Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Playboy" Plays Just Fine for ISU

Last Sunday, before we began the panel discussion for "Woman in Mind" at Heartland Theatre, a patron and I were discussing why "Woman in Mind" is labeled a comedy when it really isn't. He told an anecdote about seeing John Millington Synge's "The Playboy of the Western World" at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, hanging on every word, thinking it might be the saddest thing he'd ever seen. And then he saw “Playboy” again, somewhere in the US, where it was played as an uproarious comedy. Although many in the audience were rolling in the aisles, he didn't like it nearly as well.

Given that discussion, I wasn't sure what to expect from "Playboy of the Western World" on stage at ISU's Westhoff Theatre. Would they go for the human drama of a woeful Irish man taking refuge at a remote pub, offering a tale of murder and violence, and basking in the attention his story brings? Or would they fill it full of pratfalls and mugging, going for the comedy of the "playboy" who makes his tale bigger than it is, earning first rapt attention and then scorn as his lies are discovered?

The answer lies somewhere in between. Director Emily Gill keeps in some physical business and a few moments of broad physical comedy, but she also focuses on character, on who the playboy, one Christy Mahon, is inside, and how he interacts with Pegeen Mike, the feisty barmaid smitten by his "savagery and fine words." Gill has created just the right balance between comedy and drama, with a lively pace and fine acting throughout.

MFA candidates Jeb Burris and Melisa Pereyra play Christy and Pegeen with subtlety and depth, making them and their foibles sympathetic as well as entertaining. Their Irish accents are on point but not off-putting, even though I will admit Synge’s vocabulary is hard to follow at times. Burris and Pereyra play off each other well, making for a rootable couple from the first time they meet, and they carry the story quite nicely.

Supporting players Sabrina Conti, who plays the aggressive Widow Quinn, and Tony Pellegrino, a surprise visitor with a smashed-in head and more lives than Rasputin, add energy and action as well.

Steven House has designed a charming, rough-hewn pub interior which works well as a playing space, even though it seems a little too clean and tidy for this location. The set meshed well with Sandy Childers’ costume design, also done in dusty, faded shades of cream, pink and blue. Childers did a good job distressing the hems of gowns to show what they’d look like after the woman inside had trekked through wet, muddy conditions, although the costumes in general looked more upscale than I imagine these people in the middle of nowhere could afford.

Dramaturg Brett Byron provides insightful notes in the program that should prove helpful if you’re looking for information on the play’s cultural context or why it would’ve caused riots when it first opened in Dublin in 1907.

“The Playboy of the Western World” continues through Sunday, with performances at 7:30 tonight, tomorrow and Saturday, and matinees at 2 pm on Saturday and Sunday. Its three acts run 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission between Acts II and III.

The Playboy of the Western World
by John Millington Synge
Director: Emily Gill
Scenic Designer: Steven House
Costume Designer: Sandy Childers
Lighting Designer: Grace Maberg
Sound Designer: Aaron Paolucci

Cast: Patrick Boylan, Jeb Burris, Melanie Camire, Lauren Besinger Colby, Sabrina Conti, Claire Ford, Elizabeth Keach, Carly Oros, Tony Pellegrino, Melissa Pereyra, Patrick Riley, A.J. Rosenblat, Claire Small, Ricky Torres, Anthony Urso, Kyle Wynn

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

U of I Opens New Season at Krannert Center

I have to be honest. I didn't expect Eugene Ionesco's "The Bald Soprano" and "The Lesson," two shorts plays often performed together, to kick off the University of Illinois Department of Theatre's fall season.

"Soprano" and "Lesson" are considered Theatre of the Absurd, or that part of Theatre of the Absurd that concentrates on the inability of language to fully communicate. Confession: I was in "The Bald Soprano," along with a few other poor souls in my 9th grade drama class, while another group worked on "The Lesson." I don't know why my junior high drama teacher thought these difficult, quirky, somewhat nonsensical plays were appropriate for teen actors, but I don't recall enjoying the experience. I do remember that my classmates Barb Westwood and John Walker took "The Lesson" to the city-wide junior high drama festival, but a rival school brought the Pyramus and Thisbe part of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and I feel sure they must've won. Sorry, Barb and John. You tried your best, but "The Lesson" was not meant to be performed by 14-year-olds.

If you like Theatre of the Absurd and you want to see what director Tom Mitchell does with a new translation of the plays by Tina Howe, "The Bald Soprano" and "The Lesson" open October 7th inside the Studio Theatre and close the 17th.

From the absurd to murder and mayhem... After Ionesco, U of I turns to Shakespeare and "Macbeth," the one whose name we're not supposed to say inside the walls of a theater lest we be visited with very bad luck. So don't read this aloud in a theater, all right? I'm writing from my living room, so I should be okay. "Macbeth" is directed by Robert Anderson, who was so good as Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival a year or so ago. This one is in Colwell Playhouse, with performances from October 14 to 24.

The third show (still in October) on the schedule is "Iphigenia and Other Daughters," a look at the effects of the Trojan War on the members of the House of Atreus, written by Ellen MacLaughlin, perhaps best-known as the original Angel in "Angels in America." Robert Quinlan directs "Iphigenia" in the Studio Theatre, running from October 28 to November 7.

After that, we skip to February and "The African Company Presents Richard III," a play by Carlyle Brown that sets a black theater company in New York City against a rival white company that chooses to present Richard III at the same time, using nefarious means to close down the competition. Shut out of their own theater, the African Company looks for other ways to stage their play and keep their art alive. Robert Ramirez directs this fascinating play inside the Studio Theatre from February 3 to 13.

If you've noticed that three of the four directors so far are named Robert, you are not alone. We change first names and gender with Lisa Gaye Dixon, the director of the fifth play in the U of I season. She's taking on "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which has also come up three times in this post. At the moment, the score is Robert 3, Midsummer 3. And Richard III.

Dixon is staging "Midsummer" as a Bachanalia at a Carnival celebration in the Caribbean, promising music, magic and madness. And I think some sexy bits, what with the talk of transgression and being "fraught with anticipation." Oh, and nudity. Mature audiences are invited to party down with "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the Colwell Playhouse from March 3 to 13.

The last production on the schedule does not break the Robert vs. Midsummer tie, but it does offer George Bernard Shaw's "Misalliance," directed by Kathleen Conlin for the Studio Theatre. "Misalliance" features a heroine named Hypatia, and how often do you get to see one of those? Plucky Hypatia longs for excitement to fall out of the sky, and it does, in the form of a dashing aviator named Joey, who brings along an equally captivating circus performer named Lina Szczepanowska. As Hypatia pursues Joey, most of the other males are sniffing after the exotic Polish acrobat. Romance! Satire! Long Shavian monologues about the position of women in society! You'll find all of that and an airplane crashing through the scenery (can't wait to see how they pull that off in the Studio Theatre) in "Misalliance," opening March 31 and closing April 10.

For tickets or more information, visit the Krannert Center website. We'll have to pay attention to see if there are any Roberts in the casts of these shows, or any references to "A Midsummer Night's Dream." One of them must win!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Discover the Discovery Walk at Evergreen Cemetery

Do you already have your tickets for this year’s Discovery Walk at Evergreen Cemetery? If not, why not? Performances begin on Saturday at 11 am, and you can buy those all-important tickets at the Garlic Press, Evergreen Memorial Cemetery or the McLean County Museum of History. Prices range from $4 for children and students with ID to $10 for museum members and $12 for the general public.

So what is the Discovery Walk? Well, it’s like Bloomington-Normal history brought to life. If you’re like me and not originally from McLean County, you may not know that there was a very special zookeeper at Miller Park Zoo for years and years, or that the Children’s Foundation at 403 S. State Street was once called the Morgan home, or that Sweet Home Mission was built on the site of a former pork packing plant. All that plus cigars, a life-size puppet, a corrupt mayor, a woman known as Dame Fashion Smiles, a very depressed woman who gave birth to a presidential candidate, and a brilliant inventor with vision problems who made a fortune off a device to open gates.

Rhys Lovell and Christine Cummings portray Allen
and Sarah Withers in last year’s Discovery Walk.

The theme of this year’s walk is overcoming adversity, as all these characters faced major obstacles in their lives. Here’s who you’ll meet:

Grace Jewett Austin (b. January 12, 1872 – d. September 27, 1948) Amateur playwright and poet, fashion dame and Pantagraph reporter, Grace Jewett Austin wrote about who was marrying whom, who just got back from where, who went to what party, and who wore what to women’s club meetings. Portrayed by Irene Taylor.

Daniel T. Foster (b. July 22, 1841 d. October 13, 1920) Foster was a larger-than-life Civil War soldier, the owner of a local omnibus and carriage line, a raiser and racer of horses and mayor of Bloomington. But that was before he was indicted for aiding a prisoner to escape and malfeasance in office. Portrayed by Todd Wineburner.

Christoph Mandler (b. April 23, 1858, d. December 6, 1949) What do you make of a gregarious German cigar maker who loved to sing and dance (with Mathilda, no less) and entertain all within the sound of his voice? Why, just relax and enjoy the show, of course. Portrayed by Michael Pullin.

Lucy Orme Morgan (born January 21, 1858 died February 27, 1944) As a suffragist and ardent supporter of social support systems, Lucy Orme Morgan raised funds and kept homes for needy and homeless children up and running in good times and bad. She was a child of privilege, yet she looked out for those born with far less. Portrayed by Julie Kistler.

Willis Stearles (b. January 21, 1890 d. April 3, 1956) It’s tough to sort out what is truth and what is myth about this World War I veteran, a member of the famed “Black Devils” regiment, who became a beloved zookeeper at Miller Park. A Griotte will attempt to discover the truth behind the stories in this two-character scene. Willis Stearles will be portrayed by Bob Thurmond, with Tori Allen as the Griotte.

Helen Davis Stevenson (b. September 17, 1869 d. November 16, 1935) The Stevenson family is legend in Bloomington-Normal. Helen Davis Stevenson came from one prominent family and married into another, yet her marriage was anything but blissful. Helen had to cope with her husband’s frequent absences, two strong willed children, and her own frailties. Portrayed by Kathleen Kirk.

William Van Schoick (b. August 2, 1829 d. July 24, 1899) He was one of the founders of the Bloomington Pork Packing Co., the largest and most successful meatpacking company in town. How would you have liked to live in the neighborhood with all those awful smells? How did he deal with running a business that his neighbors hated? Portrayed by Ron Emmons.

William R. White (b. December 22, 1844 d. July 10, 1906) He spent the first eight years of his life in near darkness, yet he became a teacher and prize-winning inventor with 60 patents to his name. How did William White turn darkness into the light of invention? Portrayed by Rhys Lovell and Don Shandrow in select performances.

Yes, that is my name next to Lucy Orme Morgan. I have written for the Discovery Walk in the past, and I have served as a guide, but this will be my first year as an actor. Lucy was an amazing woman, and I hope I can do her justice.

I invite you to come out to Evergreen Cemetery on Saturday or Sunday, this weekend or next, and join one of the groups leaving at 11 am or 1 pm, and you will see me in my maiden voyage as a Discovery Walk actor. If you’re really lucky, you will get into one of the groups led by my husband, who will be acting as a tour guide at some performances.

The Discovery Walk represents a collaboration among the McLean County Museum of History, Illinois Voices Theatre and Evergreen Memorial Cemetery, with a ton of volunteer effort on all fronts. If you need more information, you may call 309-827-0428 or visit the McLean County History Museum at 200 N. Main Street in Bloomington.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Station Theatre Starts Its 39th Season

Urbana's Station Theatre opens its fall season September 30th with one of the hottest shows in the country. Annie Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation," a thoughtful, moving little play about the relationships that entangle the members of an acting class in a community center in Vermont, won an Obie for its October 2009 Playwrights Horizons production in New York. Since then, it's shown up on schedules everywhere, like the Guthrie in Minneapolis, Studio Theatre in DC, Boston Center for the Arts, South Coast Rep in California, and smaller theaters in Phoenix, Pittsburgh and Austin. It will come to Victory Gardens in Chicago next February, but the Station looks to be the first Illinois production, with Mikel Matthews directing a cast of five, including Celebration Company favorites Katie Baldwin, David Barkley, Lincoln Machula and Debbie Richardson.

The circle, mirror and transformation in the title refer to exercises the characters take on in their acting class; by playing these games, they begin to grow and change in ways they never would've imagined. "Circle Mirror Transformation" runs Wednesdays through Sundays through October 16.

Next up is Keith Huff's "A Steady Rain" directed by Gary Ambler. This is a successful Chicago play about two cops, long-time partners, trying to work through who should bear responsibility for a dangerous, horrifying screw-up. It hit Broadway with Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig as the cops, and their star power seemed to overshadow the script a bit. When it was in Chicago, Chris Jones of the Tribune called it "a gritty, rich, thick, poetic and entirely gripping noir tale."

For the Station, Mathew Green and Mike Prosise will step into Craig's and Jackman's shoes, with performances from October 28 to November 13.

Kay Holley directs "Almost, Maine," a quirky love story (or stories) by John Cariani, as the weather gets colder. According to the "Almost, Maine" website, the play "inventively explores the mysteries of the human heart, touching audiences with laughter, heartache and hope." The play runs December 2 to 18.

Theresa Rebeck's "Mauritius," about estranged sisters and some unsavory con men all fighting over an inheritance of valuable stamps, runs January 13 to 29, under the direction of Mike Prosise. Rebeck is best-known as a writer and producer on "Law & Order," and she seems to gravitate toward stories of deception and betrayal. "Mauritius" is no exception.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl, who has merged elements of mythology and magic with everyday life and love in plays like "The Clean House" and "Dead Man's Cell Phone," has offered a new version of the classic Greek tale about Orpheus traveling to the Underworld to bring back his beloved wife in "Eurydice," which director Mathew Green brings to the Station February 10-26. It's non-linear and poetic, taking more of a look at Eurydice and her choices than the original myth.

Celebration Company Artistic Director Rick Orr will direct something yet to be determined in the March slot, and then Michael Foster will take the helm on "The Light in the Piazza," the delicate, beautiful musical with book by Craig Lucas and music and lyrics by Adam Guettel, running from April 7 to 30. "The Light in the Piazza," about a mother and daughter carefully navigating a trip to Italy in 1953, won six Tony Awards for its 2005 Broadway production, including Best Leading Actress (for Victoria Clark, who played the mother), Best Score and Orchestrations, and Best Scenic, Costume and Lighting Designs.

"Glee" fans already know that Matthew Morrison, who plays teacher Will Schuester, was in the Lincoln Center production of "The Light in the Piazza," and he was nominated for a Tony for his performance as the handsome Italian man who pursues the daughter.

I'm guessing that "The Light in the Piazza" will be the Station's spring benefit show. If that's the case, it's a lovely choice.

All Celebration Company shows begin at 8 pm, and ticket prices range from $8 to $15, depending on day of the week. Visit their most instructive website for more information.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"Crumble" Stands Up at IWU

Sheila Callaghan's "Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake)" is one strange little play.

I say "little" because it only runs about 80 minutes without intermission, it moves quickly, without a lot of excess baggage, and it has a trim cast of five.

I say "strange" because... Well, for starters, because one of those five is an apartment. Yes, one of the characters is the apartment where two of the others live. It's actually an interesting conceit, especially in Callaghan's impressionistic, poetic dialogue, where said Apartment (who was a mansion at one time) can tell us about the people who previously lived in him. He's malevolent and scary at times, definitely seedy, and yet... How cool is it that the personification of an apartment is talking to us about what it feels like when somebody touches his walls?

In the Illinois Wesleyan production directed by Dani Snyder-Young, Josh Conrad plays the Apartment, and he has quite a few flourishes up his sleeves (which happen to match the wallpaper, a nifty touch from costume designer Marcia K. McDonald) and a very expressive face under his cracking makeup (another clever idea, this time from makeup designer Kristyn Kuziak). The Apartment is depressed because the current occupants, mother Clara (Kirsten Andersen) and her 11-year-old daughter Janice (Marlee Turim), are letting the place fall down around their ears.

The Apartment is not the only thing that's crumbling. We learn in bits and pieces that Clara and Janice are mourning the loss of the dad that bound them together. Clara, a chef, has reacted by hyperventilating, freaking out and creating elaborate meals that nobody eats, while Janice doesn't bathe, has no friends, holds tea parties with her dolls that involve bleach instead of tea, and asks for suspicious items like coffee filters and a cigarette lighter for Christmas.

Clara looks to her sister Barbara, a crazy cat lady played by Allison Sutton, for support, but it's really the fantasy images of Justin Timberlake and Harrison Ford, both given life by Parker Wood, that prove comforting to this family. Wood looks and moves just right in iconic Timberlake and Ford outfits, while Sarah Krainin's set design gives him the opportunity for socko entrances.

There's something going on here underneath all the pop culture references, something twisty and dark, about what it means to be isolated and bereft and how we find ways to cope. The surreal nature of Callaghan's script makes it okay that most of the actors aren't the right age, but the script also seems to rush a conclusion and wrap things up in a way that doesn't quite fit the early sturm und drang.

Still, this is a very credible effort with a tricky little play, with an especially good performance from Josh Conrad as the faded aristocrat we call The Apartment. That kind of presentational performance (where he talks directly to us) can be tough for college-age actors, but Conrad digs in with gusto.

The Apartment (Josh Conrad) and Janice (Marlee Turim) react to Justin
Timberlake (Parker Wood) in "Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake)."

IWU students are offering a video blog of the "Crumble" experience on youtube. Visit Janice's Corner for behind-the-scenes action.

Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake)
by Sheila Callaghan
Director: Dani Snyder-Young
Scenic Designer: Sarah Krainin
Costume Designer: Marcia K. McDonald
Lighting Designer: Melissa Mizell
Sound Designer: Zach Mahler

Cast: Kirsten Andersen, Josh Conrad, Allison Sutton, Marlee Turim, Parker Wood

Remaining performances September 23, 24 and 25 at 8 pm and September 26 at 2 pm
McPherson Theatre

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sullivan's "Little Theatre" Needs Your Vote

The Little Theatre on the Square in Sullivan needs some voting support. They've entered HOW TO BUST A BULLY!, a musical with empowerment messages for kids, in September's $25,000 Pepsi Refresh Challenge, and they need more votes within the next ten days to make it to the top 10 and reach their goal.

In a press release about the contest, Little Theatre Executive Director John Stephens wrote, "In response to the bully epidemic plaguing today's schools, The Little Theatre On The Square's Theatre For Young Audiences On Tour has set out to write a new musical that will entertain and challenge audiences in 3rd through 8th grade. Through our audiences' eyes, HOW TO BUST A BULLY! will take an extensive look at the dangers of bullying, personal safety and injury prevention, along with strategies to avoid and manage conflict in one tightly woven scenario after another. Students will find their voices in this upbeat, courageous and humorous new musical fashioned as a smart and whimsical roller-coaster ride of brave discovery into today's 'bullied' schools. Filled with cool and electrifying characters and positive and thought-provoking songs, HOW TO BUST A BULLY! will be a celebration for today's generation."

To vote, you need to visit this page and click on "Vote for this idea."

You can vote once a day from your email, although you'll have to create a Pepsi account to vote. If you have questions about the grant or would like to book the show, the Little Theatre asks you to email Shawn Pryby at And you can always keep up with the Little Theatre on the Square at their website.

Monday, September 20, 2010

"Woman in Mind" Suits Heartland Perfectly

Alan Ayckbourn is one of my favorite playwrights. Critics sometimes complain that Ayckbourn’s plays are too commercial, too light, too funny. I like the funny. But what I really love is the heart and the depth. The humanity. I recognize the people he writes about, the well-meaning, regular old suburban types who are vaguely unsatisfied, longing for love or excitement or just to be paid attention to.

Those people are at the center of even his fizziest plays, like “Bedroom Farce” or “How the Other Half Loves,” and they definitely dominate “Woman in Mind.”

Susan, the woman at the heart of “Woman in Mind,” is incredibly recognizable. Everybody knows a Susan, someone in the midst of a midlife crisis, not really content with where her life has taken her, not really clear how to make things better. “Woman in Mind” is labeled a comedy in all the play indexes out there, and there are definitely funny bits in it. Ayckbourn has a hard time not sending up the foibles of foolish people and the comic timing he creates is always impeccable. But even so… It’s hard not to see the sadness all through “Woman in Mind,” even when the jokes are flying fast and furious or the action is getting a little crazy.

It sounds like a funny idea, that a woman unhappy with her real family would invent a new, better one, with a handsome, devoted husband, a loyal brother and a beautiful daughter who cavort about in tennis whites and offer champagne at every turn. But Susan’s fantasy world teeters on the brink of something pretty scary, and because the play is in her point of view, we can’t help but worry over her mental health every step of the way.

Heartland Theatre’s production of “Woman in Mind,” directed by Don LaCasse, Professor of Theatre and former Director of the School of Theatre at ISU, does find the comedy, but the longing, the confusion and the heartbreak are definitely there, too. If you’re not feeling absolutely wrenched by the end of the play, well, I just don’t think you’re human.

That’s due to LaCasse’s deft direction – he seems to have concentrated on finding the emotional truth in all the characters, even the fantasy ones – and also to the actress he cast as Susan. The role is hugely challenging. Susan is not only on an emotional roller coaster, but also on stage every single minute of the play. Lori Adams, who heads the undergraduate acting program at ISU, gives Susan all the spark and depth she needs to pull us in and keep us riveted. Ayckbourn’s topsy-turvy plot keeps changing things up, showing us more, setting things up and paying them off, and Adams navigates all of that beautifully.

Susan needs both her awful real family and her charming fantasy folks to show us who she is and why she is who she is. Todd Wineburner, Carol Scott and Jonathan Davis do an excellent job of providing humor as the rigid vicar husband, awful sister-in-law and son who hasn’t spoken to her in two years. I actually felt sorry for Wineburner’s version of the terrible husband who doesn’t really see or hear his wife, and that is no mean feat.

The fantasy folks, with Dave Krostal as a much dishier husband, Jake Olbert as the brother who would do anything for her, including shooting whoever she wants, and Amanda Serianni as the sweetest, prettiest daughter in the world, are just as good, initially providing the support Susan needs, but then galloping out of control, too. I was very impressed with Olbert, who managed a sort of cheeky weirdness that really fit the bouncy brother of Susan’s imagination.

As the doctor who comes to tend Susan, the one person who straddles both worlds, Dean Brown is called upon to be kind, hapless and a bit dithery. He manages nicely, adding a generosity of spirit that makes Dr. Bill the one person we can really like without reservation.

Michael Pullin’s scenic design makes a lot out of the small space at Heartland Theatre, with a basic lawn up front and a backdrop with rain and lightning, while Nikki Wheeler’s costume design is excellent, outfitting a lot of British stereotypes in a way that we still get who they’re supposed to be. The costumes in the ending sequence, where a wedding inexplicably turns into a horse race, are extraordinary.

I love this play. I am so pleased to be able to see it come off so well in a local theater. “Woman in Mind” just happens to suit Heartland’s mission – those familiar words about exploring the human condition – to a T. Not an easy play. Not an easy production. But so worth it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

New Fall TV Shows: Anything Worth Watching?

There are always a slew of new TV shows to replace all the old ones that the networks axed before we even knew they were there, so… I decided to watch a bunch of premieres so you don’t have to, and report on what’s worth watching.

Hellcats? Hell, no! I’m just going to come right out and say that this "sassy smart girl becomes a cheerleader to get a scholarship even though she hates cheerleaders" show has no redeeming features. The premise is dopey, nothing about it rings true, and especially not that the main character could ever, ever be either a law student or a cheerleader. Go get the movie Bring It On and watch it a few more times and skip this one. It’s on the CW at 8 (Central) on Wednesdays, but people, I’m telling you. Don’t go there.
I’m giving this one an F.

Terriers is definitely a keeper, sort of The Rockford Files by way of My Name Is Earl. Donal Logue plays Hank, a scruffy private investigator who doesn’t do anything on the up and up. He has an even scruffier partner (Michael Raymond-James), an ex-wife (Kimberly Quinn) he isn’t over, and a whole lot of problems paying the bills and staying on the right side of the law. It’s not exactly a unique premise, and it’s to the writers’ credit, as well as Logue’s, that the characters stay interesting and feel fresh. There’s something very human about Hank. Terriers is on FX at 9 (Central) on Wednesdays.

I’m not a big fan of the spy thriller genre, even with a kick-booty female as the lead, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen any part of the movie or TV versions of La Femme Nikita. But I kind of liked the new Nikita, with the ultra-slinky, ultra-smart spy-girl now played by Maggie Q. There’s lots of dress-up as our rogue agent, who has gone on the lam after the big guys at a super-secret agency ordered a hit on her boyfriend, takes on various guises to foil her former bosses and their nefarious plots, with plenty of high kicks and chase scenes and things that go boom. I sincerely doubt I will keep up with Nikita – I just don’t get into this sort of thing – but I hope Maggie Q and Shane West, who plays her old contact at the agency, find something else to do soon, because they’re both appealing and watchable. Nikita is on the CW at 8 (Central) on Thursdays.
A for Maggie and Shayne, C for the show as a whole.

Outlaw is kind of a House for the legal world, with a snappy, smart guy who knows more than everybody else who surrounds himself with pretty, smart people to do the grunt work he doesn’t want to (and admits to one of his underlings that he only hired her because she’s beautiful, which is taken directly from House’s playbook.) Jimmy Smits stars as a free-wheeling, womanizing former Supreme Court Justice with a pile of gambling debts instead of a bad leg to bring him down. Its legal tidbits – like a Supreme Court Justice announcing a decision and his resignation from the bench during the same session – may be dicey, but it’s no worse than most of the other legal shows out there. Jimmy Smits is pretty darn charismatic, and some of the supporting players, like Carly Pope, David Ramsey and Jesse Bradford, are fun to see. I don’t know that I’m interested in more episodes, because all the clichés piling up would drive me nuts pretty quickly, but I might take a look if there’s nothing else on that floats my boat. Although the premiere episode was broadcast on a Wednesday, the show’s real timeslot appears to be Fridays at 9 (Central) on NBC.

And the only other premiere I’ve found so far is Top Chef: Just Desserts, wherein people who are a heck of a lot more talented than me compete against each other in the kitchen in the realm of desserts. The first week they made cupcakes in the Quickfire round and pulled out all the stops with chocolate as the Elimination Challenge. I don’t have a handle on who’s who yet, but it’s pretty much the same as Top Chef with a sweet tooth, so if you like the original recipe version, you’ll probably like this dessert edition as well. No Tom Colicchio, though. That’s a plus for me, but your mileage may vary. Top Chef judge Gail Simmons hosts, with pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini as head judge, famed chef Hubert Keller, and Dannielle Kyrillos, editor of DailyCandy, as the judging panel. Top Chef: Just Desserts is on Wednesdays at 9 (Central) on Bravo, with plenty of repeats for people who are watching something else at that time.

Next up: Boardwalk Empire, a show about the collision of power-brokers, gangsters, gamblers and hard-luck dames in Atlantic City in the 1920s, starring Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson, a crooked politician holding sway over this empire. It starts Sunday, September 19th at 8 (Central) on HBO. The art direction alone is worth the price of admission. Visit the HBO website for tidbits on the characters and videos on how they created the amazing boardwalk set.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Mike Trippiedi's "Amber Rose" Is Creepy, Creepy, Creepy

I was invited to a private screening (sort of a sneak peek) of Mike Trippiedi's new film, "Amber Rose," this week. Mike invited cast and crew (and friends of one or the other, like me) to see "Amber Rose" on the big screen at the Art Theater in Champaign, a perfect spot for that sort of thing. The Art is fairly small and intimate, with a cool indie feel, and it fit Mike's filmed-right-in-Champaign-Urbana movie to a T.

Zoe Capps appears in "Amber Rose."

In his opening remarks, Mike told us that he wanted to make a movie about something people don't like to talk about. In that, he certainly succeeded with "Amber Rose," which is about a precocious 11-year-old (11 going on 20, according to her mom) who has to deal with a strange man who just moved in next door as well as her mother's new boyfriend. The neighbor, a man named Skip, is clearly not all there, but we don't find out what happened to make him that way at the start. He has a person living with him who purports to be his sister, but who is she really? Why does she feel the need to stick by him when he clearly did something very wrong before they got where they are now?

Even more odd is the fact that the new boyfriend, Gil, only came by in the first place because he was looking for Skip. That and the fact that he doesn't seem to have a job or connections to anybody else in town make us suspicious that there's more to the boyfriend than Amber Rose or her mother know.

Skip and Gil together add up to a whole lot of menace for one little 11-year-old. Trippiedi does a terrific job ratcheting up the tension and saying a lot with a little, as well as pulling excellent performances from his cast. Cinematographer and editor Bill Yauch deserves credit for some long, uncomfortable takes as well as compelling composition of shots.

Among the cast, Steven M. Keen as Skip and Joe Dempsey as Gil bring the creepy factor with two very different but equally riveting portraits of evil, Amy Stoch is heartbreaking as Skip's keeper, Michael Morgan is quite good in a small role as a probation officer, and Carolyn Kodes-Atkinson goes down-home as Amber Rose's aphorism-crazy mother. As Amber Rose, young Zoe Capps shows a softness and credibility that bodes well for her future career prospects. She's the heart of the movie, and she earns that position.

Trippiedi has indicated that after this private screening, he will be entering "Amber Rose" in film festivals with the hope of getting a premiere somewhere in the wider world. The film has a small-town story, but its events could happen and have happened just about everywhere. Scary stuff. Let's hope "Amber Rose" gets the attention and wide release it deserves.

There's a trailer for "Amber Rose" on its Internet Movie Database page, with Trippiedi himself appearing as the guy who asks for the beer with a monkey on the label. Try the video for a sneak peek of your own.

Monday, September 13, 2010

"Woman in Mind" Is Almost Here!

Ah, "Woman in Mind." I love British playwright Alan Ayckbourn's work in general, but I may love "Woman in Mind" most of all. It's such an intriguing, funny, scary piece of theater. It's often referred to as Ayckbourn's most personal work, since heroine Susan (the woman in "Woman in Mind") and her predicament bear a certain resemblance to Ayckbourn's mother. And the playwright has noted that audiences seem to be split on gender lines. Men, he says, think it's all quite hilarious, while women tend to find the play a bit more disturbing.

"Woman in Mind" is an unusual play, told completely in Susan's point of view. After she smacks herself in the head with a garden rake, Susan finds she now has a handsome husband, a lovely daughter and a loyal brother who are eons better than the real lout she's married to and the surly son who may've joined a cult. Fantasy can be hard to resist when it's so much nicer than reality, but... Uh oh. Now they're starting to collide!

Illinois State University professor Don LaCasse, co-founder of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival and former Director of the School of Theatre at ISU, directs "Woman in Mind" for Heartland, with Lori Adams, ISU's Head of Undergraduate Acting, tackling the role of Susan, the woman in the eye of the hurricane.

"As a director, I have always been attracted to plays that feature complex female characters," LaCasse says. "Susan in 'Woman In Mind' is very much in this tradition. We see the entire play through Susan's eyes as she never leaves the stage. She dominates the play and the role makes great emotional demands of the actor. The role requires an actress of great skill. I am most fortunate in having that actress."

He is, of course, referring to Lori Adams, who appears in the poster you see with this post. "The play has given me the opportunity to work with a wonderfully talented colleague of mine from the ISU School of Theatre," LaCasse notes. "Lori Adams, who portrays Susan, is a member of the School's acting faculty and heads the undergraduate program in acting. Joining Lori is an exceptionally talented cast of local actors, including a few ISU student actors. The opportunity to work with this talented cast on a finely crafted theatrical piece is a director's dream."

The cast includes some of Bloomington-Normal's best actors, with Jonathan Davis, Dave Krostal, Jake Olbert, Carol Scott, Amanda Serianni and Todd Wineburner portraying Susan's real and fantasy families and Dean Brown popping up as the friendly neighborhood doctor.

"I am drawn to the play," LaCasse says, "because it is challenging, disturbing, insightful yet funny. Ayckbourn is a master at combining the comic and the serious. In this play we have a very unhappy woman (Susan) attempting to cope with her sadness and depression by creating an imaginary family that is everything her real family is not – loving, supportive, wealthy, witty, etc. However, after a very nasty hit to the head, Susan's imaginary family takes physical form and she struggles to maintain control of this imaginary family while living in the real world. Ayckbourn manages to treat this very serious and disturbing story with great humor."

And that is what makes "Woman in Mind" so special. It's funny, it's real, it's fantasy, and it's disturbing.

"Woman in Mind" opens at Heartland Theatre on September 16th, running through October 3rd. For the complete schedule and ticket information, visit Heartland's website. There will be a special discussion after the matinee performance on September 26th, and because of my interest in Ayckbourn, I will be part of the panel, along with Laurie Bergner, a clinical psychologist who will offer insights into Susan's mental state, and Sandra Harmon, Professor Emerita of History and Women's Studies at Illinois State University, who will speak to the women's issues in the play.

To read more about the play, I highly recommend Alan Ayckbourn's website, which has a wealth of information about "Woman in Mind" as well as his other 70+ plays.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Heartland's 10-Minute Play Fest Open for Submissions!

Every year, Heartland Theatre gets submissions from all over the world for its 10-minute Play Festival, and every year, they choose a new theme. That theme has ranged from the Funeral Parlor to the One Shoe phenomenon to last year’s Hotel Lobby. And this year? The Back Porch!

Perhaps John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival said it best:

Just got home from Illinois, lock the front door, oh boy
Got to sit down, take a rest on the porch
Imagination sets in, pretty soon I’m singin’
Doo, doo, doo
Lookin’ out my back door

And that’s what Heartland is looking for this time. With or without the tambourines or elephants that come in the next verse. Heartland says, "We’re just taking a rest, looking out, and looking for some 10-minute plays set out back, behind the house, where there may be a runaway bride, a prodigal son, a rocking chair, a cool glass of lemonade, a couple of sad geraniums, a tattered paper lantern… Or Uncle George’s body, a-mouldering in the ground."

In honor of Heartland's very first 10-Minute Playfest, when they launched their festival with Porch Plays, they are going Back to the Porch. The Back Porch this time. But whether your play is set on the back porch, the patio, the deck, or even stepping a toe into the back yard, Heartland Theatre Company wants to see it. Like Alan Ayckbourn’s "Woman in Mind" and David Auburn’s "Proof," both appearing in HTC's current season.

If you’re interested in writing a 10-minute play for Heartland, they strongly recommend that you visit their website, read through the rules, take a look at the style sheet, and stick to a back porch setting.

You can enter your play right from the Heartland website by filling out an online entry form and attaching the play. The eight winning plays will make it through three levels of judging, with the final round decided by a nationally-recognized playwright. Those eight plays will be produced on Heartland’s stage next June in the 10th Annual 10-Minute Play Festival.

Heartland Theater Company invites you to go Back to the Porch and write some plays!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Opening Friday: Smokey Joe's Café

"Smokey Joe's Café," a musical revue featuring the pop and rock hits of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, officially opens this Friday, September 10th, at Community Players. There's a preview scheduled for tomorrow, the 9th, if you really can't wait till Friday to get in on the action.

"Smokey Joe's" was a huge hit on Broadway, running for almost five years and over 2000 performances. It was nominated for seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Director, and the Original Broadway Cast Recording took home a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album.

It's a pure revue, without a plot, but with plenty of songs. Oh, those songs! If you haven't heard of Leiber & Stoller, they were responsible for some of the best and most famous songs of the post-World War II, pre-disco era, from "Hound Dog" to "Yakety Yak," "Stand By Me" and "Jailhouse Rock." They wrote multiple hits for Elvis, the Coasters, the Drifters, Jay and the Americans, the Shangri-Las and Peggy Lee.

Community Players's production of "Smokey Joe's Café," which runs through September 26th, is directed by Brian Artman. The cast includes Charles Andrews, Chris Bronson, Megan Clark, Wendi Fleming, John D. Poling, Reena Rhoda, Chuck Stuckey, Austin Travis, Christie Vellella and Evelyn R. Young.

Community Players Theatre is located at 201 Robinhood Lane in Bloomington (tucked behind the post office on Towanda). You can call the box office at 309-663-2121 or visit the CP website to order tickets. Tickets are $15, with special pricing for children ($6) and seniors ($11 on Thursdays, $13 Friday, Saturday and Sunday.)

One other Community Players note: They are holding auditions for their production of Hamilton Deane and John Balderston's adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" on Monday and Tuesday, September 13th and 14th, at 7 pm. They need 6 men and 2 women, ranging from age 21-65. FMI, see the Community Players website. "Dracula" runs from October 28 to November 7.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Tickets on Sale Now for ISU Fall Theatre

Tickets went on sale last Monday for Illinois State University's fall theater and music performances. That means it's past time for you to get over to the Center for the Performing Arts (the box office is in the lobby) and pick out your seats. ISU's box office is open Monday through Friday, 11 am to 5 pm if you want to stop by in person. Or you can give them a call at 309-438-2535. Or use Ticketmaster. So many choices, so little time.

Here's a lovely picture of the Center for the Performing Arts, courtesy Pete Guither.

The first play on ISU's fall schedule is Irish playwright John Millington Synge's "Playboy of the Western World," directed by Emily Gill, opening September 29th. "Playboy" involves a pub in County Mayo, Ireland, and the night a young man named Christy Mahon stumbles in. Christy tells a tale of woe and violence to the people at the bar, including the barmaid, a widow and several young women, who all find him and his story quite exciting. Is Christy telling the truth? If he is, is he a criminal or a hero? And if he isn't, is he just another nobody? "Playboy of the Western World" caused riots when it opened in 1907. I don't expect riots in Bloomington-Normal, but there are only six performances and it's in Westhoff Theatre, so you are advised to get your tickets early.

Next on the schedule is "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin. Cyndee Brown directs this fun, fizzy musical about six children from different backgrounds competing in a spelling bee. One of them, Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, bears a certain resemblance to Rachel from "Glee," and I have my suspicions that Ryan Murphy saw this “Spelling Bee” before he wrote Rachel. Along with the children, there's a crazy vice principal, a former Putnam County Spelling Bee champ who is returning to moderate this one, and a "comfort counselor" who provides hugs and juice boxes to the departing spellers. If you are very lucky, you may be chosen from the audience as a guest speller. I was. I think I went out on "lysergic acid diethylamide," so if you've got that one in the bag, you might be able to win. "Spelling Bee," which is so totally worth your while, will play in the CPA from October 7th to 16th, which includes Homecoming Weekend. Juice boxes for everyone!

Also in October, Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" takes the stage at Westhoff, directed by Brandon Ray. "Measure for Measure" (you can call it "M4M" for short if you really want to) involves political corruption, harsh and repressive laws, sex used as a weapon and as a vice, justice, redemption and mercy. There’s a high-level official who goes undercover, a tough-guy judge who is a huge hypocrite, a lovely woman who wants to be a nun but keeps getting ensnarled by grabby men, a couple having an out-of-wedlock baby (against the law!), a sleazebag pimp, a hooker, and a need for a spare disembodied head. Sounds like an episode of “Law & Order,” doesn’t it? “M4M” runs from October 27 to 31 at Westhoff Theatre.

As counterpoint to “Measure for Measure” and its sexual game-playing, director Jon Ferreira brings “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” by Christopher Hampton to the CPA November 11-14, with two performances on the last Saturday and Sunday. “Liaisons” is a dark, seductive play, about the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, jaded aristocrats in pre-revolutionary France who try to one-up each other by using other, more innocent people as pawns in their dangerous games. It’s about sex, power, love and the impending doom waiting just around the corner for these Aristos.

Sandra Zielinksi directs another classic, George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara,” for Westhoff Theatre in December. “Major Barbara” is from the same time as “Playboy of the Western World,” and Shaw was also Irish, but the similarities pretty much end there. This one is about Barbara Undershaft, a major in the Salvation Army, who has a crisis of conscience when she finds out that substantial donations made to her cause have come from people involved with whiskey and guns. And the guns one is her own estranged father. The play raises the question of whether it’s moral to take money from dubious people if that money can be used for good. Shaw says yes. I’m not so sure. Make up your own mind at Westhoff Theatre December 8-11.

Also on the schedule are dance performances at the CPA December 9-11 and the annual Madrigal Dinners at the Alumni Center December 8-11.

Looking ahead to 2011, I can’t wait for “Merrily We Roll Along,” the backwards musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by George Furth, to be directed by ISU alum Gary Griffin, who has had considerable success in New York, London and with the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. “Merrily” has fabulous music, including “Not a Day Goes By” and “Good Thing Going.” That will happen at the CPA from February 10th through the 19th, and my calendar is already marked and starred. With exclamation points.

Rahul Varma’s “Bhopal,” a look at the Bhopal Tragedy in 1984, and Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” the one about faithless men and missing jewelry, will play Westhoff Theatre in February and March, with Tom Stoppard’s “Rock 'n' Roll,” with its big themes of politics, passion, totalitarianism and, yes, rock 'n' roll, at the Center for the Performing Arts and Sam Shepard’s “The Tooth of Crime,” a creepy science fiction take on rock stars and reality shows, at Westhoff, both in April. Another dance event rounds out ISU’s 2010-11 roster, also in April at the CPA.

Tickets are available to all fall events now. Click on this link or the one that says ISU Theatre over there on the left for more information.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

September? Already?

I still don't believe it's really September already. ("Mad Men" halfway done? Summer breathing its last? The fall season in TV and theater almost upon us? What?!) But my calendar and Green Day are telling me to wake up and smell the ragweed, so here we go. If it has to be September, we might we well enjoy ourselves.

First up on your September viewing calendar should be Fritz Lang's 1927 silent film masterpiece "Metropolis," showing September 2-5 at the Normal Theater. Lang originally created his futuristic, dystopic man-versus-machine (or woman-becoming-machine) opus at about 153 minutes, but it was cut substantially before it hit the US. Different versions of different lengths have been floating around ever since, some with musical scores attached, although none were as long as the first one shown in Berlin. Film scholars had pretty much decided that the original was lost forever, until 2008, when a print showed up in a Buenos Aires museum. A complete print. All 153 minutes. And that is the complete "Metropolis" the Normal Theater will be showing. If you are a student of film, you'll want to see this. Some of Lang's images are incredible, and they promise to be even more incredible in this restored version of the complete film.

On September 9th, Community Players opens "Smokey Joe’s Café," which runs through the 26th. This is a "jukebox" show, featuring the songbook of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, one of the most popular songwriting duos of the 1950s and 60s, with songs like "Hound Dog," "Yakety Yak," "Love Potion #9" and "Jailhouse Rock" to their credit. You can buy tickets online at the link provided or call the box office at 309-663-2121.

Second City's touring company comes back to town on the 11th with its "Fair & Unbalanced" comedy show, one night only at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts.

And then you can catch (or participate in) "Re:Verse," an open mic night for poetry with special guest Bill Morgan at Theatre'sCool on September 14th.

My own favorite September option is Alan Ayckbourn's funny and scary play, "Woman in Mind" at Heartland Theatre, opening on the 16th and closing on October 3rd. "Woman in Mind" deals with a woman named Susan who imagines a much nicer (and more upscale) family for herself than the one she really has. Everything we see on stage is from Susan's point of view, as her fantasy world and real life start to overlap with strange and wonderful consequences. ISU professor Don LaCasse, co-founder of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival and former Director of the School of Theatre at ISU, directs "Woman in Mind" for Heartland, with Lori Adams, ISU's Head of Undergraduate Acting, as Susan. To read more about the play, I highly recommend Alan Ayckbourn's website, which has a wealth of information about "Woman in Mind" as well as his other 70+ plays.

If you're looking for music, you might try the Fabulous Thunderbirds with special guests Hip Pocket at the BCPA or Dee Dee Bridgewater and her show called "To Billie with Love, a Celebration of Lady Day" at the Tryon Festival Theatre in U of I's Krannert Center, both on September 18.

Back-to-back-to-back: IWU's fall season gets started Sept 21st with "Crumble (lay me down Justin Timberlake)," a play by Sheila Callaghan, directed by Dani Snyder-Young for McPherson Theatre, while Parkland College Theater over in Champaign opens its season with "Duck Hunter Shoots Angel," by Mitch Albom, the author of "Tuesdays With Morrie," on the 22nd, and Chicago's Hubbard Street Dance Company comes to U of I's Krannert Center Tryon Festival Theatre on the 23rd.

ISU sneaks into the end of September, too, opening "Playboy of the Western World," by John Millington Synge on the 29th. "Playboy" is directed by Emily Gill for ISU's Westhoff Theatre.

And one last note... Annie Baker's "Circle Mirror Transformation," a play about an acting class in a small town in Maine, comes to Urbana's Station Theatre from September 30th to October 16th. "Circle Mirror Transformation" is the Little Play That Could, with a much-lauded Off-Broadway production followed by a successful run at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre. Chicago's Victory Gardens has announced it for a slot in its 2010-11 schedule, but Mikel Matthews and his Station Theatre production will beat them to the punch by about five months. The play reads beautifully, it's the kind of thing that can work very well in the intimate confines of the Station Theatre, and I have high hopes that Mikel Matthews and his actors will pull this one off.