Saturday, June 30, 2012

Hot, Powerful "Othello" at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Scholars have debated for centuries exactly why Iago does what he does in Shakespeare's "Othello." When Othello asks his former ensign for the motive behind his crimes, Iago refuses to say. His answer: "What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word."

By that point, what we know is very, very nasty. In one fell swoop, he has poisoned Othello, a successful general, against his wife, lovely and virtuous Desdemona, and removed Michael Cassio, his rival for the rank of lieutenant. Staging a drunken brawl works perfectly to stain Cassio's reputation, and pushing his wife, Emilia, to steal an important handkerchief from Desdemona, thereafter planting it in Cassio's room, is just the ticket to inflame Othello with suspicions of an affair between Desdemona and Cassio. With that in motion, Iago takes delight in the fact that Othello is crazed with jealousy, Cassio is ruined, and Desdemona is besmirched in her husband's eyes.

So is Iago just plain evil, spinning schemes for the fun of it? Clearly he's angry about Cassio's promotion, but he could've just gotten rid of him without all the attendant mayhem. Why go to the extent he does? Why use his wife and his friend Roderigo as pawns, letting them suffer without a second thought? Is he seething with envy over Othello's prowess as a military man and the acclaim he's received from the Duke of Venice? Seething with racism and fury that a Moor with dark skin has not only triumphed as a leader but nabbed a prize like the lily-white Desdemona? Or all of the above?

For the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, director John Sipes and his Iago, played by Matt Penn, err on the side of insanity. We see Penn's Iago forge his diabolical plans with passion and even a hint of frenzy, compulsively running his hands over his neck and chest, making it all very personal and quite creepy. It may've been more of a factor of the recent heatwave, but the fact that this Iago seemed to be reveling in the feel of his own sweat certainly ramped up the creepiness.

At the onset, Daver Morrison's Othello is a proper figure to envy, magnificent in glowing green trousers and a cape designed by Helene Siebrits, every bit the confident general who believes the world (or at least Venice) is his oyster. And after Iago spins his web, as his doubts begin to cloud his brain, Morrison shows a descent into madness that is both inevitable and terrifying. As his Desdemona, Amanda Catania creates a vibrant, warm woman, one who clearly adores -- and is passionate for -- her husband.

In support, Charlie Wright does excellent work as pitiable Roderigo, Andy Talen makes for a tempestuous Cassio, and Corliss Preston is a stunner when she pulls out all the stops with her scorned and scornful Emilia.

Sipes has also staged some scary, shadowy fights, while Michael Rasbury's moody musical compositions set the proper tone.

All in all, the ISF "Othello" is powerful and hot-blooded, disturbing and passionate.

By William Shakespeare

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
at Ewing Manor

Director: John Sipes
Costume Designer: Helen Siebrits
Scenic Designer: John Stark
Lighting Designer: Julie Mack
Composer/Sound Designer: Michael Rasbury
Stage Manager: Sara Bubenik
Voice/Text Coach: Kevin Rich
Fight Director/Choreographer: Alex Miller
Dance Choreographer: Greg Merriman

Cast: Matt Penn, Charlie Wright, Henson Keys, Dylan Paul, Nick Demeris, Daver Morrison, Andy Talen, Michael Gamache, Andrew Rogalny, Jr, Zack Powell, Devon Nimerfroh, David Sitler, Alexander Pawlowski IV, Amanda Catania, David Price, Corliss Preston and Kate McDermott.

Remaining performances: June 30; July 5, 7, 13, 15, 21, 25, 28 and 31; August 3 and 9.

For ticket information, click here.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Delightful "As You Like It" Echoes Sturges and That 30s Screwball Milieu

When screenwriter/director Preston Sturges made a name for himself with screen comedies in the 30s and 40s, he established a corps of supporting players. Frankin Pangborn, Jimmy Conlin, William Demarest, Esther Howard, Robert Dudley, Eric Blore... They weren't leading actors, but they were vivid and funny, making Sturges' movies really memorable. They also kept the tone light and charming, even when Sturges dipped into darker issues, putting them on chain gangs or standing in line for a soup kitchen.

That's the approach director James Alexander Bond takes with his production of Shakespeare's "As You Like It" for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, which is, not coincidentally, set in a 1930s world of society beauties, impetuous swains, local yokels, and a coterie of down-on-their-luck good guys hanging out in the forest away from it all. That means that this "As You Like It" looks and feels a bit like the Preston Sturges version of Shakespeare. Which is, as it turns out, an excellent idea.

In the Sturges vein, Bond has made the background players just as lively as the leads. Yes, leading lady Rosalind, who takes off from court to hide in the woods disguised as a boy, and her love interest, Orlando, another runaway, are the center of the story. Rosalind is one of Shakespeare's most appealing heroines, and Gracyn Mix is lithe and lovely in the role. Mix and Dylan Paul, as Orlando, make a charming pair of lovers, showing lots of  romantic chemistry and painting engaging characters individually.

Mix is tall enough to make her stint in boys' clothes at least as masculine as, say, Justin Bieber, and Paul nicely charts Orlando's course, so that we can always tell what he knows and when he knows it, who he loves and when he loves her.

But, just like in the best Sturges' pics, this pair of lovers are buoyed by the crazy character actors around them, from Henson Keys' double roles as old faithful Adam, Orlando's servant, and a down-home hick in rolled-up overalls, to Alexander Pawlowsky, funny as both a puffed-up champion wrestler (he sports an impressive mustache and a circus strong man look) and a very dim country bumpkin, Charlie Wright as a lovestruck shepherd, Lisa Wartenberg as the peevish object of his affections, Molly Rose Lewis as a lusty rustic, Zack Powell going all Truman Capote as a courtier named LeBeau and then turning up as a Hymen (the god of marriage) seemingly beamed down from the Starship Enterprise, and Nick Demeris, managing to make Touchstone, the one George Bernard Shaw called Shakespeare's most tiresome clown, somehow not tiresome at all. Each character is tart and sharp, adding energy and comedy.

The contributions of a band of wandering musicians are also welcome, with Andy Talen leading the way with vocals and guitar, bringing a little bit of bluegrass into Arden. And the hoe-down dances performed during the evening work quite well, too.

Jacques, the one who has the famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech, is usually portrayed as a brooding, melancholy misanthrope amidst the romantic comedy. But here, Daver Morrison creates a completely unique Jacques, one who has a sort of Grand Thespian way of speaking, as if he were a one-time actor turned away from the stage, still harkening to his former days in the spotlight, but decidedly more down at the heels. It's quite a fascinating Jacques, making his take on "All the world's a stage" that much richer.

Rachel Laritz's costumes are properly pretty for the time the ladies spend in court, and effectively countrified when they move into Arden, which seems to be somewhere in the neighborhood of the Ozarks in this production. John Stark's scenic design, with trees that change from an apple orchard to a forest, adds a cheerful background to the proceedings and lights up nicely when it's time for that Star Trek invasion. (I know it seems strange that there would be a visit from a starship there at the end, but Shakespeare's text does include a curious visit from other-worldly Hymen to bless the marriages being performed, so... A "Star Trek" approach works about as well as any.)

Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in "Sullivan's Travels"
If you are not aware of Preston Sturges, if "Sullivan's Travels" has never been on your viewing list, you may think this "As You Like It" is more reminiscent of Frank Capra's "It Happened One Night" or Gregory LaCava's "My Man Godfrey" or even Fred and Ginger running off to Brightbourne in "The Gay Divorcee." It doesn't hurt that whenever a plane passes over, we get a few bars of "Flying Down to Rio" as sung by Mr. Astaire to fill the time. Whatever film from the 30s it brings to mind -- or even if you're channeling the Coen brothers' "O Brother Where Art Thou," itself a nod to Preston Sturges -- it all works. It's all in good fun, all romantic and sweet and pretty darn delightful.

By William Shakespeare

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
at Ewing Manor

Director: James Alexander Bond
Costume Designer: Rachel Laritz
Scenic Designer: John Stark
Lighting Designer: Julie Mack
Sound Designer/Composer: Michael Rasbury
Stage Manager: Jayson T. Waddell
Voice/Text Coach: Kevin Rich
Fight Director/Choreographer: Alex Miller
Dance Choreographer: Greg Merriman

Cast: Dylan Paul, Henson Keys, David Price, Andrew Rogalny, Jr, Alexander Pawlowski IV, Amanda Catania, Gracyn Mix, Nick Demeris, Zack Powell, Matt Penn, Charlie Wright, Kate McDermott, Trevon Jackson, Andy Talen, Devon Nimerfroh, Michael Gamache, David Sitler, Daver Morrison, Molly Rose Lewis and Lisa Wartenberg.

Remaining performances: July 1, 6, 8, 12, 14, 20, 27 and August 1, 5, 7, 11

For ticket information, click here.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Abe and His "Affray" Return to the McLean County Museum of History

"The Affray," the Robert Bray/Jared Brown play about Abraham Lincoln's last trial before he was nominated for the Presidency, will return to the McLean County Museum of History next month. It sold out its run last July, plus seating is limited, so you are well-advised to get your tickets now if "The Affray" is something you want to see.

Tickets went on sale on Monday for this production, which is a collaboration between the McLean County Museum of History and Judy Brown's Illinois Voices Theatre. "The Affray: Lincoln's Last Murder Case" is Bray's and Brown's dramatization of The People of of the State of Illinois v. Peachy Quinn Harrison, a trial in which Lincoln acted as counsel for the defense. Harrison was tried for the murder of a man named Greek Crafton, who was stabbed at a drugstore in Pleasant Plains. Harrison was clearly the one who did the stabbing, but Lincoln's defense claimed self-defense. He used dramatic testimony of a dying declaration from Crafton to a Methodist minister, who happened to be Peachy Quinn Harrison's grandfather, that Crafton knew he himself was responsible for the drugstore scuffle. It was apparently a spirited and shrewd defense, demonstrating just how good a lawyer Abe really was under his folksy railsplitter exterior.

"The Affray" is scheduled for three performances at the McLean County Museum of History. The first, on Friday, July 20, at 7 pm, will be a fundraiser for the Museum, with tickets priced at $25.The remaining performances will be Saturday, July 21, at 7 pm, and Sunday, July 22, at 1 pm, with tickets priced from $10-12.

If you are interested in seeing "The Affray," you are advised to reserve tickets NOW, given how quickly the show sold out in 2011. To buy now, call 309-827-0428 or visit the Museum in person. if any tickets remain, they will be available at the door on the day of performance.

For more information, you may contact the Museum's Education Department at the phone number above or email

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Garden Party! Friday at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

It's opening night for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival production of "Othello" Friday the 29th. That's exciting enough, but the ISF is also hosting a special reception before the show.

This Garden Party (and if you've been to Ewing Manor, you know exactly how lovely their gardens are) begins at 6 pm on Friday night. The festivities include wine, lots of hors d'oeuvres that we are told are bountiful enough to qualify as dinner, plus some special silent auction items that were still being put together as I write this. But I heard mention of some seriously cool items that you won't get at any other silent auction. That's if, of course, it all comes together as is being planned right this very minute.

Tickets are $75 and they include a premium ticket with VIP parking privileges to "Othello" on the 29th or a voucher for another night of your choice.

So, yes, $75 is more than you would normally spend for a ticket to the Festival, but it comes with food and wine and maybe even a chance to take home some special Illinois Shakespeare Festival-themed items, plus a performance of "Othello" directed by former Festival Artistic Director John Sipes and starring Daver Morrison and Amanda Catania. And you get to go home with the good feeling of having contributed to this fundraiser for a very worthy cause -- keeping us all supplied with more Shakespeare.

Current Artistic Director Deb Alley has indicated that this "Othello" will keep the Renaissance setting it was born with, as Othello the Moor, a great and powerful general, finds himself eaten alive with jealousy over his beautiful Italian bride, Desdemona. There is betrayal here, but it comes from Othello's aide, Iago, who plots against his general and against Cassio, the new lieutenant named in what Iago feels should be his place. So Iago tries to make Othello believe that Desdemona is cheating on him with Cassio, both to get rid of Cassio and to drive Othello insane.

Let's just say that Iago's plot, with its machinations involving ladies-in-waiting and handkerchiefs, succeeds quite well, driving a bulldozer right through the center of Othello's and Desdemona's lives. He's a wicked man, that Iago, and one of Shakespeare's most memorable characters.

You can see all that drama AND eat your fill of tasty treats, drink a little wine, and enjoy the beauty of Ewing Manor, all for $75. It's a wonderful way to start (or continue) your summer theatrical season.

Click here to read about the Garden Party night and make plans for more Shakespeare at Ewing manor. And, as always, find out more about all of this at

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"8" Comes to Urbana's Station Theatre

In Short: July 2 and 3. 8 o'clock. "8." In Urbana. Be there.

In 2008, California voters were confronted with something called Proposition 8 on their ballots. Like Proposition 22 before it, Prop 8 sought to ban marriage between people of the same gender. Or, more specifically, to mandate that "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."

Proposition 22, enacted back in 2000, was a mere statute, pretty speedily overturned by the California Supreme Court. Proposition 8, however, was a constitutional amendment. And it passed, with huge amounts of money and a whole lot of fear-mongering flooding the state in the weeks before the election.

After Prop 8 passed, with a margin of about 600,000 votes out of 13 million, the constitutionality  of the amendment was called into question almost immediately, and in August, 2010, in a case called Perry v. Schwarzenegger, United States District Court Judge Vaughn R. Walker overturned Proposition 8 on Equal Protection and Due Process grounds. That ruling was appealed, with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals eventually upholding Walker's decision in February, 2012, but further appeals -- including talk of the case going to the Supremes in Washington -- are pending, meaning any new marriages for same-sex couples are on hold.

It's Perry v. Schwarzenegger that Dustin Lance Black's play "8" centers on, using court transcripts, interviews and expert testimony to show just exactly what happened in California when push came to shove on the issue of what marriage means and who ought to be able to participate. The 90-minute play enjoyed star-studded staged readings in both New York and Los Angeles, with the likes of George Clooney, Martin Sheen, Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Jamie Lee Curtis, Rob Reiner, George Takei, Christine Lahti and Kevin Bacon participating.

Director and actor Mathew Green is now bringing "8" to Urbana's Station Theatre to give Central Illinois a star-studded "concert reading" of our own. Please note there are only two performances and those performances are happening Monday July 2 and Tuesday July 3. There is no fee for tickets, although a donation is suggested at the door, and reservations are absolutely, positively required because of the space limitations. You may reserve your spot by calling 217-384-4000 or by using the Station's online reservation system.

Here's the cast you can look forward to at the Station:

SPENCER – James Haas
ELLIOTT – Sidney Germaine Hastings
CLERK – Mikel L. Matthews Jr.
MR. OLSON – Steven M. Keen
MR. BOIES – Aaron Clark
JUDGE WALKER – Gary Ambler
MR. COOPER – Thom Miller
JEFFREY ZARRILLO – Christopher Terrell
PAUL KATAMI – Tanino Minecci
SANDY STIER – Joi Hoffsommer
KRIS PERRY – Chris Clevidence Taber
DR. NANCY COTT – Katie Baldwin
DR. MEYER – Martha A. Mills
MAGGIE GALLAGHER – Kay Bohannon Holley
EVAN WOLFSON – Thom Schnarre
RYAN KENDALL – Kendall Johnson
DR. HEREK – Mindy Manolakes
DR. SEGURA – Barbara Evans
DR. TAM – Nathon Jones
MR. BLANKENHORN – Mike Prosise

For more information about "8," the play, you can check out its official website.
For more information about the Station Theatre concert reading, click here.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Brand-New Plays Bring Something Fresh to the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Yes, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival opens this week. You can see "Othello" tomorrow and "As You Like It" Wednesday if you are in the mood for Special Preview Nights and their tempting two-for-one option. But there is something else, something new and shiny and very exciting, happening at the Festival this year.

We generally associate the Illinois Shakespeare Festival with older plays. Older, as in Elizabethan, of course, with the occasional Restoration comedy or even a little Cavalier fun or the occasional Shakespeare parody tossed into the mix to keep things lively. But last year, the Festival launched something a bit different, offering staged readings of brand-new plays in conjunction with the Shakespeare Festival.

Two new plays were treated to readings in 2011, but this year, the field has expanded to three. Under the umbrella of "The Midwestern Voices Playwrights Festival," the Festival will showcase playwrights Philip Dawkins, Jennifer Blackmer, and Ike Holter with a four-day residency that includes readings of their new plays, as performed by members of the ISF professional acting company. All three readings are open to the public, and they'll take place at Bloomington's historic Vrooman Mansion at 3 pm on July 15, July 29 and August 5.

I asked the ISF's Jesse Cannady, who is working with "The Midwestern Voices Playwright's Project," for some background information on the project and how it all began. Here's what Jesse had to say:

"'The Midwestern Voices Playwright's Project' began last season as 'The Playground,' which was developed by ISU MFA Jessie Dean and her husband, up-and-coming playwright Gabriel Dean. Janet Wilson asked me to follow up on this program (with a new name) after Jessie and Gabe left Normal for several workshops of Gabe's work... From there I was charged with finding three playwrights.

Ike Holter
(© Ryan Bourque)
"I knew off the bat I wanted Ike Holter in residency. Ike wrote the the smash of Steppenwolf's 2011-12 season, HIT THE WALL. The production was extended twice and sold out within hours each time. It was a stunning piece with a lot of heart. Ike's words are lyrical and beautiful and we cannot wait to workshop his new play HELL-CARE that will be premiering in Chicago this fall.

Jennifer Blackmer
"Jennifer Blackmer joined us next. Jennifer is a friend of mine who has mentored several of my playwright friends and is a professor out of Ball State University. Jenn had a different new play developed this last semester at Illinois Wesleyan under Tom Quinn which I had the pleasure of seeing in performance. The workshop production showed a lot of heart and a brilliant female lead. Jenn let me know she was working on a commission out of LA, and I knew we had our second playwright. Jenn's beautiful adaptation, ALIAS GRACE, will play second."

Philip Dawkins
"We are thrilled to welcome Phil Dawkins to the festival as well. Phil came to us through ISU students currently serving as interns at the About Face Theatre in Chicago. He is currently serving in the Playwright's Ensemble at Victory Gardens where his play THE HOMOSEXUALS played to great reviews last season. Victory Gardens will present the world premier of his new play-with-music FAILURE: A LOVE STORY this holiday season. His play, MISS MARX, will premier this season at an area university.

"We couldn't be more thrilled to work with these three playwrights and present their work on stage.

"While in residency, each playwright will work differently with our actors, directors, and support staff to make any necessary changes to their piece. At the end of the process, each Sunday, we will present a reading at the beautiful Vrooman Mansion with a talk-back session immediately afterwards. These readings will be bare bones, focusing on the text, allowing our playwrights the rare opportunity of hearing their words with out seeing all that other 'stuff' that goes along with a play."

Thanks, Jesse!

The plays presented will run the gamut from healthcare (HELL-CARE) to revolution and social conscience (MISS MARX) to murder, memory and the nature of guilt and innocence (ALIAS GRACE, based on the book by Margaret Atwood.)

I will give you more information on the individual plays and playwrights as we get closer, but for right now, you'll want to mark your calendars for 3 pm on July 15th, July 29th and August 5th.

Exciting new work that we get in Bloomington-Normal before it hits Steppenwolf or Victory Gardens or The Playwrights Center? That's a do-not-miss!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

"The Ladies" and Its Musical Love Letter Return for Three More Performances

A problem with the facility at Bloomington's YWCA led to a few canceled performances of New Route's "The Ladies: A Musical Love Letter" this week. That was the bad news. The good news is that New Route and Artistic Director Don Shandrow have decided to extend the "Ladies" run, adding performances on July 13, 14 and 15 to make up for the lost shows.

"The Ladies: A Musical Love Letter" features vocalist Jennifer Rusk performing songs made famous by African-American female stars of the past, with Dave Shields at the piano and Miles Singleton on trumpet. When "The Ladies" was performed as a workshop last year, the songlist included works from Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald and Roberta Flack, as well as other musical talents from the annals of America's blues, jazz and pop history.

You may remember Rusk from her recent performance as Maybelle in Community Players' "Hairspray" or portraying Bloomington resident Eliza Esque in last year's Discovery Walk at Evergreen Cemetery. She sang "I Know Where I've Been" in the former and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" in the latter, turning in terrific performances in both.

"The Ladies" was conceived and directed by Phil Shaw. These additional performances are scheduled for July 13 and 14 at 7:30 pm and July 15 at 2:30 pm, and, yes, they will take place at the YWCA at 1201 North Hershey in Bloomington. There is a parking lot on the southeast side of the building where audiences members can park and come into the building.

For details on the new performances, see New Route's Facebook event page here.

Tonight -- Aaron Sorkin's New "Newsroom" on HBO

"The Newsroom" premieres tonight on HBO. No, it's not another 24-hour news show. It's fiction, written and created by Aaron Sorkin, the mind behind "The West Wing" on TV, "The Social Network" and "Moneyball" on the big screen, and "A Few Good Men" and "The Farnsworth Invention" on stage. 

Sorkin has taken on politics, the internet, the military, baseball, sportscasting and the history of television in those projects, so perhaps the nightly news is a natural as his new forum to dissect, analyze and pontificate on issues, ethics and Why Things Are the Way They Are.

Although Sorkin has had some missteps (getting busted for drugs, high-profile relationships that became tabloid fodder, high-profile TV projects like "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and "Sports Night" that were canceled quickly), he has also won an Oscar, six Emmys, awards from the Producers Guild and Writers Guild, and numerous other prizes and citations. And he is responsible for the pedi-conference style of rapid-fire dialogue while walking that has become a TV staple.

There is currently a lot of buzz about "The Newsroom" and its prospects. Is it "full of yelling and self-righteousness"? "Atonal and farcical"? Or maybe "the most important drama to make it to television in years"?

It certainly has a top-notch cast, with Jeff Daniels as a long-time news anchor who has an on-air meltdown, Emily Mortimer as his ex who is hired to produce (and save) his show, Sam Waterston as his boss and Jane Fonda as his boss, and Broadway actors Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr. and Thomas Sadoski, plus Oscar-nominated Dev Patel and the very pretty Olivia Munn, presumably to attract some younger male viewers. She's playing a brilliant economist, a role that seems to pop up a lot in Sorkin projects, and while I suppose it's reasonable to think Munn has a brain, she's also traded on her sexpot status so much as an actress and comedian that I find it hard to believe she'll fit in amongst the likes of Daniels and Waterston.

But the big question is whether viewers will take to Sorkin's talky, high-flying, sometimes pretentious, sometimes inspiring style one more time. The presidency is a suitable subject to attack the big issues of our time, while a late-night comedy show was clearly not. What about the news biz?

Watch and see tonight on HBO at 9 pm Central time.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Feeling Chatty? Join Heartland Theatre for a 10-Minute Play Post-Show Discussion 6-24

We are now into the third week of performances of Heartland Theatre's annual 10-Minute Play Festival, this year with the theme "Playing Games." And as we round that third-week corner and head into the last week, Heartland is offering a post-show discussion with the 10-Minute Play Committee (which includes me) after the matinee this Sunday.

Fans of the 10-Minute Play Festival are often curious as to what the judges look for in a successful play, what the process is like in general, and what kinds of submissions the judges see. Holly Rocke, Ron Emmons, Todd Wineburner and I will be tackling those topics and addressing questions at approximately 3:50 pm on June 24th, as soon as the afternoon's performance concludes and people have time to take a short break.

If you've seen the plays and have questions, feel free to come back and join the discussion. If you haven't seen the plays, this may the perfect chance. And, yes, you, too, can pose questions or offer your opinion.

And here is a sneak peek and a piece of trivia from this year's entries... Playwrights chose all kinds of games to write plays about for this year's Festival. Which among the following games do you think was the most popular among the playwrights who sent us their plays? Your choices are: Angry Birds, Bingo, Chess, Poker, Scrabble, Twister or Yahtzee.

I can also tell you that we got lots of plays on four of those choices and not even one play about two of them. But you will have to come to the panel discussion on Sunday to find out which is which!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

U of I's Jon Michael Hill Will Join "Elementary" on CBS This Fall

TV Line is reporting that Jon Michael Hill, who went straight from the University of Illinois Department of Theatre to the Steppenwolf ensemble, has been cast in the new Sherlock Holmes show, "Elementary," set for CBS this fall.

Hill did undergraduate acting work in "King Lear," "A Chorus Line" and "Gint" at Krannert Center, and then, after graduation, he earned a Jeff nomination for "The Tempest" and a Tony nomination for "Superior Donuts" before appearing in "Detroit 1-8-7" and "Eastbound and Down" on the telly.

Although the news about Hill being added to the "Elementary" cast doesn't have a lot of detail, TV Line says he will be "a detective working alongside the pair." Will he be the Lestrade in the mix? I dunno. Nobody else in the cast has that name yet, anyway. Or perhaps he can be Athelney Jones, another Scotland Yard detective who appears in Arthur Conan Doyle's stories. Or perhaps not. Athelney Jones is a way cool name, even if he is "an imbecile," according to Sherlock Holmes, and not as prominent as several other inspectors and detectives in the canon.

In the "Elementary" take on Sherlock, Mr. Holmes is a Brit living now (like, 2012) in New York City, and he returns to sleuthing after a stint in rehab. Jonny Lee Miller, Angelina Jolie's first husband and the guy who alternated with Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Frankenstein and his reanimated Creature in the National Theatre's "Frankenstein," plays Sherlock, while Lucy Liu is a feminine Watson. (She's Joan, instead of John. And she is apparently a former doctor now filling in as Holmes's sobriety helper. Or something like that.)

Aidan Quinn's Captain Gregson is also a part of the tableau, and you will see Miller, Liu and Quinn in the long preview CBS has provided to sneak the show. From that preview, the show looks pretty fun, and even though there are a whole lot of Sherlocks running around right now (what with Robert Downey Jr. going Victorian in the movies and that same Benedict Cumberbatch mentioned above playing another modern Holmes for the BBC and PBS), this one looks sufficiently different and Miller is charming and quirky enough (without being quite as snooty or chilly as Cumberbatch) that I think "Elementary" make stake out its own space.

NBC is scheduling "Elementary" in the prime slot at 9 pm Central on Thursday nights, so they appear to have some faith in the show, as well.

"Creature Feature" From the Summer Camp Kids

Back in May, we learned that actress/singer/all-around-cool-person Cristen Susong, in conjunction with Illinois Wesleyan University, was organizing "Summer on Stage," three different summer theater camps for kids, with the session for the oldest group finishing up on June 29. That's next week, and Susong reports that the Spotlight Camp kids (ages 12-15) are putting the final touches on their camp finale show.

"Creature Feature: Modern Day Mutants," by Christian Kiley, will be performed on Friday, June 29, at 3 pm at IWU's E. Melba Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre. The cast includes Adam Alexander, Katryce Bridge, Dulcie Church, Jessica Dolan, Kyleakin Helm, Eli Kalam, Jamie Keller, Nate Mixon, Alex Roy, Eli Susong and Jacob Sussina. Lianna Pfister is acting as assistant director and stage manager.

So what is a "Creature Feature"? Here's how the play is described at YouthPLAYS: "Tired of the constant pressure to be like everyone else? Are you ready to stand up and celebrate who you are and your uniqueness? Well, meet 'The Originals' and be a part of a new movement that will be sweeping every school in the world. Each member of 'The Originals' has a unique physical feature that is different than 'The Normals.' Grippy’s hands, Dumbo’s ears, Cranium’s brain, Coke Bottles' eyes, Cyrano’s nose, and Charlie’s heart. Together they try to create a united front against conformity and the idea that everyone should be the same in this charming, often comic and ultimately enlightening celebration of uniqueness."

Summer theater camp is a perfect place to celebrate individuality, so this show sounds like just the right vehicle to cap off the campers' summer.

It will not be the end of summer for Cristen Susong or Summer on Stage, however, as she announced last week that the camps had proved so popular she was adding another session of Footlight Camp, this one open to any and all children who will be entering 1st through 6th grades in the fall. The camp begins July 23 and runs through August 3, with sessions daily from 1 to 4 pm. And, yes, there will be a performance of a play like "Creature Feature" at the end, for parents and friends to come and watch. The cost of this added Footlight Camp session is $150 for the two weeks. Considering some of the expert instructors who have been working with the kids -- Cristen and Scott Susong, Sheri Ann Marley and James Wagoner -- that is an amazing bargain!

For more information on the new session of Footlight Camp, check here. And for details on the "Creature Feature" performance, click here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Critics Choose "Community," "Homeland" and "Sherlock" as Their Faves

The Broadcast Television Journalists Association (that would be your BTJA) gave out its second annual Critics Choice Awards for the television shows and performers its critic members enjoy the most last Monday night, June 18.

So who and what did the TV critics commend?

The Best Comedy Series award for "Community" showed that somebody appreciates creator Dan Harmon and his anarchic vision (even if that somebody isn't NBC, who recently gave Harmon his pink slip) and that the critics at the BTJA are willing to bypass Emmy darling "Modern Family" just this once. The other comedy series nominated (besides "Community" and "Modern Family") were "The Big Bang Theory" on CBS, "Parks and Recreation" on NBC, HBO's flashy new "Girls" series, and "New Girl," the Zooey Deschanel vehicle on Fox that is not as new as but more singular than "Girls." Out of those, I wouldn't quibble with any of "Community," "Modern Family" or "Parks and Rec," which are all on my Must Watch list.

And even though "Modern Family" didn't take home the Best Series award, it did take Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen as sweetly flaky Phil and Claire Dunphy.

"Homeland," the nerve-wracking Showtime series about a Manchurian Candidate/terrorist and the bipolar agent tracking him, won the Best Drama Series award over fellow nominees "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men," both on AMC, PBS's "Downton Abbey," HBO's "The Game of Thrones," and the lone major network contender, "The Good Wife" on CBS. That is a pretty impressive line-up of nominees, right there.

Claire Danes, the bipolar agent I mentioned up there, was named Best Actress in a Drama Series for her role on "Homeland."

PBS's new "Sherlock" nabbed the prize for Best Movie/Miniseries, as well as Best Actor in a Movie/Miniseries for star Benedict Cumberbatch.

FX's secret agent cartoon "Archer" won Best Animated Series, Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations," the international food show on the Travel Network, was named Best Reality Series (non-competition category), while NBC's "The Voice," the singing contest with the oversize swivel chairs holding Cee-Lo Green, Adam Levine, Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton as judges/mentors, won Best Reality Series -- Competition. NBC also picked up the award for Best Talk Show for "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," the fun and amusing show that outclasses its late-night partner, "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" on a nightly basis. And, no, Leno wasn't nominated. "Conan," "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and "The View" were.

Five shows set to premiere next fall were given the nod as Most Exciting New Series (apparently based on the premise and/or pilots) including "The Following," "The Mindy Project, "Nashville, "The Newsroom" and "Political Animals."

Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series went to Bryan Cranston and Giancarlo Esposito for AMC's "Breaking Bad," with "Mad Men," also on AMC, taking the Best Supporting Actress award for Christina Hendricks. Best Guest Performer in a Drama was Lucy Liu for "Southland" on TNT.

Best Actress in a Movie/Miniseries was Julianne Moore, playing Sarah Palin in HBO's "Game Change," with Louis C. K. named Best Actor in a Comedy Series for "Louie" on FX,  and Zooey Deschanel (the "New Girl" herself) and Amy Poehler ("Parks and Recreation") tying for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. Paul Rudd took Best Guest Performer in a Comedy for his adorable and hilarious turn as a rich dimwit running against Amy Poehler's character for town council on "Parks and Rec."

Best Reality Show Host was also a tie, between Tom Bergeron of "Dancing with the Stars" and Cat Deeley of "So You Think You Can Dance." Maybe we should demand a dance-off?

You can click here to see all the winners and here if you'd like to expand your horizons to include all the nominees. It won't be too long till it's Emmy time (nominations announced on July 19) so if your fave did not prevail with the critics from the BTJA, never fear. More awards to come!

The 2012-13 Theatrical Season at U of I

It's fitting that I was over in Champaign-Urbana yesterday*, only a stone's throw from Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, just as they were sending out emails to announce their 2012-13 schedule of programs to fill all four (five? six?) of the lovely performance spaces inside the Krannert Center.

That schedule includes dance, opera, visiting artists, bands, companies, quartets and orchestras, and a good deal of theater, including the University of Illinois Department of Theatre productions in both the "black box" Studio Theatre and the more expansive Colwell Playhouse. My focus is on theater, of course, and here's what you have to look forward to if you're inclined to give Krannert Center a look:

The University begins its theater season October 4 with "44 Plays for 44 Presidents," a two-hour look at each and every American president, showcased through short biographical scenes. Those scenes include comedy, tragedy, music and theatrical razzmatazz, as we see things like Ben Franklin hosting a Borscht-Belt "roast" of Thomas Jefferson and a "Nixon-praising dance number" as the company of performers passes on a star-spangled coat to represent the mantle of the presidency.

Whether this is intentional irony I don't know, but "Dracula" follows the presidents, opening October 14. There are a number of scripts that tell the "Dracula" story, and so far, Krannert's materials aren't telling which one U of I is using. Still, we can expect vampires, pale maidens, bloodlust and probably a few caskets on stage for any "Dracula."

Squeezing one last drama into October, "A Dream Play" opens on October 25. I'm assuming this is the 1901 Strindberg play, a surreal and symbolic piece that moves a man through a melancholy dreamscape filled with issues of gender, class, capitalism, philosophy, theology and the illusory, painful nature of human life.

The Department of Theatre opens the new year with "No Child..." on February 13. In New York, "No Child..." was a one-woman show for actress Nilaja Sun, as well as a "tour-de-force exploration of the New York City public school system," with Sun playing kids, parents, teachers, administrators, and even the school janitor. I'm guessing that U of I will open it up to an ensemble, but we'll have to see what happens in February.

That's followed by Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart," a call to arms about AIDS in America that was recently revived on Broadway in a very well-regarded production. "The Normal Heart" will run from March 28 to April 7.

And the Theatre Department season ends with another call to arms in "Spring Awakening," which offers a dire warning as to what happens when you keep kids completely ignorant on issues of sex and what's happening to their bodies. The original play was written by German playwright Frank Wedekind in about 1890, with a rock musical version (music by Duncan Sheik) hitting Broadway (as well as winning a slew of Tony Awards and launching the careers of Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff and John Gallagher, Jr.) in 2007. Are they doing the straight play or the musical? If I had to guess, I would say the musical. But who knows, really? Potential ticket-buyers should know that there is sex (awkward, adolescent sex) all over "Spring Awakening," which might be either a plus or a minus for you, considering your taste in theater.

Some highlights from elsewhere on the schedule:

Anne Bogart and her SITI Company bring their "Café Variations" to Krannert November 8 to 10, the U of I Opera Program performs Daniel Catán's "Florencia en el Amazonas" November 8 to 11, and "The Nutcracker," an annual holiday treat, runs November 30 to December 9. As 2013 opens, the Russian National Ballet Theatre brings "Don Quixote," "Chopiniana/Romeo and Juliet," and "Swan Lake" to Champaign in January, The Black Watch and the Band of the Scots Guards perform in February, Ann Hampton Callaway and Liz Callaway bring their sister act called "Boom!" to town February 20 to 22, and the U of I Opera Program does a concert version of "My Fair Lady" February 28 through March 3 and brings back "The Threepenny Opera" April 25 to 28.

To see the complete schedule, click here. The season brochure will be available July 20, with tickets on sale for the entire season on August 11.

*I was in Urbana yesterday to do a radio interview with Kevin Kelly at WILL for his "Live and Local" program, along with Ron Emmons, Alyssa Ratkovich and Kent Nusbaum,who are the director and cast of the play "Missed Connections," by Marj O'Neill-Butler, which is part of Heartland's 10-Minute Play Festival. Kent and Alyssa performed a piece of the play, while Ron and I talked about Heartland's contest and process. If you'd like to hear our interview, click here. Always nice to be back in C-U! 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Rock of Ages" Makes Me Want to Create Bad Puns

Wreck of Ages... Puke of Ages... Waste of Wages...

Let me just get this out first, before I get any further. "Rock of Ages" is a very, very bad movie. I have not seen the show on Broadway. I don't know if it pulls off the feat that the material would seem to indicate it's built for. And by that, I mean that using these songs and this ridiculous attempt at creating characters who can fit the songs (sort of) and an even more ridiculous plot... Well, it has to be a send-up. It has to be silly. It has to be a cheesefest. It can't ever take itself seriously. It has to move like the wind. Or there's no way it's going to work.

I'm thinking somewhere in the neighborhood where "The Blues Brothers" meets "This Is Spinal Tap," with a Def Leppard/Journey/Poison/Bon Jovi/Styx karaoke soundtrack.

But in the movie version of "Rock of Ages," director Adam Shankman has hedged his cheese bets, cast several terrible actors who are somehow less human and real (and far less versatile) than Barney the Purple Dinosaur, put the songs in the neighborhood of action that doesn't work with them at all, and edited it all in a chaotic, choppy style that stays far too long in some places and whirls through others with no sense of pace or style or even sense. As a result, where "Rock of Ages" should play cheerfully fast and loose, it comes off turgid and tone-deaf instead.

There are huge problems with the script, which opens with a bus scene that should be used as an example in Screenwriter School of exactly the kind of scene not to use to open a movie. Romance writers have been schooled for years NOT to begin with their heroines sitting on trains, buses, planes or any other mode of transport on their way to somewhere. Start the action. Don't show the bus ride there. If romance writers all know that, how have a team of screenwriters missed it?

They've also changed a Teutonic father-and-son team of developers threatening the LA club at the center of the action into an anti-rock 'n' roll crusader (the mayor's wife, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) who is hiding a secret torrid past as a groupie under her smut-snatching exterior. That's no biggie to me -- I don't care all that much about either Teutonic developers or Puritanical smut-snatchers -- but Zeta-Jones' character is over-the-top in all the wrong ways, and when she and her cohorts launch into their muscular dances it just seems weird to be spending time with them and their "Beat It" moves.

But if we're not there, we're back with the most lifeless couple this side of Madame Toussaud's. That would be one Sherrie, given a Minnie Mouse voice and a lack of anything remotely resembling a character by former "Dancing With the Stars" chickadee Julianne Hough, and Latin hunk Diego Boneta as her cute but dim boyfriend, Drew. He has nice curls to toss around, she doesn't play to her strength (dancing), and there is so little chemistry between them that watching them attempt to jump through the idiotic plot hurdles provided by the plot is simply excruciating. Unwatchable. Agony.

I think that's mostly on Hough, whose Sherrie is dull, vapid and brainless. Boneta at least seems to have a pulse. Sometimes. Plus he can emote a little through his songs, which she absolutely cannot. The life is lip-sync'd out of everything (except for Mary J. Blige, below) across the cast but even so... I kept wondering what Julianne Hough might be suited for, in terms of movie roles. A Bratz Doll movie? A Sandra Dee biopic? Or a remake of one of those "Sandra Dee dates Tab Hunter and gets pregnant" movies from the 60s? It all sounds beyond her reach.

Or maybe it's just the terrible editing. Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand, who play the club owner and his BFF, ought to be perfect for this material. They're both adept comics and they know how to create bizarre characters we can find amusing as well as compelling. But their scenes are as ham-handed as everybody else's. That includes Bryan Cranston as the mayor, Paul Giamatti as a slimy music agent, and Malin Akerman as a Rolling Stone reporter. Mary J. Blige shows up to wail the heck out of a few songs, which is welcome, but Blige can't act, either.

And then there's Tom Cruise... It's not every international superstar who will willingly don what appears to be a jockstrap with a red jeweled dragon lunging out of his crotch, bare more of his skin than he did when he was 25, wear a tattoo that seem to be demanding we pay attention to his left nipple the whole movie, let his scenes get stolen by a monkey, and in general, act like some caricature that Ben Stiller came up with to mock Tom Cruise. In fact, Cruise bears an uncanny resemblance to Stiller in this film. Why Tom Cruise wanted to be in "Rock of Ages" I have no idea, but he's not doing the movie any more favors than it's doing him.

So what do we have here? None of the jokes land, everybody seems stranded on the screen without a life raft, and it's just one blocky, unshaped scene after another. Oh, and it's more than two hours long. Just when you think it must surely be headed for a conclusion, it finds more filler to stuff the plot with.

You've been warned. Enter "Rock of Ages" at your peril.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Mary-Arrchie/ISU Connection

You should already know that Chicago's Mary-Arrchie Theatre will be hosting a cadre of ISU students (recent grads and undergrads) when they bring Euripides "Electra" to their stage in July.

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 form the "Electra" ensemble under the direction of Sonja Moser, performing July 6 to 29 at Mary-Arrchie Theatre, 735 W. Sheridan Road in Chicago.

Tickets are now available if you want to reserve your spot.

In addition to tickets, you can also support Mary-Arrchie's 60 Seat Campaign on Indiegogo, as the theater seeks to replace its Angel Island seating. As part of that effort, Mary-Arrchie is looking to raise upwards of $3,000 in order to "purchase 60 brand, new cushion-y audience holders for our 27th season." If you are planning to support ISU's "Electra" venture by going to see the show, it is in your best interests to help them out with their chairs venture. Just thinking of your comfort!

They are also offering "perks" for your donations, like shout-outs on Facebooks, high fives from Mary-Arrchie troupe members, a child's drawing of Artistic Director Richard Cotovsky, and, as the numbers rise, T-shirts, posters, season tickets, and dinner out with Cotovsky.

You can see all the details and contribute right here.

So there's "Electra," and there's the 60 Seat Campaign, which will benefit the ISU actors performing in "Electra," and now we also have a new ISU/Mary-Arrchie connection, as Tori Allen, who just graduated from the ISU School of Theatre, is also doing a Mary-Arrchie performance.

Allen wrote and starred in a one-woman show called "If You Like it Then You Should’a Put Some Gin in It" at ISU as part of its Freestage program in April. That show was directed by another alum, Johnny Oleksinski.

Allen announced today that she and Oleksinski are bringing her "Gin" show to Mary-Arrchie for its annual Abbie Fest, with performances scheduled for August 17, 18 and 19. Abbie Fest, which is a three-day celebration of the anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair that took place in 1969, is now 24 years old. And Tori Allen and her "Gin" will be part of the festivities.

Playwright Tammy Ryan Wins 2012 Primus Prize

The American Theatre Critics Association held their annual conference in Chicago last week. As part of that gathering, ATCA announced that playwright Tammy Ryan had won the 2012 Francesca Primus Prize for her play "Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods." The Primus Prize gives Ryan a $10,000 cash prize along with a wall plaque.

The Primus Prize, which is awarded to "an emerging woman theater artist" comes from the ATCA in conjunction with the Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation. The Foundation was created in 1997 to memorialize actress, critic and ATCA member Francesca Primus. Barry Primus, the administrator of the Foundation, noted that “The Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation was established to recognize and support emerging women artists who are making a difference in the theater community in which they work.”

Tammy Ryan
"Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods" involves a middle-aged white woman who runs across a "Lost Boy," a refugee from civil war in the Sudan, working at her local upscale grocery store. Christine, the woman, chats with and forms a friendship with the boy, who works in the produce section at her Whole Foods, eventually taking him home to live with her and her daughter. Ryan combines issues of international relations with the highly personal, as Christine's attempts to help Gabriel give her a sense of purpose and meaning she had previously been missing. For the ATCA, Pittsburgh theater critic Christopher Rawson wrote, “The person who is most truly lost amid middle-class comfort is...Christine." He adds, "[The play charts] the faltering, one-forward, one-back steps she takes to find her own usefulness and meaning.”

"Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods" was developed in 2009 as part of the New Harmony Project. The play went on to win the Premiere Stages Play Festival, after which Premiere Stages and Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey co-produced the play in September of 2010. The next year, Playhouse Rep in Pittsburgh staged a production that sold out its entire run. In reviews, Anita Gates called the play "remarkably touching" in the New York Times, while Sherri Rase simply said, "See. This. Play" for Q on Stage.

The ATCA indicates that the Primus Prize recognizes not only "Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods" and Tammy Ryan's general success as a playwright, but also her willingness to mentor young playwrights and "extend her expertise through teaching and collaborative projects like 'We Are Antigone,' developed with both high school and college students." Earlier this year, Ryan created From the Ground Up, a program which attempts to connect artistic directors of small theaters with emerging playwrights.

Ryan’s other plays include "FBI Girl: How I Learned to Crack My Father's Code," "Baby’s Blues," "Dark Part of the Forest," and "The Music Lesson." She has won numerous awards and citations, which you can see here. In 2011, Ryan worked with Turkish playwright Zeynep Kaçar on a one-act called "Lindsey’s Oyster," which was produced in both Turkey and the United States. "Oyster" is Ryan's and Kaçar's view of "what it means to be female in their vastly different societies." 

Playwright Dominique Morisseau was also singled out for a special commendation for her play, "Follow Me to Nellie’s," a look at "how a Mississippi brothel and its outspoken madam become entwined in the civil rights struggle to register black voters in 1955." "Nellie's" received a reading at the 2010 National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center before a full staging at Premiere Stages in New Jersey last summer. Morriseau is currently developing a trilogy of plays set in Detroit, her hometown, and also working on a play called "Sunset Baby," which is scheduled for a run in London later this year.

The ATCA's nationwide committee of critics chose Ryan and Morisseay from among a group of 22 nominees. Barbara Bannon of Salt Lake City chaired the committee, which included Julie York Coppens of Cincinnati, Marianne Evett of Boston, Lynn Rosen of Bellingham, Washington, and Herb Simpson of Geneseo, New York.

In addition to the Primus Prize, the ATCA also presents the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award and the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award each year, as well as voting on and recommending the annual Tony Award for an outstanding regional theater and voting new members into the Theatre Hall of Fame. For more information, visit the ATCA website at

The ATCA has also thoughtfully provided a list of former winners, which you will see below. Although the award is not limited to playwrights, most of the winners have indeed been playwrights. They are listed below with the plays for which they won, with Michelle Hensley and Karen Zacarius noted for the theater companies they are associated with and for which association they were awarded the Primus Prize.

Previous Winners of the Francesca Primus Prize

1997 Julia Jordan, "Tatjana in Color"
1998 Brooke Berman, "Wonderland"
1999 Melanie Marnich, "Blur"
2000 Brooke Berman, "Playing House"
2001 S.M. Shepard-Massat, "Some Place Soft to Fall"
2002 Alexandra Cunningham, "Pavane"
2004 Lynn Nottage, "Intimate Apparel"
2005 Michelle Hensley, artistic director of Ten Thousand Things Theatre Company, Minneapolis
2006 Karen Zacarias, playwright ("Mariele in the Desert") and founder/artistic director of Young Playwrights Theater, Washington, DC
2007 Victoria Stewart, "Hardball"
2008 EM Lewis, "Heads"
2009 Jamie Pachino, "Splitting Infinity"
2010 Michele Lowe, "Inana"
2011 Caridad Svich, "The House of the Spirits"

Friday, June 15, 2012

"Dallas" Returns, Complete With JR and Bobby

I've watched a lot of daytime soaps in my time, but weirdly enough, the nighttime ones, like "Dallas" and "Knots Landing" and "Dynasty," all huge in the 80s, didn't really catch me.

My biggest memory of "Dallas," actually, was being invited to a law school friend's apartment for a "Who Shot JR?" party on the night CBS had widely advertised for the big reveal of the culprit, but we stopped in Campustown at U of I on the way. I was in McBride's drugstore, and my husband was crossing 6th Street to come in there and meet me, but a car turned left from Green Street and ran right into him in the crosswalk. He wasn't hurt too badly, but he had a major dent in his thigh, meaning he couldn't drive, and we really felt he should go to the hospital to get checked out. Unfortunately, his car -- the only one we had between the two of us -- was an old red Volvo that happened to be stick shift, which I couldn't drive.

So that meant not only did I miss the party, but I had to call the party and grab a couple of other people away, too, as I asked two friends who could drive stick to come to Campustown in their own car and take both their car and our car to the hospital and wait with us.

The friend who was having the party said, "Wow, your husband will do anything to get out of my parties! He's even throwing himself in front of cars now."

Well, it was funny at the time. And I did find out later who shot JR. It was Bing Crosby's daughter. I'm not making that up. Actress Mary Crosby played Kristin Shepard, the sister of JR's wife Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), and she was an all-around bad girl. Kristin didn't make "Dallas," the new generation, now showing on TNT on Wednesday nights. That makes sense, of course, since Kristin was found face-down in a swimming pool on original recipe "Dallas." Not that the soaps haven't resurrected dead people before, but this time, they've let Kristin stay most sincerely dead, bringing along only her son, Christopher, who was a plot point (Infidelity! Who's the daddy? Lies! Blackmail!) way back then.

The new "Dallas" that includes Christopher, who was raised by JR's brother, Bobby Ewing, premiered last Wednesday with two episodes to get the party started. It also got smashing ratings.

I did tune in, and I was surprised to find that I remembered more of the Ewings than I would've expected. Here in the 21st century, JR, played by Larry Hagman, still giving the old dog a twinkle and a lot of panache along with the villainy, started out the episode hanging out in a nursing home, pretending to be catatonic, while his brother Bobby, the good one, full of warmth and charm as embodied by Patrick Duffy, was in charge of Southfork, the family ranch. Sue Ellen, JR's ex, still has the raccoon eyes and messy hair which were her trademarks, and now numerous people seem to be trying to get her to run for governor of Texas. (This means they apparently missed all those episodes of 80s "Dallas" where Sue Ellen was wracked with substance abuse and mental problems that would make her incredibly unfit to be governor of anything, including herself.)

Bobby's old wife, Pam, the one who saw him get out of the shower in the infamous series reset, didn't make the trip to New "Dallas," however. Now he has a wife named Ann (played by Brenda Strong, best known as Sue Ellen Mischke, the braless candy bar heiress on "Seinfeld" and the voice of Mary Alice Young, the ghostly narrator on "Desperate Housewives") who seems sensible and sweet. Bobby also has cancer, which he is hiding from his adopted son, Christopher.

It's Christopher and JR's son, John Ross, who make up the nucleus of the second generation of Ewing plots and counterplots. John Ross (given shifty good looks and a pencil-thin mustache by Josh Henderson) wants to drill, baby, drill on Southfork, but he is stymied by Bobby and Christopher (Jesse Metcalfe, another "Desperate Housewives" refugee), who is all about greener forms of energy. There's also a girl in the middle of the two Ewing boys, one Elena, daughter of the cook, played by Jordana Brewster.

The hitch is that Elena grew up with both boys but was in love with Christopher. Now, however, she is with John Ross, after somebody sent her a break-up email purportedly from Christopher on the eve of their wedding. She's supposed to be smart and a whiz at finding oil and other energy, even though she was stupid enough to buy an email generated from within the nest of snakes known as the Ewing family without texting or calling Christopher to say "WTF, dude???" or, you know, walking over to the other side of the house at Southfork and smacking him personally. But, hey, it's always inconvenient on soap operas to ask too many questions.

In any event, Elena took the email at face value, John Ross swooped in to pick up her pieces, and Christopher now has a new bride, pretty Rebecca (Julie Gonzalo). Rebecca is a lawyer who seems on the up-and-up and totally devoted to her groom, with seems being the operative word.

So far, there has been more focus on the oldsters than I expected. I thought JR and Bobby would merely be a launching pad for the sexy kids with the six-packs. But, no, we're getting good stuff involving JR and his maneuvers and schemes, Bobby and his wife and his cancer and his desire to carry out the wishes of his dead mama, Miss Ellie, and even Sue Ellen and her goofy gubernatorial ambitions. Down the road, it is rumored we will see the return of Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval), JR's perennial enemy. I'm hoping for some Ray Krebbs, too. Played by Steve Kanaly, ranch hand Ray was a slice of real life in the posh and wealthy world of the first "Dallas." He could've been killed off in the original series, too, of course. I admit I had only a passing knowledge of the goings-on on the show, and I only just found out that Ray was Bobby's illegitimate half-brother when I was adding the IMDB link to Steve Kanaly. Ah, soaps. Life and death are so easy to serve up.

And what did I think of the scam-packed first two episodes of "Dallas," part deux? I liked them. I paid attention. I was interested enough to read up and figure out where Christopher came from and why John Ross kept taunting him about not being a real Ewing. As always, Larry Hagman and the joyful evil he brings to JR make for some fun viewing. I still don't feel any real connection to a bunch of rich people in Texas, but, hey, their schemes and reversals, backstabbing and comeuppance, are pretty fun. I'm not at all surprised by the ratings. "Dallas" was a powerhouse in its heyday, with its slick production values and handsome cast, its ramped-up plots that throw everybody into bed with everybody else as well as into fights and conspiracies against everybody else, are bringing all that back in fine style. This "Dallas" is very easy to watch and I'm thinking a lot of people are going to get hooked.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

"Playing Games" and Other Entertainments at Heartland

A lot is happening at Heartland Theatre right now!

Dave Lemmon and Gayle Hess in "It"
Heartland's annual 10-Minute Play Festival, always a summertime treat, opens its second weekend of performances tonight with more "Playing Games" plays. In case you've missed the memo, this year the plays, chosen from among 366 entries, involve some kind of game, and that includes Scrabble (Austin Steinmetz's "Wordplay"), Bingo (Meny Beriro's "Final Bingo"), Rummikub (Alexis Roblan's "Bourbon Whiskey Rummikub"), a video game (Jerry McGee's "I Am. I Think"), the children's game of Tag (Mike Poblete's "It"), tug-of-war as a metaphor for divorce woes (John D. Poling's "Destiny's Tug-of-War") and the dating game as translated for a new world on Craigslist (Marj O'Neill-Butler's "Missed Connections").

Five of the eight playwrights were in town to see their plays last Saturday night, which was also my first opportunity to see
"Playing Games" realized on Heartland's stage. I chair the 10-Minute Plays committee for Heartland, and as a result, I read all the plays and help the judging process along for the first two rounds. That means I am in no way an unbiased audience member when it comes time to see the whole program. But it's always interesting to see how what you read on the page comes alive on stage, and how different directors and actors can make the material.

My (completely biased) judgment this year is that Poblete's "It," nicely directed by Rachel Krein and starring Dave Lemmon and Gayle Hess, both terrific as wise-beyond-their-years children, is the funniest and sharpest among the produced plays, and that John D. Poling from Clinton, Illinois, has created the most heartfelt piece with his "Tug-of-War," with George Freeman offering a warm and sweet performance as a divorced man caught between his ex, her new girlfriend and their injured dog. O'Neill-Butler's "Missed Connections," directed by Ron Emmons, with Kent Nusbaum and Alyssa Ratkovich doing good work as a pair of mixed-up singles, is also fresh and timely.

In terms of the scripts, McGee's "I Am. I Think." goes for the most depth -- McGee actually tries to discuss the concept of Free Will versus Fate in ten minutes! -- and features excellent performances from both Dana Anderson and Dave Lemmon, who goes from a kid on the playground in "It" to a harried commuter worried about his very existence in "I Am. I Think." in the space of twenty minutes.

If you are a game player, this is the Festival for you. You have three weekends left to catch these hot-off-the-press 10-minute plays, with reservation and show time information on Heartland's website.

Also of note -- tomorrow marks the annual Summer Showcase from Heartland's Young at Heartland acting troupe for seniors. This year, a corps of 24 actors will perform scenes centering on the idea of "Opportunities." That's tomorrow, June 15, at 1 pm at Heartland Theatre, and you are advised to arrive early if you want a seat. There is no charge for admission, but they suggest a donation at the door as you enter.

And last but not least, Heartland has launched a new website this week. If you've visited before, you will notice that it has a new look and lots of information on the upcoming season, on the 10-Minute Play Festival, New Plays from the Heartland, Young at Heartland and their summer schedule of performances, and even the Board of Directors, of which I am a member.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mad Men, the Postscript

This season of "Mad Men," which concluded last Sunday with an episode called "The Phantom," has been more enigmatic, shocking, unbalanced and maddening than ever. As this look at the Madison Avenue advertising culture of the past and the men and women who toil in it moved past the mid-point in the 60s, "Mad Men" has changed up some of its personnel, their wardrobes, and the pace of the show to reflect the new themes rocking America at that time. The Beatles, go-go boots, the Generation Gap, Hare Krishna, LSD, miniskirts, Vietnam and race riots have all played a role this season.

And not all of it has made fans happy. Like Don Draper's new wife, Megan, and the amount of screentime spent on her. Or Peggy Olson, played by Elisabeth Moss, one of the show's franchise characters, leaving Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in episode 11 ("The Other Woman') and making everybody wonder whether Moss would be coming back to the show at all. Or the plotline involving Christina Hendrick's Joan, the Office Manager, in that same episode, with slimy Pete Campbell pimping her out to a Jaguar bigwig so they could score the account. Or Lane Pryce, the agency's CFO, getting caught forging a check to bridge a gap in his perilous finances, and then, in a final gesture of desperation, hanging himself in the office.

And then there was Pete, played with a full coat of slime by Vincent Kartheiser.  Not only did he act like a procurer with Joan, but he also lusted after a teenager in his driving class and the depressed wife of a fellow commuter, played by Alexis Bledel, Rory Gilmore herself, displaying more plastic acting skills than January Jones (Betty) and Jessica Paré (Megan) combined, while Pete left his adorable wife Trudy and their baby daughter at home.

Of those controversies and the outrage expressed by fans, I am definitely down with the first. Megan did get an inordinate amount of attention, and it did seem to come at the expense of more important characters like Joan, Peggy and little Sally Draper, and even interesting newbies like Ginsburg, the eccentric new hire in the copywriting department. I didn't mind at all that Don's previous wife, chilly, unpleasant Betty, was reduced to a very minor role this time out, however. Her struggles with her weight or the inadequacies of her new marriage were quite ho hum, as most things involving Betty seem to be.

I do have to wonder about "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner and his taste in actresses, given the fact that all three of those major ladies (Betty, Megan and Beth) were played by actresses who came off wooden and rote in the roles. They're all beautiful, however, and maybe he was going for beautiful, shallow characters, and Jones, Paré and Bledel are really fantastic actresses who can convey the superficial thing like nobody's business. Plus, of course, many of his other actresses, like Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, Kiernan Shipka, Alison Brie, Peyton List, Maggie Siff, Talia Balsom, Deborah Lacey, Carla Buono and Melinda Page Hamilton, aren't wooden at all, imbuing their characters with all the warmth and energy missing from the other three.

Meanwhile, even allowing for the general dislike of Megan, Don's relationship with her, and his second try at love, formed the main throughline of the season, and I did find myself interested in that. Not Megan herself, so much, but what she represented to Don, and how long this relationship, based on an impetuous decision to get married after one fun trip to Los Angeles, could possibly last.

For me, the last episode, that "Phantom," provided the answers on the Megan/Don relationship. She was a phantom, a figment of his imagination. At a point in his life when he was reeling, Megan swooped in, young, beautiful, seemingly perfect in ways that made Don's life easy, and also seeming to demand nothing of him. As he felt old and uncool, Megan was a way to be young again, in exactly the same way Roger tried to go backwards in time by hooking up with his own secretary, Jane. But then Megan's youth became a liability, when she acted like a brat over orange sherbet, when she sang a sexy song ("Zou Bisou Bisou") to him at a party, embarrassing him, when she made him listen to a particular track on the Beatles "Revolver" album and he hated it, when she hobnobbed with people of her own generation across a crowded room, Don ended up feeling left out, unhip and ancient.

See that Season 5 poster up there at the top? Jon Hamm's gorgeous Don is outside, looking in.

And what about the undressed mannequin? For me, she's Megan as the fantasy women, the blank slate that Don could attach a lot of positive attributes to, creating a perfect woman who was gorgeous, sexy, malleable, talented, and adoring. His very own toy wife. Over the course of the season, as Megan acted out and eventually decided she didn't want to work at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, but instead wanted to pursue an acting career and then used Don to get her a role in a commercial, the facade has chipped away, bit by bit.

For me, that was what Don watching Megan's black-and-white acting reel was all about. He sees that she is beautiful on film. This image, this lovely girl with the incandescent smile, is what he feel in love with. And it's as unreal and unsubstantial as any other phantom.

So when Don walks away from the set where she is recording her commercial, looking all dapper and James Bond perfect himself, I think he knew the marriage and the fantasy were over. A season ago, he chose the illusion (Megan) over the real person (Faye, the girlfriend he had when he went to California, the psychologist who had his number from the get-go, who had flaws and inadequacies like everybody else). Now maybe he's realized how foolish it was to go chasing dream girls who are half his age.

That's my take on Season 5. It's about people trying to reach for happiness but finding out that one thing, that one Obscure Object of Desire they thought would fix everything, still leaves them hungry, as Don pointed out in an ad pitch to Dow Chemical a few episodes ago. Love and happiness, even financial success, are phantoms. There's Peggy, unhappy and unappreciated at SCDP, going for a job that offers more respect, more responsibility, and finding that her exciting trip out of town involves poodles humping in a crummy motel parking lot, not a view of the Eiffel Tower. There's Pete, so unsatisfied with his marriage and his house in the suburbs, thinking clandestine hook-ups or a pied-à-terre in the city will cure his woes. There's poor Paul, the new Hare Krishna. And Roger, momentarily enlightened on LSD, out of his marriage to Jane, but now settling for meaningless sex with Megan's nasty mom. And Joan, out of her marriage to the odious Greg, more financially stable because she got a partnership out of the whole "Joan Is Jaguar's Whore" deal, but everybody knows what she did and why she's now a partner. And Lane... Gone but nor forgotten. His wife came right out and told us the other partners shouldn't have tempted him with so much, or let him reach for what was beyond him.

After all, these people work in a world of phantoms, of actors and models selling products they don't use, of made-up benefits cloaked in pretty picture and catchy jingles, of marketing messages that twist bad into good, malignant into seductive, and bombs into peacekeepers. Why should we expect any of what they yearn for to be real?

One of the last images of the show was beautifully composed, of our current five partners (from left, Pete Campbell, Don Draper, Joan Harris, Bertram Cooper and Roger Sterling) perfectly arrayed against the windows of their new, currently blank, space. They've got money rolling in, enough to expand, they've reached a new height in the agency's short history, and what happens next is all up to them. And yet... And yet. Who thinks these business successes will make any of them any happier, more content, or more complete as human beings?

I'll be there, first in line, to see how that translates in Season 6, whenever we get it. Just like the characters inside "Mad Men," I'm already hungry for more.