Monday, March 5, 2012

A Mix of Old and (Sort of) New in ISU's 2012-13 Season

Illinois State University's School of Theatre has announced the line-up for its 2012-13 season, with lots of classics, a few newer pieces, and a mix of styles and moods. Dates and details (like who's directing what) will be filled in later, but for now, this is what ISU actors and audiences have to look forward to in the next school year.

Naomi Iizuka
This fall, they'll start with the newest play, Naomi Iizuka's "Anon(ymous)" from 2006, in the Center for the Performing Arts. "Anon(ymous)" is a poetic, surreal exploration of Homer's "Odyssey" played across the scarred landscape of immigration in America. Iizuka's version of Odysseus is a rootless wanderer, a boy named Anon, who comes from somewhere "far away from here," searching for his mother, the Penelope of the story, who toils at a sweatshop somewhere in the US, fending off the advances of her creepy boss. Along his journey, Anon runs into characters who roughly correspond to the ones in the Odyssey, so, instead of a Cyclops, he has to fight to escape from a one-eyed psychopathic butcher wielding a big cleaver, and the nymph Calysto is now a snotty rich girl who tries to entice him with Skittles and Kit Kats. So far away from where he started, our immigrant Anon dreams of finding his mother and finally ending up someplace that feels like home.

After that, it's Rebecca Gilman's 1998 play, "The Glory of Living," which deals with the dark underbelly and the damaged, criminal children of America's Deep South. In the play, Lisa, the teenage daughter of a "drunk whore," is picked up and pulled along into a life of abuse and murder by Clint, her rapist boyfriend. She finally has a twinge of conscience -- maybe -- and leaves tips for the police about all what she and Clint have done, with the play then moving to how the criminal court system deals with each of them. The issues here are crime, punishment, morality, emotional instability, and what happens to unformed, abandoned children who never grow up, with plenty of blame to chew on. "The Glory of Living," set to play in Centennial West 207, received the ATCA Osborn Award for the Best New Play of 1998, and was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Then it will be Bertold Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children," widely considered to be among the best anti-war plays ever written, in Westhoff Theatre. Brecht wrote the play in Germany in 1939, as Hitler and the Nazi movement were creating a climate of violence and privation not unlike the wartime setting in the play. Mother Courage is a tough "canteen woman," a kind of peddlar who pulls a cart, trading and selling goods to soldiers. She continually tries and continually fails to balance turning a profit with keeping her children safe amidst the strife of war.

"The Cherry Orchard," Chekhov's bittersweet look at the fading fortunes of the aristocracy and the rise of a middle class composed of former serfs in turn-of-the-20th-century Russia, will follow in CW 207. As the play opens, Madame Ranevskaya returns to the country estate she can no longer afford, not understanding that her home, her orchards, and the entire way of life she's used to, must make way in changing times. Chekhov supposedly thought "The Cherry Orchard" was a comedy, but there is a lot of loss and sadness to deal with in this quiet, pensive play about the futility of standing still when the world keeps moving.

Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" is a completely different sort of piece, a backstage (and front-stage) farce about a hapless road company of washed-up or never-were players just trying to get the doors slammed and the sardines brought on and off at the right moments. "Noise Off" happens to be absolutely hilarious in the right hands (I've seen it sublime and I've seen it wretched, depending on the production) and it also give its scenic designer the chance to do a full, two-story house (or "posset mill") set that spins around at intermission. ISU has slated this one for the CPA, which is a step in the right direction.

Elmer Rice
In spring, ISU's sights will turn to "The Adding Machine." There is a recent musical version, but I'm assuming they'll be doing the 1923 play by Elmer Rice of "Street Scene" fame. Both versions deal with the same basic idea, about a man named Zero who is just a cog in a big company, an accountant, until he is replaced by an adding machine. This drama, headed for the CPA, is about man vs. machine, the worker vs. the nameless, faceless corporation, and the loss of humanity in an industrial vacuum.

That will be followed by "J.B.," the 1958 Archibald MacLeish drama that tells the story of Job, the man in the Bible visited upon by so many troubles. MacLeish put his play in free verse and set it in a circus tent, with a balloon seller and a popcorn guy standing in for God and Satan. And it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1959. "J.B." will pitch its tent inside Westhoff Theatre.

"Tales of the Lost Formicans," another surreal piece, comes next, with performances set for CW 207. Oddly enough, it was last performed at ISU in their 1994-95 season, along with "Noises Off" and one year after "The Adding Machine." Some plays never go out of style, I guess. In any event, Constance Congdon's "Tales of the Lost Formicans" was a 1989 Humana Festival play, with a clever, fresh and decidedly odd take on how aliens might try to fit together the pieces of 20th century life by looking at one "normal" family dealing with Alzheimers, a messy marital break, and a foul-mouthed, unhappy teenager. Congdon's voice is unlike anybody else's, and it's good to see one of her plays back in rotation.

That leaves just Rodgers' and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" and Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream" to round out the year for ISU Theatre. "Oklahoma!" will go up in the CPA, naturally, with "Midsummer" in Westhoff, finishing up in time for ISU personnel to concentrate on the 2013 Illinois Shakespeare Festival.

ISU School of Theatre has listed its new season here, with promises of more details to come later. So far, it's looking like a pretty cool and quite eclectic season.

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