Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Lanford Wilson's HOME FREE! Opens at ISU Tomorrow

Lanford Wilson is a playwright who fascinates me. I love Talley's Folly, the play that won him a Pulitzer Prize. I also quite enjoy Fifth of July, which has characters connected to Talley's Folly but a slightly different tone. The Rimers of Eldritch is wonderful. And has a different tone from anything so far. Hot L Baltimore is fine, if not a favorite, but once again, whole different tone. I haven't seen Balm in Gilead, although I've heard great things. And then there's Burn This, which I am not a fan of at all. If nobody had attached Lanford Wilson's name to Burn This, I would've sworn it belonged to a different playwright.

But there are similarities swirling around in all of Wilson's plays, about freedom and lack of it, about what it is to be an outsider, about trying to find someone who will understand, and about the fragmentation, the desperation and the poetry in everyday life. In some ways, he is the quintessential Off-Off-Broadway playwright, associated with the emergence of Caffe Cino and La MaMa, even though he made it past Off-Off to Off and then On Broadway with great success.

And all of that serves as an introduction of sorts to Home Free!, one of Wilson's first plays, a one-act about a brother and sister -- at least we think they're brother and sister -- named Lawrence and Joanna. They live together in a place that looks more like a playroom than a house, and they are surrounded by toys and games. The kicker here is that Lawrence won't leave. Ever. And they have imaginary friends. At least we think they're imaginary. We also think that Joanna may be pregnant with Lawrence's baby, and that his inability to leave their playhouse may result in her death. Unless she's not really having a baby. The big question here is whether either can make it out of their little nest alive, or whether they are only free when they are safe at home.

Leah Cassella, one of the first-year MFA directing candidates at Illinois State University, is at the helm of the production of Home Free! that opens tomorrow, November 1, in Centennial East 115 on the ISU campus, with actors Patrick Riley and Claire Ford portraying Lawrence and Joanna.

This production is offered free of charge, with performances scheduled at 5:30 pm on November 1, 2, 3 and 4. Since it's free and only 35 minutes long, it's a good chance to see a piece of Lanford Wilson's early work and maybe, just maybe, get a better handle on this unpredictable, deeply interesting playwright.

Is It Still the Same Old Story? CASABLANCA at the Normal Theater

As we head into holiday season, the Normal Theater is pulling out the classics. Later in November, they'll offer Holiday Inn, The Bishop's Wife, Meet Me in St. Louis and The Shop Around the Corner for vintage holiday charm. But this week, beginning Thursday, November 1, it's four nights of Casablanca, the 1942 romantic classic that stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as star-crossed lovers who must balance their love affair against the needs of a war-torn world. Are the problems of three little people worth a hill of beans in this crazy world? Will Rick and Ilsa always have Paris?

When film critics are asked for the best films ever, they usually come up with choices like Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. But when regular folks are asked to pick their faves, Casablanca is always a contender. Even over at IMDB, where I tend to think the ratings are driven by the taste of teenage boys, Casablanca is tied at No. 23 on their Top 250 list, the only film made before 1950 to make the Top 30. And, yes, that puts it higher than either Citizen Kane or Vertigo, as well as It's a Wonderful Life, The Wizard of Oz, City Lights, Rashomon, All About Eve, The Maltese Falcon, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It Happened One Night.

Casablanca was supposedly a happy accident in its time, with the perfect combination of luminous Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart at his wounded, world-weary best, a patched-together screenplay penned by Julius and Philip Epstein along with Howard Koch, and skillful direction by Michael Curtiz. Warner Brothers was known for this kind of moody, suspenseful, done-on-the-cheap picture featuring conflicted characters, but this time, with Bogart and Bergman in roles that fit their on-screen personae like a glove, cast against a backdrop of spies, danger, Nazis and the higher purpose of keeping the world safe, with a supporting cast that's about as fine as any assembled, well, Casablanca works like a charm. Some of the joys in the movie include Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Paul Henreid, S. Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, Conrad Veidt, and Dooley Wilson singing "As Time Goes By." And, of course, Claude Rains as Captain Renault, half of the "beautiful friendship" that gives the film its famous last line.

I may be more into romantic comedy than drama like Casablanca, but that doesn't mean I don't feel it in my heart when the music swells and Rick says, "I thought I told you never to play that song." Oh, Rick. Poor bruised, heartbroken Rick. Or when they end up at the airport, and they're wearing those perfect clothes and perfect hats in that perfect close-up, with the perfect amount of smoke and fog, it really does feel like the whole world is riding on their decision. "Here's looking at you, kid."

It just doesn't get any better than that.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Is NOISES OFF the Funniest Play Ever? Judge for Yourself at ISU's CPA

Noises Off, the only play I know that is both an on-stage and off-stage farce, is coming to Illinois State University's Center for the Performing Arts, opening November 2 with a 7:30 pm performance.

I'm not sure -- it's hard to quantify this sort of thing -- but Noises Off may be the funniest play I've ever seen. Because it's about theatre and the crazy interaction between and among theatre people, you may think it's too big an in-joke for the general public. But the first time I saw it, back in the 80s at what was then called the St. Paul Actors Theatre, I went with a bunch of lawyers, and they were all laughing so hard I thought we might need assistance getting out of there.

It's hilarious for the audience, but a pretty tough job for the people that work on it, since the timing of the jokes -- both the physical and verbal hijinks -- has to be perfect, and all the things that go wrong while this hapless company is supposedly performing the farce-within-the-farce, Nothing On, are a sticky wicket to get right. You know the cliche -- dying is easy, but comedy is hard. Noises Off is really, really funny, making it really, really hard. 

On the surface, Noises Off is about a British theatre company taking their terrible sex comedy, Nothing On, on the road. The leading lady is Dottie Otley, who once had some fame on TV, but has faded a bit. Her boyfriend, Garry Lejeune, is also in the company, along with Freddie and Belinda, a pair of middle-aged actors, Selsdon Mowbray, an older actor who has seen better days, and Brooke, a blonde bimbo who is only there because she's involved with the director, Lloyd Dallas. The crew off two includes overworked Tim, who hasn't slept in ages and keeps trying to fix things as they go wrong, and Poppy, who is also "dating" Lloyd, creating all kinds of complications as he tries to juggle his various romantic and theatrical obligations. You can see some of the gags in Noises Off represented on ISU's poster, above, with sardines, a fire ax and a series of flowers among them.

The first act shows us a very messy rehearsal of Nothing On, followed by the backstage goings-on during a performance a bit down the road in Act II, and the front of the set again in Act III, after everything has blown up completely. 

Michael Frayn's script is genius, no two ways about it. There was a movie version in 1992, but it's not nearly as good, mostly because Noises Off is tied so closely to what you can do on stage.

For ISU, Christopher Dea directs an updated version of the script, with a cast that includes Ashlyn Hughes as Dottie, Kyle McClevey as Lloyd, Nico Tangorra as Garry, Kelsey Bunner as Brooke, Lizzy Haberstroh as Poppy, Matt Hallahan as Freddie, Hannah Brown as Belinda, Nicholas Spindler as Tim, and Joseph Faifer as Selsdon.

Click here for more information on ISU's production of Noises Off including how to get tickets. Performances run November 2-3 and 7-10 at 7:30 pm, with a Sunday matinee on November 4 scheduled for 2 pm.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Ready for RED at Heartland?

John Logan's play Red revolves around painter Mark Rothko, someone who'd found huge financial and critical success as an artist. As the play begins, Rothko has been commissioned to paint a series of murals for New York's posh Four Seasons restaurant.

But as successful as he is, Rothko still has fears. He worries that newcomers will overtake and eclipse him, and that his commercial success has made him a sell-out. But his big fear is that "one day the black will swallow the red." No matter the fame, no matter how many high-end diners eat their swell food under Rothko's murals, he wonders whether he will be remembered, and whether he will still be alive.

It's the fears and insecurities that make the Rothko of Logan's script so compelling. And the way the script unfolds, as we get to see Rothko through the lens of his assistant, a painter named Ken, there's plenty of tension, plenty of crackle, plenty of arguments about what it means to create. Red won the Tony Award for Best Play of 2010 as well as the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.

As a two-man show, Red is a perfect choice for Heartland Theatre's intimate space. Director Christopher Connelly proved he knows his way around a visually stunning show with The Diviners in 2011, and he has a fine cast to work with this time, with Dean Brown, who was so good as the mathematician dad in Proof, as Rothko, and Rian Wilson, who broke hearts with his sensitive portrayal of the hydrophobic boy at the center of The Diviners, as assistant Ken.

Dean Brown and Rian Wilson appear in Heartland's Red
Heartland's production of Red begins with a pay-what-you-can preview performance at 7:30 pm on November 1. That will be followed by performances November 2-3, 8-10 and 15-17 at 7:30 pm and matinees on three Sundays, November 4, 11 and 18 at 2 pm.

The November 11 matinee will feature a special discussion afterwards with artists Harold Gregor and Ken Holder.

For more information, click here for show times and here for reservation information.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Those Twisted Sisters, THE MAIDS, Open at ISU on Thursday

Are you ready for The Maids? Is anybody ever ready for The Maids?

Jean Genet's play is provocative and disturbing, centering on sisters Claire and Solange, poor, lowly housemaids who work for wealthy Madame. When Madame is away, the maids will play, concocting sadomasochistic games around the mistress/servant relationship. First Claire dons powder, rouge and lingerie to impersonate Madame, verbally eviscerating her sister in her role as maid until the clock runs out on Round I. Then Solange turns the tables and pretends to murder Madame as portrayed by Claire. And when Madame comes home, the game enters a new phase, as real poison and real betrayal come into play.

There are issues of identity, power, repression, sex and class all over The Maids, making it a very dark and dramatic psychodrama in the right hands.

Vanessa Stalling is in charge of the Illinois State University production that opens November 1, with a cast that includes Fiona Stephens and Elizabeth Dillard as Claire and Solange, and Tam Dickson as Madame. You may remember Stephens, who was terrific in last season's Cloud Nine, and Dillard from her memorable turn as a different kind of sister in The Marriage of Bette and Boo.

If you're intrigued, here's a little more info from ISU's Facebook page for these Maids:

First performed in Paris in 1947, The Maids provoked cries of outrage as it swerved from realism to melodrama — the maids plan a poisonous tea party for their mistress — to comic absurdity to madness. Over the course of his life Genet was a thief, prostitute, prisoner, poet, novelist, playwright, daring voice of homoeroticism and champion of the oppressed. In her review of a production of The Maids critic Rosie Dow wrote, “The colorful but troubled life of Jean Genet weeps out of every word of this play, and it’s not the thing to go and see if your established theatre comfort zone is a few chuckles and a happy ending.”

The Maids plays November 1-4 and 6-10 in Centennial West 207, with performances Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 pm and matinees at 2 pm on the 4th and 10th.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


In honor of the upcoming presidential election, Turner Classic Movies went political last night, with Advise & Consent, All the President's Men and Seven Days in May back-to-back in primetime hours.

In this household, we happened upon All the President's Men as the opening credits began to roll, quickly settling in to watch it as we realized we probably hadn't seen it since 1976, when it was new, and when the events of the Watergate break-in and Nixon's subsequent resignation were still more news than history. He'd actually made the resignation official two days before my 18th birthday, ten days before I started college. Heady days!

So I remembered some pieces of the movie -- the tagline "Follow the money," which I still say rather frequently; Jane Alexander's brief but memorable performance as a reluctant source for Woodward and Bernstein; Jason Robards (in an Oscar-winning performance) as Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee; Hal Holbrook hiding in the shadows as Deep Throat, Woodward's secret informant; and, of course, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the investigative journalists who put together the pieces of one of the biggest political detective stories of the 20th century.

Alan J. Pakula directed a script written by legendary screenwriter William Goldman, based on the book of the same name by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. It's a tight, taut script, and Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis, another film legend, used bright lights and murky shadows, highs and lows, big, looming Washington DC landmarks and tiny details like the words tapped out on a typewriter, intercut beautifully to ramp up the suspense, showcase the powerful forces allied against our heroes, plot out the mystery perfectly, and keep the viewer as off-balance and uneasy as the reporters themselves.

I was really impressed. Newsrooms may look nothing like the pop-art Washington Post interiors (supposedly meticulously copied from the real 1976 Washington Post), reporters may be dependent on Google instead of the Library of Congress, and our best news source may be The Daily Show while newspapers go the way of the dinosaur, but All the President's Men still makes a ripping good yarn. If nothing else, it reminds us of the days when reporters took the investigative part of their jobs seriously, when people still thought a free press was integral to the idea of a democratic society, and the idea of truth in journalism meant something. Maybe I think I need to watch Citizen Kane again to remind me that yellow journalism didn't start with Roger Ailes and Fox News. Who you may recall worked for Richard Nixon...

Trivia note: In the early 70s, when these events took place, my parents both worked for the DuPage County (IL) Health Department.  Oddly enough, both sides of the Watergate conflict were represented in DuPage County at that time, since Bob Woodward's dad was the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court there (moving up to the Appellate Court in 1977), while the mother of Nixon's press secretary, Ron Ziegler, worked at the Health Department with my mother. DuPage County was a Republican stronghold, so when Redford as Woodward tells one of the people they're interviewing that he is a Republican, I'm pretty sure he's telling the truth, not just making stuff up to get what he wants out of the source.

Friday, October 26, 2012

New Route's FOR COLORED GIRLS Is Only One Week Away

It's almost time for the New Route Theatre production of Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, described as "an affecting and poetic play that explores what it means to be an African-American woman." New Route's for colored girls opens November 2, with Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30 pm and Sunday matinee at 3 pm, through November 11.

New Route has also created a video introduction for the piece, which you can see on Youtube here.

Shange's for colored girls is usually called a "choreopoem," meaning it includes movement and singing to communicate the poetry Shange wrote. Her choreopoem focuses on seven women who "reveal themselves, their lives, loves, hardships, and ultimately their discovery of strength and love" through performance. This work was first performed in a bar outside Berkeley, California, but quickly moved to New York, with Off-Broadway and Broadway productions in 1976. After that, it became something of a phenomenon, with a book, a TV movie and a film called simply For Colored Girls, directed by Tyler Perry and released in 2010.

For New Route, artistic director Don Shandrow and Phil Shaw will co-direct, while Lyndetta Alsberry choreographs. The seven faces of African-American womanhood will be portrayed by Leola Bellamy, Jennifer Cirillo, Melissa James-Shrader, Gabrielle Lott-Rogers, Jennifer Rusk, Claron Sharrieff and Christie Vallela.

All performances will be held in the New Route Theatre inside the YWCA of McLean County located on Hershey Road just north of Empire Street in Bloomington. You may reserve seats by sending an email to

For more information, you can visit the Facebook page for this event here.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Young at Heartland Offers Senior Acting Solutions

Young at Heartland, Heartland Theatre's wildly successful acting troupe for seniors, will take its act to the Normal Public Library tomorrow for its annual showcase.

 This year's theme appears to be "Problem Solved?"  as the various scenes performed by Young at Heartland actors involve the solutions people find, whether those solutions really solve the problem or not.

This showcase of short scenes takes place at the Normal Public Library on Friday, October 26, from 2 to 3 pm in the Community Room.

The performance is free and open to the public, with refreshments served. Call the library at 309-452-1757 for more information.

If you're over 55 and have a hankering to act, you'll want to check out Young at Heartland to see if it looks like a good match for you. They offer performances all fall, with classes beginning again next year.

You can check out the whole Fall schedule for Young at Heartland here, but note that the Normal Public Library tomorrow and Westminster Village on November 2 are the best options for the general public.

Got Your Party Hat? Let's Do ROCKY HORROR Again!

Getting pretty close to Halloween, aren't we? And you know what that means. It's time for the annual Rocky Horror Picture Show sponsored by Theatre of Ted in ISU's Capen Auditorium. This extravaganza combines a live performance in front of the movie, so if either is your thing, well, you're in luck.

As they bill it, "It's astounding. Time is fleeting." So, you know, let's do the time warp again!

Performances are scheduled for Friday, October 26 and Saturday, October 27. Doors open at 7 pm, with the so-called "Virgin Ceremony" a 7:30 and performances at 8. This extravaganza is priced at $5, and the first hundred people there get a free bag of props like flashlights and newspaper to use at appropriate times and make the experience that much richer.

You are invited to come in costume, shout out any lines you like, and even sing and dance with the cast.

If you bring your own props, be aware that no fire, water, rice, food, or confetti is allowed, given the fact that Capen is carpeted. You may, however, bring toilet paper, playing cards, a rubber glove, a party hat, noisemakers/party poppers, and finally a card with a picture of a piece of toast so you can throw it without actual toast crumbs getting in the carpet. The aforementioned flashlight and newspaper is also okey dokey.

Capen Auditorium is on the second floor of Edwards Hall, which is part of the Illinois State University campus in Normal, IL. It's located on the East side of University Street two buildings south of College Avenue. Parking is available in the Bone Student Center parking lot for a small charge.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


If you know any of William Saroyan's work, it's probably The Time of Your Life, his 1939 play about the patrons of a low-rent San Francisco bar. Hello Out There, a one act Saroyan wrote in 1941, features the same kind of down-on-their-luck folks, with an unlucky gambler and the small-town girl who tries to help him at the center of the story.

Neither of them is given a name in Saroyan's play, but they're both outsiders, loners, in search of something or someone. The Young Man, the gambler, has been arrested for rape on a trumped-up charge in some Nowheresville town. He begins the play by calling out from his jail cell, hoping to reach someone who will listen. The Young Girl answers -- she's working as a cook at the jail -- and when they talk, she discovers she has something in common with the guy in the cell. But as they forge a connection, forces from outside the jail interrupt, shattering any hope the Young Man and Young Girl have of escaping this dead-end end.

David Ian Lee, who is directing Hello Out There in Centennial West 202 for Illinois State University's School of Theatre and Dance, describes the play as "a love story, but not of the romantic sort; it's a story about two lonely people who learn that we -- all of us -- belong to one another."

He continues, "This play exists in a world that can be cruel and unfair, and some inhabiting this world contribute -- by cowardice, by malice, by short-sightedness -- to the darkness. Others see the world as fixed and oppressive, and that it is their role to suffer. This play is about two people who together discover that the world is changeable, but kindness and hope demand active participation: That's how we shape our world."

And that sounds like pure Saroyan, that our hope of moving into a brighter future depends on kindness and positive action.

Lee directs a cast that includes Arif Yampolsky and Audra Ferguson as the two lonely people, the Young Man and Young Girl, along with Antonio Zhurinskias, Chris Bryant, Janice Kulka and David Zallis.

The production staff includes assistant director Claire Ford, stage manager Rachel Hettrick, fight choreographer Paul Dennhardt, lighting designer Joshua Christ, and sound designer Eli Van Sickel.

This one-act play last approximately 35 minutes and is presented at Centennial West 202 free of charge, with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 2 pm. It's a chance to see up-and-coming performers and artists and a little-known, powerful script from a Pulitzer Prize winner. Lee is a first-year MFA directing candidate at ISU and this will be the first chance for local audiences to see what he can do.

And I'll leave you with a link to some mood music, with the wonderful John Prine singing "Hello In There." Yes, it's in, not out, and its characters are old, not young, but it, too, is about loneliness and connections. Plus I love slide guitar, so, you know, any excuse...

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Don't Forget THE MEMORY OF WATER Opens at IWU on Thursday

What is about drama and three sisters? I know I've talked about this phenomenon before, about Three Sisters and King Lear and Crimes of the Heart... And Shelagh Stephenson's The Memory of Water, which opens Thursday night at Illinois Wesleyan's Melba J. Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre.

This one is about three British sisters, gathered together for their mother's funeral. Each has distinctly different memories of their mother and of events from their childhood.

They may've shared a mom and a lot of time growing up, but they certainly don't share the same memories of them. Since Vi, their mother, suffered from Alzheimer's Disease, the issue of memory is very important in the play.

The sisters are Teresa, the oldest, who runs a health food store with her husband; Mary, in the middle, who's had a five-year affair with a married man; and Catherine, the youngest, who is needy and naive and resents feeling outside the family circle all the time. Each has her challenges and disappointments, making them more alike than they may think.

Kristyn Kuzniar, a senior in Theatre Arts at Illinois Wesleyan, directs a cast that includes Rachel Grimes as Vi, Elaina Henderson, Elizabeth Albers, and Angela Jos as sisters Teresa, Mary and Catherine, Zachary Mahler as Mike, Mary's married boyfriend, and Nick Castellanos as Frank, Teresa's husband.

Performances of The Memory of Water are scheduled for Thursday, Friday and Saturday, October 25-27, at 8 pm. Tickets are available at the McPherson box office or by calling 309-556-3232.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Post-Modern Female Hamlet? She's Coming to Urbana's Station Theatre

The Station Theatre is getting down with their very own version of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, starting November 1 at the renovated railway station on Broadway in Urbana. You can tell from the neon pink poster above this is no ordinary Hamlet. No, that's not Ophelia you see. That's Lindsay Gates Markel, director Mathew Green's choice to play Hamlet in his production (and adaptation) of the play at the Station.

This will certainly not be the first wildly different Shakespeare we've seen around here, not even the first one at the Station. Karma Ibsen's Southern Zombie Midsummer Night's Dream comes to mind. Looking for new angles and risks fits the Station and its in-your-face mentality.

So why did Green choose a female Hamlet? And why is he adapting the text? Here's what Mathew has to say...

Mathew Green
The notion of directing Hamlet first occurred to me about six years ago. I was performing in David Lindsay Abaire’s Rabbit Hole at the Station, and my stage wife and emotional sparring partner was Lindsey Markel. During one of our rehearsals, I found myself thinking that Ms. Markel (now Gates-Markel) would make an excellent Hamlet. I don’t recall what was going on that particular evening that might have triggered such a thought, but as we thundered away at each other every night, playing articulate, deeply wounded people who cannot reconcile their reality with the way life was supposed to turn out, the Hamlet inkling took hold.

Over the next few years, as I acted and directed in various plays at the Station (often with Lindsey), I tweaked the idea. Traditional, or contemporary? Full text, or adaptation? Play Hamlet as a man, or flip the gender entirely?

Gradually, as I worked out the myriad kinks, I began to mention the idea to other actors and directors, and I was gratified to receive an overwhelming amount of interest and support. Even with this boost to my creative ego, however, the notion was still just that: a notion. The Station hadn’t produced a Shakespearean piece in many years, and, since there was no shortage of the Bard’s work being performed in the Champaign-Urbana vicinity, there didn’t seem any great hurry.

Cut to last Spring, when Lindsey and I were once again acting opposite each other, this time in Gina Gionfriddo’s play Becky Shaw. Once again, we were in each other’s faces, night after night, this time playing a very different pair of verbally dexterous but emotionally fractured people. The lingering, pestering thought of attempting Hamlet resurfaced, and finally the timing seemed perfect. The selection committee for the Station’s 41st season would soon begin taking submissions, and it had just been announced that – miracle of miracles! – none of the other local theaters’ seasons would include Shakespeare.

“This is my chance,” I told myself, and so I set to work adapting the most intimidating play in the English language to fit the Station Theatre’s space and my own personal storytelling style. I had guidelines for myself to which I adhered strictly: First, I would respect the language and neither paraphrase nor modernize the playwright’s words. Second, I would make judicious cuts to the script in order to bring the running-time down to a coherent but brisk length. And third, I would make this play accessible to young audiences while presenting a Hamlet that would be acceptable to lovers of traditional Shakespeare.

I have always enjoyed the juxtaposition of Shakespearean text in modern (or unusual) settings; this always speaks to me and reinforces the idea that Shakespeare’s work is timeless and universal. Love is love, after all, greed is greed, revenge is revenge. Plus, it seems to me that placing the action of the play in a contemporary timeframe, if done well, is itself a step toward accessibility. And so, my Prince Hamlet exists in a time that is very much like our own, a time in which to be young and royal is to be a celebrity of sorts, and in which tragedies and indiscretions have a way of becoming public fodder. (Prince Harry in Vegas, anyone?)

The types of characters on display in Hamlet are so recognizable in our culture: the power-monger, the lovestruck waif, the hangers-on, and especially the privileged, brooding dilettante. How many television shows currently focus on indecisive, capricious, sulky brats who seldom want for anything but attention? And these shows label themselves as “reality.”

The question that must be answered, it seems, is that of Hamlet’s gender, given that the actor portraying the doomed prince is demonstrably, compellingly female. For me, the central issue of the play is that of a son’s duty to his father. By extension, the problem of being a son is being a man. Hamlet’s indecisiveness and inability to act have always thrown his masculinity into question, and I think that’s why so many women – throughout the history of the stage – have portrayed Hamlet. I honestly can’t say whether my decision to cast Lindsey influenced the direction I went with my interpretation of Hamlet, or whether the direction I wanted to take Hamlet instantly reinforced my selection of Lindsey. Regardless, I have the Hamlet I always envisioned – fiercely intelligent, emotionally complex, with just the right amount of Kanye West. We don’t hide the fact that Lindsey is a woman, but we don’t change the fact that Hamlet is meant to be a man. I can understand where audiences might need a second to wrap their heads around that, but I don’t imagine they’ll need much convincing once the play begins.

As for the rest of my cast, all I can say is that I have assembled such a powerful ensemble. From my Claudius and Gertrude (Lincoln Machula and Carolyn Kodes-Atkinson) to my Polonius (David Barkley) to my Laertes and Ophelia (Aaron Clark and Katie Baldwin) and beyond, I have put together a cast with one important concept in mind: Nearly any of these characters could easily be the subject of his or her own play. Therefore, the actors playing the characters have to be, in a way, the main characters of their own stories. Everyone has to be a lead.

Directing a play with this kind of reputation and scope is daunting, and I have been blessed with great collaborators in my cast. Our Hamlet is a lean, muscular sort of play with tremendous emotional stakes, thrilling language, and the kind of creative flourishes and raw nerve for which the Station is well known. As I write this, we are close to opening the show and giving an audience the opportunity to see how the pieces of this strange puzzle fit together.

a play by William Shakespeare
directed and somewhat adapted by Mathew Green
Nov 1-4, 7-11, 14-17 at 8pm
$10 on Wed, Thurs, and Sun
$15 on Fri and Sat

SPECIAL OFFER – On Wednesday, October 31 (final dress rehearsal) and Friday, November 2, high school students get in FREE. On ANY OTHER NIGHT, for the entire run of the show, high school students get in for just $5!!

Thanks, Mathew. Definitely intriguing. I'm not a Hamlet purist by any means, but still... I may have to see this one to figure out if it works for me. Not sure I like the idea of indecisiveness and inability to act making Hamlet seem more feminine, but maybe Mathew can tell us more about that and clear up the misconception.

So there you have his concept of Hamlet. Are you convinced? Will you head over to the Station to check it out?

Sunday, October 21, 2012


You might've thought NBC had high hopes for "Animal Practice," a sitcom that premiered in August and got a primo slot during the Olympic closing ceremonies. Yes, you read that right. It wasn't broadcast after the big Olympic blowout. It was during.

That raised a few eyebrows at the time, and it doesn't seem to have endeared anybody to "Animal Practice," which is the first sitcom of the new season to get the hook. (The CBS drama "Made in Jersey" was the first show overall to get a pink slip from the Fall '12 class.)

"Animal Practice" was billed as a sort of "House" with animals, as cranky vet George Coleman, played by Justin Kirk, preferred the company of his furry and feathered patients to people. His assistant, seen in the image above, was a Capuchin monkey.

If that sounds silly to you, it sounded wrong wrong wrong to animal welfare organizations like PETA and Animal Defenders, who'd protested the treatment of that monkey by NBC.

It's doubtful NBC was concerned by any of those protests, although they had to be concerned by its anemic ratings. Last Wednesday's episode eked out 3.8 million viewers and a 1.0 share of the audience between 18 and 49. That's down more than 9% from the previous week in that demographic.

Moral of the story? Don't interrupt Olympic Ceremonies, opening or closing, and don't try to launch mediocre product in high-profile slots. Oh, and don't mess with monkeys.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Everybody knows Brecht isn't easy. His plays are uncompromising, political and harsh. The power of Brecht's message makes his work as difficult to watch as it is important.

Mother Courage and Her Children, his 1939 play about a woman who pulls a cart around Europe during the Thirty Years War, selling booze and bread and belt buckles to soldiers of every stripe, was Brecht's reaction to the rise of Hitler and Fascism in his own Europe. The message is clear: War never goes away. War is an economic necessity, dug so deeply into our pockets that we will never be rid of it. And you may think you can build your empire on its pile of corpses, but it will destroy you in the end, the same way it destroys everything else.

Illinois State University's production of Mother Courage, directed with clarity and strength by Sandra Zielinski, broadcasts that message every time Mother Courage's cart is dragged in circles around the stage. The cart moves in an endless cycle. Courage herself, plus her children and anybody who gets pulled into her orbit, are no more than workhorses, beaten down and savaged by the very war they plan to profit from.

It's a natural for playwright Tony Kushner, who is also concerned with Marxism, the economics and politics of culture, and how the proletariat gets stomped, to take on a translation of Mother Courage. Kushner's voice is perfect for the material, with a contemporary sound and forceful language that never strays too far from the heart of Brecht.

Zielinski's staging and stage pictures are sharp and arresting, with Brechtian effects like supertitles framing the action and voiceovers (courtesy an uncredited Patrick O'Gara) offering a cynical commentary. The theatricality of the staging, a folk-music-meets-70s-soft-rock score from recent MFA grad Zack Powell, and ferocious performances, especially from Abby Vombrack as Courage herself and Michelle Stine as her mute daughter, Kattrin, give this Mother Courage a powerful punch.

Vombrack is all fire and muscle, pushing the play along from beginning to end by sheer force of will, while Stine has a haunted quality and an expressive, luminous face that speaks volumes about the horrors of war.

Courage's other children -- Tommy Malouf as the brash, violent Eilif and Alex Kostner as pale, sad Swiss Cheese -- are also good, as are Matthew Scott Campbell as the boisterous Cook, Andrew Rogalny, Jr., as a vacillating Chaplain, David Fisch as a cigar-chomping general, and Hayley Camire, whose camp-following hooker Yvette makes a vivid impression.

Malouf and Kostner join Devon Nimerfroh and Pat Boylan in a quartet of musicians that pops up to accompany the singers and add music at interludes, making Powell's music sound lively and on-target.

Delia and Linnea Kerr-Dennhardt also contribute to the tableau as Children of War; Linnea has a charming bit with an umbrella and both stand on the sidelines, as mute as Kattrin, near the end, to bear witness. It's a telling image, as we see how the violence and bloodshed around them have robbed so many of any voice at all.

And Zielinski's choice of a final freeze, as Mother Courage struggles to hoist her wagon one last time, twists Brecht's knife one last time.

By Bertolt Brecht
Translated by Tony Kushner
Original Music by Zack Powell

Illinois State University School of Theatre and Dance
Westhoff Theatre

Director: Sandra Zielinski
Scenic Designer: Jake Wasson
Costume Designer: Brittany Powers
Lighting Designer: Joanna Szewczuk
Sound Designer: Aaron Paolucci
Media Designer: Shannon O'Neill
Hair and Makeup Designer: Mary Rose
Voice and Dialect Coach: Connie de Veer
Music Vocal Coach: Cristen Susong
Dramaturg: Gloria Clark
Fight Director: Paul Dennhardt
Stage Manager: Matthew T. Black

Abby Vombrack (Mother Courage)
Alex Kostner (Swiss Cheese)
Tommy Malouf (Eilif)
Michelle Stine (Kattrin)
Matthew Scott Campbell (Cook)
Andrew Rogalny, Jr. (Chaplain)
Hayley Camire (Yvette)
Carlos Kmet (Army Recruiter, Soldier)
Storm Angone (Sergeant, Soldier)
Devon Nimerfroh (Farmer, Soldier, The One with the Eye Patch)
Pat Boylan (Farmer's Son)
David Fisch (General, Lieutenant, Soldier)
Eduardo Curley (Quartermaster, Young Man, Soldier)
Ashley Donahue (Soldier)
Tyler Riggin (Soldier)
Lauren Pfeiffer (Old Woman, Voice Inside, Clerk, Soldier)
Becky Solomon (Young Woman/Soldier)
Randolph Schmaltz (Colonel, Regimental Secretary, Soldier)
Jenna Liddle (Farmer's Wife)
Delia Kerr-Dennhardt (Child of War)
Linnea Kerr-Dennhardt (Child of War)

Running time: 3:10, with one 15-minute intermission

Remaining performances:  Tonight at 7:30 pm and tomorrow at 2 pm, October 23-27 at 7:30 pm

For information about the show, click here or here. For ticket info, click here.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

It's the Big Finale Tonight for PROJECT RUNWAY

Project Runway may be Reality TV, but it's still a pretty cool show. Except when the producers (or whoever it is behind that curtain at Lifetime) get unduly involved trying to create drama, it's about talented people with a dream creating art (in this case, fashion art) very quickly, in the hopes they'll make it to the end, where they can maybe maneuver a career out of their appearance on the show and at New York's Fashion Week.

So, sure, some years have been better than others. And some winners have been more annoying than others.

This year hits the middle of that spectrum, with no one really upsetting left, and those who are left all showing a decent sense of self and personal vision. I have to admit, no one's clothes have really wowed me, but I've mostly enjoyed their work.

At this point, we have a Final Four going to Fashion Week. (Really, about ten designers get to show at Fashion Week because of the way the timing of taping works, but they pretend that the ones eliminated by the point the show airs weren't really there at all. It's a silly pretense, since pictures of all the collections -- back so far you won't recall those people even having been on the show -- are on the internet within five minutes of their models hitting the runway.)

Who's left? In the order of my preference, there's Dmitry Sholokhov, the Russian with the never-ending supply of snarky comments. He's called Snape at Tom and Lorenzo's blog, where people congregate to chat as they watch the episodes, and that is a fairly apt moniker, given his dark and brooding demeanor and the bad hair. He's good at constructing snappy dresses with impeccable lines, but he made a few too many dresses over the course of the season, and the stuff he sent down the runway last episode, as a preview of his collection, was abkhovsolutely awful. He had one great dress, but the jacket with fringe down the sleeves? That thing with a sheer blouse over a black bra top? Uh, no. And those pieces are included in his Fashion Week collection, which left me seriously unimpressed.

I also like Christopher Palu, who is a cute puppy-dog sort of guy. But he tends to get a little too "Who? Tiny little meeee? Winning again? Well, I never!" and that gets grating after a point. He also seems to be the judges' favorite, the one with all the inexplicable wins, and that also gets wearisome. He's another one who sent total drek down the runway last time out, and his Fashion Week collection is my least favorite of the four. Still, I think, in the end, Christopher will be your winner. Judges Nina Garcia, Heidi Klum and Michael Kors, loooooove him.

I don't really have a favorite between Melissa Fleis, the blonde who says she's goth but really doesn't design all that goth, and Fabio Costa, who himself wears wrapped garments that may be skirts or may not, and showed up with flowers in his hair at least once. (See photo at right.)

Fabio seems like a sweetheart, and I liked his soft and flowy Fashion Week showing better than any of the others, but the judges didn't respond well to the very same garments in the preview, so... Fabio will probably not win.

As for Melissa... Hard to say. I didn't mind her final collection, although it seems pretty simple in terms of silhouettes and pretty hideous in terms of fabric. There's a whole lot of what looks like pleather happening there. And I never did get behind the huge collars she favors.

So there you have it. Dmitry, Christopher, Fabio and Melissa, and one of them will win the title tonight. I'll be away from home during the show, but I'll race home to see what the verdict is. (I will retain a modicum of hope that the judges overlook Dmitry's taste issues, because I really do like him the best. And seriously, none of the four knocked it out of the park collection-wise. Seriously. If they have to pick somebody with a mediocre collection, it may as well be Snape. Er, Dmitry.)

Opening Tonight -- Brecht's MOTHER COURAGE at ISU's Westhoff Theatre

The title of Brecht's play is really Mother Courage and Her Children, although people often forget the kids are there. That's how indelible a character Mother Courage is. Fierce, hard, practical and cynical... She's a woman who does what she needs to do, changes sides as often as she needs to, keeps pulling her cart, keeps selling trinkets to both sides in an endless war, and mostly just finds a way to survive.

But her children -- Eilif, son of a thief, Swiss Cheese, whose father was a Swiss (of course) engineer, and mute Katrin, with a German dad -- don't survive. They're the price she pays for building her life around war.

Mother Courage isn't her real name, of course. She's called that because she once drove her cart through the middle of a battle just to sell moldy bread. "I'm not courageous," she tells us in Tony Kushner's version of the script. "Only the poor have courage. Why? Because they're hopeless."

Brecht wrote his play in 1939, with Hitler and fascism threatening all of Europe. The play isn't set in anything 20th century, however. Instead, Brecht went with the Thirty Years War, a particularly devastating and prolonged conflict that raged all over Europe in the 17th century. But Mother Courage has been done all over the world, against the backdrop of just about every war imaginable. Some productions, like the one with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline at the Public Theatre in 2006, mix bits and pieces of uniforms and weapons from different parts of history, just to illustrate how little things change and how closely tied to human existence (and economics) war is tied.

Sandi Zielinski directs Mother Courage and her Children in Westhoff Theatre for Illinois State University, opening tonight with a 7:30 pm performance, and running through October 27. Because Westhoff is not a large space, its shows tend to sell out, so you are advised to get your tickets early and arrive early, as well.

This production is using Tony Kushner's script, which played to good effect in New York (as discussed above, with Meryl Streep) as well as in London with Fiona Shaw in the title role.

For ISU, Abby Vombrack steps into Mother Courage's boots, with Tommy Malouf, Alex Kostner and Michelle Stine as her ill-fated children. Matt Campbell, MFA directing candidate who just finished up The Glory of Living, plays the Cook, another character out for the main chance, while Andrew Rogalny takes on the role of the cowardly, hypocritical Chaplain.

Although there are songs in the show (expected with Mother Courage), this production is not using the score Jeanine Tesori wrote for Kushner's adaptation. Rumor has they're looking for more of a rock edge, with guitars on stage instead of the usual piano.

For more information on ISU's production, check out this Facebook page for Mother Courage and Her Children or ISU's productions page.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

ICEMAN and FOLLIES Score Big at the Jeff Awards

Chicago's annual Joseph Jefferson Awards were handed out for Equity productions on Monday at the Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre, with the Goodman Theatre's production of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh and Follies, the Sondheim/Goldman musical produced at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, each taking home six statuettes.

The Second City's We're All in This Room Together revue and The Doyle and Debbie Show, a lonesome road production in association with Jim Jensen and Lisselan Productions, which played for a few months at the Royal George Theatre, each won two.

Illinois State University alumni also won two awards, with Gary Griffin winning for his direction of Follies, and Kevin Depinet picking up an award for his scenic design for Iceman at the Goodman. Depinet earned his MFA at ISU, and his local set designs included Beast on the Moon at Heartland Theatre.

Follies was named Best Musical (Large), with director Griffin,  Musical Director Brad Haak, Costume Designer Virgil C. Johnson, Actress in a Principal Role Caroline O'Connor and Supporting Actress Hollis Resnick all named winners.

In addition to Depinet's Scenic Design award, Iceman won Best Production of a Play (Large) as well as Best Director for Robert Falls, Best Ensemble for the acting crew, Best Supporting Actor for Brian Dennehy, and Best Lighting Design for Natasha Katz.

Lee Hall's The Pitman Painters won Best Play (Midsize) for its TimeLine production, while Doyle and Debbie was named Best Musical (Midsize). Brian Arntson, one of the creators of Doyle and Debbie, won as Best Actor in a Principal Role in a Musical.

Other acting awards went to Larry Yando for his performance as Roy Cohn in Court Theatre's Angels in America, Diane D'Aquila from Chicago Shakes' Elizabeth Rex, Timothy Edward Kane in Court's An Iliad, Alex Goodrich in HERO, the Musical at the Marriott Theatre, and Natalie West in The Butcher of Baraboo at Red Orchid Theatre. Edgar Blackmon took top honors for performers in the Revue category for Who Do We Think We Are? at Second City.

For Best New Play, Ayad Akthar's Disgraced tied with Sarah Gubbins' The Kid Thing, while HERO the Musical, with book by Aaron Thielen and music and lyrics by Michael Mahler, won as Best New Musical. Oren Jacoby's Invisible Man was the winner in the Best New Play (Adaptation) category.

You can see all the winners here and test yourself on how many of these productions you saw.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

FALLING Flies High in Its Off-Broadway Home

Lori Adams
Falling, the play directed by Illinois State University professor Lori Adams, has officially opened Off-Broadway. Playwright Deanna Jent wrote Falling, about a family trying to find ways to stay a family while dealing with the challenges of an autistic child, and the play received great notices when it began its life in St. Louis, where Adams received Best Director honors from St. Louis Post-Dispatch critic Judith Newmark and the play itself took the 2012 Kevin Kline Award for Best New Play. Those notices were strong enough to earn it an Off-Broadway production at the Minetta Lane Theater, where it's been in previews, with opening night last night.

This New York production includes not only Adams as director, but also ISU's John Stark as scenic designer and former ISU faculty member Julie Mack as lighting designer.

Reviews are beginning to trickle in, and they're stellar. In today's New York Post, Frank Scheck notes that "this heartfelt and nuanced family drama is shot through with dark humor, as cathartic for the audience as it is for its conflicted characters," and he calls the action "superbly staged" by Lori Adams.

Rex Reed opens his review in the New York Observer by praising the play's "Graceful writing, great acting, exquisite direction, suspense, [and] profound subject matter..." before concluding that Falling "teaches you something and leaves you sated—and it rocks."

At Talkin' Broadway, Matthew Murray writes that Falling is a "meticulously crafted and intensely moving play, given a sterling production by director Lori Adams."

The New York Daily News also put Falling in the No. 2 spot on its list of "top 10 things on New York stages" for this week.

You can also see interviews with the cast, including lead actress Julia Murney, on this page at, and see pictures and ticket information at Playbill's online site. Testimonials for the play have been posted on Youtube, if you're interested in the reactions of real-live audience members.

Note that $5 from each full-price ticket purchased for performances in October will benefit Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization.

If you, like me, are unable to get to New York in time to see Adams' Off-Broadway directorial debut, you can enjoy this picture of the marquee for the show, as posted at Playbill online. Beautiful!

Monday, October 15, 2012

This Week, It's All About "Your Normal Film Festival" in Uptown Normal

The Normal Theater and the Prairie Pride Coalition begin their annual film fest -- called My Normal Film Festival -- this week, with a lineup of feature films, shorts and post-show panels, discussions and social activities, running from October 16 to 21.

The Green, directed by Steven Williford, is the first feature film to be screened, with a 7 pm showing in Room 151 in the Center for Visual Arts on the ISU campus tomorrow night. It involves a gay couple (one half of which is played by Cheyenne Jackson, the uber-gorgeous, uber-talented star of Finian's Rainbow, All Shook Up and Xanadu on Broadway) who move to Connecticut, hoping for a simpler, easier life together. The name of the movie refers to the verdant, lush landscape they find in Connecticut when they escape the concrete world of New York City. Michael, the character played by Jason Butler Harner, is a writer and teacher, while Daniel, Jackson's character, is a locavore caterer. (That means he's into what's locally produced.) But once these two have relocated to the greener pastures of their suburban paradise, a student at Michael's school accuses him of "inappropriate conduct." And their lives are thrown into turmoil.

Other members of the cast include Ileana Douglas and Julia Ormond, with Ormond as the lawyer who comes out from NYC to help Michael through his trials and tribulations.

The Green has a local connection in producer Randy Fryman (AKA Randall Mcneal), an ISU alum who will speak at the talkback scheduled for 8:30 (right after the film) tomorrow. This screening of The Green is offered free of charge to the public.

Wednesday's film is Taking a Chance on God, a documentary about John McNeil, a gay priest who championed and provided a spiritual basis for the gay liberation movement. Taking a Chance was directed by Brendan Fay, who focuses on McNeil's extraordinary life -- he grew up in Buffalo, New York, served in the army and became a POW in Nazi Germany, fell in love and came out on national television, and stepped up to urge compassion and awareness during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s -- with discussion from activists, journalists and theologians, all commenting on the influence and significance of John McNeil in their own lives.

Taking a Chance on God will be presented at the Normal Theatre at 7 pm on October 17 with a short film (Love, Marriage, and Family: Traditionally, created by Monmouth College) before and a discussion (with Tony Thieman-Somora, minister of Metropolitan Community Church) after.

Next up is Kawa, a film set among the Maori people of New Zealand, directed by Katie Wolfe and based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera. Kawariki, played by Calvin Tuteao, appears to be a happily married family man. But when his father retires and Kawariki must take over the family business, he feels compelled to tell the truth about himself -- that he is gay -- so he is to be a true leader, one who shows honesty and integrity in all things.

Kawa is at the Normal Theater at 7 pm on Thursday, October 18. It will  be preceded by George and Brad in Bed, a short film about Star Trek actor George Takei and his real-life relationship, and followed by a soiree (including complimentary appetizers) at Medici's Restaurant across the street from the theater.

Cloudburst, starring Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker as a lesbian couple on the lam from their nursing home in the hope of getting to Nova Scotia to get married, hits the screen at the Normal Theater on Friday, October 19. Written and directed by Thom Fitzgerald, Cloudburst combines its pair of elderly lovers with a free-spirited hitchhiker to examine themes of life, death, love, and being different, set against the scenery of Nova Scotia and the music of k.d. lang.

The short film to be screened before Cloudburst is Where Are the Dolls, inspired by a poem written by Elizabeth Bishop, starring Megan Follows as a woman taking a late-night trip through a surreal urban dreamscape.

As you might expect from the title, In the Family is about the relationships created inside a family. Chip has grown up with two dads, one his biological father and the other his bio dad's partner. When the former is killed in a car accident, custody of Chip is up in the air. There are legal disputes involving an outdated will, but the heart of the film is what family and fatherhood really mean.

Writer, director and actor Patrick Wang, who plays the surviving (non-biological) father in the film, will join filmgoers for a post-show drink in the bar at the Marriott Hotel around the corner from the Normal Theater.

And one last In the Family note: Cody, the biological father who leaves his son and his lover behind, is played by Trevor St. John, late of One Life to Live.

The penultimate film on the Your Normal Film Festival schedule is Gayby, a comedy written and directed by Jonathan Lisecki, about two best friends, a straight woman and a gay man, who decide to have a baby together. It's billed as "an irreverent comedy about friendship, sex, loneliness, and the family you choose."

Note that Gayby begins at 6 pm at the Normal Theater, and will be followed by the premiere of a new film, Scrooge & Marley, at 8 o'clock. This modern, gay-friendly spin on the Dickens' characters from A Christmas Carol stars David Pevsner as Scrooge and Tim Kazurinsky, a "Saturday Night Live" vet, as Marley.

For information on all these events and the Your Normal Film Festival, you can visit the Festival's website here or check out the Normal Theater calendar here.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

HOODOO LOVE a Fabulous Debut for Chicago's Collective Theatre

Chicago's Collective Theatre, a new company created by six friends* who attended Thornridge High School in the 90s, has made an amazing debut with a beautifully composed, aggressively staged production of Katori Hall's Hoodoo Love.

It's not easy for a brand-new company to find its footing the first time out, which makes this production, directed by Nelsan Ellis, one of the founders of the Collective Theatre as well as one of the stars of HBO's True Blood, all the more remarkable. The drama, the performances and the production values are right where they should be, indicating that the Collective Theatre knows what it's doing and where it's headed.

Hoodoo Love is playing inside a small performance space at the Atheneum Theatre on Chicago's north side, with a cast of ten and a detailed, atmospheric set that packs a whole lot of punch in such intimate surroundings. Ellis's direction is sure and sharply focused, with vivid stage pictures that showcase just how good his actors are.

Hall's script doesn't take the easy route, either, with poetic, powerful storytelling centered on a desperate young woman living in a shack somewhere around Memphis. Toulou does domestic work washing clothes, but she wants to sing the blues on Beale Street. She also wants to own the heart of a rambling blues man named Ace of Spades who has a girl in every town the train stops. It's her desire to capture his heart and keep it forever that fuels the play's darkest moments, when Toulou turns to the neighbor conjure-woman, Candy Lady, to make her dreams come true.

For one brief moment, it's all right there. And then, just as quickly, things go very wrong.

It's a mesmerizing story, even as you know in your heart this isn't going to end well. And when Hall's plot takes its ugly twists and turns, there's a can't-look-away quality in the fierce performances of Lynn Wactor as Toulou and LaRoyce Hawkins as Ace of Spades, and in the stylings of Opal Demetria Staples, who takes on the role of a stylish blues singer named Lillie Mae whose songs comment on and shade the action. Staples is just plain fabulous. Her presence is one of the changes Ellis made to the Hoodoo tableau, and it couldn't be a better fit.

There is a lot of music here, most of it indicated in Hall's script, but all of it makes this production of Hoodoo Love rise above. Every performer on stage -- Wactor, Hawkins and Staples, along with Tony Lynice Fountain as Candy Lady, Mark Smith as Toulou's evil brother Jib, Greg Williams and Mark J.P. Hood as Lillie Mae's back-ups, and Leon Q. Allen, Giles Corey and Thomas Lowey as a blues trio tucked into the corner -- sells the blues and deepens the drama.

The Collective Theatre's HooDoo Love is an auspicious debut for a company we can only hope to see more of. "Stay with us, we're going somewhere" is the company motto. I'm thinking they're already there.

Performances continue through October 21 at the Atheneum. For details and information, you can visit the Collective Theatre Company Facebook page.

* The Collective Theatre founders are Francois Battiste, Veronda G. Carey, Le'Mil Eiland, Nelsan Ellis, Metra Gilliard and Jasond Jones.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

TV's New NASHVILLE Serves Up Sweet Soapy Music

ABC's Nashville, a soaper that spins an All About Eve plot with a country twang, has enjoyed some of the buzziest buzz of the fall TV season. As the newnownext blog put it: Critics really, really love Nashville.

It's got stars with major TV Q in Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights, American Horror Story), Hayden Panettiere (Heroes), Jonathan Jackson (General Hospital), and Eric Close (Without a Trace). Oh, and Powers Boothe, the guy who creeped out a nation when he played Jim Jones in the TV movie about the Jonestown massacre. He's still creepy, but now he's doing more of the classic Big Bad Manipulative Mogul, the kind of role Edward Arnold played in Meet John Doe.

The canny thing about Nashville is that it isn't just relying on star power or the-brash-youngster-toppling-the-veteran-performer storyline, as fun as that story is when Connie Britton is playing Rayna, the established star. But Nashville is borrowing from the Glee playbook by sending the music on the show straight to iTunes. And that music is pretty cool, too.

It ought to be, with the legendary T-Bone Burnett supervising the music. Burnett's wife, Callie Khouri, is the executive producer and writer of the show; she broke out of the pack as a writer with Thelma & Louise back in 1991. Even if the premise of the show is a little hackneyed, even if Hayden Panettiere is playing Juliet, the sleazy newcomer, with all the subtlety of Homer Simpson's makeup gun, Khouri's feel for character and Burnett's music contributions make the show work like a charm.

Jonathan Jackson and Eric Close seemed pretty much wasted in the pilot, but it was nice to see Charles Esten (formerly known as Chip Esten when he was on Whose Line Is It, Anyway?) step into a larger, meatier role than usual, and he sounded great on "Back Home." Musically, both Britton and Panettiere did fine as country singers, too. Not sure how much autotune or dubbing went on with either of them, but they were both as credible as they needed to be.

But it was the newbies -- Brit Sam Palladio and Australia's Clare Bowen playing native Nashville types trying to break into the biz -- who made the best impression, with a cover of the Civil Wars' "If I Didn't Know Better" that came off soulful and hypnotic, haunting and seductive. I loved it. I may buy it from iTunes. Or I may get it the original Civil Wars, instead. But Palladio and Bowen are appealing as actors, too, with a definite Once feel to their characters and their song that provides a nice contrast to some of the other, cheesier plot devices. You know, like the hinted-at "Who's the Daddy?" subplot and the political intrigue and Juliet's mama drama. Not to mention Juliet sleeping her way through Rayna's men, just to twist the knife.

All of that provides the soap. But it's the music that will keep me tuning in.

Nashville airs on ABC on Wednesdays at 9 Central.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wondering What's Coming Up From Illinois Shakes Fest in Summer 2013?

Tonight was the night the Illinois Shakespeare Festival brought out the big red bus and gave us the news about what will be on stage when summer 2013 rolls around.

Back in September, I guessed Comedy of Errors, Hamlet and She Stoops to Conquer for the main season, and didn't hazard a choice for the Theatre for Young Audiences slot. This evening, at a special press conference held at Ewing Manor, the ISF and new artistic director Kevin Rich announced that the three mainstage plays will be Comedy of Errors, Macbeth and Failure: A Love Story, a "magical, musical fable" by Chicago playwright Philip Dawkins. The Theatre for Young Audiences choice is The Magical Mind of Billy Shakespeare, written by Rich himself.

All of that means I'm hitting .333. (It sounds better than 1-of-3, doesn't it?)

But, after all, the play's the thing. Or the plays are the thing. And in terms of plays, we'll be getting funny, silly, nothing-serious-about-it Comedy of Errors, the one with the identical twins separated at birth, wandering around not realizing everybody in town is mistaking one for the other, as well as Macbeth, Shakespeare's dark and scary journey into murder, madness, and ambition run wild.

You may remember Philip Dawkins as one of the authors invited down to Bloomington for a staged reading last summer as part of the "Midwestern Voices" Playwrights Festival. For that reading, Dawkins brought along Miss Marx, a new play about the daughter of Karl Marx. He is a resident playwright at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre and the author of "The Homosexuals," presented by About Face Theatre at Victory Gardens last year in a very well-received production. The Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones called the play, "ambitious, substantial and deeply impressive." "Failure: A Love Story," the one we'll see next summer, takes the stage at Victory Gardens beginning November 16.

The play is about the lives of the three Fail sisters (if there are sisters in theatre, they usually comes in threes*), siblings who have lived their lives in a "rickety two-story building by the Chicago River that was the Fail family home and clock shop."

Because the Shakes Fest has traditionally focused on Shakespeare or plays that dovetail nicely with Shakespeare, Failure is a departure from the usual fare. I'm looking forward to hearing why Rich chose this piece and seeing how it works with Comedy of Errors and Macbeth. The play itself sounds pretty cool. I'm a big fan of new work, so the idea that our Shakes Fest is adding a contemporary play is good news, I think. And the fact that it centers on three women, to balance out the heavily male Shakespeare canon, is a bonus.

I believe Rich's Billy Shakespeare is a play he's had success with previously, so it ought to be a good match for Young Audiences and outreach programs, too. 

Very intriguing, all around. To keep an eye on what's happening with the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, you can visit their Facebook page here.

* I have this dream to produce King Lear, Three Sisters and Crimes of the Heart in repertory, with the same actresses playing the sisters in all three of them. If Dawkins' play catches my fancy, maybe I will add it to my imaginary repertory!