Monday, April 30, 2012

IWU Alums Appear on New Cast Recordings

Two current Broadway shows with Illinois Wesleyan alums in their casts have released cast recordings. So if you're looking to keep your set of alumni recordings up to date, you'll need to add the new "Porgy and Bess" cast album available from PS Classics, including IWU alum Bryonha Marie Parham, and the cast album from the new Broadway show "Newsies," including IWU album Evan Kasprzak and now available from Ghostlight Records. You can download the "Newsies" album from iTunes or Amazon now, or pre-order the cd at the official Newsies site.

 Parham graduated from IWU's Musical Theatre program in 2007, and she's gone on to perform in "Ragtime" on Broadway and at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

She plays the role of Serena and sings "My Man's Gone Now" in this new version of "Porgy and Bess," directed by Diane Paulus. The book of the original musical has been adapted by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks in an attempt to make it more accessible to contemporary audiences.

"The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," as it's been dubbed for the current production, opened at Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre on January 12, 2012. Its limited run ends September 30, 2012.

The cast album features four-time Tony-winner Audra McDonald as Bess and Broadway veteran Norm Lewis as Porgy. David Alan Grier, star of TV's "In Living Color" and a two-time Tony nominee, appears as Sporting Life, and Philip Boykin plays Crown. The show itself, plus McDonald, Lewis and Boykin have been nominated for Drama Desk awards, and that's McDonald and Lewis you see at right on the cd cover.

Kasprzak rose to fame through the TV dance show "So You Think You Can Dance," where he finished third overall while he was still an IWU student. He then returned to Illinois Wesleyan to finish his degree, graduating with the Musical Theatre class of 2010. He appeared in the Paper Mill Playhouse version of "Newsies" that has now transferred to Broadway.

 "Newsies the Musical" is based on the 1992 Disney movie simply called "Newies," which featured a young Christian Bale in the lead role. It tells the story of a newsboy strike in New York City in 1889, as young newspaper hawkers tried to fight back against magnates Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Songs like "Seize the Day" and "King of New York" that appeared in the movie are also in the Broadway show, with new songs added by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, the original composer and lyricist.

On Broadway, Jeremy Jordan fills the role Christian Bale played, with John Dossett as Pulitzer and Andrew Keenan-Bolger as another newsboy.

"Newsies the Musical" opened at the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway on March 29, 2012, and is scheduled to close August 12.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

TCG Will Publish Pulitzer Prize Winner "Water by the Spoonful"

Theatre Communications Group has announced that they will be publishing "Water by the Spoonful," the Quiara Alegría Hudes play which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Quiara Alegría Hudes
TCG plans to release the play through its TCG Books imprint on August 1, 2012, followed by Hudes' previous play, "Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue," on August 15.  "Elliot" and "Water" represent the first and second parts of a trilogy involving an American soldier sent to Iraq, with "Elliot" looking at three generations of one soldier's family and how war (and music) have shaped them, and "Water" taking up that soldier's story once he is back from Iraq, weaving him into a narrative about how we form connections in cyberspace.

Writing for the New York Times , Phoebe Hoban called "Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue," "that rare and rewarding thing: a theater work that succeeds on every level, while creating something new."

About "Water by the Spoonful," TCG writes, "Water by the Spoonful follows Elliot, a 19-year-old marine, as he struggles to find his place in the world upon returning from Iraq. While he copes with the monotony of day-to-day life, somewhere in a chat room, four recovering addicts forge an unbreakable bond. The boundaries of family and friendship are stretched across time and cyberspace in this second installment of Hudes’s trilogy."

They also note that the first two scenes of  "Water by the Spoonful" can be read on Hudes’s website.

The third part of the trilogy, "The Happiest Song Plays Last," is scheduled for next April and May at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Whole Scoop on Saturday's ISU College of Fine Arts Celebration

We've talked about some of the bits and pieces of the Big, Huge, Totally LARGE Illinois State University College of Fine Arts Celebration happening tomorrow, like the workshops and performances from the School of Theatre, a host of FreeStage productions, and the PostCard Art exhibit and auction. That's from noon to after midnight on Saturday, April 28, in and around Centennial East and West and the CPA.

So where can you find the whole schedule in one place?

Yeah, I know it's too small here to really read. You can click on that image and see a larger version. Or you can see a bigger version of this nice, crisp, graphically lovely schedule on the School of Theatre's Facebook page. Or scan the not-so-nice, kinda-ugly list version I have prepared for you below.

12 noon to 7 pm: Airport Lounge open for food and beverage (Airport Lounge)
12 noon to 4 pm: 2012 Student Annual Exhibition (University Galleries)
12:30 to 1 pm: Acafellaz performance (outside Westhoff Theatre)
1 to 2 pm: Creative Drama workshop (Centennial West 301)
1 to 2 pm: "Macbeth" presented by Illinois Shakespeare Festival Outreach (Westhoff Theatre)
1 to 4 pm: Open Mic hosted by the Music Business Organization (Airport Lounge)
1 to 4 pm: Screenprinting demo (Westhoff lobby)
2 to 3 pm: FreeStage Outreach presents "The Student Cause Collaboration Project" (Westhoff Theatre)
2:30 to 5 pm: Illinois State Dance Theatre open technical rehearsal (CPA Theatre)
3 to 3:30 pm: Lighting Design demo with JM Montecalvo (Westhoff Theatre)
3:30 to 4:15 pm: Early Music Ensemble performance (Westhoff Theatre)
4 to 5:15 pm: FreeStage presents "An Evening with Tori Allen" (Centennial West 202)
4:30 to 6 pm: Improv workshop with Octavarius (Westhoff Theatre)
5 to 5:30 pm: Q and A with members of the Illinois State Dance Theatre (CPA)
5:30 to 6:45 pm: FreeStage presents "Boom" (Centennial West 202)
6 to 10 pm: Friends of the Arts presents PostCard Art [purchased ticket required] (University Galleries)
7 to 8:15 pm: FreeStage presents "Dinner" (Centennial West 202)
8:30 to 9:30 pm: FreeStage presents "Freeze Tag" (Centennial West 202)
9 to 10 pm: FreeStage presents "Miss Julie" (between Kemp Hall and CPA)
9:30 to 10:15 pm: "A in W" performance (Centennial East 08)
9:30 to 10:30 pm: Improv Mafia performance (Westhoff Theatre)
10 to 11 pm: FreeStage presents "On Stars Not Falling" (Garden area behind University Galleries)
10:30 to 11:45 pm: Octavarius performance (Westhoff Theatre)
Midnight: Theatre of Ted (Westhoff Theatre)

And there you have it -- enough entertainment for any twelve Saturdays! For more information, you can click on any of the links in this post, or go here for the School of Theatre at Illinois State Facebook page.

Get Your Hands on a Piece of PostCard Art (2012 Edition)

Illinois State University's Friends of the Arts will holds its fifth annual PostCard Art Exhibit tomorrow, April 28th, alongside the ISU College of Fine Arts Celebration taking place all day.

You'll need to buy a $60 ticket to be admitted to the PostCard Art exhibit, which comes with an open bar, live performances by students from ISU's Schools of Music and Theatre and a $50 voucher for one piece of artwork. Once inside, you will have a chance to look at all the submitted pieces and put a sticker next to the one you'd like to take home. And then the auction will begin, and you'll see what you win!

This all takes place from 6 to 9 pm Saturday in the University Galleries in Normal. Details and ticket information are available here and here.

For the full schedule for the College of Fine Arts Celebration, click here.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

One More Freestage Option: "Miss Julie" Tonight at Gold Auditorium

In addition to the four plays performed in Centennial West 202 this week as part of ISU's Freestage event, there's also a lone entry in the Gold Auditorium. This one is August Strindberg's "Miss Julie," a paragon of "Naturalism," as well as a steamy and fairly repugnant little play about class, sex, power and the feminine mystique. Okay, it's really more about Strindberg thinking uppity women needed to be shoved back in their cages, but still... It's a pretty popular play even now because of the sexual content. Everybody likes a play with Victorians getting all randy and sweaty and the stuck-up society girl playing dangerous games with the help, right? She should be above him, given her social rank. He should be above her, given his gender. She shouldn't be lusting after a lowly valet. He shouldn't be letting a woman push him around. Is the world going to end if nobody pays attention to the rules?

Strindberg  wrote his "Fröken Julie" in 1888, just before the world broke wide open with new freedoms that came along with the automobile and the airplane, the phonograph and the movies, revolution, socialism and the fall of monarchies. We usually call it "Miss Julie" (with the "miss" signifying that Julie was the daughter of an aristocrat), but I really like that "Fröken." Not because it sounds like a swear word, although that's fun, too. But mostly because it sounds so old-fashioned to me, that a girl like this one, who wants to use and be used sexually, who has supposedly been brought up all wrong by a (horrors!) feminist mother, still gets to have her honorific. "Miss Julie" doesn't sound so much like the product of another time. "Fröken Julie" does.

Sean Graney, one of the founders of the Chicago theatrical company called The Hypocrites, offered a new take on "Miss Julie" in 2008, and that's the version being used for the Freestage production. At The Hypocrites, the set was like a box that the audience walked around and sat inside, and the production seemed to move backward in time, as if it started now but, by the end, was stuck firmly in 1888. We'll see what they do in the Gold Auditorium.

"Miss Julie" opens its Freestage run tonight at 9 pm at the Gold Auditorium, which is between the Center for the Performing Arts and Stevenson Hall. After that, two more performances remain, with more "Miss Julie" at 10 pm on Friday and 9 pm Saturday.

Simon Callow Lights Up "Being Shakespeare"

British actor/director/writer Simon Callow may be better known for his various appearances as Charles Dickens (including the BBC's "An Audience with Charles Dickens," in a one-man show called "The Mystery of Charles Dickens" and in two episodes of "Doctor Who"), but that doesn't mean he's a slouch when it comes to Shakespeare.

In his program notes for "Being Shakespeare," which runs through April 29 at Chicago's Broadway Playhouse in conjunction with the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Callow notes that his career as an actor began when he was still at school and he was assigned the role of Bottom in scenes from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for a class exercise. Years later, or more precisely, five years out of Drama School, Callow took on the role of Titus Andronicus  at the Bristol Old Vic and he considered himself, as he puts it, "a Shakespeare virgin."

He continues, "[I]t was then and only then -- wrestling with this astonishing play during the course of which the youthful author graduates from bombast to some of his most profound explorations of grief and madness -- that I became deeply interested in the man who could have created it."

And there's the rub. Because we really don't know that much about Shakespeare. It's the absence of knowledge that has created all the speculation that Edmund de Vere or Christopher Marlowe or Francis Bacon or Queen Elizabeth or Miguel de Cervantes or a mysterious sheik named Zubayr was the real author of Shakespeare's plays.

Rather than going that route, Simon Callow and playwright Jonathan Bate use pieces from Shakespeare's sonnets and plays to create a plausible life story for William himself, the guy from Stratford. The structure of "Being Shakespeare" follows the "Seven Ages of Man" speech from "As You Like It," with Callow as a narrator who steps into various roles throughout -- from little Mamillius from "The Winter's Tale" to Juliet and Romeo, Falstaff, Macbeth, Prospero and Lear -- to illustrate those seven ages and how they might've been reflected in Shakespeare's own life. For the most part, that works quite well, and it's no surprise that Callow is marvelous in every role he takes on. His Bottom was wonderful, and the staging of that section, allowing him to play Peter Quince and Francis Flute, as well, was especially well accomplished.

A few chairs and props, a glimpse of trees behind a scrim or the shadow of a children's mobile, move the scenes along nicely, with excellent lighting effects from designer Bruno Poet that ratchet up the drama. The music and sound provided by Ben and Max Ringham are, on the other hand, rather more intrusive and obvious than they need to be, but luckily, Callow is big enough to offset them.

I'm not sure I learned anything new about Shakespeare the man, and I'm not sure I buy some of the assumptions the script makes about his sex life with Anne Hathaway, for example, but it's still all quite intriguing and fun, and educational in terms of Elizabethan life and culture. "Being Shakespeare" also made me want to see Simon Callow in a lot more Shakespearean roles. How about a Richard III or a Lear or a "Tempest" that tours the provinces? Or his Claudius opposite pretty much anybody as Hamlet?

"Being Shakespeare" is like an hors d'oeuvre in that respect, teasing us with Callow's powers with the poetry and the prose.

By Jonathan Bate

Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place

Presented by the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Directed and Designed by Tom Cairns
Lighting Designer: Bruno Poet
Music and Sound Designers: Ben and Max Ringham
Stage Manager: Peter Wolf

Cast: Simon Callow

Running time: 1:50, including one 20-minute intermission

Remaining performances through April 29.

For ticket information, click here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

More Freestage Wednesday Night

Are you back yet from Tuesday night's Freestage shows? Time to start planning for Wednesday's?

There are five shows in this year's Freestage, a part of ISU's School of Theatre designed to offer “an opportunity for students to produce, direct, act, and design experimental and original works on and off campus.” I told you about two of them earlier today, the ones that started tonight. Those two were Tori Allen's one-woman show called "If You Like It Then You Should'a Put Some Gin in It" and Peter Sinn Nachtreib's apocalyptic "Boom."

But tomorrow... Tomorrow we move on to two new shows.

The first, scheduled for 7 pm at Centennial West 202, is "Dinner," written by Mike Capra and directed by James Martineau, which appears to be based on the short films Capra did for Youtube. Although I'm only seeing "Dinner: Meet the Karns" and "Dinner: Uncle Larry" on his channel, Capra refers to his work as a "treasure chest of underground comedy" and to "Dinner" specifically as a series where "we follow around the Karns family." That means we can expect a) comedy and b) family issues, as well as probably dinner of some sort. "Dinner" will continue at CW 202 Friday at 8:30 pm, Saturday at 7 pm, and Sunday at 1:30 pm.

And the fourth piece in the 2012 Freestage collection is Jacquelyn Reingold's "Freeze Tag," a play called "gripping and hilarious" by the New York Times. It involves a woman named Andrea, innocently trying to buy a newspaper in the East Village, who instead finds a strange newspaper vendor who knows all her secrets. Samuel French describes the play this way: "In this funny and touching play, two women are forced to confront who they are, who they were, and what it means to be a friend."

Directed by Sarah Phillips, "Freeze Tag" plays Wednesday night at 8:30 at CW 202, with performances Friday at 7 pm, Saturday at 8:30 pm and Sunday at 3 pm.

And, yes, when it comes to Freestage, all shows are free of charge.

(Note: The posters have Sunday at 3 pm in CW 202 for both “Boom” and “Freeze Tag.” Clearly it’s just one or the other. Based on the rest of the schedule, my guess is that 3 pm is really the spot for “Boom,” with "Freeze Tag" at noon, to stay before its performances partner "Dinner." But that’s just a guess.)

ISU Freestage Starts Tonight with "Gin" and "Boom"

The Freestage program at ISU, which “provides an opportunity for students to produce, direct, act, and design experimental and original works on and off campus,” begins tonight with a show called “If You Like it Then You Should’a Put Some Gin in It,” written and performed by ISU undergrad Tori Allen, and Peter Sinn Nactreib’s “Boom,” a fun look at the end of the world. No, really!

Allen’s show opens tonight with a 7 pm show at Centennial West 202, followed by performances Thursday at 8:30 pm, Saturday at 4 pm and Sunday at 4:30 pm. No word yet on what Allen is including in her original one-woman show, but she has graciously written some quotes for herself that promise this “Gin” is “astonishing,” “prolific” and “okay.”

So there you have it. If "astonishing," "prolific" and "okay" sound like your cup of gin, you'll want to catch Tori Allen's show.

“Boom” is a short play (about 90 minutes in its New York production at Ars Nova in 2008) that features a narrator who may be a museum guide talking to us from the future, and two mismatched characters, a gay marine biologist who thinks the world is ending, and a journalism student looking for a hook-up.

They may be the last people on Earth. They may not be real, but simply a sort of diorama to explain the end of the world. Or maybe it’s all just crazy talk.

“Boom” is directed by Josh Raether for Centennial 202, with performances tonight at 8:30 pm, Thursday at 7 pm, Saturday at 5:30 pm, and Sunday at 3 pm.

And as you may have guessed from the name Freestage, all performances are free.

(Note: The posters have Sunday at 3 pm in CW 202 for both “Boom” and “Freeze Tag.” Clearly it’s just one or the other. Based on the rest of the schedule, my guess is that 3 pm is really the spot for “Boom.” But that’s just a guess.)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Happy Shakespeare's Birthday!

No, no one is sure which day exactly William Shakespeare was born. But April 23rd is the day that scholars have decided is the most likely, and celebrations happen around the world in honor of the playwright. And so today we mark the 448th anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare.

They've already done the parade and luncheon in Stratford-upon-Avon, and today the World Shakespeare Festival begins. Here's how they're describing the festivities:

"Produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, in an unprecedented collaboration with leading UK and international arts organisations, and with Globe to Globe, a major international programme produced by Shakespeare’s Globe, it’s the biggest celebration of Shakespeare ever staged.

"Almost 60 partners are coming together to bring the Festival alive. Thousands of artists from around the world will take part in almost 70 productions, plus supporting events and exhibitions, right across the UK, including London, Stratford-upon-Avon, Newcastle/Gateshead, Birmingham, Wales and Scotland and online."

Closer to home, it's "Talk Like Shakespeare" Day in Chicago, with a proclamation from Mayor Rahm Emmanuel. You should totally click on that last link, if only to see the video of Chicago and Illinois-related folks like George Wendt, Dick Durbin, Renee Fleming, Ora Jones and Harry Groener talk like Shakespeare. There's also audio from the Q Brothers to teach you how to talk like Shakespeare with a hip hop twist.

Performances of lauded British actor Simon Callow's one-man Shakespeare show continue (in conjunction with Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, but performed at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place) through April 29, plus Ian McDiarmid opens tomorrow in "Timon of Athens" back at the Courtyard Theatre at Chicago Shakes.

Our very own Illinois Shakespeare Festival is open for ticket sales, if you'd like to celebrate Shakespeare by getting your season tied down or making a donation now. They'll be performing "As You Like It," "Othello" and Sheridan's "The Rivals" this summer, opening with a preview of "Othello" on June 26. Ticket information is here.

If you'd like to celebrate Shakespeare in the cozy confines of your own home, I recommend popping in the "Shakespeare in Love" DVD, trying the Zeffirelli "Romeo and Juliet," the 1999 "Midsummer Night's Dream" with Kevin Kline as the most engaging Bottom ever, or the Kenneth Branagh "Much Ado About Nothing," with a luminous performance from Emma Thompson as Beatrice.

One last choice: Paul Collins' "The Book of William,"which follows the path of the First Folios, those much-coveted collections of 36 Shakespeare plays printed in 1624, after they began to be disseminated into the world. Collins tells a lively and compelling story of printers, collectors, museums, shipwrecks and thieves. Fascinating.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

ISU Schedules a Fine Arts Celebration

Photo credit: Pete Guither

One week from today, ISU's College  of Fine Arts will celebrate and showcase "the exhilarating and thrilling talents of students all across the Schools of Art, Music and Theatre!"

Although no start time is listed yet, Nic Vazquez and the committee behind this event promise: "This full day of programming will consist of many different performances, workshops, and showcases from select passionate members and groups of the School of Fine Arts available absolutely free to prospective students, current students and the community of Bloomington-Normal!"

So far, they're touting performances by groups from the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, FreeStage, Octavarius, A&W and Improv Mafia; workshops offered by the Creative Drama Class; a session on working with light suits offered by JM Montecalvo; an open tech rehearsal and question-and-answer session with the Illinois State Dance Theatre; a display of work created by students; and what is billed as the "Final Theatre of Ted in WESTHOFF THEATRE!"

This is all scheduled for next Saturday, April 28th, at 400 West Beaufort Street in Normal, which puts you in the vicinity of Centennial East and the Center for the Performing Arts. If you have questions or you're a student and you'd like to join the fun and showcase your own talents or host a workshop, you are invited to email the SOT Special Events Committee at

Although there is no specified connection, I am wondering if some of the performances will overlap the senior acting and design showcase scheduled for Monday the 23rd at Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre in Chicago. You can scan the photos and resumes of the graduating seniors who'll perform on Monday if you want a head start on whom to watch for in theaters, on TV and in the movies a few years from now.

Friday, April 20, 2012

I May Have to Relent on That Netflix Thing

When Netflix split its business model, charging individually for home delivery of DVDs and instant streaming, I bid them goodbye, deciding that I didn't use enough of either option to justify paying for them separately. But then they announced they'd be airing "Arrested Development," one of the best TV shows ever in the history of the universe. And not just the old episodes of "Arrested Development," which I own on DVD, anyway, and don't need Netflix for.

Nope. This is new episodes of "Arrested Development." Ten of 'em. All released at once. On Netflix. Yep, I think I'm going to have to get off my high horse and go back to Netflix.

"Arrested Development" creator Mitch Hurwitz first talked about these ten episodes as character sketches, updating us on the AD universe of nutballs individually. Now it seems the episodes (scheduled to burst forth on Netflix sometime in 2013) will be more like the first three seasons broadcast on Fox, with plotlines and characters that overlap episodes. Hurwitz also seems to be promising to push the boundaries of the medium in ways he hasn't explained yet. I just hope Ron Howard will be back as the narrator, since some of my favorite jokes came from his wry voice-overs.

To whet your appetite in the meantime, Entertainment Weekly has posted a short video of The Bluth Bros, Jason Bateman and Will Arnett, shaving. Yeah, I don't really understand, either. But it's still nice to see them.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

What's Next for Prairie Fire Theatre?

Some of the details (like specific dates) are yet to come, but Prairie Fire Theatre has announced its plans for 2012, including one children's opera, two books musicals and one revue.

The children's show is "Tortoise and Hare's Big Race," which looks like it's scheduled for May 12 in the Bloomington Public Library, if this calendar is to be believed. "Tortoise and Hare's Big Race" is billed as Prairie Fire's 2012 school tour, which means it just may be showing up at a school near you (or near your children) in May.

Next up is "Tell Me on a Sunday," a one-woman show about a British girl's romantic (and not-so romantic) journey across the US. With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Don Black, "Tell Me on a Sunday" looks at an unnamed woman simply called "The Girl," who arrives in New York intent on starting a new life in the US. After finding out her boyfriend has been cheating on her, our Girl finds her way (musically) through several more adventures as she looks for love and independence.

"Damn Yankees," the 1955 classic baseball musical, will be Prairie Fire's summer production. As a famous dance show (with Bob Fosse choreographing for Gwen Verdon in both the original Broadway and film versions), "Damn Yankees" is something of a departure for Prairie Fire, which usually goes for Gilbert & Sullivan or other more vocally-based shows. George Abbott and Douglas Wallop wrote the book about a Washington Senators fan who makes a deal with the devil to get his team a pennant, while Jerry Ross and Richard Adler wrote the breezy, fun score, which includes standards like "Heart" and "Whatever Lola Wants," a song that's currently being used in a Pepsi commercial starring Sofia Vergara. Actors Ray Walston, Vincent Price, Van Johnson, Jerry Lewis, Victor Garber and Sean Hayes have all played the diabolical Mr. Applegate through the years.

And in the fall, Prairie Fire will look to a revue of songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, whose distinctive pop sound was all over the charts in the 60s and 70s. "Back to Bacharach and David" was first produced Off-Broadway in 1992 with a cast of four, and it included such Bacharach/David hits as "The Look of Love," "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," ""A House Is Not a Home," "Promises, Promises," "I Say a Little Prayer for You," "Close to You," and "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" Comedian/actress Kathy Najimy and actor/singer/composer Steve Gunderson put the show together, with Najimy directing and Gunderson doing the musical arrangements and orchestrations.

You'll need to watch this page to get the details as Prairie Fire fills in dates and locations for their performances.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Strange Little World of "Dog Sees God"

When I was young, I remember a controversial bumper sticker that showed Lucy, the pushy girl from Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" comic strip, hugely pregnant. I don't remember what the caption was, but it was something like, "Damn you, Charlie Brown!" It seems tame now, but at the time, a lot of people were upset that somebody would subvert the sweet little "Peanuts" characters that way. I seem to recall lawsuits and general dismay. I thought it was funny. But, hey, I was a kid.

Bert V. Royal, the writer behind the movie "Easy A," goes a lot farther than that in his play "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead." He doesn't use the actual names of the Peanuts characters, but there's a guy named CB at the center of it, with "Van" instead of Linus van Pelt, "Beethoven" for Schroeder, the piano-playing kid, "Tricia" instead of Peppermint Patty, "Marcy" with a y instead of Marcie with ie, and "Matt" as a cleaned-up Pigpen. Sally and Lucy are reduced to merely "C.B.'s sister" and "Van's sister," respectively. Royal has aged them all to their high school years, and given each of them enough angst and misery to fuel six teen soap operas. Or maybe one day in Lindsay Lohan's life.

So our main character CB is mourning the loss of his dog, clearly Snoopy, who had to be put down after contracting rabies and chomping on a small yellow bird we recognize as Woodstock, while his sister, currently going through a Goth Wiccan phase, has a crush on the Beethoven version of Schroeder, who is constantly bullied because his father molested him. At some point in the recent past, CB conspired with Lucy, now completely bonkers and in an institution after she set the Little Red-Headed Girl's hair on fire, to burn Van's beloved blanket, as well. Van is a stoner, Tricia and Marcy are vapid party girls chugging gin and vodka with their chocolate milk and having sex with whoever they can nab, and Matt has cleaned up his former Pigpen ways by becoming a thug and a bully.

It's hard not to imagine that this play is the product of some self-absorbed teen with an ax to grind, deliberately making each plot element and each character backstory as nasty and over the top as possible, wallowing in the excess. It's hard not to imagine that Bert V. Royal came up with these plot elements and character problems just to show how sarcastic and outrageous he can be. It's telling to me that Sally and Lucy don't get names but are instead defined as some guy's sister, and poor Lucy only gets one scene. Not very interested in the girls, are we, Bert V?

Royal says he was interested in deeper issues, about what happens when your creator leaves you behind, as Charles Schulz left behind his "Peanuts" characters when he died. “What would you do in the absence of God or your creator?” Royal asks in this interview.

That's actually an interesting question and one I wish I'd seen more of in "Dog Sees God." Instead, what we get in the Phoenix Theatre production of the play at IWU is dark, smirky teen drama, with the script not nearly good enough to support the talents of the actors who are trying to bring it to life. And that's a shame.

When the play nears its conclusion and turns from send-up to something more heartfelt, actors Josh Conrad, Geena Barry and Jordan Lipes tap into real emotion, giving this "Dog Sees God" a moving conclusion and making me wish that its cast had a better vehicle to showcase what they can do.

As it is, Conrad carries the show from beginning to end. He's a very watchable actor and he manages the difficult trick of making his CB a root-for character, someone with a brain and a heart in the midst of emptiness. Geena Barry gives Sally (er, "CB's Sister") good energy and vulnerability, as well, and she really nails Sally's epilogue speech, while Jordan Lipes is consistently sincere and wounded enough to make us care about Beethoven.

DOG SEES GOD: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead
By Bert V. Royal

The Phoenix Theater at Illinois Wesleyan University

Director: Mack Rivkin
Assistant Director/Stage Manager: Ambria Bernardi
Scenic and Lighting Designer: Gopher Kuzmin
Sound Designr: Antonio Gracias
Board Operator: Laura Gisondi
Costumes and Makeup by Bri Sarikcioglu
Publicity by Riley Blindt

Cast: Josh Conrad, Geena Barry, Nick Carlson, Joe Ruskey, Jordan Lipes, Mandi Corrao, Mary Nicholas and Bri Sarikcioglu.

Running time: 2 hours, performed without intermission

Remaining performances: April 18, 2012, at 5 pm.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Pulitzer Prize for Drama Goes to Quiara Alegría Hudes for "Water by the Spoonful"

Winners of the Pulitzer Prizes for 2012 were announced yesterday, with Quiara Alegría Hudes taking the Drama prize for her play "Water by the Spoonful," which the Pulitzer committee described as, "an imaginative play about the search for meaning by a returning Iraq war veteran working in a sandwich shop in his hometown of Philadelphia."

Quiara Alegría Hudes
The Pulitzer Prize for Drama may be awarded annually to "a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life," and it comes with a $10,000 added prize.

Hudes' play premiered last year at the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut. A previous play, "Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue," which was a Pulitzer finalist in 2007, is the first in a planned trilogy, with "Water by the Spoonful" as the second play. And the third part of the trilogy, "The Happiest Song Plays Last," is scheduled for next April and May at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.

"Water by the Spoonful" spotlights characters around the world who interact by way of an internet chat room, with the main focus on the troubled veteran in Philadelphia and his mother, who has demons of her own.

Other finalist plays this year were "Other Desert Cities," by Jon Robin Baitz, also on the Goodman's schedule for next year, and "Sons of the Prophet," by Stephen Karam.

Who Doesn't Like to Play Games? Auditions Next Week!

Heartland Theatre will hold auditions next Monday and Tuesday, April 23 and 24, for 18 roles available in their annual 10-Minute Play Festival. This year's theme is "Playing Games," which means that each of the plays involves some kind of game.

"Playing Games" 10-Minute Plays

This year's winning plays, playwrights and directors are:

by Alexis Roblan, Brooklyn NY
It's time for Jake to meet the parents, but Sue insists that he learn - and master -- her family's favorite game before they go. Can this relationship survive cutthroat Rummikub?
1 female, 20s to 30s, 1 male, 20s to 30s
Director: Misti Somers

by John D. Poling, Clinton IL
Divorce, a new partner, a custody battle... This time, the one caught in the middle is a puppy named Destiny, after a scary trip to the vet brings the whole triangle and its tug-of-war into sharp focus.
2 females, 30s to 40s, 1 male, 30s to 40s
Director: Chris Gray

by Meny Beriro, Forest Hills NY
Carol and June have been playing bingo in the same place for 20 years. But now that their favorite bingo parlor is closing, will they still be friends? Or were they ever friends at all?
2 females, over 55
Director: Sarah Salazar

by Jerry McGee, Brooklyn NY
Did you ever wonder if you existed, or if you were just a character in a video game? No? Well, the line between game and reality is only too real for Hector. Unless it's imaginary.
1 female, 20s to 30s, and 1 male, any age
Director: Kenny Kendall

by Erin Moughon, New York NY
Ms. Murphy and Mr. Jones may've been playing their made-up game for three years, but it's probably more like three hours. The one thing they can count on is that no rule ever stays the same.
1 female and 1 male, 20s to 30s
Director: Matt Campbell

by Mike Poblete, Brooklyn NY
Kyle and Judy are OVER. No more Ring Around the Rosy. No more sharing the Mickey Mouse car. But on the playground of their relationship, being tagged IT may be the ultimate romantic gesture.
1 female, 2 males, any ages
Director: Rachel Krein

by Marj O'Neill-Butler, Miami Beach FL
Did Rosie meet Bob in the pasta section or the dairy aisle? Was he wearing red running shoes or scarlet Crocs? Whose "missed connection" was whose? Oh well. All is fair in the Mating Game!
1 female, 1 male, 20s to 30s
Director: Ron Emmons

by Austin Steinmetz, Columbus OH
If people find out that 5-time National Scrabble Champion Jerry Diddle has been hiding Es up his sleeves, he may just lose everything. Or he may find out there's more to life than Triple Word Scores.
2 males, any ages
Director: Marty Lynch

There are a total of 9 roles available for women and 9 roles for men, with all ages represented. Rehearsal schedules will be set by the individual directors, and performances will begin June 7, running Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through July 1. For more information, click here or call 309-452-8709.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Lots of Theatre Coming Up in 2012-13 at IWU School of Theatre Arts

So far this Spring, we've talked about what ISU and Community Players are doing in 2012-13, as well as a few Chicago theater companies. Now we turn our attention to Illinois Wesleyan University and their 2012-2013 School of Theatre Arts season.

IWU's School of Theatre Arts always manages to surprise me. After going for provocative, darker musicals like Stephen Sondheim's "Passion" and Michael John LaChiusa's "Hello Again," IWU is taking a more cheerful, straight-down-the-middle-of-the-plate approach to its big musical, plus offering a Shakespeare comedy and two well-regarded "sister" plays that seem just right for the college theater setting. And then there's the last choice, a three-playwright collaboration reflecting on the New Orleans hurricane and devastation. It's fairly new (2008) and completely new to me. As I said, IWU continues to surprise!

They will open their season in McPherson Theatre with "A Shayna Maidel," Barbara Lebow's 1985 play about two Polish Jewish sisters torn apart by the Holocaust. Rose White and her father have been safe in New York since she was a toddler, but her sister was left behind. Rose (original name: Reyzel Weiss) has been acclimated and assimilated, but it's all new to her sister Lusia, just now able to come to America after surviving the concentration camps. "A Shayna Maidel" means "a pretty girl" in Yiddish. As it happens, one of my grandmother's sisters was named Shayna but called Sophie in the U.S; until we found her birth records on the family tree, the only "Shayna" I knew was in the title of this play. The 1992 TV movie version of the play was titled "Miss Rose White," looking to the American side of the character rather than the Yiddish one. Professor Nancy Loitz will direct "A Shayna Maidel" for IWU.

The fall musical will be the bright and breezy "9 to 5," directed by Assistant Professor Scott Susong in McPherson Theatre. The original "9 to 5" was a Dolly Parton/Lily Tomlin/Jane Fonda chick flick, with Dolly writing the hit title song. Parton wrote a bunch more songs to turn it into "9 to 5: The Musical." Allison Janney took on the Lily Tomlin role, while Megan Hilty (now a smash on "Smash") created the role of Doralee, who is very much like Ms. Parton, for the stage, with American Idol's Diana Degarmo taking Doralee on the national tour. "9 to 5" is about three women toiling at a large company in the early 80s, trying very hard to keep their wits about them even when treated terribly by a creepy sexist boss. When their problems with the boss escalate, they undertake a crazy scheme to keep him tied up and hanging from the ceiling of his own home, and then they run the company (beautifully) in his absence. Patricia Resnick co-wrote the screenplay and wrote the book for "9 to 5: The Musical," which was nominated for 4 Tony Awards and 15 Drama Desk Awards in 2009. And here's the "9 to 5" story in under ten minutes, if you'd like to see what Janney and Hilty looked like in the roles.

Also in McPherson, Assistant Professor Thomas Quinn will direct Shakespeare's "As You Like It," the romantic comedy with the lovely Rosalind on the lam in the forest of Arden, dressed as a boy and supposedly teaching Orlando, the boy she has a bit of a crush on, how to woo like a man. There are accompanying rustics, Rosalind's jester Touchstone, a gloomy philosopher named Jacques who gives the famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech, and a couple of Dukes, one who usurped the other's position. "As You Like It" will also be part of this summer's Illinois Shakespeare Festival, if you would like to see both and compare/contrast.

The annual Faculty Choreographed Dance Concert rounds out the McPherson schedule, this one directed by Associate Professor Jean McFarland Kerr, who recently did such fine work on "Promenade."

Over in the E. Melba Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre, you'll see Shelagh Stevenson's "The Memory of Water," directed by undergrad Kristyn Kuzinar. "The Memory of Water" looks at three sisters gathering for their mother's funeral. The title's "memory" comes into play both because their mother suffered from Alzheimer's and because they each remember the events of their childhood differently, as siblings often do. Memory is a hazy, unreliable issue for each of them. There is another play I often confuse with this one, demonstrating my own unreliable memory. But, no, this is not Lee Blessing's "A Body of Water," which is also about people who struggle with what they do and do not remember.

The other play they've scheduled for the Lab Theatre is "The Breach," a 2008 play by Catherine Filloux, Tarell McCraney and Joe Sutton. The three playwrights wrote three different intertwined stories to tell what happened to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It's not just about devastation on the human level, but about heroism, politics and water. There is a lot of water in "The Breach." This play will be directed by Raven Stubbs, also an undergrad in IWU's Theater program.

That leaves one or two titles still to be announced for the Kirkpatrick Lab Theatre. I'll report back as soon as I hear. In the meantime, you can read up on these shows and get ready for what you'll see in the fall.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Community Players Announces Its 90th Season!

Community Players is a Bloomington-Normal institution, founded in 1923 by a group of local theatrical enthusiasts that (as I've heard the story) included movers and shakers like playwright Rachel Crothers and Carl Vrooman, Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of Agriculture.

For their 90th season, CP will undertake a mix of musicals and straight plays, classics and newer works, comedies and dramas. Something for everyone!

First on the schedule is the musical "Legally Blonde," based on the movie of the same name. It's about a smart but kind of daffy blonde named Elle, who decides to try Harvard Law School after being dumped by a boyfriend who's on his way there. But once she hits Harvard, Elle's priorities change, even if her love of pink fashion does not. Bright and charming, "Legally Blonde" featured Christian Borle, now starring in NBC's "Smash," when it was on Broadway, with Laura Bell Bundy as Elle and former Miss America Kate Shindle as her rival. "Legally Blonde" will be presented from July 12 to 29. Note that it is considered a summer show rather than a regular season offering for CP.

Opening August 30 is the Kaufman and Hart classic "You Can't Take It With You," one of the most-performed comedies in the history of the American stage and winner of the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The movie version, which starred Jean Arthur and James Stewart as the young lovers and Lionel Barrymore as happy-go-lucky Grandpa Vanderhof, who doesn't believe in paying taxes, won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director (Frank Capra). "You Can't Take It With You" has a large cast of eccentrics, with two guys making fireworks in the basement, a would-be ballerina trying out her moves in the living room, a drunken actress who falls asleep on the sofa, and a former member of Russian royalty who is now a waitress.

"Leaving Iowa," a comedy that centers on family vacations, will be performed as a Lab Theatre presentation from October 4 to 7. "Leaving Iowa" comes from playwrights Tim Clue and Spike Manton. Clue says, "The real spark behind this work comes from being children of parents from the now dubbed 'greatest generation.' Leaving Iowa is a toast to their idealism and character, and perhaps a little roast of their undying dedication to the classic family road trip. Leaving Iowa is a postcard to anyone who has ever found themselves driving alone on a road, revisiting fond memories of their youth."

CP will finish up 2012 with "Irving Berlin's White Christmas," a stage version of the perennial fave Bing Crosby/Danny Kaye movie. The stage musical keeps the plot about a pair of musical comedy performers who are also WWII veterans who put on a show to honor their old commander. The book is by David Ives and Paul Blake, with a score that includes Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" as well as other Berlin hits like "Happy Holiday," "Blue Skies," "Let Yourself Go" and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." Of that last bunch, only "Blue Skies" appeared in the movie. "Irving Berlin's White Christmas" opens November 29 and plays till December 16, 2012.

The first show of 2013, scheduled for January 24 to February 3, 2013, will be Ken Ludwig's door-slamming opera farce "Lend Me a Tenor," wherein a man who always wanted to sing Otello gets drafted to do just that after the famous Italian tenor who was supposed to sing the role with the Cleveland Opera takes too many sleeping pills and can't be roused. "Lend Me a Tenor" was revived on Broadway in 2010 with a cast that included Tony Shalhoub and Anthony LaPaglia, with "Hangover" star Justin Bartha as Max, the lowly assistant (and tenor) who finds himself in the middle of the mess.

The lone drama on the schedule is "To Kill a Mockingbird," a stage version of another much-loved book and movie. Harper Lee's original novel about a lawyer taking on a racially-charged case in Alabama during the 1930s and the effect on his family won a Pulitzer Prize, while "To Kill a Mockingbird" the film won Oscars for Gregory Peck for Best Actor, Horton Foote for Best Adapted Screenplay and a trio of designers for their Art Direction. From March 14 to 24, 2013, Community Players will be performing the stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel which was presented at Steppenwolf Theatre in 2010.

And they'll finish the season with "Monty Python's Spamalot," another Tony-Award-winning Broadway musical based on a film ("Monty Python and the Holy Grail"). Monty Python's Eric Idle put together a combination send-up of Broadway shows in general with a spoofy storyline about King Arthur and his knights wandering around having adventures, with favorite bits from the movie (the Black Knight who keeps losing appendages and insisting it's just a flesh wound, the Knights Who Say Ni, a psychotic rabbit, a snotty French guy who tells them "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries") as well as new characters and outrageous situations and songs. "Monty Python's Spamalot" will play at Community Players from May 9 to 26, 2013.

For subscription information as well as updates about auditions, casting and directors, visit the Community Players website.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

"Downton" Withdrawal? Try "Titanic" and "Sixbey."

Yearning for "Downton Abbey"? Season 3 won't be here till September 2012 in the UK and January 2013 in the US, but you can still get a little bit of a "Downton" fix.

The PBS "Downton" site has videos, interviews, photos and merchandise, including DVDs for Seasons 1 and 2, a lovely book, and an "official soundtrack" cd. They're offering 15% off plus free shipping through Monday (if you buy at least $90 worth of "Downton" or other PBS merch.)

In other news,"Downton" creator Julian Fellowes has written a four-part miniseries simply called "Titanic," with parts 1-3 airing tonight on ABC to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in the north Atlantic. Part 4 is scheduled for tomorrow at 8 central. The miniseries features some 89 major characters, with Linus Roache as Hugh, Earl of Manton, Geraldine Somerville as his wife, James Wilby as J. Bruce Ismay, and Linda Kash as the "unsinkable" Molly Brown. ABC's main page for this "Titanic" effort is here, including behind-the-scenes videos and trailers and whatnot. This 2012 "Titanic" mini aired in Canada and in the United Kingdom last month, where reviewers noted that Fellowes' script once again focused on the haves and the have-nots, the upstairs and the downstairs, as he did in "Gosford Park" and, of course, "Downton Abbey."

Over on NBC, Jimmy Fallon has begun his own "Downton" tribute called "Downton Sixbey." (His studio is 6B. Sixbey, get it?) The first episode is embedded below for your viewing entertainment.

Friday, April 13, 2012

ISU and IWU Stars Battle on the Big Screen for Friday the 13th Box Office Honors

As it happens, new movies open this weekend starring two actors who got their starts at Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan University. When ISU and IWU go head to head at the box office, will ISU's Sean Hayes and his comic hijinks in "The Three Stooges" prevail over IWU's Richard Jenkins and the fright fest that is "The Cabin in the Woods"?

Sean Hayes, the Emmy and SAG Award winner (for "Will and Grace") who was a music performance major at ISU, plays frizzy-haired Larry, probably the least violent of the Stooges. Against all odds, the movie is pulling in good notices, with reviewers calling it a "thoroughly enjoyable paean to Moe, Larry and Curly and the art of the eye poke" as well as "an enchantingly well-done tribute."

Hayes, who appears at right at the bottom of the stack of Stooges, was cited by EW for doing "wonders with Larry's lost-puppy stare and syrupy voice" and by USA Today for perfectly capturing "the elastic sour face of bushy-haired Larry."

Richard Jenkins is probably best-known for playing the ghost dad on HBO's "Six Feet Under," even though he took home an Oscar nomination for 2008's "The Visitor" and received a special "You had a great year" award from the San Diego Film Critics Association for 2008, when he appeared in "Burn After Reading," "The Tale of Despereaux," "Step Brothers," and the afore-mentioned "The Visitor." He works frequently with the Farrelly brothers, the directors behind "The Three Stooges."

"The Cabin in the Woods," Jenkins' new release, was actually filmed in 2009 and then shelved until now because of studio MGM's financial woes. It has been receiving fabulous reviews, with Peter Hartlaub calling it "a film that defiantly follows its own muse -- and that muse is a zombie carrying a bear trap on the edge of a chain" in the San Francisco Chronicle. NPR critic Ian Buckwalter says, "Goddard and Whedon have created a wonderful puzzle of a film that is loving in its appreciation of good horror, even as it takes the genre (and its blood-lusty audience) to task for the unimaginative banality that has been too typical of recent scary movies."

Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum singles Jenkins out for praise, noting "his outstanding ability to make a fully formed character out of even the most minimal of building materials."

Both "The Three Stooges" and "The Cabin in the Woods" are playing locally at Carmike Palace Cinema 10, Starplex Normal Stadium 14, and Wehrenberg Bloomington Galaxy 14 Cinema.

Note: ISU's Pete Guither has pointed out that another ISU alum -- the amazing Jane Lynch -- is also in "The Three Stooges." Maybe it's the one-two-punch that put the Stooges over the top, as "The Three Stooges" edged out "The Cabin in the Woods" for second place this weekend, with "The Hunger Games" hanging on to first place overall. Box Office Mojo shows "The Three Stooges" took in $17.1 million in its first weekend, with "The Cabin in the Woods" right behind at $14.85 million.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

One Act Bonanza at ISU This Weekend

The School of Theatre at Illinois State University is offering a slew of one acts this weekend. A slew of FREE one acts! With nine different plays on the schedule, you have a choice of two programs, each performed once on Saturday and once on Sunday. These plays are being presented by ISU's Directing Workshop and Advanced Lighting classes in Centennial West 202 under the acronym FT1A, which seems to stand for Freshmen/Transfer One Acts. This leads me to believe that the actors will be ISU freshmen and transfer students. But I'm just assuming that based on the FT1A thing. I may have to attend to figure that out unless someone from ISU wants to pop in and give us the scoop.

What they are calling "Block 1" contains the following plays:  

Reasons to be Pretty 
By Neil LaBute
Director: Paige Hutchinson
Designer: Sarah Pindak

 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 
By Richard Abbott
Director: Joey Maman
Designer: Mark Caspary  

 By Jose Rivera
Director: Jesus Estela
Designer: Scott Friedrich  

Looking for Normal 
 By Jane Anderson
Director: Joey Maman
Designer: Steve Lopez

By Ethan Coen
Director: Owais Ahmed
Designer: Kris Kirkwood

And "Block 2" includes:

Chamber Music 
By Arthur Kopit
Director: Tammy Wilson
Designer: Andrew Blevins

First Sorrow 
By Franz Kafka
Director: JD Cannady
Designer: Meredith Francsis

Defying Gravity 
By Jane Anderson
Director: Casey Peek
Designer: Nic Vazquez

By Steve Martin
Director: Jesus Estela
Designer: Dan Alore

On Saturday, April 14, Block 1 will be performed at 2 pm, with Block 2 at 7 pm. And then on Sunday, April 15, they'll flip, with Block 2 at 2 pm and Block 1 at 7 pm. 

Opening Tonight: Tracy Letts' "Superior Donuts" at Heartland Theatre

Tracy Letts hit it big with "August: Osage County," a scorching play about family bonds and family destruction that earned him the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He has been a member of Chicago's Steppenwolf ensemble since 2002, appearing as an actor there in a range of plays from "Glengarry Glen Ross" to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" But "Superior Donuts," which opened at Steppenwolf in 2008 before transferring to Broadway, is the first play Letts has written set in his adopted hometown.

Everything about "Superior Donuts" says Chicago. There's a Polish-American guy from Jefferson Park who owns a doughnut shop in Uptown, and his store is frequented by a streetwise kid whose mom works in the cafeteria at Senn, an Irish-American cop, a gambler from Bridgeport, and a Russian immigrant from down the street who owns an electronics store. It has a real neighborhood feel, focusing on the kind of family-owned business that has always been a mainstay in Chicago but is disappearing in the wake of Starbucks and Krispy Kreme on every corner. If nothing else, "Superior Donuts" serves as a comment on and commemoration of a distinctive Chicago way of life, marked in time before it's gone completely.

Heartland Theatre Company and director Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson bring "Superior Donuts" and its Chicago stylings to Normal beginning tonight, with performances running through April 29. You can see the complete list of performances here if you're interested in choosing a night that suits your schedule. Reservations are strongly encouraged, except for opening night, which is a special Pay-What-You-Can preview performance where no reservations are accepted.

What's great about "Superior Donuts" is its heart. That may seem odd coming from the guy who wrote "Bug" and "Killer Joe," but friendship and camaraderie, forming a family unit from people of different ages and backgrounds, is what "Superior Donuts" is all about.

In Heartland's production, Michael Pullin plays Arthur Przybyszewski (it's pronounced Shu-ber-shev-ski), the world-weary man inside the doughnut shop, while Gregory D. Hicks takes on the role of Franco Wicks, an energetic black kid who needs a job and gets his foot in the door in Arthur's store.

Pullin has been seen many times on area stages, most recently as a wealthy stamp collector (and the polar opposite of Arthur Przybyszewski) in "Mauritius." He is also Heartland Theatre's resident scenic designer, and, yes, he did the "superior" set you'll see in "Superior Donuts."

Hicks is active with New Route Theatre and ISU's Black Actors Guild, where he coordinated and appeared in "The Mystical Willie Lynch" last month, and he appeared in Heartland Theatre's "Three for the Show" and 10-Minute Play Festival in 2010.

The supporting cast includes Heartland board president Todd Wineburner, who was seen to such good effect in Deborah Zoe Laufer's "Sirens" at Heartland last fall, and Clark Abraham, who did excellent work in Joel Drake Johnson's "The End of the Tour" last spring. Wineburner plays Max, the friendly (and ambitious) Russian from down the street, while Abraham portrays Luther Flynn, a scary bookie who doesn't look kindly on people who owe him money.

They are aided by Cathy Sutliff and Marcus Smith as a pair of beat cops who keep coming back to Superior Donuts, Holly Klass as a slightly dotty bag lady who thinks of the place as her own, and Aric Rattan and Jay Hartzler as two different kinds of muscle.

"Superior Donuts" is at times funny, profane, sweet, profound and affecting. It fits perfectly within Heartland Theatre's commitment to offer theater that means something, that touches the human heart and expounds on the human condition. You may leave yearning for doughnuts or for old school neighborhood stores, but you will also find a fulfilling dramatic experience.

By Tracy Letts

Heartland Theatre Company

Director: Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson
Scenic Designer: Michael Pullin
Lighting Designer: Jesse Folks
Costume Designer: Lauren Lowell
Fight Choreographer: Tony Pellegrino
Stage Manager: Rachel Krein

Cast: Clark Abraham, Jay Hartzler, Gregory D. Hicks, Holly Klass, Michael Pullin, Aric Rattan, Marcus Smith, Cathy Sutliff, Todd Wineburner.

Running time: 2:20, including one 10-minute intermission

Performances: April 12-14, 19-21 and 26-28 at 7:30 pm and April 15, 22 and 29 at 2 pm.

Box office: or call 309-452-8709

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Humana Fest #5: "Michael von Siebenburg" Misses the Mark

Greg Kotis is a genius. He's hilarious. His "Urinetown" (he wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics) is one of the funniest and best meta-theatrical, neo-Brechtian pieces ever. And his “An Examination of the Whole Playwright/Actor Relationship Presented as Some Kind of Cop Show Parody” was one of the highlights of last year's Humana Festival for me.

That's why it's such a disappointment that this year's full-length piece presented at the Humana Festval -- "Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards" -- seemed so off the mark. The story itself, about a sort of eternal cannibal/serial killer who knocks off young women to eat them and stay forever young, is complicated and grisly, not offering a whole lot of opportunities for the smart, clever humor that usually marks his work. We all expect Greg Kotis to be a little on the icky side when it comes to humor (remember, his biggest hit was called "Urinetown"), but main characters who snack on Ground Girl are are not exactly sympathetic, even though the rest of the plot tries to make us care that Michael von Siebenburg is going to melt and fade away. Program notes tell us the play was meant to be "a meditation on obsolescence, a bloody valentine to American progress, and a hilarious elegy for the glory days of vampire cannibalism," but it really doesn't play as any of that. Instead, I'd call it mixed-up, vague and somewhat tedious, wandering through minefields of sexism, religious zealotry and horror rather than making a statement on any of them.

The premise of "Michael von Siebenburg" sounds like it might be "Young Frankenstein" meets "Dexter," with a little sarcasm at the expense of "Twilight" or "True Blood" just for kicks. We see a dying 15th century Austrian soldier named Otto, brought to life with gusto by John Ahlin, a member of the army sent to defend Constantinople against "infidel" Turks. He and his fellow warriors, including a count named Michael von Siebenburg, are besieged with nothing to eat. (Cue Donner Party music.)  So, yes, Michael von S joins his fellow survivors in eating their enemies and friends, including his pal Otto. And somehow that gives him and the other Austrian cannibals eternal life.

Rufus Collins and John Ahlin appear in "Michael von Siebenburg"

Fast forward to modern day New York City, where Michael von Siebenburg, played as a slightly scruffy but well-meaning aristocrat by Rufus Collins, and a helper named Sammy, given a sheen of Eurotrash smugness by Micah Stock, target, woo and then butcher nubile young women. His landlady (perfectly performed by veteran actress Rita Gardner, the original Luisa in "The Fantasticks," according to her bio) suspects something is up and keeps calling the cops, who happen to be female, as well. Without fresh meat, Michael and Sammy are getting faint. And ghosts of Michael's past -- cranky Otto, who wants him to get back to the Quest for Constantinople, and lovely Maria (played by the lovely Caralyn Kozlowski), his wife back in Austria in 14-something -- have started to haunt him.

For me, "Michael von Siebenburg" turned out to be an odd and not very well seasoned stew. At well over two hours, it was also much too long to sustain the humor. And the addition of characters like the landlady and the hapless cops felt very old-fashioned, with its dark humor more like "Arsenic and Old Lace" than Monty Python. All in all, not a good mix for me.

By Greg Kotis

36th Humana Festival of New American Plays
Actors Theatre of Louisville

Director: Kip Fagan
Costume Designer: Lorraine Venberg
Lighting Designer: Brian J. Lilienthal
Sound Designer: Matt Callahan
Properties Designer: Sean McArdle
Wig Designer: Heather Fleming
Fight Director: Joe Isenberg
Dialect Coach: Rinda Frye
Production Stage Manager: Paul Mills Holme
Dramaturg: Zach Chotzen-Freund
Casting: Laura Stanczyk

Cast: John Ahlin, Rufus Collins, Ariana Venturi, Micah Stock, Laura Heisler, Caralyn Kozlowski, and Rita Gardner.

Running time: 2:10, including one 15-minute intermission

Performances continue through April 15.

Midwest Institute of Opera Launches a Second Season

After the success of their "Die Zauberflöte" in 2011, the Midwest Institute of Opera is taking on another summer season, this time offering Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

Co-founder Tracy Marie Koch points out that the company is "the only opera company in central Illinois that only produces opera." Koch and her husband, baritone John Michael Koch, helped found the opera company to offer emerging professional singers an opportunity to perform complete roles on stage after working in an intensive summer program with guidance from MIO staff, most of whom come with substantial experience on New York stages. For 2012, that staff includes Joshua Greene, Assistant Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and artistic director of MIO; James Marvel, stage director who has worked at Lincoln Center in New York City as well as in Canada, Italy, South Africa, South Korea, England, Scotland, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic; pianist and coach Dr. Jeffrey Peterson, a member of the faculty at Baylor University and artistic director of Music in the Marche in Piobbico, Italy; soprano Patricia Sheridan, a New York Singing Teachers’ Association Distinguished Voice Professional; Joseph Welch, an "in demand" collaborator and doctoral student at the University of Minnesota; Molly Scanlon, a stage manager who earned her B.S. in music from ISU; and Andrea Steele, Alexander Technique instructor.

The two Kochs are also on staff. Tracy Marie Koch made her New York City operatic debut as Madama Butterfly in Puccini's opera of the same name in Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance Program, and she also runs one of central Illinois' most successful voice and piano studios. John Michael Koch is Vocal Arts Coordinator and Associate Professor of Music in the College of Fine Arts at ISU. His bio notes that he is a Metropolitan Audition winner, laureate of the 1989 Montreal Competition, and recipient of an Eleanor Steberhas Foundation Award, and that he has performed over 75 operatic and oratorio roles internationally and has released several world premiere recordings on three recording labels.

Auditions were held in January to cast "Don Giovanni." Tracy Marie Koch explains the casting process: "Emerging/professional opera singers send us their materials and from that we have live auditions and then we choose who to invite to be in the cast." In 2011, performers came from everywhere from the Bronx to Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Local musicians also play a role. As Ms. Koch notes, "Community members participate in the program in the chorus and the high schoolers who participate from the community have their own concert. This year we are doing a production of Pirates of Penzance for them!"

Joshua Greene will conduct and James Marvel will direct "Don Giovanni," which is scheduled for July 29th and 31st at Illinois State University's Center for the Performing Arts. The Midwest Institute of Opera has a new website with all kinds of interesting information, including applications for prospective singers, pianists and conductors, and a Facebook page for up-to-the-minute information.