Monday, February 28, 2011

Following SIRENS to St. Louis

Last April, I decided that Deborah Zoe Laufer's "Sirens" was my favorite from the 2010 Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

I liked the play''s imagination, spirit of fun and sense of mischief, as well as its link of new (like Facebook) to then (like Greek mythology.) So I made the trek down to St. Louis yesterday to see how "Sirens" would translate to a smaller space like the New Jewish Theatre's beautiful little Wool Studio Theatre.

Director Tom Martin stages the show in the round, with a simple, bright blue playing space and pieces of scenery and props that move on and off quickly and effectively, plus he uses Matthew Callahan's musical compositions, the ones created for the Humana production, and that's a smart choice, too. Still, I wish he'd used more of the music to accompany scene changes, since listening for the next one was such a treat in Louisville.

With Martin at the helm, the humor in this comedy about a long-married couple named Sam and Rose, trying to revive their youth with an anniversary cruise of the Greek isles, works nicely. Laufer's script is just zany enough to keep the laughs coming, and it's nice to see that communicates just as well in St. Louis as it did in Louisville.

Martin's cast, with Kari Ely as Rose, Bobby Miller as Sam, Leah Berry as the Siren and John Kinney as Richard Miller, a man from Rose's past, makes the characters look very different from the original production, and I'm not sure that's a good thing. It always strikes me as somewhat unhelpful to make that kind of comparison -- actors can't really try to be like other people, after all -- but in this case, it's hard not to notice that Ely's Rose is awfully strident and not very warm, Miller's Sam is too much of a sad sack, Berry's Siren tips over into fierce, wild warrior goddess territory when she should be seductive and lovely, and Kinney's Richard Miller, while funny, comes off a little too slimy. They're also dialing their performances to 11, when that seems much too big in such a small space. My guess is that Martin has directed them to go big to get the laughs, and that's certainly his prerogative, even if I think it makes the play feel less special, less magical.

by Deborah Zoe Laufer

The New Jewish Theatre
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre

Director: Tom Martin
Production Manager: Dave Hahn
Technical Director: Jerry Russo
Stage Manager: Emily Clinger
Scenic Designer: Courtney Sanazaro
Lighting Designer: Maureen Hanratty
Costume Designer: Teresa Doggett
Properties Designer: Wendy Renee Greenwood
Sound Designer: Robin Weatherall
Original Music by Matthew Callahan

Cast: Leah Berry, Kari Ely, John Kinney and Bobby Miller.

Running time: 1:30, played without intermission

Remaining performances March 2 and 3 at 7:30 pm, March 5 at 8 pm, and March 6 at 2 pm.

For tickets or more information, click here.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Auditions for "Lincoln's Last Murder Case," a New Play

This just in... Jared Brown, former chair of the Department of Theatre at Illinois Wesleyan, is auditioning actors tomorrow (Saturday) from 1-4 pm at the McLean County Museum of History for a play he is directing called "The Affray; Lincoln's Last Murder Case." The play was written by Brown and Robert Bray, R. Forest Colwell Professor of American Literature at IWU who has written extensively on Lincoln.

Bray's last work for the stage was "Lincoln's in Town!" which was written with Nancy Steele Brokaw. "Lincoln's in Town!" was produced in 2009 at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts as part of the celebration of the bicentenary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.

Brown's last work for the stage was a trio of short plays performed under the title "Three for the Show," produced at Heartland Theatre last October. He also directed.

"The Affray; Lincoln's Last Murder Case" has roles for 10 men of various ages and 1 young woman.

The McLean County Museum of History is located in downtown Bloomington at 200 N. Main Street.

If you have any questions, please call Jared Brown at 309-664-0708.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Bhopal" Is Dangerous and Beautiful at ISU's Westhoff Theatre

Since the beginning of drama, playwrights have attempted to illuminate and argue political and social issues. Still, it's a tall order. How do you personify and dramatize war, poverty, costly decisions by the powerful and the devastating fallout on the powerless, especially when the devastation is a world away?

Playwright Rahul Varna, born in India but now based in Canada, attempts to bring to life that "world away," taking us to India in 1984, when a dangerously unsafe Union Carbide plant in Bhopal leaked more than 25 tons of toxic chemicals, creating the worst industrial disaster in world history, with thousands of lives lost and countless others (even generations later) gasping for breath.

Varma's script for "Bhopal" focuses on all the rungs on the ladder, from the lowest (a mother and her sick child living in dire poverty) to the highest (a corporate bigwig from the US who flies in to deflect responsibility), showing how much blame there is to pass around, how pretty much everybody involved obfuscated, compromised and lied, bartering long-term well-being for short-term profit. The local leader who tells himself that bowing down to Union Carbide will mean houses and clean water for his people, the mother who plays one side against the other to try to get care for her daughter and a little extra money, the Indian-American boss who toes the company line and turns a blind eye to keep his job safe, the CEO who says he is balancing profit and progress with keeping his shareholders happy – they all have reasons for their ethical lapses. And they're all part of the problem.

Only a Canadian doctor trying to research and quantify why so many mothers and children are sick and dying near the plant long before the disaster has pure motives, and her intractability and bluntness don't get a whole lot of traction with those around her. The message here is that you have to play the game to be heard, and yet if you play the game, you may very well lose your soul. Lose, lose.

Varma doesn't offer answers, but he does pose a lot of stark, unpleasant questions. In ISU's production, performed in the round at Westhoff Theatre, director Mark Baer clearly wants to keep the Indian influence front and center. Uma Kallakuri's choreography and performance as a dancer are striking and beautiful, telling the story around and among the other performers as well as adding a real feel of India.

Baer's cast performs almost completely as an ensemble, but Kallakuri stands out, as does Melisa Pereyra, doing a 180 from her last performance as an Irish barmaid in "The Playboy of the Western World." This time Pereyra takes on an Indian accent and the burden of terrible poverty as Izzat Bai, a woman who has lost everything and yet keeps on losing.

Others of note in the cast include Henry Woronicz, former artistic director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival who is now the head of the graduate acting program at ISU, polished and scary as Warren Anderson, the big bad from Union Carbide; Kim Pereira as Devraj Sarthi, the top Union Carbide man in Bhopal who pays a steep price for his perfidy; Jessie Dean, lovely and fierce as Madiha, an Indian woman who makes all the wrong choices; Owais Ahmed as a puffed-up Bhopal potentate; and Abby Vombrack, uncompromising and tough as Dr. Labonté, the truth-teller in this sea of lies.

Alex K's scenic design offers a round playing space that shapes and forms the action, while Jason Tucholke's media design and Justine Clewer's lighting design create intriguing and moving images on K's circle.

This production of "Bhopal" is part of a larger Crossroads Project series of events that involve playwright Rahul Varma, including a reception at Kemp Recital Hall after the 2 pm performance on February 27, a symposium on "Corporate Environmental Responsibility: The Legacy of Bhopal," on Monday, February 28 at the CPA, a School of Theatre colloquium called "Beyond Color-Blind and Non-Traditional Casting" at 2 pm on March 1 at Westhoff Theatre, a staged reading of Varma's new Iraq War play, "Truth and Treason," directed by Christopher Marino, to be performed at 7:30 pm in Kemp Recital Hall on March 2, and an International Studies Seminar called "Staging Peace in Times of War: The Current State of Political Theatre in Canada" at noon on March 3rd in the 1st floor west lounge of the Bone Student Center.

Since the cast of "Bhopal" is drawn from a variety of ethnicities, that colloquium on color-blind casting may be particularly interesting.

For more information about "Bhopal," Varma and the Crossroads Project, click here or here.

By Rahul Varma

ISU Westhoff Theatre

Director: Mark Baer
Master Choreographer: Guru Uma Kallakuri
Scenic Designer: Alex K
Costume Designer: Judith Rivera Ramirez
Lighting Designer: Justine Clewer
Sound Designer: Alex Schmaus
Media Designer: Jason Tucholke
Hair and Make-up Designer: Tori Allen
Movement Coach: Kate Cook
Dramaturg: Casey Peek
Stage Manager: Ben Layman

Cast: Owais Ahmed, Anna Anderson, Sowjanya Avatapalli, Jessie Dean, Ashlyn Hughes, Ruben Ivy, Uma Kallakura, Lauren Partch, Kim Pereira, Melisa Pereyra, Anjana Rayavarap, Archana Shekara, Hisako Sugeta, Jessie Swiech, Abby Vromback, Kisha Wilson, Henry Woronicz, Arif Yampolsky.

Original music performed by Sameer Bildikar, Uma Kallakuri, Manny Bedi, Gurinder Megi and Wlliam Koehler.

Running time: 1:45, performed without intermission

Remaining performances: February 24, 25 and 26 at 7:30 pm; February 26 and 27 at 2 pm


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Director Cyndee Brown on PROOF, Trust and a Life in the Theater

The cast and crew of PROOF, with director Cyndee Brown at left.

As David Auburn's PROOF heads into its second week or performances at Bloomington-Normal's Heartland Theatre, I posed a few questions to director Cyndee Brown to get the inside scoop. Here's what Brown had to say:

First, let's talk a little bit about your experiences with Heartland Theatre to sort of set the stage. How did you first come to Heartland?

My first experience with Heartland was in the fall of 2000 when John and Peg Kirk were doing GIN GAME under the direction of Sandi Zielinski – she invited me to a rehearsal, and of course I then had to go back and see the show! The following fall, my neighbor Ann White, current chair of Heartland Theatre, invited my husband Dean and I over to her house to have dinner with artistic director Mike Dobbins and his wife Gail. Since then I have acted in a couple 10 minute plays, directed several plays, and become an avid supporter of Heartland. It really is one of the best places to direct in our community!

I know you've directed and acted in some very different shows over the years. Any roles or directing assignments that stand out in your mind?

Each of my directing stints at Heartland have been really special. I directed I LOVE YOU YOUR’E PERFECT NOW CHANGE, the first (and I believe only to date!) collaboration between Heartland and Prairie Fire Theatre. It was performed in the large meeting room of the Senior Center and presented challenges and rewards for all associated with it. It was a great experience.

RABBIT HOLE was done while I was on sabbatical from the university, and was the first time I had directed a play in quite a while. (I had done BIG RIVER and SECRET GARDEN at ISU prior to that.) It was a wonderful experience to just focus on the directing experience – being on sabbatical, the show had almost my complete attention during the weeks of rehearsal – heaven!!

Tell us something about your background. Did you start your theater career as an actress, director or teacher?

The acting bug bit hard in high school and I went on to major in theatre in college. I had some great opportunities in college - LION IN WINTER, CARNIVAL, STOP THE WORLD I WANT TO GET OFF, GEORGE M!, YOU’RE A GOOD MAN CHARLIE BROWN, MAME and others. My interest and experience in directing really began as I started my career as a high school theatre teacher after graduation from college. I continued to act in community theatre (MY FAIR LADY, FINIAN’S RAINBOW, SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM, THE INNOCENTS) but directing began to move center stage.

I feel that I kind of came into my own as a director after I completed my PhD. Grad school makes you stand up and think for yourself, helps you realize that your voice is as good as anyone else’s, and that no one knows everything. I think some of my best work was done after I realized that risk taking is ok, that high school students will go with you wherever you want to take them, and that good theatre is possible anywhere there is good, responsible leadership, creativity and eager students. The last thing I did with high school students was to take a group to the Fringe Festival in Scotland the summer 2000. Best experience of my life with students.

I'm sure your work as an Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre at Illinois State University, teaching Theatre Education, keeps you on your toes. What do you enjoy most about that?

I love the students at ISU – all of them! Directing, teaching and sharing ideas with these university students is inspiring and challenging. Students are always the best part of teaching!!

What can you tell us about PROOF and this production of the play at Heartland? On its face, PROOF is about math, but I'm not so sure that's what's really at the heart of the play. What do you think? Math, madness, family, romance, or all of the above?

At its heart, I think PROOF is about trust – trusting yourself, trusting those around you, trusting that you will get through the difficult times. These folks trust their minds to get them where they think they need to be. What could be more tragic and ironic for such characters than to discover those faculties are limited at best, and, at worst, disappearing altogether? This play is honest, doesn’t pull its punches and pulls the theme of trust through so many universal relationships – fathers and daughters, sisters, significant others, to name a few.

John Bowen and Gwen de Veer in Heartland Theatre's PROOF

PROOF really took Broadway by storm, piling up awards and honors. What about the play do you think struck such a chord with audiences and critics? Has anything unexpected emerged as you've worked on the play with your actors and crew?

I think we expected to find things in this well-written play – I think what surprised us is how deep those discoveries went, and how they keep revealing themselves to us night after night. This cast is a remarkable ensemble in the true sense of the word. They support each other even as they challenge each other to get better, go deeper, and discover more about the play and themselves as actors. Our crew and design team are part of that ensemble feeling too. Everything about this process was so positive – everyone has been so generous.

Your husband, Dean Brown, plays the mathematical genius father in PROOF. Is it harder or easier directing an actor in the family?

I have directed Dean before, as well as both of our children. It has been a long time and both of us have grown a great deal as artists since those experiences. I worked hard to treat him the same way I treated the other actors – with respect for his process and his creativity. And I think he worked hard to respond to my direction as any actor would. I found it to be a wonderful experience. I wanted him to see what I was like as a director – and maybe after the show closes we can have a discussion about that!! We have shared our love of theatre for over 40 years – our relationship began in the theatre. The theatre has been very good to us – personally, artistically and professionally.

What should audiences expect to see when the curtain (figuratively) rises on this PROOF?

I hope what our audiences will experience is a thought provoking and enjoyable evening of theatre. We want them to think with us, laugh with us and maybe cry with us too. It has been wonderful to sit in the audience and watch and hear the audience response to the performances this weekend. Our audiences have been generous with their engagement and energy – what more can a production ask for??

Thanks, Cindy!

PROOF has proven to be a hit with audiences so far, so you would be well-advised to nab tickets now for performances running through March 6th. For more information or to reserve tickets, visit the Heartland website here.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Auditions Next Week for "The End of the Tour" at Heartland

Heartland Theatre Company has announced auditions for THE END OF THE TOUR, a play by Chicago playwright Joel Drake Johnson, to be directed by Sandi Zelinski. The photo at right shows the cover of the play, published by Broadway Play Publishing, Inc. To purchase a copy of the play, click here.

In THE END OF THE TOUR, Joel Drake Johnson offers a darkly funny play about the deeply flawed, deeply disconnected members of the Pierce family in Dixon, Illinois. While Mae hangs onto the memory of having once sung for Dixon’s favorite son, Ronald Reagan, her daughter wonders if she can bear one more minute with her mother and her estranged son struggles with even the briefest reunion. Who owes what to whom? Who belongs to whom? What does it mean to be related to people and a place you really don’t like very much? THE END OF THE TOUR was nominated for a 2003 Jeff Award for best new play after its Victory Gardens premiere.

Albert William, in "The Reader," said this about THE END OF THE TOUR: "Joel Drake Johnson’s new play is a sensitively written portrait of a fragmented family…. Johnson balances gallows humor with acute insight and compassion. He creates characters so real you wonder what will happen to them after the final blackout — and hope that the healing effects of time will allow parent and children to reconcile and thus reclaim life’s most fundamental and precious relationship."

Roles to be filled include Mae, 68-70; Jan, her daughter, 48-50; Mae’s son and Jan’s brother Andrew, 37-40; Jan’s husband, Chuck, 50; David, Andrew’s boyfriend, 35-38; Tommy, a friend of Chuck’s, 48-50; Brenda, a voice over the PA, and Norma, an elderly patient. The ages given for all these characters are only approximate.

Audition dates are set for Monday, February 21 and Tuesday, February 22, from 7 to 9:30 pm at Heartland Theatre. If you choose to audition, you will be asked to read from the script with other actors. You should plan to be present for the entire audition session on the night you select. THE END OF THE TOUR will be performed April 14-17, 21-23, 28-30 and May 1, 2011.

For more information about the auditions or THE END OF THE TOUR, you may call 309-452-8709 and leave a message for Mike Dobbins, Heartland Theatre Company Managing Artistic Director, or write to him at

The audition notice appears here on Heartland’s website, with directions to the theater here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Head + Heart = "Proof" at Heartland Theatre

It's always fascinating how many different meanings one word can have. "Proof," the title of the David Auburn play opening tonight at Heartland Theatre, is one of those words. Aside from being the title of a Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play, "Proof" can also refer to evidence in court, how strong liquor is, the rising of dough, coins struck for collectors, pages used in the editing phases of printed material, a step-by-step way to demonstrate the truth of a mathematical theory or just how one person convinces another person that they are telling the truth.

Those last two are the big proofs in the play called "Proof." Auburn's central character, a 25-year-old woman named Catherine, has been involved in math her entire life as the daughter of a brilliant mathematician. But her father had serious mental problems that began to surface at just about the age of 25. Catherine is pretty sure she has inherited some of her father's astonishing proficiency with math. But what about his mental illness?

As Auburn tells his story, Catherine struggles with how to prove that she knows her way around a proof at the same time she needs the people around her – her older, more practical sister; a new man in her life who was a student of her father's; and even the ghost of her father himself – to prove that their motives are pure, that they believe her, that she isn't losing her mind.

I'm not enough of a mathematician to know if any of the math background works (but I see in the program that Heartland will be providing a math expert, ISU Professor Emeritus Stephen Friedberg, as part of the panel discussion after the matinee performance on February 27th, so you may want to show up for that if the math in the play either intrigues or annoys you.) I don't think that matters. It's clear Auburn has set up a dramatic dilemma that works for audiences. After all, it's pretty darn normal for people to want validation, trust, respect and belief in their lives. And that's really all Catherine is asking for.

Cyndee Brown directs for Heartland Theatre Company with an eye on the emotional truth in the relationships. At the heart of the play, Gwen de Veer does lovely work as Catherine, the woman whose depression is masking the vital person underneath. De Veer has excellent chemistry with all three of her scene partners, so that Catherine and her dad (played by Dean Brown) seem to have the real affection of family members, Catherine and her sister Claire (played by Christine Cummings) show the familiarity and old wounds that sisters often do, and Catherine and Hal, the guy she's interested in, (played by John Bowen) have the right spark of flirtation and possibility.

One of the strengths in Auburn's script and in these performances is that none of the characters are completely wrong or right. Brown's take on Robert, the dad, shows how sweet he can be, as well as how scary, when his character's mental health goes off the rails, while Cummings isn't afraid to make Claire unpleasant. But when we see in flashbacks the special relationship Catherine and her father share, it's clear how much of an outsider Claire has always been and just why she would be as prickly as she is.

I especially liked John Bowen's work as Hal, the grad student who catches Catherine's eye. Bowen's Hal is believable as someone who is smart, a little awkward, and yet confident in his own nerdy appeal. He makes us root for these two crazy kids, even after they both make missteps.

Michael Pullin's warm brick-and-mortar set, with just a few scattered leaves to clue us in to the September timeframe, hits the target nicely, and Gail Dobbins' costumes look spot-on for these people in this place.

I've seen "Proof" on Broadway as well as in a more intimate setting before this, and I have to say, this is a play that works best when scaled down a bit. It's as if the truth, the proof, of the human heart plays best when you can see it close up.

By David Auburn

Heartland Theatre Company

Director: Cyndee Brown
Scenic Designer: Michael Pullin
Costume Designer: Gail Dobbins
Lighting Designer: Tommy Nolan
Sound Designer: Ariel Mozes
Stage Manager: Casey Peek

Cast: Gwen de Veer, Dean Brown, Christine Cummings, John Bowen

Performances: February 17*-19, 24-26 and March 3-5 at 7:30 pm; February 20 and 27 and March 6 at 2:30 pm

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

Box office: Email or call 309-452-8709. For more information, click here.

*February 17 is "Pay What You Can" Night

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Lamentation and Sorrow in IWU's "Trojan Women"

It's easy to understand why Euripides' "Trojan Woman" keeps being revived and retooled, some 2400 years after it first hit the stage in Athens. Over the centuries, there have always been wars. And in those wars, women and children -- AKA "collateral damage" -- have always been among the hardest hit.

Euripides didn't give his "Trojan Women" much of a plot. Instead, he let his female characters voice their lamentations and suffering from beginning to end. No down time here. All fury, grief and pain. He focused on three specific women and their stories -- Cassandra, the prophetess no one believes, crazed and undone; Andromache, wife of slain Trojan hero Hector; and Helen, the beautiful cypher at the center of the conflict -- with Hecuba, the Queen of Troy, and a chorus of women watching as their city burns and they are divvied up and given away as spoils of war.

Thomas Quinn directs "Trojan Women" for Illinois Wesleyan's McPherson Theatre, serving up a vivid, theatrical production with striking stage pictures. Hallie Zieselman's scenic design opens up a stark playing space that looks like bare stone and ash with a little hanging moss for atmosphere, and her aggressive lighting design splashes color and shadow across the stage, adding dramatic ebb and flow. Bridget Galvin's costumes, all ruddy browns and grays for the mourning women, with Helen glowing in white and gold, create the right mood, while Antonio Gracias's portentous sound design adds yet another layer of drama.

Among the players, Allyson Moravec and her maternal Hecuba stand out, with good commitment from Britta Whittenberg, Marlee Turim and Brooke Trantor as Andromache, Kassandra and Helen, respectively. Second-grader Dalton Spalding is sweet and heart-breaking as Hecuba's grandson, Andromache's son, the smallest victim of all the violence of the Trojan War.

This isn't a pleasant play, and it may require a bit of background reading on the Trojan War and its characters to really understand who's saying what about whom. But even if you don't really know your Achaeans from your Dardanoi, the basic idea that these women have suffered terribly will come across loud and clear.

Trojan Women
By Euripides. Translated by Diskin Clay.

IWU McPherson Theatre

Director: Thomas Quinn
Scenic & Lighting Designer: Hallie Zieselman
Costume Designer: Bridget Galvin
Sound Designer: Antonio Gracias

Cast: Josh Conrad, Michael Holding, Angela Jos, Lily Lowell, Zach Mahler, Allyson Moravec, Christine Polich, Roz Prickel, Amily Smith, Dalton Spalding, Amy Stockhaus, Andrew Temkin, Ally Torres, Brooke Trantor, Marlee Turim, Britta Whittenberg, Laura Williams, Parker Wood.

Running time: 1:50, performed without intermission

Remaining performances: February 16-19 at 8 pm and February 20 at 2 pm.

Box office: 309-556-3232

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

See Oscar's Shorts at the Normal Theater

The Normal Theater is keeping up with Oscar! Starting tonight, they'll be showing programs of all the Oscar-nominated short films.

First up, it's Documentary Short Subjects, playing tonight and tomorrow night, beginning at 7 pm. The nominees are KILLING IN THE NAME, POSTER GIRL, STRANGERS NO MORE, SUN COME UP and THE WARRIORS OF QIUGANG.

On February 17 and 18, the Normal Theater will screen the Live Action Shorts, again at 7 pm. Those films are THE CONFESSION, THE CRUSH, GOD OF LOVE, NA WEWE and WISH 143.

Saturday and Sunday, the 19th and 20th, they'll switch to Animated Short Films, including DAY & NIGHT, THE GRUFFALO, LET'S POLLUTE, THE LOST THING and MADAGASCAR, CARNET DE VOYAGE.

For more information about all of these movies, including synopses, visit the official Academy Awards site. When I visited to get the nominees in this category, it told me there were 12 days, 3 hours, 14 minutes and 59 seconds to go till the big day!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry Come Back to Discuss "From Allen Theatre to Steppenwolf: Stories of American Theatre"

Once upon a time, I competed in IHSA speech competitions. I was pretty good in prose reading, and I made it to state as a sophomore. (This was very exciting in 1972.) I kept my program from the state event -- or rather, my mother kept it, along with a box of my high school memorabilia -- and I happened to page through that little paper program, just for kicks, quite a few years ago, when the memorabilia box was returned to me.

I was shocked to discover that future Steppenwolf Theatre Company stars John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney were all there, at that same competition. If memory serves, Sinise and Perry were part of the contest play cast from Highland Park High School ("Under Milkwood," I think) and Malkovich and Kinney competed in Individual Events for Benton and Lincoln High Schools, respectively. It's a weird little one-degree-of-separation footnote, since I have no specific memory of meeting any of them, and I doubt they even knew each other then. Well, Sinise and Perry knew each other, obviously, being from the same high school and all. I do remember being very unhappy that their lovely "Under Milkwood" didn't win the play competition that year.

So it definitely caught my eye that Perry and Kinney, two of the four who made it to State in 1972 and two of Steppenwolf's three founders (Sinise is the other one), are coming to ISU for special Founders Day celebrations. Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney will be appearing as part of a panel discussion called "From Allen Theatre to Steppenwolf: Stories of American Theatre," set for Braden Auditorium on Thursday, February 17th, from 11 am to noon. They'll talk about "the Illinois State University connection, Steppenwolf's growth to international acclaim, and the state of theatre in America today."

This is a free event, open to the public. Don LaCasse will moderate, and we are assured there will be plenty of time for audience questions. You'll find more information here, with some details about the Illinois State University Founders Day Convocation occurring later that day, which will also involve Kinney and Perry.

I didn't attend ISU, so, as far as I know, this will be the first time that Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry and I are all in Bloomington-Normal at the same precise moment since 1972. I doubt they'll be paying attention, but I will. Maybe there will be a program I can add to the Memento Box!

Friday, February 11, 2011

ISU Shows "How to Succeed" With a College Musical

It's kind of curious how often the prototypical 60s musicals "Promises, Promises" and especially "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" -- both sending up businessmen with or without their gray flannel suits -- are popping up in recent years. "Promises, Promises" was back on Broadway last year, while "How to Succeed" (also called "H2$" for short since the 1995 revival with Matthew Broderick) will see a new production with Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, in previews later this month.

Is it the "Mad Men" influence, where that popular show has us all yearning for stories about hot 1960s guys with short hair and narrow ties? A yearning for a time when success and climbing the corporate ladder seemed more achievable? Or maybe just that both "Promises, Promises" and "How to Succeed" provide terrific roles for their male stars, and that kind of showcase never goes out of style.

Director Connie de Veer takes the helm with "How to Succeed" at ISU's Center for the Performing Arts, successfully steering a large cast through big, brash, boffo musical numbers like "A Secretary Is Not a Toy" and "The Brotherhood of Man."

The CPA is an expansive space, but even so, moving some 38 people around John C. Stark's two-level set, with numerous wagons that roll on and off (and spin around) to show us different offices and spaces within the World Wide Wicket Company, complete with those big dance numbers, stylishly choreographed by ISU undergrad Lora Vodicka, is no small feat.

De Veer gets a lot of help from her leading player, Zack Powell, who gives us an appealing, fully-formed J. Pierrepont Finch, the window washer who is trying to make it to the top just by following the tips in a book also called "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." Powell is the best dancing Finch I've seen, which means choreographer Vodicka also gives him more dancing to do. Powell manages the job nicely, keeping his charm and energy intact throughout, including singing the anthem "I Believe in You" to himself, whipping through a crazy duet about groundhogs with the company president, and dancing a pas de deux with love interest Rosemary, winningly played by Colleen Longo. I liked it that he gave Finch more of a brain than, say, Broderick, although perhaps not as much devilment or mischief as Robert Morse, the original and quintessential Finch (who is also in "Mad Men.") Somehow Powell manages the ultimate trick for a musical comedy star; wherever he goes in a scene, the eye follows.

Longo is an excellent romantic foil for Powell, making her Rosemary spirited and smart, layering "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm" with the irony it deserves, and never losing either her heart or her ambition. This is the first production of "How to Succeed" I've seen where it's clear Rosemary is on a "How to Succeed" mission of her own. Just as Finch wants to nab a spot at the top of the company, Rosemary wants to nab Finch, and she's playing the same kind of games he is. Making that kind of woman endearing is a tall order, yet Longo does it seemingly without even trying. She also sings beautifully, making her reprise of "I Believe in You" quite lovely.

Others of note in the cast include Eliza Morris, wiggling in her too-tight dress as bombshell Hedy LaRue; Joey Fitzpatrick as both Twimble, the long-time mailroom manager who never strays from "The Company Way" and a goofy TV announcer; Anthony Urso as bombastic J. B. Biggley, the big boss who does that groundhog number; Elizabeth Keach as Smitty, Rosemary's friend and compatriot; and definitely Justin Triezenberg as Bud Frump, the thorn in Finch's side as he makes his rise through the ranks. Triezenberg has all kinds of comic flourishes to make Frump stand out as the whiny, lazy, underhanded creature he is, and they all work.

I also enjoyed hearing Jack McLaughlin-Gray and his combination of gravitas and warning as the voice of authority, the personification of the book Finch is planning his career by.

Stark's set clues us into the era from the minute we see all those turquoise and coral squares, while Sandy Childers' costume design, relying on a ton of suits and a full array of dresses in different shades of pink and blue, looks just right, as well.

This is a fine "How to Succeed" all around. It's a long one, too, coming in with a two-hour first act. So be prepared to hang on for that first act; there's plenty of fun and lots of dancing in the second to make it worth your while.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert

ISU Center for the Performing Arts

Director: Connie de Veer
Musical Director: Dr. Glenn Block
Choreographer: Lora Vodicka
Scenic Designer: John C. Stark
Costume Designer: Sandy Childers
Lighting Designer: Marly Wooster
Sound Designer: Joe Payne

Cast: Zach Powell, Colleen Longo, Jack McLaughlin-Gray, Caitlin Boho, Patrick Boylan, Emily Brodzik, Danny Brooks, Chris Bryant, Nate Byrne, Lauren Colby, Sabrina Conti, Alyssa Donovan, David Fisch, Joey Fitzpatrick, Nina Ganet, Brian Garvens, Alex Hartman, Andy Hudson, Elizabeth Keach, Carlos Kmet, Alex Kostner, Jenny Koth, Yvette Kovalesky, Gaby Lobatka, Ryan Martinez, Eliza Morris, Carly Oros, Nicki Padron-Glass, Danny Rice, Fiona Stephens, Marissa Talorico, Nick Tangorra, Justin Triezenberg, Anthony Urso, Kyle Wynn.

Running time: 3 hours, including one 15-minute intermission

Remaining performances: February 11-12 and 15-19 at 7:30 pm; February 13 at 2 pm

Ticket information

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Throwing a "Ball in the House" Party at Krannert Center

In an attempt to chase away the February blues, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts will feature Ball in the House, an all-male a capella quintet from Boston, offering "soulful Motown classics, catchy pop arrangements, and vocal harmonies that are the foolproof cure for your February stir-crazies."

If that description wasn't enough to catch your attention, maybe this will do the trick: Ball in the House took their name from a classic "Brady Bunch" episode where Bobby cautions Peter that he is not allowed to play ball in the house. But Peter pays no attention. Uh oh!

At this free event, Ball in the House performs in the Krannert Center Lobby on Friday, February 11 at noon, with some other fun and healthy activities coordinated around them from 11:30 am to 1 pm. As part of this get-rid-of-your-winter-blahs theme, BodyWork Associates will do free mini-massages, U of I Campus Recreation will set up Nintentdo Wii, and the C-U park districts, Campus Rec and Illinois Marathon will provide information on their activities. Intermezzo, the cafe at the Krannert Center, is also offering a special hummus and roasted veggie lunch special for $6 on the 11th.

Click here for all the info you need.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Divine "Arcadia" Returns to Broadway

One of my all-time favorite plays -- Tom Stoppard's ravishing "Arcadia" -- is set for a first-class revival, opening at New York's Barrymore Theatre later this month. This new "Arcadia" starts previews on February 26, officially opens on March 17, and runs till June 19. Limited engagement. Fabulous play. Terrific cast. Who can resist?

"Arcadia" is a beautiful play, with two stories circling around each other, one set in the Regency period and one happening now, involving members of the same family at a posh English country estate. Stoppard spins a tale of love, truth, math, chemistry (both the scientific and the personal kind), chaos (both the scientific and personal kind), history, landscaping, hermits, Gothic novels, and the wonder of human connection, with wit and emotion stirred into the mix like a swirl of raspberry jam. His characters, like dashing tutor Septimus Hodge and his precocious student Thomasina Coverly back in 1809, or rival historians Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale in the 21st century, are engaging, warm and brilliantly rendered.

Director David Leveaux, who brought "Arcadia" to London's West End in 2009, takes the reins of this production, as well, but with a completely different (and significantly more American) cast. Billy Crudup, who played Septimus in the 1995 Lincoln Center production, will now play Nightingale, with Tom Riley as Septimus this time around. Others in the cast include Margaret Colin (Lady Croom), Bel Powley (Thomasina) and Byron Jennings (Noakes) in the past, and Raúl Esparza (Valentine Coverly), Lia Williams (Hannah) and Grace Gummer (Chloe Coverly) in the present.

If all of that isn't enough to get you to book a trip to Broadway, "Arcadia" has a Facebook page with videos and pictures of the cast and a lovely site with more information and tickets. If you need a reason to get to New York, "Arcadia" provides a very good one.

"Charlie" and His Chocolate Sub in for "Annie" and Her Gun

Remember a week or so ago when I told you all about Community Players' 2011-12 season?

Ch-ch-ch-changes! Today, in an announcement about who'll be directing what next season, Community Players also slipped in the news that "Annie Get Your Gun," their scheduled July 2011 production, has been excised in favor of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," to be directed by Marcia Weiss. "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" will be a Theatre for Youth Production at CP.

The other directors announced today are:
  • Cathy Sutliff, directing "And Then There Were None"
  • Brian Artman, directing "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?"
  • Dave Lemmon, directing "Murder at the Howard Johnson's"
  • Opal Virtue, directing "Hauptmann"
  • Tom Smith, directing "Blithe Spirit"
  • Sherry Bradshaw, Brett Cottone, Dorothy Mundy, and Joel Shoemaker, each directing a play in the "You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running" quartet
  • Alan Wilson, directing "Hairspray"

Monday, February 7, 2011

"The African Company Presents Richard III" -- Long Title, Great Play

With budget cuts and arts funding slashed everywhere, we keep hearing questions about what exactly the arts (and especially theater) are worth in the scheme of things. Carlyle Brown's "The African Company Presents Richard III" provides a dandy answer to that question.

In Brown's play, the ability and the wherewithal to create - even just the right to watch theater - offer hope, pride, imagination and identity. Waiters, housemaids and former slaves can play kings and queens on stage. Waiters, housemaids and former slaves can watch people just like them playing kings and queens. Pretty powerful stuff.

"The African Company Presents Richard III" also portrays a slice of little-known African American history, just in time for Black History Month. In 1821, with America less than 50 years old as a country, an all-black theatrical enterprise called the African Company began playing their version of Shakespeare's "Richard III" in New York City. Their performances became a hot ticket, so hot that white people started coming, too, and they had to erect a partition to separate the white people at the back of the theater.

But then another theater, a fancier, wealthier, much whiter theater, announced that it was bringing the famous Junius Brutus Booth over from England to play Richard III. And it just wouldn't do to have a fledgling black company offering the same play across town. Especially not Shakespeare.

So the powerful producer at the white company put money in the right hands, pushed where he needed to push, and got the African Company closed down. Temporarily.

It's a fascinating story, about who has the right to perform Shakespeare, but also about who in America has the right to aspire, to dream, to be somebody or go somewhere. Director Robert Ramirez and his cast from the University of Illinois Department of Theatre do a fine job of telling that story, giving it passion and intelligence, beauty and sorrow.

Brown's best scenes are the ones where we see exactly how and why Shakespeare and his language mean so much to these actors, including a compelling jail scene at the end that almost works as an epilogue, and Ramirez's cast definitely does those scenes justice. Julian Parker, who plays the African Company's leading man, James Hewlett, and Kalyn N. C. Rivers, who plays Hewlett's romantic interest on and off the stage, share a crackling rehearsal scene with several levels of tension, Mark West gives the company's producer, Billy Brown, excellent fire and presence, Deandria Janice Kelley is fun as the no-nonsense maid who delights in playing a queen, and René Thornton Jr. makes the eccentric Papa Shakespeare the heart and soul of the African Company. Ethan Gardner adds an Irish Brogue to the mix of accents (all on target) and a menacing sneer to fuel his corrupt Constable.

Jennifer R. Anderson's scenic design transforms Krannert Center's Studio Theatre into a cozy playing space, with velvet curtains on the sides, a proscenium arch and a small raked stage to suggest theatricality and history, while Sound Designer Robert Dagit adds the atmospheric echo of a hundred empty old theaters to really sell the setting.

This time of year, it may be a trek to get to "The African Company Presents Richard III," but it's well worth the journey.

The African Company Presents Richard III
By Carlyle Brown

Studio Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts

Director: Robert Ramirez
Scenic Designer: Jennifer R. Anderson
Costume Designer: Annaliese Weber
Lighting Designer: Brianna Sue Johnson
Sound Designer: Robert Dagit

Cast: Julian Parker, Kalyn N. C. Rivers, Mark West, Deandria Janice Kelley, René Thornton Jr., Doug West, Ethan Gardner, Monica Lopez, Charlie Lubeck.

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

Remaining Performances: February 8-12 at 7:30 p.m. and February 13 at 3 p.m..

Box office: 217-333-6280,

This review originally ran in the Champaign News-Gazette on February 6, 2011.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

One Crazy February!

It's started out crazy, anyway! Whether you're calling it a Snowpocalypse, Snowmageddon, Snowtorious B.I.G. (my cat likes this one), SnOMG, Snowzilla, Blizzardapalooza or just A Big Pain, the snowstorm that started yesterday has canceled a whole lot of things. That means that some of the openings and events I'm going to list here may or may not be postponed or moved or canceled, depending on when the performers and artists can get where they need to be, whether it's safe for audiences to try to get there, too, and whose power is out where.

This week, we're supposed to be getting "Howl," a movie about poet Allen Ginsburg and his 1957 obscenity trial, at the Normal Theater. Current Hollywood "It Boy" James Franco plays Ginsburg, while the very handsome Jon Hamm plays his very handsome defense attorney Jake Ehrlich and David Strathairn plays Ralph McIntosh, the prosecutor who put Ginsburg and his poetry on trial. "Howl" is scheduled to be on the Normal Theater's screen Thursday the 3rd through Sunday the 6th. Let's hope we're all shoveled out in plenty of time to see "Howl."

At the moment, U of I's Krannert Center says that tomorrow night's opening night of "The African Company Presents Richard III" will go on as scheduled, although tonight's open dress rehearsal is canceled. "The African Company," a play by Carlyle Brown, shows us a battle over who has the right to present a Shakespeare play, but also who has the right to aspire to theatrical and artistic expression. In the play, an all-black acting company in 1821 New York City works very hard to put on "Richard III," and their production proves to be very popular. But that doesn't sit well with a white company that's also putting on "Richard III." Who will prevail when push comes to shove, when the uptown impresario pulls out all the stops to get rid of the competition? Robert Ramirez directs at the Studio Theater at U of I's Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

Champaign's Art Theater says it's showing "I Love You, Phillip Morris," the zany comedy about a con man, starring Jim Carey and Ewan McGregor, tonight and tomorrow night at 7:30 pm. After that, Mike Leigh's "Another Year," which stars one of my favorite actors, Jim Broadbent, opens on the 4th and sticks around at least through the 10th. "Another Year" has gotten rave reviews and earned an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, so if you're an Academy Awards completist, you'll want to check this one off your list while you can.

Wednesday, February 9th, the work of local poet Barbie Dockstader-Angell will be performed by actresses Irene Taylor, Jennifer Rusk and Bridgette Richard in a show called "And She Said." This show, a production of New Route Theater and its 2011 "One Shot Deal" series, will take place at Eaton Studio & Gallery in Bloomington at 7 pm on the 9th. Phil Shaw directs. For more information about the show, visit this page.

Sarah Ruhl's "Eurydice" is the next show in Urbana's Station Theater's ambitious season, running February 10-26. In Ruhl's usual expressionistic, free-form style, "Eurydice" offers a different take on the mythical tale of a new bride carried off to the Underworld and the grief-stricken groom who tries to get her back. Ruhl focuses more on the girl and what she wants, which is a little different from the original myth. Mathew Green directs "Eurydice" for the Station.

Events scheduled for the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts this week, like "An Evening with Naturally 7" and the Ahn Trio, will definitely be postponed, but you can still look for an acoustic evening with Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt on the 10th.

Also on the 10th, ISU offers "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," (short form: H2$), the high-energy musical about an ambitious window washer named J. Pierrepont Finch and his rise to success at the World Wide Wicket Company. First there was a how-to book by Shepherd Mead, then the Broadway show (music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert), and then a movie. The adorable Robert Morse played Ponty both on Broadway and on film, with Matthew Broderick taking on the role in a 1995 Broadway revival. Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, will be the corporate climber in a new production opening at New York's Al Hirschfeld Theatre with previews beginning February 26th. You are invited to see how ISU does "H2$" between February 10th and 19th, and then pop off to New York to see Daniel Radcliffe a week later.

IWU opens for 2011 with the Greek tragedy "The Trojan Women," directed by Tom Quinn. Euripides' play deals with the aftermath of war and its terrible effect on the women of Troy. The last time I saw it, it was set in 1950s Eastern Europe and the ladies looked like they'd fit on "Mad Men." We'll see if director Quinn decides to go with the classical Greek look or updates this eternally timely play. Six performances only, from February 15 to 20.

David Auburn's "Proof," "one of the most lauded plays of the decade," comes to Heartland Theatre on February 17th, running till March 6th. "Proof" is a puzzler of a play, about Catherine, a young woman trying to find her footing after the death of her father, who just happened to be a mathematical genius. He was also mentally ill, however, and this causes Catherine to wonder just which of his genes she's inherited. Does she have his prowess with math? And if she does, does that mean she'll lose her mind like he did? And what about that final proof he may or may not have completed before he died? Audiences have loved "Proof" since it first opened with Mary Louise Parker as Catherine on Broadway, so you are forewarned to get your tickets now to Heartland's production, directed by Cyndee Brown, with Gwen DeVeer as Catherine.

Tickets to the Illinois Shakespeare Festival's summer 2011 season are now on sale! Click here for more information on "Romeo and Juliet," "The Winter's Tale" and "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)."

I told you a few days ago that Community Players has Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" on its roster for the fall. In the meantime, if you need an Agatha Christie fix, you might want to try "The Mousetrap," that perennial favorite, at Eureka College. Eureka's production, directed by EC Theatre Professor Marty Lynch, runs from February 22-27 at Pritchard Theatre.

After spending some time in the 40s, Community Players moves to the 1950s with the Howard Teichmann/George S. Kaufman play "The Solid Gold Cadillac," involving a feisty shareholder who takes on the big boys at a billion-dollar corporation. The film version was a very popular vehicle for Judy Holliday in 1956. Community Players' take on "The Solid Gold Cadillac" opens with a preview performance on February 24, with regular performances from the 25th through March 12th. Click on the link in the first line of this paragraph for cast and ticket information.

"Romeo and Juliet," another in the Opus Arte series of filmed performances from Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, comes to The Art Theater in Champaign on February 26th. You can see the whole Performing Art schedule here.

So let's hope the snow melts soon and we can safely make it to all this good stuff.