Wednesday, November 30, 2011

"The Three Sisters" Collaboration (ISU/Heartland) Opens Tomorrow

As I understand it, Illinois State University's School of Theatre needed a venue to showcase its grad students in acting, and they chose Heartland Theatre in Normal. So, for the first time, Heartland will host a play starring ISU's entire group of MFA actors. A few of them have done shows together at ISU and almost all of them played roles in last summer's Illinois Shakespeare Festival. But all together? Nope. This showcase means that interested theater-goers will get the chance to see these actors before they break big. This is a very good group, and they've each turned in powerhouse performances, meaning they could very well end up in major companies or on the big screen. Will one among them be the next John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf or Rondi Reed? Only time will tell, but you can see what you think this week.

The play is Chekhov's "The Three Sisters," directed by ISU professor Sandi Zielinski, with Jessie Dean, Kate McDermott and Melisa Pereyra as the titular sisters, and their fellow grad students Jeb Burris, Michael Gamache, Josh Innerst, Molly Rose Lewis and Zach Powell taking on other major roles in the Chekhov classic. Frequent Heartland actors Dean Brown ("Proof"), David Krostal ("A Tuna Christmas") and Ann B. White ("Too Many Air Conditioners") will join them, as will Henry Woronicz, Head of Graduate Acting at ISU.

"The Three Sisters" has been done many times with celebrity casts, like Judith Anderson, Katherine Cornell and Ruth Gordon on Broadway back in 1942, or Amy Irving, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Lili Taylor back on Broadway in 1997. (For trivia lovers, that last production also featured Justin Theroux, Jennifer Aniston's current beau, in a small role.) There have been other productions memorable for their casting, as well, with Vanessa, Lynn and Jemma Redgrave playing the sisters in London in 1991 and Sorcha, Sinead and Niamh Cusack taking the roles in Dublin in 1990.

This ISU MFA "Three Sisters" promises to focus on the acting and the characters, as our three girls marooned in the provinces yearn for Moscow and the more cultured life they remember when they lived there. Oldest sister Olga is a teacher who has reluctantly given up on the idea of marriage or romance, while moody Masha remains artistic and passionate, even though she lives in an unhappy marriage. Youngest sister Irina is more naive and the object of several crushes in the men around her. Their lives are complicated when an army artillery battery comes to town and stays awhile, with the dashing Vershinin, someone Masha finds fascinating, as commanding officer.

Although there is a special "students only" preview performance tonight, official performances begin tomorrow night at Heartland Theatre. This production is not part of Heartland's regular season, so season passes may not be used. All tickets are $10. For reservations, email or call 309-452-8709.

Performances are: Thursday, December 1, Friday, December 2 and Saturday, December 3 at 7:30 pm, and Saturday and Sunday, December 3 and 4, at 2 pm. That's five performances only of this classic play with a fabulous cast.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

New Artistic Director Announced at Actors Theatre of Louisville

When Actors Theatre of Louisville announced last February that artistic director Marc Masterson was leaving to take a post at South Coast Rep in California after 11 years at the helm, the general reaction was surprise. After all, heading up Actors Theatre and its attendant Humana Festival of New American Plays is a pretty plum job in the world of American theater.

Masterson actually left Louisville in September, as the search for a new artistic director continued. A week or so ago, Actors Theatre announced their search was over and they would announce a new artistic director... Today! And that new artistic director is (drum roll, please) Les Waters!

Waters (pictured above) has served as associate artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre since 2003. He directed Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)" on Broadway in 2009, and won an Obie in 2002 for the off-Broadway production of Charles Mee's "Big Love," which Waters had also directed at the Humana Festival. Time Magazine named his 2007 production of Ruhl's "Eurydice" as one of the 10 best productions of 2007. Other notable productions include Will Eno's "TRAGEDY: a tragedy" and Martin McDonagh's "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," both at Berkeley Rep.

Although it may seem strange for someone taking over such a prominent festival of new American plays, Waters actually hails from England, where he earned a BA at Manchester University and worked with theaters like the Bristol Old Vic, Hampstead Theatre Club, Joint Stock Theatre Group, the National Theatre, Royal Court Theatre and Traverse Theatre Club. He also won an Edinburgh Fringe First award.

Actors Theatre tells us that Waters is officially taking over the position of artistic director on January 9th and he will be in Louisville full-time starting at the end of March. Or, just in time for the 2012 Humana Festival!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Seedling Theatre On Stage with "Laura's Christmas Surprises"

Seedling Theatre, which specializes in pairing "special needs children and young adults with their age appropriate experience the exciting challenge of performing live theatre," will offer "Laura's Christmas Surprises" on Thursday (December 1) and Saturday (December 3) at 7 pm as well as Sunday (December 4) at 3pm.

"Laura's Christmas Surprises" is based on the work of beloved children's author Laura Ingalls Wilder, best known for her "Little House" series, as adapted for the stage by Claire Coleman Lamonica, Associate Director of ISU's Center for Teaching, Learning & Technology. Wilder's Christmas stories from several of the Little House books have been collected and published separately in two volumes, the first of which you see below.

All performances of "Laura's Christmas Surprises" will take place at First Christian Church, 401 West Jefferson Street in Bloomington. You may purchase tickets at the door, with prices ranging from $5 for anybody under college age to $10 for adults. If you need more information, you are invited to contact Seedling Theatre Artistic Director Donna Anhalt at 309-838-2923 or

Today's Pantagraph also ran an article on "Laura's Christmas Surprises" that you can read online here.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Tonight is TVTVTV

Lots of cool things on the telly tonight!

As a big "Mad Men" fan, I have appreciated the talents of John Slattery, who plays hard-drinking, womanizing ad exec Roger Sterling. Slattery contributes a guest voice to tonight's episode of "The Simpsons" in an episode called "The Man in the Blue Flannel Pants" where he plays, yes, an ad man.

That's tonight on Fox at 8 Eastern/7 Central. As it happens, Slattery also appears in the Matt Damon/Emily Blunt movie "The Adjustment Bureau," which is available on Comcast's On Demand feature for $2.49 until November 30th. Slattery is a black-hatted bad guy who works for the mysterious all-powerful agency (or whatever they are) who run everybody's lives and keep coming after Damon's character for exerting free will instead of going by "The Plan." So if you totally need a John Slattery fix before "Mad Men" comes back in 2012, you can double up with "The Simpsons" tonight and "The Adjustment Bureau" before the 30th. Plus AMC is rerunning "Mad Men" episodes from last season early on Sunday mornings until the new season begins (finally!) in March. I'm too late to warn you about this morning's episodes, but next Sunday, December 4, AMC offers "New Amsterdam" and "5G" (which are episodes 4 and 5 from the first season) at 5 and 6 am in my Central time zone.

I am loving the new show "Once Upon a Time," a fairytale/real life collision kind of show, where Snow White (played by Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas), as well as an Evil Witch (Lana Parrilla) and Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle), have lives we see in flashbacks in the Fairy Tale world, as well as alternate identities in a weird little town called Storybrooke located in Maine. Tonight's episode involves Jiminy Cricket (played by Raphael Sbarge) and how he came to be, plus a mysterious sinkhole that opens up in Storybrooke after Our Heroine (Jennifer Morrison) accepts a deputy of police badge. It airs on ABC at 8 pm Eastern/7 Central.

I also like "Leverage," a smart and snappy show about con people working for good that airs on TNT. (I'm a sucker for this sort of thing, going back to "It Takes a Thief" in the 60s.) "Leverage" starts its new season tonight at 9 Eastern/8 Central. Tonight's episode of "Leverage" is "The Experimental Job," with this plot summary from TNT's site: "When homeless veterans in the Boston area begin disappearing, the team must go back to college and infiltrate the world of Skull & Bones secret societies."

There's also a "Walking Dead" marathon and its mid-season finale tonight, but I'm not so big on gore and splattered brain matter, so... Yeah, I'll stick with "The Simpsons" on DVR, with "Once Upon a Time" and "Leverage" live.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Cary Grant Acts the Perfect Angel in "The Bishop's Wife"

There are certain classic holiday movies that get wide exposure every year about this time -- "A Christmas Story," "White Christmas," "Miracle on 34th Street," "It's a Wonderful Life," various versions of "A Christmas Carol," "Holiday Inn," and maybe "Christmas in Connecticut" if we're lucky -- but two lovely choices -- "The Bishop's Wife" and "The Shop Around the Corner" -- don't show up as often. This year, the Normal Theater is doing its best to correct the oversight, screening both films in post-Thanksgiving slots.

That means you have the chance to see "The Bishop's Wife" tonight and Sunday night at 7 pm, as well as "The Shop Around the Corner" December 3rd and 4th.

But first... "The Bishop's Wife." I love Cary Grant in his 1940s movies. I love Cary Grant anytime, actually, and I am quite smitten by his performance in "Holiday" from 1938, but even so... He is truly irresistible in films like "My Favorite Wife" and "The Philadelphia Story," both released in 1940, through "The Talk of the Town" in 1942, "Notorious" in 1946, and yes, "The Bishop's Wife" in 1947. Beyond suave, impossibly charming, he is the perfect fantasy man in this period.

Still, as attractive as Grant certainly is in the "The Bishop's Wife," I wasn't a big fan of the movie when I was young and it was airing on "Dialing for Dollars" or other old movie outlets. For one thing, Grant plays an angel, not a real human being, so he doesn't get to bring out the big guns in terms of his dark, sexy appeal, which is disappointing when you're a pre-teen swooning over him. For another, the woman at the center of the bishop/wife/angel triangle is Loretta Young, who never impressed me much. She's the goodie-goodie type my mother (who introduced me to old movies) disliked intensely, right up there with June Allyson, Greer Garson and Doris Day, so I was probably biased right from the start. And I have to say, giving the movie another look, all the dewy close-ups and everybody saying what a wonder she is don't do her any favors. It's a saccharine overload, especially when Our Angel Cary (called Dudley by screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood) decides she is just so marvelous that he might be interested in giving up Angeldom for her. As if. I suppose director Henry Koster is responsible for all the Loretta love. Or maybe that was just the way producer Samuel Goldwyn wanted it.

Oh well. Those are quibbles. It really is a very sweet and pretty adorable movie, light enough to counteract the gooeyness quotient, with lots of nice supporting players who get the chance to shine as Dudley goes around town being fabulous and sparkly and inspiring. The main plotline involves the Bishop, a man named Henry Brougham, played by David Niven, and how he has become so absorbed with his campaign to raise funds for a humungous new cathedral that he is ignoring both his wife, the lovely Julia (yes, Loretta Young) and his faith. He prays for guidance, but what he gets is Dudley, who isn't really all that interested in Brougham's cathedral plans. Dudley is more of an old school angel, concerned about poverty and need more than big, fancy buildings. As he tries to show Brougham the light, he finds himself spending more time with Julia than her husband, helping her regain her joie de vivre with a new hat, a visit to a French restaurant, and some fancy ice skating.

He also gets a cynical cab driver (played by veteran character actor James Gleason) onto the ice, turns Henry's and Julia's daughter Debby (Karolyn Grimes) into a wiz in a snowball fight, gives a boost to a boys' choir, plays the harp so beautifully that Scrooge of a widow (the luminous Gladys Cooper) will change her ways, and offers a helping hand to a historian, nicely brought to life by Monty Woolley, who ends up with a priceless coin and a perpetually full wine bottle after Dudley visits. Somehow, it is entirely believable that Cary Grant could skate like a champ, coach snowball throwing, woo choirboys to practice, play the harp like an angel and fill bottles with one wag of his finger.

I know I heard somewhere that Grant could neither skate, speak French or play the harp before "The Bishop's Wife," but learned all three for the movie. That seems unlikely, but I guess the whole point of the film is to believe, so... I believe.

"The Bishop's Wife" was remade as "The Preacher's Wife" in 1996, with Denzel Washington as the angel and Whitney Houston as the unhappy wife. I think "Whitney Houston" is all you need to know about that one. Or maybe we were all just too cynical by 1996 to buy into an all-knowing, all-powerful angel trying to get a clergyman to give up the idea of wealth and status and instead help out the poor. I think today we're calling that socialist and class warfare.

But it works like a charm in 1947's version of "The Bishop's Wife." You can catch this sweet Christmas treat on the big screen at the Normal Theater tonight and tomorrow night at 7 pm.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Sondheim Note #2: PS Classics Has Broadway "Follies" Ready and Waiting

I am mad for "Follies." I was very excited to see the recent Chicago Shakes production, but still sad I couldn't get to Washington DC for the Kennedy Center production directed by Eric Schaeffer and starring Danny Burstein, Jan Maxwell, Bernadette Peters and Ron Raines.

That DC version then transferred to Broadway, where it has been very well-received, with raves for Danny Burstein and Jan Maxwell, especially. Performances have now been extended through January 22, with tickets for sale here. Maybe I'll get there. But even if I don't...

PS Classics and Executive Producer Tommy Krasker have provided a lasting record of that production with their new cast recording of "Follies" in all its musical glory. Krasker always sweats the details for PS Classics, ensuring a wonderful product. Or, as Mr. Sondheim himself said in an interview, "PS Classics does great work. It is always beautifully produced with them. Tommy Krasker is as good as they come and he loves musicals. All PS Classics albums are well-done."

This one is a labor of love for Krasker, as noted on the PS Classics site. When it came to the opportunity to do a "Follies" on Broadway cast recording, Krasker "knew the kind of recording he wanted to make -- one that would speak to him, as a fan of the show, one that might convey the musical and dramatic qualities that, to his mind, make Follies a singular, irresistible theatrical experience."

You know you're in good hands when someone says exactly what you think. "Singular and irresistible." Yep, that's "Follies."

PS Classics describes the package they've put together for this cast recording as "an expansive two-disc set, complete with 52-page full-color booklet with essay, synopsis, lyrics, production photos and a brief note...from the album producer." That means lots of beautiful pictures of the performers and production numbers as well as every single thing you might think of including if you yourself were going to preserve the "Follies" experience.

Like "Look, I Made a Hat," this cast recording of "Follies" is a must-have for Sondheim-o-philes. Or anyone who loves musicals, really.

So, you know, ORDER TODAY.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sondheim Note #1: "Look, I Made a Hat" Now Available

At about this time last year, I was having fun exploring "Finishing the Hat," the first volume of Stephen Sondheim's musings on his own work. And now, here we are, in November 2011, with the second volume, "Look, I Made a Hat" available for order.


This one picks up where "Finishing the Hat" left off, covering 1981-2011, and it is subtitled "Collected lyrics...with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany."

Sondheim's work -- his lyrics, his music and his writing in general -- is smart, moving, sharply honed and always impressive. He also comes off that way in all the interviews and comments he's been giving for "Look, I Made a Hat," some of which I have collected here for your perusal.

There's Newsweek/The Daily Beast,, and, where Sondheim even talks a little about Shakespeare.

Sondheim is endlessly fascinating, his lyrics are absolutely the best, and these two books are absolute necessities for anyone who is interested in musical theater.

I will write more about my thoughts on the contents of "Look, I Made a Hat" once my copy gets here. In the meantime, you go order yours, or read the one you already got, or share quotes with your friends, whatever it takes. Get the word out!

"Look, I Made a Hat" is now available!!!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Entertainment Options to Give Thanks For

So, what are you doing Thursday?

There are no theatrical performances that I know of locally, although grad students from ISU's School of Theatre are busy rehearsing and building for their production of Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" that opens the following week at Heartland Theatre. When your show opens December 1, you can't really take off Thanksgiving week.

But the rest of us... Well, let's just say that all those shows that opened in the past three weeks* closed this past weekend, leaving a lot of us with nothing much on the agenda for Thanksgiving week. Except eating, of course. And it's true that a lot of people seem to eat all their Thanksgiving turkey and mashed potatoes and then take a nap. (Tryptophan, yay!) But others go to the movies.

That's why the Normal Theater has one of my favorite holiday movies, the Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire vehicle "Holiday Inn" playing on Thursday, right after dinner at 7 pm. "Holiday Inn" features all the holidays, from New Year's Eve through Washington's Birthday and July 4th and, yes, Thanksgiving. The movie is more famous for introducing "White Christmas" to the world, but I distinctly remember Bing noodling through a Thanksgiving song called "I've Got Plenty to Be Thankful For" and picking at a whole turkey served just for him at the remote Vermont inn where he is putting on shows. There is a lot of singing and dancing in "Holiday Inn," which features a socko Irving Berlin score and some excellent Astaire footwork. But there is a caveat on the Lincoln's Birthday blackface scene. It's there for a plot reason, but it's still cringe-worthy in my mind.

So if you are not a Bing or Fred fan and you are interested in Thanksgiving night entertainment, what should you see? "Anonymous," the ridiculous Roland Emmerich movie about how Shakespeare didn't write his own plays and Queen Elizabeth I had a baby with her own son (No, really! That's what it says!) has bombed at the box office and not played at all in Bloomington-Normal as far as I know, so don't think you can entertain yourself by going and mocking it while it airs. Unless you want to drive to the Chicago suburbs.

Closer to home, you can see "Puss in Boots," the animated movie that spins off Antonio Banderas' popular feline character from the Shrek movies. It's playing all over and I've heard from several adults who didn't both to take kids as camouflage that it's actually a pretty fun movie.

The Art Theater over in Champaign is offering "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" for Thanksgiving night. That's the one that features the immortal line, "Khaaaaaaaaan!" from James Kirk.

If you prefer to stay at home and kick back in the recliner, you have a choice of parades early in the day. Starting at 8 am, there's the "Thanksgiving Day Parade" broadcast live from New York on CBS, "America's Thanksgiving Parade" from Detroit on WAOE/Channel 11, and the "McDonald's Thanksgiving Parade"on WGN from Chicago, with the more famous "Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade" beginning at 9 am on NBC.

If you see your Thanksgiving as more of a spy thing, you can tune into a James Bond marathon on Syfy, running from 7 am Thursday to 4:30 am Friday.

Thursday evening, there are two Charlie Browns to pick from ("Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown" on Fox at 7:30 pm or "Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" on ABC at 7 pm), as well as "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who," the 2008 animated movie with Steve Carell's and Jim Carrey's voices, on NBC at 7 pm, "The Godfather," parts 1 and 2, showing at various times during the day and night on AMC , "Kung Fu Panda" at 7 on FX, the Christmas movie "Elf" at 7 on USA, and "Wall-E" at 8 pm on ABC Family.

My pick? "Holiday Inn," hands down. It even has an animated turkey and will teach you something about the holiday, about how its date was changed and changed back again by FDR.

*In case you're curious, here's what opened and closed in area theaters between November 1 and November 20: "A Flea in Her Ear," "Angels in America: Perestroika," "Annie," "Assassins," "Circle Mirror Transformation," "Dead Man's Cell Phone," "Hello Again," "Iolanthe," "The Magic Flute," "The Marriage of Bette and Boo," "Sirens," "Way Off Broadway," "Young Frankenstein," and "Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?" That means you could've gone to the theater every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the first three weeks of November and still missed two shows within 50 miles of Bloomington-Normal. And probably more that that are just not on my radar. Tip to theater companies and universities: Stop scheduling everything at the same time. Please?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Can Netflix Save "Arrested Development"?

Mitchell Hurwitz and others associated with the TV show "Arrested Development" have been teasing a movie version of the cult classic comedy series for ages. But now, out of the blue, executive producer Ron Howard and the folks at Netflix have announced that new episodes of "Arrested Development," presumably involving most of the cast from its original Fox incarnation, will be streaming at Netflix come 2013.

You can read more about it at TVLine or Entertainment Weekly.

Netflix is the service that used to send out DVDs as well as stream movies and TV shows online for one (fairly low) monthly subscription charge, making them quite popular and seriously damaging brick-and-mortar video stores like Blockbuster. But then Netflix decided they couldn't make a go of it doing both videos-by-mail and videos-on-line, so they split those services, announcing that they were now charging for them individually, effectively raising their prices by 60%. Netflix subscribers deserted them in droves, and they've been trying different things to get them back. Now, apparently, they're going to attempt original programming. In the EW article by James Hibberd, it was noted that Netflix will be offering new episodes of a British series called "House of Cards" as well as "Arrested Development."

I have to be honest, when it comes to "Arrested Development," the promise of new episodes just might be enough to get me back to Netflix. Now if only they could do something about "One Life to Live."

Friday, November 18, 2011

All Singing, All Dancing, All Acting: Inside Illinois Wesleyan's Music Theatre Program

When I was preparing a preview for IWU's current production of "Hello Again," I also talked to director Scott Susong about Illinois Wesleyan's Music Theatre program in general. I have long been curious as to how they do it there, at a small school, with a long list of sterling productions and grads who go on to stellar careers in such a competitive field. Scott's answers were so interesting that I decided to split out the "program" stuff and give it its own post. So, for prospective students, parents, alumni, whoever might want it, here's the inside scoop on Music Theatre at IWU, direct from Scott Susong, the Degree Liaison and Head of IWU's Music Theatre progam:

How long have you been head of the program? What attracted you to IWU?

I came to IWU in the fall of 2007 as the Degree Liaison (Head) of Music Theatre. I had gone from being a working actor, working in and out of NYC and across the globe, to going back to get an MFA in Directing, to freelancing as a professional director and then teaching more and more.

In Baltimore, at my former institution, I was moving toward administration and had become a dean and decided I needed a change and wanted to get back to more theatre and away from administration. In IWU I found the best of both worlds.

I had cast a large net and was interviewing all over the country, but after two decades in large East coast cities, I was attracted to the Midwest as a place to rear our two children. When I came for my on campus interview at IWU in January/February of 2007 I got snowed in on campus and spent the weekend with the students and fell in love. Our students at IWU are amazing!

Part of Michael John LaChiusa's "First Lady Suite,"
as performed at Illinois Wesleyan University.

How many students apply every year to be part of Music Theatre at Illinois Wesleyan and how many do you accept?

We are one of the older programs in the country. CCM (Cincinnati Conservatory of Music) is the oldest MT program in the country, conferring their first BFA in Musical Theatre in 1968 and we conferred our first MT class in 1978. At IWU we see between 200 and 250 prospective students from across the country and some foreign countries annually for the BFA in Music Theatre. In the end we audition approximately half of that number on campus and shoot for a class between 6 and 12 with the average being around 8. So we average between a 5% and 10% acceptance rate depending on the number of prospective students in a particular year. BFA numbers vary year to year across the country. About every three years we have a larger class (12) followed by a small class (6). We try to keep the bar high and are selecting for quality over quantity.

Do you balance genders?
Yes, within the MT major, but not necessarily year to year. Currently we have 16 boys and 16 girls across the four years, but my freshmen class breakdown is 3 males to 5 females while my sophomore class is 6 males and only 2 females. I have only had one class that actually had 5 females and 5 males.

What are you looking for in prospective students?

It is IWU, so we want someone who has a strong academic record accompanying their performance resume. We are actor driven but we are looking for them to have strong skills in two of the three major areas in music theatre (Acting, Singing & Dancing). We would like them to show promise of being exceptional in at least one area and of course when we run across someone who is a true triple threat that is always wonderful. We are gaming potential and looking at what the industry needs and is using. We want students who have a nice grasp on who they are and what they want to get out of our training program. If after their audition and interview we feel that we can help them achieve their goals, we will accept them. We are highly selective so that we can personalize our attention so that each student gets what we feel they need to succeed in the competitive field they have chosen to pursue.

Would you say the MT program is intended to prepare students for careers as performers? Do students tend to leap right into auditions or go on to Masters programs or take some other path?

Music Theatre, much like Film/Television, is pretty youth obsessed. “Overnight Sensations” generally take between five and seven years of working regionally, touring and doing Off-Broadway to make it to the Broadway stage. This is a business still very much about relationships. One has to work with people and build a professional resume filled with good recommendations prior to most producers taking the chance on your talent when the stakes are as high as they are on Broadway; therefore, most of our students start working professionally while they are still at IWU. We prescreen every year for professional auditions and then send those selected out to pursue professional stock work in the summer. As I type this we are on a hiatus from rehearsals for “Hello Again,” even though we open Tuesday, because the majority of my cast is in Kentucky at the KTA auditions (a prescreening audition for the Southeastern Theatre Conference auditions in March -- the largest professionals auditions in the country).

Our students hit around five major regional auditions as well as several of the state auditions in the Midwest and our seniors go to UPTAs (United Professional Theatre Auditions) which are national. If you graduate at 22 from IWU and it takes six years to get to Broadway you are 28 and that is still considered young for a Broadway debut.

Of course, we always have those that get there faster like Bry and Evan but generally it looks a little more like the picture I just painted. There is only 1 MFA in Music Theatre in the country and that is San Diego State and there are a handful of MM in Music Theatre (like CCM and Boston Conservatory) but nowadays they want you to have gone out and tried before you come back for more training. This is not necessarily the case for the BA, BFA in Acting or BFA in Tech/Design students at IWU who make up the rest of The School of Theatre Arts at Illinois Wesleyan University. BAs often pursue higher degrees since many of them are seeking scholarship over practice and some BFA actors pursue competitive MFA in Acting programs like Yale after completing their time at IWU. Most BFA Tech/Design students, like the BFA Music Theatre students, jump right into the profession. We teach our IWU students that like all artists, a life in the arts means a fundamental understanding that you will be a lifelong learner and will always be in voice lessons, dance classes and working with acting coaches, so the learning never ends.

Evan Kasprzak (center) flies high in IWU's "Of Thee I Sing."

Aside from Bryonha Parham and Evan Kasprzak, whom you just mentioned, I know of a few alumni who have done very well (the ones I put in that previous “Where Are They Now?” piece). Do any other particular MT success stories stand out in your mind?

Well, the Department of Theatre at IWU was formed after WWII and graduated their first BA in Theatre students in 1949. William Duell (’49) was in the first musical they did at IWU in 1948, which was “Of Thee I Sing.” He played Throttlebottom. We celebrated 60 years of Musical Theatre at IWU with my production in 2008. Bill just did a one-night event of Sondheim’s “Evening Primrose” in NYC last year. He is a great example of the kind of graduate we have been fortunate to have over the past 60-plus years of educating theatre artists at IWU. Really, we have had a group of successful grads happening at the middle to end of each decade. We have just been more fortunate in Music Theatre that so many of our MT grads have infiltrated all aspects of the Entertainment Industry. Bill Damaschke (BFA MT ’86) is another great example

Since 2004 we have had at least one to three graduates that have grabbed the attention of top casting directors in the theatre world and have kept a nice buzz around the MT program. We have had Tony, Emmy and Oscar nominees spread evenly across the decades, but here is a (all too incomplete) list of some of the grads on our Facebook page.

Tell me a little about the program and how it’s structured. Does everyone study voice, dance and acting? What do you think is special about the program and why it’s been so successful?

It is a rigorous hybrid of conservatory style training in a liberal arts setting. Students are not allowed to audition for the McPherson and Laboratory season until they have established a good academic record and are declared sophomores (generally by May term of their first year). All BFA performers (Acting and Music Theatre) are put through their fundamentals of acting classes and movement for the stage together. The MT students are expected to also be in a minimum of two to four dances classes every semester (Ballet, Jazz, Tap and Modern), private voice lessons, along with Music Theory, keyboard, weekly repertory class (taught jointly by myself, along with my music and dance coordinators Sandy DeAthos-Meers and Jean Kerr), weekly coaching with accompanists, typical theatre literature courses, Shakespeare, combat, voice & speech, basic technical areas of theatre and their general education courses.

Upperclassmen are expected to take Audition class, Music Theatre History & Literature, Music Theatre Scene Study and Music Theatre Workshop which are all taught by me and geared toward higher integration of the three principal music theatre areas (Music, Text and Dance). It is a killer schedule and I am humbled daily that I get to work with such gifted, hardworking students and colleagues. I think what sets us apart is how selective we are and that since the only cut is the cut to get into the program you don’t have to worry about being turned out if you hit a bump along your journey.

We become a family and we all work as a team to make sure that each student is the best they can be and as prepared as possible upon graduation. We are also so fortunate to have an alumni network in NYC, Chicago and LA and across the country. They are a powerful multigenerational group of working professionals that are always willing to come back and share their journey and keep an eye out to give new graduates a leg up.

What do you want IWU Music Theatre students to learn?

I want them to learn techniques that will extend and maintain their talents. I also want them to gain a fair amount of tenacity of purpose to carry them through the challenging parts of a life in the arts. Most importantly I want them to learn who they are and what they value. You can’t build amazing characters for the stage and screen if you don’t know the foundation you are building them on.

Stephen Sondheim's "Passion" on-stage at McPherson Theatre at IWU.

I get the idea that you like challenging, provocative works, but IWU obviously balances darker, edgier pieces like “Passion” and “Urinetown” and now “Hello Again” with more traditional shows like “Once Upon a Mattress” and “Of Thee I Sing.” What gets a show on IWU’s schedule?

We have a pretty tight matrix that we follow so that a student, over the course of a generation (four years) or their time in the casting pool (three years), will get exposure to a variety of theatrical text, genres and dramaturgy. We have two Music Theatre events every season on the mainstage. Two small/medium musicals one year followed by a large musical and a dance concert the next and then over again. This is accompanied by the occasional laboratory season musical, musicals in the student theatre and concerts, cabarets and workshops.

We are not unaware of our community (both IWU and Bloomington/Normal), but our primary function is to train the students in a wide range of selections. Our casting pool is closed and only sophomore through senior IWU students may audition. Because of the rigorous nature of our rehearsal processes, we rarely get students outside of the School of Theatre Arts. Since we know our casting pool all too well we can select material that we think will challenge the current students in the way we feel they need to be challenged for maximum growth.

We never select work to be provocative, current or commercial, but always so that the students enrolled at IWU will be pushed to meet their potential as performers and exposed to a variety of situations while still in the protective environment of academia.

While “Of Thee I Sing” was certainly topical during the 2008 election and a nice way to commemorate 60 years of musicals at IWU, it was still selected to showcase the students at that time. Exposure to the first Pulitzer Prize winning musical, a Gershwin score and text and humor that was very much “of its time” were all reasons discussed when selecting the piece.

Last year’s family-friendly “Mattress” was selected to showcase students once again. We had an abundance of belting comic women and the show calls for more than one and that is rare. I have waited over 15 years to have strong enough actor/singers to handle the difficult score and subject matter that is “Hello Again” and those students presented themselves in our current population. We actually selected it prior to the recent Off-Broadway revival being announced.

IWU's Erika Lecaj did the heavy lifting in "Once Upon a Mattress" in 2010.

What do you hope each show will do?

Each show has its own lessons for the company to learn. They present themselves in the strangest ways and no matter how prepared you think you are when doing educational theatre there are always surprises. I feel I learn so many new things when I inhabit these different worlds for different productions and the same is true for the student actors and the production team. There isn’t a theatre text out there that won’t teach in the doing of it.

Thanks so much, Scott! For more information about Illinois Wesleyan's theatre programs, click here.

[Photo credits: Pete Guither, Marc Featherly and Josh Levinson. Josh Conrad and Laura Williams appear in the photo (above, right) of "Kesa and Morito," a piece that appeared in the "Lucky Nurse and other short musical plays" collection at IWU in April, 2011.]

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"Hello Again" A Chilling Look at Lust and Lost Souls

When I asked director Scott Susong about Michael John LaChiusa's "Hello Again," the dark, provocative musical about lust and sex now playing at Illinois Wesleyan's McPherson Theatre, he gave me a quote that neatly sums up this show. Susong wrote that he thought LaChiusa was drawn to the material because of "the lack of intimacy he found in a piece that is about ten sexually intimate encounters -- the lack of intimacy in intimacy."

"The lack of intimacy in intimacy" is at the heart of IWU's production, where ten characters meet up in couples and satisfy momentary lust, reflecting musically on what they think they want or need, even as they fail again and again to connect with each other emotionally. They are using each other sexually to try to feel something, but most of what they feel is emptiness or degradation. And when I said "use," I meant exactly that. The first woman we see is the archetypical Whore, played and sung beautifully by Laura Williams, and she wanders through scenes again and again, reminding us that these sexual encounters are about who is prostituting him or herself to try to get something or somewhere.

There's the 1890s Whore and a brutish Soldier, brought to chilling life by Chase Miller, who only gets more brutal when he moves to the 1940s and meets a naive Nurse, played by Patsita Jiratipayabood. The Soldier/Nurse scene is the harshest in the show, I think, although it's almost worse when the Nurse moves to 1962 and ties a doofus College Boy (Marek Zukowski) to a bed to have her way with him. It's as if the sweet, abused girl became an abuser herself after being raped by the Soldier back in 1942.

After that, it's more low-down, nasty sex between unhappy people, with the most meaningful moments coming when the characters remember, temporarily, that they have hearts. There's a striking stage picture when the Young Wife (benefiting from Amy Stockhaus's gorgeous voice), who considers herself "morally bankrupt," is haunted by the Whore, and sorrowfully sings about "Tom."

And when the Writer (given a cheery spark by Blake Brauer) brings a scruffy boy home from a Studio 54-ish disco in 1976, and the two immediately fall into meaningless sex, the Writer still imagines how it might be if the Young Thing were to wake up and feel something more. The Writer and the Young Thing (winningly played by Zach Wagner) share a very nice duet on "The One I Love" where they actually touch each other emotionally. But it's just a fantasy. And that's the tragedy.

There are other tragedies, like a wealthy, chilly Husband (nicely brought to life by Josh Conrad, who also shines in other ensemble moments) inviting the less privileged Young Thing to his stateroom. On the Titanic. Even when the boat is sinking, the Husband can't break out of his emotional black hole long enough to save himself.

"The Bed Was Not My Own," with a confused Senator (played by Ian Coulter-Buford, also in fine voice, seen below with Annie Simpson) wishing there were more to life than brief encounters, is another highlight.

LaChiusa's music comes off more melodic and approachable than I'd expected, with the song "Hello Again" at the beginning and end to tie it all together.

If there is a weakness in the structure of the show, it's the very thing that makes it different. The "La Ronde" idea (based on Arthur Schnitzler's 1897 play), where one person from each couple moves forward into the next scene to pair up with someone else, who then moves forward to make the next couple, makes the libretto (and all the raw sex feigned for the audience) seem a bit repetitive and episodic. The sexual encounters are choreographed and staged precisely and sharply, so that the musical phrases are echoed perfectly in movement, but even so... The point that there is no intimacy in these more-than-intimate couplings doesn't need ten scenes to come across. Which is, again, why the songs that hint at something more stand out.

Susong has made each stage picture vivid, cast against a surreal pile-of-body-parts backdrop and a round playing space that works well with this waltz where everybody keeps changing partners. Curtis Trout's set design and its hidden doors and panels work very smoothly throughout. Marcia K. McDonald's costume design is equally evocative, cluing us in on the different decades these pairings inhabit.

All of the college-age performers do excellent work, committing themselves to difficult, complex material and tricky songs that require quite a range. In the end, "Hello Again" at IWU sounds fantastic, looks sharp, and definitely makes its case about the destructive power of focusing on genitalia to the exclusion of brains or hearts.

Music, lyrics and book by Michael John LaChiusa

McPherson Theatre
Illinois Wesleyan University

Director: Scott Susong
Set Designer: Curtis C. Trout
Costume Designer: Marcia K. McDonald
Lighting Designer: Stephen Sakowski
Sound Designer: Antonio Gracias
Assistant Director/Dramaturg: Peter J. Studlo
Orchestrations: Michael Starobin
Music Direction/Conductor: Saundra DeAthos-Meers
Choreographer: Abigail Root

Cast: Laura Williams, Chase Miller, Patsita Jiratipayabood, Marek Zurowski, Amy Stockhaus, Josh Conrad, Zach Wagner, Blake Brauer, Annie Simpson, Ian Coulter-Buford.

Running time: 1:40, played without intermission

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

For more information or to make reservations, click here.

(Photos of "Hello Again" by Josh Levinson.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Chicago's Court Theatre Launches "Angels in America" Next Spring

Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," a two-part "gay fantasia on national themes" is one of those theatrical pieces I always look out for. Like "Follies," which I have written about frequently, or Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia," "Angels in America" flips my switches. I have seen excellent productions of both "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika," including the Broadway original, the first Chicago production, which I believe was considered a touring production, and one in Champaign-Urbana at the Station Theatre. The HBO movie version, starring luminaries like Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Al Pacino, was also lovely and lyrical. And a recent off-Broadway revival at the Signature Theatre starring the second Mr. Spock, Zachary Quinto, received a lot of critical acclaim, as well.

When done right, "Angels in America" is, as one of my friends said when we first saw Part One, a transcendent theatrical experience. I don't say "transcendent" lightly, either. This is a fantastic show, with achingly real characters who swirl through each other's lives, intersecting, rearranging, connecting, coming to some conclusions but not all good ones, growing but not completely maturing, and maybe learning to love or to be honest at least a little. The vivid, unforgettable characters in "Angels in America" -- slimy Roy Cohn, Ethel Rosenberg, a blunt Mormon mother, her son who is married and a conservative lawyer working for Roy Cohn even though he is gay and unhappy, his even more unhappy wife, a nurse who used to be a drag queen, a beautiful man who has AIDS, his lover who can't handle illness and hates himself for it, an Eskimo, a mysterious travel agent, a battle-ready Angel, and even the world's oldest living Bolshevik -- are what makes it sing.

And now Chris Jones at the Chicago Tribune is reporting that Court Theatre and director Charles Newell have announced the cast for their upcoming "marquee production" of this amazing play, scheduled for March 30 to June 3, 2012. Everyone in the cast is from Chicago -- no imports here -- including Eddie Bennett as Louis Ironson and Rob Lindley as Prior Walter, the couple split apart by illness; Geoff Packard as Joe Pitt and Heidi Kettering (fresh off "Wicked" in Chicago) as his wife, Harper; Hollis Resnik as Hannah, Joe's mother; Michael Pogue as Belize; Mary Beth Fisher as the Angel, and Larry Yando (well-known as Scrooge in the Goodman Theatre's perennial "A Christmas Carol") in the role of Roy Cohn.

For more information, click here or here. Tickets will go on sale December 1 for individual orders, although groups may order now by calling 773-834-3243.

Transcendent theatrical experiences don't come along every day.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Opening Tomorrow: The Provocative, Seductive "Hello Again"

The Musical Program at Illinois Wesleyan's School of Theatre Arts has a reputation for being remarkable. I'm still telling people about their "Urinetown" from back in 2005. Yes, IWU has performed classics like "Of Thee I Sing," the Gershwin/Gershwin/Kaufman/Ryskind show from 1932, and "Once Upon a Mattress," the "Princess and the Pea" musical from 1959, with music by Mary Rodgers, lyrics by Marshall Barer and book by Jay Thompson, Dean Fuller, and Marshall Barer. But they've also tackled more edgy, challenging material, like the afore-mentioned "Urinetown," as well as "Passion," the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine collaboration that asks whether the depth of one moody, sickly and unappealing woman's obsessive love can overcome resistance from a handsome soldier; and last spring, "Lucky Nurse and Other Short Musical Plays," a collection of short pieces by Michael John LaChiusa, whose work I called "relentless, discordant, fragmented music and sharp, pointy lyrics that jab us repeatedly with his bleak world view," when I wrote about "Lucky Nurse" back in April. Definitely challenging material.

Now IWU and director Scott Susong, Assistant Professor of Theatre Arts and Head of Music Theatre, who also directed "Lucky Nurse," brings us "Hello Again," LaChiusa's full-length musical that looks at intimacy, both sexual and emotional, and how those don't always overlap. "Hello Again" is based on "La Ronde," an 1897 play by Arthur Schnitzler, which shows us ten characters paired up in different liaisons. (You'll see all ten in the IWU poster shown at the top of this post.) Schnitzler built his play to open with two characters, one of whom moves into a second scene with a third character, with the third person moving into the next scene with a fourth actor, and so on, until the last scene, in which Actor #10 is paired with Actor #1, circling back from the first scene. (And, again, the poster image illustrates that.)

LaChiusa uses that same "ronde" structure, although he adds another wrinkle. LaChiusa uses a different decade of the 20th century for each scene, varying the style and tone of the music for each scene to fit the new pair of lovers. It's ingenious and engaging, all at the same time, and it means that LaChiusa's characters may be aboard the Titanic in 1912 in one scene, but move to a 1970s disco in the next.

To preview "Hello Again," I posed some questions about the show to Scott Susong. He gave me such good (and complete) answers that I decided it would be a shame to try to paraphrase him or chop it up. So here are Susong's musings on what "Hello Again" is and why it needs to be seen. I think you'll agree that his words are much more interesting than mine would've been! The bolding is mine, however, as I wanted to highlight some particularly good points. (Susong also told me quite a bit about the Music Theatre program at IWU, but I am saving most of those remarks for another piece. Again, quite fascinating to get a behind-the-scenes look at how they do such remarkable work at IWU.)

First, Scott, can you talk about what draws you to LaChiusa? How would you describe his strengths as a composer?

From the time that I was introduced to his work with the success of the 1993/94 Lincoln Center production of “Hello Again,” I have felt that his music speaks directly to me as an artist and as an audience member. It's as if you don’t need anything other than his composition to understand the subtext of any given scene. I think he is my generation's Stephen Sondheim. Like Sondheim, LaChiusa has made a career by defying audience and critical perceptions of what makes a musical. Where other contemporary theatre composers have a tendency to gravitate towards nostalgic recreations of popular films, MJL finds inspiration in the unforgiving human condition. His work creates and inhabits worlds that would be appropriate for playwrights like Harold Pinter, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams or Eugene O'Neill -- but are realms that most musical theater composers and librettists would not dare enter. It is so inspiring to have these complex subjects and characters to delve into as both an actor and certainly as a director.

How does “Hello Again” fit into the overall picture of IWU Music Theater?

Doing a show like this is an actor’s dream. The density and the nuance that exists in all of LaChiusa’s work is both daunting and inspiring. You really want to come up to the task. Aside from the emotional truth of the characters' lives (every actor plays one character living in two different decades but with similar given circumstance causing a liminality that is demanding but kind of awesome) as well as several ensemble roles so just changing your clothes and moving set pieces and being where you are supposed to be is a test of focus and endurance.

The structure of “Hello Again” makes it stand out, both the “ronde” aspect where one character moves forward into the next scene, and the fact that LaChiusa chose to change decades and musical styles with each new couple. Why do you think he was attracted to the Schnitzler piece?

I think that many artists were looking at “La Ronde” in the late 80s and early 90s as it seemed a perfect lens to look at the AIDS crisis. Schnitzler wrote it a hundred years before to illustrate that syphilis didn’t know class or position and that regardless of who you are, you aren’t immune to the social disease of the day. But I think the choice to use “La Ronde” to talk about AIDS was too cliché or somehow would have diminished the devastating loss the artistic community was feeling at that time. Michael John always looks beyond the obvious and into the physiological world of his characters. Humans are messy and unpredictable and what they do and choose to express in the doing often defies understanding. I think he found himself much more drawn to the character study of why people look to physical intimacy to build themselves up or for self-satisfaction. Sex, like people, is messy and complicated but also universal. Without emotional intention, it is empty and basically meaningless. So I think he was really drawn to the lack of intimacy he found in a piece that is about ten sexually intimate encounters -- the lack of intimacy in intimacy.

These are not loving encounters and frankly they weren’t in the original source material, either. I think he is just addicted to exploring human nature and why we do such crazy things and don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. He is pretty faithful in his adaptation; I think he used the twist of jumping back and forth to different decades of the 20th Century so he could express his “Americaness.” He is an American artist and so, like most of us at the end of the 20th Century, really wanted to explore American Iconography. The piece that he wrote just before “Hello Again” was his “First Lady Suite.” Talk about exploring American Iconography.

I think he looked at the American decades and their prevailing social mores and decided where each encounter would have the most punch. An unfaithful young wife is far more thought-provoking with a 1930’s wife than in, let’s say, the 1970s ideal. This allowed him to explore musically what the subtext of each encounter's story is and to use musical motifs to comment and make connections. I feel it is genius, but it does ask a lot of the audience.

LaChiusa’s work is not something that can just wash over an audience passively; he demands that one interact and wrestle with all of the possible meanings. He gives so many opportunities for you to find your own experience in bits and pieces of each encounter while keeping you at just enough distance to also see the social relevance and the political possibilities.

A scene from IWU's production of "Lucky Nurse."
(Photo by Josh Levinson, BFA MT '13)

I know you’ve directed “Lucky Nurse,” but have you performed in or directed other LaChiusa pieces?

“Lucky Nurse” is usually presented as just the four chamber pieces “Lucky Nurse,” “Break,” “Eulogy for Mister Hamm,” and “Agnes.” I wanted to bring Michael John to the IWU campus for our Music Theatre Workshop class, but unfortunately his schedule prevented him from coming. When I still thought he was coming, he and I had e-mailed about the possibility of doing one of his unpublished works, “Hotel C’est L’Amour.” Generally Music Theatre Workshop does a new or unpublished piece with the writer in residence for a portion of the time during the course. It just didn’t work out and it was at such a late date that I felt I still needed to do LaChiusa because the students were so excited to work with his compositions. So I took the four chamber musicals and mixed them with two from “First Lady Suite” and both sides of “Kesa and Morito” that open each act of “See What I Wanna See.” This way we were exploring a variety of his works (many not yet recorded and the students were banned from listening to the ones that had been recorded until after the presentation so that it would be like working on new pieces with nothing to go off of) but we could still fit it into an evening. Michael John was very supportive and kind to let us do it.

Personally, I have sung and presented snippets of his work, but it was all so new when I was still performing (he is only 6 years older than I) that it wasn’t really available. Since I started directing and teaching it has been a waiting game. The music is rhythmically very tricky and it asks for very rangy singers who can safely negotiate multiple octaves in scores of styles and you don’t often find enough of them at any one time. We are fortunate that we have some killer musicians in our program right now who also happen to be strong actors. It is a dream come true.

Is it challenging doing “Hello Again” with its mature themes and complex score with student performers? Are they enjoying doing the show or finding it a little daunting?

Yes. I would love to just leave it at that, but I know this is actually the question I am asked most. I actually have colleagues from other Music Theatre programs flying in to see the show because they also what to know how it is working. Yes, the students are enjoying the work very much. It is intimidating, but actors on this level love the bravery it takes to tackle difficult subject matter and they feel safe and protected and cared for at all times. It is so important that as educators we give them the opportunity to experience these things while they are sheltered and when they don’t have the distraction of career or fame getting in the way. It is easy to say “I won’t do nudity” or “I won’t simulate sex” until your agent calls and says it is for a hit television program, feature film or Broadway. In an educational environment they get to experiment and figure out what they really want to do and are comfortable with without it having an impact on their career.

The problem is we only do 6 performances so, with something like nudity for instance, the actor becomes very relaxed in rehearsal and with the cast and then the crew and then they are faced with the audience and instead of having weeks of previews to get used to it again, they generally get comfortable again around Friday or Saturday and we close on Sunday. But if it isn’t gratuitous, it is such a great learning opportunity. They learn the union rules around such things and what they can expect if asked to do this legitimately. They ultimately learn if they really are at ease with it or if they just thought they were. Anything like this is always announced prior, fully vetted, and no show is cast based on the willingness of a person, but on their talent. If the most talented person who fits into the casting puzzle is unwilling to do whatever and it doesn’t compromise the author’s intent, we will always take it out. We don’t add these things to scripts, but only deal with them if they are in the printed licensed text.

With “Hello Again” it is sexual simulation and very adult material, but there is nothing in the script about nudity. The original Lincoln Center production didn’t employ nudity in the production, but was more along the lines of what I have done with the piece. The 2011 revival did employ nudity but only with all of the men (odd) as all of the women remained completely clothed. I found this strange and thought it inherently muddled the purpose of the sexual simulation. I have also altered some of the encounters -- not to soften them for our audience or for the students -- but to make them feel more like the score. I would say for the majority of the student actors the sexual simulation has not been the daunting part of the process (we have laughed a lot at how silly sex can be) but it is the emotional lives of these characters and how desperate they are for connection that has been such a challenge for young performers -- this is tough stuff for a 42 year old much less a 22 year old.

The big issue is that it is a musical so everything is scored to the music…every sexual act…every moment of contemplation… It is a bit like Ginger Rogers having to do everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in heels. Every actor choice has to be so precise and technical but appear believable. If I have any point of pride in this production it is the wonderfully mature way that all of my actors have handled this delicate work and how much it matters to them that they find the right tone for the story they are participating in telling.

What do you think is important about “Hello Again” that audiences should definitely experience?

I think all of the best theatre is a reflection of society. We hold up a mirror and say look, find yourself in this story, find your family, your community, your country, your world and look at it honestly and see if you like it or if you feel you don’t how can you change. It is all the human condition and sometimes it is ridiculous and we laugh and sometimes it is heartbreaking and we weep but it is always worth examining.

Do any songs stand out for you? Anything in the show that we should look for if we’re coming?

Well, that is a hard one… Audra McDonald recorded both “Tom” and “Mistress of the Senator” on her debut album “Way Back to Paradise” (from LaChiusa’s “Marie Christine”). They are standouts because they are songs and he often writes musical scenes that don’t follow a song format but feel a bit more like “20th Century Music.” I have always loved the title song “Hello Again” sung by the Whore and “In Some Other Life” sung by the Nurse, but working on the show I have become really enamored of the men’s songs: “Listen to the Music,” “Safe” and “The Bed Was Not My Own” all come to mind.

I would hope that audiences will come open and ready to wrestle with the rollercoaster of these people’s lives and how much they need to find an authentic connection without understanding the inequality of sex and love. There are so many thing that are nonlinear and different about the storytelling and while the acting may appear at times realistic and at other times magical there is always a liminality about time and space that ask the watcher to set significance instead of spoon feeding implication. I have tried to give some touchstones and elements to guide the audience through, but ultimately the experience is highly personal and one that I think like sexual encounters is singularly individual.

"Hello Again" opens tomorrow night, Tuesday, November 15th at IWU's McPherson Theatre. For ticket information, click here.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sarah Ruhl's "Dead Man's Cell Phone" at Eureka College November 15-20

Sarah Ruhl, who writes theatrical, poetic, quicksilver plays about issues both big and small, seems like the perfect recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" Grant. To write the plays she writes, you might imagine that her mind would look as crowded, surreal and beautiful as the elevator full of rain that travels to the underworld in "Eurydice" or the apples that fall off one woman's balcony into another's living room miles away in "The Clean House." Her plays are full of words and visual images, both poetic and strange. And somehow moving, too. So, you know, genius.

When asked by the LA Times to describe why she wrote "Dead Man's Cell Phone," Ruhl talked about lies and fabrications, privacy, technology, a cab driver (or possibly an "eminent theatrical scholar" and expert on the use of ladders backstage) named Jacques Joli-Coeur, and the "joys of multiplicity." So... Okay. I don't really understand that. As it concerns "Dead Man's Cell Phone," I would say it is a play about curiosity and connection, about mortality and the mundane, about one woman trying to figure out who someone was and who loved him, just because he died but his cell phone kept ringing, and she wanted to know what that meant.

As you would expect, this is not really a linear play in terms of plot. When Jean, a woman who works at a Holocaust museum, goes looking for the whys and wherefores in the life of the man who died, she finds his widow, his mother, his brother and his "Other Woman," and she finds herself in both the Afterlife and the Black Market. There is irony, humor and sympathy there, underneath the dizzying display of verbiage.

It's a curious, mysterious play, and one that needs to be seen to be figured out. And it may have the best hook of any play in a long time. Dead man. Cell phone keeps ringing. Who can resist?

Erin Cochran (L) and Tim Jenkins (R) in Eureka
College's production of "Dead Man's Cell Phone"

Eureka College tackles "Dead Man's Cell Phone" and all its quirky joys next week, opening November 15th at Pritchard Theatre. The play is directed by Bloomington actor and playwright Rhys Lovell, guest director for Eureka, and stars Erin Cochran as Jean, the one who takes the journey into the heart of the dead man and his cell phone. In support, Tim Jenkins plays the titular dead man, Alyssa Martin has the role of his widow, Kate West appears as his mother, Louis Servant plays his brother, and Alyssa Davis takes on the role of the Other Woman.

Performances are at 7:30 pm November 15-19 and 2 pm on November 20. To make reservations, call the box office at 309-467-6363.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"The Marriage of Bette and Boo" Shows More Pain Than Fun in Dysfunction

Christopher Durang has called "The Marriage of Bette and Boo" both his favorite and the most biographical of his plays. (Yes, he said "biographical," not "autobiographical." Since he is a very precise person, and "The Marriage of Bette and Boo" is also famous for the number of notes he put in the script to tell potential directors exactly how he wanted the show done, I believe he meant "biographical" when he said it. As in, this play is about his parents and grandparents and aunts more than about him, even though his stand-in, a character named Matt but nicknamed Skippy, is right there on stage.)

"The Marriage of Bette and Boo" features Durang's brand of dark, absurdist humor, but it also has a more complete plot and realistic subject matter than some of his other works. "Bette and Boo" follows (not in chronological order) the messy, sad, oddball lives of Durang's parents, the Bette and Boo in the title. (Durang is also specific that "Bette" should be pronounced like "Bet" or Bette Midler, not "Betty." His real mother's name was Patricia, not Bette or Betty or Elizabeth or anything like that. But the mother in the play is most definitely "Bette," pronounced "Bet." The father in the play is called Boo, or Bore, although Durang's real father was a Francis. Durang also changed his father's and grandfather's professions to something to do with insurance, rather than architecture.)

In 33 short scenes that take a little under two hours to perform, "The Marriage of Bette and Boo" traces the lives of these two unhappy souls from the time they get married through their son's birth and growing up years, Bette's insistence on continuing to try to have more children even though she is Rh negative and her babies kept dying at birth, Boo's alcoholism, the horror show that are this family's holidays, the controlling grandmother and silent grandfather on one side and the horribly mean, abusive grandfather and doormat grandmother on the other, and how the Catholic Church and one priest in particular figure into all the madness.

Under the direction of Christopher Dea for the Illinois State University School of Theatre, "The Marriage of Bette and Boo" comes off as painful, sad and warped as it needs to be. Michael Van Howe's scenic design is comfy and atmospheric, using family pictures on the wall, dumpy sofas and recliners and a few mismatched chairs to bring us home, with a few ovals on the wall that can change from windows to stained glass when we go to church. Tina Godziszewski's costumes fit the set, with lots of housedresses in turquoise, orange and brown, and a vast array of aprons.

Inside Westhoff Theatre, "Bette and Boo" puts audience members right in the action, as they are allowed to lump themselves into the velvet sofas and retro chairs and sit on the astroturf carpet next to Bette and Boo and their crazy relatives.

The ensemble keeps the pace going very well, enough that I sense that director Dea stressed speed with his actors, which is both bad and good. It's good, because the material needs speed and comic timing to keep its black humor going (like the dead babies who keep getting dropped on the floor). But it's bad when Bette (played with cheery insanity by Kayla Stroner) and Matt, our narrator, (played with a sort of deadpan repression by Christopher J. Bryant) whip through their speeches so quickly it's hard to decipher what they're saying.

Still, the timing overall is excellent, and the sight gags, like the priest impersonating frying bacon or the dead grandparents with dust covers thrown over their heads, still being wheeled around in their chairs, work very well. The dysfunction and sadness in the family is always there, even at the funniest moments, making "The Marriage of Bette and Boo" both more painful and more moving than I expected from Durang. So, yes, there's laughter, but for the most part, it's the uneasy laughter of recognition and identification.

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" is the famous first line of "Anna Karenina," but "Bette and Boo" shows you how alike unhappy families are, too. Drunk dad, sweet aunt who wallows in guilt, mom obsessed with babies as well as "Winnie the Pooh," all fueled by a strict Catholicism that doesn't allow for birth control or divorce... None of that fits my family, but the issues of trying to connect or feel supported in a weird, wacky world where the people you're related to are positively maddening? That fits every family, I think.

ISU's production of "Bette and Boo" traverses these tricky waters nicely, with excellent performances from the entire ensemble, but especially Ashlyn Hughes as the self-flagellating sister Joan, who never wavers in her commitment to Crazytown; Joey Fitzpatrick as the unhelpful priest and even more unhelpful doctor; and Jacqueline M. Dellamano and Tammy Wilson as the most distressing pair of grandmothers ever.

This "Bette and Boo" is very popular with the student body, it seems, as performances continue to sell out. If you can get in, I think this "Marriage" is worth your time.

By Christopher Durang

Illinois State University School of Theatre
Westhoff Theatre

Director: Christopher Dea
Scenic Designer: Michael Van Howe
Costume Designer: Tina Godziszewski
Lighting Designer: Rob Stepek
Sound Designer: Sarah Putts
Hair and Makeup Designer: Carrington Konow
Dramaturg: Melissa Scott
Stage Manager: Thomas Moster

Cast: Kayla Stroner, Jaqueline M. Dellamano, Kent Nusbaum, Elizabeth Dillard, Ashlyn Hughes, Patrick Boylan, Patrick Riley, Tammy Wilson, Joey Fitzpatrick, Christopher J. Bryant.

Running time: 2 hours, including one 10-minute intermission

Remaining performances: November 10-12 at 7:30 pm and November 12 at 2 pm.

Box office: 309-438-2535. Tickets can also be ordered online at (Remember, several performances are sold out, so you'll need to be flexible if you really want to get in.)