Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"Pullman, WA" and "9 Parts of Desire" Open Tomorrow at ISU

As we finish out February and head into March, we have a lot of theater happening in Central Illinois.

Yes, quirky and compelling "Cloud 9," the Caryl Churchill gender-bender, picks up again tomorrow and continues through Saturday, March 3.

Yes, the fast and furious "Mauritius," by Theresa Rebeck of "Smash" fame, has one more weekend at Heartland Theatre, with performances Thursday, March 1, through Sunday, March 4.

And, yes, there will be two new shows opening tomorrow, with the classic Noel Coward comedy "Blithe Spirit" taking the stage at Community Players and a more modern piece of relationship comedy, Gina Gionfriddo's "Becky Shaw" opening at Urbana's Station Theatre.

ISU also has two smaller shows sneaking up on us with invited dress rehearsals tonight and the first of just four performances starting tomorrow. They're both free, I think, and both take place in smaller venues, with Young Jean Lee's "Pullman, WA" in room 149 at ISU's Center for the Visual Arts, and Heather Raffo's "9 Parts of Desire" at Centennial East 115.

One interesting note: In the continuing discussion over why female playwrights get so many fewer productions than male playwrights, I am happy to tell you that five of the six playwrights attached to the plays I've listed here are, indeed, female. Thank you, area theaters, for doing your part to even the score.

Young Jean Lee was born in South Korea, but she grew up in Pullman, Washington, which provides the title for her play "Pullman, WA." In The New Yorker, Hilton Als described Lee as "a facetious provocateur; that is, she does whatever she can to get under our skin -- with laughs and with raw, brutal talk that at times feels gratuitous, and is meant to."

"Pullman, WA" is directed by grad student Vanessa Stalling for ISU's first-year MFA 2X2 program. The show's Facebook page says it is "the story of 3 self help gurus trying to preach their way of life and their cure for self hatred on the audience while discovering and working through their own personal demons along the way." Stalling's cast includes Drew Mills, Dustin Rothbart and Tyler Yonke.

The other half of the 2X2 is "9 Parts of Desire," Heather Raffo's examination of  "the extraordinary (and ordinary) lives of a whole cross-section of Iraqi women: a sexy painter, a radical Communist, doctors, exiles, wives and lovers. This work delves into the many conflicting aspects of what it means to be a woman in the age-old war zone that is Iraq." 

Raffo is an Iraqi-American, and she performed "9 Parts of Desire" herself as a one-woman show. She received a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show for that work. For ISU, Matt Campbell directs a cast of five -- Claire Ford, Jenna Liddle, Becky Miller, Alison Sokolowski and Carla Westlund -- to tell Raffo's story. 

For more information on "Pullman WA," including performance dates and times, click here. For "9 Parts of Desire," click here.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

ISU Black Actors Guild Presents "Willie Lynch" for Black History Month

Is the Willie Lynch letter real? Did somebody make it up in the 1970s as a cautionary tale or a call to arms? Does it really matter?

Gregory Hicks, who works with the New Route Theatre and has been bringing programming to ISU under the auspices of the ISU Black Actors Guild, directs an examination of those questions in "The Mystical Willie Lynch: A Musical, Poetic and Mental Exploration." The cast of "Mystical," which includes Trace Gamache, Charlene Ifenso-Okpala, Ariele Jones, Jennifer Rusk, Don Shandrow, and Hicks himself, performed the show once last week, with another performance this Wednesday, February 29, at 7 pm in the AirPort Lounge (APL) in ISU's Centennial West building, and a third scheduled in March for New Route.

In addition to the poems and songs performed by the ensemble, poems will be handed to the audience to read.

So what is the Willie Lynch letter? When this letter first showed up, it told a very grim story, about one William Lynch, supposedly a prosperous plantation owner (and slave owner) from the West Indies who had been asked to speak to American slave owners in Virginia in 1712 to share his secrets for controlling slaves not just in the present, but for "at least 300 hundred years." Those secrets are unspeakable and horrifying, advising slave owners to divide and conquer, torture and brainwash, isolate and terrorize, in order to manage one's slaves for maximum financial gain. Like I said, horrifying.

The authenticity of the letter has been much debated on the internet, with several scholars casting serious doubts on the letter and the 1712 speech the letter supposedly reported. If I'm reading descriptions of this new program, "The Mystical Willie Lynch," correctly, Hicks and his cast are treating the "real" Willie Lynch letter as a "what if" proposition, not suggesting that the letter is real, but instead looking into the issues and concerns it raises even if it didn't exist in fact.

"Using a bit of theatricality," Hicks' press materials say, "a talented group of actors, and singers will present a poetry show. Through this performance, we begin to explore the teaching of The Mystical Willie Lynch. The works of artists such as Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka (a.k.a. LeRoi Jones), Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday, Gregory D. Hicks, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Nicki Minaj, Saul Williams, Pat’s Justice, will help us explore this letter."

All of this, Hicks suggests, is to get at the question, "If knowledge truly is power, what will you do with it?"

Monday, February 27, 2012

"Mad Men" Brings on the Mannequin Madness to Start Season Five

It's been a long wait, but "Mad Men" -- the curiously addictive (and beautifully dressed) drama about the life of advertising men and women in the 1960s* -- is finally back. Or almost back. We still have a few weeks to wait.

To build some buzz for the show's return March 25, AMC has been releasing teaser videos that reveal almost nothing about what will befall gorgeous, tortured Don Draper and his ad pals in this 5th season. Now we have a new poster to go with the video, and it's hard to tell whether it and its mannequins in a store window reveal anything or not.

"Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner told the New York Times that the poster is intended to be "a dreamlike image," one that is "'a nonverbal representation of where my head is at and where the show will be."

He also promises in the article linked above that by the end of the season, we will all understand why exactly this poster was chosen to represent the new season.


When last we saw Don, he had just proposed to his secretary after knowing her for about five minutes. She'd filled in as babysitter when he took his kids (he has three from his terrible marriage to Ice Queen Betty) to California, and pretty much did a turn as Maria from "The Sound of Music" in charming him and his children. Oh, and the reason Don needed a babysitter to go to California was that stupid, annoying Betty got into a snit and hauled off and fired loyal household help Carla, the only real mother the Draper children have ever known, just to prove to TV Land that she really is as big a moron as we all suspected. But, hey, Betty did finally deign to move her frosty white butt out of the Draper home, so there is that. We also got the idea that Betty's new husband sees through her petty little games and that this marriage won't do any better than #1.

Back at the office, red-hot office manager Joan has been promoted to Director of Agency Operations without a salary increase, plus she's pregnant, and Roger, who has a trophy-secretary wife of his own, may be the father; Pete is unhappy that the firm has added Ken Cosgrove without telling him; and Peggy has scored an important pantyhose account, mostly because she has moxie and is pretty darn awesome at her job. Not that Don notices, what with the toothy eye candy on his arm and the diamond ring on the eye candy's finger.

So what of the poster and what it tells us about the direction all those stories are taking, now that we finally get to see what happens next for Don and Joan and Pete and Peggy?

Is the mannequin picture supposed to signify that Don finally realizes how shallow his life and his view of women is? That Don will continue to reveal nothing of himself (since the male mannequin is fully dressed) while the women in his life are naked and vulnerable? That he has all the power, while everybody else dances (and strips) for his pleasure? That he is as fake and as insubstantial as the mannequins, given that his ghostly image is superimposed between them? That the "perfect picture" of a husband and wife never did exist, and he needs to stop trying to paint himself into such a picture? That Don is going to turn into Hugh Hefner, avec smoking jacket and slippers and naked women with lingerie at their ankles? That the old ways are gone, that men in smoking jackets and women in frilly lingerie are being cleared out of the window to make room for bell-bottom jeans, psychedelic miniskirts and Nehru jackets?

I don't know. But it seems clear there are implications about sex and power in that poster.

New episodes of "Mad Men" begin on March 25 with a special two-hour season premiere.

*"Mad Men" and its ad men started in the 50s, but are now up to the late 60s, story-wise.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Sweet Send-Off in IWU's Senior Soiree

The seniors in Illinois Wesleyan's School of Theatre Arts are starting a new tradition, a "Senior Soiree" staged in Chicago to introduce themselves to directors, artistic directors, managing directors and casting directors as well as IWU alumni who are now living and working in the city.

The 2012 Senior Soiree will take place at TimeLine Theatre on Chicago's North Side on Monday evening, February 27th, with a wine and cheese reception from 6:30 to 7 pm, including "a gallery showcase of work by student stage designers, directors, stage managers, and teaching artists." After that, IWU's seniors graduating in Theater and Music Theater will perform songs and scenes to showcase their  skills, with cocktails, hors d'oeuvres and conversation to follow.

As a dress rehearsal for their TimeLine gig, IWU's senior class performers and designers took their show to the First Presbyterian Church in Normal last night, with parents, faculty and guests in the audience.

First up, we met lighting designer Krystal Martinez, scenic and lighting designer Tristan Meredith, scenic designer Aaron O'Neill, sound designer Antonio Gracias, stage manager Mary K. Holm, director Megan Francomb, and teaching artist Sameehan Patel (who also happens to be a pre-med student), as they displayed photos, models and in Gracias's case, audio of their work, and chatted with visitors about what they'd achieved so far and where they hoped to be after they graduate.

Playwrights Kamaya Thompson, whose work has been performed by New Route Theatre in Bloomington, and Smith Elder, wrote pieces performed by actors as part of the showcase.

The performances consisted of selections from songs, monologues and plays, with actors dipping into a collection of pieces called "Open Road Anthology" that was first performed at Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival, several times. There was a nice mix of the familiar ("Hamlet") and the unfamiliar (original work by Thompson and Elder), the old (Cole Porter) and the new (songs from the brand-new "Bonnie & Clyde" and "Newsies" musicals), as the performers moved quickly from one piece to the next

The full company opened with a bouncy "Live Out Loud" from Andrew Lippa's and Ben Crawley's musical version of "A Little Princess," moving on to Chase Miller singing a heartfelt "If the World Looked Like You," from the musical "Just Ahead." After Abigail Root did a slice of Rollin James's "Ron Bobby Had Too Big a Heart," the first piece from the "Open Road" collection, all of the men performed "Man" from "The Full Monty," the fun (and funny) attempt to maintain masculinity in the face of adversity.

Actors Michael Holding and Amanda Williams took on the sibling rivalry in Kamaya Thompson's "Schooled," with Rosalind Prickel performing an adorable ode to candy bar lust called "Oh, Henry!" from the musical "Homemade Fusion," by Michael Koorman and Christopher Dimond, Blake Brauer taking on Laertes' instructions to Ophelia, Caitlin Borek doing the crazy high (and crazy hard) aria "Glitter and Be Gay," the Leonard Bernstein/Richard Wilbur showstopper from "Candide," and Josh Conrad singing "Till I Hear You Sing," a lush bit from Andrew Lloyd Webber's sequel to "Phantom of the Opera."

Root, Brauer and Miller came back to sing and dance their way through "Tom, Dick or Harry," which you may know as an Ann Miller number in the film version of "Kiss Me Kate," with Bob Fosse as one of her dancing companions. No Bob Fosse here, but Root, Brauer, Miller and Peter Studlo, performing tricky choreography by Jean MacFarland Kerr that kept them neatly inside the small in-the-round staging area, while still leaping, lifting and getting all sassy.

Sammi Grant performed part of the "Dunkin America" scene from the Open Road Anthology, accompanied by Laura Williams, Rosalind Prickel and Laura Martino singing the lovely "Meadowlark," a Stephen Schwartz song from "The Baker's Wife."

And then we saw Allison Sutton with a Kia Corthron piece of "Open Road" as if she were on the subway, followed by singers Ian Coulter-Buford and Root on "Go Back Home," a soaring Kander & Ebb song from the recent "Scottsboro Boys." The show itself wasn't universally loved, but Coulter-Buford, especially, made the music sound wonderful.

Holding and Studlo came back for a war-themed scene from John Olive's "Minnesota Moon" that segued into Stephen Sondheim's "Sorry-Grateful," the song where a set of husbands ponder the conflicted nature of marriage, as sung by Studlo, Brauer and Conrad.

The ladies in the group took center stage after that, with a hilarious and rousing rendition of "All Girl Band," an anthem from a fun feminist show from the early 80s called "A... My Name Is Alice."

John Patrick Shanley's "Italian-American Reconciliation," always popular material for actors to use for monologues and duets, provided a nice platform for Holding to shine, with Laura Williams turning it back on Holding by asking him the musical question "How 'Bout a Dance?" from Frank Wildhorn's  new Broadway version of "Bonnie & Clyde." Video of that last dance has been uploaded to Youtube if you'd like a look.

After Kirsten Anderson performed another piece of "Open Road," Coulter-Buford, Borek and Martino emerged in all black with bowler hats, a tip-off we were headed into Bob Fosse territory. Kerr was the choreographer again, as Coulter-Buford led the trio in a slink, Fosse-inspired performance of "Bye Bye Blackbird," a 1926 which first appeared staged this way in Liza Minnelli's "Liza with a Z" TV special, but also showed up in the Broadway revue "Fosse."

Smith Elder's fresh and amusing "Annunciation," wherein an angel, played by Sammi Grant, appears to three women (Anderson, Sutton and Amanda Williams) to tell them one will be giving birth to a new Jesus, was the last dramatic piece of the evening, with a finale combining "Go the Distance" from Disney's "Hercules" with "Seize the Day" from the 1992 film "Newsies," which has been turned into a full musical (with the Disney label, as well) that will open on Broadway on March 15. IWU alum Evan Kasprzak is in the cast of "Newsies" on Broadway, which provides a nice note of inspiration for the graduating seniors.

Thanks, IWU and your senior School of Theatre Arts students, for offering this sneak peek to locals!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Two Heartland Notes for Sunday the 26th

You already know that Heartland Theatre is currently running Theresa Rebeck's "Mauritius," with performances through March 4, right? (And I did interviews with Sarah Stone Innerst and Kevin Paul Wickart, who play Jackie and Phillip in the play, to catch you up if you need it.)

If you've seen the play and want to discuss the issues it raised, or if you haven't seen it and think the best performance for you is the one with value-added discussion, then you need to put tomorrow's matinee on your calendar. After the 2 pm performance of "Mauritius," director Sandra Zielinski, Professor of Theatre at Illinois State University; Alaina Winters, Associate Professor of Communication at Heartland Community College; and V. Loree Adams, MSW, LCSW, Instructor in the Sociology Department at Illinois Wesleyan University, will speak to the sibling rivalry, betrayal, family dysfunction and societal implications in the play. The panel discussion will begin at approximately 4:15 on Sunday, February 26th, at Heartland Theatre.

"Superior Donuts" on Broadway
And later that day, director Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson, who is in charge of Tracy Letts' "Superior Donuts," the next show on Heartland's schedule, will conduct auditions. "Superior Donuts" began at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, with a cast that included Michael McKean and Jon Michael Hill. When "Donuts" moved to Broadway, Hill was nominated for a Tony for his performance as Franco, would-be author of the Great American Novel. Thibodeaux-Thompson will be looking for seven men and two women, with a need for two African-American males, two males (one extremely tall) who can handle Russian accents and two males who don't mind engaging in a protracted, painful fight on Heartland's stage.

If you are interested in acting in "Superior Donuts" -- and frankly, everybody ought to, because it's a terrific play -- you'll want to come to Heartland Theatre Sunday the 26th and/or Monday the 27th from 7 to 10 pm. Thibodeaux-Thompson will do callbacks on Tuesday the 28th if necessary.

Add Your Voice to Protest Songs at the McLean County Museum of History

Do you play the guitar, banjo, mandolin or harmonica? (Harmonica is not specifically included, but seems likely to fit. How can you do protest songs without Bob Dylan, and how can you do Bob Dylan without a harmonica in the room? I'd even allow a fiddle if it were me.)

The McLean County Museum of History is holding a Protest Songs Hootenanny from 7 to 9 pm on Wednesday, February 29, in the Governor Fifer Courtroom on the third floor of the Museum. They're inviting anybody who wants to better understand American history as told through protest songs to join Illinois State University Distinguished Professor Emeritus Mark Wyman and friends in the courtroom on Wednesday. You can celebrate protests past or practice for protests future just by adding your voice (or your guitar, banjo, mandolin or harmonica -- maybe even fiddle) to this rousing, always timely art form.

No mention so far of what Mark Wyman and friends plan to sing, but if they're taking requests, I'd ask for "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again," 'Bread and Roses," "Ohio," and Josh White's "Trouble." I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear the classic folk and protest songs like "If I Had a Hammer," "The Times They Are A-Changin'," "A Change Is Gonna Come," "Blowing in the Wind," and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"And just to thumb our collective nose at CBS, maybe "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." But maybe that just reflects my age. There's a lot more to protest songs than just the 60s!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Quirky and Tart, "Cloud 9" Pushes the Right Buttons at ISU

Bending gender, time, age, skin color and everything else you can think of, Caryl Churchill's "Cloud 9," on stage at Illinois State University's Westhoff Theatre, is all at once political, sexual and very, very tart.

Churchill begins "Cloud 9" in Colonial Africa in the 19th century, with Victoria on the throne of England and a whole lot of white male domination going on. We see the household of Clive, a pip pip cheerio British type, complete with pith helmet, sent by the Queen to rule over this small piece of her empire.

The biggest quirk of the play (and there are a lot of quirky bits in "Cloud 9") is the casting. In Act I in Africa, Churchill specifies that a male should play Betty, Clive's lovely wife, a female should play little Edward, Clive and Betty's son who shows traits of femininity that are disturbing to his parents, like being attached to a doll, and a white actor should play Joshua, the African servant who defers to almost anything and everything his white overlords demand. It's all part of her overall theme, to show how the rigid dictates of Colonialism create identity confusion on all levels, as Betty and Joshua have become completely defined and controlled by the white male power structure around them.

Act II takes us to England in the 1970s, showing the same characters, but only 25 years older and now played by different actors. Betty is now played by a woman (at ISU it's the actress who played the governess in Act I) and Edward is now played by a man (Clive from Act I). Meanwhile, the actor who played Joshua takes on the role of a rambunctious little girl named Kathy as well as the ghost of a soldier who died in Ireland, the new Africa in terms of British imperialism.

So not only are the genders switched up in this heady swirl of men, women and children, but they are turned around again when the actors take on new roles in Act II, and more fluid sexuality is explored, with homosexuality and bisexuality added to the mix in the less restrictive 70s.

Churchill paints her characters in vivid colors, pushing at the boundaries of stereotypes for humor and shock value. For ISU, director Jeremy Garrett gets the message across quite nicely, keeping his actors moving as they switch identities and costumes on a dime, and in the end, creating characters who feel real against all the chaos.

The cast of "Cloud 9" has to be an ensemble or Churchill's ideas will never get off the ground, and Garrett's cast works hard to deliver. When it comes to energy and take-no-prisoners attitude, they all go for it.

Individually, Andrew Rogalny Jr. is hilarious and robust (as well as horrifying) as Clive the Lord and Master (whose mustache is like a character of its own) and then sweet and tentative as adult Edward, who finds the real him as a housewife; Danny Rice does quite well traversing the distance between languid, confused Betty and slimy pick-up artist Gerry; Hannah Brown is all perk and pep as little Edward, but quite lovely as Victoria the bisexual wife; Nicholas Spindler is decidedly odd as implacable Joshua the black servant and even odder as hyperactive Kathy who drives her mum crazy; Abby Vombrack is all stern warnings as Betty's mother, adding softness and confusion to get to Lin, the lesbian who has a thing for Victoria; and Alex Kostner gets the unenviable task of playing omnisexual Harry the Explorer, who seems to have sex with everyone and everything he can get his hands on in the wilds of Africa, and then unpleasant Martin, who blames his wife's unhappiness and his own cheating completely on her. Fiona Stephens deserves special mention for dashing on and off with split-second changes between Ellen, the governess, and Mrs. Saunders, a widow with a mind of her own, in the African section, and then playing Betty, just now trying to figure out who she is, in 1970s England. And creating whole characters for all three of them. I don't know how she managed the costume changes, let alone the character changes, between Ellen and Mrs. Saunders, but kudos to Stephens for making it work.

Andrew Sierszyn's set design, with revolving blocks of scenery at the back of the stage, is bold and fun, illustrating the turns the characters are taking, and JM Montecalvo's lighting design adds texture and color, as well. The array of costumes, designed by Sandy Childers, creates instant associations for the characters, which is very helpful when they keep switching personalities.

All in all, "Cloud 9" is a tricky show that will not be to the liking of all audiences. But for those who like their theater quirky, pointed and thought-provoking, with a huge dollop of sarcasm and sexual button-pushing, "Cloud 9" may be just the ticket.

By Caryl Churchill

Illinois State University's Westhoff Theatre

Director: Jeremy Garrett
Scenic Designer: Andrew Sierszyn
Costume Designer: Sandy Childers
Lighting Designer: JM Montecalvo
Sound Designer: Sarah Putts
Hair and Makeup Designer: Brittany Powers
Voice and Dialect Coach: Connie de Veer
Dramaturg: David Fisch
Fight Director: Zack Powell
Stage Manager: Casey Peek

Cast: Hannah Brown, Alex Kostner, Danny Rice, Andrew Rogalny, Jr., Fiona Stephens, Abby Vombrack.

Remaining performances: February 24-25, 28-29 and March 1-3 at 7:30 pm; March 3 at 2pm

Running time: 2:25, including one 15-minute intermission

For ticket information, click here.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Just in Time for Oscar: "Hugo" at the Normal Theater

As Oscar night approaches (it's Sunday, the 26th, with red carpet coverage starting at 6 pm Central time and the awards themselves taking a bow at 7:30), the Normal Theater is bringing us four nights of "Hugo," the magical movie that leads the Academy Awards pack with 11 nominations.

Go see it. You need to see "Hugo." In fact, I wouldn't think there was anything wrong if you wanted to sit in a nice, comfy seat at the Normal Theater for all four shows. Well, maybe not Sunday night, since that's the Oscar ceremony. Or maybe you'd rather watch "Hugo" one more time instead of the Oscars. I can understand that.

The Normal Theater has also kindly provided a link to the trailer for "Hugo" here. Lovely.

Given the fact that it's earned 11 Academy Award nominations, you might think "Hugo" is fated to walk away with a passel of Oscar statuettes on Sunday. Alas, "The Artist" has been dominating everybody's awards, and it seems likely to win Best Picture as well as Best Director, even though "Hugo" and director Martin Scorsese deserve both, in my opinion.

"Hugo" is an amazing achievement that should speak to anybody who's ever loved being swept away by history or movies or books. Scorsese did a beautiful job making use of film technology -- specifically 3D -- to illuminate and elevate film pioneers and their fantastical creations, as well as create a whole world within one train station in Paris in the 30s. I don't know whether the Normal Theater is showing the 3D version of "Hugo" (their website says nothing about 3D, which means probably not) but I hope so. I am not, in general, a fan of 3D. It seems to distance me from the characters and the reality of their situation, as well as give me a headache. But in "Hugo," it's used so lovingly, so perfectly, it pulls you in rather than pushing you away (or blasting at your head). As a result, it adds to the complete magical experience.

Oddly enough, both "Hugo" and "The Artist" are about film history. The fact that they've appeared in the same year gives the Academy plenty of opportunity to celebrate movies and splash around lots of footage from the films of Georges Méliès, representing "Hugo," as well as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and maybe even a little Douglas Fairbanks, as homage to "The Artist," during Sunday's ceremonies.

I love movie history, including the way-back history of the Oscars (first awards handed out in 1929, with "Wings," Emil Jannings and Janey Gaynor the big winners) and I hope they do, indeed, surround the ceremony with clips of fabulous films, fabulous actors and actresses, and lots and lots of movie treasures.

"Hugo" plays at the Normal Theater tonight, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with all shows at 7 pm.

ABC's broadcast of the 84th Annual Academy Awards begins at 6 pm on Sunday the 26th with Robin Roberts, Tim Gunn, Louise Roe, Jess Cagle and Nina Garcia hosting live coverage from the red carpet, with the Oscar ceremonies, hosted by Billy Crystal, beginning at 7:30 pm Central time. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Michael Douglas, Tina Fey, Penelope Cruz, Chris Rock, Emma Stone, Kermit the Frog, and the cast of “Bridesmaids” are among those scheduled to present awards.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Tense "Mauritius" Packs a Punch at Heartland Theatre

Tension and intensity are the keys to Theresa Rebeck's "Mauritius" as it uncoils on stage at Heartland Theatre. There's tension among all the actors and the characters they play, as they circle hungrily, not unlike a pack of wolves, around a potentially valuable stamp collection. Director Sandra Zielinski adds intensity to the mix with her staging, ramping up into physical violence as her characters shove each other aside on their way to the prize.

Two half-sisters, Mary and Jackie, have been left behind after the recent death of their mother. Mom also left behind a stamp collection, which both half-sisters profess to own. Mary, the older daughter, argues that the stamps were the prized possession of her grandfather (a grandfather she did not share with Jackie) and that they are therefore of sentimental value to her and her alone. But Jackie was the one who stayed at home with her mother through what sounds like years of financial distress and emotional abuse, and she is desperate to sell the stamp collection to provide the funds for a new life far away from her mother's house of pain.

Neither consults a lawyer. That's understandable, since most of Rebeck's conflict would fly out the window if they did. Probably better to just call that poetic license and move on. Oh well.

Instead, Jackie takes the stamp collection to a less-than-posh stamp shop, owned by the cranky, uncooperative Phillip, to try to figure out what it's worth. Phillip isn't in the mood to rouse himself to look over her stamps or offer an opinion on their value, but Dennis, a cagey younger guy always looking out for just this kind of score, is willing to jump in. He notices immediately that there are some very rare, very valuable stamps in the album she's toting.

And that's when things start to get good. Are the stamps real? If they are, who owns them? What will Jackie and Mary do to each other in order two keep their hands on them? And who among the trio of pursuers -- slick, charming Dennis, worn-out Phillip or greedy, menacing collector Sterling -- will bend the others to his will?

Rebeck's script is all about cross and doublecross, smackdown and backhand, with clever dialogue that comes out in naturalistic bits and pieces, as well as a fair share of swearing, shouting and swagger. In the intimate confines of Heartland Theatre, the violence -- both verbal and physical -- is in-your-face and scary, with edge-of-your-seat suspense. The actors work quite well together, which is absolutely necessary when they're choreographing this much action in such a small space.

Sarah Stone Innerst leads the cast as Jackie, who comes off stubborn, hard and just unhinged enough to do some serious damage as she faces off against the world. As her sparring partner, older sis Mary, Kate McDermott-Swanson is flinty and snooty, a real piece of work, the one who had all the advantages but still doesn't feel like she needs to share.

The three men are different enough, and yet each threatening in his own way. Kevin Paul Wickart is world-weary and hang-dog as Phil the Philatelist, brooding in the background and nursing his hurts like a perennially sore tooth, while Michael Pullin's Sterling is really, really scary. Pullin's physical presence is menacing from the first moment he appears in a long, plush coat, swirling it like his super-villain cape, casting a dark shadow over everybody else.

Andrew Head finishes out the trio, playing Dennis as a smooth wheeler dealer who thinks if he throws out words fast enough, nobody will noticed they're being conned. Head's Dennis is less the self-assured seducer of the off-Broadway production and more a boyish overachiever, an Artful Dodger, a whiz kid. It works just fine, as Dennis becomes the irresistible force opposite Jackie's immoveable object, and Head and Innerst strike up a nice chemistry.

Scenic Designer Michael Pullin, who also plays Sterling, contributes a snazzy set, which I am told offers a gray-green back wall with inset squares to reference the color of money and the shape of stamps. Nicely done. 

"Mauritius" continues with performances through March 4, with a panel discussion after the matinee this Sunday, February 26th.

By Theresa Rebeck

Heartland Theatre

Director: Sandra Zielinski
Scenic Designer: Michael Pullin
Lighting Designer: Grace Maberg
Costume Designer: Judith Rivera Ramirez
Sound Designer: James Wagoner
Fight Director: Paul Dennhardt
Stage Manager: Melissa Jean Mullen

Cast: Andrew Head, Sarah Stone Innerst, Kate McDermott-Swanson, Michael Pullin and Kevin Paul Wickart

Remaining performances: February 23-25 and March 1-3 at 7:30 pm; February 26 and March 4 at 2 pm

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

Monday, February 20, 2012

Oscar's Best Pics: The Descendants

Attention and acclaim for "The Descendants," the George Clooney movie about life and death, parenthood and responsibility, as played out in Hawaii, have been somewhat overshadowed by all the enthusiasm for "The Artist," its bouncy silent-movie stylings and adorable dog. But make no mistake. There is a lot to like about "The Descendants."

It's a quiet film, achingly real, with George Clooney in a decidedly non-glamorous role. He plays Matt King, a dutiful, somewhat dull lawyer who has been living his life as a descendant of Hawaiian royalty in as low-key a fashion as he can. Like his father before him, he is the trustee (i.e., the guy in charge) of a massive trust that holds a big chunk of Kauai real estate on behalf of a coterie of cousins. Because of the Rule Against Perpetuities (a delightfully archaic rule of law -- this is the second use of the Rule Against Perpetuities in a movie that I am aware of -- it was also a plot point in "Body Heat" back in 1981), the trust needs to be broken up within seven years, and most of King's cousins, including Cousin Hugh, played with sly humor by Beau Bridges, want to sell the property to developers for a huge payday. Matt has a history of going along, and he intends to do that this time, too. But then his thrill-seeker of a wife, Elizabeth, has a bad boating accident, right before Matt is supposed to be announcing what he plans to do with the Kauai property.

As "The Descendants" opens, Elizabeth is in a coma, lying in a hospital bed. Their two daughters, 10-year-old Scottie and wild teen Alexandra, aren't coping very well, and Matt has really never been the principal parent. In the midst of legal hassles about the trust and its attendant real estate, he's hit with the news that Elizabeth will not recover, and then Alexandra spills the beans that her mother was having an affair before she took the fateful boat ride.

The plug needs to be pulled. Elizabeth's friends and family need to know so that they can say goodbye. Matt has to process what he thinks about the fact that his marriage was not only showing cracks but falling apart completely, that his wife may not have loved him anymore, that his daughters are pretty much of a mess. And all of this is incredibly far outside Matt's comfort zone.

Alexander Payne's direction and writing (he co-wrote the screenplay with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings) are thoughtful and steady, with the story unspooling at its own pace, giving all of the characters, and especially Clooney's Matt, time to breathe and think and flounder a little. Clooney does a wonderful job tracking the emotional path of this ordinary man just trying to do the best he can while stuck in a black hole of questions with no answers, problems with no solution, wounded feelings, heaps of blame, and unspeakable sorrow. It's hard to watch. But Clooney is really, really good. Honestly, it's the role of his career.

The supporting cast, with Shailene Woodley as his snarly teen daughter, a ferocious Robert Forster as his hard-line father-in-law, Matthew Lillard playing against type as the man Matt's wife was having the affair with, and the always-terrific Judy Greer as a wronged wife, fill in the gaps nicely.

I found myself engaged and compelled by "The Descendants" on two levels, both dealing with the title. First, it works as a movie about parents and children, nature and nurture, as Matt struggles to actually know, understand and guide his willful daughters. Are they irrevocably stuck, because of the parents and upbringing they've had? Could Elizabeth ever have been a happy, comfortable wife or mother, given the parents she had?

But there's something else there, as we see how Matt and his cousins have grown up, so firmly attached to their Hawaiian legacy. Some of the cousins seem scruffy or greedy or eager to get rid of their inherited land, but they're still firmly rooted inside that golden circle of people descended from a Hawaiian princess. There is a palpable sense of belonging, matched with duty and awareness of who and what he comes from, that settles around the shoulders of Clooney's Matt King. I found myself both fascinated by the character and envying him for fitting in, for being born into something that will never go away.

"The Descendants" is playing at several movie theaters around town, including the Carmike Palace Cinema 10 and Starplex Normal Stadium 14. It is nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor (George Clooney), Best Director (Alexander Payne), Best Adapted Screenplay (Payne, Faxon and Rash) and Best Film Editing (Kevin Tent). At this point, the Screenplay category is probably its best shot at Oscar gold. I would probably vote for Clooney over Dujardin, who is charming and wonderful in his own right, but also not creating the complex, revealing character Clooney is.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Passion, Politics and Religion at Play in ISU's "Passion Play"

There is a lot of passion in Sarah Ruhl's "Passion Play" on stage at ISU's Center for the Performing Arts. Not just The Passion of the Christ, which you might expect, but passion among actors, directors, crew, politicians, visitors, rivals, all surrounding how a village and its villagers -- in rural England under Elizabeth I, Oberammergau during Hitler's reign, and Spearfish, SD in the late 20th century -- put on a show about the last week in the life of Jesus Christ. There are lovers, friends, cousins, brothers, sisters, all struggling to find a way put on a play.

I love Ruhl's writing, and "Passion Play" is some of her best, at times poetic in the slightly warped way she does so well, at times funny or sad or moving or provocative, but always as elusive as it is intriguing. As Ruhl examines how people's lives relate to religion in terms of wanting guidance from above, trying hard not to waver, twisting piety for political or social gain, or wielding mighty weapons in the name of faith, she looks at the connection between religion and politics, as well as between religion and theater. There is, in fact, a lot about theater and the people who create it in this play. Ruhl is not above pointing out the foibles of theater people anymore than clergymen or kings.

These are big issues, and Ruhl gives each era and its characters a full act to tell their chapter of the story. At Illinois State, under the direction of Brandon Ray, the play is quite long. There's no getting around that. On opening night, it ran at about 4 hours and 15 minutes, right up there in "Gone With the Wind," "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and "Angels in America" territory. There were definitely times when the pace lapsed a little, when it seemed there were a few too many set pieces to move or costume changes or entrances or exits to wait for, but mostly, the time was well spent on the depth of Ruhl's vision, with some terrific character work from ISU's undergraduate actors and some absolutely beautiful stage pictures courtesy of scenic designer John C. Stark and lighting designer Julie Mack.

The script asks for stage magic, and in this "Passion Play," it absolutely gets it.

It also asks a lot of its actors, who play different people, albeit people who are cast in the same roles in each of the three Passion Plays within Ruhl's "Passion Play." Matt Bausone is especially good as three men slated to play Pontius Pilate. His first character is a physically twisted little fish-gutter who hates his cousin, the one who plays Jesus, the second is a confident Nazi soldier in love with the man playing Jesus, and the third is a man who goes off to Vietnam and comes back severely damaged by the experience, leaving his brother, who plays Jesus, safe at home. Bausone makes each Pontius different, but all three compelling, especially #3, making for a lovely, stirring final image to the play.

Jeff Kurysz is all three of the Jesus actors, one pious and distant, one timid and unsure, and the last a bit arrogant and selfish. I liked him best as the second one, the dutiful son and sweet lover who wants to do the right thing, but makes the absolute wrong choice in the chilling conclusion to Act II. His pompous actor in Act III has his moments, as well.

I also enjoyed Ashlyn Hughes' trio of crazy girls; they're called Village Idiot #1, Village Idiot #2 and Violet, but they function something like Shakespearean fools, and costume designer Tyler Wilson has even given her a clown-like motley outfit in Act III. Hughes is very effective as the little voice -- always the outsider -- who pops up out of nowhere at inconvenient times.

Clayton Joyner and Caitlin Boho are the two Marys in the piece (the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene) and they're both effective, especially in the Elizabethan section of the play, where they are given the most to do.

Others of note in the cast include Owais Ahmed as a cheery visiting Englishman writing a book about theater in the German section; Carlos Kmet doing a Leonardo turn as an Italian man who can make people fly in 1575; and David Fisch, whose Queen Elizabeth costume has to be seen to be believed and whose Ronald Reagan is a little too reminiscent of the real one for my taste.

Sarah Ruhl's "Passion Play" is not the Passion Play, but three small, human, flawed Passion Plays of its own. Yes, it asks a lot of its audience, and yes, I hope the cast and crew can find their way to trimming 20 minutes or so off its running time, but it's worth the wait and well worth your attention.

By Sarah Ruhl

Illinois State University
Center for the Performing Arts

Director: Brandon Ray
Scenic Designer: John C. Stark
Costume Designer: Tyler Wilson
Hair and Makeup Designer: Wendy Wallace
Lighting Designer: Julie Mack
Composer and Sound Designer: Jason Tucholke
Dramaturges: Ianthe Dempsey, Janelle Melgaard, Sarah Salazar
Dialect and Voice Coach: Lori Adams
Fight Director: Tony Pellegrino
Stage Manager: Hanna Supanich-Winter

Cast: Matt Bausone, Jeff Kurysz, Clayton Joyner, Caitlin Boho, Owais Ahmed, Ashlyn Hughes, Keith Jackewicz, Frank Huber, Brody Murray, Carlos Kmet, David Fisch, Kyle McClevey, Nick Villareal-Lindmark, Deirdre McNulty, Kayla Stroner, Hisako Sugeta.

Remaining Performances: February 22, 23 and 24 at 7 pm; February 19 at 4 pm and February 25 at 4 pm.

Running time: 4:15 with two 10-minute intermissions

For ticket information, click here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Auditions Set for Heartland's "Superior Donuts"

Heartland Theatre and director Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson have announced audition dates for Heartland's upcoming production of Tracy Letts' "Superior Donuts," a play set in Chicago which premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2008. The Steppenwolf production, directed by Tina Landau, went directly to Broadway with the same cast, including Michael McKean ("This Is Spinal Tap"), as well as Jon Michael Hill and James Vincent Meredith, both U of I alums. Hill was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance.

"Superior Donuts" is about a shop by that name, run by a leftover hippie sort of guy named Arthur Przybyszewski (pronounced more like "Shubashevski") in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood. The shop has definitely seen better days and everybody seems to accept its inevitable doom. Except for Arthur, who refuses to change or move or... Do much of anything. But then a fast-talking kid named Franco, who sees himself as a poet, comes by, trying to convince Arthur to give him a job, let him take over the doughnut-making operation, and see if together they can revive the shop. There are complications, of course, arising from Franco's connections to the mob, his attempts to write the Great American Novel, and a buy-out offer for the doughnut shop from the friendly (maybe too friendly) Russian down the street. "Superior Donuts" is peopled with eccentric, amusing, off-beat characters, especially Arthur and Franco, but also the crazy lady off the streets who cadges a doughnut every day, the neighborhood cops who always stop by, the Russian and his silent (and imposing) nephew, and even a scary loanshark and his associated muscle.

Director Thibodeaux-Thompson is looking for actors to fill these roles:
  • Arthur Przybyszewski, Polish-American, 59 
  • Franco Wicks, African-American, 21
  • Max Tarasov, Russian, 49 
  • Kiril Ivakin, Russian, 35 
  • Lady Boyle, Irish-American, 72 
  • Officer Randy Osteen, Irish-American, 49 
  • Officer James Bailey, African-American, 43 
  • Luther Flynn, Irish/Italian-American, 45 
  • Kevin Magee, Irish-American, 28 

Auditions will be held at Heartland Theatre on Sunday and Monday, February 26 and 27, from 7 to 10 pm both nights. Thibodeaux-Thompson will hold callbacks on Tuesday, February 28th from 7 to 10, and performances are scheduled for April 12 to 15, 19 to 22, and 26-29.

If you need more information, click here.

I haven't seen Heartland's poster for the play yet, so I have scattered some art from other productions throughout this notice just to give you an idea of the mood of the play. Enjoy!

"Ekphrasis" Poetry Reading Next Thursday at MCAC

Next Thursday, February 23rd, at 7:30 pm, the McLean County Arts Center will host an event called "Ekphrasis, a Poetry Reading," with four area poets reading poems specifically created in response to artwork. The artwork they are responding to is described as "well known works from art history and contemporary photographs by Rhondal McKinney and Jin Lee and pastel drawings by John Cassidy, the current exhibits at the McLean County Arts Center."

Candace Armstrong, Jannett Highfill, Kathleen Kirk and Janice Witherspoon Neuleib are the four poets who will be reading their work at this "Ekphrasis" event.

Kirk teaches an Ekphrasis class at the McLean County Arts Center, and Armstrong and Neuleib are both participants in that class. They are scheduled to read new work on February 23rd.

Kathleen Kirk, editor of Escape Into Life, is also  the winner of the 2011 Ekphrasis Prize from Ekphrasis Journal. She will read a few poems from "Nocturnes" (seen here, with cover art by Nashay Jones), scheduled to be out this month from Hyacinth Girl Press.

Guest poet Jannett Highfill, who often incorporates art into her poetry, has a new book out from Finishing Line Press called "Light Blessings Drifting Together." (Book cover shown at right.) Highfill teaches economics at Bradley University and edits their Global Economy Journal.

Thursday, February 23, 2012
McLean County Arts Center
601 N. East St., Bloomington, IL

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Opening Tonight: "Mauritius" at Heartland

If you've been hearing Theresa Rebeck's name in the news recently, it's probably because of "Smash," the new hit show on NBC about putting together a Broadway musical. Rebeck is the creator of "Smash," as well as the head writer on the show, and she has deep writing and producing credits for TV ("Law and Order: Criminal Intent," "NYPD Blue") as well as for the stage ("Seminar," currently on Broadway, "The Understudy," "The Scene.") Rebeck was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 as the co-writer of "Omnium Gatherum" with Alexandra Gersten.

"Mauritius," which opens tonight at Heartland Theatre, is prime Rebeck, featuring smart, flawed people with mixed motives behaving badly in pursuit of some irresistible object. In this case, what they all want is a possibly valuable stamp collection, one which may contain the so-called Mauritius Post Office stamps. These stamps, issued by the British Colony of Mauritius in 1847, were printed with the words "Post Office" instead of "Post Paid." There were only about five hundred printed of each of them -- one orange and worth a penny, the other blue and worth two cents -- and the printing mistake is what makes them so sought after in the world of stamp collecting.

That theme, of what we're worth, mistakes and all, recurs throughout the play. Or, as one of the characters in "Mauritius" puts it, "If only people were more valuable because of their mistakes."

Rebeck is very good at creating snappy, dynamic dialogue and the edgy characters to go with it. "Mauritius" features a set of five of those characters, from Mary and Jackie, the half-sisters who each think they should have dominion over the stamp album in questions, to Dennis, the smooth operator always on the lookout for a score, Phillip, owner of a sleepy stamp shop who can be roused to action if the right circumstances present themselves, and Sterling, the mysterious collector with a briefcase full of cash and a "gimme gimme" attitude to go along with it. 

Sandra Zielinski, Professor in ISU's School of Theatre, directs this Heartland Theatre production, with a cast that includes Sarah Stone Innerst as Jackie; ISU MFA candidate Kate McDermott as Mary; Kevin Paul Wickart as shop-owner Phillip; Andrew Head, a graduate of Bradley University's Department of Theatre Arts, as slippery Dennis; and Michael Pullin, a Heartland favorite who is also the resident Scenic Designer, as Sterling, the avaricious money man.

From L: Michael Pullin, Andrew Head and Sarah Stone Innerst

Photo credit: Jesse Folks

Performances of "Mauritius" open tonight with a special Pay-What-You-Can preview, followed by 7:30 performances on February 17-18, 23-25, and March 1-3, with 2 pm matinees on February 19 and 26 and March 4. A discussion about the play will follow the February 26th afternoon performance, with Alaine Winters, an expert in language from Heartland Community College's Communications Department; Loree Adams, from IWU's Department of Psychology; and director Sandra Zielinski appearing to discuss the issues presented by the play and take questions. This panel discussion is open to the public and free of charge.

For more information about Heartland's production of "Mauritius" or to make reservations, click here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Translating "Tartuffe" at IWU

Molière's "Tartuffe" is a tough assignment for college theater. It's not just that it's farce. Or that it's French farce. Or that it's French farce from the 17th century. Or that it's French farce from the 17th century written in rhyming couples.

Okay, maybe it is the rhyming couplet thing.

Most translations of "Tartuffe" keep the couplets, including the one by Richard Wilbur, which is considered to be high on the list of top translations of Molière's work. But those couplets... Actors have a tendency to fall into a singsong rhythm, to sink into the rhymes, losing the sense of their lines. But without the rhymes, it doesn't feel like the complete Molière experience. And that's what makes it so tough to pull off.

What's it all about? As you might expect, it's about a man named Tartuffe, a greedy hypocrite pretending to lead others on the path to virtue while feathering his own nest at every opportunity. A wealthy man named Orgon is now buying whatever Tartuffe is selling, hook, line and sinker; he is so thoroughly smitten that he is willing to put Tartuffe before his lovely wife, Elmire, his children, and any semblance of good sense, no matter how much his family and his servants, including saucy maid Dorine, protest. Even though Tartuffe doesn't really hit the stage until almost an hour in, he is still the center of attention, as foolish Orgon refuses to see what a dupe he has become.

Illinois Wesleyan's current production of "Tartuffe," directed by Nancy Loitz, looks very good. Curtis Trout's elegant set is simple and smart, using pillars and a chair or two instead of the overdone Frenchified drawing rooms with ten or twelve doors and a million knickknacks you normally see when Molière is in play. Marcia K. McDonald's costume design is also smart, sticking to the period and identifying characters through color (Elmire sizzles in an orangey pink, while ingenue Mariane gets pale yellow) and level of frippery. I was a little surprised to see Tartuffe himself, the fake pinnacle of piety, not decked out in all black like the Puritan he pretends to be (or the one you see in IWU's poster shown below).

As played by Chase Miller, this Tartuffe looks pale and waifish, with long, lank hair and a pronounced limp. He's been described as red and round and rosy, but he is decidedly not. Miller gives his all to the role, but he looks more like the Aqualung cover than a 17th century religious leader.

Still, the audience on opening night was very appreciative of the comedy stylings of the entire cast, with Miller's Tartuffe, Amy Stockhaus's Dorine, Rosalie Alspach's Mariane, Kate Fitzgerald's Elmire, and Josh Conrad's Orgon earning an especially enthusiastic response.

A play by Molière
Translation by Richard Wilbur

McPherson Theatre
Illinois Wesleyan University

Director: Nancy B. Loitz
Scenic Designer: Curtis C. Trout
Costume Designer: Marcia K. McDonald
Lighting Designer: Krystal Martinez
Sound Designer: Kamaya Thompson
Stage Manager: Raven Stubbs
Dramaturg: James Matthews

Cast: Allyce Torres, Josh Conrad, Kate Fitzgerald, Blake Bauer, Rosalie Alspach, Zach Wagner, Ian Coulter-Buford, Chase Miller, Amy Stockhaus, Elliot Plowman, Josh Levinson, Casey Cudmore.

Performances through February 19, 2012. Click here for box office information.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

An Early Look at "Passion Play," Upcoming at ISU's CPA

I like Sarah Ruhl's writing in general. She's a little weird and a little wacky, but she manages to bring together disparate elements like love, romance, belief, fate, and yes, passion in a very creative package. The ideas are practically bouncing off the walls in her plays.

"Passion Play" is one of her best, if also one of the most dense and complicated. There is a lot going on here, both in terms of characters and the magical, sad, funny, strange world around them. And director Brandon Ray is doing his best to mine those depths and bring all the magic to the stage at ISU's Center for the Performing Arts beginning Friday.

The "passion" in this "Passion Play" is about the life (and specifically, the suffering) of Jesus, referring to the Passion Plays that have been happening since the 15th century, when regular old folks (not actors, in other words, but carpenters and fishermen and girls next door) put on dramatic presentations to tell the story of Jesus's trial, crucifixion and resurrection.

“I’ve been obsessed with the Passion play since I was a child,” Ms. Ruhl told the New York Times. “Maybe it was being raised a Catholic, but I was definitely also interested in how whole towns would get involved, or religiosity could be used as a cloak for other things. In that sense my play is much more about theater than it is about religion.”

Ruhl takes her "Passion Play" narrative across about four hundred years, showing us how they put on the play in an English village in 1575, with a visit from Queen Elizabeth; in Oberammergau Germany in 1934 with Hitler on the rise; and finally in a backwater town called Spearfish, South Dakota during Viet Nam and then the Reagan years. The script specifies that the same actors will play different characters in those three eras, but continue to play the same roles in the play-within-the-play. If that sounds complicated, it doesn't come off that way in the script. For example, for ISU, actor Matt Bausone plays a misshapen, smelly fish-gutter named Pontius in Elizabethan England. Pontius is set to play Pontius Pilate (obviously) and Satan in the play, and he is jealous of his handsome, pious cousin John, played by Jeff Kurysz, who will take the role of Jesus, as his father did before him. In the next section, set in Germany in 1934, Bausone plays a foot soldier in Hitler's army, one who is suppressing his feelings for Eric, another handsome man cast as Christ in the pageant, again played by Kurysz. And in the third act, with Kurycz as J, yet again set to play Christ, Bausone's character is P, a tortured Viet Nam vet who is having trouble keeping himself together long enough to make it to the play. Bausone plays three different characters -- fish-gutter, soldier, vet -- in the three different eras, but they're all cast as Pontius Pilate in their respective Passion Plays.

Photo credit: Alex K

Ruhl's soaring imagination and sharp sense of humor are on display throughout "Passion Play," and Ray's scenic designer, John Stark, is clearly matching that quirky mood, as you can see from the "paint day" pictures, with a crew member taking a break on the beautiful painted backdrop (below), and a view of the cross as it was being built (above) that plays such an important role in the Passion Plays within this "Passion Play."

Photo credit: Alex K
You should be aware, however, that you will not see an actual Passion Play in any of the three eras. All three sets of would-be actors and stage crews struggle to find a way to overlook or even improve on their own human frailties in order to tell this story that is so important to them. And they pretty much screw it up every time.

"Passion Play" is not a short play, and you can expect performances at the Center for the Performing Arts to take in excess of three hours, with two short intermissions. Sometimes a story is too big for the current 100-minutes-with-no-intermission model. "Passion Play" is one of those plays. Its theatrical scale and thematic scope require no less.

The play opens on Friday, February 17th, with a 7 pm performance. Subsequent performances are scheduled for February 18 and 19 and 22, 23, 24 and 25. For all the details or to order tickets, click here or here.

Monday, February 13, 2012

"Drowning Ophelia: A New Rock Musical" with a Sneak Peek Just for You

Although I don't think they've officially left ISU yet, JD Cannady, Eliza Morris, Mickey O'Sullivan, Zack Powell, Patrick Boylan and Tommy Malouf are taking their act on the road, with performances of a new rock musical called "Drowning Ophelia" already set for New York. But here's the good news -- the "Drowning Ophelia" troupe is offering a sneak peek for friends and fans here in Bloomington-Normal before they take off for NYC.

The BloNo preview will play this Saturday, the 18th, with back-to-back performances at 7:30 and 10 pm.

Cannady is directing; he also wrote the book of this musical, with Zack Powell providing music and lyrics. The "Drowning Ophelia" info tells us this is about Ophelia (yes, the one from "Hamlet") in purgatory where she's hanging out, waiting for Hamlet. "Using an eclectic mix of rock styles and an onstage band consisting of Shakespeare’s most lovable clowns, Ophelia takes over to raise arms against men... well just one man. In DROWNING OPHELIA, we come to understand one girl with some issues and a microphone and the story of Hamlet told through an exciting theatrical concert of sex, drowning, and rock ‘n’ roll."

Who doesn't want sex, drowning and rock 'n' roll? Come ON!

If you're in Illinois, these two performances are your only chances to catch Ophelia (who looks like she will be played by Eliza Morris, judging from the poster). If you're in New York, you can pick from six performances taking place at UNDER St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place, scheduled from Saturday, February 25, at 7 pm, through Sunday, March 4, at 1 pm. In New York, "Drowning Ophelia" plays at a different time every night, so be sure to check all the details here.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

ISU's Improv Mafia Prevails Once More

Congratulations to ISU's Improv Mafia for winning the Lower Midwest Regional yesterday in the College Improv Tournament.

The Improv Mafia won the Lower Midwest Regional last year, as well. This year, they defended their title in Indianapolis, earning the right to compete for the national championship in March in Chicago. That makes the Improv Mafia one of 13 regional champions, chosen from a field of 110+ teams nationally.

The Improv Mafia began in 1998, created by Mikel Matthews, who is now over in Champaign acting and directing. The Improv Mafia website tells us that they have "evolved over the years from performing mainly short form games to providing a unique hybrid of short form, long form, musical, and other experimental forms in their weekly one hour shows." (The weekly shows are on Tuesdays, by the way, at the CPA Art Room 145.) Clearly, their hybrid is working, with a National Championship in 2008 and 2nd place at Nationals in 2010-11.

You can see video of their first-round performance here, here, here and here. It's a little jumpy and not complete, but it will give you an idea of what they were doing in Indianapolis, anyway.

As for who was on the winning team, well, I haven't been able to find their current roster anywhere, but I think I spotted Andrew Bogue, Mitch Conti, Carly Heiser and Jason Raymer in the video. If anybody from the Improv Mafia wants to stop by and correct that or offer more complete credits, feel free! Here's the 2010-11 group if you'd like to play Match the Faces with the video.

In the meantime, congratulations and felicitations to ISU's elite improv troupe!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

"The New Normal" Needs to Be in Normal

News broke at Deadline a few weeks ago that NBC has picked up a pilot called "The New Normal" from producer/director/writer Ryan Murphy, the man behind "Glee" and "American Horror Story." Murphy will be directing and co-writing this half-hour sitcom with Allison Adler, someone he also works with on "Glee."

Andrew Rannells, fresh off major Broadway success in "The Book of Mormon," is slated to star, along with Ellen Barkin, who most recently did "The Normal Heart" on Broadway. Murphy will also direct a film version of "The Normal Heart" later this year. Whole lot of Normal going on there, right?

"The Normal Heart" is a searing 1985 play by Larry Kramer about the rise of AIDS and subsequent activism in the New York gay community in the early 80s; it was performed by ISU as part of their 2005-06 season. And, no, it has nothing to do with Normal, Illinois.

Murphy's proposed sitcom, "The New Normal," is about a gay couple and the surrogate they hire to help them have a baby. Rannells will play one half of the couple, with Barkin as the surrogate's mother. No word yet on casting for the other man or the surrogate. I also haven't seen any word on where this show will be set. Just want to note that Normal, Illinois, would be perfect for it. What says "The New Normal" more than Normal? What would be a better place for the gay couple to settle in and nurture their family?

Normal has already starred in a TV commercial focusing on its "New Normal" status to much acclaim. There's plenty of talent around, with the theater departments at ISU and IWU and local theater companies chock full of terrific actors, and lots of locals with credibility and appeal, like 92-year-old Ruth Steele and Normal Mayor Chris Koos, both of whom appear in the Mitsubishi ad. Or if, like "Roseanne" or "Ferris Bueller," producers want to make the show appear to be set in Illinois even while it's mostly filmed in Hollywood, former Normal residents like Sean Hayes and Laurie Metcalf might add some verisimilitude.

So, you know, Ryan Murphy. We're here, we're Normal, and we're available.

The map that appears at the top of this post comes from

Thursday, February 9, 2012

City Lit Theater Company Is Looking for Adaptations

Chicago's City Lit Theater Company is looking for plays. Not just any plays, but adaptations. Or, more specifically, "stage adaptations of non-dramatic literature." City Lit is planning a festival called "The Art of Adaptation," to run June 29 and 30 and July 1 at their theater at 1012 West Bryn Mawr Avenue in Chicago. They are hoping to offer performances of some 6 to 10 adapted pieces over the course of the festival. And there's a $500 cash prize, which is always good news to starving playwrights!

If your thing is adapting stage plays from short stories,books, poems, essays, diaries, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, the Bible, the Uniform Commercial Code, or anything else that isn't already a stage play, this may be the perfect assignment for you. Note that City Lit specifies that "Each adaptor is responsible for whatever royalties might be due on your piece." As a matter of good sense, you should know you can't dramatize a bunch of Adele's song lyrics without permission from Adele, or try to put something fun together based on a recent New Yorker piece without getting the rights first. And for the love of all that's holy, please do not think you can simply retype something you saw on Youtube or read at Wikipedia and pretend it's yours.

Much smarter to use material that's in the public domain or already belongs to you.

In any event, City Lit says they're looking for pieces that will play between 5 and 20 minutes in length (so, approximately 5-20 pages, depending on whether it includes long monologues, lots of stage action or snappy dialogue that goes quickly). The author is responsible for finding a director and actors and setting up rehearsals on their own. Other requirements and specifications are listed here.

The deadline to submit a proposal is April 30, 2012. For a better idea of what kind of material City Lit prefers, visit their website here to see current offerings.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Oscar's Best Pics: "The Artist"

"The Artist" took its sweet time getting anywhere but the largest cities, even after boatloads of acclaim and critical enthusiasm. But here it is, now showing in Everywhere USA, which means that more than just the critics and film festival audiences have a chance to see it before the Oscars. The question is, will more than just the critics and film festival audiences develop the same major crush on "The Artist"?

"The Artist," like "Hugo," takes a look at the history of the movies, asking today's moviegoers, bred on boy wizards, vampire love, battles of large blue aliens, gunfire, crashes, smashes and spectacular explosions, to experience a kind of film that is long gone. In "The Artist," it's the silent film. And what sets "The Artist" apart, what made it such a favorite in Cannes, where it premiered, is that director Michel Hazanavicius really did create a silent film. Yes, it's an homage, but not just an homage to silent films. Not a send-up ("Silent Movie"). Not a singing ("Singing in the Rain") or talking ("Sunset Boulevard") movie about how the talkies treated silent film stars.

Nope. "The Artist" really is (with a few tiny exceptions that only add to its charm) a silent film, with actors who emote with their faces instead of their voices, accompanied by the occasional dialogue card. That may be hard for today's audiences to get into, and it's tough for a movie like this to play at the multiplex alongside shouty, noisy action pictures with explosions and gunfire every two seconds. That's probably why it hasn't and probably never will be a box office bonanza.

But the way the story in "The Artist" is told is perfect for its subject matter. And it's fun and sweet and effervescent enough to be completely entertaining and kind of adorable if you're the kind of viewer who can leap over the silent threshold and give it a chance.

"The Artist" centers on a dashing silent film star, one George Valentin, winningly played by French actor Jean Dujardin as a Douglas Fairbanks style adventure hero with a John Gilbert twist. Valentin has the world at his feet as long as the movies stay silent. At a premiere, he meets a fizzy young thing named Peppy Miller (played by Bérénice Bejo) who wants to make it in the movies, and he gives her a helping hand. But then the movies start to talk, which doesn't interest George in the least. Peppy and her flapper persona are perfect for talking pictures. But George is not. As her fortunes soar, his take a major dive.

It's the old "A Star Is Born" trajectory, told with impeccable style and a wonderful cast of character actors, from James Cromwell as Valentin's faithful chauffeur to John Goodman as a bombastic studio chief, Beth Grant and Ed Lauter as Peppy's household staff, and Joel Murray as a friendly policeman. I wasn't as fond of Penelope Ann Miller, all platinum hair and sour facial expressions, as George's unhappy wife. She seemed much too old to be a suitable candidate for Dujardin's matinee idol to be married to. Sure, Clark Gable came to Hollywood with a much-older wife, but he didn't keep her once his screen persona was established. It just seems odd for toast-of-the-town George not to have acquired a young, beautiful wife to splash all over the movie mags, especially since this one clearly hates him. (The fact that she spends her time drawing mustaches and devil horns on all of his pictures in those movie mags is a nice touch, however.)

I also wondered if there was a Penelope Miller/Peppy Miller connection. Coincidence? If not, what does it mean? Penelope Ann Miller was never that peppy, was she?

The other supporting actor who really makes an impact is Uggie, the bouncy terrier who plays George's frequent co-star and real-life best pal. Uggie is irresistible and cute as a button throughout. I have to think the success of the movie is about 40% Uggie, with Jean Dujardin a solid 50%.

That's not to say that director/screenwriter Hazanavicius didn't do a bang-up job. He did. Everything is stylish and joyful and very, very nicely accomplished. Hazanavicius's love of old movies and silent film stars is apparent, and he definitely gives them their due. But I still think the infectious charm in Dujardin's performance (and in Uggie's) raises "The Artist" to a different level. It makes it seem like a bigger movie than it really is.

It's fine by me that it's not an Oscar-style epic, by the way. My taste tends to run to exactly this kind of small, sweet movie. I'm a little surprised it's getting so many awards tossed at it, though. What's great about "The Artist" is that it does its job perfectly, that it hits the target it aims at, and it does it all without hitting you over the head or shouting at you with its message.

I still think "Hugo" is the best movie of the year. That doesn't stop me from having an affair with "The Artist" on the side, however.