Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Almost Time for Discovery Walk 2011

I really, really like the McLean County Museum of History's annual Discovery Walk, produced in conjunction with Illinois Voices Theatre and Bloomington's Evergreen Cemetery.

In the past, I've written for some of the historic characters who've populated the Discovery Walk, and I've also been a tour guide for groups touring Evergreen Cemetery to hear these voices from the past speak out. Last year, I took on a third role, portraying Lucy Orme Morgan in the Walk.

I will not be on the front lines this time, but I did write another character -- Mrs. Eliza Esque, who helped organize celebrations in honor of soldiers (including her husband), returning from the Civil War as well as the Emancipation Proclamation -- and I'm looking forward to seeing how actress Jennifer Rusk portrays my Eliza! (That's one of the benefits of writing for this sort of thing. Whether your character's historical file is slim or hefty, you can't help but become intrigued and a little bewitched by the person you're trying to conjure up.)

This year, all of the characters relate to the Civil War, as we honor the 150th anniversary of that war beginning. Eliza Esque will be joined by:

George and Frances Ela, a young married couple separated by war but maintaining their love and their patriotism in letters.

William Horine, a private in the McLean County Regiment who sent home very colorful letters about the conditions of war.

Lewis Ijams, a Union soldier, severely wounded and assumed dead on the battlefield, who managed to make it back to Union lines and eventually home.

John McNulta, a Union colonel and commander of the McLean County Regiment who employed innovative methods to ensure the safety of the men under his command.

Martha Rice, a Southern woman living in Bloomington. She and her husband, a Confederate sympathizer, were not looked on kindly by their neighbors.

John C. Roeder, a German immigrant who hunted lawless Confederate outlaws and desperadoes in Western Missouri.

Lee Smith and George Stipp, doctors who experienced the horrific conditions both surgeons and patients faced in an ill-equipped, over-crowded Union hospital housed in a former hotel on the outskirts of Washington DC.

Actors this year include favorites like Kathleen Kirk, Michael Pullin, Rhys Lovell and Todd Wineburner as well as newcomers Gwen de Veer, Nick McBurney, Michael O'Sullivan, Jeff Ready, Jennifer Rusk and Kevin Wickart.

Tickets for Discovery Walk 2011 will be on sale beginning September 6. You may purchase tickets at the Garlic Press, Evergreen Memorial Cemetery or the McLean County Museum of History. Prices range from $4 for children and students with ID to $10 for Museum members and $12 for the general public.

All tours take place at Evergreen Cemetery in Bloomington, with tours scheduled for 11 am and 2 pm on Saturday and Sunday October 1-2 and 8-9.

For more information, visit the Museum's webpage here or call 309-827-0428.

Lions and Tigers and Hippopotami, Oh, My!

Alanna DeRocchi's "Animal Presence" exhibit continues through October 22 at the McLean County Arts Center, with a special "artist's talk" tonight, August 30th, at 7 pm.

DeRocchi's exhibit includes large scale ceramic and mixed media sculpture, described as "Ceramic animals, awesome in size and delicate in their detailed features." The Arts Center's materials explain her process this way: "DeRocchi builds her massive beasts from coils of clay, sculpting the surface as the animal grows. Through the raw wood constructed displays that the animals rest upon to the unfinished painted surfaces of the animals, DeRocchi references taxonomical research and the practice of recreating the exotic in natural history studies. Putting a twist on zoological dioramas of institutions like the Field Museum in Chicago, she explores the wonder and obsession we have with understanding our fellow species."

Pygmy Hippopotamus Bathing, ceramic, paint, graphite, wood, steel, foam, caster wheels, 6' x 4' x 3', 2010

Alanna DeRocchi has a BA and BFA from Western Illinois University in Macomb. She then did post-baccalaureate work at California State University in Long Beach and earned an MFA at New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. Her work has been exhibited from Macomb to Montana.

Animal Presence is sponsored by Peter and Susan Hood.

McLean County Arts Center
‎601 N. East Street

Monday, August 29, 2011

"And Then There Were None" Opens This Week at Community Players

I've read Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" in novel form (under a different title -- the book went through a couple of unpleasant, politically incorrect titles post-publication in 1939), seen at least two film versions and three stage productions and I remember the episode of "Remington Steele" that took off on it, and yet I never remember whodunit. "The Mousetrap," I remember. But the killer in "And Then There Were None" eludes me, no matter how many times I see it. It's a mystery!

I do remember the basic plot, however, wherein Christie strands ten strangers on a remote island. The host who invited them, the mysterious U. N. Owen (unknown, get it?), is nowhere to be found. But there is a message for all ten guests, accusing each of hiding a murderous act in the past. They're stuck on the island, wallowing in guilt, eying each other nervously...

And then they begin to die, one by one, in keeping with a nasty little poem tacked to the wall. The last line? "And then there were none." But how can that be? How can there be none left if the murderer is among them? Cue the scary music!

I'm not telling how the plot twist works. That would be cheating. I will tell you that the original book ended differently than the first stageplay, penned by Agatha Christie herself some four years after the book, which means that various film and TV and stage versions have felt free to pick whichever ending they liked better. Which means you may have a better memory than I do and still find the end unfamiliar if you've only run across the one Community Players didn't choose. Two possible endings, ten possible suspects, ten possible victims... That just makes it more fun, don't you think?

"And Then There Were None" opens at Community Players with a preview performance on Thursday, September 1, followed by performances September 2-4, 8-11 and 15-17. Evening performances are scheduled for 7:30 pm, with Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm.

Cathy Sutliff directs a cast including Brett Cottone, Larry Eggan, Jay Hartzler, Hannah Kearns, Nancy Nickerson, Allen Popowski, Aric Rattan, Jeff Ready, Leslie Ringger, Jeremy Stiller and Kevin Woodard as the array of suspects and victims. You may read more about it and match up the roles to the actors, as well as purchase tickets, at the CP website.

Friday, August 26, 2011

"Blackout/All Clear" Give Connie Willis Another Hugo

One of my favorite authors, Connie Willis, has just notched her 11th Hugo Award, this time for the two-volume time travel opus called "Blackout" and "All Clear."

These novels involve the same Oxford University time-traveling group as previous works "The Doomsday Book," which took her historians to 1348 and the ravages of the Black Death, and "To Say Nothing of the Dog," a more cheerful piece that takes its time travelers to 1888, just in time to punt down the Thames and run into Jerome K. Jerome.

In "Blackout/All Clear," Willis deals with Britain during World War II, as three Oxford students posing as specific people drop into specific locations -- a housemaid at an English manor house that takes in children sent away from London for safety, a reporter at the Battle of Dunkirk, and a shopgirl at a women's dress shop during the Blitz -- and find that things are not at all as they expected. They also find they can't come back to where they started from (Oxford in 2060) and they may be changing history where they are. Will their actions mean that Hitler wins the war? Will they die where they are so that they don't collide with other versions of themselves at other times? And what do they do with the people they've become attached to back in 1942?

Willis handles all sorts of issues, from life and death to fate and religion and social responsibility, always mixing humor and silliness with her most dire elements. I loved "To Say Nothing of the Dog," and found "The Doomsday Book" ultimately too dark and intense for me. I have put off reading "Blackout/All Clear" for that reason -- I'm not sure I'm over "Doomsday" yet. When I was a history major in college, I sort of loved the Black Death and wrote more than one paper about it for various classes. But "Doomsday" makes it a whole lot more real than my microbiology paper and its attendant rats and fleas did. I suspect "Blackout/All Clear" would be lots more wrenching than watching "Watch on the Rhine" or "Waterloo Bridge" a few more times. I guess I'm a Pollyanna when it comes to time travel.

Willis has now won 11 Hugos, 7 Nebula Awards, 4 Locus Awards, and induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

The 2011 Hugo Awards were presented in Reno, Nevada on August 20th.

Monday, August 22, 2011

"The Diviners" All Set to Go at Heartland

Heartland Theatre's production of "The Diviners," Jim Leonard Jr.'s "splendid Depression-era fable," is in rehearsal and gearing up for a September 8 opening.

"The Diviners" is billed as "a play in two acts and elegies," underlining the play's serious themes on the issues of religion, trust and personal faith, as a lapsed preacher named C.C. Showers arrives in a small Indiana town in the 1930s, coming up against townspeople's conflicting views on what faith really means. The biggest part of C.C.'s problems arise with a teenager named Buddy, who happens to be a first-rate "diviner," meaning he can find water even in times of drought, even though he is also deathly afraid of water.

Leonard's play is poetic and engaging, raising lots of questions without necessarily providing the answers. It was written in 1980, when Leonard was still an undergrad, as an entry for Hanover College in the American College Theater Festival. Since then, the play has been well-produced at high schools and colleges, as well as in regional theaters, as its down-home, unpretentious view of small-town life during the Depression has proved appealing to audiences.

For Heartland, Christopher Connelly is directing a cast that includes Kim Behrens, Derrick Billings, John Bowen, George Freeman, Lauren Hoefle, Michael Pullin, Amanda Serianni-Davis, Joy Schuler, Sarah Stone Innerst, Reggie Walker and Rian Wilson.

The Thursday, September 8 performance is a "Pay What You Can" preview, with no reservations accepted. Beginning Friday, September 9, tickets are $12 on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with discounts for seniors and students on Thursdays and Sundays. Curtain is at 7:30 pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 pm on Sunday.

"The Diviners" at Heartland Theatre is sponsored by the Religion, Culture and Arts Endowment of the First Methodist Church in Normal.

For more information or to make reservations, visit the Heartland website here.

Note: The artwork above, "Untitled" oil on wood, is used by permission of the artist, Laura Von Rosk. You may see more images of her work at lauravonrosk.com

Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Twelfth Night" in a Resplendent Setting in Door County

I'm not exactly sure why Door Shakespeare, the theater company that performs in the woods in Wisconsin's Door County, chose the image at left to represent it. That Dance of Death, seen at the end of Ingmar Bergman's "Seventh Seal" is not a happy or cheerful image, as it shows the people Death (avec sickle) is leading away to the Great Beyond. Door Shakespeare's image cuts off Death at one end as well as the jester at the other end, showing just the other players who meet Death at the end of the film. Still...

I don't see how that relates to Door Shakespeare. Except for the Scandinavian connection. I mean, they colored that logo in Swedish colors, and they stage their shows in the midst of nature at Björklunden vid Sjön, a beautiful, sprawling estate on the shores of Lake Michigan which bears a distinctly Swedish name.

"Twelfth Night," which has its last performance at Door Shakespeare tonight, takes full advantage of the Björklunden setting; they even offered a "roaming" option to playgoers on the night I saw it. That means, if you wanted to, you could tramp down to the shore with other audience members, arriving just in time to see leading lady Viola (played by Kay Allman for Door Shakespeare) and a helpful ship's captain (Mark Moede) appear as if by magic from out of the misty twilight, with the wide blue expanse of Lake Michigan as a backdrop. The sea breeze ruffled Viola's hair and dress, seagulls keened overhead, and waves crashed behind the players.

For a play that begins with a shipwreck, that was one fine way to open.

This roaming experiment involved two other scenes, as well, including the one where Duke Orsino commands, "If music be the food of love, play on," which should come first, but here was second, performed in a handy meadow. Anyway, it was the seaside entrance that really made an impact. Their motto at Door Shakespeare is "Timeless performance in a resplendent setting," which describes that opening nicely.

Safely back in our seats (folding chairs set up in tiers opposite a simple dirt playing space bounded by tall trees), we saw Viola, now disguised as a boy named Cesario, volunteer her services to the melancholy Duke (played by Steven Marzolf), including acting as his intermediary with lovely Olivia, who isn't at all interested in Orsino, but finds herself falling for Viola/Cesario. Ooops!

The comic plot involves Olivia's drunken, irresponsible uncle, Sir Toby Belch, his silly friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Maria, Olivia's servant, all of whom conspire against the fussbudget steward, one Malvolio, who doesn't appreciate their noisy shenanigans.

Throw in Sebastian, who happens to be Viola's twin, presumed-dead-but-not-so-dead brother, as well as a jester named Feste, hijinks involving a forged letter, yellow stockings and a poorly conceived duel, and almost everybody pining for someone he can't have, and you have "Twelfth Night."

Door Shakespeare and director Jerry Gomis don't mess with big props or set pieces, instead using the surroundings they've been given to frame the action. That includes Sir Toby and his pals eavesdropping from behind pine fronds, exits and entrances into the trees, and one pretty gate that Toby can't manage to unhook.

Gomis also played Malvolio at the performance I saw, and he was so good -- sort of a cross between Hollywood character actor Franklin Pangborn and Lucy's Gale Gordon with his rolled Rs and prissy demeanor -- it's hard to imagine the regular actor besting him.

Stephen Pearce was the youngest Toby Belch I've seen, and that undermined his performance a little, although it may just be that I don't really get into that part of the plot, anyway, since I'm really on Malvolio's side of that argument. (Drunken hooligans against the guy who runs a tight ship and is trying to get some sleep? Yeah, I'm with Malvolio every time.)

In that crowd, Barry Saltzman's Sir Andrew and his long blond hair looked funny enough (like Martin Short's Jackie Rogers Jr.) to make me laugh, anyway, and James Valcq, who is not only an actor but a composer (with "The Spitfire Grill," so recently performed at IWU, on his resume), tried gamely to elevate that tiresome clown Feste.

I also enjoyed Scot West's good-humored take on Sebastian, even if he was miles taller than Kay Allman and unlikely to be mistaken for her under any circumstances, and Leslie Ann Handelman's sparkling Olivia. I remembered Handelman from her performances at U of I in "Into the Woods" and "Intimate Apparel," and it's always nice to see Whatever Happened To.

This summer, Door Shakespeare chose "Twelfth Night" and an adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" for their summer season. Given how well the outdoor setting worked for "Twelfth Night," I'm hoping they will continue the "roaming" option and pick "The Tempest" and "Into the Woods" next year. I don't know how they'd pull off a whole orchestra, but they definitely have the woods and a viable Cinderella in Leslie Ann Handelman.

by William Shakespeare

Door Shakespeare

Director: Jerry Gomis
Costume Designer: Barb Portinga
Lighting and Scenic Design: Stewart Dawson

Cast includes: Steven Marzolf, Tim Murray, Ryan Shaw, Kay Allmand, Mark Moede, Stephen Pearce, Debra Babich, Barry Saltzman, James Valcq, Leslie Ann Handelman, Jerry Gomis and Scot West.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Celebration Company Fills in the Blank with John Logan's "Red"

That TBA on the Station Theater's 2011-12 schedule is TBA no more. The Celebration Company at the Station Theater in Urbana has announced that John Logan's "Red," a play that looks at painter Mark Rothko, the nature of art versus commerce, and the difficulties of the creative process, will take the last spot, opening April 12 and running till April 28, 2012. Rick Orr, the Celebration Company's Artistic Director, will direct.

Although playwright John Logan has strong ties to Chicago, "Red" began its life at London's Donmar Warehouse, with Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne playing Rothko and his assistant. That production, including Molina and Redmayne, transferred to Broadway soon after, picking up six Tony Awards, including Best Play, Best Direction of a Play for Michael Grandage, Best Featured Actor in a Play for Redmayne, and Best Scenic, Lighting and Sound Design of a Play. "Red" also won several Drama Desk awards and the 2010 Drama League award for "Distinguished Production of a Play," with Molina taking home the "Distinguished Performance" award.

In other words, "Red" is new, hot and made a definite splash with its New York production. It's quite a coup for Orr and the Celebration Company to get the rights so quickly, especially in a season when they will also present Yazmina Reza's "God of Carnage," another daring new play, and Gina Gionfriddo's "Becky Shaw."

For more information about the new season, including audition info, you are advised to check out their Facebook page, which is updated more frequently than their website.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Urbana's Station Theater Serves Up an Ambitious 2011-12 Season

Urbana's Station Theater has announced its 2011-12 season, with the usual mix of provocative new plays and musicals. Or musical. "Company" is the only musical listed so far, although there is one open spot next spring that remains to be filled. That's generally the Station's benefit slot, so it definitely could be a musical. Or not.

As for the shows that are already on the schedule, well, they are a pretty impressive array.

First up is Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage," a bitterly funny play involving two couples whose children had an altercation on the playground. As the couples meet to discuss the playground problem, pretense and politeness are peeled away, revealing the ancient, bred-in-the-bone rage and carnage underneath. "God of Carnage," originally titled Le Dieu du Carnage, was translated into English by Christopher Hampton for its London production, and then Americanized a bit more before it hit Broadway. On Broadway, "God of Carnage" took home Tony awards for Best Show, Best Director (Matthew Warchus) and Best Actress (Marcia Gay Harden). "God of Carnage" will be directed by Station Artistic Director Rick Orr, with performances from October 6 to 22.

The Celebration Company's November show comes from long-time Station actor and writer Mike Trippiedi, who has recently spent more time as a movie-maker than an actor. Trippiedi will direct his own script, called "Way Off Broadway." Since the Station Theater sits on Urbana's Broadway Avenue, I'm wondering if the story is set right there. In the past, Trippiedi's scripts have been more on the dark side, so it will be entertaining to see where he goes with this one. "Way Off Broadway" is set to play the Station November 3 to 19.

After that comes "My Antonia," based on the Willa Cather novel about a young man in 19th century Nebraska and the free-spirited young Bohemian woman he yearns for. No author is listed on the Station's website, but I'm guessing this is the 2009 adaptation of the novel written by playwright Allison Moore. [Note: Turns out I was wrong in my assumption, and this adaptation is by Celebration Company member Jarrett Dapier, who has written a brand-new script especially for the Station.] Gary Ambler directs the world premiere of this adaptation of "My Antonia," with performances scheduled from December 1 to 17.

Director Mathew Green opens the new year with "Gruesome Playground Injuries," playing January 5 to 21. "Gruesome" is a new play by Rajiv Joseph, who recently gained more prominence with "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo," a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize. Although it sounds like a companion piece for "God of Carnage," which opens on a playground injury, "Gruesome" concerns two old friends who bump into each over from time to time over the span of 30 years, sharing a propensity for physical and emotional injury. "Gruesome" is not just about hurting, but also healing.

"Company," featuring Stephen Sondheim's music and lyrics and George Furth's book, comes to the Station February 2 to 18, directed by Karma Ibsen. "Company" is all about Bobby, who tries to understand why all his friends have paired off, but he can't quite seem to take the leap into a serious relationship. Songs include the caustic "Ladies Who Lunch" and the stunning "Being Alive" as well as "Getting Married Today," a fun, fizzy look at a bride with seriously cold feet. The recent filmed version starring Neil Patrick Harris was very popular; let's hope the same folks come out to the Station to compare/contrast.

"Becky Shaw," directed by Kay Holley, is the last announced show on the roster, with performances from March 1 to 17. Gina Gionfriddo wrote "Becky Shaw" with an obvious tip o' the hat to Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" and the character Becky Sharp. Gionfriddo's Becky is also a bit of a social climber, with the smarts, the skills and the focus to pull it off. There's a bad blind date, a mugging, dishonesty, cynical romance and even blackmail in "Becky Shaw."

Rick Orr will be back to direct the April show, whatever it turns out to be. Orr kept a slot open for his production of Harold Pinter's "Betrayal" last year. Maybe he will go back to that well and come up with "Old Times" or "The Homecoming" this time. Or, on the subject of betrayal, Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing." That might be fun.

For more information, you can see the whole schedule here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Have a Hankering for Some "Mad Men" fashion?

I love "Mad Men." I miss "Mad Men." Last I heard, the 5th season would be launching in early 2012, with no "Mad Men" to be had in '11. Pardon me while I boo (and boo hoo) for a few seconds.

Okay, I will attempt to concentrate on the fact that I will get "Mad Men" back sooner or later, and I can rewatch the previous four seasons on DVD, anyway. Plus there's a new piece of good news for "Mad Men" fans, as well as fans of vintage fashion.

It seems that Banana Republic has teamed with Janie Bryant, the costume designer at "Mad Men," for a limited-edition line of 50s inspired clothing. For women, there are adorable dresses, cardigan sweaters and blouses, a leopard print trench and a host of other leopard accessories, all mixing a vintage feel with modern sensibilities. Prices range from $39.50 for a silk scarf to $250 for a satchel.

And for the men, you can get a nice variety of vests, ties and Fedoras, along with the usual suit separates. Prices for the boys start at $10 for a pocket square and end with a $375 pin-striped blazer.

You can see the collection yourself if you go to the Banana Republic facebook page and "like" Banana Republic. That will open up the keys to the kingdom of "Mad Men" fashions.

That lace dress may just have to go in my closet...

"Send the Light" Tonight

As part of New Route Theatre's "One Shot Deal" series, Don Shandrow is bringing his electrifying musical "Send the Light" back to Bloomington-Normal tonight.

Did you know it was a risk for Depression-era farmers to organize electric co-ops? No? Then this is the musical for you, showing various characters who struggle with and celebrate the changes and possibilities that arise when electricity is connected to the countryside. The script includes oldsters and youngsters, husbands and wives, fathers, mothers and sons, dreamers, survivors, pioneers and agents of change.

"Send the Light" premiered here in 2007, with six performances at the McLean County Museum of History. Shandrow also took his story of how rural electrical cooperatives were organized in the 1930s on the road to Springfield and St. Louis, including four actors, two musicians, eleven scenes and more than a dozen characters. You can see a Pantagraph article about that initial run here.

The show was written and conceived by Don Shandrow, with songs by Phil Shaw and incidental music by David Berchtold. Just like back in 2007, actors Rhys Lovell and Irene Taylor are on stage, with Hannah Kerns, back then the production assistant, added to the cast along with newcomer Ryan Tipton. The music of "Send the Light" will be performed by Shaw, Berchtold and Blues Hall of Fame inductee Steve "the Harp" Mehlberg.

Tickets are $5 and may be purchased at the door. For more information, you may visit the event's Facebook page.


Wednesday, August 10

The Eaton Gallery
411 North Center Street, Bloomington

Saturday, August 6, 2011


Just a quick update to remind you that this weekend represents your last chance to visit the Illinois Shakespeare Festival and the Miller Park production of Schoolhouse Rock.

And this is also your first weekend to see my friend Kevin Wickart in "H.M.S. Pinafore" with Prairie Fire Theatre (performances at Normal Community High School), as well as my friend Joel Shoemaker in "Hairspray" at Eastlight over in East Peoria.

Hie thee to a theater! Quickly, before everything is gone!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

My Take on "Crazy, Stupid, Love."

Everybody I know who's seen "Crazy, Stupid, Love." -- the new divorce comedy from writer Dan Fogelman and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa -- has loved it. I didn't. I liked it well enough. And it has definitely stuck with me. But I'm just not 100% on board with it. And I'm not exactly sure why.

On paper, "Crazy, Stupid, Love." sounds perfect for me (with the exception of that second comma and the period at the end, both of which really bug). I love Steve Carell and Julianne Moore. I like Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. I love romantic comedies (I wrote about 35 of them for Harlequin Books, after all) and some of my favorite Hollywood movies are the divorce/remarriage comedies, like "The Awful Truth" and "The Philadelphia Story." There's just something irresistible about two people who clearly belong together who are having a hard time seeing that fact as clearly as we in the audience do.

The trailer for "Crazy, Stupid, Love." makes it look like a laugh-a-minute comedy, but when you're actually watching the film, it becomes clear pretty quickly that that's not really what it is. Instead, it's a sweet, sad movie about the difficulty and pain involved in opening yourself up, the awkwardness of trying to reach out, and overall, just how tough (and yes, crazy and stupid) love can be. And there are times when the aching vulnerability of its characters make "Crazy, Stupid, Love." kind of hard to watch. We've all been stupid for love at some point in our lives, whether we're middle-aged, like Cal and Emily, the couple who've been married for 25 years but are on the verge of divorce, or in the prime of our lives, like 20-somethings Jacob and Hannah -- he's a suave player, while she's the smart girl who keeps spurning his advances -- or so young it hurts, like 17-year-old babysitter Jessica, who has a crush on Cal even as her 13-year-old charge, Robbie, desperately yearns for her.

Steve Carell is a much better actor than people give him credit for (well, it may be his own fault. "Dinner for Schmucks,"anyone?) and he does a beautiful job with Cal, the man who wears New Balance sneakers and baggy Dockers, who is so surprised that his wife wants a divorce that he completely shuts down. Cal is the heart of the movie, and Carell makes every on-screen moment count.

Julianne Moore gets less to do as Emily, the wife who dumps him, and her character is also less sympathetic. Still, the two have excellent chemistry, and Moore makes you wish we got more time with Emily to really figure out what went wrong.

Ryan Gosling has been given the showiest role, as Jacob the womanizer who takes pity on poor Cal and gives him a makeover and some serious lessons in How to Pick Up Chicks. He's been dressed to look like a hipster fashion maven with a hard candy shell, but it is to Gosling's credit that he can do the about-face the script demands and suddenly show the cracks in the perfect facade. He is lucky enough to be playing opposite Emma Stone as Hannah the law student, since she has a warmth and intelligence that humanizes her love interest, too.

Supporting players Kevin Bacon (as the guy Emily cheats with) and Marisa Tomei (as a woman Cal picks up in a bar) do fine work, adding good energy and humor to the mix.

Even the youngsters -- former "America's Next Top Model" contender Analeigh Tipton as Jessica, the babysitter, and a scruffy kid named Jonah Bobo as Cal and Emily's son Robbie -- are compelling and authentic, as well as easy to root for. Still, the sexy bits they get involved in are more than a little cringe-worthy.

My other problems with "Crazy, Stupid, Love." (aside from the title punctuation) are the plot points that strain credulity, like all these people in what looks like a thriving suburban area all going to the same bar, and even though some of them know each other, they never see each other at that bar where they all hang out. There are other big coincidences that I'm not going to spoil, but let's just say that I felt like they were a bit of a cheat, too.

So there's the rub. I fell in love a little, especially with hapless Cal, the regular guy dealt such a hard blow at the beginning. He felt very real, so real I began to root for him and hurt for him and want him to turn out okay. But in the home stretch, Fogelman's script undercut the real emotions with whiz-bang comedy coincidences and slapstick melees, with "Oh, no!" reveals and out-of-nowhere payoffs, instead of a really satisfying conclusion. It's the old bait and switch. Or maybe just a screenwriter who didn't trust his own characters, who felt the need to go silly instead of sentimental when it counted most.


Directors: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Screenwriter: Dan Fogelman

Cast incudes: Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Analeigh Tipton, Jonah Bobo, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon, Beth Littleford, John Carroll Lynch, Liza Lapira, Joey King and Josh Groban.

Running time: 1:58
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Currently playing at Carmike Palace Cinema 10, Starplex Normal Stadium 14 and Wehrenberg Bloomington Galaxy 14 Cinema.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Jon Benjamin Has a Van AND an ISU Alum on Comedy Central

The amazing Pete Guither, whose official title is, I believe Assistant Dean for Communications and Facilities, College of Fine Arts, Illinois State University, shared an interesting communication a day or two ago.

It seems that an ISU alum named Gary Wilmes has a role on a TV series called JON BENJAMIN HAS A VAN airing on Comedy Central, Wednesdays at 9:30 Central time. Wilmes posted a Facebook notice about his show, asking people to a) watch and b) pass along the news, both to get more viewers for JON BENJAMIN HAS A VAN and to test the new social media waters.

From Wilmes' appeal:

"I happen to be on a show you probably never heard of.

If you know me, you know I don't ask for much. If you don't know me, you received this because you know someone who does know me. Or someone who knows someone who knows someone who...

The show is Jon Benjamin Has A Van.

It's on the bubble and needs viewers tomorrow night [Wednesday, August 3] at 10:30 pm est on Comedy Central. Just before the Daily Show.

If you can watch it, great. If you have to set your dvrs, cool. And if you can't do either, please re post this post. I'm asking you to make this post go viral.

Share it on your wall. Ask your friends to share it on their wall. Post it. Link it. Like it. Question it. I'm curious to know if this social media gorilla can actually make a difference."

So there you have it.

Gary Wilmes"

You can see video clips here as well as more information in general about JON BENJAMIN HAS A VAN, billed as an "inventive, irreverent and hilarious narrative/fake news magazine comedy show." Comedy Central's site also says, "Each show is a new adventure where Jon unwittingly becomes part of a story he's investigating. From hard hitting news to the softer side of human interest stories Jon, and his van, are there. Hop in!"

Remember: JON BENJAMIN HAS A VAN airs on Comedy Central on Wednesdays at 10:30 pm Eastern/9:30 pm Central. And Gary Wilmes, an ISU alum, is in it, even though he is not the naked one with wings in the picture above and he may or may not be in the van. I do know he plays a character named Dave Kneebone, but not his relationship with either Jon Benjamin or the van. I guess we'll all have to watch it to find out.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Gaily Tripping, Lightly Skipping... Kevin Paul Wickart on "H.M.S. Pinafore"

My friend Kevin Paul Wickart has shared his theatrical experiences with us before, as you may recall. Here is Kevin again, this time on the subject of "H.M.S Pinafore" with Prairie Fire Theatre, in which Kevin plays Sir Joseph Porter.

This article already resides in Topsy-Turvydom in that it is essentially a review of a show that has not yet opened. I will hold this Gilbertian convention by continuing the article more or less backwards.

WHO: Prairie Fire Theatre
WHAT: H.M.S. Pinafore, by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
WHEN: August 5-7 and 13-14; Sunday performances at 3:00pm, all others at 7:30pm.
WHERE: The stage at Normal Community High School
TICKETS: Adults $18.00; Seniors (60+) $15.00; Students (incl. college) $10.00. Group discounts available. Tickets may be purchased at the door.

If you are a devotee of Gilbert & Sullivan's work, you will love this production; if not, ditto. Either way, you will be entertained.

How can I be so certain of this statement? When I first told my musical theatre friends that Prairie Fire was producing Pinafore in the summer, the conversation pretty much echoed one of the running jokes in the show:

"We're doing Pinafore in August."
"What, again?"
"Yes, again."
"What, again?"
"Well...sort of."

Trust me--if you're a G&S fan, you're probably rolling on the floor right now.

To the uninitiated, hearing the best-known works of G&S described as "operettas" equates them with opera, and thus evokes the image of a lot of people standing around and singing very high or very low about subjects that are incomprehensible unless you understand Italian or German.

However, Gilbert & Sullivan were not of that ilk. They wrote of themes to which the common man could relate; they were social commentators. In a very weird way, they were the Monty Python's Flying Circus of the Victorian Era. Their themes are absurd, their situations ridiculous, but they make a very telling point with regard to social convention. There is an edge to the humor. The music is grand, intricate and powerful; it lifts the spirit, crushes the soul and draws the laugh with equal facility. It was groundbreaking stuff for the late 1800's, and is the reason G&S are held with such esteem.

This esteem, unfortunately, has led to many directors of Gilbert & Sullivan playing the ends of the directorial spectrum. They either stage a production dripping with so much respect for the writers that the humor ends up hiding below-decks, or let it all drift into such a campy mess that the cast's constant winking at the audience comes near to triggering seizures. In light of this, it's hard to fault the people whose eyes glaze over when you mention G&S; to them it's more like G&S&M.

For the current Prairie Fire production, Gwen De Veer (in her directorial debut) strikes a wonderful balance. She clearly "gets" what G&S were going for in writing this operetta, and brings that out in the cast performances. She is also a trained actress and singer, and so allows the cast members to explore their own ideas for their characters without compromising her vision for the show. The result is a show in which the cast is thoroughly invested from overture to grand finale. Joyous performances and often-madcap antics are held together (and occasionally under control) by amazing vocal performances, all of it remaining in context and focused on the central themes of the libretto. This may be one of the truest presentations of Gilbert and Sullivan's material. Don't believe me? Come see the show and then compare it to the events shown in the G&S pseudo-biopic "Topsy-Turvy." You'll be better for both experiences.

For those of you who are not familiar with H.M.S. Pinafore (or, as I was until about two months ago, eternally confusing it with Pirates of Penzance), here's the basic plot:

Captain Corcoran of the British vessel H.M.S. Pinafore has a beautiful daughter, Josephine, who he plans to marry off to the First Lord of the Royal Navy--the Right Honorable Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B. Josephine, however, is in love with Ralph Rackstraw, one of her father's low-born sailors; and he loves her in turn. She understands the restrictions of class, agrees to abide by her father's wishes, and vows that Ralph will never know of her feelings for him. Mistaking her hesitation in accepting his proposal as concern over his "exalted rank," Sir Joseph assures her that "love is a platform upon which all ranks meet." Thus heartened, Josephine confesses her love to Ralph and they plan to elope. Captain Corcoran is tipped off to their plan by his most hideous seaman, Dick Deadeye, and rushes to stop them. Sir Joseph discovers the plot and it appears as if nobody will live happily ever after...but for a dark secret revealed by an unexpected source.

Josephine is played by both Lindsay Eckhardt and Carolyn Pircon; each brings a powerful soprano voice to the role, as well as a unique blend of poised Englishwoman and petulant girl-child. Her father, Captain Corcoran, is portrayed by Brandon Albee with appropriate fatherly concern tinged with a bit of ambitious toadying. Michael Schneider is the remarkably fine fellow Ralph Rackstraw, projecting emotional earnestness and almost terminal bewilderment as events unfold around him. The role of Buttercup is also double-cast with Kate Rozycki and Jennifer Lumsdon, who each have a solidly different take on the flirtatious and yet matronly. In the catalytic role of Sir Joseph Porter, we have Yours Truly. With so many earnest and serious characters already on deck, I opted for a more unconventional portrayal that is supported by the director. Another catalyst is Dick Deadeye, played for all its self-aware grotesqueness by Matt Skibo. Rounding out the primary cast is Cousin Hebe, leader of Sir Joseph's entourage of female relatives, played to the fawning hilt by both Dana Anderson and Samm Bettis. Supporting them is a chorus of more than a dozen excellent voices and actors as the crew of the Pinafore and the rest of the relatives. Far from the frequent "park and bark" type of chorus, these folks are an active part of every scene.

Casting was based primarily upon vocal ability, and this comes out in the music that makes up 85% of the show. The performances are joyous, earnest and honest. As a cast we are having the time of our lives on stage; we're certain you'll do the same in the audience.

So there you have it -- all the reasons you need to see H.M.S. Pinafore this weekend or next, charmingly provided by Mr. Kevin Paul Wickart. Thanks, Kevin! For more information, including ticket info, click here.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Happy August to Me!

See the chimpanzee and the birthday cake up there? I used that art last year to accompany my "What's happening in August" blog, since August is my birth month and I've always liked monkeys. And that post got a ton of hits. It's still getting hits.

I can't imagine any reason people would still be interested in reading about what was going on in August, 2010, in Bloomington-Normal, so I have to think it's the chimp and the birthday cake that's drawing all the hits. And that is why I'm using it again, as a test, to see if it will do the same thing this year. (My friend Kathleen has noticed the same phenomenon with hedgehogs in her blog.)

For those of you actually interested in finding out what's happening this month, feel free to ignore the monkey and read on.

August is traditionally a slow month in local theaters, as summer seasons wind down and everybody clears the decks for fall. But there are certainly options if you're in a theater-going mood.

First up, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival has one more week and six performances to go. There are two opportunities left to see their luminous "Romeo and Juliet," romping "Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged)" and emotional "Winter's Tale." I especially liked Deb Alley's production of "The Winter's Tale," set in the Empire period, and I recommend you catch it while you can.

"The 39 Steps" also continues through this weekend at Urbana's Station Theater. This funny, silly farce, using four actors to portray way more than 39 characters, is well worth a visit.

Performing outside at Miller Park, the BCPA Spotlight Theatre Camp has one weekend left of "Schoolhouse Rock," where you'll learn about conjunctions and verbs and How a Bill Becomes a Law, all in the zippiest way possible.

When it comes to new shows in August, Prairie Fire and their "HMS Pinafore" should be first on your list. It opens August 5th and runs through the 14th, with performances at Normal Community High School Auditorium, 3900 East Raab Road, Normal. Kevin Paul Wickart, one of the stars of the show, will tell you more about this "Pinafore" tomorrow, so tune in for that one right here at A Follow Spot.

New Route Theatre continues its "One Shot Deal Series" with "Send in the Light," their flagship production, conceived and written by Don Shandrow with songs by Phil Shaw and incidental music by David Berchtold. Shandrow describes the show as, "a celebration of the change electricity brought to rural America in the 1930's" and invites you to join New Route Theatre at the Eaton Gallery on August 10th at 7 pm to experience that light.

Over in Champaign, the Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company will present "The Music Man" August 4-14 on the Parkland College Stage.

If you are already itching to get your fall plans in shape, you can buy your tickets to Community Players' "And Then There Were None," get season tickets to Heartland Theatre, peruse the fall schedules for ISU and IWU, and check out the Normal Theater's brand-new website.

As for me, I will be celebrating my birthday and my anniversary and trying to find a nice chimp to blow out the candles.