Saturday, April 30, 2011

Get Down With the Bard in Summer Camp!

If there's a middle-schooler hanging around the house who a) likes to dress up and play games, b) likes English class, and c) thinks Shakespeare is kinda cool, that child needs to sign up for the special summer camp hosted by the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.

There's Shakespeare’s Apprentice Camp, offered in two one-week sessions, intended for "middle school students who are interested in an introduction to acting, theatre vocabulary, improvisation combat and the life and times of William Shakespeare. Students will research and perform a fun adaptation of a Shakespeare play at the end of the week for family and friends. Using Shakespeare’s language to tell a story will give the students the skills needed for the Advanced Shakespeare Camp."

Apprentice Camp is offered:

Session 1: June 13th – 17th, at the Western Avenue Community Center

Session 2: June 20th – 25th, on the Illinois State University campus

Students who have attended Shakespeare Camp before or have other experience that makes them think Apprentice Camp isn't intense enough may want to consider Shakespeare's Advanced Acting Camp instead. Advanced Acting Camp is offered as a two-week session on the ISU campus.

Advanced Acting Camp takes a deeper look at Shakespeare's language, as well as stage combat and more concentrated rehearsals, with an end goal of "a performance of scenes, monologues and soliloquy from Shakespeare’s plays." Advanced Camp also includes a question and answer class with guests who are working with the Illinois Shakespeare Festival this summer.

Shakespeare's Apprentice Camp is $200, while Shakespeare's Advanced Acting Camp is $350. For more information or to register, click here and scroll down the page till you see Summer Camps.

ISU's Clayton Joyner Wins Irene Ryan National Acting Scholarship

Clayton Joyner, a sophomore theater major at Illinois State University, recently won the prestigious Irene Ryan National Acting Scholarship at the annual Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in Washington D.C. Joyner was one of two students chosen as national champions and 2011 Irene Ryan Scholarship Award winners; the other was Daniel Molina from Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia.

Joyner was previously chosen as one of two actors to advance to the national competition from the Region III Festival, which took place in January. Region III consists of colleges in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Joyner's acting partner at the KCACTF National Festival was Zachary Powell, an MFA candidate in acting at ISU. Powell took home the The Kingsley Colton Award for Outstanding Partner, an award sponsored by Actors Equity Association.

Joyner appeared in ISU's production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" last fall as beautiful little Olive Ostrovsky, as well as "Rock 'n' Roll" earlier this month, while Powell played J. Pierrepont Finch in ISU's "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" in February.

You can read more about the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival here or visit their blog here.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Grinding Down "The Tooth of Crime" at ISU

So what exactly is "The Tooth of Crime," and why did Sam Shepard call his play -- which on the surface involves neither teeth nor any major examination of criminals or criminal law -- by that name?

Well... Who knows?

Shepard's play is weirdly poetic, with words that are either made up to sound like the pop-culture slang of some cowboys-and-rock-stars Futureworld or stretched beyond recognition. Everybody is sussing here and choogin' there, throwing barrages of Markers, Keepers, Matars, vectors, bits and choppers, down booga, throwdowns and slowdowns. Yabadaba Honk Man. Chingaflack!

You can call it gibberish, nonsense, or (as my husband put it) Madlibs, but there is poetry here. The question is whether you can get beyond the distancing effect of all that crazy talk to hear the poetry or find a story in "The Tooth of Crime."

The characters -- including Hoss, an aging rock star involved in The Game, wherein players kill each other off, or perhaps just amass points, under an elaborate system of rules and regulations, some of Hoss's hangers-on and enablers, and a Johnny Come Lately/New Kid in Town named Crow who aims to take Hoss down -- are definitely intriguing. And Shepard's main plot thread, the battle between the old king and a contender for his throne, is one that has carried drama since the dawn of man.

But then there are those words... It's not just that most of them don't make any sense in the order and velocity in which they're delivered. My main problem with the script is that it doesn't go anywhere for most of its two-and-a-half-hour playing time. Hoss angsts about being over the hill, various advisers tell him End Times are coming, he angsts some more, the New Kid arrives, they battle, not with guitars or swords or even that nifty combo guitar and crossbow we got a glimpse of, but with... Words. Cowboy words, bluesman words, proto-faux-cryptic-Shaman-Matrix words... It's kind of disappointing.

The mix of Old West mythology with a little dystopic fantasy and some rock 'n' roll is cool enough, and T Bone Burnett's music, added to the play in 1996 (along with a "Second Dance" subtitle) is moody and compelling, making a positive impact on the material. Even so, "The Tooth of Crime" is just too pretentious, too muddled, too full of its itself to work for me. Yes, the world has gotten complicated and old, yes, pop culture lingo is idiotic, and yes, rock 'n' roll has sold out. And fame is fleeting and there's always a newcomer nipping at the heels of even the biggest star.

But why this vehicle? Why are the songs where they are? Why is the climactic battle with words instead of rock 'n' roll? What throne are they fighting for? How could Hoss and the seven people on his side not be able to smack down one small interloper? Is it all a metaphor for something else? Or just an empty exercise?

Director Brandon Ray gives "The Tooth of Crime" a good go in ISU's Westhoff Theatre, with excellent commitment from his cast, especially when it comes to the physical side of the action, and sharp technical support. Eric Moslow's set design looks like the dungeon of a castle, which seems appropriate, but it comes with microphones and video, too, to showcase the musical side of this "Tooth." The work of Movement Choreographer Gaby Labotka, Fight Director Tony Pellegrino and Media Designer Matthew Harter adds dark energy and style.

Among the cast, Josh Innerst commands attention from the get-go as Hoss, the rock 'n' roll warrior nearing the end of the road. Innerst puts his voice and body on the line, although he's more handsome and healthy than you might expect from the latter-day Mick Jagger/Keith Richards/Iggy Pop mess of a man Hoss must surely be by this point in his career. As Crow, Matt Bausone similarly goes hard and strong when it comes to the choreography, and he definitely looks young enough to be the upstart kid in the proceedings, but he's fighting in shaggy manpris and flip-flops, with hand-made snake symbols marked on his torso and face. He's believable as a punky adolescent who might try to steal cigarettes from the Mini-Mart, but not as a deathly, other-worldly Crow.

Innerst and Bausone both sing, as do Michael Parrish, as somebody named Chaser who hangs out in Hoss's circle, and Jenna Liddle, playing grungy groupie girl Becky. They're all good singers, but they also sound too sweet and pretty for this set of people. There's no whiskey or gravel, no years of being "rode hard and put away wet" in this crowd. Liddle wears stiletto boots and a mini-dress with jangly, jingly metal on the front; she looks far more dangerous than Crow and makes you wonder why she didn't stab him with her boot or slash him with a piece of her dress and stop the plot cold.

The singers are backed by a group called the Hygienists, who arranged Burnett's music for the ISU production. They sound great, too, but I couldn't help wondering whether they were supposed to be Hoss's band, which would presume sort sort of camaraderie, or just some guys who waft in and out of the dungeon and handily provide music when the other characters want to sing. I'm coming down on the side of guys who waft in and out.

All in all, I'm not sure what to make of "The Tooth of Crime." It's tough material, to be sure, and a lot to ask of college actors and designers. It's also a lot to ask of audiences.

A play by Sam Shepard
Music and lyrics by T Bone Burnett

Westhoff Theatre at Illinois State University

Director: Brandon Ray
Scenic Designer: Eric Moslow
Costume Designer: Xiachen "Carol" Zhou
Lighting Designer: Cassie Mings
Sound Designer: Sarah B. Putts
Media Designer: Matthew Harter
Hair and Makeup Designer: Lisa Hempel
Dramaturg: Elisha Viccone
Fight Director: Tony Pellegrino
Movement Choreographer: Gaby Labotka
Stage Manager: Ariel Mozes

Cast: Josh Innerst, Jenna Liddle, Matt Hallahan, Matty Robinson, Michael Parrish, Johnny Oleksinski, Matt Bausone, Evan Henderson.

Music arranged and performed by the Hygienists: Karl L. Kieser, Chris Wiman, Zachariah Robert Oostema, Brian Feldkamp.

Remaining performances April 28, 29 and 30 at 7:30 pm and April 30 at 2 pm.

Box office information

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Read a Little "Snobs" to Get Ready for the Royal Wedding

If you were a fan of "Monarch of the Glen," you may remember Julian Fellowes as the actor who played aristocratic troublemaker Kilwillie. If you were a fan of the movie "Gosford Park," you may recall Fellowes taking home an Oscar for his screenplay.

And if you fell in love with "Downton Abbey," the smash TV series that ended its first season on PBS a few months ago, then you should certainly recognize Baron Fellowes of West Stafford as the man behind all that delicious drama.

Luckily for those suffering "Downton Abbey" withdrawal, Julian Fellowes is also a novelist. The wit, the sly humor, the intimate knowledge of class and money and position and the never-ending drama inherent in haves and have-nots having a go at each other... It's all there in "Gosford Park," in "Downton Abbey," and also in "Snobs," his 2004 novel.

"Snobs" is a look at contemporary British society, as Fellowes' narrator stand-in, an actor who happens to have gone to the right sort of schools and grown up with the right sort of people, befriends a beautiful young woman who aspires to escape the middle class. Our narrator introduces lovely Edith Lavery to an earl, Charles Broughton, who happens to be an unexciting but ever-so-eligible bachelor, and then watches as Edith snares the Earl, his family doesn't react well to the interloper, she meets a much more dashing man, she strays, society treats her like dirt, and then our social-climber Edith has to decide whether it's better to get good sex on the wrong side of town or to be rich, pampered and terribly bored with the Lord of the Manor.

It's not the specific plot points that make "Snobs" so entertaining, but the inside look at the British class system. We may think, because we know a bit about the Donald Trumps and Paris Hiltons on our side of the pond, or because we've seen "The Philadelphia Story" a million times, that we understand the the spectacle of the "privileged class enjoying its privileges." Au contraire!

For one thing, England's privileged class is very different from ours. Landed gentry, titles, hounds, horses, clubs, generations of learning how to make others feel small... Donald Trump has a lot to learn. Fellowes knows this milieu and portrays it with affection as well as some measure of cynicism, and it's hard not to try to figure out if he's really talking about somebody specific in his tale of an unsophisticated girl marrying a man who is so far above her station.

Whoever he's dishing on, whatever point he was trying to make, Fellowes is definitely funny in "Snobs," and the book can fill a few hours while you wait for more "Downton Abbey." Or wait for the newest Royal Wedding, wherein Kate the Commoner will exchange vows with Prince William the Charming. Kate seems a lot smarter and less self-destructive than fictional Edith, and I hope Prince William has more on the ball than deadly dull Charles Broughton in the book. Let's hope so!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

"Lucky Nurse" Sings About Life, First Ladies and Loneliness at IWU

Michael John LaChiusa is one of a new generation of composers in American musical theater, a generation that seems to be trying to push the boundaries of what kind of music, what kind of songs, what kind of stories belong in a musical. LaChiusa is, to my ear, the most experimental and least accessible of that group, but that seems to be the way he likes it. In fact, he's on record taking issue with the bright, pop stylings of other, more popular Broadway composers, decrying their lack of "risk, derring-do or innovation."

LaChiusa is also the one of that group most inclined to delve into the messiness, griminess and despair of modern life. There's plenty of darkness there, with relentless, discordant, fragmented music and sharp, pointy lyrics that jab us repeatedly with his bleak world view.

In the short musical plays presented as a showcase for IWU's spring 2011 Music Theatre Workshop class under the direction of Scott Susong, the themes of work and its worth, life and its worth, and how we keep trying to feel something in this world, come up again and again. Susong has chosen the pieces included in the "Four Short Operas" collection -- "Break," "Agnes," "Eulogy for Mister Hamm" and "Lucky Nurse" -- all dealing with down-and-out denizens of New York City leading hopeless, unhappy lives in different decades of the 20th century, as well as "Over Texas" and "Eleanor Sleeps Here" from LaChiusa's "First Lady Suite," and two brief selections involving Medieval Japan from "See What I Wanna See."

This is difficult music to perform and to communicate, and all of the students involved have clearly dug in and worked hard to pull it off.

For me, the two "First Lady" pieces emerged as the strongest in this program, as we see how women who work for Jacqueline Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt struggle with the lives they lead, the menial work they do, and the things they've given up to be where they are. It helps that these are the most approachable stories, too, since we all know a little bit about presidential wives coming in.

In "Over Texas," Caitlin Borek was sympathetic and sweet as Jackie's assistant, worrying about her cat and suffering bad dreams about what will happen when they land, Abby Root was capable and strong as Evelyn Lincoln, JFK's secretary, Kristen Evensen was tragic and beautiful wearing Jackie's trademark pink suit and pillbox hat and living one moment over and over, and Laura Martino provided comic relief floating through as Lady Bird Johnson.

"Eleanor Sleeps Here" offered the most accessible, most melodic music, performed very nicely by Melina Rey, who played "Hick," Mrs. Roosevelt's right-hand woman. In Rey's hands, Hick became the most fully-rounded, most interesting character of the evening, whether she was chafing at the lack of attention she got or supposedly smoking a cigar while perched on the wing of an airplane flying over Washington DC. Kristen Evensen did a 180 from her previous role as Jackie Kennedy by taking on Amelia Earhart in this one, while Erika Lecaj contributed fine work as Eleanor herself.

I also found "Lucky Nurse" strangely compelling, although I don't pretend to have understood what it added up to. But Brooke Trantor was intriguing as the titular nurse, thinking through whether to put her dog down as she arrives at the hospital where she works, Nicholas Reinhart and Marlee Turim went all-out as the boy and girl involved in a sleazy hook-up, and Andrew Temkin hinted at something scary and dark as the cabbie who completes a rainy late-night circle involving an umbrella and an abandoned baby.

I also didn't really get "Eulogy for Mister Hamm," where three people who live in a low-rent apartment building in New York in the 70s wait for the one bathroom on their floor and talk about whether their super is dead, but I could still appreciate the performances of Chase Miller as a going-nowhere guy, Laura Martino as an odd woman clutching a boot and obsessing about death, and Abby Root, looking like a doppelganger for Jodie Foster in "Taxi Driver," as a sad young woman with related kidney and boyfriend issues.

Marcia K. McDonald's costume design made all of the decades represented pop perfectly, with excellent use of bad old fashion and bad old eyeglasses, while director Susong's scenic design added pop art panels and doors to add mood and texture to the black box and intimate surroundings of the E. Melba Johnson Kirkpatrick Lab Theatre at Wesleyan.

I don't think LaChiusa's stripped-down music and characters will ever be my favorites, although I'm willing to keep listening, hoping there's more like "Eleanor Sleeps Here" in his body of work.

Words and music by Michael John LaChiusa

The E. Melba Johnson Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre
Illinois Wesleyan University

Director: Scott Susong
Musical Director: Gloria Cardon-Smith
Additional Staging: Chloe Whiting Stevenson and Sheri Marley
Scenic Designer: Scott Susong
Costume Designer: Marcia K. McDonald
Lighting Designer: Armie Thompson
Stage Manager: Nicholas Reinhart
Percussion: Jacob Bisaillon
Piano: Gloria Cardoni-Smith

Cast: Caitlin Borek, Blake Brauer, Josh Conrad, Ian Coulter-Buford, Kristen Evensen, Vince Gargaro, Erika Lecaj, Laura Martino, Chase Miller, Roz Prickel, Nicholas Reinhart, Melina Rey, Abby Root, Peter Studlo, Andrew Temkin, Brooke Trantor, Julie Tucker, Marlee Turim and Laura Williams.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday, April 22, 2011

Almost Time for Ebertfest

Roger Ebert will soon be back in Champaign, the place where it all began for him and his film-reviewing self, for his annual film festival. Ebert himself selects the movies; they're all films he likes and thinks deserve another screening or two. Ebertfest happens at the historic Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign, beginning Wednesday, April 27, with the 2010 restored version of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" and ending Sunday, May 1, with "Louder Than a Bomb," a documentary about a 2008 poetry slam in Chicago, directed by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel, who happens to be the nephew of Ebert's old partner-in-criticism, Gene Siskel.

In between, you'll find everything from Vittorio De Sica's 1952 neorealist classic "Umberto D" to last year's "Tiny Furniture," about a modern young woman drifting through post-college life, with director Lena Durham starring as that young woman. There are lots of different choices if you want to look over the whole schedule.

The Ebertfest website tells us that they have long since sold out all the all-Festival passes, but you can still buy tickets to individual films at the Virginia Theatre box office. Directions, guidelines and ticket info are located here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Auditions for Heartland's "Back Porch" Plays Next Monday and Tuesday

Heartland Theatre Company will hold auditions for their annual 10-Minute Play Festival on April 25 and 26 at the theater, One Normal Plaza in Normal. This year's theme is "The Back Porch," and all of the winning plays are set on a back porch. That's Monday, April 25, from 7 to 8:30 pm, and Tuesday, April 26, from 5:45 to 8:30 pm.

The winning plays and their casting requirements are:

BEDTIME STORY, by Christopher Lockheardt, Andover MA
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess, and a brave woodcutter's son who knew just the right story to tell to help her sleep. Or maybe they're just a boy and a girl, here and now, and Happily Ever After is only a fairytale. 1 male and 1 female, 20s

COLORED ENTRANCE AROUND BACK, by Teesue H. Fields, Floyd Knobs IN
It's 1955, and Beatrice needs a job. She's more than qualified to be Doris's housekeeper, but there's a problem. It's 1955. Beatrice is black. Doris is white. And Doris isn't at all sure she can tolerate a black woman in her home. 2 females, 1 20-30, the other 40-something

CRICKETS, by Bruce Boeck, Normal IL
Relaxing after their daughter's wedding, Emily is blowing bubbles while Richard complains. The cost, the excess, the new son-in-law who inseminates cows for a living… But what's really at the heart of his post-wedding blues? 1 male and 1 female, 45-55

DON'T FORGET TO PLAY MY NUMBERS, by Joe Strupek, Bloomington IL
When it comes to fathers and sons, there may be some big, important words of wisdom to pass on. Or there may be years of small conversations – moments on a fishing boat, riding in a car, sitting on a back porch – that speak volumes. 2 males, 1 50+ and 1 25+, and 1 female, 25+

ELEANOR'S PASSING, by John Patrick Bray, Riverhead NY
Now that Moe's wife Eleanor has passed away, his old friends Gus and Tall Glass stop by to cheer him up. Share a beer. Help him out with his house. And his garden. Move in. With a dog. Friends gotta stick together, y'know? 3 males, 50+

HOW TO WEED YOUR GARDEN, by Jerry McGee, Brooklyn NY
It's Olivia's 68th birthday, but she doesn't feel like celebrating. Not with her "friend" Diana moving in on her husband, stealing her special cake recipe, and hanging around like a really stinky weed in this garden. 3 females, 50+

TOO MANY AIR CONDITIONERS, by Thomas Mollica, Milwaukee WI
Grandma knows what the problem is these days. Used to be you sat on the porch to catch a breeze and watched every coming and going. But now… Now Grandma's memories of the Old Days – before air conditioners – are all she has. 3 females, 1 50+, 1 20s, 1 any age

WHEN SHE DANCED, by Andrew Bailes, Gainesville FL
Bob will never forget the day he met his wife at a Neil Young concert. He drank too much, tried out a pick-up line for the first time ever, got in a fight right in front of Neil Young… And met a woman who changed his life forever when she danced. 2 males, 1 45+, 1 under 20

For more information, visit Heartland's audition page here or email:

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Karam's "Speech and Debate" Goes Group Interpy at ISU

The production of Stephen Karam's "Speech and Debate" I saw last weekend was my first show in the classroom-style theater in the Centennial West building at ISU. I've seen listings before and wondered what these stripped-down shows could possibly be like, but "Speech and Debate" was the first one that actually got me over to CW 207 to see what was what.

So what was what? In this case, "Speech and Debate" is a script I already knew a bit, since I saw it at Urbana's Station Theatre, in a nifty production directed by Karen Vaccaro several years ago. It's a clever script, using forensics competition events, like Original Oratory and Lincoln-Douglas Debate, as a framework for the interactions among three high school students struggling to put together a speech and debate club. These kids are not unlike the Gleeks on "Glee" or the spellers in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," since they all want to be somebody and find somebody, even as they feel like outsiders.

There's Diwata, who sits at home making vlogs, accompanied by a Casio keyboard, to share with the internet her angst and unhappiness over not getting cast in the school musical; Howie, who is proud that he's been out since he was ten, but maybe should stay away from chatrooms; and serious Solomon, who fancies himself a reporter, but keeps getting shut down from talking about the things he thinks are most important.

Karam's script is funny (especially when Diwata performs bits of the vanity project she's writing, a musical version of "The Crucible") and irreverent (with kids who are both more mature and way less mature than we might hope). And before it's done, "Speech and Debate" has looked at kids and how they deal with abortion, censorship, hypocrisy, sex, homosexuality, friendship, making mistakes, and the frustration of being completely misunderstood by even well-meaning adults.

CW 207 is a black box, or actually more of a black shoebox, since it's short but deep, and director Christopher Dea used the space nicely, with projections and a white board to bring in the "Speech and Debate" framework. Dea gave each of his actors an individual playing space, moving a basic black table and some chairs around when necessary to go from a classroom to a restaurant and vice versa.

Brody Murray made Howie vulnerable and believable, and Patrick Riley channeled his inner nerd to give Solomon a self-righteousness and awkward bravado that really defined him. As the third member of this little triumvirate, Taylor Wisham showed off a mischievous smile and fresh moves, making Diwata funny and sad as well as her own person.

CW 207 was a bit stuffy and a lot crowded, but I will definitely try to get back to see more of ISU's black shoebox productions. This is more likely the sort of theater ISU grads will be making when they leave -- basements, old churches, a room in a community center -- so it's good practice, to see what kind of story you can tell when you don't have all the technical wizardry to rely on. And that works just fine for a story like "Speech and Debate."

By Stephen Karam

Centennial West 207 at Illinois State University

Director: Christopher Dea
Lighting Designer: Michelle Benda

Costume Designer: Tyler Wilson
Stage Manager: Thomas Moster
Master Electrician: Matt Boehm
Light Board Operator: Matt Boehm
Poster/T-shirt Designer: Jesus Estela

Cast: Brody Murray, Patrick Riley, Taylor Wisham and Deirdre McNulty.

Running time: 1:45, played without intermission

April 14-17, 2011

Friday, April 15, 2011

"The End of the Tour" Starts Strong at Heartland

Nancy Nickerson, Cristen Susong, Ann White, Clark Abraham and
George Freeman in Heartland Theatre's "The End of the Tour"

Joel Drake Johnson’s “The End of the Tour” is, at its heart, about family. Not necessarily biological families, but the connections and relationships we build to make us feel safe, even when biology lets us down.

On stage at Heartland Theatre, "The End of the Tour" is at turns darkly funny, explosive and sad, in the way that real families can be. It’s an unflinching look at how the people we love can wound us, whether they mean to or not, and how hard it can be to move past the wounds. Director Sandi Zielinski does an excellent job putting the fun in the extended Morris family’s dysfunction in the early part of the play, when Johnson’s script is at its most humorous, lulling us into a false sense of security about just how messy things are going to get.

What is so good about "The End of the Tour" (and what Zielinski and her cast do such good work with) is the rhythm of the dialogue, the way characters repeat themselves and circle back around to poke the same sore spots. It sounds so natural and so theatrical at the same time, pulling you in and stringing you along until Johnson sets off his explosions and his characters begin to reveal exactly what baggage they’re carrying later in the play.

Zielinski moves her actors in circles, too, sort of winding around each other, close enough to touch if they reached out, but not really even seeing each other even though they’re in intersecting arcs. The staging underlines what’s going on here, with Mae Morris and her children, Jan, the eternal caregiver, and Andrew, her estranged son who never quite escaped, warily circling each other, unwilling to open themselves up to more hurt.

Johnson’s script relies heavily on two-actor scenes, and Zielinski’s cast shows good chemistry and timing in those duos, with Nancy Nickerson and Cristen Susong offering fully-drawn versions of Mae and Jan and the conflict they’ve been chewing on for a good, long time; Jake Olbert and John D. Poling sweet and funny as Andrew and his boyfriend, who doesn’t really understand the deep water he’s swimming in once they get back to Andrew’s hometown of Dixon, Illinois; and Clark Abraham and George Freeman, both heartbreaking and hilarious as Jan’s unhappy husband and his good ol’ boy best friend, dealing with loss and abandonment as best they can. Ann White doesn’t get a whole lot to say as Norma, a silent nursing-home resident who wafts in and out of Mae’s and Jan’s orbit, but she definitely makes an impression.

Julie Mack’s lighting design is also aggressive and intriguing, spotlighting all this family’s foibles, while Judith Rivera’s costume design tells us all we need to know about brassy Mae and who she is. Michael Pullin’s shadowy scenic design provides an excellent backdrop, all murky and sparkly at the same time, not so different from Joel Drake Johnson’s dialogue.

"The End of the Tour" continues at Heartland Theatre through May 1. For reservations or more information, visit the Heartland Theatre Company website here.

By Joel Drake Johnson

Heartland Theatre Company

Director: Sandi Zielinski
Assistant Director: Kathleen Weir
Scenic Designer: Michael Pullin
Costume Designer: Judith Rivera
Lighting Designer: Julie Mack
Sound Designer: James Wagoner
Stage Manager: Andrew Blevins

Cast: Clark Abraham, George Freeman, Nancy Nickerson, Jake Olbert, John D. Poling, Cristen Susong, Ann White.

Remaining Performances: April 15-16, 21-23, 28-30 at 7:30 pm; April 17 and May 1 at 2 pm

Running time: 1:35, played without intermission

Box office: For reservations, email or call 309-452-8709. For box office information, click here.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Luminous "Light in the Piazza" Shines at the Station

Every few years, somebody bemoans the death of the American musical. And then something new and different comes along, something like "The Light in the Piazza," and it seems the musical is healthier and more creative than ever.

It's Adam Guettel's score that sets "The Light in the Piazza" apart. It's not the fizzy pop of "The Producers" or "Spamalot," or the angsty pop-rock of "Spring Awakening." Instead, Guettel wrote music that sounds more classical, more operatic, while at the same time hugely romantic and melodically unexpected. His lyrics are unexpected, too, as his characters don't necessarily say all that they're feeling, but sing in fragments. And sing in Italian!

Guettel's music and lyrics are perfect for this story, where communication with words is often difficult for its characters, but somehow, they find a way to get across what's in their hearts. There's a language barrier because the plot involves a very American mother and her curiously naive daughter who take a trip to Italy in 1953. The mother, Margaret, wants to revisit the churches, the paintings and the statues she saw years ago, when she was first married. But her daughter, lovely, sweet Clara, is looking for something else. She wants... Something. Something she can't quite touch in "this land of naked marble boys."

At Lincoln Center in 2005, in a production that won six Tony Awards, Clara's hat blows away in a windy piazza, and a handsome young Italian man leaps and miraculously catches it, also catching Clara's heart. Urbana's Station Theater does not have the space for hats to fly around, so director Michael John Foster and scenic designer Rachel Witt-Callahan have transformed the hat into an umbrella that recurs as a motif throughout the play. It's not as magical, to be sure, but it's very clever and it works quite well.

Witt-Callahan's set is lovely all around, transforming the Station's black box into a lush Italian mural, with several artfully placed café tables around the edge of the playing space, and minor set pieces that get whisked on and off to create a dining room or a hotel room. Witt-Callahan also did the lighting design, which contributes to the romantic mood. All in all, her contributions create the right backdrop and keep the action flowing, no small feat.

Director Foster has double-cast some of the major roles, so you may not see the actors who performed on opening night, but let's hope the second cast is equally good. I saw Hannah Kramer as Margaret and Brenna Pfeifer as Clara, and they were both wonderful, with full, expressive voices and excellent acting choices. Pfeifer is especially good at making Clara seem young and impetuous, but also appealing. You want her to get the boy she wants, even when that seems impossible.

Corbin Dixon is the one and only Fabrizio, the boy, a role originated on Broadway by Matthew Morrison, of "Glee" fame. Dixon has a terrific voice, too, and he shows a knack for making it clear what Fabrizio is saying even when it's in Italian.

I also enjoyed David Barkley and Jodi L. Prosser as Fabrizio's understanding parents, and Doug Balkin and Stevie Schein as his shallow brother and unhappy sister-in-law. Schein gets some real barn-burners in terms of songs, and she definitely sets them on fire.

There are stories that audiences walked out at intermission of the Lincoln Center production because they didn't understand the Italian or didn’t get the story or wanted more accessible, hummable music. After seeing the Celebration Company production, I find that hard to believe. The audience seemed to be hanging on every song and every plot turn, eager to find out what would happen next, to discover whether Clara and Fabrizio have a future, whether Margaret will see her own "light" in the piazza, whether either of them can do what it takes to be happy.

This "Light in the Piazza" is a lovely show and a magical moment for the Station Theater.

Music and lyrics by Adam Guettel and book by Craig Lucas

The Station Theatre, 223 N. Broadway Ave., Urbana

Director: Michael John Foster
Scenic Designer: Rachel Witt-Callahan
Musical Director: Dolly Jy-Yu Hsu
Arranger and Assistant Musical Director: Alex Zelck Smith
Costume Designer: Malia Andrus
Sound Designer: Kevin Bourassa
Lighting Designer: Rachel Witt-Callahan
Stage Manager: Yen Vi Ho

Cast: Doug Balkin, David Barkley, Zach Benner, Jessica Coburn, Cara Day, Corbin Dixon, Dawn Harris, Lyle Jackson, Hannah Kramer, Gabe Llano, Lincoln Machula, Nancy Nichols, Brenna Pfeifer, Jodi L. Prosser, Stevie Schein, Conrad Scholer, Stephanie Swearingen.

Musicians: Dolly Hsu (Conductor), Alex Smith, Beth Youngblood, Rachel King, Katie Heinricher, Christina Antosiak, Katherine Floes, Tommy Howie, David Zych.

Running time: 2:05, including one 15-minute intermission

Remaining performances: Wednesdays through Sundays, April 13-30, at 8 pm.

Reservations: 217-384-4000

Note: This review originally ran in the Champaign News-Gazette on April 10, 2011.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

It's Only "Rock n' Roll" (But I Like It)

Tom Stoppard is notorious for juggling language, ideas, history, philosophy, science and everything else you can imagine, up to and including physics, gardening, existentialism, intellectualism, revolution, astronauts, journalism, poetry, sexuality, passion, love, Dada, Oscar Wilde and even Cleopatra, into the heady, brilliant mix that is his plays.

"Rock 'n' Roll," his look at the role of rock music as it fuels dissent, change and freedom over three decades in Czechoslovakia and England, is just as intelligent, just as passionate, as any of his plays, even as it feels more personal, coming from a Czech émigré like Stoppard.

In "Rock 'n' Roll," we find Jan, an idealistic grad student at Cambridge, returning to Czechoslovakia with a suitcase full of vinyl LPs in the wake of Soviet tanks rolling into Prague in 1968 to quash the budding reform movement. Jan's mentor at Cambridge has been Max, a professor who is very secure in his belief in Communism and Socialism as a cure for the world's economic ills. Max is married to Eleanor, an acerbic Classics professor fighting breast cancer, and they have a 16-year-old daughter, a free spirited hippie chick called Esmé.

Stoppard rolls with Jan, back in Prague, trying to hold onto his records and his political ideas, and Max, still at Cambridge, as Eleanor's health declines, their daughter marries and has a child of her own, and students, friends and villainous authority figures come and go, arguing ideas and philosophies with Max and pushing Jan around. We end up in 1990, when the Soviet occupation finally comes to a close and the Rolling Stones blow the doors off with a concert in Prague.

Under the direction of grad student James Wagoner, "Rock 'n' Roll" depended heavily on projections and media, filling ISU's Center for the Performing Arts with smoke, music, images and color. Wagoner balanced terrific acting performances with fine technical support, keeping "Rock 'n' Roll" moving smoothly. That's no small feat for a lengthy show with more characters and themes than you can shake a stick (or a billy club) at.

Wagoner's cast members were given the weighty task of a) playing characters who age 20 years over the course of the play, or b) playing more than one character. Most impressive was Brynne Barnard, who fell into the latter category, taking on whip-smart, unflinching Eleanor in the 60s and 70s, and then her very different daughter, fragile, slightly loopy Esmé from 1987 to 1990. Barnard was given the gift of a devastating speech about Eleanor's failing body -- it's really a fabulous piece of writing -- and she did it proud.

Tommy Malouf made Jan, who seems to be the Stoppard stand-in, youthful and appealing, although the unfortunate wigs he was assigned to change up his look over the decades undermined his performance somewhat, while Mitchell Conti did a bang-up job with imperious Max, who is given the short stick when it comes to the arguments he stands for and how history treated his side of the battle.

I also enjoyed Claire Small, fun and flighty as the 60s version of Esmé and then just as eccentric as Esmé's brilliant daughter Alice later on; Anthony Ballweg in three roles, playing a mad Pan figure, a brutal member of the secret police and then a goofy Cambridge student who likes to argue politics; Jeb Burris as Ferdinand, a friend and compatriot of Jan's, and Raquel Medina as Lenka, a Classics student moving in on Max.

Steven P. House's scenic design really ruled the roost, with dramatic red flats slipping up and down on an all-red playing space and some bright silver scaffolding with smoke and strobe lights to herald the arrival of the Stones. The projections from Joe Payne and Marly Wooster were very successful and evocative, making the show feel rock 'n' roll before it even started.

Rock 'n' Roll
By Tom Stoppard

ISU Center for the Performing Arts

Director: James Wagoner
Scenic Designer: Steven P. House
Costume Designer: kClare Kemock
Lighting Designer: J.M. Montecalvo
Sound Designer: Aaron Paolucci
Media Coordinators: Joe Payne, Marly Wooster
Hair and Makeup Designer: Lauren Roark
Voice and Dialect Directors: Connie de Veer, Lori Adams
Dramaturg: Alan Sikes
Movement Coach: Kate Cook
Stage Manager: Michael McLinden

Cast: Anthony Ballweg, Brynne Barnard, Jeb Burris, Mitchell Conti, Patrick Cooper, Claire Ford, Frank Huber, Clayton Joyner, Tommy Malouf, Raquel Medina and Claire Small.

Running time: 3:35 hours, including one 15-minute intermission

Note: I missed opening night of "Rock 'n' Roll" due to illness, so I ended up attending its last performance on April 9th. This review is based on that performance.

Monday, April 11, 2011

David Foster Wallace's Favorite Bookstore Holds Readings to Celebrate "The Pale King"

Babbitt's Books, the bookstore David Foster Wallace once chose as his favorite in all the world of bookstores, will offer readings from THE PALE KING, Wallace's unfinished novel and last substantial work, on Friday, April 15th, at 7:30 pm. No word whether the April 15th date (Tax Day, i.e.) was purposely chosen to release this book about an Internal Revenue Service agent in Peoria, Illinois, but I'm guessing it was.

To celebrate the release of THE PALE KING, Sarah Lindenbaum, Babbitt's manager, has found readers among staff, fans and friends, to present selections from THE PALE KING as well as older works.

Babbitt's Books will also provide new copies of THE PALE KING and INFINITE JEST for sale. Refreshments will be provided.

If you are interested in reading, Sarah may be willing to add you to her list. She asks that you email if you'd like to volunteer. And anybody who is added to the list should present him or herself at 7 pm so Sarah can get her ducks -- or readers -- in a row.

There is more info about this event at Babbitt's here on a Facebook page where you can also volunteer to participate, and more details about the book itself at Babbitt's blog here, including biographical information about David Foster Wallace and handy links to reviews. This promises to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to commune and remember with other fans and former students in Wallace's hometown bookstore. Or as Sarah put it on her blog, "At this reading, we will remember him as a patron, a person and most of all as a friend."

Looking for "Proof" at IWU's Phoenix Theatre

Yes, I know there's a lot happening this week. If you want to hit "Closer Than Ever" at Eureka College tomorrow, Irene Taylor's "Suppos'd to" at Eaton Gallery on Wednesday, opening night of "The End of the Tour" at Heartland Theatre on Thursday, the reading to commemorate the release of David Foster Wallace's "The Pale King" at Babbitt's Books on Friday, the third night of Stephen Karam's "Speech and Debate" at ISU's CW 207 on Saturday, and the closing performance of David Auburn's "Proof," directed by and starring Rhys Lovell, on Sunday, you could experience six straight nights of the arts. Cool, huh?

Whichever night you go -- Friday the 15th, Saturday the 16th or Sunday the 17th, with all three performances at 7:30 pm -- this particular "Proof" is a good bet. It's an audience-pleaser of a play, with a Tony Award for Best Play and even a Pulitzer Prize to its credit, and Lovell is consistently excellent as an actor, leading me to believe he'll know what to do with the role of the brilliant mathematician who is very unsure of his mental stability. He'll be backed up by Britta Whittenberg, Marlee Turim and Michael Holding as his character's daughters and a possible love interest of one of them. If you're like me, the terrific recent production of "Proof" at Heartland Theatre is still fresh in your mind, which gives you the opportunity to compare, contrast and really dig into the critical art of theater-going.

The IWU Phoenix production of "Proof" is free, staged outside in the back yard of the IWU Theatre Annex, which means it's up to you to dress appropriately for alfresco conditions and seating is limited. For more information, click here.

Two April Shows from New Route Theatre

The New Route Theatre, one of the companies under the umbrella of the Illinois Theatre Consortium, is producing two shows in April. They're both part of New Route's "One Shot Deal" series, even though the second one is actually an encore presentation of a "One Shot Deal," technically giving it a second shot.

First up, "Suppos'd to," written and performed by Irene Taylor, plays at Bloomington's Eaton Gallery, 411 N. Center Street, this Wednesday, April 13, at 7 pm. "Suppos'd to" is directed by New Route Artistic Director Don Shandrow, and it's billed as "an entertaining and poignant look at loss, grief, guilt, and Salem Menthol Lights." A panel discussion will follow Taylor's performance.

There's no set price for admission, so you can donate whatever feels right to you. And the Eaton Gallery has limited seating, so you are advised to email to reserve a seat.

The second show, offered on Tuesday, April 19, at 7 pm, is an encore presentation of "I, Too, Sing America -- The Poets of the Harlem Renaissance," created by Gregory Hicks. "I, Too, Sing America" features Hicks and Jennifer Rusk performing the poetry of Harlem Renaissance luminaries like Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson, backed up by a a Gospel ensemble. The show is co-directed by Don Shandrow and Phil Shaw.

It, too, is offered on a donation-only basis as part of New Route Theatre’s One Shot Deal Series. Doors will open at 6:30 pm for a 7 o'clock performance, and this one takes place at Illinois Wesleyan University's Evelyn Chapel at 1301 North Park Street in Bloomington.

Both shows are part of New Route's mission to showcase new works that "explore the nature of the human spirit in the context of ethical, political, and social choices."

For more information about New Route Theatre, you can visit their Facebook page here.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Humana Festival '11, Pt. 4: "Edith" Isn't the Only One Who Can Shoot Things and Hit Them

A. Rey Pamatmat's "Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them" has only three characters: Twelve-year-old Edith, her sixteen-year-old brother Kenny, and Benji, a boy from school that Kenny is beginning to explore a relationship with. But the echoes of the people not there are huge. As this look at latch-key children unspools, we keep wondering where Edith's and Kenny's parents are, what's the deal with Dad's new girlfriend, the one he spends all his time with, and what kind of mother would turn on adorable Benji just because he's gay. These people are supposed to be adults. They're supposed to be in charge so the kids don't have to. But when push comes to shove, they're just not there.

That's why the play feels so real and so emotionally involving, because all three children are sweet and funny in individual ways, they're trying so hard, and they're also incredibly vulnerable. It's scary that they are so much alone, so much responsible for themselves in ways they shouldn't have to be. I was ready to jump in and volunteer to adopt all three, and I knew full well they were fictional.

Plus, of course, that title hangs over the play like a threat, building the tension to a bang-up Act I curtain. Yes, Edith can and does shoot things and hit them. And so does A. Rey Pamatmat. By giving us these three terrific kids and then setting them adrift, moving the story and the characters in unexpected and compelling ways, Pamatmat hits his dramatic target right in the heart. I found myself moved by the story he told and bereft that I don't get to find out what happens in the future. Does Dad ever see the terrible error of his ways and come in from the cold? Do Kenny and Edith get to stay together now that more people know they have no parental control on that remote farm? Can they at least move off the damn farm? And will Kenny and Benji grow up and find other lovers once they move past this heady case of first love?

I saw "Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them" a week ago, and I'm still not over it. That, to me, is the mark of the best plays, and the best productions of those plays, if I'm still wallowing in the emotional experience, still feeling wounded and connected, days and weeks after I left it behind. A lot of that is due to May Andrales's sensitive, fine-tuned direction of the Humana production, but also to the terrific performances of Teresa Avia Lim as Edith, John Norman Schneider as Kenny, and Cory Michael Smith as Benji. It's no mean feat for adult actors to make teen (and pre-teen) characters come alive this way. I'm sure all three actors are at least in their twenties, and yet, I still want to adopt them.

It's hard to guess where "Edith" will go from here, but I hope there's a way to take this cast with the show to other venues. The challenge of reproducing this production elsewhere makes the Humana production that much more special, given the quality of the actors and technical support, from Brian Sidney-Bembridge's set, based on hay bales and a dumpy sofa, to Jeff Nellis's sharp lighting design and Benjamin Marcum's excellent sound design. Let's hope somebody out there is up to the task so I can revisit "Edith" soon.

Humana Festival '11, Pt. 3: The ABCs of "Elemeno Pea"

I have sisters. I tend to fall squarely on the side of the Great Unwashed in the class divide. So Molly Smith Metzler's "Elemeno Pea," a comedy which focuses on the conflict between two sisters, one living in her mom's basement in Buffalo and the other lounging in luxury at a beach house in Martha's Vineyard, should be perfect for me.

In its Humana Festival production, "Elemeno Pea" was definitely funny, with the behind-the-glass slapstick especially getting the laughs on Michael B. Raiford's gorgeous, glamorous white beach house set. The set-up, when older, poorer sister Devon arrives at her sister Simone's dishy digs, works well, too, as it begins to sink in for Devon just exactly what Simone has been doing and what kind of life she's been leading as a dogsbody for the idle rich. It's only when Simone's boss, Mikaela, too-too-chic, too-too-Housewives-of-Some-Undiscovered-County, barges in that things start to go haywire.

Mikaela is written as more than a bit of a caricature, which is fine, but she is so BIG in her self-obsession and bitchery that she also gets to be tiresome. And then, when the play's pay-off hinges on Mikaela's second-act confession that makes Devon rethink her opinion, "Elemeno Pea" definitely strains credulity.

The issues raised -- culture, class, stereotypes, ambition, selling out -- are very interesting, however, and I could believe in both sisters. Cassie Beck was blunt and amusing as no-nonsense Devon, and Kimberly Parker Green was also on the money as Simone, who is too fond of the affluent life, with Lilly Pulitzer dresses, fine wine and lobster available for the taking, to care that she's hooking up with a rich "clowntard."

And even though they both go to 11, Sara Surrey as Mikaela and Daniel Pearce as Simone's beau do a fine job sending up the rich and making Metzler's point about the superficiality of high society.

But it's Gerardo Rodriguez who repeatedly steals the show as "Jos-B," a caretaker not quite as much under his employers' collective thumb as they think he is. (He is called Jos-B because there was already a José on the staff when he started, so Mikaela made him Jos-B to differentiate the two. Hose-A and Hose-B, get it?)

Metzler's script is full of that kind of verbal humor, with zings and quips from beginning to end. It's funny, for sure, but maybe too bright and zippy to work with the more serious message she's trying to convey.

Humana Festival '11, Pt. 2: The Monsters Are Due at "Maple and Vine"

Of all the plays we saw at Actors Theatre of Louisville in this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays, Jordan Harrison's "Maple and Vine" seems to be the one attracting the most attention. Within days of the Humana Festival closing, Chicago's Next Theatre and San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater had already announced they'd added "Maple and Vine" to upcoming seasons.

It's a provocative piece, to be sure, built around the notion that a modern couple might find living in Ozzie & Harriet Land preferable to a world of take-out sushi, Starbuck's and HDTV on their 52" flat screen. Harrison has said he did research into cults, utopian communities and "real groups that have chosen to withdraw from the modern world," according to program notes provided by Actors Theatre Literary Manager Amy Wegener. Wegener quotes Harrison as saying that the impetus for the play came from "upwards of 100 interviews with the Amish, cloistered nuns, Civil War reenactors, and off-the-grid artists living in the wilds of Maine."

One of the most surprising and fascinating ideas Harrison found in the interviews was this one: "Instead of the modern world being too noisy and fast-paced for these people, it was actually too quiet. They were almost frightened by how much freedom they had, and so they traded a measure of that freedom in exchange for more of a social structure, for a community enforcing the rules."

And with that exchange, giving up freedom for community, the characters in "Maple and Vine" feel secure and reassured, to have very specific (as well as racist, sexist and repressive) guidelines to live by. Harrison's play centers on Katha and Ryu -- she works in publishing, while he's a plastic surgeon -- who've lost a baby and are feeling unmoored, dissatisfied, incomplete with their busy New York lives. Katha happens to run into a man who seems completely sure of himself, his perfectly fitted suit and his polished shoes. He tells her about the Society for Dynamic Obsolescence or the SDO, within whose confines he and his Donna Reed wife reside, where everybody pretends it's 1955 forever, and they all live their lives in accordance with rules set down to keep up the pretense as strictly and completely as possible.

Katha thinks this crazy cult may be just what the doctor ordered for her to get over her malaise, while Ryu, who is Japanese-American, is more skeptical. But he loves her, so he goes along, agreeing to try out this retro life for six months. Because of his ethnicity, he's assigned to work in a box factory (I'm surprised they didn't throw a laundry or Chinese restaurant at him) while Katha (now called Kathy for that 50s feel) tries out girdles, pillbox hats and Pigs in a Blanket with ketchup-and-mayo dip.

Harrison does a good job mining the humor and the creepiness of their situation, but I found myself not really believing that Ryu would go along with all of this, giving up his 2011 status as a plastic surgeon as well as his sense of self just because his wife is depressed. He, after all, is the one who has to handle the anti-Japan prejudices built into this post-war society, and it doesn't seem that being good at box-building would really satisfy him. Plus there's a scene where "Kathy" speaks to the all-powerful Authenticity Committee to ask that they act more prejudiced against her husband, and that stuck out like a sore thumb. Why would she do that? What possible purpose could more racism serve? I was also bothered by the issue of medical care for a couple who just lost a baby and are trying to have another child. Would Katha be happy with old-style obstetrical, prenatal and pediatric care? Would her doctor husband?

There's also a kinky subplot involving Dean, the man who runs this place, and his wife, the impossibly put-together Ellen, and the way they get into the drama of repression in a Douglas Sirk/Rock Hudson/"Far From Heaven" sort of way. While intriguing, that angle also seemed a little over the top. Yes, they all get to live in a drama queen soap opera built on furtive glances and illicit trysts, which might be fun for a week or two, but would they really build a community and a whole infrastructure around that?

"Maple and Vine" is very good at raising those questions, anyway, and at making people like me, who do not think going backwards is anything to strive for, quite uncomfortable. Harrison thinks we all say "Oh, I would never do anything like that" as a knee-jerk reaction, but that, if pushed, we might find the faux-Father Knows Best life to be the bees' knees. I don't think so. But audiences should enjoy trying to hash it all out.

In the Humana Festival production, all five actors were spot-on, with especially good work from Jeanine Seralles as Ellen, the tightly-wound perfect 50s housewife. Peter Kim is sympathetic and sweet as Ryu, the husband trying to do his best in an alien world, and Paul Niebanck has the slick Dynamically Obsolete moves down pat as Dean.

I also enjoyed Brian Sidney Bembridge's nifty scenic design, smoothly using traps to move from a living room to a box factory, and Connie Furr Solomon's Donna-Reed-a-riffic costumes.

And in case you're wondering what my headline has to do with anything, "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" is a classic Twilight Zone episode from 1960. I don't have any reason to think that Jordan Harrison was referencing that episode with his play's title, but I have my suspicions. Are Dean and Ellen monsters? Will Katha and Ryu turn on each other like the frightened small-town citizens in "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street"? I have my suspicions about that, too.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Humana Festival 2011: No One Is Alone

Every year the folks behind the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville deny that they had any theme in mind when choosing their line-up. And every year, the theater critics and commentators who see the Festival are just sure they see a common idea emerging.

I'm not usually among them, but this year, as I watched one play after the other, including the anthology of plays put together by several playwrights under the umbrella title of "The End," I kept thinking about the idea of aloneness, or maybe belonging, the other side of that coin. For most of the plays -- "Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them," by A. Rey Pamatmat, "Maple and Vine," by Jordan Harrison, "Bob," by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, "The Edge of Our Bodies," by Adam Rapp, and also "Promageddon," by Dan Dietz and "La Muerte" by Marco Ramirez, two shorter pieces included in "The End" -- that theme is front and center. So "Edith" features a pair of mostly abandoned children trying to stay together and still be a family, "Maple and Vine" is about a couple who feel out of sync with the modern world so they join a 1950s reenactment community, "Bob" has a goofy guy dumped at a White Castle in Louisville as a newborn now on a picaresque trip across America to figure out who he is and where he belongs, "The Edge of Our Bodies" is a one-girl show about a disaffected young woman who doesn't feel connected to anyone, not even herself, "La Muerte" has two boys working together to fight for survival as they tunnel under New York City, and "Promageddon" is exactly what it sounds like, as four kids (an emo guy, a popular girl, a football player and his nerdy sister) find themselves united to survive an apocalypse that just happened to start during their prom.

Molly Smith Metzler's funny and outrageous "Elemeno Pea," about sisters who want conflicting things from life, gets to the "belonging" idea in a different way, but it's still there. In "Elemeno Pea," older sister Devon comes to visit her younger sister Simone at the estate on Martha's Vineyard where Simone works as an assistant to a very wealthy woman. Devon thinks her sister is languishing in a soul-destroying Crazytown, while Simone pretty much loves every bit of the gilded life at "Island Haven." Once again, it's about who belongs where and why, and what you have to give up to fit in.

The last play in the Festival, Anne Washburn's "A Devil at Noon," was also its weakest in my estimation, but it still involves isolation and aloneness, as the main character, a slightly unhinged science fiction writer, struggles with reality and fiction overlapping and colliding. Has everything we see on stage sprung from the recesses of Chet Ellis's fertile mind? Is any of it real? It seemed to me most like deadline-induced insanity, when too much coffee, too little sleep and all the ideas banging around in your head start to implode. Or explode. Or whatever. I don't think "Devil at Noon" jelled, really, but it still poked at aloneness, looking at the psyche of a man who's spent so much time living inside his own head that he has created a fictional love interest (and maybe a cadre of Ninjas) to help him feel alive.

I will talk more about "Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them," "Elemeno Pea" and "Maple and Vine," the plays I found most successful, in individual pieces, but for me, this was a strong Humana Festival overall, prompting a lot of discussion and reflection, as well as a few standing ovations. In a time when it seems we are increasingly isolated in our homes, stuck to our computers or in front of our televisions instead of going outside and interacting with other people, Humana's examination of community and family and how we find a place to belong felt timely and very much on target.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Talking with Cristen Susong: "A Slice of Life Not to Be Missed"

Yesterday I talked to Jake Olbert, who plays the estranged son, Andrew, in Heartland Theatre's production of THE END OF THE TOUR by Joel Drake Johnson. Jake had all kinds of interesting things to say about his career and his take on the play, and you can read all about it here.

Today I've got Cristen Susong, who plays Jan, Andrew's responsible, hard-working sister who is desperate to find some space of her own after years of acting as the family caretaker. Here's what Cristen had to say about her life, this play, and what she thinks about her theatrical experiences in Bloomington-Normal.

Cristen, I saw your performance in THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, so I know you have a beautiful voice as well as some dramatic chops. Where did you start your theatrical career, and when did you know you were meant to be a performer?

I studied theatre at the University of Texas at El Paso. My parents were both actors in California in the 1960's. They attended the famous Pasadena Playhouse. So theatre and acting was always a part of my consciousness. In college I actually started as a psychology major which is really appropriate for an actor. I changed my major sophomore year. My undergraduate theatre program did all straight plays. I did Chekhov, O'Neill, etc., and one day I auditioned for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF at a theatre located on campus but not affiliated with the theatre department. I was cast and ended up doing 24 shows for this theatre (Union Dinner Theatre). When my husband and I graduated we moved to New York. I performed in some Off and Off Off Broadway shows and did a great deal of cabaret singing at Don't Tell Mama and other nightclubs. When we became pregnant with our son Eli we moved to Baltimore, MD and Scott got his MFA in Directing. I still found time to perform and during the day I was a schoolteacher. We decided to move to Bloomington for Scott to teach at IWU and live in a place where we could raise our children. I entered the MA in Theatre History program last year and will graduate in May. I have been working with the Illinois Shakespeare Festival as their Education Outreach Coordinator for the two years of grad school.

What is your favorite role so far?

That is a hard one. I think my favorite roles would be Anna in Paula Vogel's THE BALTIMORE WALTZ, Meg in CRIMES OF THE HEART, and Agnes in AGNES OF GOD. Musical roles probably Eva Peron in EVITA or Florence in CHESS. I like to be considered an actress and not a musical theatre actress. For me there is no difference. Musicals are harder but an actor still needs to bring the character to a real place and I want to continue to explore all kinds of roles. I am getting into my 40's now so I am excited about the roles that will be opening up to me such as the one in THE END OF THE TOUR.

I think this is your first experience with Heartland, right? Are you enjoying it? How is it different from what you do with ISU or other theaters you've worked with?

Yes, first Heartland experience. I have wanted to do a show here since we moved here. Everything produced at Heartland is of high quality and the directors are top notch. Working with Sandi as an actor is a dream. She lets you explore and asks great questions. She is wonderful. I worked with Cyndee Brown on 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE and I found her to be equally generous as a director. I think ISU fosters very accomplished directors. Most professional experiences I have had you have very little time with the director and time is money so the process is truncated. It is a luxury to be able to spend time exploring.

And how would you characterize THE END OF THE TOUR? What do you think it's really about?

I think End of the Tour is simply about a broken family. It explores the themes of communication or lack of communication. Jan has had to care for everyone in her life. Mother, sister, brother and husband. Now she has to break away from caring for her emotionally and physically abusive, alcoholic mother. It is really heartbreaking but is allowing for some great emotional scenes.

Anything else you want to tell me about THE END OF THE TOUR?

Everyone knows a family like this. If they don't they are lying. It is a slice of life not to be missed.

Thanks so much, Cristen!

And there you have it – an amazing actress trying to find the emotional truth in a "slice of life not to be missed." What more can you ask from a night at the theater?

THE END OF THE TOUR, directed by Sandra Zielinski, a professor specializing in Theatre Education and Directing at Illinois State University, opens at Bloomington-Normal's Heartland Theatre on April 14th, playing through May 1st. To read more about the play or make reservations, visit the Heartland website here.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Talking with Jake Olbert: Life, Theatre and "The End of the Tour"

Coming up next on Heartland Theatre's schedule is Joel Drake Johnson's THE END OF THE TOUR, about a dysfunctional family, most of whom live in Dixon, Illinois, perhaps best known as the home town of President Ronald Reagan. In the play, we meet a sharp-tongued mother named May, as well as her two adult children, Andrew and Jan. Andrew left town some time ago, while Jan is yearning to break free right now. This is definitely a family in distress, with something as simple as a hug looming as an impossible hope. And yet there's humor there, too, as everybody negotiates what he or she wants and can manage to accomplish.

To get a better grasp on the play, I had a few questions for Jake Olbert, playing the role of Andrew, the estranged son, and also for Cristen Susong, who plays Andrew's beleaguered sister Jan. They're both terrific actors and, as it happens, fabulous singers. (I've seen them both do both and I can attest to that.) So I wondered how they were approaching THE END OF THE TOUR. You'll have to come back tomorrow to get the rest of the story from Cristen, but today, we're going to hear from Jake.

So, Jake, tell me a little bit about your background. When did you start acting?

I've been acting since fourth grade or so, in school plays and such. I acted all through high school and when it came time to go to college I decided to major in theatre since there wasn't anything else I was really interested in doing. It just seems like something I've always done, so I just keep doing it.

You're done at Illinois State University in a few months, right? What are your post-ISU plans?

Post-ISU I'm heading to Chicago with my girlfriend to try and make it as a working actor. Day-job, auditions, all of that. If it doesn't work out I'm sure I'll find something else to do, but I want to try my hand at it and see where it takes me.

From my perspective, your role in THE END OF THE TOUR is different from what I've seen from you before, even though the things I've seen you do are pretty different from each other, from a Disney prince to a serial killer, a flirty European count and two morally conflicted Shakespearen rulers. What does Andrew have in common with those roles?

Andrew probably has more in common with me myself than a lot of the other roles I've done. I realized that, aside from one of the 10-minute plays a few years ago (also at Heartland!) and a bit part in FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON in high school, I haven't done any modern realism; it's always had a heightened element (like in WOMAN IN MIND or THE UNNATURAL AND ACCIDENTAL WOMEN, the afore-mentioned serial killer role) or it's been realism from a different period (ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST). So from that perspective it's challenging to have to dial down what I normally do in a musical or Shakespeare or what-have-you. Andrew is a lot less secure and in control than many of the roles I typically do; I usually end up playing characters who have a fair bit of confidence, a fair bit of power, or both, and Andrew is not terribly confident or powerful in the situation the play puts him in. But, as I said, I have a lot in common with Andrew and so that makes it pretty easy to figure out what he's about.

I find the family in THE END OF THE TOUR pretty realistic and quite fascinating, even though they break my heart a little, and I can sympathize with both Jan and Andrew a lot, even though they've both made mistakes. Do you find him sympathetic?

It's hard not to sympathize with Andrew and Jan, and even when they do treat others poorly in the play we see pretty clearly where that comes from and why they act the way they do.

What do you think THE END OF THE TOUR is really about?

If I had to say what the play was about I would say consequence; it's about damaged people, and where that damage comes from, and what the consequences are in the present for things done in the past. I think if it's teaching us anything it's to be a little more careful in what we do to those we're close to in our lives, because any pain we inflict is multiplied and reflected back and ultimately spread further than we might have intended.

I really like the sound of that. A play about consequence... Thanks so much, Jake.

Be sure to come back tomorrow to see what Cristen Susong, who plays Andrew's sister in the play, has to say!

THE END OF THE TOUR, directed by Sandra Zielinski, a professor specializing in Theatre Education and Directing at Illinois State University, opens at Bloomington-Normal's Heartland Theatre on April 14th, playing through May 1st. To read more about the play or make reservations, visit the Heartland website here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"Amber Rose" and Other Films at the New Art Film Fest

Director Mike Trippiedi has announced that his film, "Amber Rose," fresh off winning the Grand Jury Award for Best Feature Film at the Washington, D.C. Independent Film Festival, will once again play the Art Theater in Champaign.

This time, "Amber Rose" will be part of the New Art Film Festival, an annual program celebrating local filmmakers from Champaign-Urbana and other downstate Illinois cities, presented by the Art Theater and C-U Confidential. The Festival runs for one day only -- Friday, April 8th -- opening at 5 pm and closing at approximately 1 am. And the best part? It's totally and completely free.

The schedule begins at 5 with five short films, and then gears up again at 7 with two very short shorts plus a costume contest before "Press Start 2 Continue," a sequel to the acclaimed videogame comedy "Press Start."

Trippiedi's "Amber Rose," reviewed here, is the main feature at 9 pm, followed by five more short features at 11 pm.

So here's what you need to know... "Amber Rose," 9 pm, The Art Theater in Champaign. Lots of other cool movies by semi-local folks. FREE.

Monday, April 4, 2011

"Arcadia" on Broadway: An Endlessly Fascinating Play

My friend Jon Alan Conrad and I both love Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia," almost beyond the place where you can talk about it rationally. Luckily for me, Jon recently attended the revival of "Arcadia" directed by David Leveaux, and he was kind enough to share the experience, writing about it quite rationally, but capturing the longing, the intelligence, the vulnerability that attends this play. Beautiful.

By Jon Alan Conrad

I love the plays of Tom Stoppard. I love them in the same way I love the music of Mozart and Britten. In works like these, perfection of form, with all the pieces interlocking perfectly on all levels, doesn’t preclude emotional intensity – in fact, it’s the vehicle for the emotion, inseparable from it, it’s all one thing. This is true throughout Stoppard’s work (he even wrote a play, "The Real Thing," speaking up for this point of view and defending his fictional self from the charge of being all head and no heart), but it has never been more perfectly achieved than in "Arcadia." Since first seeing it, I’ve never wavered from my certainty that this is one of the great plays of our time, or any time.

That first sight was Trevor Nunn’s original production, as presented at Lincoln Center in 1995. I saw it there twice, and then as it made the rounds of the regional theaters and I was hungry to see it in varied realizations, I saw it in Boston, DC, Philadelphia, and at the University of Delaware. Several of these offered especially striking realizations of one character or another, but none quite matched Nunn’s production as a totality -- until the arrival of David Leveaux’s production, playing until June at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Inevitably it has its imperfections, but it gets about 90% of the way there, which is extraordinary.

Extraordinary for any play, but particularly for this one, which sets the bar so high. From the opening scene, we might think that Stoppard has come up with a Jane Austen-ish pastiche: a room in an English country house, its main occupants the quick-witted 13-year-old Lady Thomasina Coverley and her tutor Septimus Hodge. Immediately we encounter some of the play’s motifs: sex (the first words: "Septimus, what is carnal embrace?"), misdirection (Septimus gives her a false answer), and Latin translation (he uses the word "caro" to justify the meaning "to throw one’s arms around a side of beef"). Further themes emerge: unreliable transmission of information (the servants have been gossiping about spotting Septimus in carnal embrace with Mrs. Chater, which Thomasina half-overheard), modern mathematics (Thomasina imagines an equation as big as the universe), and landscape gardening (the landscaper Noakes is remaking the idyllic "Arcadian" gardens [themselves a replacement for the elaborate formality of the previous century] into the new Gothic "picturesque" fashion). We see Septimus effortlessly thinking rings around the indignant Mr. Chater, and being outdistanced in turn by his young genius of a pupil. And Lady Croom sweeps through, scattering witticisms intentionally and un-, like a younger Lady Bracknell. The lights fade, as we feel happily embarked on a witty period comedy of manners.

And the lights come up again on the same room in the present day, with the current Coverley family in residence and two historical researchers trying to figure out what happened there in 1809. Hannah Jarvis is in residence, working on the history of the grounds as a symbol of the evolution of Romanticism, and in bursts the excessively self-assured Bernard Nightingale with evidence (he thinks) that Lord Byron killed Chater in a duel on the lawn.

Scenes in the different eras alternate. Hands stretch out from past to present (Thomasina’s investigations into chaos theory, more than a century ahead of schedule) and from present to past (our present-day historians get passionately committed to their ideas of what happened then). Tempers flare between the scientific and literary points of view, and in a crucial speech Hannah articulates the crucial importance of striving for knowledge: "It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter." This chimes memorably with Septimus’ words of comfort to Thomasina as she mourns all the literature lost in the burning of the Alexandria library: "We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it."

This production zings into life from the start: I’ve never felt the opening scene crackle like this, the actors and audience finding the humor in every nuance, even some I didn’t know were there. Leveaux’s well-balanced direction, seemingly finding time for everything while keeping up the pace, has a great deal to do with this. But even more credit goes to Tom Riley, new to me and all in all the finest Septimus I’ve seen -- and that’s saying something as the role is a gift to a young actor and I’ve never seen it badly played (my first, Billy Crudup, remains unforgettable). Thomasina, his principal scene partner, is by contrast never really well captured in my experience, and Bel Powley is no exception, alas. Despite being almost the right age, she’s only a moderately skilled actress; and the part needs all the resources of the most accomplished child actresses one can think of -- a young Jean Simmons or Hayley Mills, a British Jodie Foster or Cynthia Nixon.

Also contributing valuably in the 1809 scenes are David Turner, a sublimely oblivious Chater; Edward James Hyland, a delightfully disgruntled butler; and Byron Jennings, a Noakes overmatched by the quick wits around him. Margaret Colin, an actress whom I’ve often enjoyed, makes an oddly ineffective Lady Croom, inexplicably doing very little with a feast of putdowns and witticisms.

If Billy Crudup has now been bettered as Septimus, he can take a blue ribbon as the finest Bernard of my experience. This is a character whose smug assurance and eagerness to show off easily lend themselves to cartoonish overplaying (Victor Garber succumbed to an extent), but Crudup takes all the elements, plays them bigger than I’ve seen before, and thereby absorbs them into a real person, understandable, exasperating, always "on," and hugely entertaining.

Also splendid in the modern scenes are Raúl Esparza (another former Septimus) as eternal postgraduate Valentine, who happily explains how eventually "We’re all going to end up at room temperature" and the quietly convincing Grace Gummer as Bernard’s starstruck fan Chloë. But the outstanding acting achievement, for my money, is Lia Williams as Hannah, the careful researcher who ultimately does uncover a bit of the past. On paper, Hannah emerges clearly and specifically, and yet none of the fine actresses I’ve seen in the role have really brought her to life. I’ve come to think that Hannah is the most specifically English of all the characters, a woman who can be abrupt, charming, fierce, amused, prickly, who gets enraged by an academic insult while smiling at being called rude names. Williams gets it all. Hurray!

In fact, hurray for the whole production, including the care taken with blending Corin Buckeridge’s music into both periods. Seeing it renews my love for this endlessly fascinating play, and my joy that I live in a world that includes it. As Valentine says in another context, "It’s the best possible time to be alive."

Saturday, April 2, 2011

April Showers & More

I am a day late with my April preview because I happen to be in Louisville, Kentucky, at the 35th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. That means I am watching some ten plays, long and short, unfold this weekend, and a big chunk of my blog through April will be talking about what I saw and what I thought about what I saw. I hope that's something to look forward to!

In other news closer to home, "The King's Speech" continues through tomorrow, April 3, at the Normal Theater. This Oscar winner for Best Picture won hearts and minds with its mostly true story about Britain's King George VI, thrust onto the throne when his older brother decided to abdicate to marry "the woman I love," an American divorcee named Wallis Simpson. That left a king with a speech impediment on England's throne with war looming and his people in need of a leader who could inspire them with his speech.

Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll," about the power of rock music to inspire revolution and reform, also continues as April moves on, with performances on April 6, 7, 8 and 9 at 7:30 pm and tomorrow at 2 pm at the ISU Center for the Performing Arts.

Illinois Wesleyan's School of Theatre Arts is using its Faculty Choreographed Dance Concert to strive "to address the overarching theme of homelessness" with a dance event called "Monkey Trail," presented at IWU's McPherson Theatre April 5 to 9 at 8 pm and April 10 at 2 pm. Director Jean MacFarland Kerr, Associate Professor of Theatre Arts, has designed this evening of music, dance and multi-media effects. "All materials used as reinforcement throughout the production derive from the director's own experiences working with two homeless shelters in St. Louis during the summer of 2010," offers the press release. For more information, you can visit the Facebook page created for the event.

The Celebration Company at Urbana's Station Theatre offers "The Light in the Piazza," the lovely, lyrical musical about a 1950s American mother and daughter who must confront change when they vacation in Italy. The show won six Tony Awards in 2005, including one for Adam Guettel's complex, romantic music and lyrics. "The Light in the Piazza," directed by Michael John Foster, opens April 7 and runs through the 30th, with all shows at 8 pm.

Over in Eureka, they'll be performing the Maltby and Shire musical revue "Closer Than Ever," a really adorable show that looks at all different kinds of relationships in the modern world, April 12 to 16 in Pritchard Theatre at Eureka College. "Closer Than Ever" won the 1990 Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Off-Broadway Musical and Best Score. The show celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and you can see all the details here.

Don't forget Heartland Theatre Company's last show of its 2010-11 season, Joel Drake John's "The End of the Tour," directed by Sandi Zielinksi, with Nancy Nickerson, Jake Olbert and Cristen Susong heading up an ensemble cast. "The End of the Tour," a story about a dysfunctional family at the end of its rope in Dixon, Illinois, opens April 14 and finishes up May 1. For all the details, visit Heartland's site.

ISU's Westhoff Theatre stays busy with "The Tooth of Crime," Sam Shepard's musical look at a battle between an aging rock star (played by Josh Innerst at ISU) and his younger rival (Matt Bausone) in a dystopic future world where music and violence collide. "The Tooth of Crime" runs from April 20 to 24 with only six performances. For details, click here.

Rounding out the month, Champaign-Urbana's CUTC offers Sondheim's fractured fairytale "Into the Woods," directed by Jeffrey Chandler, on stage at Parkland College Theatre April 21 to 30.

I'll have more about April's events when I get back home, including, of course, a whole lot more about the Humana Festival. Until then, you need to get over to ISU to see "Rock 'n' Roll" and to the Normal Theater to take in "The King's Speech." Do it. Now!