Thursday, March 31, 2011

Opening Tonight: "Rock 'n' Roll" at ISU's Center for the Performing Arts

Because I am still a bit under the weather (thought I was better, turns out not so much), I am not attending ISU's production of Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll" tonight to review it. So I decided I will do a preview instead, and then try to get there next week for a proper review.

"Rock 'n' Roll" deals with Stoppard's native Czechoslovakia as well as his adopted home, England, in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, contrasting a Czech grad student with his British professor. The former is a major fan of rock 'n' roll, so when he returns to Czechoslovakia after the Soviets try to quash reform in 1968, all he takes are his vinyl Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd LPs. And the latter is an unrepentant Socialist and Marxist, who has a very different opinion of the Soviets than his Czech student. He also has a wife, who is very ill, but still determined to be who she is and think what she thinks.

The play is a rich mixture of politics and ideas, music and philosophy, revolution and freedom, poetry and personality. "Rock 'n' Roll" enjoyed a successful production directed by Trevor Nunn in London in 2006, with Rufus Sewell as Jan, the student, Brian Cox as his professor and Sinéad Cusack as the professor's wife, who is as enamored of classical Greek poetry as her husband is of Marx. Those three reprised their roles on Broadway in 2007, while Timothy Edward Kane, Stephen Yoakam and Mary Beth Fisher played them for the Goodman Theatre in Chicago two years ago.

James Wagoner directs "Rock 'n' Roll" for ISU, with Tommy Malouf, Mitch Conti and Brynne Barnard in the pivotal roles. The show opens tonight in ISU's Center for the Performing Arts, with performances April 1-2 and 6-9 at 7:30 pm and April 3 at 2 pm. For more information or to order tickets, you can phone 438-2535 or visit this page.

Note: This piece originally misidentified the actor playing Max in the ISU production. I corrected it after being notified by a commenter.

"Two Gentlemen" with a Little Gershwin on the Side

A nice Gershwin tune can elevate just about any material. Even "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," the early Shakespeare play about a faithless, changeable man (named Proteus -- he's protean, get it?) and the woman who loves him, anyway.

"The Two Gentlemen of Verona" is always tricky to pull off, because, let's face it, Proteus is really a jerk. He says he's incredibly in love with Julia, he sends her love notes, the two exchange rings as a sign of their love and devotion, and he pitches a fit when his father says he has to leave town (and Julia) for awhile. But then, as soon as he hits Milan, where his BFF Valentine is hanging out, Proteus spies a girl named Silvia, the object of Valentine's affections. Silvia's dad wants her to marry a different guy named Thurio (as opposed to Valentine), but that's really just a bump on the road, because, after all, Valentine is Proteus's best friend and he was very clear in telling Proteus that he was totally hot for this girl. So what does Proteus do? He decides he can't live without Silvia, betrays Valentine's scheme to get the girl out of town and away from Thurio and her dad's matchmaking plan, and then betrays Julia, too, by trying to give Silvia the very ring Julia gave him. Ouch!

For ISU's Westhoff Theatre, director Emily Gill tries to frame this story like an old musical comedy of the Gershwin variety by interjecting snippets of fizzy, wonderful songs like "S'Wonderful" and "I Got Rhythm" before the show and during scene changes, as well as putting her actors in wardrobe from the first decades of the 20th Century. The Gershwin is lovely, no doubt about it, and the fact that the extra cast members twirl rolling racks around in time to the music gives those scene changes a certain energy and charm.

The idea seems to be that people always acted goofy and silly in those old musicals, so Proteus and his fickle behavior are just part of that same lighter-than-air, nobody-expects-it-to-make-sense school of theater. That works to a point, even if I still think Proteus is a lying snake and both his friend Valentine and his ex Julia ought to dump him and hook up with each other. (Sorry, Silvia. Julia has more moxie, what with that whole dressing-up-like-a-boy thing.)

Jeff Rubin does his best to make Proteus cute and funny, while Zack Powell, so recently seen as J. Pierrepont Finch in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," is dashing and fun as Valentine. Both of the love interests -- Cady Leinicke as Julia and Becky Miller as Silvia -- look pretty and add energy, as well.

As usual with "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," the dog (supposedly a disreputable mutt, but a beautiful and very well-behaved Golden Retriever named Seamus for ISU) steals every scene he's in. As Launce, the servant with the dog, Tony Pellegrino has the tough job of not losing focus to his canine companion while attempting to tell very creaky and sad jokes, and he tries his best. There's no competing with that dog, though. The dog will win every time.

Adam Spencer's set design, wherein a Victrola, a few trunks and those rolling racks stand in for an attic, a train station and an archway in the park, and Tommy Nolan's luminous lighting design are also clever and attractive.

By William Shakespeare

ISU Westhoff Theatre

Director: Emily Gill
Scenic Designer: Adam Spencer
Costume Designer: Shana Hall
Lighting Designer: Tommy Nolan
Sound Designer: Michael Gibson
Stage Manager: Daniel D. Drake

Cast: Jeff Rubin, Zack Powell, Chris Bush, Cady Leinicke, Tori Allen, Cristen Susong, Paula Nowak, Becky Miller, Tony Pellegrino, Seamus, Andrew Rogalny Jr.,Omar Shammaa, Melanie Camire, Jesus Estela, Luke Simone, Elizabeth Dillard, Lucas Tressler, Meredith Francsis, Nate Aikens, Storm Angone, Gabriela Fernandez.

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

Remaining performances: March 31 and April 1 and 2 at 7:30 pm; April 2 and 3 at 2 pm


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Reavis High School and "These Shining Lives" Take State Drama Title

When I blogged about the State High School Drama contest early last week, I said I would be back to give you the inside scoop as the weekend unfolded. Unfortunately, real life in the form of strep throat intruded, and I was unable to make it down to Springfield for Day One of the competition. That means I missed 9 of the 12 state-eligible plays. So I debated whether I should comment at all, having missed 3/4 of the action.

The good news is that I did see the winner, Melanie Marnich's "These Shining Lives," as presented by a cast from Burbank's Reavis High School, under the direction of Erika Banick and Tom Witting. And even without seeing most of their competitors, I can tell why they won.

"These Shining Lives" (pictured above, in an image from VIP Photography) is based on a true, terrible story, about young women, sometimes called "Radium Girls," who entered the workforce in the 1920s, eagerly taking jobs painting numbers on watches with glow-in-the-dark, radium-based paint. They were taught to lick the end of their tiny paintbrushes to make a nice, neat point, sticking deadly radium in their mouths with each lick, repeating that action hundreds of times a day as they painted those watches. Marnich's play deals with the Illinois chapter of the story, where Catherine Donahue and her friends toil for the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois. Because this is a true story, Reavis took the opportunity to use real newspaper footage, real pictures, real people in the images they projected on a watch-shaped screen center stage, which made Catherine's horrifying decline from vibrant young woman to stooped-over crone that much more emotional.

Victoria Vega was committed and sure as Catherine, with good support from Kassy DeGrado, Katie Keane and Martha Toporkiewicz as her friends at the factory, and Jonathan Morsovillo, Matt Swiec and Derek Whitehouse as the men in their work and private lives. Directors Banick and Witting also deserve credit for smart, fluid staging and keeping an eye on all the details.

Reavis's set, including that watch dial, looked good and worked perfectly, framing the action nicely on a ramped platform that held the tables where the women worked, with a smaller round area for their odious boss and another spot for Catherine's home. Very nicely done, Reavis!

The IHSA judges who voted "These Shining Lives" into first place also handed out All-State Cast honors to Vega, DeGrado and Keane.

Reavis came in second at their sectional to defending champion Oak Lawn Community and their production of "Anatomy of Gray," by Jim Leonard, Jr., directed by Billy Denton, Theresa Wantiez and Marcus Wargin. At state, the order was flipped, with Reavis first and Oak Lawn second overall. Actors Emily Harris and Jacqueline McNaughton took places in the All-State Cast for Oak Lawn.

In third was Belleville West High School with Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart," the only comedy on the state final roster. John Lodle and Laurie Bielong directed for Belleville West, with Emily Woods, Becky Killian and Matt Ingram named to the All-State Cast for their roles in "Crimes of the Heart."

Another fun bit of trivia -- the two newest plays finished first and second, with 2010's "These Shining Lives" leading the way over 2005's "Anatomy of Gray." Not sure what that means (obviously, schools have had good luck with material all the way back to "Hamlet") but I am happy to see newer works so well represented.

The final order of finish was:
1. Burbank Reavis, "These Shining Lives"
2. Oak Lawn Community, "Anatomy of Gray"
3. Belleville West, "Crimes of the Heart"
4. Benton, "The Ballad Hunter"
5. Rock Island, "Hospice"
6. Harvey Thornton, "A Lesson Before Dying"
7. Bensenville Fenton, "How I Learned to Drive"
8. Palatine Fremd, "Kindertransport"
9. Rockford Auburn, "The Children's Hour"
10. Aurora Waubonsie Valley, "Standing on My Knees"
11. Dolton Thornridge, "Seven Guitars"
12. Lemont, "The Diary of Anne Frank"

To see the complete results and the entire list of All-State honors, visit the IHSA website here. And you can see images from all the contest plays and order your own copies at the VIP site here.

Congratulations to everyone who participated. I have to admit, I love seeing high school students get this kind of experience building characters and interpreting drama written for the stage. I'm guessing some of them have never seen a professional production of a full-length play. As opposed to, you know, movies and reality TV shows. I hope they'll notice that "How I Learned to Drive" or "Crimes of the Heart" or "Seven Guitars" is being produced somewhere near them, and they'll have fond memories of their high school experience with those plays as they see the full production unfold in front of them.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Aren't We All Ready for "The Architecture of Spring"?

Poet Kathleen Kirk and other readers, including Candace Armstrong, Christopher Brandt, Jennie King, Peg Kirk, Ginny Nappi and Janice Witherspoon Neuleib, are offering "The Architecture of Spring," a poetry reading tomorrow night at the McLean County Museum of History.

This free poetry reading celebrates the Museum's current exhibit called "The Architectural Legacy of A. L. Pillsbury," and it will include poems about Pillsbury's buildings, in terms of their architecture and other details, and the structures made by nature as well as humans. Not only is this special event free, but on Tuesday night, the museum and its exhibits are also free!

That's Mr. Pillsbury you see at the top of this blog in a caricature originally created for the Bloomington Pantagraph in about 1914, The Pantagraph tells us that Pillsbury's picture was part of "a series of similar sketches of prominent area residents."

Pillsbury was born in Bloomington in 1869, and he spent his youth in Bloomington-Normal, the son of the principal at Illinois State University's Model School. He got an engineering degree from Harvard, and then returned to Illinois to study architecture at the University of Illinois, where he also played on the football team. And then he came back to Bloomington-Normal to ply his trade as an architect, helping rebuild downtown Bloomington after a disastrous fire in 1900 took out most of it, and becoming the premiere "society" architect in town, designing many beautiful homes that still grace our streets as well as schools, banks, barns and businesses. You can read a lot more about him and the many buildings he designed here, in an article prepared by the Museum.

"The Architecture of Spring: A Poetry Reading," takes place Tuesday, March 29th from 7:30 pm to 8:30 pm at the McLean County Museum of History, 200 North Main Street in Bloomington. For more information about the Pillsbury exhibit at the Museum of History, click here.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hitchcock, Hawks and Handsaws: "North by Northwest"

If screenwriter Ernest Lehman and director Alfred Hitchcock did not intend to refer to "Hamlet" with the title of "North by Northwest" -- and most accounts have contended that they did not -- they lucked into a great title and a nice reference to a play about play-acting, playing games and playing the fool, all of which our hero, one Roger O. Thornhill (initials: ROT) does during "North by Northwest."

So, yes, when the wind is southerly, Thornhill knows a hawk from a handsaw from a Hitchcock cameo*. But when he's north-northwest, he's mad mad mad. In a good way. He also drinks too much, is a bit of a heel with the ladies, and seems to have a hard time behaving in general.

Roger Thornhill is one of Cary Grant's most attractive and seductive roles, and that is saying quite a bit. He's at his most handsome here, with his sardonic, mischievous edge firmly in place. Plus he keeps getting into scrapes and mussing up his clothes and his general appearance, which only makes him that much more beautiful. I can honestly say, even if you turn off the sound and ignore the crazy mistaken identity/spies-and-magic-microfilm plot, Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill is worth the price of admission.

These days, Jon Hamm and "Mad Men" are clearly going for the Cary Grant look from "North by Northwest." (Doesn't that falling man in the poster look familiar? Roger Thornhill, the rotter, was even an ad exec in "N by NW.") And it's even more fun to see the original, the prototype, the standard by which all dark, handsome guys in skinny ties and skinny suits will be judged.

Not that the movie doesn't have its joys above and beyond Grant's star turn. If Alfred Hitchcock was pretty darn good at casting protagonists you want to hang around with for an hour or two, he was also an expert with cool blondes with double-dealing agendas (such as Eva Marie Saint in this one) and an absolute master at creating villains. Here it's James Mason as a smooth customer with Continental charm and questionable taste in henchmen. The chief henchman is, of course, Martin Landau of "Mission: Impossible" fame, all sadistic sneers and forbidding eyebrows.

The plot of "North by Northwest" doesn't really make any more sense than the directions in the title. And there are those classic scenes everybody knows about (Thornhill dive-bombed by a crop duster, a bird's-eye view of our hero at the UN, everybody scuttling up and down Mount Rushmore) that mean you may be watching for those and forgetting the rest. But if you do, you'll miss the absolute mastery Alfred Hitchcock brought to this sort of plot, where everybody is pretending to be or mistaken for something he's not, where fate and chance mean more than any plans, where the anti-American villain lives in what looks like a Frank Lloyd Wright house on top of a national monument, where there are so many tongues tucked securely inside cheeks that it's tough to tell the double entendres from the straight talk. If there were any straight talk.

I absolutely love the hijinks built into this movie, in case you hadn't already guessed. There's just something about the cheeky insouciance in "North by Northwest" that will make you want to take train trips, to check your statuary for hidden microfilm, to get matchbooks printed with your initials on them, to order a martini, to watch every movie Cary Grant ever made so you can compare and contrast for general hotness and drollery.

I suggest you start on that mission by watching "North by Northwest" tonight or tomorrow night at 7 pm at the Normal Theater.

*In "North by Northwest," Hitchcock makes his cameo catching a bus as the opening credits end.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Crazy Carousel of "Strangers on a Train"

The Normal Theater is offering two Alfred Hitchcock movies in a row, with "Strangers on a Train" tomorrow and Friday at 7 pm, and "North By Northwest" Saturday and Sunday.

They're both crackling suspense thrillers with some similarities -- handsome leading man caught up in web of lies and intrigue that is mostly not his fault, dark humor all over the place, murderous intent from diabolical [also handsome] supporting players, damsels in distress -- but the feel is really quite different.

"Strangers on a Train" is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, and although there are significant differences between the book and the movie, Highsmith's twisted tone remains. She liked to write about psychopaths, and Bruno*, the stranger on the train who blithely suggests murder, is one of her best. The plot is that basic murder "criss cross" -- since Bruno and handsome, successful Guy each have a roadblock on the road to happiness, Bruno proposes that he kill Guy's vulgar estranged wife, who refuses to divorce him, and in return, Guy will knock off Bruno's father so that he can get his hands on the old man's money. In Bruno's plan, each will have an alibi for the murder he has a motive for, and no motive for the murder he actually committed.

Guy, winningly played by Farley Granger, who makes the character very attractive as well as somewhat morally ambiguous, thinks it's all a bad joke. Bruno, given a delicious brand of crazy by Robert Walker, is quite serious, so serious that he kills Guy's wife off right away as a show of good faith. And then he demands that Guy return the favor and take care of Bruno's father. When Guy demurs, Bruno ups the ante, threatening to plant evidence to make the police think Guy killed his own wife.

It's to Hitchcock's credit that this whole thing seems to move at the speed of light, even though Bruno keeps turning the screws on Guy at a torturous pace. The movie also contains some of Hitchcock's most famous scenes, like the tennis match where the camera is on the spectators and their heads flipping from side to side and the climactic tilting, out-of-control carousel scene, where everybody converges as the plot elements collide.

As these two play their dangerous games, who will end up on the wrong side of the carousel? I'll give you a hint -- Highsmith's book offers a different answer to that question than Hitchcock's movie, so if you don't like the ending in one, I suggest trying the other, too.

Whatever you do, don't miss "Strangers on a Train" on screen Thursday or Friday. On its face, it looks like a simple black-and-white murder movie from the 50s. But there's really no black and white here, just endless shades of gray, as Guy and his romantic woes are clearly shady, and Bruno is so darn charming, even though he's also a psychopath. Robert Walker's best performance on film turns Bruno into something bigger, scarier, and a lot more "normal" than your everyday murderer.

"Strangers on a Train" plays at the Normal Theater at 7 pm on Thursday the 24th and Friday the 25th.

*In the book, his name is Charles Anthony Bruno, but Bruno Anthony in the movie.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Perennial Powers Battle It Out in High School Drama in Springfield

Yes, it's March, and yes, the Illinois High School Association is the home of "America's Original March Madness," referring to high school basketball. But there's more to March than just basketball for the IHSA. This weekend, March Madness will mean Drama and Group Interpretation at the University of Illinois-Springfield's Sangamon Auditorium.

High schools present their own productions of published plays, shortened if necessary to suit the IHSA's 40-minute time limit, with students filling all the roles. Stage crews have limited time to put up a whole set and then strike it so that the next play can take over the stage.

If you follow the high school drama competition, you'll notice a lot of powerhouse programs are back, including five-time champions Harvey Thornton and Dolton Thornridge.

Thornton last won the top prize in 1997 with Pearl Cleage's "Hospice," plus they were champions in 1994 ("The Zooman and the Sign," by Charles Fuller), 1991 ("The Rainmaker," by N. Richard Nash), 1989 ("The Amen Corner," by James Baldwin) and 1985 ("The Mighty Gents," by Richard Wesley). They were 5th last year with Lynn Nottage's searing "Ruined," and they'll be back this year with "A Lesson Before Dying," by Romulus Linney, about James, a young African-American man falsely accused of murder in Louisiana in 1948, and a schoolteacher, also black, who is hired to teach James how to die like a man as his execution looms. "A Lesson Before Dying" is scheduled for 9:45 am on Saturday, March 26. Brad Ablin and Marie Wojdelski direct for Thornton.

Thornridge's last championship was in 2008, with August Wilson's "Fences," and they're bringing more August Wilson to state this year, with "Seven Guitars," winner of the 1996 Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It's set in 1948 Pittsburgh, before and after the funeral of bluesman Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton, someone who has seen success and let it slip through his fingers. Thornridge's production of "Seven Guitars" is directed by Yvonne Nesbitt.

Thornridge has had really good luck with Wilson plays, winning Drama championships with "King Hedley II" in 2005 and "The Piano Lesson" in 2004. They also took top honors with Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" in 1990 and Max Frisch's "Firebugs" in 1972, when I happened to be in the audience as a high school student. This year, they'll be opening the Drama Festival at 8:30 am on Friday, March 25.

Defending champion Oak Lawn Community High School is also back, with Jim Leonard, Jr.'s "Anatomy of Gray," a play about healing, faith, love and loss in a small Indiana town in the 1880's. Oak Lawn won last year with William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker," another period piece, and they won in 2006 with Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew." Billy Denton, Theresa Wantiez, and Marcus Wargin are directing "Anatomy of Gray," which will be performed at 11 am on Friday.

Burbank Reavis, winner in 2007 with "Equus," the psychological drama from Peter Shaffer, also emerged as a state finalist from the Oak Lawn Richards sectional. This year, Reavis is offering Melanie Marnich's "These Shining Lives," about women performing dangerous work in a watch factory during the Depression. Directors are Erika Banick and Tom Witting. The performance of "These Shining Lives" is scheduled for 8:30 am on Saturday. I've wanted to see a performance of Marnich's play for some time, and I'm looking forward to Reavis's production.

Rock Island High School just took home the boys' basketball crown last weekend, but they also won the state Drama title way back in 1955 ("Hope Is a Thing with Feathers," by Richard Harrity) and more recently, in 2009 ("The Elephant Man," by Bernard Pomerance). After an 8th place finish last year, the Rocks are back with Pearl Cleage's "Hospice," directed by Rino C. Della Vedova. "Hospice," which won the title for Thornton in 1997, borrows some of its plot from Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" as it tells the story of a poet who ran away to Paris, abandoning her daughter, and how they come together years later when the mother is dying of cancer. Rock Island will perform "Hospice" at 6:30 pm on Friday.

Emerging from the Lake Park sectional to win places at state are Fenton's production of "How I Learned To Drive," another Pulitzer Prize winner, this one a disturbing coming-of-age story about child abuse by Paula Vogel, directed by Mike Mitchell, and Palatine Fremd's take on the Holocaust drama "Kindertransport," by Diane Samuels, directed by Marilyn Berdick. Fenton and Fremd were back-to-back winners in 1969 ("The Romancers," by Edmund Rostand) and 1970 ("Waiting for Godot"), plus Fenton added a championship in 1979 with "Smiles of a Summer Night," a stage version of the Ingmar Bergman movie.

"How I Learned to Drive" is scheduled for 1:30 pm on Friday, while "Kindertransport" finishes out the festival at 11 am on Saturday.

Lemont and Aurora Waubonsie Valley have advanced from the St. Charles North sectional, with Lemont performing "The Diary of Anne Frank," the Pulitzer Prize winner by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, directed by Dan Franke, at 9 pm on Friday, and Waubonsie Valley and director David Calvert offering "Standing on My Knees," John Olive's play about a talented poet who cannot create when she takes the medication she needs for schizophrenia, at 9:45 am on Friday.

From the Normal Community sectional, downstate hopefuls Benton and Belleville West took honors. Both Benton and Belleville West made it to state last year, as well, with Benton taking 3rd with "The Diviners" and West finishing 10th with "Marvin's Room." This time, Benton will perform Jenny Laird's lyrical Appalachian drama "The Ballad Hunter," a Joseph Jefferson nominee for Best New Work when it premiered in Chicago in 1995, directed by Allan and Pam Kimball, at 4 pm on Friday, while Belleville West is tackling "Crimes of the Heart," the Pulitzer Prize winning comedy about three sisters by Beth Henley, directed by John Lodle and Laurie Bielong, scheduled for 7:45 pm on Friday.

And rounding out the competition is Rockford Auburn's version of Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour," a 1934 drama about the destructive power of gossip. Auburn's "Children's Hour" is directed by James L. Crow and scheduled for 2:45 pm on Friday.

You can see the schedule in performance order here. Eight of the twelve plays to be presented are period pieces, while only four are contemporary. And here is the list of state Drama champs from its first year in 1941 up to 2008.

Just for fun, here are the plays in order of when they were first performed, so you can get an idea of what kinds of plays are chosen by Illinois high school drama directors:

1934: The Children's Hour
1955: The Diary of Anne Frank
1979: Crimes of the Heart
1983: Hospice
1983: Standing on My Knees
1993: Kindertransport
1995: The Ballad Hunter
1995: Seven Guitars
1997: How I Learned to Drive
2000: A Lesson Before Dying
2005: Anatomy of Gray
2010: These Shining Lives

Check back this weekend to find out what I thought about all these plays in performance!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Coming Up in Chicago Theaters for 2011-12

All kinds of Chicago theater companies have announced their fall schedules, with some very intriguing productions on the horizon.

First up -- the amazing Steppenwolf company, known for cutting-edge theater with a rock 'n' roll sensibility. "For Steppenwolf’s 2011/12 season, we are exploring what happens when everyday lives are touched by war," Artistic Director Martha Lavey writes in the press release announcing the new season. "In each of our five plays, war exerts a pressure—sometimes centrally, sometimes obliquely—on the lives of the characters. Against the pressure of war is a great longing for home."

In this "Dispatches from the Homefront" season, Steppenwolf will first offer "Clybourne Park," by Bruce Norris, a sort of prequel and sequel to the seminal play, "A Raisin in the Sun," by Lorraine Hansbury. "Clybourne Park," which recently took top honors at the British Olivier Awards, will be directed by ensemble member Amy Morton and feature ensemble member James Vincent Meredith, someone I remember from his performance in the Station Theater's "Six Degrees of Separation" years ago. He was a terrific actor then; he's a terrific actor now. "Clybourne Park" opens in Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre September 8.

Also on the schedule: "Penelope" by Enda Walsh, also directed by Amy Morton, and featuring ensemble member (and former star of TV's "Frasier") John Mahoney, opening in December in the Downstairs Theatre; "Time Stands Still" by Donald Margulies, fresh from Broadway, directed by ensemble member Austin Pendleton and featuring ensemble members Francis Guinan and Sally Murphy in the Upstairs Theatre in January; "The March," based on the novel of the same name by E. L. Doctorow, adapted for the stage and directed by ensemble member Frank Galati, and featuring ensemble members Alana Arenas, Ian Barford, Tim Hopper, Martha Lavey, Mariann Mayberry, James Vincent Meredith, William Petersen, Yasen Peyankov, and Alan Wilder, in the Downstairs Theatre next April; and Chekhov's "Three Sisters," adapted by ensemble member Tracy Letts, directed by ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro, and featuring ensemble members Ian Barford, Ora Jones and Sally Murphy in the Downstairs Theatre next June.

For subscription information, click here and read all about all the plays.

The Goodman has also announced its "Red Hot Season," with what they're calling "a sizzling combination of hits, classics and new works."

That combination includes five plays on the big stage in the Albert Theatre, from recent Broadway hits "Red," John Logan’s fierce and unflinching examination of the artist Mark Rothko, and "Race," the David Mamet drama about attorneys dealing with their own issues of race as they attempt to defend a white man charged with raping a black woman, to Tennessee Williams's "Camino Real," Regina Taylor's "Crowns," and one play to be determined later. And there will be three plays in the smaller Owen Theatre, with Danai Gurira's "The Convert" followed by two others plays still to be announced.

At Northlight Theatre out in Skokie, they'll produce "Snapshots," a musical built around the music of Stephen Schwartz; Alan Ayckbourn's funny and emotional "Season's Greetings;" "Black Pearl Sings," by Frank Higgins, featuring Northlight favorite E. Faye Butler; and Jeffrey Hatcher's "Ten Chimneys," about Broadway power couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

Remy Bumppo has announced three shows next season: the classic "Mourning Becomes Electra," by Eugene O'Neill, adapted by Gordon Edelstein; Marivaux's "Changes of Heart," translated by Stephen Wadsworth and featuring U of I theater alum Linda Gillum; and "Chesapeake," the Lee Blessing play about art, politics and one special dog.

And in Glencoe, Writers Theatre will offer Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing," to be directed by Writers' Artistic Director Michael Halberstam; "The Caretaker," Harold Pinter's disturbing look at a brain-damaged man, his brother, and the homeless man he brings home; Randall Colburn's "Hesperia," a provocative play about a young woman who runs away to a small Midwestern town in an attempt to escape her past in porn films; and "A Little Night Music," the enchanting Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler collaboration based on the Ingmar Bergman movie, "Smiles of a Summer Night."

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

American Idol: When Bigger Isn't Necessarily Better

I admit, I haven't been keeping up with "American Idol" this season, although I know the ratings are up and everybody seems very positive about new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez.

So I watched a few videos of individual performances and came in tonight with a critical eye, wondering if I should be tuning back in or not. Here's my report card:

Naima Adedapo, singing "What's Love Got to Do With It?" Naima is ridiculously entertaining, even when the song gets away from her, as this one definitely did. I like her, but going first, and chopping through her performance like Paul Bunyan with an ax... I fear she will not be long for this American Idol world. C-

Paul McDonald, singing "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues." So, they decided to put the quirky people at the top of the show. Hmm... Going for the end of the quirk, eh? Not only is Paul the only one with early performances back-to-back, but they used his most flaky dance moves for the highlight reel. Ouch. Paul is an interesting performer, and I enjoy the fact that he seems to enjoy himself so much. I don't even mind the ultra-brite smile or the wackadoodle dancing. But I still can't say he is really flipping all my switches. Kinda weak in spots, but an otherwise okay performance. B-

Thia Megia, singing "Colors of the Wind." Terrible choice of song. Terrible, awful, horrible choice. Nobody needs to hear about blue-corn moons. Seriously. Still, she looked pretty in a Pocahontas-y way and sang well. Once or twice there was even something unexpected that sounded very pleasant. So... B-

James Durbin, singing "I'll Be There For You." He sounds seriously sharp to me and in an unpleasant, shrill way, even though it must sound okay in the TV studio, because the judges all like him. Tasteful? I don't think so. I also don't like his hair, and I suspect I would not like the way he licks stamps. D

Haley Reinhart, singing "I'm Your Baby Tonight." Oh, dear. I've kind of liked Haley before this, but I found this performance absolutely dreadful. She completely lost the melody, so it became sort of staccato chanting or shouting. Her outfit is truly hiddy. And to top it off, it all sounded totally fake, as if she were unhappy with who she is, so she's decided to be someone else who is part porn star, part Charo, part Miss Linoleum 1965 talent show. D-

Stefano Langone, singing "If You Don't Know Me By Now." I loved Simply Red and this song when it rolled around in 1989. I thought Stefano did a terrific job with it, not sounding too much like either Harold Melvin or Mick Hucknall. I like his vocal quality. He would've fit in nicely with the Italian boy singers of the 60s, like Fabian and Frankie Avalon and Frankie Valli. In fact, I found myself wondering whether he'd end up in a road company of "Jersey Boys." A little too much "no, you won't, oh oh oh" kind of stuff and the glory note was really off, but in general, I enjoyed it. A-

Pia Toscano, singing "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?" Girl seriously needs to get off the Whitney/Mariah/Celine wagon. She can be a phenom all she wants with this kind of stuff, but I really don't think it will get her anywhere. It was okay, but it didn't sound good to me in her top register. I also really hated the crouching Pia, hidden ABBA routine. B-

Scotty McCreery, singing "Can I Trust You With My Heart?" Very turgid and sincere in a phony baloney way. Oh well, I suppose that's his style. B-

Karen Rodriguez, singing "Love Will Lead You Back." Unfortunately for Karen, Pia already performed this kind of song earlier in the show and did it better. Plus that hideous loaf of hair ain't doing anybody any favors. A check of last week's performance order tells me that this week and last week, Karen, Jacob and Scotty are the ones they're sticking near the end of the show. Everybody else seems to be switching off more. So I guess they want to keep Karen, Jacob and Scotty. I don't care about any of the three, to be perfectly honest. As for Karen, she sounds behind the beat and both sharp and flat too often for comfort. D+

Casey Abrams, singing "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I know this song best from the Weird Al version "Smells Like Nirvana," which is hilarious. I'm not sure with Casey whether he's being serious or tongue in cheek. But with the ghoulish green lighting and his rather fierce facial expressions, I guess he was serious. Even though the song isn't that new, this was the one performance that seemed fresh and fearless (as Randy said) and not something better suited to the Lawrence Welk Show. B+

Lauren Alaina, singing "I'm the Only One." This girl strikes me as a charmless, graceless twit. Whatever it is they're trying to achieve by showing her giggling like a loon and acting like a twit, I don't know. But it ain't working for me, Tammy Falaina. The vocal was okay some of the time, if a little shouty and immature. She also seemed low energy and kinda drifty. That could be the flu, I suppose. C-

Jacob Lusk, singing "Alone." Jacob seems to specialize in the overwrought and oversung, which is soooo not my style. All in all, this has been a very BIG night, with lots of BIGGER, as opposed to better, performances, and he may be the biggest of the bunch. He was okay, but again, sounded somewhat strained and not very pleasant with his "Lusky stank." C-

I can't believe it, but I'm giving Performance of the Night to sweet little Stefano. Still, the number of power ballads and over-the-top performances tells me I am probably better suited to a different television show and this was not the right time to come back to American Idol.

Heartland Announces Cast for Joel Drake Johnson's THE END OF THE TOUR

Heartland Theatre Company and director Sandi Zieliniski have announced their cast for the upcoming production of Joel Drake Johnson’s THE END OF THE TOUR, a sharply funny play about a very dysfunctional family in Dixon, Illinois.

The cast is:
JAN: Cristen Susong
ANDREW: Jake Olbert
MAY: Nancy A. Nickerson
CHUCK: Clark Abraham
DAVID: John D. Poling
TOMMY: George Freeman
NORMA: Ann White
BRENDA: Gayle Hess

Cristen Susong, last seen as the peppy and polished Rona Lisa Peretti in ISU’s 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, will play Jan, the daughter who is at the end of her rope with her narcissistic mother. Nancy A. Nickerson will play that mother, May, whose greatest memory is not raising either of her children, but singing once for Dixon’s native son Ronald Reagan, even though it’s never clear if that actually happened. Nickerson just finished up a stint as the whistle-blowing stockholder in THE SOLID GOLD CADILLAC at Community Players; she was last seen at Heartland in Phil Olson’s A NICE FAMILY GATHERING, playing a much nicer Mom than the one in THE END OF THE TOUR.

Jake Olbert, who played the Duke in ISU’s production of MEASURE FOR MEASURE last fall and was so good as the fantasy brother in Heartland’s version of Alan Ayckbourn’s WOMAN IN MIND just before that, will play the third member of the Morris clan, estranged son Andrew.

Clark Abraham, John D. Poling, and Heartland Theatre Company board members George Freeman, Ann White and Gayle Hess round out the cast.

Performances begin April 14, continuing through May 1, at Heartland Theatre.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Arts, Artists and Music -- Blooming in Bloomington

The Spring Bloom Arts Festival will be blooming in Bloomington this Saturday, when the McLean County Arts Center brings more than a hundred artists in the categories of jewelry, painting, ceramics, sculpture, glass and more to the Bloomington Sale Barn at 2027 S. Main Street. Organizers expect attendance in the neighborhood of 1600 people.

This is a juried show of fine art and fine craft, with exhibitors from across the nation. Last year's Best of Show winner was graphic artist Paul Dominguez from Watertown, Wisconsin, and he is back on the list of expected artists this year, too. Painter Tracey Frugoli and sculptor Sandy James, who took first place in the Fine Arts and Fine Crafts categories, will also be back. Gayla Betts, who makes and sells jewelry here in Normal, has also won a spot to show her work this year. Other local artists include Brock Eddleman, Thomas Elston, Ron Frazier, Amanda Pierce Gahramani, Philip and Glenda Gangler, Sandra Holt, Joe Landon, John Madison, Michael James McNeil, Marcia Nagy, Susan Palmer, Gina Perillo and Angela Pierce.

Admission is $5 for adults, and children 12 and under are free. Members of the McLean County Arts Center pay only $3. If a customer is not a member of the Arts Center, they can join and have free entrance to this event. Good deal!

In addition to artists and their works, there will be information booths staffed by representatives from local arts organizations. This is a handy way to find out more about the theater, dance, music, and art spaces around you here in Bloomington-Normal. And I will be sitting at the Heartland Theatre table from noon to two, so feel free to stop by and say hello.

For more information on this event, you can check out the Spring Bloom page here.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Winners Announced in Heartland’s "New Plays from the Heartland" Competition

Heartland Theatre Company Managing Artistic Director Mike Dobbins has announced the winners of the 2011 New Plays from the Heartland competition. This year’s theme was "I thought it would be simple" and all plays were to include that line as dialogue somewhere in the play.

Each year, the New Plays from the Heartland competition is open to playwrights from the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

These are this year's three winning plays:

BUCK NAKED by Gloria Bond Clunie, Evanston, IL
After 66 years of playing by the rules, Lily is yearning to break free. As in, scandalizing the neighbor by watering her garden in the buff. Selling the house. Moving to a clothing-optional retirement community. She’s definitely having fun, but her daughters are concerned. Can they bring her back to earth? Should they even try?

THE DOCK by Stephen Peirick, St. Louis, MO
Weddings are one of those markers in life, making people think about life, romance and what it means to grow up. For Marty, the best man, and April, a bridesmaid, an escape to the dock outside this wedding is a chance to reminisce about their shared past, about first kisses and bad relationships, about who’s who and what’s what.

KEEPING THE WORDS by Terri Ryburn, Normal, IL
To Joyce, the teetering towers of books in her home are proof that she is “Keeper of the Words,” a book-lover who takes pleasure in each and every volume. She sings to them, cuddles them, treasures them. But when a bibliophile becomes a bibliomaniac, when collecting is really hoarding, there may be no words that can make things right.

Mike Dobbins, who leads the project, will stage the plays using local actors and minimal design elements like costumes, props and lights. This New Play Project is part of Heartland’s mission to develop new work and to maximize interaction with writers, critics, theater artists and general audience.

Staged readings will take place Friday, May 13 and Saturday, May 14, 2011 at 7:30 pm. The winning playwrights and finalists are also invited to a workshop and discussion on playwriting with final judge and visiting playwright Ben Viccellio on Thursday, May 12.

This project is funded by Paul and Sandra Harmon and the NPH Sponsors Circle:
Jay and Sue Edmondson
Myra and George Gordon
John and Pat Groves
Marc and Darlene Miller
Jim and Pam Raymond
Robert and Marilyn Sutherland

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

ATCA New Play Finalists Announced

The American Theatre Critics Association, also known as the ATCA, has announced six finalists for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award. This award recognizes the playwrights behind the best new plays premiering in professional productions outside New York City.

The ATCA started its New Play Award in 1977 as a way to honor new plays produced at regional theaters outside New York City, where most awards are centered. And that's why no play is eligible if it has gone on to a New York production within the award year. Since 2000, the award has been generously funded by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust.

The six finalists below were selected from 27 eligible scripts submitted by ATCA members. They were evaluated by a committee of 13 theater critics, led by chairman William F. Hirschman of the South Florida Theater Review. The committee includes members from Washington, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Florida, New Jersey, Virginia, New York and DC.

"Despite vanishing government support and faltering donations, America’s regional theaters have persevered and prevailed as this country’s preeminent crucible for vibrant and important new works," said Hirschman. "The recommended plays encompass a dizzyingly wide range of styles and themes, produced by a cadre of experienced and novice playwrights who are inarguable proof that theater remains a vital and relevant art form in the 21st century."

The top award ($25,000) and two finalist citations ($7,500 each), plus commemorative plaques, are presented each year at Actors Theatre of Louisville during the Humana Festival of New American Plays. This year's ceremony is scheduled for April 2. The Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award's total of $40,000 in prizes makes it the largest national new play award of its kind.

So here are the lucky finalists, as described by the ATCA press materials:

COMPULSION by Rinne Groff, is a painfully close-up look at the destructive nature of obsession. Loosely based on the life of Meyer Levin, the fictional tale tracks an American writer’s all-consuming crusade to have The Diary of Anne Frank printed in the United States and then to have his own theatrical script produced, a script he believes is being rejected because it focuses on Frank’s religion. The co-production premiered on February 4, 2010 at Yale Repertory Theatre and then September 16 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

DETROIT by Lisa D’Amour, bowed September 9 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. It depicts a classic suburban family who welcome a quirky couple who have moved into the long-empty house next door. During a series of backyard barbecues, the couples learn each other’s secrets in a serio-comic exposure of middle-class life.

THE GOOD COUNSELOR by Kathryn Grant, questions the definition of a good mother. It centers on an African-American lawyer defending a young white racist charged with murdering her three-week old baby. His own investigation forces him to re-examine his own mother’s choice to favor his development and to abandon his younger brother. The work premiered July 15 at Premiere Stages, based at Kean University in Union, New Jersey.

THE HISTORY OF INVULNERABILITY by David Bar Katz, uses the life of Jerry Siegel, the co-creator of Superman, to explore the roots of art and how it relates to the real world. It contends that the nebbishy Siegel evolved Superman as a fantasy to counteract his guilt and impotence over the horror of the Holocaust half a world away. It premiered April 3 at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.

NINE CIRCLES by Bill Cain, follows the harrowing descent into a very recognizable hell by a young American soldier accused of an atrocity in Iraq. His journey through the bureaucratic and social maze mirrors Dante’s vision of an arduous odyssey to find redemptive self-knowledge. The play premiered October 14 at Marin Theatre Company.

SPLINTERS by Emily Schwend, was first produced June 29 as part of the Cultural Development Corporation’s Source Festival in Washington, D.C. The drama portrays a teenager and her parents struggling in disparate dysfunctional ways to cope with the disappearance of a young daughter.

Since the inception of ATCA's New Play Award, honorees have included Lanford Wilson, Marsha Norman, August Wilson, Arthur Miller, Mac Wellman, Adrienne Kennedy, Donald Margulies, Lynn Nottage, Moises Kaufman and Craig Lucas. Last year’s honoree was Bill Cain for EQUIVOCATION. For a full list of 34 years of winners and runners-up, go to and click on Steinberg-ATCA under Awards.

The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust was created in 1986 by Harold Steinberg on behalf of himself and his late wife. Pursuing its primary mission to support the American theater, it has provided grants totaling millions of dollars for new productions of American plays and educational programs for those who may not ordinarily experience live theater.

ATCA was founded in 1974 and works to raise critical standards and public awareness of critics’ functions and responsibilities. The only national association of professional theater critics, with several hundred members working for newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations and websites, ATCA is part of the International Association of Theatre Critics, a UNESCO-affiliated organization that sponsors seminars and congresses worldwide.

ATCA also presents the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award, honoring emerging playwrights, and the Francesca Primus Prize, funded by the Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation, honoring outstanding contributions to the American theater by female artists who have not yet achieved national prominence. Annually it makes a recommendation for the Regional Theater Tony Award presented by the American Theatre Wing/Broadway League and votes on inductions into the Theater Hall of Fame.

For more information on ATCA, visit

Monday, March 7, 2011

Remembering the Triangle Shirtwaist Tragedy 100 Years Later

As the governor of Wisconsin tries to break the back of unions in his state, we are also witnessing the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, one of the events that spurred on the modern union movement.

On March 25, 1911, a fire began in a pile of scraps under a work table on the eighth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. There have been different theories as to what caused the fire -- a dropped cigarette or match, possibly a spark from an overheated sewing machine -- but fires in clothing factories were nothing new.

The eighth floor of this factory, located near New York City's Washington Square, was crowded with workers, mostly female, mostly immigrants, some of them only 15 or 16 years old, toiling in what were pretty awful conditions under the best of circumstances. And these were not the best of circumstances. There was no fire alarms or sprinklers. Flames made one stairwell impassable, while the doors on the other side were locked, supposedly to keep the workers from stealing anything. And when the fire trucks did arrive, their ladders and hoses were much too short to reach the eighth floor.

Trapped inside, workers tried to jump out the windows, off the roof and into the elevator shaft to escape being burned alive. As word of the fire spread, people gathered outside, watching in horror as these young girls jumped to their death. In the end, 146 women and men perished in one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history. The owners of the factory were subsequently tried and acquitted, but the American public got a good, hard look at the results of runaway capitalism, at what exactly should be allowed when it comes to workplace safety and child labor, and just how we ought to be treating those tired, poor, huddled masses we invite to our shores. It's easy to pretend that the have-nots don't exist or don't affect you and yours, until they are literally dropping from the sky.

So, as the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire dawns, PBS and HBO are both offering documentaries. PBS's American Experience take on the tragedy offered the employees' own words, taken from court transcripts and interviews to newspapers in the wake of the tragedy, and also looked at the union movement and how that informed the fire. "Triangle Fire" was broadcast a week or so ago in most places, but they are also streaming the program on their website here and offering the DVD for sale here. The cover of the DVD is pictured above.

"Triangle: Remembering the Fire," HBO's documentary, has a different focus, using interviews with descendants of the people who were there. Futon Critic notes that Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films and the film's executive producer, is the great-niece of Celia Gitlin, a 17-year-old Russian immigrant who perished in the fire. "Triangle: Remembering the Fire" starts March 21st on HBO.

Both the PBS and HBO websites linked above have lots of other useful information and links to set the scene and learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

I love history, but this particular moment is a tough one to take in. The pictures are difficult to look at, the names and ages of the dead are horrifying to read, and the idea of young lives lost so needlessly is impossible to digest. But we need to remember. Because God forbid we should be doomed to repeat it.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Almost Time for the 35th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays

More new play festivals keep popping up, but the Humana Festival at Actors Theater of Louisville is the granddaddy of them all, created in 1976 by former Actors Theatre producing director Jon Jory. Jory himself is widely believed to be the playwright behind the "Jane Martin" pseudonym. "Jane Martin" is the author of "Keely and Du," a Pulitzer Prize nominee, as well as "Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage," "Anton in Show Business" and "Talking With..."

Three Humana plays have won Pulitzer prizes: D. L. Coburn's "The Gin Game," Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart," and most recently, Donald Margulies' "Dinner With Friends. "Omnium-Gatherum," by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros and Theresa Rebeck, and "Becky Shaw" by Gina Gionfriddo were finalists, along with "Kelly and Du."

Other plays of note, like John Pielmeier's "Agnes of God," William Mastrosimone's "Extremities," John Patrick Shanley's "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea" and Richard Kalinoski's "Beast on the Moon," first found their footing at the Humana Festival.

And the list of playwrights included over the years is like a Who's Who of American Theatre. There's Marsha Norman, Lanford Wilson, Shirley Lauro, Lee Blessing, Kevin Kling, Jeffrey Sweet, Horton Foote, Richard Dresser, Arthur Kopit, Steven Dietz, David Henry Hwang, Suzan-Lori Parks, José Rivera, Lynn Nottage, Regina Taylor, Tina Landau, Romulus Linney, Tony Kushner, Craig Lucas, Neena Beber, Jeffrey Hatcher, Naomi Iizuka, Tina Howe, Stephen Belber, Charles L. Mee, Naomi Wallace, Sarah Ruhl, Kia Corthron, Rinne Groff and Adam Bock.

So what's on the schedule for this year's Humana Festival?

A DEVIL AT NOON by Anne Washburn. "Chet writes science fiction. His book is going well but his life has jumped the outline in this engrossing exploration of the addiction, power and danger of dwelling in the imagination." See a sneak peek here and an interview with the playwright here.

ELEMENO PEA by Molly Smith Metzler. "Worlds collide and sisters square off in this keenly-observed comedy about ambition, regret, and the choices that shape who we become." Click here for brief remarks from playwright Molly Smith Metzler.

EDITH CAN SHOOT THINGS AND HIT THEM by A. Rey Pamatmat. "Three kids are all but abandoned on a remote farm in Middle America—until Edith shoots something she really shouldn’t shoot, and the outside world comes barging in."

THE EDGE OF OUR BODIES by Adam Rapp. "Intimate and searingly honest, this play captures a young woman at the threshold of vulnerability and experience, achingly articulate about all she can’t know or control."

BOB by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. "This is a story. A story of a dream. A dream of greatness. The greatness of Bob."

MAPLE AND VINE by Jordan Harrison. "When Katha and Ryu join a community of 1950s reenactors, they are surprised by what their new neighbors — and they themselves — are willing to sacrifice for happiness." See an interview with the playwright here.

THE END by Dan Dietz, Jennifer Haley, Allison Moore, A. Rey Pamatmat and Marco Ramirez. "From forewarning to four horsemen, five wildly imaginative playwrights join forces with our twenty-two acting apprentices to explore the enduring promise of apocalypse — and what lies on the other side."

This year's ten-minute plays are "Chicago, Sudan," written and performed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, "Hygiene," by Gregory Hischak, and "Mr. Smitten," by Laura Eason.

There's no way of knowing which of these will capture the creative imaginations of producers or directors. But it's a pretty sure bet that something will.

If you'd like to trek down for a weekend in Louisville, you have several different options for tickets, including a New Play Getaway and two Industry Professional Weekends. For that information, click here. You can also browse around at the Actors Theatre website for more on the plays, the history of the Humana Festival, and check out their youtube channel for more interviews as Festival time nears. (Note: Registration for Industry Weekends packages has been extended to March 11.)

Where else will you see ten plays in three days, with the work of some of the best playwrights, directors, designers and actors working today? Nowhere, that's where!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Bits & Pieces

New Route Theatre has announced another show in its One Shot Deal Series. On March 9 at 7 pm at the Eaton Gallery, New Route will present "I Too Sing America: The Poets of the Harlem Renaissance," focusing on the poetry of Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson. "I Too Sing America" is co-directed by Don Shandrow and Phil Shaw and features performers Jennifer Rusk and Gregory Hicks, with a gospel ensemble under the direction of Georgia Brook.

Doors will open at 6:30 pm and admission is whatever you choose to donate.

The McLean County Museum of History continues its Lunch and Learn program on March 10 with "A perspective on the life of Irish Immigrants in 19th century Bloomington," presented by April Schultz, PhD, Associate Professor of History and Director of Women's Studies at IWU.

As always, this Lunch and Learn event is free and open to the public in the Governor Fifer Courtroom at the McLean County Museum of History. According to the museum, you are invited to "Relax and learn as this unique new collaboration brings you more interesting topics of discussion each second Thursday of the month from 12:10 to 12:40 pm at the McLean County Museum of History."

Remember to pack a lunch!

Illinois Voices Theatre is extending auditions for "The Affray; Lincoln's Last Murder Case," a collaboration between Jared Brown, former chair of the Department of Theatre at Illinois Wesleyan, and Robert Bray, R. Forest Colwell Professor of American Literature at IWU who has written extensively on Lincoln. Judy Brown, Artistic Director and founder of Illinois Voices Theatre, announced that the production needs several 20 to 30-year-old men for this original play scheduled for production mid-July, with rehearsals to begin mid-June.

This audition session will be held Tuesday, March 8th, between 6:30 and 8:45 pm, in the McLean County Museum of History in their second floor courtroom. Judy notes that this IS a paying gig. Contact Judy Brown by email -- -- if you have questions or need more information.


New York's Roundabout Theatre Company has announced that its current Broadway production of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," starring Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell, will be filmed live, in high definition, and then screened in June at movie theaters across the country.

No word yet on whether we will get this cool filmed version of the Broadway show here in Bloomington-Normal or anywhere near, but I have my fingers crossed. And while I'm talking about cinematic versions of live performances, I would like to exhort anybody reading this to bring Britain's "National Theatre Live" shows somewhere within 100 miles of me. "King Lear" with Derek Jacobi, "Frankenstein" with Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch switching roles between the monster and the scientist... This is amazingly good stuff, and we don't get it. So I'm begging here! Bring the National Theatre Live productions to Illinois!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Although we're probably all happy to turn the corner on February and what has been a brutal winter in Illinois, it still seems strange it's already time to preview what's happening in March. Lions, lambs, shamrocks, basketball, Shakespeare... March always offers a lot to choose from, so I hope you have room for some theater, music or movies on your schedule, too.

Please note that I am putting handy links throughout under the titles of the shows if you need more information or are interested in buying tickets, or you may also visit the links under "Stages and Screens" at left for most of these events.

First up, we have two hold-overs from February, with David Auburn's PROOF continuing through March 6 at Heartland Theatre and THE SOLID GOLD CADILLAC, by Howard Teichmann and George S. Kaufman playing through the 12th at Community Players.

The Parkland College production of the delightful fractured fairytale musical ONCE UPON A MATTRESS also continues through the 6th.

This Thursday, on the 3rd, Chicago playwright, actor and screenwriter David Barr III (shown at left) will be coming to Heartland Community College to discuss his life and work. This event, which is free and open to the public, will take place at 2 pm in Community Commons Building 1407. Barr is a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists, which means you can read more about him at their site. And there's a lot to read! He truly is a man of many talents and I'm sure this meet-and-greet session will be fascinating.

The University of Illinois Department of Theatre opens their "Bacchanal" version of Shakespeare's A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM on the 6th, with 7:30 pm performances Thursday through Saturday, and concluding with a 3 pm matinee performance on the 13th. Lisa Gaye Dixon directs this "riotous, drunken festivity," which sets Shakespeare's play in the Caribbean at Carnival time. The production promises "Soca music, sequins and sweat" as well as "strong adult content including full nudity." Definitely a different take on "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and definitely provocative.

Back in Normal, IWU continues its season with Ionesco's absurdist take on modern life called THE BALD SOPRANO in the E. Melba Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre. THE BALD SOPRANO is directed by Nancy Loitz and plays March 8-10 at 8 pm.

The Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts celebrates St. Patrick's Day a week early with a performance presented "club-style" in the BCPA ballroom by an Irish rock band called the YOUNG DUBLINERS on March 10 at 7:30 pm. The Young Dubliners have a "repertoire that spans freewheeling party raveups to traditional Irish pub tunes" and promise a lively show, complete with green beer.

For a completely different take on March, Urbana's Station Theater offers Harold Pinter's BETRAYAL, directed by Celebration Company Artistic Director Rick Orr, with performances from March 10 to 26. BETRAYAL is a backwards play, showing how infidelity and secrets break up a marriage and a friendship, from scenes well past the breakup all the way back to the first splinter of discord. Should be a good one.

I confess, I've never heard of a FUNNY RAISER, but the Challenger Learning Center at Heartland Community College is putting one on March 11t at 6 pm, just in case you'd like to find out how one raises the funny. It's a comedy fundraiser to benefit the Learning Center at Heartland Community College, with stand-up performances by amateur comedians and local celebs like Todd Wineburner, who'll try to earn your votes with their comedy stylings. Food, drink and silent auctions items will be available. Tickets are $40 and you can purchase them by visiting the link under the words FUNNY RAISER in the first line or calling 309-268-8158.

Back at the BCPA, "This American Life" host Ira Glass brings RADIO STORIES AND OTHER STORIES to Bloomington on March 12th at 7:30 pm. Glass will not only tell his "thought-provoking, heart-tugging and hilarious tales" to local audiences, but also host a special reception sponsored by WGLT and Specs Around Town that seems to feature an eyeglasses design competition. Or maybe art involving spectacles? For all the details on the contest and the reception, click here.

The Normal Theater screens some gems nearer the end of the month, with a mini-Hitchcock fest that suits my taste perfectly. First is STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, the 1951 suspense classic, with Farley Granger and Robert Walker as the men who meet by chance and decide to swap murders, playing March 24 and 25 at 7:30 pm, and then NORTH BY NORTHWEST on the 26th and 27th. NORTH BY NORTHWEST is the one where Cary Grant is mistaken for a spy and ends up hiding out in Abraham Lincoln's nostril on Mount Rushmore. It's also famous for the scene where Grant is dive-bombed by a crop dusting plane and one where he and Eva Marie Saint share a tiny train compartment as the train goes through a tunnel. I love this movie!

ISU doesn't start its March events till very late this month, with Shakespeare's sneaky cheaters comedy TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA in Westhoff Theatre March 30 through April 3 and Tom Stoppard's ROCK 'N' ROLL, about the transformative power of Western music in Czechoslovakia in the 60s, 70s and 80s, in the CPA from March 31 to April 9. For ticket information, click here or call 309-438-2535.

And at the very end of the month, the Normal Theater scores a major coup with THE KING'S SPEECH, the newly minted Oscar winner for Best Picture, Best Director (Tom Hooper) and Best Original Screenplay (David Seidler). Colin Firth also took Oscar honors for his performance as Great Britain's King George VI, who overcame a speech impediment to be able to lead his people during World War II. Other nominations honored Helena Bonham Carter as his queen and Geoffrey Rush as the king's unconventional speech therapist, as well as the film's art direction, costume design, editing, sound, score and cinematography.