Friday, August 31, 2012

Slattery on "Arrested Development"? Awesome news!

John Slattery and Roger Sterling, the sharp, nasty, outrageous character he plays on "Mad Men," are particular favorites of mine. I've had a fondness for Slattery since he played a union organizer on a show called "Homefront" in the early 90s, and that grew when I saw him on Broadway in "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," a not-that-successful Neil Simon show that starred Nathan Lane as a Sid Caesar-like TV comedian in the 50s. It was Slattery who came out onto the sidewalk after the show and chatted with everybody who was hanging out waiting for an autograph. Nice, funny, talented...

He's done comic appearances on "30 Rock" and "Sex and the City" and even "The Simpsons," so I knew he had the chops. But the news that he will be showing up in a multi-episode arc of "Arrested Development," one of the best TV comedies ever, when it comes back to life on Netflix next year... Well, that's just about the best news ever!

Creator Mitch Hurwitz and the original "Arrested Development" cast, including Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, Michael Cera, David Cross, Portia de Rossi, Tony Hale, Alia Shawcat, Jeffrey Tambor and Jessica Walter, as well as narrator and executive producer Ron Howard, will all be back in at least ten episodes for this Netflix exclusive series. All the people who fell in love with "Arrested Development" when it appeared on Fox for three short seasons, who inundated Fox with bananas (real and toy, I think) to try to save the show, are more than eager for those 10+ episodes already. Adding John Slattery and his whip-smart comic stylings to the mix is like adding hot fudge to your bananas. And making the anticipation even fiercer.

The plan has been to release all ten (or more) episodes at once on Netflix, with space for all of the familiar characters from the first time, plus a few new ones. Jason Bateman tweeted photos from the set, so you know it's happening, too.

No word yet on who Slattery will be playing or how he fits into the Bluth family mix (long-lost child of Lucille's or George's? New suitor for Lindsay? Or Lucille? Or -- heaven forfend -- Maeby?) but it's all good. So let's give a big, "Hey, Hermano!" to John Slattery as we count down the days to 2013 and the return of "Arrested Development."

Thursday, August 30, 2012

"These Shining Lives" Opens Next Week at Heartland Theatre Company

"These Shining Lives," Melanie Marnich's play about the so-called Radium Girls, opens next week at Heartland Theatre Company. Don LaCasse directs this story of women poisoned by deadly radium, all because of their jobs at a watch factory.

Marnich's play is an exploration of women's work and basic standards of job safety, as corporate greed and arrogance battle against common decency. She sets "These Shining Lives" during the days when women were entering the workforce in increasing numbers, with Catherine Donahue, the woman at the center of the play, enjoying the camaraderie, sense of self-worth, and, yes, the money she earns painting the faces of glow-in-the-dark watches at an Ottawa, Illinois, factory. But it isn't long before Catherine's dream job becomes a nightmare, as she and her friends are struck down by strange illnesses and horrible pain. One day they are young, vibrant wives and mothers, and the next, withered crones who can barely move.

But at its heart, "These Shining Lives" is about the beauty of life, about finding value in every day, about fighting for what you know is true and right, even when the odds are insurmountable and the path is very steep. The play is based on real events and real litigation that occurred in Illinois

Heartland's cast includes Colleen Longo as Catherine, with Reena Artman, Christine Juet and Paula Nowak as her friends at the watch factory, Jared Kugler as her husband, and Todd Wineburner as the boss. You can see the female part of the cast in the picture below (from left to right: Juet, Nowak, Artman and Longo on the set of "These Shining Lives.")

"These Shining Lives" begins September 6 at Heartland with a special Pay-What-You-Can Preview, followed by performances September 7-8, 13-15, and 20-22 at 7:30 pm, and September 9, 16 and 23 at 2 pm. Tickets range from $5 for students to $12 for senior citizens and $15 for general admission.

Please note that there will be a panel discussion after the matinee on September 16, with response to the play from Sandra Harmon, Professor Emerita of History and Women’s Studies at Illinois State University, and Ed Carroll, Professor of History at Heartland Community College, who happens to be from Ottawa, Illinois, and whose family was affected by the terrible events at the Radium Dial Plant there. The discussion is free and open to the public.

Heartland's production of the play is sponsored by the Bloomington and Normal Trades and Labor Assembly.

As I said before when I wrote about "These Shining Lives," if you'd like to read more about the dark days when radium was peddled as a scientific miracle and how it all played out with these young women workers at watch factories, Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin, offered a series of illuminating pieces on the subject in March 2011 at her blog, Speakeasy Science. You can read The Radium Girls, Life in the Undark, and A Dazzle in the Bones by clicking on their titles, and find out about the forensic pathology as well as the case itself.

Author Bill Koralik also has materials to contribute on the subject; he is the co-author of a book called "Mass Media & Environmental Conflict," and Chapter 8 of that book is offered here under the title "Radium Girls," including graphics and images to flesh out the story.

It's fascinating stuff, both as history and as drama. Tragic. Unbelievable. And still fascinating.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Happy Birthday Eli Van Sickel...

...and Ingrid Bergman, Elliott Gould, Preston Sturges, Lea Michele and Michael Jackson! That's a lot of talent right there on one day.

Eli Van Sickel, the first person I mentioned whose birthday is today, happens to be a masters degree candidate at Illinois State University, in the same program I'm in (although he's more a lot more advanced). He's also the diabolical mind behind social media for ISU's School of Theatre and Dance, including the recent project to get 500 "likes" on Facebook and then create a video of Connie de Veer showing off ten different dialects on Hamlet's "trippingly on the tongue" speech. That happened. And it's awesome.

So, yes, Eli's birthday is today, and he is celebrating that occasion, as well as the fact that school is back in session, by joining with fellow grad student Jake Wasson, an MFA candidate in scenic design, at Fusion Brew this Saturday, September 1, from 7 to 10 pm, with the intent to play "a wide variety of face-rocking music for your enjoyment."

It's his birthday, but he's only thinking of you. Pretty cool, right?

The Facebook page devoted to this event tells us, "Jake Wasson and Eli Van Sickel have been seen at various open mics and have busked on various streets around town. Their music is well loved by inebriated and sober people alike. This is their first gig together in a legitimate venue. And it's gonna be insane..."

Which makes it perfect for both those back at school and those with birthdays. Or, you know, anybody. And if Lea Michele or Elliott Gould want to show up, I'm sure Eli would be willing to share the celebration.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Bloomington-Normal's Piece of "8" Coming Up at ISU

Illinois State University's Center for the Performing Arts will host the Bloomington-Normal premiere of "8," billed as "a new play about California's historic case for marriage equality," on Saturday, September 8, at 7:30 pm.

This staged reading is free to the public, and will include a panel discussion after the performance. Couples involved in recent lawsuits filed in Illinois to challenge the state's same-sex marriage ban will be present to join the discussion.

Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black ("Milk," "J. Edgar") is the author of the play, which uses actual trial transcripts, words straight from reporters and journalists covering the trial, and interviews with the parties involved in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the case at issue. Black is also a founding board member of the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), created in the wake of the Proposition 8 debate.

The cast at the CPA will include ISU alum Tom Chiola, a retired judge from the Circuit Court of Cook County in Chicago, who will play Judge Vaughn Walker, the presiding judge in Perry v. Schwarzenegger. Other alumni, students and faculty from Illinois State University will fill the other twenty roles in the play in this stage reading, following in the footsteps of actors like George Clooney, Jamie Lee Curtis, Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, and ISU alum Jane Lynch.

Those stars were there when "8" the play opened with staged readings on both coasts within the last year. Since then, AFER and Broadway Impact have made the rights to the play available at no cost to colleges and community theaters across the country as an attempt to "spur action, dialogue and understanding."

This staged reading at the CPA is co-sponsored by the Prairie Pride Coalition and ISU's School of Theatre and Dance, University Housing Services, Diversity Advocacy, and the LGBT Queer Studies and Services Unit.

Everybody is invited -- again, admission to the performance and the panel discussion are completely free -- and if you need special accommodation to be able to participate, you are asked to contact Janet Wilson, Director of the Illinois State University School of Theatre and Dance, at 309-438-8088, as soon as possible to allow time to arrange it.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Return of Fabulous "Fabulation" -- This Week at New Route Theatre

Lynn Nottage's play "Fabulation, or the Re-education of Undine" comes back to New Route Theatre at the Bloomington YWCA this week, and there's all kinds of fun stuff out there in Internet Land to prepare the way.

As you may recall, New Route offered "Fabulation" a little more than a year ago as part of its One Shot Deal series at the Eaton Gallery. With limited space and few technical frills, director Gregory D. Hicks and his cast did a very credible job with the material, telling the story of one high-achieving African-American woman brought down by some double-dealing and her own ego. Forced to go back home and mend some fences, Undine (real name: Sharona Watkins) finds the real person under all the pretense, but it's not an easy trip down this particular rabbit hole.

This time out, actress Melissa James Shrader appears as Undine, with a supporting cast that includes Leola Bellamy, Jennifer Cirillo, Corey Hardin, Gabrielle Loft-Rogers, John D. Poling, Miles Spann and Skylar Tempel, with Jennifer Rusk acting as stage manager. New Route Artistic Director Don Shandrow is the producer, which means he is, as always, looking out for the big picture.

Shandrow and Hicks both appear in this video piece about "Fabulation," with cast members talking about their roles and their thoughts on the play in this one, Shandrow giving some info about "Fabulation" from a producer's perspective here, and director/actor Hicks back with Rusk, his stage manager, in yet another behind-the-scenes video, as he talks about how he came to be involved and she discusses her own role with the project.

New Route Theatre is "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," with a mission "to do professional quality theatre using a broad spectrum of artists who represent the community in all of its diversity."

"Fabulation" certainly aims for the bull's eye on those targets, as Nottage's script examines the human heart and mind and more specifically, the heart and mind of one female member of the African-American community as she grapples with her choices, good and bad. We see how she tries to reconcile her aspirations with a sense of love and connection, how she fits into the scheme of 21st Century America as a smart, talented, ambitious, pretty darn unlucky woman. Undine is a fascinating character, and Jamelle Robinson did a great job with the character back in July 2011. I can already tell from the videos linked above that Melissa James Shrader will be creating a slightly different Undine/Sharon. Equally fascinating, smart, talented, ambitious and unlucky, you can bet, but still... With the different tones and layers that a new actress automatically brings to the role.

Shrader and Co. are part of that "broad spectrum of artists" the New Route mission refers to, and by doing "Fabulation" twice, they get to include more actors and broaden their spectrum even more. I believe that Corey Hardin and Miles Spann are the only acting holdovers from the first production, which means new shadings almost all around.

"Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine" opens August 31 in the New Route space tucked into the Bloomington YWCA. Performances continue September 1, 7 and 8 at 7:30 pm, and September 2 and 9 at 2:30 pm.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Teasing Season 3 of "Downton Abbey"

Season 3 of "Downton Abbey" won't be back on PBS until January 6, 2013, but in the meantime...

The PBS site is offering some tempting hints about what's to come, and some snippets of video have been out and about on various media sites.

So what do we have to look forward to?

Yes, Matthew and Lady Mary are still planning to wed, and yes, Sybil is still married to her socialist chauffeur and expecting a baby. Poor Bates has been convicted of offing his horrible wife, but at least he isn't sentenced to death anymore, and his true love, Anna, is staying on at Downton Abbey now that Mary called off her plans to go to America to get away from her nasty fiance, Richard. Expect plenty of challenges for all of those relationships as "Downton Abbey" moves into the post-World War I period and political, social and economic strife ramp up. Think about it — the Jazz Age, Hemingway and Hitler are on the horizon.

But the biggest change afoot at the moment for the Crawley family is that American Grandma is coming to town. Shirley MacLaine has joined the cast (she's in the picture above, next to Dame Maggie Smith as Violet, the Dowager Countess) as the American mother of Cora, the Countess of Grantham, who is played by Elizabeth McGovern. MacLaine's Martha Levinson arrives and immediately clashes with Smith's Dowager Countess, showcasing class and culture conflicts between the aristocratic values of the British empire, represented by Violet, and brash, new American ways, represented by Martha. That's front and center in the video you can see here.

"You Americans never understand the importance of tradition," snipes the Dowager Countess as an opening salvo.

"Yes, we do," replies the unimpressed Mrs. Levinson. "We just don't give it power over us. Maybe you should think about letting go of its hand."

PBS offers this "tantalizing glimpse ahead," telling us that "Downton's impeccable butler, Carson (Carter), breaks in a new footman, who happens to be the nephew of the scheming lady's maid O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran). Following Matthew and Mary's engagement, Robert sticks to his duty to maintain Downton more firmly than ever — even as other great houses are crippled psychologically and financially in the wake of World War I."

Sounds exciting, yes? I'm not sure I can wait for January. But I guess I'll try.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Equity Jeff Award Nominations Announced

It's an embarrassment of riches. Or nominations. This year the judges handing out nominations for the equity side of Chicago's Joseph Jefferson Awards went big, with ten nods in the Director of a Play category and nine each for large and midsize plays.

Meanwhile, they made the usual head-scratching choices, singling out only Caroline O'Connor among the four leads of Chicago Shakespeare's "Follies," when she was by far the least successful of the four. Sorry, Susan Moniz! I loved you.

That "Follies" led the pack with seven nominations, including one for the production itself (large musical), supporting actress Hollis Resnick (who was terrific), director Gary Griffin, musical director Brad Haak, choreographer Alex Sanchez and costume designer Virgil C. Johnson.

Other productions with seven nominations include "Death and Harry Houdini" at the House Theatre of Chicago, and "Invisible Man," at Court Theatre in association with Christopher McElroen Productions.

The cast of "The Iceman Cometh" at the Goodman, one of the most talked-about shows of the year, was given an "ensemble" nomination along with individual nods for Brian Dennehy, as Larry Slade, director Robert Falls, scenic designer Kevin Depinet, lighting designer Natasha Katz, and the show itself in the large play category.

"Clybourne Park" at Steppenwolf was another show with its ensemble outshining individuals, as the cast as a whole, along with director Amy Morton and scenic designer Todd Rosenthal, were nominated. Rosenthal collected more nominations than most shows, with his work on "An Iliad" at Court Theatre and "Red" at the Goodman also honored. 

Other big name shows -- "Elizabeth Rex" at Chicago Shakes, "Angels in America" and "An Iliad" at Court Theatre, "The March" at Steppenwolf, "Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting" and "Eastland" at Lookingglass -- were handed multiple nominations, as well.

Like Rosenthal, lighting designer Jesse Klug, scenic designer Jack Magaw, sound designer Kevin O'Donnell, and production/media designer Mike Tutaj each received three nominations.

And IWU's Amanda Dehnert ("Eastland") and ISU's Gary Griffin ("Follies") were both nominated for best direction of a large musical.

For the complete list of nominations, click here. Theatre in Chicago and the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones have some interesting commentary on the nominations, too.

Friday, August 24, 2012

"Truly Irish" Poetry at the Museum

Next Tuesday there will be a little reading of the green at the McLean County Museum of History. "Truly Irish: A Poetry Reading," with guest poet Eamonn Wall, will take place at the Museum's Governor Fifer Courtroom for a poetical performance -- free and open to the public -- scheduled to begin at 7:30 pm.

Guest poet and scholar Eamonn Wall will appear in conjunction with "Kirkshop the Workshop," poet Kathleen Kirk's poetry group. Wall will join the Kirkshop poets as part of the Museum's continuing series highlighting poetry with a historical bent.

The history involved in "Truly Irish" is, of course, Irish, or "the Irish-American experience, Irish heritage in the U.S. and poetry inspired by the Museum's current exhibit The Greening of the Prairie: Irish Immigration and Settlement in McLean County."

If you need more information on the event, you are asked to call the Museum's Education Department at 309-827-0428 or email

You can also see the Museum's calendar of events here.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Lori Adams and "Falling" Headed Off-Broadway to Minetta Lane

Lori Adams
Last year, St. Louis Post-Dispatch critic Judith Newmark awarded ISU's Lori Adams "Best Director" honors in her 2011 list of St. Loui's best theatrical endeavors for her work on the play "Falling," by Deanna Jent. As she talked about the play and why it stood out, Newmark wrote, "'Falling' comes endowed with a keen mind, a warm though troubled heart — and a future. There's hope to bring it to New York, probably Off-Broadway; productions at other theaters around the country are virtually certain."

Newmark knew whereof she spoke, as is reporting that "Falling," with Lori Adams once again at the helm, will receive its Off-Broadway premiere at the Minetta Lane Theater in the West Village. It's a wonderful theater, the launching pad for plays like Moises Kaufman's "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" and Mitch Albom's "Tuesdays With Morrie."

"Falling" is scheduled to begin previews on Thursday, September 27, with its official opening night scheduled for Monday, October 15, 2012.

Jent's play involves parents trying to balance the needs of their teenage daughter and their austistic son. Or, as Playbill's listing and the banner above frame the issue: "Family is not the most important thing: it's everything. Who will be there to catch you?" Jent herself is the mother of an autistic son and Newmark noted in the article linked at the top of this piece that "Falling" is based on Jent's own family. Along with being a playwright, she is the Artistic Director of the Mustard Seed Theatre, where the play was produced in St. Louis.

For its New York production, "Falling" will feature the work of scenic designer John C. Stark, who is also Adams' husband and Head of Production/Design at Illinois State University's School of Theatre and Dance; costume designer Tristan Raines; lighting designer Julie Mack; sound designer Raymond Schilke and fight choreographer Rick Sordelet.

Adams is the head of the Acting Program at ISU, and she also directs and acts in local productions. Last season, she directed William Inge's "Picnic" as part of the ISU theater season and the annual Holiday Extravaganza at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts. She has acted in many local plays, including taking on the titular woman in Alan Ayckbourn's "Woman in Mind" at Heartland Theatre and playing Fanny Kemble in the touring one-woman show "Shame the Devil! An Audience with Fanny Kemble."

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Memories of the Station Theatre's First 40 Years... In Book Form!

You may've noticed that last season was the 40th anniversary season for Urbana's Station Theatre. They had a nifty graphic for it, reproduced here, and they had various celebrations for their momentous anniversary, including a "Homecoming" performance of "Rent" to which Celebration Company alums were invited, and a picnic at founder and artistic director Rick Orr's home last month.

I interviewed Orr last December, when the season was at its midpoint, and he gave me a lot of good information about how the Station Theatre came to be and where it was headed. That was a quick look at the Station Theatre's history. Very quick.

Mathew Green, currently a member of the Station's board of directors, chose to memorialize the Station's past in a more expansive way. Working with his wife, Lindsay Green, Mathew put together a whole book devoted to pictures, posters and words of wisdom from some of the Celebration Company's major personalities from over the years. Each season is represented, and there are fond remembrances from Rick Orr and Mathew Green, as well as Gary Ambler, Pat Ambler-Perry, Malia Andrus, Katie Baldwin, Mark Brokaw, Eric Burton, Barb Evans, Lindsay Gates-Markel, Joi Hoffsommer, Kay Holley, Eric Jakobsson, Steve Keen, Mikel Matthews, John Morgan, Nick Offerman, Mike Prosise, Debbie Richardson, Janice Rothbaum, Phil Strang, Stephen Tobolowsky, Mike Trippiedi and Rob Zaleski.

 The front cover of the Station Theatre's 40th anniversary coffee table book.
Photo credit for front-cover image: Jesse Folks

In short, this is a wonderful testament to the Station, and a great way to commemorate a theater that has meant a lot to a lot of people. I can guarantee that anybody who has ever been associated with the Station Theatre is going to be incredibly moved just from leafing through the pages of this memory book. I saw so many of those shows. I was involved in a few. I remember those amazing performances and those amazing people. And now I can keep on remembering, with photo evidence!

If you'd like to own a copy of "The Station Theatre: The First 40 Seasons," you can click here to look at a preview and order your own copy.

(And thanks, Mathew and Lindsay Green. Job well done!)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Kay Francis: Leading Lady Who Became Box Office Poison

Have you ever heard of movie star Kay Francis? Although I was a big fan of old movies, Kay Francis was completely new to me when I started taking film classes. It came as a surprise that she'd been one of Hollywood's top leading ladies in the 1930s, with roles in movies like Ernst Lubitsch's fabulous "Trouble in Paradise," the five-hankie women's picture "One Way Passage," and "Another Dawn," now infamous for including every cliche known to movie-makers.

Francis and her films are being highlighted today on Turner Classic Movies, with all kinds of gems hardly ever shown on TV anymore. "One Way Passage," where she's a terminally ill woman with a last-chance romance on an ocean liner, was first thing this morning, but there's plenty of good stuff still coming up. Tonight, starting at 7, you can see "Guilty Hands," a murder mystery with Lionel Barrymore, where TCM notes say she plays "a vampy beauty with intelligence and soul to burn; "The House on 56th Street," where she's a chorus girl turned society wife turned criminal and then back to being a glamorous fashion maven; and the steamy "Mandalay," with Francis as a bad girl with three names and some pretty dicey choices in men, careers and criminal enterprises.

Kay Francis was a role model for women of the 30s, mostly because of her wardrobe and strength, showcasing what it meant to suffer and rise above, to stand there like a graceful goddess no matter what her movies threw at her.

But then there was the "Box Office Poison" problem. In 1938, a group called the Independent Theatre Owners Association decided that Edward Arnold, Fred Astaire, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Kay Francis, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Mae West were -- all by themselves -- killing movie profits. The movie theater owners lambasted the stars as overpaid and underachieving, begging the studios to rethink making movies with those stars. Ouch.

Crawford never really stopped doing what she was doing, and Hepburn and Garbo came back after awhile, but Kay Francis never really recovered. Bette Davis became the new #1 star at Warner Brothers, and Francis was relegated to lesser roles and lesser pictures.

And that's probably why you've never heard of Kay Francis, and why you should take a look at this elegant, gracious actress who managed to elevate a lot of pretty awful plots with her style as well as a contemplative gaze into the distance that always seemed to make her characters seem deeper than they really were.

Check out the complete Kay Francis schedule at Turner Classic Movies.

Monday, August 20, 2012

No "Cherry Orchard" at ISU -- It's "The Maids" Instead

The School of Theatre and Dance at Illinois State University has announced a change in the line-up for this season. Instead of Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" in the November slot in Centennial West 207, we will see Jean Genet's "The Maids" instead.

MFA directing candidate Vanessa Stalling will still direct, the rest of the production team remains in place, and performances will still run from November 1-4 and 6-10 at CW 207. No word yet on the cast for "The Maids," but there are roles for three women* in this controversial, dangerous little play.

The major action of the play surrounds Solange and Claire, sisters who work together as housemaids for wealthy Madame. When Madame is away, the maids will play, concocting sadomasochistic games around the mistress/servant relationship. First Claire dons powder and rouge and lingerie to impersonate Madame, verbally eviscerating her sister until the clock runs out on Round I. Then Solange turns the tables and pretends to murder Madame as portrayed by Claire. These two are what you might called Twisted Sisters.

And when Madame comes home, the game enters a new phase, as real poison and real betrayal are  revealed. There are issues of identity, power, sex and class all over "The Maids," making it a very dark and dramatic psychodrama in the right hands.

This image shows Susannah York and Glenda Jackson as Claire and Solange in the 1975 movie version of "The Maids." And, yes, it's as creepy as it looks. "The Maids" is definitely difficult, provocative material, making it a very intriguing choice for ISU's theater program, especially in the intimate space of CW 207.

Meanwhile, I'd love to see somebody at ISU pick up Adam Rapp's "The Edge of Our Bodies," a one-woman (or one-teen) play about an alienated schoolgirl who has a role in her boarding school production of "The Maids," and do it in some campus venue. Those two plays need to be seen together.

* Genet originally intended for the roles to be played by men, and that still happens fairly often. Do a Google image search on "The Maids" and you'll see a lot of guys in French maid drag. The movie version went with women, as you can see above, and Stalling is also casting females for the ISU production. Personally, I prefer it with women, just because the oppression of the maids and the power imbalance seems stronger that way. Yes, it loses something in camp or absurdity, but... The stuff about babies and mothers plays much better, and the women's problems seem more real. Just my take...

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Woody Allen's "Rome" Is Fun, If Not Quite "Paris"

It seems like forever since Woody Allen has taken on the Woody Allen role in one of his movies. Instead, Owen Wilson, Anthony Hopkins and Larry David have played the patented Woody role -- intellectual, neurotic, curmudgeonly -- most recently, while Woody hasn't, since 2006, anyway, when he played a magician in "Scoop" in a role that wasn't all that central to the plot.

It's almost surprising to see him back on the screen in "To Rome with Love," back being the fussy, fidgety, idiosyncratic guy we remember all the way back to "Bananas" and "Take the Money and Run." This time, he's Jerry, a retired opera director who's always gotten slammed for his outrageous staging choices such as "Rigoletto" with everybody dressed as white mice and a whole "Tosca" inside a phone booth. Jerry and  his wife, an edgy psychiatrist named Phyllis (Judy Davis), have come to Rome to meet their daughter's new Italian fiance, one Michelangelo, whose dad, otherwise a mortician, loves to sing opera in the shower. Jerry becomes somewhat obsessed with getting the singing mortician (played by tenor Fabio Armiliato) onto the stage in "Pagliacci," even if he has to put a rolling shower center stage and keep his leading man naked, wet and soapy to be able to perform.

That opera/shower plotline is one of four in "To Rome with Love," so it's not like Woody gave himself the leading role in the film. Instead, he has a light, frothy (perhaps bubbly is a better word) story, played completely for laughs, that serves him and the movie well, reminding us of the days when he was such a charming on-screen presence. Davis is just right as his comic foil, and Alison Pill is lovely as their daughter, even if it seems unlikely she could've come from that gene pool.

"To Rome with Love" focuses on the fantasy aspects of its central city, with Roberto Benigni also in a fanciful plot thread about a man who suddenly and inexplicably becomes a celebrity, swarmed by paparazzi, pursued by beautiful women, chauffeured and pampered and treated like royalty. It makes no sense, of course, but it works just fine as a commentary on fame, as slight as it (and Benigni) are.

The Benigni piece and the third plotline, about a young, naive couple of newlyweds from the country who fall into romantic hijinks with strangers, are offered in Italian with some subtitles, so don't be surprised if you can speak a few words by the time you get home. "Bella," "Ecco" and "Non lo so" were popping up all over the place. My husband also noticed that boxer shorts is "boxer" since Benigni's character gets asked the boxers or briefs question during his flirtation with fame.

That third story, about the wide-eyed small-town kids trying to navigate the big city, was my least favorite of the four, with its hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (Penelope Cruz) trope not working for me at all. Anna, the call girl, pretends to be the boy's wife when she mistakenly shows up in his hotel room in her skin-tight red dress and stilettos just as his stodgy Roman relatives arrive to meet him. For one thing, Woody needs to give up o the hookers already. Plus it seems strange that the innocent boy gets hottie Penelope Cruz for his sexual adventure, while the girl has to make do with a bald, chubby guy who looks a bit like the Italian version of George Costanza. Even without that disconnect, the tone of it is all too obvious and farcical for me. As well as kind of unpleasant.

It's the fourth story that comes off the the deepest and most interesting, mostly because of Alec Baldwin, who gives his mysterious character, an architect who is remembering the time he spent in Rome as a youth, a softness and contemplative quality that set him apart. He tries to steer Jesse Eisenberg, a younger version of him, away from a stupid but inevitable hook-up with his girlfriend's exotic friend, an actress with a spiky, narcissistic sexual energy. Eisenberg comes close to Woody Allen's young persona, with his intellectual pretensions and befuddled romantic yearnings, even though Baldwin's character is older and wiser in ways Allen never seemed to reach as an actor. It's all very intriguing, with good performances from Baldwin, Eisenberg, and Greta Gerwig as the girlfriend who gets lost in the shuffle. I wasn't as happy with Ellen Page as Monica, the irresistible object of desire. Page is too whiny, too nasal, and not really all that interesting. Maybe Penelope Cruz should've tried this role, with the stereotypical call girl role excised from the movie altogether.

"To Rome with Love" has one more showing at the Normal Theater, tonight at 7 pm. It's a bargain at $6, plus soda and popcorn are only a dollar each.

So, no, I didn't love it as much as I loved "Midnight in Paris" and its intoxicating romanticism. This one steers closer to broad comedy, which is not as close to my heart. But that's okay, Woody. This one is a solid B and worth its 112 minutes in the theater. And, after all, we'll always have "Paris."

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Actors Assigned for Discovery Walk 2012

Judy Brown, Artistic Director of Illinois Voices Theatre, which collaborates with the McLean County Museum of History and Evergreen Memorial Cemetery to present the Discovery Walk every year, has announced casting for this year's celebration of historical figures from Bloomington's past.

Brown wrote, "Welcoming back Kathleen Kirk, Rhys Lovell, Kevin Wickart, and Gwen de Veer and wishing our newbies Marcus Smith, Leola Bellamy, Cathy Sutliff, and John Bowen a terrific acting experience unlike any other that I am familiar with."

Kathleen Kirk and Rhys Lovell have appeared in this historical reenactment event often, most recently as Southern sympathizer Martha Rice and wounded Union soldier Lewis Ijams in the 2011 Discovery Walk. Gwen de Veer and Kevin Wickart were also present last year; she played Frances Ela, half of a sweet young couple divided by war, while he was John C. Roeder, a German immigrant who became a raider to catch Confederate outlaws.

Kathleen Kirk as a ghostly Martha Rice in Discovery Walk 2011
You may've seen Marcus Smith and Cathy Sutliff, both newcomers to the Walk, in Heartland Theatre's production of "Superior Donuts" last spring, while John Bowen was on stage with Heartland in "Proof" and "The Diviners" in 2011 and at Community Players in "Hauptmann" earlier this year. Leola Bellamy is part of the cast of New Route Theatre's "Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine," which begins August 28 at their theater tucked inside the Bloomington YWCA.

Rhys Lovell as Lewis Ijams
Brown did not make mention of which actor is matched to which role, but we've seen the list of personages represented this year.

A few I know:  Gwen de Veer and Leola Bellamy are playing Madame Annette, the pseudonymous newspaper writer who interviewed local celebs, and fortune-teller Sophia Huggins, while Marcus Smith will take on Ike Sanders, owner of the Workingman's Club restaurant.

And we only have two female characters other than Annette and Huggins, so that means Kathleen Kirk and Cathy Sutliff will divide Georgina Trotter, a "dynamo," and Charlotte Scott, wife of prominent judge John M. Scott, between them. I'll go with Kirk for Trotter and Sutliff for Scott, just as a wild guess.

That leaves John Bowen, Rhys Lovell and Kevin Wickart unaccounted for. I'm going to predict Bowen gets Jerry Wonderlich, the racecar driver/Hollywood Romeo, but I haven't got a clue who's who between charismatic politician "Trott" Funk and W.C. Hobbs, the Beau Brummell of Bloomington-Normal. Lovell for Funk and Wickart for Hobbs?

I could be on target here, or I could be absolutely wrong for everyone!  I expect a few of the actors to set me straight soon enough, but for the total picture, I will clearly need to show up for the Discovery Walk (September 29-30 and October 6-7) to find out.

Tickets will be available after September 4 at the Garlic Press in Normal, Casey's Garden Shop in Bloomington, Evergreen Cemetery, or the McLean County Museum of History. They range from $4 for kids to $10 for Museum members and $14 for the general public.

Photo credits: Dana Colcleasure

More on "Smash": Sean Hayes and Sheryl Lee Ralph Join the Fray

NBC's "Smash," the drama series about putting on a Broadway show, will look decidedly different when it comes back next winter. When we last saw Karen, the dull girl from Dullsville who is inexplicably loved by somebody behind "Smash," she had already won the role of Marilyn in "Bombshell," the show-within-the-show, so Season 1's search for a star was over. Thank goodness. What a mess that was.

Will "Marilyn" be dunzo when Season 2 begins, with everybody working on new things and putting that disaster behind them? I don't know, but I have my fingers crossed.

Personally, I'd like a multitude of plot and character changes to go along with all the cast and production team changes they've already announced. Not gonna get my hopes up, however, since the early word on Season 2 indicates there's still way too much focus on "Perfect Princess Karen, the Perfectest Princess Who Ever Perfected Princessing," instead of, you know, either firing Katharine McPhee and hiring somebody more interesting or redoing the character to make her less like wallpaper paste. Instead, they've hired a bunch of new people to orbit Karen's dim sun, and the NBC promo for its new season shows Jennifer Hudson, who will be joining the show for a few episodes as a Broadway star of some renown, offering sage advice to Perfect Princess Karen, who is wearing Swiss Miss braids and gazing vapidly into space.

Not a good way to pique my interest.

Still, there is other news that might be good. We've heard recently that Sean Hayes, an ISU grad with all kinds of TV, film and Broadway success on his resume, will also be doing a multi-episode arc on "Smash." Word is that he'll be playing a comedian taking on Broadway in a musical version of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." Would Hayes be the sinister and sexy Valmont in this new show-within-a-show? It doesn't seem like the world's best match of actor to role, but then, it depends on whether it's a spoof or a serious take on "Liaisons." We also don't know if he'll be yet another character in Karen's circle, but the fact that he is bringing in a new show-within-the-show suggests maybe not, if she's still being Marilyn. And the mention of "Liaisons: The Musical!" at least means there's something to take focus off the ghastly "Bombshell."

The other newly announced guest star is Sheryl Lee Ralph, who will be playing the mother of Veronica, Jennifer Hudson's character. Ralph has some pretty nifty credits of her own, including being the original Deena in "Dreamgirls" on Broadway. That gives her a fun connection to J-Hud, who famously won an Oscar as Effie in the movie version of the show. Ralph also appeared in the movie "Sister Act 2: Back to the Habit," which Vulture reports is supposed to be Jennifer Hudson's favorite movie of all time. And she's beautiful and talented, so a good match for Hudson. Will she be a barracuda of a mother, or have they already played that card with Bernadette Peters as Ivy's mum? Will she be fragile and clingy and create lots of messes her daughter has to clean up? That doesn't seem like Sheryl Lee Ralph. Maybe she'll be the life of the party who floats in and out and dazzles everybody, like the character Ralph played in "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

We haven't heard yet that Veronica will be important enough or have enough of a story to need a mother, but if she's there to do more than just reinforce the saintliness and wonder that is Karen, it will be a step in the right direction. And having a mom who presents conflict of any kind certainly doesn't connect her to Karen, the one with the sweet parental units back in Iowa.

And whether Hayes and Ralph are just more props for Karen, or they get to do something a lot more fun and satisfying, the best news is that cool stars with real Broadway chops keep getting added to the show. That can't be a bad thing!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Try to Remember: "The Fantasticks" in 1964

If you know anything about "The Fantasticks," the prototypical off-Broadway musical, it's probably that it is the world's longest-running musical. And that's still true as far as I know, even though that original Greenwich Village production did get interrupted for awhile. But "The Fantasticks," with music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones, opened off-Broadway on May 3, 1960, and then ran for 17,162 performances over the next 42 years, finally closing on January 13, 2002.

Since 1960, it's been performed all over the world by more companies than you can shake a stick at. And it came back to New York in 2006 at the Jerry Orbach Theatre inside the Snapple Theater Center on West 50th Street in Manhattan. Where it's still playing, of course. I wouldn't bet against another 42 years.

One intriguing note about the current production: John Davidson is in it. He's now playing the Old Actor* but in 1964, he played the boy, Matt, in the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV broadcast of the show. My friend Jon recently found a video of that production on Youtube, and he kindly shared it with me.

Jon set it up by noting that it had been "cut down to an hour, minus time for three commercials. It does get rushed, but on the whole the condensation helps it, I think (we lose all that business with the actors' troupe, as well as the now-impossible 'Rape' song), some of the intended fantasy and unreality comes through, and all five of the cast really deliver: Ricardo Montalban as El Gallo, two great old vaudevillians for the fathers (Stanley Holloway, Bert Lahr), two appealing and talented kids (John Davidson, Susan Watson). And a fine set of orchestrations for the occasion by Phil Lang."

That production, which you can see for yourself right here, was broadcast on October 18, 1964. As Jon said, it starred Davidson opposite Susan Watson as Luisa, the girl, with Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway as the two dads and Ricardo Montalban as El Gallo, the narrator of the piece.

Yes, that's right. "Khaaaaan!" played El Gallo and sang "Try to Remember," the hit song from "The Fantasticks." Quite nicely, as it happens. He'd done a number of films and even a couple of Broadway musicals, making him a star already, even though it would be a few years before his "Star Trek," Corinthian Leather or "Fantasy Island" gigs. But Montalban clearly had the charm and style to be a fine El Gallo. His voice is a little lighter than Jerry Orbach, who famously originated the role back in Greenwich Village, but still... Montalban fits the bill.

Before the broadcast, Davidson** had appeared in a Broadway show called "Foxy," with Lahr in the title role, while Watson had played Luisa in the Barnard College production -- a kind of pre-New York try-out -- of "The Fantasticks." Together, they project plenty of sweetness and spirit, making young lovers Matt and Luisa very appealing throughout their story, where they go from the rapture of youthful romance to falling out, growing up and coming home.

Stanley Holloway, best-known for playing Eliza Doolittle's father on stage and on film in "My Fair Lady," is just fine as Luisa's dad, but for me, Bert Lahr pretty much steals the show away from everybody. He's irresistible. He's adorable. Everybody knows Lahr as the Cowardly Lion, but his vaudeville background and acting chops (he was Estragon in "Waiting for Godot" on Broadway) make him a perfect choice for Hucklebee. (Trivia note: Both Holloway and Lahr played Bottom in well-received productions of "A Midsummer Night's Dream.")

A lot of people have fond memories of a "Fantasticks" somewhere in their past, and this TV version may rekindle those feelings. If you're one of that crowd, click here to see the Youtube video. It's well worth an hour of your time. Oh, and you get to see some vintage Hallmark commercials, too, just for the total nostalgia package.

* The Old Actor was part of what was cut for the shorter TV version of "The Fantasticks," so in some ways, it's not really a complete circle for Davidson.

** John Davidson would become something of a teen idol after appearing in the Disney films "The Happiest Millionaire" in 1967 and "The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band" in 1968. I recall his grandstand appearance at the Heart of Illinois Fair in Peoria somewhere around 1967 and how I frantically hunted down a paper napkin at the concession stand so that I could get his autograph. I think I was 10. And I cherished that autograph for years.

Connie de Veer and the ISU School of Theatre Facebook Page

I find out all kinds of interesting things at the School of Theatre at Illinois State Facebook page. Right now, there are notices about a staged reading of Dustin Lance Black's Proposition 8 play (it's called "8," which doesn't look like much all by itself, so I added the Prop 8 part) and Dr. Ashley Lucas offering a solo performance called "Doin' Time" about the affect of incarceration on families.

And then I got an inside scoop that Eli Van Sickel, the guy who creates ISU's School of Theatre and Dance Facebook and Twitter presence, is looking for 500 "likes" on that Facebook page. And to get to his magic 500 number (they're sitting at 480 last I looked), Eli somehow convinced the delightful and charming Connie de Veer, Associate Professor who teaches acting, voice and Alexander Technique at ISU and specializes in dialects, to perform some text to be identified later (perhaps Dr. Seuss or a soliloquy from "Hamlet"?) in a dialect or series of dialects if and only if they get over the 500 finish line.

I don't know about you, but I would love to see (and hear) Connie de Veer launch into "To be or not to be" with a Scottish brogue. Or do every line in some new exotic accent. Wouldn't you like to hear "shuffle off this mortal coil" sound like it came from Transylvania? I could totally get behind that.

So, anyway, at least twenty of you need to get over to Facebook and click the LIKE button at the top of the School of Theatre at Illinois State Facebook Page. NOW!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Heartland Dedicates 2012-13 Season to Michael Pullin

Heartland Theatre Company has announced that it is dedicating its 2012-13 season to Michael Pullin, the resident scenic designer, actor and colleague who passed away August 7th.

The notice you see above will appear in all of the programs for Heartland shows this season, as well as on the Season page of the Heartland website.

Pullin was a huge part of the Heartland family, and the Heartland Board of Directors felt strongly that this season should be dedicated to his memory. He had already put together plans for the scenic design for "These Shining Lives" and he also planned to star in and design the set for "Red." Michael's absence will be felt keenly in those shows, but his presence will be there, too.

"These Shining Lives," directed by Don LaCasse, is in rehearsal now, with a cast that includes Colleen Longo, Paula Nowak, Reena Artman, Christine Wing, Jared Kugler and Todd Wineburner. Playwright Melanie Marnich wrote this story about "Radium Girls," happy to have found a life as working women in the 1920s, but betrayed terribly and completely by the company they work for. As they dip their tiny paintbrushes in radium-loaded paint, licking the brushes to make precise, glowing numbers on watch dials, they are poisoning themselves. It's a play about women's work and self-worth, life and death, the freshness of youth and the tragedy of turning old before your time.

Heartland's production of the play opens September 6 with a special Pay-What-You-Can Preview, followed by performances September 7-9, 13-16 and 20-29. To see performance dates and times as well as reservation information, click here.

Check Out Mickey O'Sullivan in "Ritual" Trailer

You may've seen actor Mickey O'Sullivan during his career in Bloomington-Normal -- he played everything from C. K. Dexter Haven in ISU's "Philadelphia Story" to Captain John McNulta, making visitors to the Discovery Walk at Evergreen Cemetery drop and give him twenty, to a (fictional) hard-boiled detective taking a fall in Jessica Wisniewski's "It's All in My Head" at Heartland Theatre.

When he left ISU and went to New York, Mickey showed up in (and got great reviews for) a show called "Wake" at Aisling Arts, and then he came back to the Midwest for awhile, including a stint in Wisconsin this summer, where he's currently in "Man of LaMancha." I'm not sure when Mickey did "The Crucible" (photo at left) but clearly that's on his resume, as well.

Now Mr. O'Sullivan has shown up -- looking quite different, mind you! -- in the trailer (or the "teaser trailer," which I'm guessing is shorter than a regular trailer) for a new movie called "Ritual." You can check out that trailer, as well as Mickey in platinum hair, at or here on youtube.

Kevin Michael Martin directed the film, which features cinematography by Jack Martin. According to the website, "Ritual" involves a group of college freshman on the night they are initiated (and presumably hazed) at a fraternity. It's set for a Spring 2013 release. Looking kinda scary there, Mickey.

Monday, August 13, 2012

"Merrily" Keeps Rolling in PS Classics Cast Recording

When Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along" played earlier this year as part of New York City Center's Encores! series, PS Classics got to work almost immediately to capture the performance by way of a cast recording. That was great news for Sondheim enthusiasts unable to make it to New York to see it in person.

Even better, this two-disc "Merrily" is the usual top-notch PS Classics production, "complete with 52-page full-color booklet with essay, synopsis, lyrics, production photos and an expansive Jonathan Tunick."

Part of the note is reproduced here at the PS Classics site so you can see some of Tunick's inside scoop as a special treat even before you get the cd.

And make no mistake -- you need to get this cd. "Merrily We Roll Along" is one of those special Sondheim shows that fans adore and other people tend to just not get. It goes backwards. It has an unhappy ending (that comes at the beginning) as we see exactly where Franklin Shepard, the talented guy at the center of the show, went wrong. It features talented people (Frank and his two best pals, Mary and Charley) who can't seem to find a way to truly share their talents or keep their friendship going because of the kind of compromises, mistakes, and loss of ideals that pretty much happens to everyone. Wasted talent. Broken friendship. Middle-age ennui. All unwinding backwards, from that middle-aged low point through trial and tribulation, frustration and betrayal, past fledgling success and early steps in the right direction, till we're back with Frank, Mary and Charley before it all began, as fresh, starry-eyed kids, ready to take on the world.

So, yes, "Merrily We Roll Along" is bittersweet, and it's fair to say that critics and audiences have not always embraced it. The original "Merrily" Broadway production, the one in 1981 with Jason Alexander and Liz Callaway in the cast, ran for 52 previews and only 16 performances, with New York Times critic Frank Rich calling the show a shambles. He began his review, "As we all should probably have learned by now, to be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one's heart broken at regular intervals."

Still, the show has been produced in London, Washington DC, LA, and back in New York, Off-Broadway at the York Theatre in 1994. Oh, and in Central Illinois. I've seen one in Bloomington-Normal and at least two in Champaign-Urbana.

But the Encores! production was something special. With Jonathan Tunick rethinking the orchestrations (as he mentioned in that note linked above), with James Lapine once again directing, with conductor Rob Berman leading a 23-piece orchestra, with stars like Colin Donnell, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Lin-Manuel Miranda playing Frank, Mary and Charley, it was a "Merrily" a lot of people had been waiting for.

The PS Classics cast recording, produced by Tommy Krasker with his usual attention to detail and a clear love for the material, comes off beautifully. It looks good, with enough pictures and a detailed synopsis to give you a real feel for the production, plus pieces of dialogue to enhance the music.

And, oh, the music. "Merrily We Roll Along" has several standout songs, like the beautiful and sad "Not a Day Goes By," which sounds as haunting as ever from Donnell, Keenan-Bolger and especially Betsy Wolfe, playing Beth, Frank's first wife. Miranda adds the warmth and charm I expected to all of his numbers, but especially "Franklin Shepard, Inc." And Keenan-Bolfer surprised me. After her performance in "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" as soft, sweet Olive Ostrowski, I wasn't sure she could go caustic and cranky enough for Mary in "Merrily." But she sounds just fine when that's what's called for ("That Frank"), and she adds a sweet neurotic side to Mary in the early going that is quite endearing.

"Opening Doors" is another highlight, and by the time they got to "Our Time," the bright, shiny end of the show, I was a believer in all three of Donnell, Keenan-Bolger and Miranda.

To be perfectly honest, I was already in love when Berman and his orchestra began the overture. All of "Merrily We Roll Along," all the yearning, dashed hopes and yes, the spark of optimism, that these kids may just make it out okay, is right there.

The "Merrily We Roll Along" cast recording was released July 10, and it is available directly from PS Classics. You gotta have this. You know you do!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Refreshing Kind of Princess in "Brave"

There's a long tradition of animated Disney princesses enchanting young girls, all the way back to Snow White (1937) and Cinderella (1950). These days, Belle and Jasmine and Ariel and Tiana, even Mulan and Pocahontas, get trotted out at the Magic Kingdom, have tea parties with young visitors, dance and sing on video, sell costumes and hats and clothing and the entire Disney Princess concept.

The newest princess is a bit of a departure, however. She's Merida, the feisty Scottish redhead at the center of "Brave." Actress Kelly Mcdonald provides her voice, making her as appealing as she is rambunctious.

Like Mulan, Merida knows how to wield a weapon. (Note the bow and arrow in the poster at right, which is a copyrighted image taken from the Wikipedia article on "Brave" and is reprinted here as part of my own commentary on the film. You can also tell how beautiful the animation and artwork are in "Brave." Her hair alone is stunning.)

Like Belle, she is smart and devoted to her family. But unlike any other Disney princess, Merida doesn't have a Prince Charming. And, in fact, the whole hook for the plot is that she doesn't want one. Yet, anyway. She'd rather run and climb and ride than settle down to any kind of domesticity.

The action begins when Merida's well-meaning mom, given vocal warmth and grace by Emma Thompson, gathers together the three main suitors for Merida's hand. There are scions of the Clan MacGuffin (the old and young MacGuffins are voiced by Kevin McKidd), Macintosh (the head Macintosh is Craig Ferguson) and Dingwall (the big Dingwall is Robbie Coltrane), but none of these boys is anyone Merida is interested in. When they take bows in hand to battle for her hand, Merida jumps in, outdoes them all on the archery field, proclaiming she had just won her own hand.

That sets everybody fighting with everybody, including Merida's dad, the formidable Fergus (brought to life by Billy Connolly), and puts Merida and her mum at loggerheads. So Merida runs off on her trusty steed, hurtling past some of the most gorgeous scenery Pixar's artists have ever created, into a scary world of standing stones, lochs, brochs and crumbled towers. She also runs into a witch. And a variety of bears.

Because Merida is impetuous and headstrong, because she insists on being master of her own fate even though she's way too young, she makes a bad decision, which results in danger and devastation for her mother. Their attempt to restore the mother-daughter bond and mend the family makes up the rest of the plot.

There are small bits of humor in "Brave," although the main mood is dark and wild. Pixar has gotten so good at making things look real that some sections of the movie were too scary for me, let alone a young child. But then, the death of Bambi's mom still haunts me, so... You can draw your own conclusions.

All in all, I found "Brave" a vehicle for a refreshing kind of princess, one who didn't have to give up her hoydenish ways. I also appreciated that Merida's happy ending didn't include a boy, although maybe she can have a sequel later. She may be too early for Oxford, which dates back to the 11th Century, but I could totally get into Merida sent off to civilization for schooling, too uncultivated for the other students and teachers, who don't think a girl needs an education, anyway. And then she takes a boy she fancies back to DunBroch, where he is completely at sea...

Or maybe Merida doesn't need a romantic sequel. Maybe she can be her own Warrior Queen without a king at her side. Why not?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Saying Goodbye

I don't usually talk too much about myself on this blog -- I learned long ago that I was a "reporter," not a "revealer" when it came to writing style -- and so I'm confronted with a bit of a dilemma. How do I talk about Michael Pullin?

Michael was an actor, scenic designer, painter, writer, cooking expert, costumer and vivid, larger-than-life presence in the lives of anyone who has anything to do with theater or the arts around here. He passed away on Tuesday. It was very sudden and shocking, and those of us who knew Michael have been reeling.

As I said on his Facebook page, where people have been posting their thoughts as a way to cope with this terrible news, there are some people so vital and so full of energy that it seems impossible they can leave us. Michael was one of those. He had immense talents in so very many areas, and he was incredibly generous in sharing them, whether that meant offering cooking lessons at the Garlic Press or OSF, mentoring younger actors, working with kids at his church, singing in the choir, writing a play about a middle-aged, cigar-chomping tooth fairy, sewing a huge, bright-colored elephant onto the back of a cape, making a life-size puppet to dance with at the Discovery Walk, or designing countless sets for theatrical productions.

As resident scenic designer for Heartland Theatre, Michael created absolutely beautiful sets. I told him at the time that the atmospheric, leaf-strewn back porch set he did for "Proof" was better than the Broadway set for that show, and I marveled at the way he had managed to fit two complete houses and a tree into the tiny space at Heartland for "Morning's at Seven." Amazing.

Michael Pullin, actor and scenic designer for "Superior Donuts"

If the mark he left as a designer was indelible, his work as an actor was equally unforgettable. We all know, I think, that theater is only here in the moment. Designers design, directors direct, actors act, and the performance unfolds. But each performance is unique, because the actors change just slightly, the audience reacts differently, something goes wrong, something goes right, it's hotter or colder or darker or lighter in the theater that day. Each performance is a thing of its own, here in the moment, gone too fast. And that really describes Michael Pullin, doesn't it?  A person of his own, here in the moment, gone too fast...

Still, all the different characters Michael played live on in the memories of those of us who saw the shows. Last season alone at Heartland, he gave us kindly old Basil Bennett in "The Diviners;" menacing Sterling in "Mauritius," so elegant and so scary in his beautifully tailored clothes; and then Arthur Przybyszewski in "Superior Donuts," a leftover hippy running a doughnut shop that time has left behind. Before that, he was Crumpet the Elf in "The Santaland Diaries," a show where Michael did a solo act on stage, designed, built and painted the set, made his own costume, and publicized the heck out of it to make sure the house was packed for every show.

He was also a vibrant presence in the annual Discovery Walk, writing and performing as real citizens from Bloomington's past, like William Horine, who got a little sentimental over letters from home, and Christoph Mandler, a cigar-maker who danced with a doll named Mathilda, which seemed to especially appeal to the children who took the Walk. Michael built the bench Mandler rolled his cigars on, and built Mathilda from the ground up.

Michael Pullin dancing with Mathilda in the 2010 Discovery Walk

I'm glad I got to see those performances. I'm glad I got to experience his remarkable sets. I'm glad I got to work with him on "Superior Donuts." And I'm sorry that we won't get to see what he had in mind for "These Shining Lives" or "Red," where I think Michael hoped to play artist Mark Rothko and show off his painting skills on stage.

Mostly, I'm sorry Michael is gone. Godspeed, Michael Pullin. You are already missed.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

One Last Chance to Catch "The Rivals"

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival's lively and good-humored production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals" will take its final bow tomorrow night, sending young lovers Jack Absolute and Lydia Languish and her insufferable guardian Mrs. Malaprop off into the sunset one last time.

"The Rivals" boasts a smart, saucy script, full of high-flying wordplay and amusing romantic complications. It may've been Sheridan's first play, but it's a classic for a reason. And that reason is that people can be silly when it comes to love and sending up silly people never goes out of style.

In the beginning, we see that the very eligible Captain Absolute has been pretending to be poor, honest Ensign Beverly in order to woo lovely Lydia, who has hopelessly romantic tendencies from reading too many novels. Like the heroines of her books, Lydia wants to run off with a dashing ne'er-do-well, someone her guardian, Mrs. Malaprop, does not approve of.

Mrs. Malaprop, she of the mangled language who thinks there are allegories lying on the banks of the Nile, is determined to marry off Lydia to Jack Absolute, who is, of course, the same Beverly the girl already thinks herself in love with. But no one except Jack and his servant are aware that Jack and Beverly are the same man. 

Jack's dad, Sir Anthony Absolute, is equally resolute to marry his son off, and Dad wants to be the one doing the choosing. Even though they've both picked Lydia, Jack chafes under the idea that he has to bow to his father's wishes.

Lydia's friend Julia has a romantic entanglement of her own -- she loves young Faulkland, who eats himself up with doubt over Julia's true character. Faulkland is such a drama queen, he's sort of the male version of Miss Languish.

Meanwhile, there are other suitors for Lydia's hand, including Bob Acres, a hearty, somewhat oafish country dude, and Sir Lucious O'Trigger, a hot-headed Irishman who likes to duel. And everybody's correspondence is mishandled and misdirected by Lucy, Lydia's maid, who is collecting trinkets and payoffs from all sides.

The action involves cranky elders, impudent youth, conniving servants, a little eavesdropping, a bit of deception and a lot of misunderstandings. Classic romantic comedy.

For the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, Deb Alley directs a sparkling cast that sells the material nicely. Dylan Paul and Gracyn Mix, who also play Orlando and Rosalind in this summer's "As You Like It," show good chemistry, poise and energy throughout, while Corliss Preston gives Mrs. Malaprop a feisty center that makes her really fun to watch. (Her hat, which makes her resemble a Crown Roast of Pork, is also adorable.)

David Sitler's wizened Sir Anthony and Alexander Pawlowski IV's cherubic Fighting Bob Acres are comic highlights, as is Anthony Talen, who makes a quivering mess of poor old Faulkland.

The costumes, designed by Dottie Engels, look very good -- I was especially fond of Captain Absolute's handsome uniform -- and John Stark's set is a wonder, flanked by gorgeous paintings of Bath, the fashionable English town where the play is set.

"The Rivals" started later than the other two shows in this year's Illinois Shakespeare Festival line-up, and it finishes up on Friday night at 8 pm. That means you have one last chance to see this charming show before these "Rivals" have departed. Don't miss your chance! Hie thee to "The Rivals."

By Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
at Ewing Manor

Director: Deb Alley
Costume Designer: Dottie Engels
Scenic Designer: John Stark
Lighting Designer: Julie Mack
Sound Designer: Max Krembs
Stage Manager: Daniel D. Drake
Fight Director/Choreographer: Zach Powell
Voice/Text Coach: Kevin Rich

Cast: Matt Black, Amanda Catania, Megan Chaney, Nick Demeris, Michael Gamache, Trevon Jackson, Gracyn Mix, Dylan Paul, Alexander Pawlowski IV, Matt Penn, Corliss Preston, Brandon Rosen, Josh Samaniego, David Sitler, Andy Talen, and Lisa Wartenberg. 

Remaining performance: August 10, 2012

For ticket information, click here.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Characters Set for 2012 Discovery Walk at Evergreen Cemetery

The Discovery Walk, bringing "history to life through costumed actors assuming the intriguing characters of McLean County’s ancestors," comes to Bloomington's Evergreen Cemetery every fall. As a collaboration among the McLean County Museum of History, Illinois Voices Theatre and Evergreen Cemetery, the event offers a unique perspective on the people who helped form the Bloomington-Normal community we currently enjoy.

Actress Jennifer Rusk portrays Eliza Esque in the 2011 Discovery Walk
Photo credit: Dana Colcleasure

It's also a huge production, with actors, writers, designers, museum staffers, and a whole lot of volunteers working behind and in front of the scenes to keep it running smoothly. After the new year's characters have been chosen, Judy Brown, Artistic Director of Illinois Voices, commissions scripts from area writers, and then auditions and rehearses actors, gets a costumer, and puts the pieces together.

So which curious characters from our communal past will be portrayed this year? From the Museum's list:

Madame Annette
Mystery woman. The name is a pseudonym from the Daily Bulletin, for which she did interviews with "a wide variety of McLean County luminaries." Who was she really, behind the pseudonym? Nobody knows, apparently not even the people she interviewed!

Benjamin Franklin Funk (1838-1909) 
Visionary. Politico. As one of the ten children of Isaac and Cassandra Funk, who founded (and gave their name to) Funk's Grove, he had to try hard to set himself apart. He did just that, with service as mayor of Bloomington, president of the board of trustees at IWU, and a term in the U.S. Congress.

W. C. Hobbs (1800-1861)
Fashionable Man About Town. Hobbs was a bit of a dandy who set the bar for other fashionable gents and ladies, as Bloomington attempted to be a bit more civil and cultivated than other small towns in the Midwest.

Sophia Huggins (1831-1903)
Fortune teller. For the purposes of the Discovery Walk, she will speak to Madame Annette about some of the people she offered predictions and psychic counsel to.

Isaac "Ike" Sanders (1878-1929)
Driver. Restaurateur. After a stint as driver for Adlai Stevenson I (he left the job when "he felt disrespected by Mrs. Stevenson") Sanders ran a restaurant called the Workingman's Club that catered to a clientele that included both black and white miners and railroad workers.

Charlotte Ann Scott (1831-1917)
Wife. Historian. Scott was married to Judge John M. Scott, previously portrayed in the Discovery Walk, and she kept a lively record of life in Bloomington's early years.

Georgina Trotter (1836-1904)
"A power in the education affairs of Bloomington." Trotter is descibed as "a dynamo of energy" who worked as a nurse during the Civil War, and then ran a successful coal, grain and lumber business with her brother John. A big supporter of local libraries, she was also the single mother of an adopted daughter and the first woman elected to the local board of education.

Gerald "Jerry" Wonderlich (1889-1937)
Racecar driver. Hollywood Romeo. Wonderlich was a famous racecar driver with two starts in the Indy 500 (1922 and 1924). He turned his driving prowess into a career as a stunt driver in Hollywood, where he made tabloid headlines with rumors of a romance (and a secret marriage?) with movie star Agnes Ayres, star of "The Sheik."

The 2012 Discovery Walk is scheduled for September 29 and 30 and October 6 and 7. Tickets will be available beginning September 4.