Friday, September 30, 2011

"Merchant of Venice" Meets "My Man Godfrey" at ISU's Westhoff Theatre

I am not among those put off by setting Shakespeare in other times and places than, say, Elizabethan England. So if you want to put your "Tempest" on the moon in 2525, or your "Much Ado" in the Wild Wild West in 1885, I'm down with that. As long as you make it work.

When Joshua Sobol directed "The Merchant of Venice" at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival nine years ago, he set the play in Mussolini's Italy, with the Duke becoming Il Duce, Shylock plotting desperately to keep his daughter safe, and Portia and Antonio both passing as genders they were not in order to get by in dangerous Fascist times. Sobol didn't change a word of the text, yet he made this difficult play seem totally and completely new. He also made it work.

ISU's Jeremy Garrett chooses a setting not too far from Sobol's with his "Merchant of Venice," which seems to be teetering in the false prosperity of the late 1920s, just before the New York Stock Market Crash in 1929 plunged the world into the Great Depression. Portia is fashionable and lovely in an emerald green slipper satin gown, Antonio (the merchant) is dapper in a bowler hat, and servants twirl in and out to the tune of "Puttin' on the Ritz."

Program notes from the dramaturg (Andrew Rogalny, Jr, who also plays Antonio) tell us that this "Merchant" intends to show the gap between the moneyed classes and the have-nots, with the former dithering around when they should've paid attention to the poverty and misery rising on every side. Rogalny writes, "Their extreme goals turn them into a group of people who are so selfish and blind that they don't even notice that their world is decaying and falling apart all around them." If you are like me, you are thinking that that description sounds a lot more like "My Man Godfrey" than "The Merchant of Venice," especially given the slipper satin and blithe insouciance.

Still, it's an interesting idea, and it does fit the general notion of commerce behind Antonio, the merchant in "Merchant," who borrows cash from Shylock, the Jewish money-lender, and then can't pay it back, which means he is supposed to forfeit "a pound of flesh." It also seems right when we see pretty Portia treating her suitors shabbily or Bassanio recklessly using his friend's money to woo the girl or Antonio's pals casually throwing off insults and epithets. They're wealthy, white and Christian, so the world can't touch them, right? But then... As time wears on, the petty rich people acting all petty begins to overwhelm the real story, and in general, we lose focus on Shylock except for his big "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech. By the time we get to the pivotal trial (wherein Shylock asks for the pound of flesh he's owed), there's no reason that this Portia would show up dressed as a boy and wow the court.

It also means that 90% of the play -- when the merchant and his pals are fooling around and Bassanio is wooing Portia -- is simply there to show that these people are vapid and silly before the real world intrudes at the very end. But we don't want to spend 90% of our time joking around with the Mean Kids. Or at least I don't. And the coup de theatre ending, when the veil is drawn back and we see reality, is more jarring than dramatically satisfying.

That kind of socko ending has been fashionable for awhile, getting tacked onto plays like "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," with a guillotine at the end to underline the precarious position of the aristos, or "An Inspector Calls" and "Indiscretions," where the entire set falls down, or even newer versions of "Cabaret," which include naked, shivering prisoners lining up for the showers at a death camp as the final image. But those stage pictures fit those plays. I'm not convinced that the picture of huddled masses yearning to breathe free adds anything to "The Merchant of Venice." And I'm certainly not behind adding news-announcer voice-overs or add-libbed chit chat to shoehorn Shakespeare into 1929*.

In the end, Garrett deserves credit for going all out with his idea and staying consistent to his vision, even if he can't quite pull it off. It makes for vivid performances, with Rogalny as a precise, suppressed Antonio, clearly harboring a crush on his BFF Bassanio, Alex Kostner's Bassanio all boyish charm and dimples and Claire Ford looking absolutely fabulous in Portia's emerald green gown and Charlie Chaplin-ish when she heads to court dressed as a man. As Shylock, Owais Ahmed makes the most of his big speech and draws our sympathy in court.

By William Shakespeare

Illinois State University School of Theatre
Westhoff Theatre

Director: Jeremy Garrett
Scenic Designer: John C. Stark
Costume Designer: Carol Zhou
Lighting Designer: Michelle Benda
Sound Designer: Allen Erjavic
Text Coach: Henry Woronicz
Dramaturgs: Lijing Pei and Andrew Rogalny, Jr.
Stage Manager: Hanna Supanic-Winter

Cast includes: Andrew Rogalny, Jr., Anthony Ballweg, Brody Murray, Carlos Kmet, Alex Kostner, Devon Nimerfroh, Brad Berry, Derek Finney, Jared Kugler, Andy Hudson, Claire Ford, Amanda Rogowski, Owais Ahmed, Matty Robinson, Molly Briggs, Gaby Labotka, Kris Turner, Kyle McClevey, Sara Shifflet and Omar Shamma.

Running time: 2:30, with one 15-minute intermission

Remaining performances: September 30, October 1 and October 4-8 at 7:30 pm and October 8 at 2 pm.

Box office information.

*I was reminded of the legend about the 1929 film version of "The Taming of the Shrew" that supposedly had a credit at the end that said: "By William Shakespeare, with additional dialogue by Samuel Taylor."

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Secrets, Lies and "The Children's Hour" at IWU

Although Lillian Hellman wrote her play, "The Children's Hour," in 1934, its overriding issue of the destructive power of rumor and innuendo may seem better suited to the Red Scare period in the 1950s, when whispers and lies about who might be a Commie ruined many a career.

In "The Children's Hour," it's the word of a malicious, spoiled child that undermines the adults, destroying the careers -- and personal lives -- of teachers Karen Wright and Martha Dobie. The two have been friends since they were 17, planning carefully all those years to open a school for girls. Their dream has been realized when the play opens, but there are problems. Martha's vain, flighty aunt is ensconced as a teacher, even though she is clearly not suited for it, and one student, Mary Tilford, continues to cause trouble. She's late, she lies, she uses bullying and blackmail with the other girls to get what she wants, and she really, really doesn't like the way Karen and Martha try to control her behavior.

Unfortunately, Mary also has a rich grandmother who wields a lot of power and influence when it comes to the school.

After a clash of wills with her teachers that doesn't go her way, Mary runs away. When her grandmother says she has to go back to the school, Mary concocts a story about illicit kisses and "funny noises" coming from Karen's room late at night, building a big lie about lesbian love out of some ill-chosen words fellow pupils overheard coming from the silly aunt. Grandma buys the story and starts dialing the parents and guardians of other students, getting everybody yanked from the school without raising a sweat.

Martha's and Karen's dream of a school is in ruins, and suspicion clouds them every way they turn. Even Karen's stalwart boyfriend, Dr. Joe Cardin, begins to crack. It's like a snowball of lies rolling downhill, picking up speed and smashing everything as it goes.

Interestingly, Hellman based her play on a real story, where a young girl spread exactly that sort of rumor about two teachers in Scotland in the early 19th century. They sued and won, but the damage couldn't be undone.

So is this play about the power of lies? About the danger in witch-hunts? A warning about sociopathic children? A plea for tolerance when it comes to sexuality? Or just Lillian Hellman's attempt to write a crackerjack of a play, full of conflict and drama?

For Illinois Wesleyan's MacPherson Theatre, director Thomas Quinn has dressed his "Children's Hour" to look like the 50s, perhaps to make the witch-hunt connection more clear. He's also directed his actors to go at the material at a very speedy clip in the early going, giving it a period feel, and then to slow it down a bit after intermission. That makes the play feel snappy and sharp and in-period at the out-set, and more surreal as we near the harrowing conclusion. Billowing fog (called "theatrical haze" in the program) also adds to the murky, unbalanced feel in the second half (although I think there was a bit too much smoke, as several of us were worried there was an actual fire backstage for awhile).

Quinn's cast is also sharp and on point, with Christine Polich very pale and very pretty as Karen, Michael Holding giving good Dr. Joe the right moral fiber, Abigail Root very sneaky indeed as bad, bad Mary, Roz Prickel showing the layers in misguided Mrs. Tilford, and Chantericka Tucker, Angela Jos and Sammi Grant playing just young and immature enough to make their roles as young teens work. Elaina Henderson shows a lot of strength and power as Martha, but she also seems a bit too high-strung right from the beginning, telegraphing what's to come, while Kirsten Anderson's Aunt Lily is certainly flaky and theatrical, befitting the low-rent actress Lily is supposed to be, even as she looks too young and pretty for someone who's supposed to have been around a while.

Scenic Designer Aaron O'Neill has created a warm and cozy drawing room that can turn bare and cold when it needs to, while Caiti Frantzis's costumes set the proper 50s tone and define character as well. (Hint: Look who gets feminine full skirts and who has slim pencil skirts. Discuss.) Krystal Martinez's lighting design also adds to the stage pictures effectively, especially in the closing image, when there are deep shadows cast across Karen's silent, still form.

"The Children's Hour" is an old-fashioned sort of show, where good and evil are clearly drawn, where a small comment early on neatly turns the plot later on, where everybody will be speechifying sooner or later. But that doesn't mean it isn't also a good show, illustrating how words become drama in the hands of someone like Lillian Hellman.

By Lillian Hellman

Illinois Wesleyan University School of Theatre Arts
McPherson Theatre

Director: Thomas Quinn
Scenic Designer: Aaron O'Neill
Costume Designer: Caiti Frantzis
Lighting Designer: Krystal Martinez
Sound Designer: Ian Scarlato

Cast: Christine Polich, Elaina Henderson, Michael Holding, Abigail Root, Roz Prickel, Kirsten Andersen, Amanda Williams, Chantericka Tucker, Angela Jos, Sammi Grant, Rachel Grimes, Lizzie Rainville, Abby Dryden, Elliott Plowman, Fiona Peterson-Quinn, Delia Kerr-Dennhart.

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

Remaining performances: September 28-30 and October 1 at 8 pm and October 2 at 2pm.

Box office information.

Monday, September 26, 2011

New Fall TV: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I like television. I really do. And I'm pretty much of an equal opportunity TV fan, meaning over the years, I have watched and loved all the usual suspects, from cop shows to lawyer shows, sit coms, soap operas, reality TV, sci fi, musical shows, talent competitions, games, variety shows, docudramas, news mags, award shows...

I eagerly await the fall premieres every year, hoping against hope that this will be the year a new "Mad Men" or "Parks & Recreation" or "Downton Abbey" shows up. I'd even take a new "History Detectives" or "Project Runway." (Or, you know, "Remington Steele" or "Arrested Development," favorites of yesteryear.)

So far? Well, if I haven't seen any 4-star shows yet, I have found a few I'd give 2-and-a-half. (And, no, I am not including "Two and a Half Men," a show I have never watched an entire episode of and have no intention of starting now. Although I said I was an equal opportunity viewer, I kind of lied. The smirky, macho comedy boys-will-be-boys shows have never been my thing and I don't intend to subject myself to that now, either. But it's not a new show, even with a new star, and I'm really limiting this discussion to the brand-new stuff.)

Let's just go down the line, shall we?

I tried "The Playboy Club," on NBC Mondays at 10/9 Central, hoping for the best since it stars Broadway star Laura Benanti, who is both gorgeous and insanely talented, but alas, I only lasted six minutes before its ham-handed attempt at story-telling and creepy misogyny sent me speeding away. Do I think it's a "Mad Men" rip-off? It wishes it were that good. I wish it were that good. It ain't. My conclusion: Not even for Laura Benanti.

I also tried the much-anticipated new Sarah Michelle Gellar project, a woman-in-jeopardy/identical twins thriller/soap called "Ringer," playing Tuesdays at 9 pm Eastern/8 Central on the CW, Gellar's old "Buffy" network. Gellar plays both Bridget, the twin who has been living a seedy life as a stripper and is now on the run after witnessing a murder, and Siobhan, married to a rich man and doing the sophisticated Manhattan socialite thing. So Siobhan takes a dive and Bridget hides out by pretending to be Siobhan (you can't have an identical twins plot without the two of them switching places), except then Bridget discovers that Siobhan's life is just as dangerous as her own. Uh oh. I watched the entire first episode, so that's something right there. On the positive side: SMG is always watchable, even if neither of her characters here is very compelling or very sympathetic. Plus there are a heck of a lot of cute guys hanging around, with Ioan Gruffudd and Nestor Carbonell at the top of the list. Negatives: Way too many characters introduced too quickly, meaning all those cute guys run together and we're not sure which ones to keep an eye on. None of those characters, including Siobhan and Bridget, are fully drawn, meaning I didn't much care to find out what happened to them. Although 85-pound women are often cast as butt-kicking action heroes on TV, SMG is particularly tough to take as she overpowers and kicks hitmen into trunks without benefit of other-wordly vampire-hunter powers. And there is way too much mirror-gazing. I submit Romance Writer Rule #74, which states irrevocably that Mirror-Gazing Is a Never a Good Way to Advance Plot. My conclusion: Good enough to try once, but probably not a keeper.

Like "The Playboy Club," I only lasted a few minutes with "New Girl," the Zooey Deschanel vehicle on Fox on Tuesdays at 9/8 Central. After "300 Days of Summer," everybody should know that Zooey D. is a love her/hate her proposition. She falls in the Adorable Imp category, where every bat of the eyelashes, every quirky moue, every chirp and warble, makes some people love her, but makes me want to hitch a ride to Haterville. My conclusion: Please don't make me watch her again.

Speaking of Haterville... Someone at the CW thought it was a cool idea to base a show around that. It's called "H8er," and it's on Wednesday nights at 8/7 Central, with real-life "celebs" confronting people who intensely dislike them based on their public personae. I'm not sure about the point of this show, but there is no amount of money that could get me to watch an hour of Snookis and Kardashians converting people who don't like them, so... My conclusion: No, no, and never.

"Up All Night," on NBC on Wednesdays at 8/7 Central, has the benefit of Christina Applegate, Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph, all charming, talented actors, and the burden of being about new parents trying to deal with baby issues like barf and diapers. Mostly it's about having to act like adults because of parenthood and balancing work/family issues. No new ground there. I watched the first episode, finding the performers as cute and funny as expected, and the comedy fresher than I expected. The baby stuff isn't my favorite kind of comedy, but the show was pleasant enough. My conclusion: Not going to make it appointment TV, but I would watch again if it was on and I was home and nothing else appealed to me.

"Free Agents," on NBC after "Up All Night" on Wednesdays, also has a comedy star of note in Hank Azaria, who plays Alex, a recently divorced man who sort of accidentally has sex with a co-worker, played by Kathryn Hahn, and then has to deal with all the awkwardness and fallout. I watched it. I remember nothing. My conclusion: Okay, but only okay.

ABC dips into classic novels, riffing on "The Count of Monte Cristo" with "Revenge," where a young woman played by Emily Van Camp comes back to the Hamptons under an assumed name to destroy the people who betrayed her father years ago. There are some very interesting actors in this one -- Madeleine Stowe and Henry Czerny, for starters -- but I'm not sure Van Camp is a compelling enough actress to carry this kind of premise. Like "Ringer," I watched the whole first episode, but I'm not sure I'll tune in again. My conclusion: Maybe. Maybe not.

The CW strikes again Thursdays at 9/8 Central, with "The Secret Circle," a spooky show about a small town chock full of teen witches and supernatural happenings. Britt Robertson stars as Cassie, the new girl in town who seems to be the key to unleashing a new generation of witchy activity, with Gale Harold as the very scary bad guy who wields fire and explosions against people he doesn't like. This show is too young for me, but perfect for CW fans who want some sort of "90210" meets "The Vampire Diaries" cross. My conclusion: Entertaining, but so not intended for me.

"Person of Interest," with the divine Michael Emerson, has found a spot on CBS's Thursday night schedule at 9/8 Central. Jim Caviezel stars as a former military man who wound up living on the streets in an undefined, post-9-11 dystopic New York City, where there are security cameras everywhere, recording every time somebody sneezes. Caviezel's mystery man is picked up by a rich techno-genius named Finch, played by Emerson, who has his finger on the pulse of upcoming crime. "Person of Interest" has a complicated premise and a dark view of crime and punishment, but it also seemed different from other cops-and-robbers shows out there, with excellent work from both Emerson and Caviezel, as well as Susan Misner as a woman who shows up in the mystery man's memory. I don't think we know for sure that her character is dead, or maybe I'm just hoping. The only downside to "Person of Interest" is that it's scheduled opposite "Parks & Recreation," which I love. My conclusion: The DVR will be kicking in for sure.

I also liked "Pan Am," the other back-to-the-60s show launching this season. I'm not sure I'm buying the idea that this Retro Flight Attendants show is about female empowerment, but its female characters are at least somewhat intriguing, especially Christina Ricci, who always brings a rich inner life to her characters. The surprise (at least to me) subplot about undercover spies turned out to really spark my interest. "Pan Am" airs Sundays at 10/9 Central on ABC. My conclusion: Yes, I am totally flying those skies.

I am not planning on trying out "Whitney," which looks terrible in its omnipresent commercials, or the reboot of "Charlie's Angels," which I disliked the first time around, or Simon Cowell's heavily-promoted "X Factor," which is so not my thing. That leaves me with "2 Broke Girls," "Unforgettable," "Prime Suspect" and "A Gifted Man," still untried, and four more new shows bowing this week. Will I manage to keep my head above water? Or drown under a flood of premieres?

Stay tuned!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Farewell to Pine Valley

"All My Children" was the popular soap among the junior high crowd in the early 70s, at least at my school. We would see it all summer and on sick days and holidays, and then chat about Phil and Tara and Nick and Ann on the bus every day. I've lost track of the goings-on in Pine Valley quite a few times, especially after things got a bit tortured there in the 90s (or whenever Jenny blew up on her jet-ski), but I managed to come back often enough to generally know who was married to whom and what was happening.

The funny thing is, right from the start, I hated Erica Kane. Not "love to hate," just "yeah, why is this character eating the show?" I did like her first husband, Jeff, and the actor who played him. (That would Charles Frank.) He dumped Erica quickly enough and matched up with a too-nice nurse played by Susan Blanchard, Frank's real-life wife. So Jeff and Mary got married and they were the ones who brought Tad (later to be Tad the Cad and one of the show's major players when Michael Knight took over the role) onto the show. I've always missed Jeff and resented Erica for taking all the focus with her.

So, yeah, "All My Children" has not been the story of the posh Tylers and the stalwart Martins for some time, as The Kane Women and the Chandlers and Cortlandts took over. I admit, I loved Brooke and Tom and even Palmer and Daisy, with all the crazy Gothic goings-on at Cortlandt Manor. And even as I drifted in and out over the years, I still felt a certain happiness in knowing that Pine Valley would always be there, somebody would be serving up Grandma Kate's cookies in the Martin kitchen, somebody's separated-at-birth twin would be arriving, somebody's child-they-never-knew-they-had would knock at the door, somebody presumed dead would throw back the sheet in the morgue and stand up, and somebody else would be vying for the hand of Erica Kane. (Yeah, I even got used to her over the years.)

When ABC and its horribly incompetent head of daytime, one Brian Frons, announced that they were canceling "All My Children" earlier this year, I wasn't surprised, although I was sad. You just can't knock off a show that I've been watching on and off since 1970 and expect no pangs, no trauma, no blaming and kvetching and anger. Those of us who grew up on "All My Children" feel, as Jezebel contributor Margaret Hartmann put it, feel a bit like your parents just sold the house you grew up in. "Even if you haven't lived there in years, there's a part of you that felt like it would always be there, and it's sad to know it's gone," writes Hartmann.

The worst part is that the final episode wasn't really that great. Perhaps to leave alive the possibility of transferring the soap to the internet by a company called Prospect Park, creator Agnes Nixon and her staff decided to go with a cliff-hanger. Or two cliff-hangers. There's an emotional party and some proper toasts and goodbyes, as well as the character of JR Chandler, drunk as a skunk, hiding in a secret passageway with a gun. Boom/gunshot. And fade to black. Who did he shoot? Who knows? I guess we'll have to wait till 2012 to see if there's a continuation of this story. If negotiations with Prospect Park go well. If enough actors and writers go with the show to the net. If it's any good once it gets there. If it gets there at all. If, if, if.

In the meantime, we bid a fond farewell to Pine Valley, and a what may be a final farewell to Joe and Ruth, Jeff and Tad and Jake, Jenny and Greg, Angie and Jesse, Phoebe, Ann and Linc, That Odious Nick Davis, Mealy-Mouth Mary Kennicott, Adam and Stuart, Brooke, Tom, Mark, Benny, Tara and Phil, Billy Clyde Tuggle, Kitty and Kelly, Myrtle Fargate, Langley Wallingford, Grandma Kate, Mona and Charles, Kendall and Zach, Bianca, Marissa, JR, Marian, Liza, Colby, Jackson, Donna and Estelle, Ellen, Devon, Palmer, Daisy, Opal, Nina and Cliff, Trevor, Natalie and Janet, Hayley and Mateo, Noah and Julia, Maria, Edmund, Dmitri, Leo, Gillian the princess, Jeremy the mysterious Frenchman, Laurel, Vanessa, Charlie, Skye, Will, Derek and Livia, Hillary, Emily Ann, An Li, Scott, Brian, Ross, lovely Simone with her awesome hair, crazy Dr. Heyward... And Harold the dog. You were all the bomb. I think you deserved a better sign-off, with at least a tribute to Ruth Warrick and some of the other central characters from the early years, but I guess you take what you get when the suits at ABC decide to pull the plug.

I'll just sit here remembering the glory days when Bobby Martin went upstairs to look for his skis and never came down. Wouldn't it be great if the net "All My Kids" started when Bobby comes down those stairs, now in his 60s, toting his skis, looking around and asking, "What happened while I was gone?"

It's an idea, Prospect Park.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Trust Me: You Gotta Get a Copy of "Sweet Bye and Bye"

My friend Jon sent me a copy of "Sweet Bye and Bye," the new PS Classics release, a while ago, and I have been listening to it and loving it ever since, planning to write about it here and share my love, but somehow, I keep putting it off. Is it because I don't want to share? Because I fear not being able to capture the delight and charm in this particular recording? Still not sure. But I am trying to be a stable adult and get over it, just because this is one cd that definitely needs to be out there. Everyone who loves musical theater and the history of musical theater needs to give it a listen, read the liner notes and take in in the singular phenomenon that is "Sweet Bye and Bye."

I mentioned the liner notes right up front because Tommy Krasker, mastermind behind PS Classics, has written especially good notes for this cd. Krasker tells the whole crazy story of how this misguided musical came into existence, as a collaboration among the unlikely quartet of S.J. Perelman, the biting humorist and author who was best known for short New Yorker pieces; Al Hirschfeld, AKA "The Line King," the famous caricaturist who captured generations of Broadway performers in his drawings; poet and wit Ogden Nash; and Vernon Duke, the Russian composer who wrote such hits as "April in Paris" and "Taking a Chance on Love" as well as the scores for about 20 Broadway shows.

Perelman and Hirschfeld started first on the libretto side of the equation, coming up with an idea for a musical set in the future, when a time capsule from the 1939 New York World's Fair is opened. Inside the time capsule is a document giving control of the Futurosy candy empire to a lowly tree surgeon named Solomon Bundy. Their comic targets were the future they imagined, the idea of an unassuming guy thrust into the spotlight, and the terrible people at the top of the heap, the movers and shakers, especially the ones running corporations.

The score, with Duke's lovely music and Nash's pithy lyrics, was full of all kinds of nifty songs that defined Solomon and his confusion in dealing with a world full of change, the lovely Diana Janeway, a savvy woman who specializes in making over men who want to make it to the top, and villainous Egon Pope, the current GM at Futurosy. But that score didn't fit the Perelman-and-Hirschfeld slapstick-and-gags book. At all.

Cue the conflict music.

If the fact that the book didn't fit the score at all wasn't enough of a problem, casting certainly was. The first person cast as Solomon Bundy, a man named Gene Sheldon, was more of a vaudeville comic than an actor, and the score took even more hits to accommodate his less-than-brilliant talents. And Pat Kirkwood, the actress cast as Diana, had a nervous breakdown during the third week of rehearsals, trying to kill herself and getting shipped off to a mental institution. (The official report was that she withdrew due to the flu.)

The more suitable Dolores Gray took over as Diana, solving one problem, but there was still the issue of the wrong man playing Solomon. On opening night at the first out-of-town try-out in New Haven, Sheldon apparently decided to abandon the book altogether, instead performing some of his (silent) vaudeville shtick, including pretending to sew his fingers together. When Sheldon made his first exit, Krasker tells us that an irate S.J. Perelman threw the hapless comic into a brick wall, knocking him cold. This time, the official story was an attack of appendicitis. Sheldon was replaced by the stage manager, carrying the script, for the rest of the New Haven run.

By the time they got to Philadelphia, they had another Solomon Bundy in Erik Rhodes, who you may remember as Tonetti, the Italian co-respondent in "The Gay Divorcee," who delivered the infamous line, "Your wife, she is safe with Tonetti -- he prefer spaghetti." He was certainly better than Sheldon, but he still wasn't very good, and there were major holes in the show. Which meant that massive changes to the book and score -- tossing out songs, tossing out scenes, reassigning songs, sticking in new scenes -- just kept coming. Finally, with changes on top of changes and the script and score in tatters, the producer pulled the plug. No New York for "Sweet Bye and Bye."

Against all that drama, the actual story inside "Sweet Bye and Bye" pales by comparison, even if there is all kinds of satire and snap in this Gint/Candide tale of a good guy (Solomon Bundy) corrupted by power, set loose on the world, accosted by space tramps, venal executives and violent Eskimos, and finally reuniting with the woman he loves. It's not the cleanest plotline in the world, but it is unique. If anybody revives this show (and I certainly hope somebody does), it would be even more entertaining to add all the confusion and craziness behind the scenes as a framing device. Or maybe not. How much revision can one libretto take?

In any event, Tommy Krasker found "Sweet Bye and Bye" and its many versions fascinating. He loved what of the score he could find, but had no orchestrations and had to trip through no less than eight versions of the script. That made restoring "Sweet Bye and Bye" more than just a challenge. As the years rolled by, Krasker took on that monumental task, hiring an orchestrator, acquiring permissions from all the right heirs and assigns, and piecing together a semi-coherent whole from all the different takes on a plot.

He ended up sticking to what Duke and Nash had come up with for the most part, and it actually does make sense, even if their robots-and-spaceliners vision of 2076 seems sweetly archaic. But Philip Chaffin makes Solomon Bundy sound wistful and adorable, Marin Mazzie is snazzy as the cynical Diana, and Danny Burstein brings down the house as the Ham of all Hams, Egon Pope.

The title song sets up the premise that we expect the future to solve all our problems, while Chaffin sounds warm and wistful on "Born Too Late," Bundy's lament about not really belonging in the modern world. Burstein's "Ham That I Am" is full of energy and humor, matched nicely by "Let's Be Young" (with Telly Leung, who appears on TV's "Glee" as a Warbler, at the forefront) and "It's Good," an anthem for hucksterism and con jobs, winningly performed by Chaffin and Jim Stanek as a futuristic hobo.

It's a bright, smart score that certainly deserves to be heard, even if I'm not totally on board with "Our Parents Forgot to Get Married," about the scummy underpinnings of the rich and powerful. Its lyrics (full of houses of ill repute, slutty farmers' daughters and rape) are just a little too icky for me.

Still, I'd love to see "Sweet Bye and Bye" in a full-out production on stage, to get a look at what a scenic designer and costumer might do with this Future Tale and its handy candy factory. I sincerely doubt that anybody anywhere could put together a cast like the one Krasker did (including stars like John Cullum, Edward Hibbert, Rebecca Luker and Heidi Blickenstaff in small roles) but it would be fun to see if finally, once and for all, "Sweet Bye and Bye" could see the light of day.

You can buy "Sweet Bye and Bye" at PS Classics and form your own opinion. But in mine, this strange little piece of musical theater history needs to be heard.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

One Week From Tonight... "The Children's Hour" at IWU

Tickets are now available for Illinois Wesleyan University's School of Theatre Arts' fall opener, Link"The Children's Hour." Lillian Hellman's 1934 play about the dark power of rumors and lies opens next Tuesday, September 27, at McPherson Theatre, with performances through Sunday, October 2.

Tom Quinn, who directed "Trojan Women" at McPherson Theatre last year, takes a very different look at women and children in "The Children's Hour," where Martha and Karen, two young teachers, struggle to keep their new boarding school up and running in the face of malicious behavior from a disobedient pupil. The student, Mary Tilford, doesn't want to do what her teachers tell her, so she twists some overheard words into a full-scale scandal, telling her indulgent grandmother, who happens to have money and influence, that Martha and Karen are lesbian lovers. Mary's grandmother starts spreading that story to other parents, too, who immediately yank their daughters out of the school. Martha and Karen protest their innocence, but the lies are already spiraling out of control, affecting Karen's relationship with her fiance and threatening every single thing in their lives.

"The Children's Hour" kind of upends that whole cliche about "Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you." Nasty little Mary Tilford is proof positive that words can definitely hurt.

For Illinois Wesleyan, Christine Polich plays Karen, with Elaina Henderson as Martha and Abby Root as little Mary, the lying liar who lies. Kirsten Andersen, Roz Prickel, Amanda Williams, Michael Holding, Rachel Grimes, Lizzie Rainville, Sammi Grant, Chantericka Tucker, Abby Dryden, Angela Jos, Elliott Plowman, Fiona Peterson-Quinn and Delia Kerr-Dennhart round out the cast.

Scenic Designer Aaron O’Neil will recreate the boarding school on stage at McPherson Theatre.

For more information on IWU's "The Children's Hour," click here. You'll find the whole 2011-12 schedule here with box office information here.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

If You Want to Write a Play About Playing Games...

I know it seems as if the book has barely closed on Heartland Theatre's "Back Porch" 10-minute play festival, with the wonderful Joe Strupek play "Don't Forget to Play My Numbers" and Bruce Boeck's lovely "Crickets." (Click here to see pictures if you want to refresh your "Back Porch" recollection.) But, believe it or not, Heartland's 11th annual 10-minute play contest is now open for submissions!

Here's what you need to know if you are thinking about writing a play on the theme "Playing Games" for this year's festival:

"Oh, the games people play...

Games of chance. Mind games. Game shows. Card games. Gaming the system. Big game. Ballgames. Even The Most Dangerous Game.

It seems to be hard-wired into the human psyche to bluff, plot, push, weep, wheedle, maneuver, manipulate and strategize to get what you want, whether the ultimate goal is winning the World Series of Poker, emerging as the head of the Five Families, nabbing the Miss Junebug title, shoving your brother aside for that inheritance, sliding into the last spot on the Olympic luge team, stealing the blue ribbon for your giant zucchini or finally, just once, beating your spouse at Charades.

Is it really about winning, losing, or how you play the game?

You have:

No more than 4 characters...
No more than 10 minutes...
And unlimited possibilities to write a winning play for Heartland Theatre’s Playing Games 10-Minute Play Festival."

The rules are available here, while Heartland makes a style sheet available here. You are well-advised to read and follow both if you want your play to have the best chance.

Good luck! And have fun playing this play-writing game!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

ISU Brings in Playwright, Stages Clothing Drive for "The Women of Lockerbie."

"The Women of Lockerbie," by Deborah Breevort, is the kind of play that really suits the college theater experience. The play acts like a Greek tragedy in performance, as its characters deal with the horror and sorrow that came after Pan Am flight 103, en route to New York from London, exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, the target of a terrorist's bomb. There is a mother, despairing and lost, searching for any hint of her son who died on board the plane, and a Greek chorus of women in Scotland, hoping to recover the clothing that was scattered on the ground when the plane blew up, so that they can wash these personal items and return them to the grieving relatives left behind.

"The Women of Lockerbie" opens on September 30th at ISU's Center for the Performing Arts, directed by Emily Gill, with a cast that includes Eliza Morris and Tori Allen. As a special addition to the production, playwright Deborah Brevoort will visit Illinois State University on October 4th and 5th. Breevort is scheduled to present a lecture on October 4, to attend that night's performance of the play, and she will stay after the show to discuss the play and respond to questions from the audience.

In keeping with the play's examination of what articles of clothing can mean on a human level, some of the people connected with the play have launched what they are calling "11,000 Pieces of Clothing," a drive to collect clothing for local charities. Their Facebook page notes, "From warm coats for school children to interview-wear for job hopefuls, we want to help everyone in the community feel the comfort that clothing brings." They've chosen the number 11,000 in honor of the women of Lockerbie, who cleaned and sorted that many garments.

You are encouraged to bring your clothing donations to performances of the play, and then tweet or post on the Facebook page linked above any personal message to explain why you chose that particular piece or what it meant to you.

It's a lovely idea, and a great way to bring the experience of "The Women of Lockerbie" even more alive.

"The Women of Lockerbie" plays from September 30 to October 8 at the Center for the Performing Arts on the ISU campus. Click here for ticket information.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Notes & News: Justice, FunRaising, Ted and Amber Rose

All kinds of things are happening around here that I just found out about.

Tomorrow, September 17th, playwright Michael Dice, Jr. and producer Brian Nitzkin, both alumni of ISU's School of Theatre, will workshop their new play, "Mother Justice," at Westhoff Theatre. "Mother Justice" tells the story of Doreen Quinn Giuliano, who began her own undercover investigation, turning her life upside-down, in an attempt to free her son after what she was sure was a wrongful conviction for murder. The playwrights apparently used a Vanity Fair article on Giuliano's "sting" as a starting point; you can read that article here. The performance is scheduled to begin at 7:30 pm, with a talkback immediately after. Sandi Zielinski, a professor from the ISU School of Theatre, directs a cast of ISU acting students.

Yes, you read that right. That's a FUN raiser, not a fund-raiser. Well, funds are involved, too. Community Players has issued this statement: "For 35 years Bruce Parrish has spent his spare time to Community Players. To acknowledge his anniversary, the theater has started a $35 for 35 'Fun' Raiser to provide needed repairs to the building. Items needed replacing or repairing include shop equipment, furnaces, sump pump drain, loading dock area, and ventilation for the prop shop and box office." Their goal is 1000 donations, and you can chip in by sending a check to Community Players, P.O. Box 1706, Bloomington, IL 61702-1706, or using a credit card at this link.

I have no idea how to describe the Theatre of Ted. Outrageous, maybe? Odd? They've been around for about 20 years, always "daring to suck" in their endeavors on the ISU campus. If you want to know what to expect, this is probably the best place to look. Scooby Doo, Star Trek, Living Canvas, nudity, sophomoric humor, brilliance, possibly poo-flinging monkeys... And you wonder why I don't know how to describe this? It appears that their newest show, "20,000 Leagues Under the Ted," has something to do with pirates or ships or maybe just bathtubs. You can see the preview video if you click on the link under the title up there. And then you can also check out the other Ted videos on youtube, of which there seem to be a lot. "20,000 Leagues Under the Ted" takes place in Centennial West 301 on Saturday, September 17th, at midnight.

ROUTE 66 FILM FESTIVAL (including "Amber Rose")
Champaign-Urbana filmmaker Mike Trippiedi has announced that his film, "Amber Rose," about a young girl who runs into trouble when she tries to contend with a new neighbor and her mom's new boyfriend, will be one of the entries in Springfield's Route 66 Film Festival. You can read my piece on "Amber Rose" here, watch the film's trailer here, or read an article about the Route 66 Film Festival here. This Festival takes place at the Hoogland Center for the Arts, 420 S. Sixth Street, in Springfield, with an opening party tonight and screenings all day Saturday and Sunday. The full festival schedule is available here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"The Diviners" at Heartland Goes on Your Don't-Miss List

Back in 1980, when he was an undergrad in college, Jim Leonard Jr. wrote a fairly simple play, peopled with down-home, regular folks trying to live their lives in a small town in Indiana in the 1930s. Leonard pitted a preacher who has left the pulpit (with no desire to go back) against a town starving for faith during trying times. At the center of the conflict for C.C. Showers, the last in a long line of men of the cloth, is his relationship with the members of the Layman family, which includes young Buddy, a traumatized boy who can find water even though he is terrified of it; his sister Jennie Mae, who takes care of Buddy, but also harbors a bit of a crush on the good-looking, charismatic preacher; and Ferris, their stubborn, good-hearted father, just doing the best he can to keep his family together.

I suppose Leonard chose the Depression-era setting as a way to make his characters’ situation that much more desperate, but all the talk of unemployment and economic woes certainly makes “The Diviners” feel timely today. As for the play’s prevailing issues of religion and who has the right to control other people’s relationships to God or the church, well, that sounds pretty current, too.

This is a play that truly belongs on the stage, as it needs tight direction, strong production values, and sympathetic performances to tell its story. I can't imagine its story coming off as vividly on the pages of a book or on film. There aren’t a lot of props or set pieces, and that only adds to the theatricality of the experience. But it also means that the script asks a lot of its designers and performers; the good news for Heartland is that they deliver in all the right places.

Director Chris Connelly, with excellent support from his designers, creates striking, compelling stage pictures, maneuvering his cast through the various tributaries and inlets in the script with a sure hand. I found the last scenes of the play especially moving, and it’s Connelly’s staging that allows the actors to really bring those scenes alive

Among the cast, John Bowen is terrific as C. C. Showers, making the reverend charming and laid-back one moment, fire and brimstone the next, keeping him right at the center of the action; Rian Wilson delivers a very impressive performance as he gives Buddy the depth (as well as the tics and layers) to break our hearts; George Freeman steps up and knocks it out of the park as Buddy’s feisty dad; Lauren Hoefle is sweet and pretty as young Jenny; and Michael Pullin adds just the right folksy gravitas as Basil, a farmer who also fills in as a doctor of sorts around Zion, Indiana. I also liked Amanda Serianni-Davis as a young woman chafing under her aunt’s strict rules, and Reggie Walker and Derrick Billings as a couple of rural swains. Sarah Stone Innerst, Joy Schuler and Kim Behrens round out the cast nicely as the ladies in town who can only see faith one way.

Scenic Designer Michael Pullin adds texture and atmosphere with a ramped, bare-wood playing space that changes easily from the inside of a diner to the top of the trees, while Lighting Designer Tommy Nolan amps up the mood as he casts dappled light and deep shadows across the stage. Costume Designer Brianne Berogan keeps the characters down-home and easy with weathered brown and gray costumes.

By the end, this “Diviners” raises a lot of questions about faith, trust, and community. It doesn’t answer all of them, but it definitely puts on a good show.

by Jim Leonard, Jr.

Director: Chris Connelly
Scenic Designer: Michael Pullin
Lighting Designer: Tommy Nolan
Costume Designer: Brianne Berogan
Stage Manager: Rachel Krein

Cast: 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.

Performances: September 15-18 and 22-25, with Thursday, Friday and Saturday curtain at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm.

Running time: 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

For more information or to reserve tickets, click here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

ISU Offers Inside Scoop With "Theatre Encounter"

The local theater community is invited to get a more in-depth look at Illinois State University's wonderful theater program with their "Theatre Encounter." This "Encounter" is structured as a sort of theater appreciation class for area theater fans and supporters, with both previews before the show and discussions afterwards.

There are two choices: Pay $75, which includes tickets to all five fall shows on ISU's schedule (THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by William Shakespeare, THE WOMEN OF LOCKERBIE by Deborah Brevoort, ELECTRA by Sophocles, THE MARRIAGE OF BETTE AND BOO by Christopher Durang, and A FLEA IN HER EAR by Georges Feydeau), as well as pre- and post-show discussion sessions for those plays; or, pay $110, which includes tickets to all ten shows in the 2011-12 school year, plus the fall and spring dance concerts and the fall Theatre Encounter classes. (See the schedule of all ten plays and the two dance concerts here.) That second option will require another $25 for the spring Encounter sessions when the time comes.

Classes will meets most Thursdays from September 29 through November 17 at 6:45 pm in the Center for the Visual Arts, room 133,

For more information or to enroll, contact Don LaCasse at or call 309-438-5234.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

New Route Offers "Rachel Corrie" as a September One Shot Deal

On September 14, New Route Theatre will present "My Name Is Rachel Corrie," a 2005 play adapted by British actor Alan Rickman from the diaries and emails of an American college student who was involved in protests against the destruction of Palestinian homes. The real Rachel Corrie was killed by a bulldozer manned by Israeli forces during a protest at the Gaza Strip. Details of her death have been disputed (like whether she was run over deliberately) but the words in the play are her own and obviously, what you see and hear in "My Name Is Rachel Corrie" comes from her point of view.

This controversial play (that's the cover of the play you see above) has been called a polemic and agit-prop theater, and, as such, it fits clearly within New Route Theatre's mandate to "explore the nature of the human spirit in the context of ethical, political, and social choices."

"My Name Is Rachel Corrie" fills the September slot in New Route's One Shot Deal series, with one performance only, presented at the Eaton Gallery in Bloomington. Because seating is limited at the Gallery, you are asked to email for reservations if you plan to attend.

For all the details, you can visit New Route's Facebook page for the event here.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"Diviners" on the Radio Tomorrow!

Continuing on this week's "Diviners" theme (since it opens tomorrow night at Heartland Theatre), director Chris Connelly and actors John Bowen (who plays lapsed preacher C.C. Showers) and George Freeman (who plays Ferris Layman, the father of the boy who has divining skills) will appear live on the radio tomorrow at Bloomington-Normal's WJBC to talk about the play.

Connelly, Bowen and Freeman will be talking to mid-morning host Patti Penn on the air at WJBC from approximately 9 to 9:25 am.

I hear through the grapevine that they may be offering a pair of tickets to "The Diviners," so you may want to listen in (and possibly call in) if you're looking for tickets.

WJBC is on the air at 1230 AM and 93.7 FM, or you can listen online here.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"The Diviners" Opens Thursday at Heartland Theatre Company

Heartland Theatre's production of "The Diviners," Jim Leonard Jr.'s "splendid Depression-era fable," opens this Thursday, September 8th. "The Diviners" is the second show of Heartland's ambitious new season, with the 10-minute plays back in June the first. After "Diviners," Heartland moves on to Deborah Zoe Laufer's "Sirens" in November, Theresa Rebeck's "Mauritius" in February, and Tracy Letts' "Superior Donuts" in April.

But first... "The Diviners"!

"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. Several ladies in town see handsome, charismatic C.C. and immediately want him to take over as their town preacher, which he absolutely doesn't want to do. But C.C.'s most difficult problem arises with a boy named Buddy, who happens to be a first-rate "diviner," meaning he can find water even in times of drought. Buddy is also deathly afraid of water. And when C.C. arrives, Buddy is suffering from a terrible itch that only bathing in cool water can fix. The boy is afraid, C.C. is determined to help, and the townspeople and their fixed notions of who ought to act like what only make things worse.

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 throughout the country, as its down-home, unpretentious view of small-town life during the Depression has proved appealing to audiences, and C.C.'s and Buddy's struggle with what to believe in times of trouble never goes out of style.

For Heartland, Christopher Connelly directs 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. Michael Pullin has designed the weathered wood set, with Tommy Nolan acting as lighting designer in this aggressively lit play.

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. For those performances, reservations are strongly encouraged.

"The Diviners" at Heartland Theatre Company 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 used for Heartland's poster, shown above, "Untitled" oil on wood, is used by permission of the artist, Laura Von Rosk. You may see more images of her work at

Sunday, September 4, 2011

What You Wish For? Make It Guster and a Meat Cup. At Ravinia. (By Scott Johnson.)

(Once again, I have a guest blogger to write about a concert. Once again, that concert is Guster, this time at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago on September 3, 2011. Take it away, Scott Johnson!)

It's been slightly over a year since our return to the concert scene, and while it has nothing to do with Central Illinois arts, I am glad to file another review of Guster in concert for the historical record.

Last night's foray took us back to the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, where most of a lifetime ago we attended a concert or two but are now having a hard time remembering exactly who we saw (why isn't there a complete list online?). The North Shore venue is still gorgeous, of course, with a variety of new buildings I'm sure weren't there 35 years ago, and the lawn seating still looked like an appealing option except for the stormy weather that loomed to the west. This time, we were in the pavilion, baby – yep, age has its privileges, and the center-aisle box seats with their wide-bottomed chairs suited us just fine.

As at our previous Guster experience, the outdoor setting provided a breezy, relaxed atmosphere for the Boston-based band. Grinding to the end of an eleven-month tour supporting their sixth album, Easy Wonderful, the group showed no signs of fatigue and kept the audience standing, swaying, and singing through an energetic 21-song set, played without intermission. Six of the songs came from the new album, which I have mixed feelings about, so I was pleasantly surprised the band led off with "What You Wish For," the upbeat lead-off cut from their 1999 breakout album, Lost and Gone Forever, featuring Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner singing counterpoint to perfect effect.

Easy Wonderful is the band's most successful album – peaking at No. 22 on Billboard's U.S. chart and No. 2 on the alt rock chart – and judging from the audience their hard work has paid off with legions of new college-age fans, easily detected because they didn't know the words to the old stuff. But I've never really warmed up to the album. To me, a fan for only one year but with some serious iPod playing time invested in Guster, several of the songs – and I'm talking to you right now, "Do You Love Me" – are over-the-top sunny and lacking either the humorous or angsty edge that I really enjoy. Then, too, many of the songs seem to lack the crafty guitar hooks that captured me in the first place. As I suspected, however, in concert none of this really matters. The atmosphere sells the songs. When Guster rolled out "This is How it Feels to Have a Broken Heart," a disco revival that I banished from my iPod a long time ago, I cringed. But perhaps the joke has been on me all along: Miller finished the song with a huge glitter-ball covering his head, wailing away on the harmonica tucked inside.

For longtime fans, and there were plenty in attendance, the band hit many high spots: "Demons," "Happier," "Careful," "Satellite," "Barrel of a Gun," "Airport Song," "Amsterdam" (which they skipped the last last time) and a personal favorite, "Center of Attention." Although Guster long ago gave up the bongo-only percussion concept, Brian Rosenworcel still gives a great show of bare-handed drumming on several songs. Meanwhile Miller, Gardner, and new band member Luke Reynolds trade instruments on practically every number, rotating between lead, rhythm, bass, and keyboards, with the occasional ukulele, banjo, and keytar thrown in for good measure.

As the action slowed for a second and Miller broke into a story, we were treated to one of Guster's famous one-offs, perhaps titled "The Meat Cup is Formin' on the Foreman," about Miller's recent experience with a salami and a George Foreman grill.

Sadly, outdoor concerts in the middle of residential neighborhoods mean early encores, and by 10:30 the band was forced to conclude, offering an ear-splitting rendition of Whitesnake's "Here I Go Again." Taking a turn on vocals were Andrew McMahon of Jack's Mannequin (the opening act), the gravel-throated Rosenworcel, and – rather unexpectedly – comedian Will Forte of Saturday Night Live, dressed in Guster regalia. Don't worry, David Coverdale, your job is safe.

Odds & Ends:
  • Kudos to Jack's Mannequin for playing through a two-minute blackout early in their set.
  • Thumbs down to Ravinia's P.A. music, which was apparently taken from a 1974 compilation album. "How Long?" "Dancing in the Moonlight"? "Close to Me"? Hey, listen, I know I have a lot of these songs on my iPod but that doesn't mean your average alt-rock fan does.
  • Two thumbs down to the skunk that went off about halfway through the Guster set. We get enough of this around our house in Bloomington. Come on!
  • I just found out that 24 years after their big hit, Whitesnake is still touring, albeit with only one original member.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Eureka College Theatre Looks Intriguing in 2011-12 Season

When I mentioned Eureka College Theatre and their Olio Township Cemetery walk in yesterday's September preview, I noticed they've also announced the rest of their 2011-12 season.

This season, EC's schedule is provocative and intriguing, mixing everything from historical reenactment to improv, with classic theater, fresh new dramatic voices and a children's musical. That includes a one-man show, which I don't recall ever seeing on Eureka's stage.

First up is the cemetery walk, offered September 18 in conjunction with the Woodford County Historical Society. Eureka students will portray historical personages from Eureka and Woodford County's past, telling their stories and why they were important in local history.

Next up is George Bernard Shaw's "Arms and the Man," scheduled for October 4 to 9 in Pritchard Theatre in the middle of the Eureka College campus. Definitely a classic worth reviving, "Arms and the Man" is a witty, wordy comedy about war, romance and heroism. EC Theatre Professor Marty Lynch directs.

Guest director Rhys Lovell brings "Dead Man's Cell Phone," a 2007 play by wiz-kid (and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient) Sarah Ruhl, to Pritchard November 15-20. The play has one of the best opening hooks in theater history, as a woman sits in a café, annoyed by the cell phone that keeps ringing at a neighboring table. Why doesn't the guy answer his phone? Because he's dead. So what is our heroine to do? Pick it up, answer it, and then try to unravel the dead man's life based on who and what is linked on his phone. Lovell is well-known as an actor, playwright, teacher and director in Bloomington-Normal, with credits at Heartland Theatre, ISU and IWU.

December 6 and 7 will see a program of 10-minute plays directed by students, meaning EC is branching out from acting instruction into directing, as well, and that will be followed (February 23-25) by a one-man show, the play "Thom Pain (based on nothing)," by Will Eno, which was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. It's a rambling, funny, sad monologue which New York Times' critic Charles Isherwood called "a small masterpiece." Isherwood wrote, "'Thom Pain' is at bottom a surreal meditation on the empty promises life makes, the way experience never lives up to the weird and awesome fact of being. But it is also, in its odd, bewitching beauty, an affirmation of life's worth."

The popular Red Devils' Improv Troupe returns on March 31, and rounding out the season (April 17-21) will be "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day," based on the children's book by Judith Viorst. Viorst teamed with the Kennedy Center in Washington DC to turn her book into a stage musical, writing the book and lyrics herself, with music from Shelly Markham. EC Theatre Professor Holly Rocke will direct "Alexander," which is, as its title suggests, the story of a kid having a really awful day where everything seems to go wrong. "Alexander the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" comes to Pritchard Theatre April 17 to 21.

They're also promising another stage combat workshop in May, with details to be filled in later.

Click here for more information on the entire theater schedule from Eureka College.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

September Songs (and Dramas. And Auditions. And Everything Else.)

Yes, it's 100 degrees today and it feels weird to be talking about fall. Still, September is jam-packed with theater offerings and auditions, as many area theaters kick off their fall seasons. Here's some of what's happening around us...

First up: Community Players' "And Then There Were None," directed by Cathy Sutliff, opens tonight, September 1, with a special preview performance. This stage version of the famous Agatha Christie mystery novel strands ten strangers with guilty consciences on an island, and then knocks them off one by one. Community Players' take on "And Then There None" plays September 1-4, 8-11 and 15-17, with Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30 pm and Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm. Tickets range from $6-12.

Community Players will also hold auditions for its next production, the sweet and funny Catholic coming-of-age musical, "Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?" September 11-13 at the theater on Robinhood Lane. Brian Artman directs.

Tickets are now on sale for ISU's fall season, including Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," which takes the stage at Westhoff Theatre on September 29th, directed by Jeremy Garrett, and "The Women of Lockerbie," a modern story with all the sorrow of a Greek tragedy, coming to the Center for the Performing Arts on September 30th. Click here for more information about ISU's School of Theatre.

As long as you're plotting out your fall schedule, you should know that tickets are available September 6 for the Illinois Voices Theatre/McLean County Museum of History annual Evergreen Cemetery Discovery Walk, featuring ten colorful characters from Bloomington-Normal's past. This year, all these folks are connected to the Civil War in honor of the 150th anniversary of its opening battles. The Discovery Walk happens October 1-2 and 8-9, but you'll want to nab your tickets now, either at the Garlic Press, Evergreen Cemetery or the Museum itself.

Heartland Theatre opens its second show of the 2011-12 season on September 8th when Jim Leonard Jr.'s "The Diviners" opens. This popular play, sponsored by the Religion, Culture and Arts Endowment from the First United Methodist Church in Normal, looks at a former preacher whose faith is tested when he arrives in a small, drought-stricken Indiana town during the Depression and meets a special boy with "divining" skills. Christopher Connelly directs 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 Brian Wilson. "The Diviners" opens September 8th on "Pay What You Can" night, with regular performances from September 9-11, 15-18 and 22-25. Click here for reservation information.

CUTC (the Champaign-Urbana Theater Company) is holding auditions for the 2nd "Rocky Horror Show" in concert. If you've always had a hankering to do the Time Warp again, auditions are Saturday, September 10th from 11 am to 5 pm, and Sunday, September 11th, from noon to 3 pm, with callbacks Sunday at 6 pm, all at the CUTC office on Cunningham in Urbana. The performance itself is scheduled for Saturday, October 22 at Urbana's Canopy Club. You can see all the details here.

Have you been keeping up with New Route Theatre's intriguing "One Shot Deal" series, where local actors and designers put on one-night-only performances of plays with social and cultural significance? September's "One Shot" is "My Name Is Rachel Corrie," a ripped-from-the-headlines, true-life play about an idealistic 23-year-old from Olympia, Washington, who ended up a martyr for the cause of Palestinian freedom. "Rachel Corrie" will be performed at the Eaton Gallery, 411 North Center Street in Bloomington, at 7 pm on September 14th, followed by a panel discussion.

Eureka College Theater, in cooperation with the Woodford County Historical Society, will offer its annual Cemetery Walk at Olio Township Cemetery at 2 pm on Sunday, September 18th. The production will feature Eureka College students portraying people who played important roles in Eureka area history.

Illinois Wesleyan Theatre kicks off its fall season on September 27, when Lillian Hellman's searing "The Children's Hour," about lies, rumors and malicious little girls, opens in McPherson Theatre. Thomas Quinn directs this "Children's Hour," with performances from September 27 to October 2.

If you are a Tennessee Williams fan, Parkland College in Champaign has two shows for you. It's all called "Tennessee100," with two separate evenings of short plays, offered in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Williams' birth. You can see "The Long Goodbye," "The Municipal Abbatoir," "Adam and Eve on a Ferry" and "This Property is Condemned" on September 28 and October 1 and and 7 at 7:30 pm, or "Summer at the Lake," "In Our Profession," "The Chalky White Substance" and "Mister Paradise" on September 30 and October 6 at 7:30 pm and October 8 at 3 pm.

Got anything else you want me to feature? Drop me a note by commenting here or sending me an email at