• Baseball and music mementos on loan from the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music at the University of Illinois and the Early American Museum will be on display
• Memorabilia and photographs in an exhibit entitled, "Dorothy 'Dottie' Schroeder: All American Girls Professional Baseball League Shortstop," based on the career of the Sadorus-born AAGPBL record-holder who was a Champaign resident
• Design projects by University of Illinois students
• Free popcorn!

For more information or to order tickets, visit the Krannert Center website here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Robert Duvall and "Get Low" Know How to Make an Exit

I'm not sure what it says about me that I don't think it's strange at all to want to plan and participate in your own funeral party while you're still alive. Why not? The party is for you, after all.

Felix Bush, the character Robert Duvall plays in the quiet, uncomplicated movie "Get Low," playing last week at the Normal Theater, puts his funeral in motion for different reasons. Felix has been pretty much of a hermit, living in an isolated cabin with nothing but his dogs and a mule, for 40 years. Everybody in town tells stories about him, although we never really get to hear them. But it's clear he's a crusty old gent who doesn't take kindly to human weakness. And that's why he wants a party now, while he's still kicking, to hash out once and for all the reason he became a hermit and cut off all contact.

Because Robert Duvall is playing Felix, he comes equipped with a whole lot of dignity and grace. Duvall knows how to work every tiny flicker of emotion so that it seems real and human and beautiful. His Felix becomes a lot deeper than the stereotypical curmudgeon we've come to expect in our movies, and even though the secret he's keeping about his past gets stretched out to the last possible moment, and in the end, we find out he really didn't do anything so wrong, it's still moving and sweet, redemptive and sad.

Bill Murray, one of my favorite actors, also shows up as Frank Quinn, a sad-eyed quipster of an undertaker working hard to get Felix's business in a town where people just aren't dying fast enough to keep a funeral parlor going. Murray's brand of sardonic humor is one of the film's biggest assets, plus he and Duvall really click. More movies with the two of them playing off each other, please.

Others in the supporting cast who add to the tableau are Lucas Black, a former child actor playing the good guy who works at Quinn's funeral home and provides a moral compass, and Bill Cobbs, another deep and deliberate actor, as a man of the church who knew Felix when. It's also nice to see Sissy Spacek back on the screen as Mattie, a woman who had a flirtation with Felix 40 years ago. Spacek is her usual genuine, appealing self, and that adds a lot, too.

"Get Low" was directed by Aaron Schneider, a native of Dunlap, Illinois, and he gives his film an easy, laid-back tone that suits the story and Duvall's performance perfectly. It's a pretty film, with vistas of trees and sky, spooling out at a leisurely pace that never seems too slow. A couple of plot points eluded me in Chris Provenzano's and C. Gaby Mitchell's screenplay, like why a subplot with town bully Carl never pays off and why he and a bunch of other unrelated people (including Mattie, Quinn and the town preacher) are suddenly playing cards together, but in general, I found myself buying the premise and going along for the ride. And by the time Felix gets to his funeral, ready to give the speech of his life, I was willing to listen to anything Robert Duvall wanted to tell me.

"Get Low" is a not a flashy movie. But it is heartfelt and emotional, with a lot to say about how to find forgiveness. I appreciated the fact that it was never preachy, with no real soap box. Just some fine performances and an elegant way to say goodbye.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

November Addenda

I've got a couple of things to add to my November Hot List, things you may want to pencil in the ol' datebook.

Numero uno: Kathleen Kirk has let me know that several poets associated with Finishing Line Press will be offering a free poetry reading at the Normal Public Library on Sunday, November 21, in the Community Room (where the very popular Young at Heartland event was held last Friday). The event is already on the calendar at the library website if you want more information.

There are three poets attending and reading: Tim Hunt, the author of Redneck Yoga; Kathryn Kerr, the author of Turtles All the Way Down; and Kathleen Kirk, the author of Living on the Earth. All three are local to Bloomington-Normal and have published chapbooks with Finishing Line Press.

This is a free event with refreshments as well as books on sale and the authors available to sign their books. Their poetry will make excellent Christmas gifts for friends and family who are poetry lovers, readers, or writers, or just like to support their friendly neighborhood artists!

The second event I wanted to make sure everybody knew about is part of the year-long celebration of Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday. Last March, the New York Philharmonic held something called "Sondheim: The Birthday Concert," which was filmed to air on PBS as part of the "Great Performances" series. It looks like it will be broadcast on most PBS stations on November 24th, although you'll need to check local listings as it gets a little closer.

This celebration concert included some of Sondheim's most famous music from COMPANY, FOLLIES, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC and INTO THE WOODS, among others, as well as pieces from Sondheim's score for the movie REDS. Performers include Broadway superstars like Laura Benanti, Michael Cerveris, Victoria Clark, Joanna Gleason, George Hearn, Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Donny Murphy, Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters.

Longtime Sondheim musical director Paul Gemignani conducted the New York Philharmonic for this concert, while TV and Broadway star David Hyde Pierce acted as host.

Along with the cast recording for last spring's SONDHEIM ON SONDHEIM, the new DVD of EVENING PRIMROSE and the book FINISHING THE HAT: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, by Mr. Sondheim himself, this PBS broadcast is a great way to celebrate the birthday of this musical theater luminary.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"Iphigenia and Other Daughters" Brings Blood and Beauty to U of I

They don't call it Greek tragedy for nothing.

Even before the events of Ellen McLaughlin's "Iphigenia and Other Daughters," tying together the basic plots of Euripides' "Iphigenia at Aulis," Sophocles' "Electra" and Euripides' "Iphigenia at Tauris" in three short acts, the cursed House of Atreus has seen unspeakable violence and bloodshed.

Now, in the 4th generation, Agamemnon, commander of the Greek forces against Troy, and his wife Clytemnestra, have four children, daughters Iphigenia, Electra and Chrysothemis and son Orestes. But Agamemnon's ships are becalmed at Aulis, and the only way to get them moving on to Troy is to give in to the goddess Artemis' demand for a sacrifice. Artemis doesn't want just another deer or goat; she wants Agamemnon and Clytemnestra's oldest daughter, Iphigenia.

So, in the first chapter of this story, Clytemnestra and Iphigenia come to Aulis under the pretense that a wedding will be taking place. But where's the groom? Why is everything so still? And why is there such a terrible feeling of foreboding?

Many years later, after Clytemnestra has exacted a terrible revenge against her husband for killing her favorite daughter, wild Electra seethes with hatred, waiting for her brother to return and make their mother pay. The third daughter, Chrysothemis, remains above the fray, the "good girl" who just wants to have a life that isn't steeped in blood.

And finally, in Act III, the action moves to Tauris, where Iphigenia now serves the goddess Artemis as a priestess. Is she a statue, an immortal, or was she never sacrificed at all way back on Aulis? How can she and her brother Orestes end the cycle of violence once and for all?

McLaughlin calls her play a "female perspective" on history and myth, even though there is that one male character (Orestes) and he has an important part to play. McLaughlin's language is mythic and at times poetic, sharply written, never didactic, making everyone deeply flawed, everyone at least a little sympathetic, as she explores the themes of family, war, pain, and what it is to be visible or invisible in the world.

Robet Quinlan directs this "Iphigenia" with a sure hand in the intimate space at Krannert's Studio Theatre, helping his cast navigate the long speeches nicely, ramping up the drama with stark percussion and striking stage pictures.

Monica Lopez is twisted and dark as Clytemnestra, the one among the women who commands action and attention. She also looks stunningly beautiful in Amanda Spaanstra's costumes, like a sort of red carpet queen, and it's hard to imagine she couldn't launch her husband's thousand ships all by herself, without the divine intervention of Artemis.

Katie Norman is sympathetic and real (no small feat when you're playing a mythological girl) as Iphigenia; Elena V. Levenson is fierce and feral as Electra, who at times is more like a pit bull than a girl; and Carley Cornelius is demure and achingly normal as Chrysothemis, the one at the eye of the hurricane.

Samuel Ashdown enters late, but makes a strong impression as Orestes, child of war, lashed to a pole and covered in blood, finally the instrument of conciliation instead of death.

Spaanstra's costumes are effective across the board, offering a variation on the basic white Greek tunics with splashes of color, Michael W. Williams' sound design is discordant and creepy, and Moon Jung Kim's set design looks beautiful, with its black sun and gauzy white sails punctuating the stage.

"Iphigenia and Other Daughters" is well-executed all-around, making this Greek drama seem new and freshly heart-rending. There's a reason for mythology - it exposes themes that never leave us. Here, it's about woman and war, about pawns in deadly games, about children stunted and twisted by the adults who are in charge of them. And about who's who in history. Iphigenia, Electra, Chrysothemis. Are they still invisible?

Iphigenia and Other Daughters
by Ellen McLaughlin

Studio Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts

Director: Robert Quinlan
Scenic Designer: Moon Jung Kim
Costume Designer: Amanda Spaanstra
Lighting Designer: Michael W. Williams
Sound Designer: Elizabeth Parthum
Dramaturg: Zackary Ross.

Cast: Katie Norman, Monica Lopez, Elena V. Levenson, Carley Cornelius, Samuel Ashdown, Stephanie Galvin, Laura King, Naomi Mark, Dana Parker, Jessica Turner.

Running time: 1:25, played without intermission

Remaining Performances: November 3-6 at 7:30 p.m. and November 7 at 3 p.m..

Box office: 333-6280, www.KrannertCenter.com

This review originally ran in the Champaign News-Gazette.

Monday, November 1, 2010

What's Up in November

If you thought area theaters and art spots were packing everything they had into October... Au contraire! Here's November, also jam-packed.

First, a couple of October holdovers.

DRACULA, the stage version of the Bram Stoker classic, continues at Community Players through November 13th. The 1977 Broadway version found acclaim for Frank Langella's smoky portrayal of the bloodthirsty Count, while Paul Vellella takes on the role at Community Players. Here's the CP page that will tell you all you need to know.

Another show that opened in October but continues performances into November is A STEADY RAIN, Keith Huff's gripping and intense play about two Chicago cops grappling with partnership, betrayal and dangerous secrets. A STEADY RAIN also runs through November 13th at Urbana's Station Theatre, in a production directed by Gary Ambler. Mathew Green and Mike Prosise play the cops in the play Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones called "a gritty, rich, thick, poetic and entirely gripping noir tale."

If you feel like a movie, you'll want to try GET LOW, featuring Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray in a black comedy about a crusty old gent who decides to hold a party for his own funeral now, before he dies. GET LOW was directed by Aaron Schneider, a native of Dunlap, Illinois, who won an Oscar for his 2003 short film TWO SOLDIERS. You can catch GET LOW at the Normal Theater November 4 through 7th.

Jared Brown's new trio of plays called THREE FOR THE SHOW also opens on November 4th, with performances till the 21st at Heartland Theatre. All three short plays riff on love and relationships, and all three feature Megan Brown, Gregory Hicks and Rhys Lovell. There were be a post-show discussion with Brown, who wrote and directed this premiere, after the matinee on November 7th. FMI or to order tickets, see the Heartland Theatre Company website.

'SWONDERFUL, a revue about the Gershwin brothers and their musical journey, comes to the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, November 5 at 7:30 pm, while the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic CATS hits the BCPA on the 11th.

TheatresCool offers another one of their Poetry Open Mic Nights on the 9th, with special guests Judith Valente and Susan Baller-Shepard. Valente is an award-winning journalist, twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, while Bloomington's own Baller-Shepard has seen her work on spirituality and faith published in leading newspapers, denominational publications, web sites and poetry anthologies. Check out the TheatresCool website for details.

ISU continues its busy (and sold-out) fall season with LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES, the sizzling play about deception and schemes among some nasty French nobles, written by Christopher Hampton and directed by Jon Ferreira. LIAISONS will play ISU's Center for the Performing Arts from November 11th to the 14th, with matinees on both the 13th and 14th. Tickets are sure to go fast for this one, too, so get to the box office now.

IWU goes a very different direction with ONCE UPON A MATTRESS, the fairytale musical about a princess who swims the moat to rescue her shy prince and then lives through that whole princess-and-the-pea test. MATTRESS, directed and choreographed by Scott Susong, runs November 17-21 at IWU's McPherson Theatre. Info is here.

Across town, Yasmina Reza's ART takes the stage at Community Players. Billed as a dramatic comedy, ART is about what exactly it takes to make art. Andy Cary, Brett Cottone and Ben Hackett play three friends battling over an all-white painting. Is it art? Or just a plain vanilla scam? Figure out what you think November 18-21. CP warns that this special laboratory production is a limited run engagement with only 4 performances.

After that, your Thanksgiving is up to you!