Saturday, March 31, 2012

Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award (and $25,000) Goes to Yussef El Guindi

Tonight in Louisville at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, the American Theatre Critics Association New Plays Chairman William Hirschman announced that the winner of this year's Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award is Yussef El Guindi's "Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World," which premiered at the ACT Repertory in Seattle.

The ATCA describes "Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World" as "a gentle romantic comedy wrapped around a serious examination of issues facing immigrants today, much as they did in the past. An Egyptian immigrant who drives a cab strikes up a romance with a quirky American-born waitress, but the clash of cultures is only the hook El Guindi uses to explore the diversity of opinions even within ethnic groups in the struggle for assimilation and belief in the American dream."

El Guindi was born in Egypt, but spent much of his life in London before moving to Seattle, where he is now based. He received a BA from American University in Cairo and an MFA in playwriting at Carnegie-Mellon. His plays have been produced in theaters everywhere from Durham, North Carolina, to Anchorage, Alaska, and he has acted as resident playwright at Silk Road Theatre in Chicago. He was the recipient of the ATCA's Elizabeth Osborn Award for emerging playwrights in 2009.

As the winner of the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, El Guindi received a plaque and a check for $25,000 from the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust. That trust has been honoring the best new plays produced outside New York City in conjunction with the ATCA since 2000.

In addition to the main award, two other citations for noteworthy new plays were also handed out. Those two winners, who received plaques and checks for $7,500 from the Steinberg Foundation, were:

A. Rey Pamatmat for "Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them," which premiered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville during the 2011 Humana Festival. Pamatmat's play is a sweet, touching look at an unusual family composed of three children on their own. Edith, her brother Kenny, and Kenny's budding boyfriend Benji are three nice kids doing their best to stay in control in a parentless world.

Ken LaZebik's "On the Spectrum," which premiered at Minneapolis's Mixed Blood Theatre last November. "On the Spectrum" is a love story about two people who land in different places on the autism spectrum. He has Asperger's Syndrome but "passes" in society. She is proud of her autism and proclaims it's a difference, not a disorder. "Their love story reveals the contradictions between desire for acceptance and for achievement," says the ATCA press release.

When presenting the awards, Hirshman said, "Despite vanishing government support and faltering donations, America's regional theaters have persevered and prevailed as this country's preeminent crucible for vibrant and important new works. This year's submitted plays encompass a dizzying range of styles and themes, produced by a cadre of experienced and novice playwrights who are inarguable proof that theater remains a vital and relevant art form in the 21st century."

Humana Fest #2: Stark, Intense, Unpleasant "Death Tax"

I was unabashedly enthusiastic about "The Veri**on Play," Lisa Kron's adorable agitprop piece about striking back against bad customer service, but less so "Death Tax," by Lucas Hnath, the second play on my Humana Festival schedule.

Hnath has written "Death Tax" as a way of looking at the American way of death, as complicated by money. Or maybe it's a way of looking at the American way of money as complicated by death. In any event, his scenario is that a woman named Maxine, who happens to have a lot of money, is lying in a bed in an unremarkable nursing home sometime before Christmas in 2010. She knows that the law on estate taxes is due to change as of January 1, and she believes that her daughter is paying her nurse, Tina, a Haitian immigrant, to kill her in order to get at her full estate before the new law takes effect and also chops off a sizable portion of her inheritance. Tina swears she has no such motives and has not been paid to kill Maxine, but Maxine does not believe her. And that's how the drama begins, with everybody pushing each other around, plotting, counterplotting, lying, telling the truth, maneuvering and using and mocking, with the unspeakably vicious old dragon at the middle of the mess sitting on her golden treasure.

The play may very well be a cautionary tale about advances in medicine that can keep you alive forever, as long as you can pay for it. But it really doesn't stick with that topic, and by the end, it felt more to me like an argument for pulling the plug on patients who've been around too long. I certainly would've agreed to drop the unspeakable Maxine on an ice floe somewhere and wave buh-bye.

It's not that "Death Tax" isn't powerful. It is. But it's also unrelentingly stark in tone, unrelentingly intense in delivery, unrelentingly unpleasant in terms of character and plot. Hnath's dialogue is idiosyncratic, with long monologues for each of its four characters, lots of repetition and circling back to take one more poke at sore spots, that got more and more tiresome for me by the end. I don't think any play can maintain that kind of verbal battering ram for the entire show, although this one certainly tries.

Still, the actors are committed and, yes, intense. Quincy Tyler Bernstine is compelling and more sympathetic than the rest as Nurse Tina, setting up a (mostly) well-meaning woman caught between what she most wants -- to bring her son back from Haiti -- and an evil offer from a demonic old woman. The absence of Nurse Tina, and the off-stage resolution of her plotline, which otherwise carried us through the play, is sorely felt in Scene 5, the last part of the play.

Danielle Skraastad does some very good things with her one scene as Maxine's daughter, showing us the complexity and difficulty in this mother/daughter relationship. And Paul Niebanck, someone we saw last year as a perfect prototype 50s dude in "Maple and Vine," finds his inner weakling as Todd, Tina's supervisor, who harbors a bit of a crush on her and lets himself get tangled in the mess because of that crush.

And then there's Maxine... Judith Michaels is fierce and venomous as as the lady in the bed, the one who simply refuses to die. She spits fire. She shows her claws. And I simply didn't believe that anybody wouldn't have tossed her out a long time ago, whether she has a fortune or not. Or maybe I'm just naive. But I didn't see anything to put me on her side for even a moment. She's the villain. That's it. Yes, I felt sympathy for Nurse Tina, caught up in her plan, and definitely for her daughter, who has suffered plenty, and even a little for her grandson, Charlie, who shows up at the end and may be manipulated, too. But Maxine... She tells a social worker that she knows everyone at the nursing home will have a party when she leaves. Yeah. I totally believe that. And I also believe they would've thrown their party -- and Maxine out on the street -- a long time ago.

By Lucas Hnath

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

Director: Ken Rus Schmoll
Scenic Designer: Philip Witcomb
Costume Designer: Kristopher Castle
Lighting Designer: Brian H. Scott
Sound Designer: Matt Hubbs
Properties Designer: Joe Cunningham
Stage Manager: Christine Lomaka
Dramaturg: Judy Bowman

Cast: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Paul Niebanck, Judith Roberts, Danielle Skraatad. Running time: 1:40, performed without intermission

Remaining performances: Saturday, March 31 at 2 pm, Sunday, April 1 at 3:30 pm

Friday, March 30, 2012

Hilarious "Veri**on Play" Sends Up the Horror Story of Customer Service

Today was my travel day to the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. We were up at the crack of dawn (maybe before the crack of dawn) to drive to Louisville in time for our first play, Lisa Kron's "The Veri**on Play."

The word with the ** in it is obviously Verizon, as in the phone company. Er, telecommunications empire. Giant? Conglomerate? I don't know if the asterisks are there to indicate swearing directed at Verizon or because she thinks she might have legal troubles if she puts their corporate name in her title. Whatever the reason, the target is definitely Verizon, all because the customer service people there made the mistake of ticking off a playwright. In dramaturg Amy Wegener's notes accompanying the play, she says that Kron herself had a run-in with the phone company, one that ended up as "one of those Kafkaesque experiences one has that goes on for many months," in Kron's words. She continues, "I was in a state of apoplectic rage, and found myself screaming at this poor customer service person: 'I'm going to write a play about this!'"

Although the rep on the other hand didn't laugh out loud or anything, it seems likely he or she was not impressed with the threat of theater.

But Kron persevered, writing her "primal scream" of a play as a smart, hilarious trip down a rabbit hole of unseen enemies, empty promises, frustration, crazy people, more crazy people, and a whole lot of romping around. Kron targets technology in general in what she calls a combination of "my love of theatrical craft, my devotion to cheap laughs, and my interest in the alchemy that occurs between stage and audience and lifts us into that delicious 'we're all in this together' feeling."

Well, Lisa Kron, I can honestly say: Mission Accomplished. From beginning to end, I found "The Veri**on Play" funny and entertaining, with all kinds of amusing theatrical tricks, all employed in the best wiseacre tradition. In performance, with a terrific cast that switched roles (and kept fooling me into thinking I was seeing new actors), the play came off creative, surprising, and just plain adorable. "The Veri**on Play" was a great way to kick off my Humana weekend.

Kron herself plays the lead role, one Jenni Jensen, who makes one tiny mistake in which box she checks while paying a bill on-line. After that, the amount she already paid keeps showing up on her bill month after month, no matter how many blithely indifferent customer service people she speaks to. Then the phone calls threatening to turn off her service begin. She hooks up with what she thinks is a support group for people like her, those treated badly by customer service, only to find out they're really an underground Up With People/Down With Faceless Drones and Corporations kind of movement.

Director Nicholas Martin has staged it all in the brightest, most cheerfully ridiculous way possible, with lots of sharp blackouts and changes to new locales, with one quick trip around the world near the end just to show that German and French money machines are just as negative as American ones. Kron's script goes increasingly off the deep end, and Martin navigates those waters beautifully.

I also really loved the costumes from designer Kristopher Castle, showing us an array of hipster doofus pieces put together in bizarre combos, and the fun, fizzy music contributed by sound designer Benjamin Marcum to carry us from one scene to another and from composer Jeanine Tesori, who has created a big honking anthem to urge us all to take a stand and rise up against bad customer service.

If it sounds like a soapbox, trust me when I say it's too funny for that. And too adorable.

Kron's charming presence and comic timing set the mood for the show, with excellent help from the clever, hard-working actors in the ensemble (including Carolyn Baeumler, Joel Van Liew, Kimberly Hebert-Gregory, Ching Valdes-Aran and Clayton Dean Smith). Calvin Smith and Hannah Bos deserve special mention for being absolutely unrecognizable as different characters, and Bos and her sparkly beret and lightning quick changes (as well as her inexplicable Russian accent when she plays a paranoid cigarette-smoking underground activist named Ingrid) are as funny as it gets all the way through.

I haven't got a clue if any other company can pull off the bravura (and fairly shameless) comedy act that is "The Veri**on Play," but I'd sure like to see it if they try.

Trivia note for ISU fans: Alum Sabrina Conti is a member of the Humana Festival Apprentice Company this year, and she appears in the ensemble of this show.

By Lisa Kron

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

Director: Nicholas Martin
Original music by: Jeanine Tesori
Scenic Designer: Tom Tutino
Costume Designer: Kristopher Castle
Lighting Designer: Kirk Bookman
Sound Designer: Benjamin Marcum
Music Supervisor: Scott Anthony
Properties Designer: Joe Cunningham
Wig Designer: Heather Fleming
Movement Director: Delilah Smyth
Stage Manager: Stephen Horton
Dramaturg: Amy Wegener

Cast: Lisa Kron, Carolyn Baeumler, Joel Van Liew, Kimberly Hebert-Gregory, Ching Valdes-Aran, Clayton Dean Smith, Calvin Smith, Hannah Bos, Sabrina Conti, Chris Reid.

Running time: 1:40, performed without intermission

Remaining performances: Sunday, April 1 at 3:30 pm

Thursday, March 29, 2012

La Vie "Bohème" Begins Tomorrow at ISU Center for the Performing Arts

Yes, "La Vie Bohème"is a song in the musical "Rent," and no, "Rent" is not being performed at ISU tomorrow night or any other night as far as I know. But "Rent" is based on "La Bohème," updating Puccini's opera about young, Bohemian artistic types --  a poet, a painter, a singer -- living in Paris in the mid-19th century. Where Puccini dealt with consumption, drugs and sex in "La Bohème," Jonathan Larson commented on AIDS, drugs and sex in "Rent."

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, oui?

Or, as ISU's facebook page for the event puts it: "This 1896 opera in four acts explores the Bohemian milieu of Paris in the 1840s, the love between the sickly seamstress Mimi and the poet Rodolfo, and the timeless question faced by artists everywhere -- should we party or pay the rent?"

Connie de Veer, who did such good work at the helm of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" last year, takes up directing duties on this "La Bohème." Performances begin tomorrow at the Center for the Performing Arts and run through April 7th.

De Veer's cast includes Andy Hudson and John Ramseyer alternating in the role of Rodolfo, Hyejin Park and Caroline Pircorn alternating as Mimi, Sarah Fallon and Laura Pfeiffer as Musetta, and Robbie Holden as Marcello. Those roles correspond to Roger, Mimi, Maureen and Mark, if you have a thing for "Rent."

And if you do have a thing for "Rent," as so many theater fans did in the late 90s (almost exactly a hundred years after Puccini wrote his opera), you would be well advised to see the original and judge for yourself how the themes of love and loss, illness and deprivation among the underclass, trying to lead a life of art and beauty without selling out, played in 1896.

"La Bohème" is, according to some sources, the fourth-most performed opera in the world. It has survived this long because of the quality of the music, the depth of its characters, and the timeless themes. I have no doubt that Connie de Veer will waltz her "Bohème" in the right direction. The poster alone tells me they will be focusing on the heightened love affairs and romantic complications in the piece, which is, after all, what made everybody swoony over "Rent."

For performance and ticket information, click here. You'll find their Facebook page linked in several places in this post.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"Opera Créole" Brings New Orleans to Normal

In the second of three big theatrical events this week, ISU's Crossroads Project is bringing Opera Créole, a New Orleans based operatic ensemble, to Normal for a lecture and demonstration, a master class and, of course, a full-scale performance.

Opera Créole was founded to honor and remember the long history and profound contributions of New Orleans musicians who combined opera with influences from Africa, Spain, and Haiti as they helped create the distinctly American sound of jazz. Or, as their press materials put it:

"Opera and classical music in New Orleans and around the world have always included the contributions of persons of color. The Créoles of New Orleans have made contributions to the music and culture of New Orleans. It is their participation in opera, as well as the music of Africa, Spain, and Haiti that contributed to the birth of jazz. Join Guest Artist Opera Créole as we explore theatre and music from New Orleans, ' The First City of Opera!'"

Their repertoire includes scenes and arias from major operas such as "La Traviata," "Carmen," "Rigoletto," and "Porgy and Bess," as well as arias and art songs by 19th Century New Orleans free composers of color, operatic works by other composers of African descent, and Spanish Zarzuela, which offers scenes that alternate between spoken and sung sequences, with the song portions using both operatic and popular music as well as elements of dance.

Opera Créole's trip to ISU will include an "Opera as therapy" lecture and demonstration on Thursday, March 29th at 11 am in Cook Hall 308, and then later that day, a master class with the artists from Opera Créole at 1 pm in Kemp Recital Hall. Last, on Saturday, March 31, they will offer a performance that includes community choirs in the Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall from 5 to 6 pm .After the concert, ISU's Black Actors Guild will host a reception in their honor in the CPA lobby.

To make it a complete operatic experience, you may want to attend the Opera Créole concert, stay for the reception, and get a ticket to ISU's performance of "La Bohème" that takes place immediately after.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Temperatures Rising: "Picnic" at ISU May Heat Up Your Spring

ISU's Department of Theatre has four shows opening in the next two weeks, with the first, William Inge's "Picnic," as directed by Lori Adams, taking the stage at Centennial West 207 on Thursday night.

As you may recall, "Picnic" just won the Illinois High School Drama competition for Oak Lawn Community High School last weekend. The play was a major hit in 1953, winning a Tony for director Joshua Logan and earning a Pulitzer Prize for Inge. It also introduced Paul Newman to Broadway (but not in the lead, although he eventually did replace Ralph Meeker in that role) with his future wife Joanne Woodward attached  to the play as an understudy. The script was also turned into a fine movie in 1955, again directed by Joshua Logan, starring William Holden as sexy bad boy Hal, the guy who blows into town and turns everyone's world upside-down, with Kim Novak playing sweet and vulnerable as his romantic partner, Madge. The film version won two Oscars and was nominated for four more. (Because I can't resist an image of William Holden without his shirt on, I am giving you a look at the movie poster here.)

And in case you're keeping track, there was a Broadway revival in 1994 with Kyle Chandler of "Friday Night Lights" fame and Ashley Judd in the lead roles.

Although it isn't revived all that often, "Picnic" is a definite classic, all about two sisters, the aforementioned Madge and her tomboy sis, Millie, who live in a small town in Kansas. They squabble a bit with each other, and they are strictly controlled by their single mother, but both are yearning to breathe free and make their own decisions. And then Hal shows up next door, sweaty, hot, the kind of boy no girl can resist... Also in the mix are Rosemary, the schoolteacher who boards in their home, who pretends to be the very model of respectability even as she's desperate to snag a man; Mrs. Potts, their neighbor, who hires Hal to do some work around her house; Alan, Hal's friend from school; and Rosemary's beau, Howard, who goes along to get along most of the time.

For ISU, Eliza Morris, who starred in "Drowning Ophelia," will play Madge, with Russell Krantz, who last appeared in "Electra," opposite her as Hal. Betsy Diller has been cast as little sister Millie, Melanie Camire as the girls' mother, Flo, and Elizabeth Keach as Rosemary, the major pot-stirrer. Mitch Conti will appear as Alan and Devon Nimerfroh takes on Howard.

Director Lori Adams recently won an award from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for her directing efforts on the play "Falling," so she comes into "Picnic" on a roll. It will be very interesting to see what Adams does with the play in the intimate confines of the Centennial West Studio Theater.

"Picnic" opens with a 7:30 pm performance on Thursday the 29th, followed by shows March 30-April 1 and April 3-7. For ticket information, visit the production's Facebook page here, read this press release, or click here for their productions page. Because the venue is quite small, you would be wise to get your tickets ahead of time.

Monday, March 26, 2012

"Mad Men" Returns With Love, Sex and a Need to Come In From the Cold

It feels like a long, long time since we last saw dapper Don Draper, smarty pants Peggy Olson, ambitious Pete Campbell, bodacious office manager Joan, silver fox Roger Sterling and the rest of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the ad agency at the center of "Mad Men."

"Mad Men" came back in style last night with the two-hour season 5 premiere, answering some of the pressing questions we'd all been buzzing about since Don & Co. left us in October, 2010. So, yes, Don (the gorgeous Jon Hamm) did marry his toothy secretary, Megan (Jessica Pare). And yes, Joan (Christina Hendricks) did have the baby that we all know came from a midnight tryst with Roger Sterling (John Slattery), even if she's pretending it belongs to her creepy husband, an army doctor serving in Vietnam. Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Trudy (Alison Brie) have a baby now, too, plus they're living in the suburbs in a house that looks curiously like the one Don used to live in with his previous wife, Betty the Ice Queen. Lane (Jared Harris), the slightly odd Englishman who stuck around after the British invasion, has somehow convinced his wife to stay in the U.S., even though money is tight for them and he seems decidedly unhappy. Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) is also still with her boyfriend, the underground journalist who is unlike anybody else on the canvas but should be right at home when politics get radical (Turn on, tune in, drop out?) as we move into the late 60s.

We open season 5 on Memorial Day weekend, 1966. I don't exactly know why, except that maybe 9-to-11-ish is when our brains are most susceptible to mass media, but I have specific memories of almost every television show on the air from 1965-67 and a lot of the pop music hits. So the era we are now in on "Mad Men" looks and sounds very familiar to me. Deja vu all over again. Don's wide-open new apartment with Megan, all harvest gold and pop orange, with a huge sunken living room and endless hallways, looks like what we were seeing in the New York apartment in "Family Affair" or the swanky places the spies would have cocktails in "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."

And the clothes... Megan, as a 20-something, showed up in psychedelic colors and mini-skirts, while Peggy has a shorter flip, but still a flip, and the geometric patterns of "That Girl."Yes, they are definitely channeling the right mood for MY 1966.

And as for the plot... It seems everybody is on the outside looking in (see poster, above), searching for some sense of belonging, of fitting in, from the beginning, from the line of black equal employment protesters outside their offices on Madison Avenue, to Joan wondering if her job is waiting for her and feeling pretty much at sea as a mom, Lane obsessing over the photo of a woman he's never met, one who seems very inappropriate for him, Pete wishing he still lived in the city because he hates the Burbs, Roger clinging to his lonely, sterile white office, and Don and Roger looking across a crowded room at Megan and the hipsters, the younger generation, laughing about something that Sterling and Draper are too old fogeyish to understand.

We got some gaps going on here. We've also got themes that go back to the very beginning of "Mad Men." Who are these people, really? Are they defined by where they live and what they do for a living? Or by the people they choose to sleep with or share their lives with? Will they ever find the perfect place where they don't have to worry about shifting sands under their feet, where they truly belong?

Peggy comments that she doesn't recognize the new Don, the happily married man who seems to be smiling and kind and not bullying clients. To be sure, Don and Megan are in a honeymoon phase at the outset, all snuggly and sexy and touchy touchy. But then Megan throws him a a surprise party for his birthday, bringing Work People into his home, mixing Don's worlds and really, really, making the wrong call as far as her new husband is concerned. (I have to agree, by the way, that Megan should never have performed her sexy "Zou Bisou Bisou" dance as a birthday gift in front of the entire office. Not only does it make Don uncomfortable because it's so intimate, but COME ON, Megan! You work with these people, too! Do you really want to face your co-workers after basically doing a lapdance in front of them? Even if it hadn't been all wrong for Don's personality, it is clearly wrong for a woman who wants to be taken seriously at work.)

But it's when they're alone and Don watches her, stripped down to some racy black undies, on all fours "cleaning the house" that bits of the old Don emerge, the one who liked it hard and cruel with Bobbie Barrett, the one who always retreats to lust and mindless sex when times get tough. Megan seemed to understand that, too, with her little "You can't have this" games. She may be less flinty and more emotionally stable than Betty, but there doesn't appear to be much more than sex keeping those two together, which doesn't bode well for their future.

And oddly, there were hints that there be something brewing with Don and Joan. Joan's mother suggested that Megan wouldn't want Joan back at the office, getting too close to Don, plus Joan had a line reflecting on just how handsome Don Draper is. Where did that come from? Is it going anywhere? I hope not.

Some other good things about the episode: Betty was nowhere to be seen, Sally (Kiernan Shipka) is just as awesome as ever, Pete absolutely deserved a bigger office (although why Harry had one in the first place I don't know. Harry's not a partner, is he?), I still love Trudy, John Slattery's Roger gets the best lines and delivers them perfectly, and I absolutely adore Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," which played over the closing credits. Word is that the song was a late replacement for Dusty's version of "The Look of Love," which has a very different mood. "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" is a darker song, post-break-up, with the woman intending to follow the guy and "beg him to come home," even though she's well aware he doesn't really care about her anymore, while "The Look of Love" indicates there might actually be some feeling there. Hmmm... If "Look of Love" was the first choice, maybe Don does have real feelings for Megan, or her for him. Or maybe it was meant ironically? Oh, "Mad Men." You and the endless questions you pose. There is never going to be a tidy resolution of anything, is there?

All in all, I found this a very satisfying return, reeling me back into the world of "Mad Men" with sneaky scenes full of subtext and a whole lot of the maddening character mysteries that creator Matthew Weiner weaves so well.

Welcome back, "Mad Men," and your dirty little secrets, too.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Heartland Theatre Announces "Playing Games" Winners

Heartland Theatre has announced the winners in its annual 10-minute play contest. This year's theme is "Playing Games," with each of the winning plays, which will be produced at Heartland in June, somehow relating to that theme.

The eight winning plays were chosen from among a record number -- 366 -- entered in Heartland's contest this year, as playwrights found inspiration in the idea of "Playing Games."

The winning plays and playwrights are:

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

by Jerry McGee, Brooklyn NY
Did you ever wonder if you existed, or if you were just a character in a video game? No? Well, the line between game and reality is only too real for Hector. Unless it’s imaginary.

by Erin Moughon, New York NY 
Ms. Murphy and Mr. Jones may’ve been playing their made-up game for three years, but it’s probably more like three hours. The one thing they can count on is that no rule ever stays the same.

by Marj O’Neill-Butler, Miami Beach FL 
Did Rosie meet Bob in the pasta section or the dairy aisle? Was he wearing red running shoes or scarlet Crocs? Whose “missed connection” was whose? Oh well. All is fair in the Mating Game!

IT by Mike Poblete, Brooklyn NY 
Kyle and Judy are OVER. No more Ring Around the Rosy. No more sharing the Mickey Mouse car. But on the playground of their relationship, being tagged IT may be the ultimate romantic gesture.

by John D. Poling, Clinton IL 
Divorce, a new partner, a custody battle... This time, the one caught in the middle is a puppy named Destiny, after a scary trip to the vet brings the whole triangle and its tug-of-war into sharp focus.

by Alexis Roblan, Brooklyn NY
It’s time for Jake to meet the parents, but Sue insists that he learn – and master -- her family’s favorite game before they go. Can this relationship survive cutthroat Rummikub?

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

The 10-Minute Play Festival is annually the first show in Heartland's season, and it attracts submissions from all over the world. Local playwright John D. Poling appeared at Heartland as an actor in last season's "The End of the Tour," by Joel Drake Johnson, and Jerry McGee, of Brooklyn, was also a winner last year.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Oak Lawn Has a "Picnic" in State Drama Competition

It's no small feat to pack a whole set (including props and scenery) into a small truck and tote it down to Springfield, unload it, stack it, leave it, pull all your stuff out of the pile when summoned, put it together (carrying, building, latching, securing) in approximately ten minutes within the confines allowed to you, get your light cues and curtains set, put on your play, and then tear it all down and stick it on your truck, again within about ten minutes. Whew.

I was absolutely amazed, given those circumstances, at the wonderful sets I saw on display at the Illinois High School Association Drama competition at U of I Springfield this weekend. When the dust had cleared, the panel of five judges had picked their favorites (which, I have to admit, do not accord exactly with my own choices) and ranked them all and sent them all on their way. And I'm still sitting here thinking, wow, those sets...

The scenic designs are most probably the work of the teacher/coach/directors, not the students, but it's quite impressive that even one person, let alone twelve, can come up with a design that works to create the right atmosphere for a specific piece of theater, and one that can be taken apart and put back together and then taken apart again, in such a small amount of time. I was especially struck by the tiled, off-balance disc surrounded by light towers that director J.R. Rose chose as a platform for "The Dream of the Burning Boy" performed by Homewood-Flossmoor; the chilly and wide hospital set that director Sara Keith used for Lake Park's "Wit;" and the in-and-out Irish location directors Tom Witting and Erika Banick offered for "The Beauty Queen of Leenane" as performed by Reavis High School.

Based on overall dramatic presentation, my own choice for #1 would probably have been Homewood-Flossmoor's "Burning Boy." It felt the most real and like the most complete theatrical experience to me, with technical excellence as well as heartfelt, moving performances. "Burning Boy," by David West Read, is a new play, surfacing in New York in 2011, and it calls for several savvy high school students and a few teachers, as well. For me, Paul Spaniak stood out as pricky, complicated Larry, the teacher we see the most of, although Christopher Kelly's perky Steve, who thinks all you need after the death of a student is to put up cheery posters, was also right on the money. Asmera Smith was just difficult enough as Rachel, the sister of the boy who died, with Kirsten Hedrick providing tart energy as her mother, C.J. Butler sweet and affecting as the boy who's gone, and Charlie Bialobok and Jade Groble rounding out the tableau as other high schoolers.

Among the actors in other shows, Ryan Wagner and Michael Ernst stood out as George and Lennie in Glenbrook North's "Of Mice and Men," while Samantha Kittleson carried almost all of Lake Park's "Wit" on her slender shoulders, and Valerie Pizzato and Daniel Leahy provided welcome comic relief in Fremd's "Hail Mary!"

Oak Lawn's "Picnic," the one that took the top prize from the judges' panel, was certainly pretty to look at. Its lighting design, suffusing the stage with sunset hues, was striking and lovely. I don't know which of its three directors was in charge of the staging (or maybe it was a collaboration) but whichever it was did a very nice job, creating excellent stage pictures, especially at the very beginning, when Madge and Hal first catch sight of each other and sort of bend each other's way. That one move established the theme for this "Picnic," not so much about a girl suffocating in a small town, but more about summer heat and a passion that cannot be denied. For me, the cutting of the play didn't really work all that well, overemphasizing the second couple (desperate Rosemary and her beau, Howard) and leaving Madge and Hal too little room to build. It certainly was pretty, though. As a side note, I will be seeing ISU's college version of "Picnic" soon, and I'm betting it will be instructive to compare the two in terms of where the focus of the play lands.

This is the official finish:

First place: Oak Lawn Community's "Picnic," by William Inge, directed by Billy Denton, Theresa Wantiez and Marcus Wargin.
Second place: Homewood-Flossmoor's "The Dream of the Burning Boy," by David West Reid, directed by J.R. Rose.
Third Place: Glenbrook North's "Of Mice and Men," by John Steinbeck, directed by Julie Ann Robinson and Joel Monaghan.
Fourth Place: Reavis's "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," by Martin McDonagh, directed by Tom Witting and Erika Bannick.
Fifth Place: Benton's "Feeding the Moonfish," by Barbara Wiechmann, directed by Alan Kimball.

For the complete list of finalists and how the judges ranked them, click here. If you scroll down, you can also see the actors chosen for All-State honors.

If you're interested in purchasing pictures of any of these shows, you should definitely visit the VIP Photography site.

Movie-Lovers Must See "These Amazing Shadows" at the Normal Theater

This year, the National Film Preservation Board from the Library of Congress put 25 more films, including "Bambi," "The Big Heat" and "Silence of the Lambs" on its National Film Registry, preserving these "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films" for future generations. Movies come and go every year, we hand out awards to some of them and ignore others, but they still reflect who we are and what we were thinking about at the very moment the camera was pointed at that image. Last year's feature film "Hugo," which I absolutely loved, represented Martin Scorsese's passionate argument on behalf of film preservation. "These Amazing Shadows," a documentary about the National Film Registry on screen at the Normal Theater tonight and tomorrow night, is another fine piece of persuasion.

As one of the film experts interviewed in "These Amazing Shadows" suggests, the movies are like the family pictures of our culture. "The Birth of a Nation" may have severely twisted politics at its core, but it's also a snapshot of what some people thought about America in 1915, as well as a look at major advances in movie-making, as well as how the movies were used to propagandize and persuade as early as 1915. And it's on the National Registry, along with "Topaz," a "home movie" shot in secret inside a Japanese internment camp in World War II; "Newark Athlete" from 1891, the earliest movie represented; all-singing/all-dancing "42nd Street," "All That Jazz" and "Top Hat;" Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane," "The Magnificent Ambersons" and "Touch of Evil;" and other assorted films like "The Perils of Pauline," "Saturday Night Fever," "Forrest Gump," "Fargo," "The Apartment," "This Is Spinal Tap," "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," "Return of the Secaucus Seven," "Lassie Come Home,"  a documentary about the San Francisco earthquake shot in 1906, and the Zapruder film. Westerns, musicals, romantic comedy, war movies, five-hankie weepers, satire, issues pictures, documentaries, animation, shorts, features... They're all represented.

Pretty amazing stuff. It's our history, our view of ourselves, our creative and entertainment outlet for the last hundred-and-some years. Thank goodness somebody is working to preserve it.

"These Amazing Shadows" plays twice more -- tonight and tomorrow -- at 7 pm at the Normal Theater.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Happy Birthday, Stephen Sondheim!

There were a whole lot of special celebrations and tributes planned for Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday in 2010, continuing on through at least March 9, 2012, when Sondheim was given the UK Critics' Circle 2011 Award for Distinguished Services to the Arts.

Whether they were specifically intended to honor Sondheim's 80th, 81st or 82nd birthdays or it's just a general sense of celebration, we've seen "Sondheim: the Birthday Concert" at the New York Philharmonic, telecast on PBS and available on DVD; the musical "Sondheim on Sondheim," with a cast album available at PS Classics; "Sondheim 80," a concert at the Roundabout; another celebration at New York City Center; a British birthday concert during the BBC Proms; the New York Pops offering yet another tribute concert at Carnegie Hall; the publication of "Finishing the Hat" and "Look, I Made a Hat," two volumes written by the man himself discussing his lyrics and his general philosophy on songwriting; a New York Philharmonic concert version of "Company" that was filmed and screened all over the US; a "Follies" on Broadway (cast recording also available at PS Classics) and another one in Chicago; an outdoors "Into the Woods" built into a tree in Regent's Park; a City Center Encores! version of "Merrily We Roll Along," and, of course, lots and lots and lots of productions of other Sondheim shows all over the place.

I'm totally in favor of keeping this party going if it means I keep getting concerts and shows and cast recordings and book and posters to entertain me. I'm also willing to adopt Sondheim's birthday as my own if it will match up better to when Sondheim stuff is made available and I have gift list privileges.

In any event, if you haven't brought your own collection up to date, you have time to do that. But don't wait too long. Because (and I realize I have totally buried the lead here) The Guardian in England has announced that Sondheim is working on a new show. No, I'm not kidding. His last show was Wise Guys/Bounce/Road Show, which went through many different versions, casts and plot byways, never did quite gel as far as most critics are concerned, and is discussed at length in "Look, I Made a Hat." But this new show... The Guardian reports that Sondheim said he had 20 to 30 minutes of material written and that he is working with playwright David Ives ("All in the Timing," "Venus in Fur") on the book. And here's the really intriguing quote: "It's an idea I've had for a long time and it springs indirectly from a moment in a play of David's." Trotsky with a hatchet embedded in his head? Spinoza on trial? A cross-dressing painter or businessman?

We'll have to wait and see, but it's certainly intriguing. And I hope he has more than half an hour of material by now. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

John Malkovich Speaks to World Theatre Day Tomorrow in Paris

Did you know World Theatre Day is next week on March 27th? I didn't, but the good folks at Theatre Communications Group, who publish American Theatre Magazine and do lots of other cool things, let me in on the news.

This year, a message from ISU alum* John Malkovich will offer an international message to mark World Theatre Day. He's giving that address tomorrow, so I thought I would give you the heads up today. Malkovich has been asked to give this international message as the newest in a series of "renowned theatre artists" invited by ITI Worldwide to mark World Theatre Day. Malkovich's message will be translated into more than 20 languages, and made available through TCG/ITI-US so that theatres, individual artists, institutions and audiences can share his remarks and widen awareness of World Theatre Day. (At the moment, the link that TCG offers for sharing purposes isn't working, so let's hope they get that straightened out before the speech in Paris. It's about halfway down this page.)

John Malkovich
TCG offers this quote as a teaser before the big day: "And may the best of you – for it will only be the best of you, and even then only in the rarest and briefest moments – succeed in framing that most basic of questions, 'how do we live?'"

Malkovich will address his remarks to UNESCO in Paris on March 22 (tomorrow) at a gala event that is scheduled to include brief readings from plays performed by Malkovich and other theater artists.

A longer introduction to the speech is available here.

This is the 50th annual World Theatre Day, and to celebrate the international aspect of that anniversary, TCG asked theater artists to ponder the question of whether the next generation will be a Generation Without Borders. The deadline for those essays was March 9, so it's too late to send anything in for this one, but if you're like me, you're still interested in the responses. And, of course, in hearing what John Malkovich has to say about World Theatre Day!

*John Malkovich left ISU before graduating in the 70s, but the story I've heard is that he has since been awarded an honorary degree so ISU can legitimately claim his as an alum. Otherwise, I would have to call him former ISU student, which sounds odd, so I'm sticking with alum.

New Route Examines the "Willie Lynch" Phenomenon

New Route Theatre is back with a "One Shot Deal" at the Herb Eaton Gallery. This time, New Route is reprising "The Mystical Willie Lynch: A Musical, Poetic and Mental Exploration," which appeared last month in two quick performances at ISU's Milner Library.

Here's what I wrote about the show by way of introduction to its previous performances:

"Is the Willie Lynch letter real? Did somebody make it up in the 1970s as a cautionary tale or a call to arms? Does it really matter?

"Gregory Hicks, who works with the New Route Theatre and has been bringing programming to ISU under the auspices of the ISU Black Actors Guild, directs an examination of those questions in 'The Mystical Willie Lynch: A Musical, Poetic and Mental Exploration.' The cast of  'Mystical,' which includes Trace Gamache, Charlene Ifenso-Okpala, Ariele Jones, Jennifer Rusk, Don Shandrow, and Hicks himself, performed the show once last week, with another performance this Wednesday, February 29, at 7 pm in the AirPort Lounge (APL) in ISU's Centennial West building, and a third scheduled in March for New Route.

"In addition to the poems and songs performed by the ensemble, poems will be handed to the audience to read.

"So what is the Willie Lynch letter? When this letter first showed up, it told a very grim story, about one William Lynch, supposedly a prosperous plantation owner (and slave owner) from the West Indies who had been asked to speak to American slave owners in Virginia in 1712 to share his secrets for controlling slaves not just in the present, but for 'at least 300 hundred years.' Those secrets are unspeakable and horrifying, advising slave owners to divide and conquer, torture and brainwash, isolate and terrorize, in order to manage one's slaves for maximum financial gain. Like I said, horrifying.

"The authenticity of the letter has been much debated on the internet, with several scholars casting serious doubts on the letter and the 1712 speech the letter supposedly reported. If I'm reading descriptions of this new program, 'The Mystical Willie Lynch,,' correctly, Hicks and his cast are treating the 'real' Willie Lynch letter as a 'what if' proposition, not suggesting that the letter is real, but instead looking into the issues and concerns it raises even if it didn't exist in fact. 'Using a bit of theatricality,' Hicks' press materials say, 'a talented group of actors, and singers will present a poetry show. Through this performance, we begin to explore the teaching of The Mystical Willie Lynch. The works of artists such as Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka (a.k.a. LeRoi Jones), Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday, Gregory D. Hicks, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Nicki Minaj, Saul Williams, Pat’s Justice, will help us explore this letter.'

"All of this, Hicks suggests, is to get at the question, 'If knowledge truly is power, what will you do with it?'"

"The Mystical Willie Lynch" will begin at 7 pm tonight at the Herb Eaton Gallery at 411 North Center Street in Bloomington. To see details and a map, visit this page. Seating is limited inside the gallery, so you are asked to RSVP on the page linked, or to email with your information, including the number of tickets you need.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Coming Up: Something Wild at the Goodman in 2012-13

It's time for Chicago theaters to announce their new seasons, with Steppenwolf first out of the gate a few days ago. I previewed Steppenwolf's 2012-13 season here, but today we'll be looking at the Goodman Theatre, which has announced an ambitious and exciting slate of shows falling under the theme "Expect Something Wild."

The Goodman has two theaters -- the larger, more grand Albert, which seats 856, and the smaller Owen Theatre, which has room for 468 -- which means they have several subscription plans, allowing you to do all eight shows in both theaters, or pick one or the other. There will be five mainstage shows in the Albert Theatre, and three more intimate shows scheduled in the Owen.

First up is Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth," directed by "visionary wunderkind" David Cromer for the Albert. Cromer was born in Skokie, Illinois, and he has a pile of Jefferson Awards for his work in Chicago, plus he earned a Lucille Lortel and an Obie in 2009 for his well-received (and dramatically different) direction of "Our Town." This is his first trip to the Goodman.

"Sweet Bird of Youth" is a Williams classic, with unforgettable characters like Princess Kosmonopolis, the aging screen goddess whose career is crumbling, and young, handsome gigolo Chance Wayne, who makes a big mistake when he brings his new girlfriend, the Princess, to his hometown in Mississippi, where he  comes up hard against his old girlfriend Heavenly and her powerful family."Sweet Bird of Youth" is scheduled for September 15 to October 28 in the Albert Theatre.

Next is "Black N Blue Boys," subtitled "Broken Men," by Dael Orlandersmith, set for September 29 to October 28 in the Owen. The play is described as "an explosive narrative that uncovers the darkest corners of humanity—and shatters our notions about predators and their victims." Orlandersmith was a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn prize in 1999 with "The Gimmick" -- she won that award in 2003 and was a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for "Yellowman."

Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities," a smart family drama about a woman who has written a memoir revealing a long-buried family secret to the world, will play in the Albert from January 12 to February 17, 2013. "Desert Cities" was a hit at Lincoln Center last year, with a follow-up Broadway production. Ben Brantley reviewed it for the New York Times, including this major compliment: "Built with gleaming dialogue, tantalizing hints of a dangerous mystery and a structural care that brings to mind the heyday of Lillian Hellman, 'Cities' has the appeal of a Broadway hit from another age."

Christopher Shinn's "Teddy Ferrara" is up next in the Owen. Shinn is another Pulitzer Prize finalist, and his new play seems ripped from the headlines, about a gay college student whose world is turned upside-down by a campus tragedy. "Teddy Ferrara" will play February 2 to March 3, 2013.

The last play in the Owen is "The Happiest Song Plays Last," by Quiara Alegría Hudes, opening April 13 and running till May 12, 2013. Hudes was nominated for a Tony for the book of "In the Heights," but she goes farther afield with "The Happiest Song," setting the action in North Philadelphia and a town in the nation of Jordan. The first is the home of a community volunteer trying to help the needy, while the latter is the location of her cousin, an Iraq War vet, as he tries his hand as an action movie star. "The Happiest Song Plays Last" was part of the 2011 National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.

The most interesting play for me on the Goodman's schedule is Lynn Nottage's "Meet Vera Stark," which takes a look at Hollywood during its "golden" years when black actresses could play only maids. In the play, Vera Stark really is a maid, to a star known as "America's little sweetie pie," while Vera tries to hunt down her own dreams for stardom in her spare time. She makes a bit of a splash in the small roles available to her, which doesn't go over well with "America's little sweetie pie." And then the play leaps forward to the 1970s and then 2003, as film scholars try to figure out what happened to this mysterious actress who jumped off the screen way back when. Nottage is a fabulous writer, the Hollywood premise is fascinating, and I can't wait till "Meet Vera Stark" hits the spotlight in the Albert Theatre April 27 to June 2, 2013.

And the last play of the season will be Mary Zimmerman's take on "The Jungle Book," based on the 1967 Disney movie. It will feature Zimmerman's trademark stage magic, mixing songs, dance, lights, costumes and whatever else she comes up with to create stunning visuals. The Goodman is calling "The Jungle Book" the theatrical event of the season, and if it's anything like Zimmerman's other work, it will be that and more.

"The Jungle Book" will swing by the Albert Theatre June 22 to July 28, 2013.

They will add one other show, to be announced later, to its Albert schedule, presumably to fit sometime in the November/December area. Stay tuned for that announcement.

In the meantime, peruse the descriptions of the other seven shows at the Goodman website, and be sure to look closely at the "Expect Something Wild" banner, which has "The Jungle Book" written all over it in the coolest possible way.

Monday, March 19, 2012

IHSA Drama Returns, With Even More Drama!

It's that time again! Last year I did a preview piece on the state qualifiers in the drama half of the IHSA's Drama and Group Interpretation competition taking place at Sangamon Auditorium at the University of Illinois-Springfield. Hard to believe it's already been a year since Burbank Reavis High School won the top prize with their lovely and haunting production of Melanie Marnich's "These Shining Lives." Excellent acting, design and direction led Reavis to a state championship last year. Will they repeat, or will someone new emerge to take the title this year?

Here you can see a glimpse of Reavis's play, showing just how good these student productions can be, even though they are required to tote their set and scenery to Springfield in a small truck, load it all into an assigned space at the auditorium, and then put it up and strike it in a very limited amount of time. The plays are also restricted by time, which actually worked out well for Reavis, since time was a major theme in "These Shining Lives," a play about women making radium-dial watches in the 1920s. You can see the corner of the big clock projected on stage next to the actresses in the picture above.

Reavis is back this year, along with last years' #2, Oak Lawn Community, #3, Belleville West, #4, Benton, #5, Rock Island, #6, Thornton, and #8, Fremd. In other words, it's going to be a tough competition, with perennial contenders again lining up to claim the prize.

Defending champ Reavis qualified by taking 2nd place at their own sectional with a production of Martin McDonagh's searing "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," a 1996 Irish play about a selfish, destructive mother and the fragile daughter trying to escape her. "Beauty Queen" is directed by Erika Banick and Tom Witting, who directed "These Shining Lives" as well as "Equus," which earned them the top prize in 2007.

If they hope to win again this year, they'll have to get past Oak Lawn Community and their "Picnic," the 1953 William Inge play about two sisters getting ready for their small town Labor Day celebration and the handsome stranger who stirs things up with his arrival. Oak Lawn's "Picnic" finished 1st at the Reavis sectional last Saturday. Directors are Billy Denton, Theresa Wantiez and Marcus Wargin. Denton and Wargin were also on board in 2010 with "The Miracle Worker" and 2006 with "The Taming of the Shrew," winning state championships and showing they are quite comfortable with classic material.

Last year's 3rd and 4th place teams, Belleville West and Benton, have advanced from the Charleston sectional. Belleville West did well with Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart" last year, and this time, directors John Lodle and Laurie Bielong bring David Auburn's "Proof," the winner of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, to Springfield. "Proof" is about the daughter of a brilliant but mentally ill math genius coming to grips with her father's two legacies, math prowess and insanity. An interesting bit of trivia: Reavis performed "Proof" in 2009, coming in 7th, while West took "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," Reavis's choice this year, to a 7th place finish in 2006. Turnabout is fair play, apparently. Or the Reavis and Belleville West coaches are attracted to the same kind of material

Benton and director Allan Kimball finished in 4th place last year with "The Ballad Hunter," and they'll try to better that this year with "Feeding the Moonfish," Barbara Wiechmann's 1998 one-act about a lonely cook and waitress who spend an evening together, sitting on a dock in a Florida swamp. "Moonfish" is an unusual piece that should be anything but "same old/same old" to the judges.

Emerging from the Harvey Thornton sectional are Homewood-Flossmoor and "The Dream of the Burning Boy," a 2011 play by David West Reed about the death of a high school student and the aftereffects on his teachers, family and fellow students, and Thornton Township and Javon Johnson's "Papa's Blues," a 1999 play about three generations of fathers and sons dealing with hopes, dreams and disappointments.

Homewood-Flossmoor is one of the most stellar programs in IHSA drama history, with (if I've counted correctly) 17 championships since 1967. More recently, they won five in a row from 1998 to 2002, with "A Fair Country," "The Cripple of Inishmaan," "The Misanthrope," "Uncle Vanya" and "Othello." Director J.R. Rose was co-director on "Doubt," which placed 4th in 2010.  'The Dream of the Burning Boy" is a fresh piece of material and its high school setting should make it perfect for this kind of competition, meaning Homewood-Flossmoor may once again rise to the top.

Thornton Township's "Papa's Blues" was 2nd at sectionals on Saturday under the direction of Bradley Ablin and Marie Wojdelski; they also directed "A Lesson Before Dying," which placed 6th in 2011. Thornton took the top prize in 1997 with Pearl Cleage's "Hospice." They also won in 1985 ("The Mighty Gents"), 1989 ("The Amen Corner"), 1991 ("The Rainmaker") and 1994 ("Zooman and the Sign").

John Steinbeck's 1937 play, "Of Mice and Men," as performed by Glenbrook North High School, finished first in the Palatine Fremd sectional, beating out home team Fremd's production of "Hail Mary!" The latter is a 1995 comedy from Tom Dudzick of "Over the Tavern fame," and quite a departure from Fremd's "Kindertransport," a drama about Jewish children and the Nazis, which finished 8th last year.

"Of Mice and Men" is directed by Julie Ann Robinson and Tom Monaghan; Robinson co-directed "Good Boys and True" with Pat Murphy, earning a 2nd place finish in 2010. "Of Mice and Men" has been seen at state before, with Oak Lawn Richards taking 3rd place with it in 2009, and Benton and Waubonsie Valley finishing in 5th and 6th, both performing "Of Mice and Men" in 2000. Glenbrook North is no stranger to the state competition, either, earning championships in 1996 ("Oleanna") and 1994 ("The Elephant Man") as well as in 1962, 1964 and 1965.

The plot of "Hail Mary!" pits a plucky novice nun against a more traditional Mother Superior, with Judy Klingner, Mike Karasch, Lauren Dennhardt and Josh Cattero directing. If it wins, it will be the first comedy since Dudzick's "Over the Tavern" from Thornton Fractional South in 2003.

The Rock Island sectional was won by Sterling High School with Ira Levin's clever 1978 mystery "Deathtrap," where an established playwright desperate for a new hit decides to steal from -- and bump off -- the bright new kid. "Deathtrap" is directed by Chuck and Jill Price, bringing Sterling back to the state tournament for the first time since 2006's "Last Chance Texaco," which finished 9th.

In 2nd place at Rock Island was the Rocks' own "Agnes of God," the 1982 John Pielmeier play about a novice with stigmata and a mysterious pregnancy. The Rocks are once again led by Rino C. Della Vedova, who directed last year's 5th place "Hospice" and won it all in 2009 with "The Elephant Man."

The state schedule is rounded out by the top two plays from the Rochelle Lake Park sectional, with Lake Park's "Wit" and West Chicago's "Much Ado About Nothing" finishing 1-2.

Margaret Edson's "Wit," about a woman dying of cancer who tries to make connections in the time she has left, has been performed at state before; a Normal Community production finished 3rd in 2000.

Lake Park High School returns to state after a 4th place finish in 2009 with "The Diviners," and state titles in 1980 ("I Never Sang for My Father"), 1987 ("To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday") and 1992 ("Dancing at Lughnasa").  Sara Keith, who directs "Wit" and co-directed "The Diviners," is carrying on the family tradition set by her late father Michael Dice, who directed both "Never Sang" and "Gillian," and co-directed "Lughnasa" for Lake Park.

Our last qualifier, West Chicago, is the lone newcomer in the bunch. That's right -- West Chicago High School is the only one of the 12 schools appearing at state this year who has never made it before. They'll break the ice with "Much Ado About Nothing," the Shakespeare comedy wherein Beatrice and Benedick engage in a romantic battle of wits. Mark Begovich directs "Much Ado" for West Chicago.

IHSA administrator Susie Knoblauch, who is in charge of state Drama and Group Interpretation, has just posted the complete schedule for performances on the IHSA site if you are interested in coming to Springfield to see a few plays. The panel of five judges who will choose the state champ will see all 12 of them, making for a long day Friday and an early day Saturday.

Friday, March 16, 2012

"The Comedy of Errors," Direct From Britain's National Theatre

As part of the National Theatre Live project, where British stage productions are filmed and then screened across the UK as well as in the US, Champaign's Art Theater will be showing "The Comedy of Errors" at 1 pm on Sunday the 18th.

This "Comedy of Errors" stars British comedian Lenny Henry, whom the Daily Mail called "sublime" and The Independent called "wonderfully funny" in his role as Antipholas of Syracuse, who has a twin, also named Antitpholas, who lives in Ephesus. The two Antipholi were separated as babies in one of Shakespeare's patented storms at sea/shipwreck dealios. The Antipholi have twin servants, both named Dromio, and they keep getting mistaken for each other in Ephesus, where people from Syracuse are expressly forbidden. There's comedic danger, marital discord, long-lost brothers and mothers and fathers, and even a harlot to spice up the story.

For the National Theatre, Dominic Cooke directed this modern-day take on "The Comedy of Errors" where the two Dromios wear identical shirts advertising the Arsenal Football Club and Claudie Blakley, who plays the wife of Antipholas of Ephesus, totters around in sky-high red stilettos. The Independent also references "a six-foot-five transsexual in PVC miniskirt" as part of the Ephesus landscape. The Antipholus and Dromio from Syracuse sport Nigerian accents to establish their outsider patina, while the other pair sound more like London.

Thank you to the Art for continuing to offer these Nation Theatre "programmes." They aren't cheap (tickets were $15 the last time I went to one) but they certainly are worth it. Straight from the stages of Great Britain to Champaign-Urbana! What a deal!

The Art doesn't have its schedule up that far ahead, but the next show in the National Theatre Live set will be "She Stoops to Conquer," featuring Sophie Thompson in the cast.

March 20: Inside "Iceman" with Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy

"The Iceman Cometh" is coming to Chicago's Goodman Theatre, in a much-anticipated production starring Nathan Lane as Hickey, the salesman everyone is waiting for, Brian Dennehy as former anarchist Larry, and Stephen Ouimette (of "Slings and Arrows" fame) as Harry Hopes, the owner of the saloon where these barflies congregate. Goodman artistic director Robert Falls directs this "Iceman."

So we know about that, and we're on notice to try to acquire tickets now. But today's big news is that Dennehy and Lane will be appearing in a special "Artist Encounter" next Tuesday, March 20, in the Albert Theatre at the Goodman, to talk about the play with the Tribune's Rick Kogan and Chris Jones. Tickets are $25 for the general public or $20 for Goodman subscribers or donors or "Trib Nation" members. If you have questions about the Artist Encounter with Lane and Dennehy, you are invited to call the box office at 312-443-3800.

Dennehy had made something of a career of interpreting Eugene O'Neill, and he was the receipient of the Eugene O'Neill Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. Dennehy won a Tony for "Long Day's Journey Into Night," also directed by Robert Falls, and he did "Desire Under the Elms" at the Goodman and on Broadway, "Hughie" at the Stratford Festival in Canada, "A Touch of the Poet" at the Goodman with Falls, and he played Hickey in an earlier "Iceman Cometh," again directed by Falls, at the Goodman in 1990 and at the Abbey in Dublin in 1992. 

Nathan Lane is better known for his musical comedy stylings than as an interpreter of O'Neill, but he indicated in an interview with the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones that he was in the mood to take on the formidable challenge of a major O'Neill role, especially since he'd be in Chicago, working with Falls and long-time friend Dennehy. Jones quotes Lane as saying, "I thought... that if I was going to climb this mountain, I should do it in a city where I feel comfortable and with people with whom I feel comfortable."

The Goodman's production of "The Iceman Cometh" opens April 21 and runs through June 10, 2012.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

At Community Players, "Blithe Spirit" Ends, "Water" Rolls, "Hairspray" Cast

They are keeping busy over at Community Players, with all kinds of things happening.

First, their current production of the Noel Coward classic "Blithe Spirit" finishes up this weekend, with performances tonight, tomorrow and Saturday. Director Tom Smith will put his cast through their ghostly comedic paces three more times, including Thom Rakestraw as Charles, the man caught between his second wife, who is real, and his first wife, who is a ghost; Hannah Kerns as the bewitching Elvira, the ghost who won't go away, and Gayle Hesse as Ruth, the more practical new wife. Judy Stroh appears as Madame Arcati, the medium who starts the mess.

Next week, CP will already be launching their next show. This time, it's four one-acts by Robert Anderson, collected under the name "You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water's Running." There's "The Shock of Recognition," directed by Dorothy Mundy, about a producer (Dave Krostal), a playwright (Gary Strunk) and an actor (Ben Hackett) hashing out the issue of on-stage nudity; "The Footsteps of Doves," directed by Brett Cottone, with Nancy Nickerson and Mark Robinson as a long-married couple shopping for twin beds; "I'll Be Home for Christmas," directed by Joel Shoemaker, with Dave Lemmon and Bridgette Richard as empty nesters awaiting the return of their grown kids for the holidays; and "I'm Herbert," directed by Sherry Bradshaw, involving an elderly couple (John Lieder and Kelly Peiffer) having trouble remembering who was who or what was what in the past. Because this is a "lab theatre" production, there are only four performances, opening with a 7:30 pm show on March 22 and ending with a 2;30 pm matinee on the 25th. Click here for details.

As if all that weren't keeping the joint jumping, they've also managed to hold auditions and cast their May production of "Hairspray," the bright and shiny musical version of the John Waters' movie about teens in Baltimore trying to integrate a TV musical show. You can't stop the beat, yo! Alan Wilson will be directing "Hairspray" for Community Players, with a large cast that includes Kelly Slater as bouncy big girl Tracy Turnblad, who just wants her chance in the spotlight; Scott Myers cross-dressing to play Tracy's mom, Edna, who gets a makeover, complete with hairspray and major bouffant; and Jeremy Pease as Link Larkin the love interest. "Hairspray" opens May 11 and plays through May 27, with tickets already available.

You can visit the Community Players website or call the box office at 309-663-2121.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Perfect Match: "Purple Rose of Cairo" and the Big Screen

Any movie that begins and ends with Fred Astaire singing is likely to be a hit with me. "The Purple Rose of Cairo," Woody Allen's 1985 ode to the power of movies, does begin and end with Fred, but it has a lot more to recommend it than just that.

Like this year's Oscar contenders "The Artist" and "Hugo," "The Purple Rose of Cairo" looks at the fantasy world of the movies and how it overlaps, sometimes awkwardly, with real life, as well as what it means to sit in an audience in the dark and fall in love with what's on screen.
Because they're about the fantasy, none of those three really hangs it hat on reality, but there are some very real, poignant moments in "The Purple Rose of Cairo." It's also the only one that departs from the more traditional Hollywood Happy Ending. When questioned about that ending, Allen has supposedly said the one he used in the film is the happy ending, and I can see that. If his point is that we lose our troubles and find a measure of happiness at the movies, the fact that Mia Farrow's Cecelia (fun fact: that name, from the Latin, means "blind") is back in her seat at the end, once again safely watching the big screen, is a happy ending of sorts.

Farrow's Cecelia is a small-town waitress during the Depression when the movie begins, a not-very-good waitress who drops dishes a lot and pays more attention to the love lives of her favorite screen stars than to the customers. Every chance she gets, she goes to the local movie show, looking for glamor, sophistication, romance and escape. Gil Shepherd, played by the perfectly clean-cut, boyishly handsome Jeff Daniels, appears as a supporting player in "The Purple Rose of Cairo," the new movie Cecelia goes to see. Gil is playing the role of Tom Baxter, a Michigan boy in a pith helmet who explores foreign ports, experiences the high life in New York, and falls in love with a swanky nightclub chanteuse. But after Cecelia sits through one showing after another of "Purple Rose," a strange thing happens. Tom Baxter looks right at her, talks to her, and walks off the screen to be with her. Tom Baxter. Not Gil Shepherd, the actor. Tom Baxter, the character in the movie.

Once he's jumped out of the movie, the other characters are stuck. They can't finish their story without Tom Baxter. But he's dashed off with Cecelia to experience the real world and won't come back!

Pretty soon, the movie brass and the real Gil Shepherd arrive to try to figure out how to deal with the dilemma, and Cecelia is caught not just between her husband, a lout played by Danny Aiello, and fictional Tom in his jaunty jodhpurs, but between Gil and Tom, as well.

Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis contrasted the elegant black and white of the "Purple Rose" movie-within-the-movie with faded reds and browns to characterize Depression-era New Jersey, setting the mood and giving the movie a soft-focus look that works very well.

The cast is extraordinary, with wonderful actors like Edward Herrmann, John Wood, Deborah Rush, Van Johnson and Zoe Caldwell inhabiting the sophisticated on-screen world of cocktails and Art Deco penthouses, Dianne Wiest and a young Glenne Headly showing up as hookers, and Mia Farrow's sister Stephanie as Cecelia's sister.

But it's Mia Farrow and Jeff Daniels who really shine. Farrow makes downtrodden Cecelia sweet and sympathetic, even if she has clearly settled for too little in her life, and beautifully shows how taken she is with the fantasy world that opens up for her so unexpectedly. You can read the doubt and vulnerability, the surprise and delight, on her face as she chooses between real and fantasy, between the world of fake money and fake champagne and the world of real possibilities that inevitably come with real pain. She pairs nicely with Daniels, who creates two compelling characters in naive Tom Baxter and slicker Gil Shepherd, Hollywood star.

Allen's central theme, of how we relate to the movies, how we sink into fantasy life to make the rigors of real life palatable, is fascinating, with just the right mix of comedy and drama to showcase that theme.

"The Purple Rose of Cairo" comes to the Normal Theater tomorrow and Friday, where the vintage movie-going experience should make the movie come that much more alive.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Heartland Announces Cast for Upcoming "Superior Donuts"

Tracy Letts' award-winning "Superior Donuts" is coming to Heartland Theatre in April, with Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson, associate professor at University of Illinois-Springfield, directing a cast that includes Michael Pullin, Gregory D. Hicks, Todd Wineburner, Clark Abraham, Cathy Sutliff, Marcus Smith, Holly Klass, Aric Rattan and Jay Hartzler.

The poster from Steppenwolf's "Superior Donuts"
"Superior Donuts" is a Chicago play, Letts' first set in his adopted hometown, and it premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, with Michael McKean (the Lenny half of Lenny and Squiggy from "Laverne and Shirley" and then immortalized as David St. Hubbins in "This Is Spinal Tap") and Jon Michael Hill (who stepped straight from the theater department at U of I to the Steppenwolf ensemble) in the lead roles. McKean played Arthur Przybyszewski, the owner of a neglected doughnut store in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, while Hill created the role of Franco Wicks, a smart kid who talks his way into a job at Arthur's store. Franco has dreams of becoming the next great American poet, but he's got some bad decisions and bad connections from the past that are standing in the way. Both Arthur and Franco need to overcome the past in order to have a future, whether that future involves doughnuts or not.

The play's themes of personal growth, connection and redemption are universal, and they fit nicely within Heartland's missions "to explore the human condition through the art of theatre" and to call "attention to the experience of being human and the shared pain, joy, sorrow and celebration that it entails." There is pain, joy, sorrow and yes, even a celebration in "Superior Donuts."

For Heartland, Michael Pullin, just seen as Sterling, the ruthless stamp collector, in "Mauritius," will play Arthur, while Gregory D. Hicks, who has recently performed in "The Women of Lockerbie" at ISU and "The Mystical Willie Lynch" with ISU's Black Actors Guild, will take on the role of Franco.

Todd Wineburner, who last appeared at Heartland in Deborah Zoe Laufer's "Sirens" in November, is slated to play Max Tarasov, the friendly (and ambitious) Russian down the street, with Clark Abraham, seen in Joel Drake Johnson's "The End of the Tour" last spring, as Luther, the loan shark who has no compunctions about keeping his minions in line, with whatever means necessary.

Cathy Sutliff and Marcus Smith will play the pair of cops who hang out at Arthur's shop, often running into another patron, a lady who goes by the name of Lady, played by Holly Klass. Rounding out the cast are Aric Rattan and Jay Hartzler, playing Luther's henchman and Max's nephew respectively.

"Superior Donuts" opens at Heartland on April 12, with performances through April 29. No word yet on whether they will be offering doughnuts at intermission, but we can hope!

Monday, March 12, 2012

A "Reckoning" Season Coming Up for Steppenwolf in 2012-13

Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company has not only launched a splashy new look for their website, but also announced their upcoming 2012-13 season.

They're calling their upcoming season "The Reckoning," with the teaser "There comes a moment when we are called to account. Will our deeds be repaid? Will our secrets be revealed? Will we get what we deserve?"

All of which sounds like a very Steppenwolf season.

The five plays they've chosen to represent "what happens when the past comes knocking" are:

GOOD PEOPLE, by David Lindsay-Abaire. September 13 to November 11, 2012.
Lindsay-Abaire's Boston-based play opened on Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club just about a year ago, with a production directed by Daniel Sullivan and starring Frances McDormand as a down-on-her-luck single mother who turns up on the doorstep of an old boyfriend who turned out to be a lot more successful than anybody else in the neighborhood. McDormand won the Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for her role in "Good People." For Steppenwolf, ensemble member K. Todd Freeman will direct, with Alana Arenas, IWU alum Mariann Mayberry and Molly Regan in the cast.

THE MOTHERF*CKER WITH THE HAT, by Stephen Adly Guirgis. December 27, 2012 to March 3, 2013.
Everybody wanted to know how the Times and other papers would refer to this play. I don't think the asterisk is fooling anybody, but apparently, "Motherf*cker" is what we're all going with. It, too, played on Broadway last year, with comedian Chris Rock as a parole and drug abuse counselor. Cast members Bobby Cannavale, Yul Vázquez and Elizabeth Rodriguez were all nominated for Tonys, as was director Anna D. Shapiro, who will also be at the helm for this new production at Steppenwolf. Will Shapiro take the play and its comic storyline about a guy just out of prison who thinks his girlfriend is cheating on him in a new direction this time?

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY, by Harold Pinter. January 24 to May 19, 2013.
This Pinter classic, full of menace, dread and murky motives, is about a birthday party in a dumpy seaside town, with two surprise guests who turn everything upside-down. "The Birthday Party" will be directed for Steppenwolf by Austin Pendleton, who recently visited ISU, with ISU alumni Francis Guinan and Moira Harris in the cast along with John Mahoney, Ian Barford and Harris's daughter Sophia Sinise.

HEAD OF PASSES, by Tarell Alvin McCraney. April 4 to June 9, 2013.
Another birthday party! McCraney's brand-new play is nowhere near Pinter's England, however. She sets her party "at the Mississippi River's mouth," which I'm assuming means New Orleans, with a family gathering that exposes old, dark secrets. McCraney's "Brother/Sister Plays" were directed by Tina Landau, who will also take on "Head of Passes." Look for Alana Arenas, K. Todd Freeman, U of I grad Jon Michael Hill, Tim Hopper and James Vincent Meredith, who memorably appeared at the Station Theatre in Urbana before his Steppenwolf tenure.

BELLEVILLE, by Amy Herzog. June 27 to August 25, 2013.
No, not Belleville, Illinois. Herzog's suspense drama is is set in the artsy, gentrified Belleville neighborhood in Paris, the one that appeared in "The Triplets of  Belleville." Zack and Abby, a pair of American 20-somethings, think they've found the perfect place to be hip and trendy, idealistic and Bohemian, young and in love. But there are ominous cracks in their marriage from the very start, contrasting their experience in Paris with the more stable French-African married couple who are their landlords. "Belleville" will be directed by Anne Kaufman, with omnipresent ensemble member Alana Arenas as well as Kate Arrington in the cast. Fun fact about playwright Amy Herzog: Her grandfather was Arthur Herzog, Jr., who wrote the song "God Bless the Child."

For information about subscriptions to Steppenwolf's "Reckoning" season, click here.