Thursday, May 31, 2012

Shake Up Your Summer With Shakespeare and Sheridan at the ISF

Although it has been feeling like summer lately, the midsummer tradition that is the Illinois Shakespeare Festival still seems far away. Yeah, well, it's not. In fact, four weeks from tonight, on June 28, the ISF summer season will open with a backstage tour, some jazz in the courtyard and the official opening night of "As You Like It."

That means you are well-advised to make reservations now if you want those cool Platinum Plus seats, which come with a free (non-alcoholic) beverage, premium parking, and the ability to exchange your tickets if you feel like it.

This summer's line-up, which they're billing as "a season of LOVE, LIES, DECEIT, AND SECRET IDENTITIES," goes with 2 Shakespeare and 1 Other, with "As You Like It" opening on the 28th, "Othello" on the 29th, and the third choice, the delightful comedy "The Rivals," written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan and first performed in 1775, bowing July 19th. This year's Theatre for Young Audiences choice, "The Comedy of Errors," begins on Wednesday, June 11th, with a 10 am performance.

The poster art for "As You Like It" would seem to indicate that they're emphasizing the Forest of Arden/Leafy Green aspect of the show, and Rosalind, the heroine who dresses as a boy when she goes on the lam in that very forest, looks like she's dressed in 20th century garb. The 30s, maybe? Of course, the poster may be a complete misdirect, even though the people in the picture have been identified as Gracyn Mix and Dylan Paul, and he is definitely playing Orlando. Paul was Romeo last year at the Festival, in case you saw that and remember his good looks and athletic performance.

"Othello" looks more Elizabethan as represented here. And a lot scarier, as it should. The actors in this banner are Daver Morrison and Amanda Catania, who will be presumably playing Othello and his ill-fated bride Desdemona for Shakes Fest this summer. One other fun fact about the production: Former Artistic Director John Sipes will be returning to the Festival to direct it.

And "The Rivals" looks properly late-18th century, what with the powdered wig and the frock coats, not to mention the weaponry. I remember a production of "The Rivals" at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival years ago, and it was one of the funniest and best things I've seen there. It offers excellent roles for both men and women, with pretty Lydia Languish and handsome Jack Absolute as the lovers thwarted by her guardian, Mrs. Malaprop, and his rivals for her affections, Bob Acres, a country squire, and Lucius O'Trigger, a hot-headed Irishman. This time, the actors in the poster are Alexander Pawlowski and Dylan Paul. Paul is almost certainly Jack Absolute, with Pawlowski as Bob Acres, perhaps.

In addition to the Theatre for Young Audience shows, the Festival also offers pre-shows, jazz music, different backstage tours, catered box suppers, ice cream socials and post-show discussions. As well as, of course, a stroll around the lovely grounds of Ewing Manor.

Although not much info regarding the casts or crews of the shows has been released as of yet, you can keep an eye on the Illinois Shakespeare Festival Facebook page for updates.

Frankenstein X 2: Alternating Scientists and Creatures at the CU Art

When two major stars do Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" on stage, with one as the ambitious doctor and one as the creature he makes out of spare parts, it's big news. When they flip roles every other night, it's an even bigger event.

Film director Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire," "Trainspotting") took on the new stage version of "Frankenstein" written by Nick Dear for England's National Theatre, with Benedict Cumberbatch (the Sherlock of the new "Sherlock" from the BBC and PBS) and Jonny Lee Miller (probably most famous for being Angelina Jolie's first husband, but he was also in "Trainspotting" as well as the TV show "Eli Stone" and the new "Elementary" slated for CBS this fall) alternating in the roles of the famous Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. That meant fans could choose who they wanted to see as whom, or go back to the NT to see both. In the end, the two actors shared the Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Play for their combined efforts as Dr. F and the Creature.

This "Frankenstein" was also picked up by the NT Live program, which takes filmed versions of National Theatre stage productions and sends them around the world to movie theaters. They've already done that with "Frankenstein," but this one was so popular they're giving it an encore, with the two "Frankensteins" back in movie theaters in June in the US.

The trailer for the encore is embedded below for your viewing pleasure. Although I'm not sure how pleasant it is, with this rather more realistic representation of what a person might look like if they'd been stitched together from bits and pieces. It also makes it clear that Nick Dear's adaptation is about what it means to be alive, the burdens of responsibility and guilt, and the very root of good and evil.

Our nearest venue is Champaign's Art Theater, which will offer both versions of this "Frankenstein" on different nights. You can see Original Recipe (Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature) at 1 pm on Sunday, June 3, or 4 pm on Wednesday, June 6, with the Reverse Cast  (Jonny Lee Miller as the the Creature) at 1 pm on Sunday, June 10, or 4 pm on Wednesday, June 13.

The National Theatre Live program is simply the best idea ever, and I'm hoping everybody buys tickets to say thanks to the Art Theater for stepping up and giving us a Central Illinois venue. You rock, The Art!

You can follow all the links here for more information, more trailers, and the Art Theater's schedule.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Auditions for "Fabulation" June 4-6

Gregory D. Hicks, who will be directing Lynn Nottage's "Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine" for New Route Theatre, has announced that he will be holding auditions for roles in the show on June 4th, 5th and 6th from 6 to 10 pm at the YWCA theater space New Route is now calling its own.

Hicks previously directed the one-night workshop production of the play New Route produced in July of 2011. That production had limited space for scenery or lights, but it still clicked in all the right places and showcased the style and the message in Nottage's funny, sad, pointed script. With more resources and an expanded run, the new "Fabulation," scheduled for performances on August 31, September 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9, should be even better.

"Fabulation" involves one Undine (birth name: Sharona) who has chucked every connection to her old life in the projects as she climbed the ladder to success. But now the Fates (and a cheating, stealing boyfriend) have pulled the ladder out from under her, and Undine has to figure out who Sharona was before she can be a new, stronger, better Undine. She needs a re-education. And life is going to hand her one whether she wants it or not.

Nottage is a Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright whose work is smart, stylish, emotionally grounded, psychologically rich and quite powerful. Her plays leave an indelible mark on your psyche, and you'll be thinking about the issues she raises -- love, romance, self-worth, ambition, identity -- long after you leave the theater.

Hicks says he is looking for 4 men and 5 women to play roles ranging from Undine herself to various family members and people Undine meets along her route from hot-shot PR woman to out-of-work and out-of-luck nobody. That includes inmates, support group folks, co-workers, lowly bureaucrats, rappers, doctors, judges, and Undine's wily, heroin-addicted grandma.

Hicks plans a rehearsal schedule that will begin on June 18th at 6 pm with a tour of the new YWCA facility, two nights of read-throughs, and the beginnings of character work. After two nights to get acclimated, he will begin rehearsal schedule five nights a week starting June 25th.

For more information, click here or here for the "Fabulation" audition pages on Facebook.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

5 of Heartland's 8 Winning Playwrights Coming to Bloomington-Normal

Heartland Theatre Artistic Director Mike Dobbins has announced that five of the eight winning playwrights in Heartland’s annual 10-minute Play Festival, this year on the theme “Playing Games,” are planning trips to Bloomington-Normal to see their plays on stage and to attend a reception hosted by the 10-Minute Play Festival’s sponsors, Deanna Frautschi and Alan Bedell.

So far, John Poling from Clinton, Illinois, will be traveling the shortest distance among the playwrights, and he will be joined by Meny Beriro (Queens NY), Jerry McGee (Brooklyn NY), Marj O’Neill-Butler (Miami Beach FL) and Austin Steinmetz (Columbus OH).

Here is the Who’s Who of playwrights coming to Bloomington–Normal:

Meny Beriro says that he learned quickly from his students that if you don’t keep the story moving, a hand goes up and asks for the bathroom pass. Meny is a Social Studies teacher at Newtown High School in Queens, New York, one of the most culturally diverse schools in the country. He has written short and long plays about many topics ranging from pigeons to Papua New Guinea. His most recent work is called CHANGE, and it’s about Neanderthals and politics, not necessarily in that order.

A retired actor, Jerry McGee is now an avid playwright. He was a 2012 Finalist for Firehouse Theatre’s Festival of New Plays (QUIET SIDE OF TOWN) and 2010 Playwright-In-Residence at Woodstock Fringe Festival. His plays have been produced at ShortPlayFEST in Bellerica, MA (THIS IS ME TODAY), Wintergreen Arts Center, VA (THE LADY ELGIN), Ruskin Theatre, Santa Monica (DO YOU SMOKE AFTER SEX?), and Collision Festival, NY (JEANNIE WITH THE LIGHT BROWN HAIR). He is a member of Dramatists Guild. He grew up in Nebraska, misses the Midwest and is very happy to be back at Heartland after last year’s HOW TO WEED YOUR GARDEN.

Marj O’Neill-Butler, a member of the Dramatists Guild and the International Center for Women Playwrights, is a produced playwright of TRUE BLUE at The Women’s Theatre Project, eight Theatre for Children scripts, the short plays WHAT IF? and now MISSED CONNECTIONS and a reader’s theatre script called THE WOMEN OF THE BEAT GENERATION. A proud member of Equity, SAG, and AFTRA, she has worked as a professional actor, director and stage manager for over 30 years. Visit her online at

John D. Poling tells us that he is honored to have his play selected for this year’s festival. This is his first foray into playwriting. Most of his theatre experience has come in the realm of acting and directing, with past roles including John Wilkes Booth in ASSASSINS, Rulon Stacey in THE LARAMIE PROJECT and David Sabin in Heartland Theatre’s THE END OF THE TOUR in April 2011. John directed Ken Ludwig’s LEADING LADIES in 2010 and will be directing the comedy MARRYING TERRY in 2013. When not satiating his theatre addiction, John is a history instructor at Parkland College in Champaign.

Austin Steinmetz of Columbus Ohio, is thrilled that his play WORD PLAY was chosen as a winner of Heartland Theatre Company’s National 10-Minute Play Contest! Recent accomplishments include winning spots in the 2011 and 2012 Theatre Oxford National 10-Minute Play Contests, 2012 Evolution Theatre’s Columbus Bicentenial Playwright Festival, and 2011’s MadLab Theatre’s 6-in-60 Greatest Hits, among others. He earned his BA in Creative Writing in 2005 at Ohio Wesleyan University. He thanks his wife, Cara, for her editing eye and enduring what he coins brain farts.

And here are bios for the other three winning playwrights, who have not as yet confirmed:

Erin Moughon is a NYC-based playwright, by way of Georgia and several other states. She has an MFA from Columbia University. Other works aside from IN MEMORY OF CALVINBALL, the play to be performed at Heartland in June, include SURVIVED BY, SLIP HER A MICKEY and PRETEND THAT YOU OWE ME… as well as the short plays [death] and WHAT IF…? She has been a semi-finalist for both the Princess Grace award and the National Playwrights Conference. In 2007, she was one of the U.S. representatives to World Interplay, an international young playwrights conference in Australia. She works as a 7th and 8th grade public school science and health teacher in Manhattan.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Mike Poblete has lived in Ireland, Canada and the Netherlands. His full length plays include ANTENORA (Robert Moss Theatre); TREADING WATER (The New Theatre – Ireland); THE NEW YORK MONOLOGUES (Theatre For The New City, Smock Alley – Ireland, J Lounge – Vancouver); FLACCID PENIS SEEKS VAGINAL DRYNESS (Dixon Place) and STOKER (The New Theatre – Ireland). One acts staged in 2012 include DATING SUCKS and McRIB McFLURRY. Mike is currently studying playwriting at Trinity College Dublin.

Alexis Roblan is a Brooklyn-based playwright and independent theatre producer. She grew up in Coos Bay, Oregon, and is a graduate of the University of Southern California’s MFA in Dramatic Writing program. In 2007, Alexis was one of three American delegates to the World Interplay Festival for young playwrights in Townsville, Australia. Her play, GENESIS, has been developed at The Inkwell in Washington, D.C., and was a Semi-Finalist for the Princess Grace Playwriting Fellowship in 2011. With Rachel Kerry, Alexis co-founded Brain Melt Consortium, a theatre/media arts group based in New York City, in October 2010. She is a member of the New Perspectives Theatre Company’s Women’s Work Project Short Play Lab, and her play, DAUGHTERS OF LOT, performed as part of the 2012 FRIGID New York Festival, and will be performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland this summer.

For the full scoop on casts, directors and what the eight plays being performed this year are all about, click here. The "Playing Games" 10-Minute Play Festival opens June 7, with performances continuing through July 1. You can see reservation and box office info here.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Eurovision! (Spoiler: Sweden Wins.)

I don't get Eurovision. By that, I don't mean that it isn't broadcast in the US and therefore doesn't play on my television, although it isn't and it doesn't. No, I mean I just don't understand it.

It's a singing competition, or more precisely, a song competition. Different countries (members of the European Broadcasting Union, which means they don't actually have to be in Europe) ranging from Iceland to Ireland and Israel, from Georgia to Germany to Greece, enter songs and singers to represent them, with the nominated songs competing in various levels until some 36 emerge to sing in a big international hullabaloo. The competition is produced by whichever country won last year, and it's broadcast to all of the other entered countries, where "televoters" and music experts stand by to vote for the ones they like best. (The general public's votes count for 50% and the experts, or juries, also count for 50%.) No, they can't vote for their country's entry. But they can and do vote for their neighbors and traditional pals.

This whole thing started out in 1956 as a post-war European reconciliation effort, with only seven countries competing. This year, 42 different countries participated, with 36 singers or acts sent to the city of Baku in Azerbaijan and 26 of those advancing to the Grand Final to sing their little hearts out and vie for the Eurovision prize.

Although many Americans have never heard of Eurovision, it has created stars, including ABBA, who won for Sweden in 1974, launching themselves into the international music scene, and Celine Dion, who is, of course, from Canada, but won the competition singing (in French) for Switzerland in 1988. The acts vary from crazy dance pop acts (Verka Seduchka has to be seen to be believed) to monster metal (Lordi) to folkish ditties to turgid power ballads to this year's Grannies from Russia who baked bread during their performance. Oh, and poor old Englebert Humperdinck, who got trotted out by the United Kingdom this year in a move which seems to be saying "Heaven forfend we win because we don't have the cash to host this thing next year, so let's get ol' Humperdinck out of storage and send him to Azerbaijan. He'll go anywhere."

Humperdinck and his song, "Love Will Set You Free," came in 25th among the 26 acts in the Grand Final. Which means Norway's Tooji, who started out wearing a hoodie that partially covered his face, is probably really ticked he came in 26th and couldn't even beat a fossil like Englebert Humperdinck. Maybe he didn't go far enough in the facial covering department, since Lithuania's Donny Montell sang half his song wearing a blindfold and he made it to #14.

But enough about the bottom of the card. At the top of the list this year was Sweden's Loreen, with a whole lot of hair (and very shaggy bangs) and a song ("Euphoria") that seemed like a combination of Celine Dion, Steven Tyler and... And Michael Bolton? With a little Bjork for good measure. Pretentious power ballad with a dance beat wins the day!

Loreen (her name is pronounced something like Lor-AY-in) seems to perform in a self-absorbed trance state. As well as a snowstorm. With flowy clothes, arm-flinging and hair-flinging (usually flung over her face -- there is some sort of trend for facial covering here, isn't there?) and a wind machine. So there's that. She got 372 points, well ahead of the second-place Russian Grannies (the group's real name is Buranovskiye Babushki, which means Grandmas from Buranovo, and their song was something called "Party for Everybody") who got 259.

Sweden's Loreen, flinging hair and sleeves to the far winds.

Loreen and her "Euphoria" got first-place points from 18 different countries, which is pretty much of a slam dunk. The Grannies took only one first-place, from friendly neighbor Belarus. (In other news, I would totally buy their wares if they started their own fashion line.)

Adorable Buranovskiye Babushki
Third place went to Serbia and perennial contender Željko Joksimović, a crooner who sang "Nije Ljubav Stvar," which translates to "Love Is Not an Object" in English. "Nije Ljubav Stvar" earned Serbia 214 points.

So that's all there is for Eurovision 2012. Next year, all these crazy kids, crooners, acrobats and assorted wind machines will assemble in Sweden to do it all over again.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Memorial Weekend Mary-thon. Plus Bob-athon, too.

It's really hot here. Which may mean you're outside, sucking in the heat and humidity. Or it may mean you prefer to stay inside and catch some TV. If the latter is your preference, you're in luck.

I'm a little late warning you about this, but "Mary Tyler Moore," one of the best all-time sitcoms in the history of the universe -- the one that inspired on Oprah and countless other career-type women of the 80s, and also spun off into one of my all-time favorite dramas in the history of the universe ("Lou Grant") -- is in the midst of its marathon right now, on the Hallmark Channel.
"Mary" started at 9 am central time, with the episode wherein Phyllis (Cloris Leachman) finds out that her husband is stepping out with Sue Ann Nivens, the Happy Homemaker, played by Betty White, of course. And coming up in four minutes is the classic Veal Prince Orloff episode, with Henry Winkler as Rhoda's date at an ill-fated dinner party with too little veal. Go turn on your TV now. I'll wait half an hour till you're done with that one.

The marathon finishes up with the 8:30 pm episode, "I Was a Single for WJM," where Mary goes to a single bars for purely professional reasons. That one has Penny Marshall and Arlene Golonka, which is not a name you hear much anymore.

And Hallmark will be doing the same 9-to-9 (Central time) schedule tomorrow for another fabulous MTM show, "The Bob Newhart Show," tomorrow. That one opens at 9 am with "The Last TV show," where Bob (reluctantly) lets his group therapy session happen on public TV, and ends with "A Matter of Principal," which focuses on Emily as a teacher, not something that happened that often, when she refuses to let a kid into an advanced class when she knows it was really his dad who wrote his great report.

So... What are you waiting for? Go turn on the TV before it's too late for all the Mary and Bob goodness.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Buster Keaton's "The General" Is a Don't-Miss Classic at the Normal Theater

Because I grew up in the 60s, I mostly knew Buster Keaton as a strange old man in different politically incorrect garb lusting after girls in bikinis (see image below -- that's Buster as Chief Rotten Eagle in "Pajama Party," and he was also in "Beach Blanket Bingo" and "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini") or running around the hills of Rome in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," the last movie he made before he died. He was also memorable as one of the "waxworks," washed up silent film stars playing cards at Norma Desmond's mausoleum of a mansion in "Sunset Boulevard."

But when I hit film classes in the 70s, I found out that the real Buster Keaton, the young Buster Keaton, filmmaker, comedian, acrobat, writer, leading man Buster Keaton, was a totally different kettle of fish. Roger Ebert used the phrase "graceful perfection" to describe Keaton's silent films of the 20s, and I think that just about sums up the appeal of Keaton himself.

He has such grace and presence, especially in "The General," the silent feature film on screen last night and again tonight at the Normal Theater, that his physicality, that smooth, death-defying agility, informs every frame. It's there every time he slides on and off the train, as he fools around with a sword that won't cooperate or tries to figure out how a top hat stuck in a tree can pop on and off his head, as he balances on the cow-catcher on the front of the train, tosses a wooden railroad tie at another huge plank stuck on the track, hits the exact right spot on the end, and flips both of them out of harm's way, all while trying to avoid being shot by an errant cannon...Perfection.

But Keaton's Little Guy Who Could, all stoic, straightforward determination to get back his train and win the girl in "The General," is more than just physical prowess or acrobatic stunts. Yes, he did all those stunts himself. Yes, he created the gags and ran the train and fit everything into an airtight plot that never stops moving. Yes, the sight gags and special effects (there's a whole train that falls into a river, after all) that he concocted are amazing. But he's also acting here, creating a character, showing exactly how Johnnie Gray, the Confederate train engineer who won't give up, can be ingenious, heroic, bashful, clumsy, engaging, sweet, funny and kind of a hottie, all at the same time.

And remember, "The General" is a silent film, so everything we get, we have to read from Keaton's face, which was so notably devoid of expression that he was dubbed "The Great Stone Face." But there is a lot more going on on that stone face that you might think. Just keep your eyes on Buster as Johnnie, a little nervous as he polishes his shoe on the back of his other pantleg before knocking on his girl's front door, unsure of the gentlemanly thing to do when he sneaks in a window and has to wake her up to rescue her, and then there's a scene I absolutely love, when they are trying to get away on the train, and he tries to get her to help out. He motions to her to put some wood in the boiler, and she chooses a narrow stick -- way too small and a waste of time -- to throw in there, after which he looks aggrieved and mocks her by handing her a really teeny-tiny sliver, even sillier than the one she just picked. But she doesn't get it, happily taking the sliver and adding it to the boiler. Now he's really disbelieving that she can be so stupid, and he sort of strangles her for half a second before changing his mind and kissing her instead. It's adorable, in a weirdly unsentimental and surprising way, that he recognizes that the girl of his dreams is a dim bulb and pretty much no help in their desperate escape from the Yankees, but he still loves her, anyway.

"The General" shows up on all kind of All-Time Best Movie lists, silent or otherwise, but it isn't the only Keaton classic out there. I hope the fact that the Normal Theater thought it worthy of their big screen means that maybe they'll look to "Steamboat Bill, Jr." and "The Navigator" and "Sherlock Jr." and "The Camerman" in the future. Plucky little Buster Keaton, an auteur before the idea existed, deserves no less.

And if you're in a Buster Keaton mood, Roger Ebert's thoughts on "The General" and Keaton's oeuvre in general are also worthy of your time.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

IWU Alum Update: Bradley Smoak, King of Hearts

Bradley Smoak, basso
I saw Bradley Smoak back in 2005 as Officer Lockstock in IWU's "Urinetown" when he was an undergrad, and I was definitely impressed. Jean MacFarland Kerr had choreographed his big number with a hip-hop/pop-and-lock flavor and I said at the time (in my review for the Bloomington Pantagraph) that "Kerr's take on a hip-hop cop number is especially nifty as fronted by the amazing Bradley Smoak, who sizzles all night as our narrator, Officer Lockstock." That was the best "Urinetown" I've seen (yes, better than Broadway), and one of the best shows ever around Bloomington-Normal in my estimation.

Smoak graduated from Illinois Wesleyan's Music Theatre program in 2008, with credits in shows like "A Man of No Importance" and "Alison's House" as well as "Urinetown." He's done quite well for himself since then, with roles with the Sarasota, Palm Beach and Wexford Festival Operas and performances with the Boston Lyric Opera and the Oslo Domkor Concert in Norway.

After the recent performance of "Alice's Golden Hour" at IWU, a friend mentioned that the opera version of "Alice" (with music by Korean composer Unsuk Chin, who co-wrote the libretto with playwright David Henry Hwang) was being performed at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, so I took a look at information about it online. And what did I see, but Bradley Smoak's name in the cast.

 Smoak has performed before with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, singing Zuniga in "Carmen," Masetto in "Don Giovanni," and Antonio in "Le Nozze di Figaro," among other roles. Now he will be performing as the King of Hearts in their "Alice in Wonderland," in what is apparently the U.S. premiere of that opera. This Saint Louis "Alice" is conducted by Michael Christie, and stars Ashley Emerson in the title role, with Aubrey Allicock as the Mad Hatter, Tracy Dahl as the Cheshire Cat and David Trudgeon as the White Rabbit. Julie Makerov will be Smoak's Red Queen.

"Alice in Wonderland," the opera, opens June 13 at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, with performances continuing until June 23.

So there you have it -- another IWU MT alum done good.

U of I Alum Update: Nick Offerman, American Ham

U of I alum Nick Offerman (Class of 93), perhaps better known as Ron Swanson on TV's "Parks and Recreation," will be part of the Just For Laughs Chicago comedy festival, along with people like Vince Vaughn, Patton Oswalt, Janeane Garafolo and Bill Engvall, and coinciding with Conan O'Brien bringing his show to Chicago June 11 to 14.

Offerman will offer "Nick Offerman: American Ham," in which he promises to bring his "honey-glazed hindquarters" onstage for "a humorous entree called American Ham, which features a veritable smorgasbord of cautionary tales, tunes and tips for prosperity (with minor nudity).

I don't remember the name of the play he and his U of I cohorts performed at the Armory Free Theatre way back when, but it definitely involved more than minor nudity. He was a burglar and the boy of the house (played by Jimmy Slonina, who is now a clown touring with the Handsome Devils after finishing a stint with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas) turned the tables on him, making Mr. Offerman's character strip and put on Mom's scanty black undies and then stick his arm down the garbage disposal. So, yeah, there was Nick Offerman, starkers in the Armory Free Theatre.

I think he was also at least partially nude when he did "A Clockwork Orange" at Steppenwolf. Didn't see the show, but those were the reports coming back, that he was on a swing over the audience, with his bare bottom to the four winds.

In any event, it does not appear that "American Ham" is predicated upon nudity in its two shows at the Vic Theatre on the evening of June 16th. But I guess you'll have to go to find out for sure.

Offerman has a lot of friends in the Chicago theater community from his years with the Defiant Theater and roles at the Goodman, Wisdom Bridge and Steppenwolf Theatres, so tickets are sure to sell briskly. You can buy tickets yourself if you click here and drop down to one of the two green boxes offering tickets for the 7:30 pm or 10 pm shows on June 16th.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Young at Heartland Schedules June 15 Summer Showcase

Young at Heartland, the acting troupe created especially for seniors, will hold its Summer Showcase at 1 pm on June 15 at Heartland Theatre.

Ann B. White, director of the Young at Heartland program, describes this year's Showcase this way: "Through selected scenes, our Young at Heartland members explore the many opportunities that life can bring. Opportunities can open a whole new world but is it worth the risk? Will they grab the opportunity or let it slip away?"

White adds that 24 seniors will perform in this year's Showcase, which features 12 scenes. Young at Heartland members Bruce Boeck, Elsie Cadieux, Judy Franciosi, Holly Klass, Jane Plum and Terri Ryburn all contributed scenes as the troupe has also taken on playwriting workshops as part of its program.

The Young at Heartland acting company in 2011
The Young at Heartland troupe has participated in a two-month acting workshop in preparation for their Summer Showcase. Although the troupe is usually seen “on the road,” bringing its shows to area nursing and retirement homes, as well as church and civic groups, they also offer this Showcase to give general audiences a chance to see their work. This performance is the only one held at Heartland Theatre.

Donations will be accepted at the door to support the Young at Heartland program.

Heidi Harris was the instructor for the 2012 spring workshop, with Misti Crossland assisting her.

The schedule of performances on June 15 will be:

 Chapter Two by Neil Simon
John Ford as George, Nancy Slattery as Jennie
 Can a mix-up in phone messages actually be a good thing?  

Dining Dilemma by Elsie Cadieux
Larry Eggan as Jasper, Lynda Straw as Rose  
Choosing the perfect way to celebrate a birthday can be a complicated business.  

For Better or Worse - But Not for Lunch by Judy Franciosi
Bob Weldon as Ron, Dottie Peiffer as Marge  
Will retirement bring Ron and Marge more time together or send them in different directions?

Cross Words by Julie Kistler
Gayle Thomas as Mike, Kathe Conley as Fran  
When a stranger intrudes on Mike’s daily crossword time will it lead to cross words?  

Good Grief by Judy Franciosi
Susan Callahan as Bonnye, Joy Schuler as Lucy, Lola DeVore as Jan  
Has the time come for three friends to change their routine? 

Choosing the Menu by Bruce Boeck
Diane Boeck as Edna, Judy Franciosi as Susan, Susan Palmer as Waiter  
Are diet restrictions going to make dining out a thing of the past?

New Idea by Elsie Cadieux
Carol Scott as Belle, Diane Anderson as Ellie
Belle is hearing the siren call of exotic adventures. Can Ellie bring Belle to her senses?

 Signature Dish by Terri Ryburn
Elsie Cadieux as Dorothy, Holly Klass as Barbara Jean  
Is it possible that a potluck dinner will produce important food for thought?  

Feelin' Curvey by Holly Klass
Mary Scott as Connie, Jan Proeber as Marge  
Marge and Connie meet at a Curves Fitness Center. Connie’s worried that a news article means her life is about to change.  

The Cocktail Hour by A. R. Gurney
 Ann B. White as Ann, George Freeman as John and Larry Eggan as Bradley  
At a family gathering, John announces that his new play is about the family. His father is dead-set against it and his well-meaning mother, Ann, encourages him to write a book instead.

Gadgetry, written and performed by Jane N. Plum  
Technology has opened new possibilities but it has also complicated our lives.  

Monologue by Terri Ryburn

Young at Heartland Summer Showcase
Friday, June 15, 2012
1 pm

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Tell Me on a Sunday" Has Its One Woman

The musical "Tell Me on a Sunday" (music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Don Black) is a one-woman show. Or a one-girl show, since I believe the one role in the show is usually simply called The Girl.

That "Girl" has been portrayed by Marti Webb, Lulu, Sarah Brightman, Bernadette Peters, and most successfully, Denise Van Outen (seen at left), the British blonde who served as one of the hosts of NBC's "Grease: You're the One That I Want!" and the BBC's "Any Dream Will Do." The latter show was looking for a new Joseph for a West End "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," after which Ms. Van Outen married Lee Mead, the winning contestant. I haven't got a clue how I managed to watch all the episodes of "Any Dream Will Do," considering it was only broadcast in England, but sometimes the internet is a magical place.

In any event, "Tell Me on a Sunday" was significantly (and successfully) rewritten and refurbished for the 2003 London production that starred Van Outen, and that version has become the official one used all over the world. "Tell Me on a Sunday" is the musical story of one British girl's journey across the US, looking for love, meeting men, facing disappointment, and eventually, maybe finding herself. The songs "Take That Look Off Your Face," "Unexpected Song" and "Tell Me on a Sunday" have emerged as the best-known pieces in the score, which has been called one of Lloyd Webber's best..

Soprano Natalie K. Stephens, who arrived in Bloomington-Normal in the summer of 2011, kindly dropped me a note to let me know that she has been cast as the Girl, the one woman on stage who carries the whole show, in the Prairie Fire Theatre production of "Tell Me on a Sunday" opening June 29. This is exciting news for Stephens and for those of us who'll be seeing (and hearing) her for the first time.

According to Stephens, "Tell Me on a Sunday" will be her Prairie Fire debut, as she stars in performances June 29 and 30 and July 1, 2012, all scheduled to be performed at St. John's Lutheran Church in Bloomington. She also fills in a few blanks on the technical side, noting that "Sunday" is directed by Cyndee Brown, with Tim Pitchford acting as conductor and Julie Kasa as musical director.

Natalie Stephens received a Master of Music degree in Vocal Performance at SIU in Carbondale, and a BFA in Music Theater from Elon University in North Carolina. She also studied opera and voice in Perugia, Italy with Carmen Gonzalez. Stephens was also a soloist in the premiere of Dr. Frank Stemper's "A Brief Message from Makanda, Illinois" at Orchestra Hall in Chicago, and last Christmas, she sang in State Farm's Sounds of Christmas with the Groove Emperors jazz group.

Stephens currently offers voice lessons, does photography, and keeps a blog, all under the umbrella of Blossom Studio @ 309.

Jeffrey Eric Jenkins New Head of the Theatre Department at U of I?

Jeffrey Eric Jenkins
The University of Illinois Department of Theatre has had an "interim" head for some time, but now, according to, U of I will welcome Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, former president of the American Theatre Critics Association, editor of the Best Plays Theatre Yearbook (which used to be called the Burns-Mantle Yearbook) and currently the Director of Theatre Studies at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, as a Professor of Theatre and Head of the Department of Theatre.

The Broadway World article quotes Robert Graves, Dean of the College of Fine and Applied Arts, as saying, "Illinois is thrilled that Jeffrey Eric Jenkins has agreed to become the leader of its distinguished theatre program. Jenkins has enjoyed fine careers in both the professional and academic theatre worlds, has directed and published widely, and is a proven and innovative administrator of academic theatre-training programs.”

In that article, Jenkins himself noted U of I's fine library system, sterling personnel and the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts as some of the reasons he's looking forward to making his way to Urbana.

I have met Jeffrey Eric Jenkins several times at American Theatre Critics Association functions, and long-time attendees at the Humana Festival may remember him from the many times he handed out the Steinberg Awards there. He was a national theater critic and arts journalist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1996-2006, and I believe his expertise lies in theatre history, criticism and theory. He has long been a supporter of new work in the theater, and should be an excellent addition to the U of I theater program.

Please note that I haven't been able to confirm this with U of I. Broadway World seems to have a bit of a scoop here, but there has been no official press release from U of I yet. I'll update this if I hear more. 

I have found a press release from New York PR firm Boneau Bryan Brown that sounds pretty official and all.

Monday, May 21, 2012

An Intriguing Combo: "Alice" and "Adaptation' at IWU

I have tried in vain to figure out who wrote the "open theater" version of "Alice in Wonderland" we performed as a one-act at my high school in the 70s. We had a lovely little raked stage painted with black and white squares, and everybody stayed on stage the whole time, pulling props out of a trunk, wearing makeshift patchwork costumes with simple changes (a pop-up top hat to signal the Mad Hatter, a bunch of opened umbrellas to create a forest), with Alice staying Alice throughout, but the rest of the ensemble moving from familiar characters like the Red Queen and the Cheshire Cat to croquet wickets or a table or a pinball flipper as needed. (We interpreted the trip down the rabbit hole as a pinball game, with actors as bumpers and flippers.)

It was very much a piece of that "Godspell," "Story Theatre," "Hair" era, where congenial, slightly loopy flower children lit the stage with their positive theatrical energy instead of fancy lights or sets or costumes.

It's interesting that Illinois Wesleyan's School of Theatre Arts decided to close out the 2011-12 season with two pieces that really speak to that late 60s/early 70s style, with a definite flower child take on "Alice's Golden Hour," a streamlined version of the two "Alice in Wonderland" books by director Megan Lee Francomb, and a flash of the past in Elaine May's "Adaptation," directed by Peter J. Studlo.

Both Francomb and Studlo are graduating seniors (or newly-graduated seniors) and in program notes, they both reflect on the bittersweet notion of leaving IWU behind them, moving into adulthood outside the college cocoon. Those emotions and the idea of moving on certainly show up on stage, as Alice stumbles around in Wonderland, getting smaller and bigger and meeting up with a whole bunch of strange new characters in her life, as Phil, the contestant in "Adaptation," moves around the gameboard that is life to try to achieve maturity points.

Francomb's adaptation of "Alice," which she calls "Alice's Golden Hour" to echo Lewis Carroll's original thoughts on his material as well as Francomb's idea that youth is our Golden Hour, draws mostly from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," the first book, with the flower characters near the beginning of "Through the Looking Glass" pulled in as well.

In costumes and music choices, Francomb goes for a 60s mood, a little psychedelic and far-out, man. She also has some fun ideas on how to stage her scenes, with the Cheshire Cat (Marek Zurowski), the Caterpillar (Kate Rozycki with a little help from her friends) and the Lobster Quadrille (led by Nick Castellanos), all accomplished nicely. I especially liked the choreography in the Lobster Quadrille. Alice herself, played by Kate Fitzgerald, is pretty and sweet, more of a normal girl without the trademark blonde hair and headband and the blue dress. An Alice in shorts is very welcome.

My only quibble is one that often happens with Alice -- her adventures are by definition strange and nonsensical, certainly not going neatly from Point A to Point B or C, and it's hard to get the idea of an emotional journey or sense of maturing out of it.

"Adaptation" is quite the opposite. Its journey is built in, working off Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man, as we see a contestant, one Phil Benson, supposedly plucked from the audience, as he tries to win the "Adaptation" game by moving from infant to schoolboy to college kid to career man, husband and father, experiencing setbacks, winning prizes, and finally making it to the end.

Studlo also has some creative ideas, using painted blocks to move Phil (well played as a sweet Everyman by Jordan Lipes) around the board and some simple props and costume pieces (lots of hats and a few aprons and shawls) to show us all the people he runs into during the game. The Game Master (Chantericka Tucker) mostly tells him what to do and where to go, although she does step into the action a few times, but most of the characters are portrayed by the two Players, with Jenna Haimes doing good work as Phil's dad and son, friends and girlfriends, and Halimah Nurullah filling is as his mom and wife, as well as his counselor, friends and teachers. That's pretty heavy lifting for both Haimes and Nurullah, and they manage it nicely.

Although the game they're playing is billed as Parcheesi in the original play, that's not really what we see here. "Adaptation" uses the same set (round playing space filled with squares in shades of brown and a nifty circular stair) as "Alice," which means there isn't a specific game board to move Phil around. That's a problem, I think, since there isn't anything particularly gamey about any of the surroundings, and it's easy to lose sight of the fact that a board game is the conceit here.

Or maybe a board game is too old-fashioned. And maybe Elaine May's script, with its talk of college deferments and Kahlil Gibran's "The Prophet," is too firmly rooted in 1969 to really be on target for today's 20-something. After all, there are no computers in "Adaptation," let alone texting or Facebook or Twitter or viral videos. I'm thinking that today's Phil Benson is likely to be more "Grand Theft Auto" than Parcheesi, more Occupy Wall Street than SNCC, more Jay-Z than Dore Schary.

Still, May's script is funny and pointed in the right places, and worries about affording a mortgage and getting into the right college or making the right connections never seem to go out of style. More's the pity.

Adapted and directed by Megan Lee Francomb
Based on Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass"

By Elaine May
Directed by Peter J. Studlo

Scenic Designers: Rebecca Lydon and Stevie Trembly
Costume Designers: Elaina Henderson and Zachery Wagner
Lighting Designer: Aimee Patterson
Sound Designers: Megan Lee Francomb ("Alice") and Peter J. Studlo ("Adaptation")

"Alice" cast: Kate Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Albers, Nick Castellanos, Sammi Grant, Debra Madans, Kate Rozycki, Allyce Torres, Marek Zurowski

"Adaptation" cast: Chantericka Tucker, Jordan Lipes, Jenna Haimes, Halimah Nurullah

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

Performances May 18, 19 and 20, 2012

Friday, May 18, 2012

"Playing Games" at Heartland Opens June 7

Heartland Theatre's annual 10-Minute Play Festival, this year featuring eight new plays on the theme "Playing Games," has been cast, with 15 actors taking on 18 roles. Those roles range from Jerry, a duplicitous Scrabble champ, to Hector, who fears he is just a character in a video game, to Judy, Ryan and Kyle, 7-year-olds playing Tag during recess.

Here are the plays, including directors and casts, you'll be seeing when Heartland's 10-Minute Play Festival opens on June 7th:

by Meny Beriro (Forest Hills NY) 

Sarah Salazar, director 
Cast: Sara L. Flanders (Carol) and Lynda Straw (June) 
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?

by Jerry McGee (Brooklyn NY) 

Ken Kendall, director 
Cast: Dana Anderson (Sybil) and Dave Lemmon (Hector) 
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.

by Erin Moughon (New York NY) 

Matt Campbell, director 
Cast: Tori Allen (Murphy) and Kyle McClevey (Jones) 
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.

by Marj O’Neill-Butler (Miami Beach FL) 

Ron Emmons, director 
Cast: Kent Nussbaum (Bob) and Alyssa Ratkovich (Rosie) 
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? All is fair in the Mating Game!

by Mike Poblete (Brooklyn NY) 

Rachel Krein, director 
Cast: Jay Hartzler (Ryan), Gayle Hess (Judy)
and Dave Lemmon (Kyle)
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.

by John D. Poling (Clinton IL) 

Chris Gray, director 
Cast: George Freeman (Jason), Jay Hartzler (Dr. Schieder ), 
Gayle Hess (Kristen) and Hannah White (Sally) 
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.

by Alexis Roblan (Brooklyn NY) 

Misti Dawn Crossland, director 
Cast: Jessica Arbuckle (Sue) and Kent Nusbaum (Jake)
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?

by Austin Steinmetz (Columbus OH) 

Marty Lynch, director 
Cast: Nathan Bottorff (Jerry) and Ivey Buchanan (Webster) 
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.

Heartland Theatre's "Playing Games" 10-Minute Play Festival opens on June 7 with a special Pay-What-You-Can preview, followed by performances June 8-10, 14-17, 21-24, 28-30 and July 1. Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances begin at 7:30 pm, while Sunday matinees begin at 2 pm.

To make reservations or check the schedule, click here. To see more about the plays and playwrights, click here.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

One Night Only -- "Shams (Arabic for Sun)" Tonight at New Route

Although New Route Theatre has now branched out into a venue at the YWCA for longer runs, the company is not giving up on its popular "One Shot Deals," which offer the opportunity to produce shows in more of a workshop setting at the Eaton Gallery in downtown Bloomington. Several of last year's "One Shot" shows have been revised and given a bigger platform in this year's main-stage schedule from New Route; seeing a new play "now" and "then" offers a perfect opportunity for would-be playwrights and directors to see how a play can evolve and grow, or how to tell what's working as you begin the play production process.
There's no guarantee that any "One Shot Deal" will come back later, however, so you should plan to catch this "One Shot Deal" tonight if it sounds like the right show for you.

Tonight is the night for "Shams (Arabic for Sun)," by Rana Konkar, which will open at the Eaton Studio and Gallery, 411 N Center Street in Bloomington, at 7 pm.

Konkar wrote the piece and will perform it; "Shams" is directed by Don Shandrow, Artistic Director at New Route. As a brand new work written about the experience of a Palestinian-American woman, "Shams" sounds perfect for New Route's mission as "a multi-racial and multi-cultural theater company that produces new as well as established works that explore the nature of the human spirit in the context of ethical, political, and social choices."

Here's a little more information provided by New Route to introduce this new piece:
"The name I have is the name I was given, not the one I chose. My true name came through an intense personal journey or revelation. Or so I like to believe. I looked at the sun rising from behind the mountains, and shams became my name; the sun. You can call me Shams."

Shams, a young woman who grew up in Palestine, is a naturalized American citizen who struggles with reconciling her turbulent past in Palestine with a future and people she grew up mistrusting. This personal reflection is well worth experiencing."
Seating is limited at the Eaton Gallery, so you are advised to make sure you have a seat by emailing your reservation to:

Summer Camp for Theater Kids 5 to 15

Do you have a child who likes to put on plays in the back yard? Someone who recreates numbers from "American Idol" and "Glee"? A child who uses your white tablecloth and the upstairs window to stage either the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet" or the big song from "Evita"?

If you have a child who is itching to release his or her inner actor, actress or performer (or just likes to play Pretend) or you think would benefit from learning to express him or herself, Illinois Wesleyan University is offering three theatrically-inclined summer camps for kids under its Summer on Stage program. All three camps will be held at the E. Melba Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre, the same black box theater IWU's School of Theatre uses for about half its shows, located in the McPherson Theatre building at 2 Ames Plaza East on the IWU campus.

Cristen Susong
Cristen Susong, who is herself an amazing singer and actress, will be teaching and leading these theatre summer camps. You may've caught Susong on stage in ISU's "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," where her beautiful singing voice stood out, or in Heartland Theatre's "The End of the Tour," where her acting skills took center stage. Susong describes Summer on Stage and these camps as a way "to provide a safe, nurturing and professional environment in which students can explore the dramatic arts. Theatre can teach creativity, problem solving, collaboration, public speaking, concentration, confidence, adaptability and promotes a curiosity to learn." What kid can't benefit from that?

GREENLIGHT CAMP is intended for the youngest set, offering fun and games for children between 5 and 7 years old, or those who will be entering kindergarten, first or second grade in the fall. Greenlight Camp involves a two-week session from May 29 to June 8, from 9 am to noon, at a cost of $180, which includes a camp t-shirt. I am given to understand that registration has been brisk for this level, so you are advised to sign up your youngster right away if they are between 5 and 7 and they are looking for an introduction to theater games, improvisation, stage movement and vocal performance. And please note that the children in Greenlight Camp will offer a fully produced play for friends and family at the end of the session. (The performance is scheduled for June 8 at 4 pm.) Cristen Susong notes that this is "the perfect morning camp for kids who love to be dramatic or need to break out of their shell or express their creativity." Which means it's perfect for pretty much every kid who needs an outlet during the summer.

FOOTLIGHT CAMP focuses on children a little older, those between 8 and 11, or entering 3rd, 4th or 5th grade in the fall. Footlight Camp is also a two-week session, and it's scheduled for the afternoons (1 to 4 pm) during that same May 29 to June 8 period. It's also offered for $180, and yes, the camp t-shirt is included. Footlight Camp is a little more advanced, and Susong says it's "the perfect camp for your budding actor or actress." Susong and her campers will work on their acting, improvisation, dance, voice and movement skills, as well as team and confidence building activities. And the Footlight Camp troupe will also end their summer season with a performance on Friday June 8th. This one has also been popular in terms of registrations, so parents should sign up for this one quickly.

SPOTLIGHT CAMP takes another step up, with kids 12 to 15, or those who'll be in 6th, 7th, 8th or 9th grade in the fall. As the age of the campers increases, so does the level of theatrical involvement and the intensity of the training. That's why Spotlight Camp is a three-week session instead of just two, and kids will be busy all day (or from 9 am to 3 pm, anyway) over the course of the session (from June 11 to 29). The cost is $250, and participants will get a camp t-shirt and a snack every day! The students involved will get a complete theatrical experience, with work on choreography, blocking, character development and everything they'll need to "put on a show." Mornings will be devoted to acting, singing, dancing and some backstage technical work, with afternoons spent rehearsing for their season-ending show on June 29.

If your child has been trying out for the school play or local children's theater productions and not getting anywhere, this might just be a path to the top of the cast list. I'm pretty sure I would've been begging Mom and Dad to sign me up when I was 13 or 14 and getting discouraged by not getting a speaking role in anything at my junior high. So if you want to save your budding star from having to be the silent court stenographer in the background, this is your chance!

The registration form for all three camps is here, with more information on Summer Stage (including the possibility of scholarships) here. If you have questions, Cristen Susong can be reached at 309-553-9323 or

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

ISU Students Part of Mary-Arrchie's "Electra" in Chicago

Chicago's Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company has announced a new adaptation of Euripides' classic "Electra," adapted and directed by Sonja Moser and performed by an ensemble that includes Illinois State University undergrads and recent graduates.

Mary-Arrchie's website makes it clear that this "Electra" is a whole different kind of Greek tragedy. As they put it: "Set in John Deere country, this inventive meta-theatrical adaptation of the famous Euripides tragedy is filled with live rock music, humor, teen angst, and sweet, sweet muddy revenge."

You may remember Electra from your grade school Greek mythology class, or possibly from Eugene O'Neill's "Mourning Becomes Electra," which moves the story to the post-Civil War U.S. In Homer's "Iliad," Electra was the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, the king and queen of Mycenae (sometimes called Argos). Agamemnon was the brother of Menelaus, the one beautiful Helen ditched* to run off with Paris, so Agamemnon went with his brother to wage war against Troy and get her back. To get the wind to pick up so the Greek ships could get out to sea and get their war started, Agamemnon sacrificed Iphigenia, his daughter, which did not sit well with his wife, the girl's mother.

And then we have the Trojan War, wherein Agamemnon hooked up with (or was given, as spoils of war) Cassandra, the good news/bad news girl. (Good news: You have the gift of prophecy, Cassandra. Bad news: No one will believe you.)

Back at home, Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra wasn't happy her husband killed one of their kids to get his boats to move, and she also took a lover. So when Agamemnon got back to town after all those years of war with Cassandra in tow, Clytemnestra (with the help of her lover) offed him and Cassandra. Not happy that their mom killed their dad, Orestes and Electra plotted revenge and eventually killed her, too.

And they were all members of the cursed House of Atreus, which had a history of murder, rape, revenge, incest and general mayhem, even before Clytemnestra knocked off her husband in the bathtub and her children retaliated by murdering her, too.

"Electra" was performed at ISU under Moser's direction last fall, and it is that production moving to Mary-Arrchie with some cast changes and the inclusion of non-ISU students. This time, the ensemble will include Matt Bausone, Caitlin Boho, Terrence Budnik, Kelsey Bunner, Gwen De Veer, Matthew Hallahan, Frank Huber, Keith Jackewicz, Russell Krantz, Emily Nichelson, Paula Nowak, Lauren Pfieffer, Danny Rice, Dustin Rothbart, Kadyn Walther and "special guest" Bert Matias.

Performances are scheduled for July 6-29 with curtain at 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 pm on Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults, with student, senior and group discounts available. You are invited to call 773-871-0442 for information or reservations, or to reserve online through Ticketweb.

If you would like to support the efforts of the ISU students who will be staying in Chicago to take part in "Electra," you can make a donation here.

*Did Helen ditch Menelaus? Or was she abducted? Different writers take the story in different directions.

Monday, May 14, 2012

"Adaptation" and "Alice" This Week at IWU

The Illinois Wesleyan School of Theatre Arts completes its season this week with a double-bill of Elaine May's "Adaptation," directed by Peter Studlo, and an original version of Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" books called "Alice's Golden Hour," written and directed by Megan Lee Francomb. Studlo and Francomb are graduating seniors in IWU's Theatre Arts program.

May's "Adaptation" was a staple on the stage in the 70s, when this kind of inventive satire was all the rage. May combines elements of the game Parcheesi with Shakespeare's "Seven Ages of Man" speech to create a sharply funny look at how life plays out in all its humor, insanity and quirks of fate. May set up her "Adaptation" with only four actors playing a variety of characters, including a taxi driver, college students, Conrad Hilton and a psychologist named Jo Jo, to show how Man (and Woman) move from the "mewling and puking" infant stage to "whining school-boy," lover, soldier, wise "justice" in maturity, "pantaloon" who is past his prime and beginning to be a bit ridiculous, and finally, a child again as he approaches death "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything." Yeah, that doesn't sound too funny, but May's Parcheesi/Shakespeare approach is both biting and hilarious.

Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass," often just called "Alice in Wonderland," have been adapted for the stage and screen many times, including a silent film, an all-star Paramount version with W.C. Fields and Cary Grant, the Disney cartoon, a stage version by Eva Le Gallienne that opened on Broadway in 1933 and was revived in the 40s and again in the 80s, each time with Le Gallienne herself as the White Queen, a very different version conceived by the Manhattan Project and directed by Andre Gregory, where audiences entered the theater through an entrance meant to feel like the rabbit hole Alice fell into, and "Lookingglass Alice," a signature piece from Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre that adds acrobatics and a high level of visual spectacle to the proceedings. Oh, and there was a Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie in 2010 that was also quite spectacular visually. The Mad Hatter even showed up on ABC's "Once Upon a Time." Alice never really goes out of style, does she? It will be interesting to see what angle writer/director Megan Lee Francomb takes with the familiar material, what "Alice's Golden Hour" refers to, and just which scenes and characters from Carroll's books she chooses to include. I'm also curious as to whether Francomb will build a rabbit hole for her Alice within the cozy confines of the E. Melba Johnson Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre.

Performances of "Adaptation/Alice" begin Friday, May 18, at 8 pm, and follow on Saturday the 19th at 8 pm and Sunday the 20th at 2 pm. For more information, you can call the IWU box office at 309-556-3232 or check out the Illinois Wesleyan Theatre Facebook page.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

My Favorite Movie Moms for Mother's Day

Lists of movie moms inevitably include Stella Dallas, Mildred Pierce and Psycho's mom. Yeah, I'm not going for any of them. Instead, my idea of a movie mom is more like, well, the list below.

Best Movie Mom, Classic Category
Jane Darwell as Ma Joad
My favorite mom in the classic period of Hollywood movies is Jane Darwell in "The Grapes of Wrath." She's not the lead, but she is everything that represents home, love and stability as her family must take to the road in the wake of foreclosure, hunger, death and separation. Born Patti Woodward to a wealthy Missouri family (her dad was the president of a railroad), Darwell was not the kind of poor Okie she played in "The Grapes of Wrath," but she definitely made an impact. The scene where her son, Tom Joad, played by Henry Fonda, tells her that he will be there, the everyman who stands in "Wherever you can look, wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there," is probably the most famous bit of "Grapes of Wrath," and Darwell is certainly the anchor in that scene. But I defy anyone not to get a little teary when Ma Joad packs up the remnants of her household, holding up a pair of earrings and looking at her reflection in the side of a metal coffee pot. As she remembers who she used to be and all that she's leaving behind, accompanied by the melancholy sound of the song "Red River Valley," Darwell looks at us, straight ahead, with a subtle yet devastating expression on her soft, worn face, and you see the whole plot, the whole punch of the movie right there. Jane Darwell won an Oscar in the Best Supporting Actress category for her performance, and she certainly deserved it.

Best Movie Mom, Funny Category
"North by Northwest" isn't exactly your standard comedy, but Jessie Royce Landis, who wasn't nearly old enough* to play the mother of her on-screen son, Cary Grant, is so fresh and funny playing a sardonic society mother who totally and completely has her playboy son's number, that you'll forget the Hitchcockian suspense and just smile every time she's on screen. Landis had an extensive Broadway career before and after her screen debut in "At Your Service" in 1930. On Broadway, she played Jo in "Little Women" and Hermione in "The Winter's Tale," and on film, she was Grace Kelly's wise and witty mother in "To Catch a Thief" a few years before she played Cary's mum in "North by Northwest." Clearly, she'd have been a better match for Mr. Grant than a mother, but it's all good. Jessie Royce Landis did the knowing eye-roll better than just about anybody.

Mr. Grant and Ms. Landis in "North by Northwest"

Best Movie Mom, Most Like a Real Mom Category
ET with Dee Wallace
I remember a friend opining that Steven Spielberg creates good movie moms. I think that's true, with none more real and warm and just all-around mom-a-riffic than Dee Wallace in "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." Wallace's Mary doesn't do anything special or spectacular; she just goes about her business as a caring, loving single mother to her children, Elliott (Henry Thomas) and Gertie (Drew Barrymore), even when an alien starts living in her son's closet. If I were under ten again, I'd pick this modern, lovely, regular-old mom for my family. Dee Wallace has been in a ton of horror movies, giving them the same grounded, real presence she provides in "E.T." And she showed up last season on "The Office," once again playing a mother. (This time she was Andy Bernard's mom.)

Best Movie Mom,Cartoon Category
Elastigirl and Her Voice, Holly Hunter
Holly Hunter has done at least two memorable film moms, with her barren-but-yearning, babynapping "Ed" in "Raising Arizona" making an impact, along with her sweetly fierce Helen (AKA Elastigirl) in "The Incredibles." Moms with superpowers probably deserve a category of their own, but what makes Helen stand out is how normal she is, even in her spandex suit, and how well she looks out for her kids and her husband, even in the face of assaults from supervillains. Hunter also deserves mention for making Helen feel real and sympathetic simply through the use of her voice.

Best Movie Mom, Musical Category
Meryl Streep in "Mamma Mia"
Meryl Streep has played a lot of moms in her career, and if we'd seen more than just a flashback where she saves her kids and the family cat in "Defending Your Life," I might be inclined to pick that luminous and lovely performance. But, alas, she's more "romantic heroine" and less "mom" in that one. I'm sure she's picked for "Sophie's Choice" a lot, too, but that is such a difficult and terrible movie for any mother that I'm not going there, either. So I'm going with "Mamma Mia," where she plays against type as a goofy, hippyish mother who isn't sure which of her three boyfriends from the past is the father of her daughter. "Mamma Mia" is certainly not the best musical around, but Streep is delightful, dancing around in her overalls, nothing like the Grande Dame of the American Screen, making herself absolutely convincing in an otherwise not-believable-in-the-least movie.

*The oft-repeated story is that Landis was almost a year younger than Grant, which the Internet Broadway Database thinks is the correct information. The Internet Movie Database, however, has Landis born in 1896, making her 7-and-a-bit years older than Grant. Certainly not old enough to be his mother, but at least not younger. Who's right? My husband, who likes genealogical research, has located Jessie Medbury (her birth name) on the 1900 Chicago census as a three-year-old, and then again on the 1910 and 1920 censuses when she was 13 and 23, respectively. So my household is going with 1896 as Jessie Royce Landis's year of birth.