Sunday, March 31, 2013

Celebrating Opening Day: My 12 Favorite Baseball Movies (The Reprise)

In honor of Major League Baseball's Opening Day, I am rerunning a piece I wrote for last year's Opening Day. My White Sox don't start till tomorrow, but today is a fine time to revisit this list of my ten favorite baseball movies, originally written in April, 2012.

My baseball team of choice is the Chicago White Sox. Today is Opening Day for the White Sox, and the first regular season game with new manager (and one of my all-time favorite players) Robin Ventura on the bench.

In honor of Opening Day and Robin Ventura, as well as a piece that appeared in the Chicago Tribune online recently, I am choosing my own ten favorite baseball movies. Actually, I am going to pick twelve, mostly because I have twelve and I can't decide among the last three. My choices are not at all the same as the ones in the Tribune piece, and they are, in fact, likely to be different from pretty much everyone else's list of baseball movies, since I have included musicals and some old gems and I have NOT included the "boy pics" that don't really appeal to me.

By that, I mean that I am aware that "Field of Dreams" and "The Natural" are on everybody's lists but mine. So I feel I should tell you right off the bat (see how I worked that bat in there?) that I find both of them less than appealing. I read "Shoeless Joe," the W.P. Kinsella book that "Field of Dreams" is based on, and I mostly didn't get it. I watched "Field of Dreams," with grown men weeping on all sides, and I mostly didn't get it.

"The Natural," meanwhile, I found to be decidedly odd. The symbolic women characters and mysticism regarding the special bat struck me as silly, and as pretty as Robert Redford was as Roy Hobbs, I just never believed him as a new phenom of a baseball player. Redford was in his late 40s when the movie was made, and for me, it showed. (In case you're wondering if this is a girl thing, my baseball fan husband didn't really get into these movies, either. He wants me to point out that, though he was at my side, he did not shed a tear.)

Without further ado, here are MY top twelve baseball movies:

1. Eight Men Out (1988)
This is both a fine movie (written and directed by John Sayles) and a wonderful recreation of what baseball was like, economically, emotionally and as a game, in 1919. Terrific actors like David Strathairn, John Cusack, D. B. Sweeney and John Mahoney lead the cast in this American tragedy, about how poorly players were treated and how the most wealthy and most educated in society took shameless advantage of the others.

2. Bull Durham (1988)
This one takes place in the minor leagues, where a catcher who had a cup of coffee in the majors and a green, wild pitcher meet up to play some ball. One is on his way out, while the other is on his way up. Coming between them is a veteran groupie who chooses one player each season to focus her amorous attentions on. Kevin Costner plays down-on-his-luck Crash Davis with the perfect world-weary shrug, Susan Sarandon plays easy Annie with more affection than sluttiness, and Tim Robbins is hilarious as "Nuke" LaLoosh, the new kid who needs some strong guidance. Writer/director Ron Shelton clearly loves baseball, and that scuffy, lovable world inhabits every frame of his film.

3. The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Other people weep at "Field of Dreams." I weep when Gary Cooper starts the famous "Luckiest man on the face of the earth" speech in "The Pride of the Yankees." I honestly don't know if Lou Gehrig was as great a guy as this movie tells us he was, but I want to believe that. Babe Ruth and other Yankees players give the film a touch of truth playing themselves, and Gary Cooper does a fine job, making you believe that Gehrig was a true All-American hero.

4. Bang the Drum Slowly (1973)
When you find out this is the story of a not-very-bright catcher who is terminally ill and the successful pitcher who befriends him in the last year of his life, you'd probably think it's an overly sentimental weeper. It's not. Instead, it's a sweet, low-key movie about friendship, about two guys doing the best they can with the hands they were dealt. Robert DeNiro is terrific as dumb guy Bruce, the dying catcher, while Michael Moriarty is natural and pretty great himself as his more talented friend.Vincent Gardenia was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as their potty-mouthed manager.

5. Damn Yankees! (1958)
And now it's time for a more cheerful choice! Every baseball fan with a losing team can relate to Joe Boyd, who makes a pact with the devil to win a pennant for his Washington Senators. In this movie version of a Broadway hit, Ray Walston ("My Favorite Martian") is a delight as the devil, with Gwen Verdon quite amazing as Lola, the devilish sidekick who always gets what she wants, performing dances choreographed by Bob Fosse. The Richard Adler/Jerry Ross score includes "Heart" (AKA "Ya Gotta Have Heart') and "Shoeless Joe From Hannibal, Mo." Okay, so the baseball part is silly. It's still a fun, crazy movie and a good representation of how hated and how dominant the Yankees were in the 50s.

6.  The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings (1976)
 Like "Eight Men Out," "Bingo Long" tells the story of players used and abused by ownership. In this case, they're playing in the twilight years of the Negro Leagues, with players not allowed to play major league baseball but still pushed around by white owners. With a cast that includes James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor, "Bingo Long" is funny, sad, fascinating and irresistible.

7. Fear Strikes Out (1957)
"Fear Strikes Out" shows a different side of high-level sports, as Jimmy Piersall battles mental illness and a domineering father as he also tries to succeed as a major league outfielder. Anthony Perkins is not my idea of a baseball player and he is never completely convincing as Piersall in that aspect, but he is definitely convincing as someone whose mind is unraveling. Karl Malden is also convincing as his father, the one who demands perfection at all costs and simply won't give up until his son achieves it. Director Robert Mulligan was nominated for a Directors Guild Award for the film.

8. Angels in the Outfield (1951) 
Guffy McGovern, the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates (played by Paul Douglas), is foul-mouthed and hot-tempered, and a female sports reporter (Janet Leigh) keeps blaming him and his mouth for the team's poor performance. But then an orphan and some friendly nuns show up, with divine intervention helping the team win and putting extra angels in the outfield. The Los Angeles Angels didn't exist as a major league team in 51, and it certainly would've changed the tone of the film if it'd been set in LA instead of Pittsburgh, but the angels idea is creative and fun, and the movie works as a sweet redemption pic for crusty old Guffy McGovern.

9. Rhubarb (1951)
As far as I know, there is only one baseball movie with a cat in it. "Rhubarb" is that film. The plot tells us that a rich old man dies, leaving a ton of money and a baseball team to his cat, an orange tabby whose name is Rhubarb. The cat turns out to be good luck for the ailing team, and a few complications later (Allergies! Catnapping!), all is well with Rhubarb and his RBIs.

10. A League of Their Own (1992)
Tom Hanks is hilarious as a manager stuck with a bunch of women in the early years of female professional baseball leagues. With Geena Davis, Rosie O'Donnell and Madonna as baseball players. Madonna! Like "Bingo Long," above, the movie points out the unfairness of only allowing white guys to play America's pastime, using warm characters, humor and drama to tell its tale.

11. It Happens Every Spring (1949)
This is Ray Milland's second appearance on this list, since he is Cat Protector #1 in "Rhubarb." In "It Happens Every Spring," Milland appears as a scientist who accidentally invents a substance that can repel wood. With his special goo in hand, Millan's professor heads for the St. Louis Cardinals, putting the stuff onto baseballs that he pitches at batters who can only swing in vain while their bats repel the ball. The baseball scenes are pretty awful, and the whole idea is pretty idiotic. And yet the movie still works as a little gem from the past, when innocence was a good thing.

12. Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
Another musical! And a real blast from the past, as Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin portray baseball players (O'Brien, Ryan and Goldberg) in the early 20th century. O'Brien and Ryan tour in vaudeville during the off-season, just like real players Al Schacht and Nick Altrock did, to give Kelly and Sinatra plenty of opportunity for musical numbers. Their team's owner, played by Esther Williams, is a romantic foil for both of them, and the movie includes a song "O'Brien to Ryan to Goldberg" reminiscent of "Tinker to Evers to Chance," the catchphrase about the Cubs double-play combination.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

ISU's Poignant LOST FORMICANS Keeps You Thinking

I was just reading about a video purporting to show that there are shapeshifting alien reptile guards looking out for the President. That "evidence" is being used to bolster the theory that President Obama is part of an intergalactic conspiracy between an earthly elite and alien overlords eager to use earthlings like puppets. Or maybe to eat them. (Is the shapeshifting alien reptile guardian force carrying copies of "To Serve Man"?)

The video showing this alleged alien sounds like something just right for the conspiracy theorist character in Constance Congdon's Tales of the Lost Formicans, a 1989 play about life on earth, here, now (or at least in the 80s), with all its earth-bound complications and limitations, framed by a pack of alien archeologists from the future trying to make sense of us.

In Deb Alley's production of Tales of the Lost Formicans for Illinois State University, performed in the small theater space called Centennial West 207, the limitations of life on earth are front and center. We see again and again how ephemeral and impermanent our world is, how each of the things we cling to to give life meaning -- lovers, parents, children, possessions, careers, passion, memory, the place we call home -- will crumble, tumble or go up in smoke. 

Congdon's script is a little funny, a little strange, quite thought-provoking, and in this ISU version, sad, too. There's bittersweet humor in the travails of Cathy, the woman who comes back home to Colorado, her foul-mouthed son in tow, when her marriage breaks up, only to find her old suburban neighborhood is falling apart, Dad is losing his mind, and Mom can't quite deal with any of it.

The story of Cathy's father, Jim, once a man who could fix anything but now just a shell, wandering around wondering where he is and where his mixed-up memories are leading him, is especially poignant, aided by a lovely performance from Joe Faifer, who can nail a comic backwards scene one moment and break your heart talking about sheet rock the next.

Hananiah Wiggins is also touching as the conspiracy nut who has all the wrong moves when it comes to human interaction, while Michele Stine keeps the center of the play steady and strong as Cathy, our Everywoman guide. Jaqueline Dellamano and Carlos Kmet are on target as Cathy's mom and son, and Jenna Liddle adds abundant energy and edge as Cathy's old friend, a divorced mom who is well over the line into a nervous breakdown. Keith Jackewicz rounds out the cast in multiple roles, most notably as the main alien observer who runs the show.

Andrew Sierszyn's off-balance set and its bits and pieces of late 20th century Americana give the production the right sense of unease, especially that upside-down door, while Deanna Durbin's orange and brown and argyle costumes show a period of our fashion past that should probably stay buried.

Tales of the Lost Formicans is not an easy show to wrap your head around -- you'll want to discuss and maybe argue about it with your friends after the show -- but it's certainly worth your while to do so. There are a lot of ways to interpret Congdon's cosmic little script. Mulling it over, I decided it was about mortality, about insignificance, about how we try to make sense of things that just can't be explained. Or, you know, life.

by Contance Congdon

The School of Theatre and Dance at Illinois State University
Centennial West 207

Director: Deb Alley
Scenic Designer: Andrew Sierszyn
Costume/Hair and Makeup Designer: Deanna Durbin
Lighting Designer: Meredith Francis
Sound Designer: Eduardo Curly-Carillo
Stage Manager: Kayleigh Walter

Cast: Hananiah Wiggins, Michele Stine, Joe Faifer, Jenna Liddle, Carlos Kmet, Jacqueline Dellamano, Keith Jackewicz and Timothy Jefferson.

Remaining Performances: March 30 and April 2-6 at 7:30 pm, April 6 at 2 pm.

Running Time: 2:20, including one 15-minute intermission

For ticket information, click here.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

ISU's KCACTF Entry MOTHER COURAGE Cleans Up in National Honors

As you may recall, Illinois State University's production of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, directed by Sandra Zielinski, was selected to be performed at the regional level of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. That regional festival was held in January in Michigan.

Mother Courage was a very successful production, one that earned its cast and production staff all kinds of accolades when it first played Westhoff Theatre last October, and again when Mother Courage dragged her cart to Michigan. During the Michigan performance, a national panel of adjudicators watched and evaluated Mother Courage, as they did all the regional selections at all eight regional college theatre festivals. After viewing all of those college productions from all over the country, the national panel selected which shows they wanted to single out for praise and awards, with Mother Courage singled out for some very special honors.

Here's are the awards handed to ISU's Mother Courage by the national Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival judges:






Vombrack portrayed Mother Courage herself, while Powell created new music for this production of the play. Congratulatons to Zielinski, Vombrack, Powers and Powell, along with everyone else who contributed to this fierce and ferocious production of Mother Courage and Her Children. The cast (with Vombrack pictured inside Mother Courage's iconic cart) is pictured below.

To see the complete list of KCACTF national honors, click here.

Adaptive Playwrights Need Apply: City Lit's THE ART OF ADAPTATION

Chicago's City Lit Theater is big on adaptations of literary work. Their current show is adapted from Grace Metalious's "Peyton Place," that provocative piece of fiction from the 50s that sparked the American imagination and spawned a whole lot of soap operas. In their 30-year history, as their website tells us, City Lit has "explored fiction, non-fiction, biography, essays, and drama in performance while presenting a wide array of voices from classic writers such as Henry James, Edith Wharton, Oliver Goldsmith, Mark Twain, Colette, and P.G. Wodehouse to such contemporary writers as Alice Walker, W.P. Kinsella, Douglas Post, Raymond Carver, Edward Albee and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala."

It's a noble aim, to try to put literature on stage -- there's a huge range of possibilities, from David Edgar and the Royal Shakespeare Company with Nicholas Nickleby to the big boffo musical Les Miserables to Steppenwolf making a mark with The Grapes of Wrath back in 1988 -- and City Lit is doing its best to encourage all of them.

City Lit is once again offering The Art of Adaptation, a contest and festival celebrating non-dramatic works adapted for the stage. Last year's winner was LIAR! a play by Jordan Mann based on one of the stories in the book "I, Robot" by Isaac Asimov. Other pieces performed in 2012 included adaptations of work by F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, William Shakespeare and Neil Gaiman.

For this year's competition, the rules for would-be adaptor/playwrights include a time length (5-20 minutes in performances) and simple set requirements. City Lit is looking for six to eight plays, each adapted from a part of a novel, short story, essay, memoir, poem or any other kind of literary material that is not already a play, to perform on their stage in July. For all the submission details -- including info on the $500 prize -- you can check the League of Chicago Theatres Collective Leverage blog, which announced this year's contest. Note that they are looking for a proposal, including a one-page description of the work and ten pages of the script, and the deadline for those proposals is May 31, 2013. That gives you a little time to get that adaptation in order.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

What's Coming Up From Heartland Theatre Company in 2013-14

Heartland Theatre Company has announced the schedule for its 2013-14 season, and it's full of mystery, secrets, deception and relationship drama.

Heartland's season will begin in June with the Annual 10-Minute Play Festival, every year presenting eight new short plays by winning playwrights from around the globe. This year's theme is "The Package,” with each play somehow involving a package, parcel or gift.

Next up is the Douglas Post play Earth and Sky, a tense psychological thriller, set for performances in September, 2013, and then Annie Baker's award-winning Circle Mirror Transformation, a sweet and insightful play about the members of an acting class, scheduled to hit Heartland's stage in November.

After the holiday break, Heartland will be back in February, 2014, with Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, a look at a privileged family with secrets, and Scottish playwright Rona Munro's Iron, moving mother-daughter drama inside a women's prison, in April, 2014.

Heartland's season announcement notes that flex passes to cover this whole season go on sale on April 30th. You can see all the details here.

In the meantime, here's the rundown of shows to whet your appetitie:

Annual 10-Minute Play Festival: THE PACKAGE
June, 2013
Packages have been used as McGuffins in more plays, movies and TV shows than you can fit inside the largest box UPS will deliver. But it’s what’s inside the parcel that counts, whether it’s mysterious microfilm, memories of the past, the key to your heart, an urn full of ashes, a dangerous snake or somebody else’s cheesecake. There’s plenty of dramatic potential inside every package!

EARTH AND SKY by Douglas Post
September, 2013
Doug Post’s neo-noir thriller opens when Sara McKeon, a “would-be poet and part-time librarian” is told that her lover, David, has been killed while involved in terrible crimes. How can she believe what the police are telling her? How can she not? EARTH AND SKY will keep you on the edge of your seat as it vaults from love to betrayal, from mystery to deception, from truth to lies.

November, 2013
This look at a hapless acting class in a small town in Vermont was chosen as one of the Best Plays of 2010. There’s warmth and humor as well as all kinds of insight in this lovely piece about the power of seemingly silly acting exercises like the circle and the mirror to transform the lives of the people willing to leap into them.

February, 2014
The wealthy Wyeths of Palm Springs enjoy access to the highest levels of American life. But then daughter Brooke comes home with the tell-all book she’s written about the family’s murky secrets. Baitz is a specialist when it comes to dysfunctional families, and OTHER DESERT CITIES, a nominee for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, is one of the best.

IRON by Rona Munro
April, 2014
Fay has spent the last 15 years in prison for murdering her husband. When her daughter Josie visits for the first time after all these years, she wants to know why it happened, what he did, what her mum did. She can’t even remember what her dad looked like. But there are no easy answers in Munro’s wrenching look at the justice and injustice in crime and punishment.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Little Bit About Lindsey Gates-Markel and Her Role in OR,

Last week I talked to director Kay Bohannon Holley about her upcoming production of Liz Duffy Adams' breezy, boisterous historical romp Or, which opens on Thursday night at Urbana's Station Theatre. Holley's star, playing the role of Restoration playwright Aphra Behn, is Lindsey Gates-Markel, who has taken on some very different roles during her time with the Celebration Company. Gates-Markel has been Eurydice in Sarah Ruhl's play of the same name, Suzanna, the quirky newlywed who has a dangerously close connection to her adoptive brotherin Gina Gionfriddo's Becky Shaw, and most recently, Hamlet. Yep. Hamlet. That's Lindsey as Hamlet on the Station Theatre's poster for their production.

Lindsey is also a writer, editor and all-around interesting person. This is only the tip of the iceberg of questions I need to ask her! But we started with Or, and this is what I found out...

Playing Aphra Behn is certainly different from playing Hamlet, which I think was your last role at the Station.

Hamlet meant great satisfaction at the culmination of a high-pressure role and loads of work. I actually signed on for Or, while Hamlet was still running, with the trust that it would be a lighthearted, sexy jaunt under Kay’s nurturing direction. And so far, Or, has been exactly that experience, with many lovely additional flourishes.

Do you have a favorite role? Is there a particular kind of character or play you are most attracted to?

I started acting with intent when I was thirteen and have stumbled alongside local theater seasons since, but I don’t pursue much interest outside of performance and patronage. I don’t keep up with new scripts or have a list of ideal roles in mind. Meanwhile, live theatre performance has turned out to be the most transformative habit of my life. I’m secretly very shy, and maybe because of that, performing is a compulsion I've indulged since I was very small. Theatre is an exercise in emotion and stories and balance. I learn more about life and other people and the human experience through it. So, at the risk of sounding too Pollyanna, every role is a dream role. I’ve been very lucky.

Tell me about the play Or,. If I’m putting this together correctly, it involves Restoration playwright Aphra Behn, the king, Nell Gwynne and spies. As well as Behn trying to get some work done in the midst of chaos. And kind of mixed with some modern twists. How would you characterize the play?

The play is ultimately about Aphra Behn running full-bent after a golden theatrical opportunity, one she knows will launch her legacy into that of “the f*cking immortals,” and Charles II, Nell Gwynne, and her former partner in the spy game, William Scot, bursting in and bringing delightful distraction with them. It’s fast-paced, clever, bold, and not a little bawdy. And Or, is one rare instance where female empowerment and sexiness aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, that sexiness is really borne of the women in the play reveling in their freedom to ask for exactly what they want, both in and out of the bedroom.

How would you describe the real Behn versus the Or, Behn?

Lucky for me, very little is known for sure about the real Aphra--she’s indeed considered the first professional female writer, she was indeed a royal spy, she did indeed work with William Scot (whose father was part of the group who prosecuted Charles I and was later hanged for regicide when Charles II was restored to power), and she did indeed spend time in debtor’s prison, which is where the play opens. Much of the rest is a blank page, and filling it in has been pure fun.

However you look at it, Aphra Behn had to be pretty amazing to forge ahead and make a career for herself as a playwright (and a female playwright at that -- inconceivable!) during this period in English history. What do you think makes her different?

Aphra says early on that she “crave(s) glory.” It’s so often the role of women to soften ourselves, to quiet down, to delay our desires and shrug off our talents. Deflecting and downplaying our joy becomes such a habit that we expect it even from ourselves. Kay recently mentioned the word “monomaniacal” in reference to Aphra, and that’s been my mantra ever since. Yes, Aphra wants to screw around with other interesting and passionate and talented people; she wants to help her friend in his moment of crisis; but above all, she is wildly desirous for glory and recognition and heroism. She wants to write. So it’s my exhilarating job to keep that brass ring hung way up high and to keep that spirit pumping through me every second.

As I said to Kay Holley, I think Liz Duffy Adams is a newcomer with a fresh and distinctive voice. What are your biggest challenges in working with Adams' words?

The main reasons this little play is tough are also some of the reasons it’s wonderful--because of the farcical nature and because Adams dabbles so much with mixing time periods. There are sections written in iambic pentameter; there are parts where the “fourth wall” bends a bit. Our delivery swings between presentational and intimate. From a technical perspective, I’m lucky in that I only participate in a little of the door-slamming and in none of the backstage quick-changes--there are several moments where one of my castmates disappears and then returns several seconds later as a completely different character. I don’t envy them that, though it’s delightful to watch from my steady onstage perch.

Have you worked with Kay as a director before? What about the rest of the cast?

This is my second time being directed by Kay, the first being Becky Shaw last season, which also featured Mathew Green. Working with Kay, from day one, is uniquely transformative. She’s so emotionally intelligent, such an empath. And she starts the process with implicit trust in her actors, so we’re really cut free to progress as quickly as we want or as carefully as we need.

I mention Mathew because I’m consistently amazed at how clearly our characters appear out of the ether when we’re working on a scene together, under Kay’s direction. It’s some kind of theatrical alchemy for me. He moves with complete purpose from the word go and never plays a scene by rote. Engaging with him onstage sharpens my instincts. You’ve got to be alert to keep up.

And I’d be absolutely remiss if I didn’t mention Stephanie Swearingen, a relative newcomer to the Station and a devastatingly adorable Nell Gwynne (and several other characters). Stephanie was tasked with venturing out of her comfort zone in this production, and now she’s just doing a bold Mexican hat dance over that line every night. It’s my pleasure to be onstage with her and to witness her progress.

Oh, and that Gary Ambler is okay, too. He’s a cute kid, lots of promise.

Thanks, Lindsey! I can't wait to see Or,!

And that is just a little bit from the very intriguing Lindsey Gates-Markel. I feel like we barely scratched the surface and like Aphra Behn, there's a lot more to find out. In the meantime, we can all get over to Urbana to see this play about a fascinating woman, written by a fascinating woman, directed by a fascinating woman, and starring another fascinating woman. Don't you just love theatre?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

KUROSAWA Streaming on Hulu!!

A Facebook post just alerted me to the fact that Hulu (in conjunction with the Criterion Collection) is streaming 24 Akira Kurosawa movies for free this weekend!

When I checked, there was only 16 hours left to watch fabulous Kurosawa classics like Seven Samurai (1954), which spawned The Magnificent Seven; Throne of Blood (1957), a fabulous medieval Japanese take on Shakespeare's Macbeth; The Hidden Fortress (1958), a major influence on Star Wars; Yojimbo (1961), precursor for A Fistful of Dollars; and Rashomon (1950), the one with the unreliable narrators that lets you see how the "facts" behind a crime operate from three different points of view.

Those are my top five, but there are plenty more if those don't pique your interest. Hulu and Criterion have put this free streaming bonanza together to celebrate this incredibly influential filmmaker's birthday. They have not included his later masterpieces like Ran or Kagemusha, but you're certainly free to find those on your own. As with his early films, the ones available for the rest of the day on Hulu, Kurosawa uses bold visuals to tell stories about morality, honor, truth, family, ambition and a yearning for happiness. His women characters can be difficult to take (you'll notice he gave his Lear sons instead of daughters in Ran) which is probably why he was translated into Westerns, too. But the visuals... The spooky witch spinning alone in the forest in Throne of Blood. The rain pouring down or the camera looking straight into the sun in Rashomon.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

CITIZEN KANE Tonight and Tomorrow at the Normal Theater

For 50 years, Citizen Kane, Orson Welles' first feature film, sat at the top of the Sight & Sound critics' list as the best movie ever made. Not because it featured glossy stars or exciting special effects, not because it broke box office records or started a cult. In fact, it did none of those thing. But, as Sight & Sound noted in 2002, the "Dazzlingly inventive" and "technically breathtaking" Citizen Kane "reinvented the way stories could be told in the cinema, and set a standard generations of filmmakers have since aspired to. An absorbing account of a newspaper tycoon’s rise to power, Orson Welles’ debut film feels as fresh as tomorrow's headlines. And he was only 26 when he made it."

And then came 2012. For the first time since the Sight & Sound poll started, Citizen Kane was not No. 1. Nope. As of 2012, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo was King of the Cinema Hill.

But I'm still firmly on the Citizen Kane team, and not just because my favorite professor from college, Robert Carringer, wrote the book on how Citizen Kane got made (and at one time, owned one of the copies of Rosebud, the sled that drives the movie.) So, yeah, a good portion of my film education was about Citizen Kane. But even so... Citizen Kane's advances in cinematography, music and cinematic storytelling are simply unmatched. Gregg Toland, the cinematographer, Herman J. Mankiewiecz, the screenwriter, and Bernard Herrmann, the composer, all shared in what's so special about Citizen Kane. Plus there's Welles himself, of course, along with Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, Dorothy Comingore, Erskine Sanford, George Coulouris, and All My Children's own Ruth Warrick, each turning in a terrific performance that adds a piece or two to the Kane puzzle.

Sorry, Vertigo. Yes, you're an interesting movie, even if you are kind of heavy on the misogyny thing. But you're no Citizen Kane.

The Normal Theater has two more showings of The Greatest Movie Ever Made, the one that pushed the industry and the art forward, that said, yeah, we can poke pointy sticks at the likes of media magnate William Randolph Hearst (the model for Charles Foster Kane) even when he tries to shut us down, yeah, we can examine what happens to the ideals of youth and how power and wealth can turn a man into something even he doesn't recognize, what any of it means when a man is old and alone in the empty mansion he built. Brash, arrogant, charismatic Orson Welles burst through the door with this movie with all the bravado of youth, at a time when movies were still young, too. .

So go see it on the big screen. See what Orson Welles meant to the world of movies in 1941 and what he still means.

Community Players Is S-E-T for the S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G B-E-E

Community Players and director Brett Cottone have the cast in place for their May production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

The musical comedy (book by Rachel Sheinkin, music and lyrics by William Finn), about kids vying to win the local spelling bee -- with words like capybara and vug on the agenda -- will feature Joe McDonald and Aimee Kerber as the adults (Vice Principal Douglas Patch and former Putnam County Spelling Bee champ Rona Lisa Peretti) running the show, Chris Stanford as "comfort counselor" Mitch Mahoney, and Brian Artman, Kallie Bundy, Megan Masterman, Joel Shoemaker, Kelly Slater and Austin Travis as the over-invested child spellers.

Bundy will play Olive Ostrovsky, the girl whose mother is off in an ashram somewhere, while Artman will take on the magic foot of William Barfée (note the accent -- he is particular that his name is pronounced BarFAY, not BARFy), who can only spell if he can sketch the words out with his shoe, Masterman will be over-achiever-in-every-way Marcy Park, Slater will play (and perhaps spell the name of ) Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, a socially-aware little girl with two gay dads, Travis will personify sweet, not-that-smart Leaf Coneybear, who keeps getting asked to spell the names of rodents, and Joel Shoemaker will bring boy-scout-with-growing-up-issues Chip Tolentino to life.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is an adorable show with characters you can't help but root for. And if you have a hankering to be part of the action, most productions pull volunteer spellers from the audience to compete along with Barfée, Chip, Leaf, Logainne, Marcy and Olive. In New York, Julie Andrews was a guest speller and had to do supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, while I got picked in Chicago on my birthday, and I got asked for lysergic acid diethylamide. The other volunteer speller there got cow, so you just never now.

Performance of this Spelling Bee begin May 9 at Community Players Theatre on Robinhood Lane.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Is It Fiction? Is It History? Or Is It OR? Kay Holley on OR at the Station Theatre

Liz Duffy Adams' irreverent and clever comedy Or, a time-twisted romp through one imaginary night in the life of Restoration playwright Aphra Behn, opens next week at Urbana's Station Theatre. Behn is a fascinating figure, not only because she was probably England's first female playwright, or because she was among the first playwrights in the history of English-speaking theatre to make a living at it. There's also the spy factor. The saucy humor. The wit. The gender-bending and cross-dressing.

It's no wonder Behn caught the imagination of a playwright like Adams, who uses humor and lively writing to juggle poetics and pop culture, the past and the present, looking at theater then and theatre now to tell us something about ourselves. In Or, Adams spins an outrageous and wonderful story around this fictional version of Behn, still a spy but trying to get out of that dangerous trade by writing a play, as she does her best to resist the amorous advances of King Charles II, the famous actress Nell Gwynne, and a shady ex-lover who is also a double agent -- all in one night!

In order to understand more about Or and the Station's upcoming production, I posed a few questions to director Kay Bohannon Holley, always a strong presence in the Celebration Company in whatever role she's playing. So here's what Kay had to say about her own past and present, and her experience with theater then and theater now.

 I know you've been associated with the Station for a long time and you've directed a lot of very intriguing shows. What was the first show you directed at the Station?

The very first show I directed was Edward Albee's play Three Tall Women. As it turns out, three of the fourteen shows (I think . . .) I've directed have been Albee.

Aside from the Albee, do you have any favorites or any shows that stand out over the years?

I have different favorites for different reasons--some shows bring a unique emotional or even spiritual perspective to my life. Some are intellectually challenging. Some are wonderful because of the people I'm working with. I've pretty much loved them all. Copenhagen was the most difficult text I've worked with, and one of the biggest acting challenges I've shepherded actors through, so I am very proud of that production. Fortunately, I had three very fine actors in Steve Keen, Gary Ambler and Joi Hoffsommer. Wit was a deeply satisfying emotional experience, both as a play and because of the wonderful actors I worked with, including a beautiful performance by Barbara Evans. All of the shows I've directed with Gary Ambler and Joi Hoffsommer have been amazing because those two are so good -- and so good together on stage. They're my Tracy and Hepburn. Almost, Maine was a beautiful way to spend the holiday season and last year, Becky Shaw was a great opportunity to work with some of the Company's younger actors on a very "up to the minute" kind of play. Well, you see what I mean. There's something to love in all of them.

How did you come to directing in the first place? Do you have a specific directing philosophy?

I didn't set out to be a director, exactly. My degrees are all in what used to be known as "Oral Interpretation," so I've been involved in performance all along--and had directed as part of my work at the university. Gary Ambler encouraged me to direct at the Station and now I suppose I consider myself more a director than an actor. I'd start sounding really pompous if I tried to articulate a "philosophy of directing" for you. Suffice it to say that I think of myself as a storyteller and of theatrical art as a gorgeous exploration of what it means to be human.

Liz Duffy Adams isn't that well-known a playwright, although what she is known for is a distinctive voice. How do you see Or? Is there anything in particular that draws you to Or?

I frankly don't know much about Adams, beyond what I've read in brief biographical blurbs. I know that she has received acclaim as a playwright of great promise -- having plays produced at the Humana Festival and working with the Women's Project. But oh -- what a text. When Rick Orr [Station Theatre Artistic Director] handed me this play two years ago, he said it was "a little gem." And that image has stuck with me -- only now it's become a colorful jewelry box -- and when you open it up, delightful things spill out.

There are several things that draw me to Or. First, I've long been fascinated by the Restoration period. Perhaps this dates back to my seeing Forever Amber as a kid and just being spellbound. Secondly, it is a delightfully bawdy little play.

More importantly, though, I am drawn to the character of Aphra Behn, both in literary history and as she is drawn in the play. Aphra, as we meet her in the play, is a woman on fire with her passion for writing. And, as full of life and love and lust as she is, it is the writing that surpasses all. In fact, all of the women characters in the play are women who are doing things women haven't done before--Aphra as a poet and playwright, Nell as an actress and Lady Davenant as the manager of a major theatrical company. I am hopelessly attracted to the courage and liveliness of women blazing trails. Perhaps Aphra Behn in life was not the world's best playwright; the very fact that she was one at all -- insisted on being one -- burned to be one -- is what moves me.

Did you have any particular opinion about Aphra Behn before this show?

I had read Behn's "Oroonoko" in college--and had not found it particularly compelling reading. However, perhaps with Virginia Woolf as my guide, I had a deep appreciation of Behn's importance as a literary figure and an inspiration to women writers since.

What do you think the title means?

Literally, it is a reference to the Elizabethan and Restoration habit of giving their plays ponderous titles that had the word "or" in them. Adams also tells us in the prologue of the play that the word links that which seems opposite -- as in "gay or straight," "boy or girl," "cheap hackney trash or art." I think one of the "links" that Adams likes is the link between seemingly different eras. She sees patterns in the Restoration era that reverberate into the 1960's/Vietnam era and even into our own post-9/11 era.

Tell me about your cast and who's playing what.

I have a really great cast: Lindsey Gates-Markel is playing Aphra. The other cast members are Mathew Green, Stephanie Swearingen and Gary Ambler. They light up the stage.

Is the show turning out to be what you thought when you first got the script, or is it taking off in unexpected directions? 

Shows always go in unexpected directions when you bring the words up off the page and let good actors at them. It is the sexy jewel that I expected and so much more.

And finally, why do you think Or fits the Station and what it does? Why should Station fans -- or newcomers -- try Or?

The play mostly takes place in one place and one time -- so that lends itself to the intimate space of the Station. I think Station regulars will love seeing some of their favorite actors in such a funny, sexy show. And I think it will make newcomers want to come back.

Thanks, Kay!

Liz Duffy Adams' Or begins on Thursday, March 28 and runs through April 13 at the Station Theatre, 223 North Broadway in Urbana. For more information, click here or call 217-384-4000.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Annie Baker Wins the 2013 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for THE FLICK

The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, awarded annually to honor and celebrate female playwrights who "have written works of outstanding quality for the English-speaking theatre," was given to Annie Baker this week for her play The Flick.

The Flick is currently enjoying an extended run at Playwrights Horizon in New York. That's the same theater that produced Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation, chosen as one of the Best Plays of 2010 and honored with an Obie Award as Best New Play.

Playwrights Horizon describes The Flick this way: "In a run-down movie theater in central Massachusetts, three underpaid employees mop the floors and attend to one of the last 35 millimeter film projectors in the state. Their tiny battles and not-so-tiny heartbreaks play out in the empty aisles, becoming more gripping than the lackluster, second-run movies on screen. With keen insight and a finely-tuned comic eye, The Flick is a hilarious and heart-rending cry for authenticity in a fast-changing world."

Like Baker's other plays, The Flick uses humor, insight and a sweet touch with the human heart to comment on how we communicate. Or try. Writing about The Flick for The New York Times, Charles Isherwood called Annie Baker "one of the freshest and most talented dramatists to emerge Off Broadway in the past decade," as he noted that "this lovingly observed play will sink deep into your consciousness, and probably stay there for a while."

The other nine finalists for the 2013 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize were:

Karen Ardiff for The Goddess Of Liberty
Jean Betts for Genesis Falls
Deborah Bruce for The Distance
Katherine Chandler for Before It Rains
Amy Herzog for Belleville
Dawn King for Foxfinder
Laura Marks for Bethany
Jenny Schwartz for Somewhere Fun
Francine Volpe for The Good Mother

Ardiff is Irish, while Bruce, Chandler and King are from the United Kingdom, Baker, Herzog, Marks, Schwartz and Volpe are American, and Betts hails from New Zealand.

The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. The winner receives a prize of $20,000 plus a signed and numbered Willem de Kooning print made especially for the award. Other finalists are awarded $1,000 each.

Monday, March 18, 2013

If It's March, There Will Be Drama!

When high school basketball and Scholastic Bowl are over, we all know what time it is, right? Time for the state high school drama competition! It all takes place March 22-23 in Springfield, at the Sangamon Auditorium at the University of Illinois-Springfield.

Last year, Oak Lawn Community High School was the big winner in drama, taking first place honors with their production of William Inge's Picnic. Homewood-Flossmoor's The Dream of the Burning Boy by David West Read came in second, very closely followed by John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men performed by Glenbrook North.

So who's coming to state this year? And what are they performing? Sectional results are in, and the line-up shows that last year's No. 1 is back, with Oak Lawn offering Nina Raines' Tribes, a new play from England about a deaf son trying to be heard in his very verbal family. The 2011 champion, Reavis High School from Burbank, is also coming back to state. Reavis will tackle Mark Medoff's Children of a Lesser God, a very different take on deafness and the deaf community, first performed on Broadway in 1980. Reavis finished in 4th place last year with The Beauty Queen of Lenane.

Also returning is Benton High School, which took 5th last year, this time with Anatomy of Gray by Jim Leonard Jr. Leonard's play, about a small town in Indiana and the doctor who tries to heal its wounds, was last performed at state in 2011, when Oak Lawn's production finished as runner-up to Reavis and These Shining Lives.

Other returnees from last year include Rock Island High School, which will present David Mamet's controversial Oleanna, a man-vs.-woman play about sexual harassment and gender politics;  Thornton High School from Harvey with Zooman and the Sign by Charles Fuller; Palatine's Fremd High School with Sylvia Regan's Morning Star; Belleville West performing Jon Robin Baitz's brand-new family drama Other Desert Cities; and West Chicago High School, this time offering Nick Dear's version of Frankenstein.

Thornton Fractional adds Chad Beckim's After to the mix, while Fenton performs Motherhood Out Loud by Susan Rose and Joan Stein, Waubonsie Valley High School from Aurora goes with Sarah Ruhl's beautiful and poetic take on Eurydice, and Rockford Auburn hopes to impress with a short version of Romeo and Juliet they're calling A Clockwork Romance.

For the complete schedule of performances, click here, while you'll find information and directions to the State Final in Springfield here.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Will a Saturday Night Slot Be the Swan Song for SMASH?

I wanted Smash to work. I really did. I love Broadway and its stars and the notion of a backstage Broadway musical on television sounds like heaven to me.

But it didn't go well during the first season with creator Theresa Rebeck's at the helm as producer. Everybody and his grandmother -- and I! -- offered suggestions on how to fix Smash's sinking musical ship once Rebeck was given the heave-ho and Josh Saffran (from Gossip Girl) took over. Yes, there were multiple issues. Plots were set up and then abandoned, the marital woes of at least two of the characters (lyricist Julia, played by Debra Messing, and producer Eileen, played by Anjelica Huston) were tiresome, Messing's wardrobe was laughable, there were too many stray men running around, and Marilyn Monroe was a lame idea for a musical, anyway, as evidenced by the existing Marilyn musical that only ran for 17 performances.

But all of that was small beans compared to the huge problem at the core of Smash as written and produced. In a cast full of Broadway stars, somebody -- maybe Rebeck, maybe exec producer Steven Spielberg, maybe Simon Cowell for all I know -- decided to build the show around the character of Karen, as played by American Idol runner-up Katharine McPhee. Karen was a dewy-eyed newcomer from Iowa, living off her rich, sweet, handsome boyfriend, walking into auditions and knocking all the bigwigs off their pins. "She's fantastic!" they told us. "She's a star!" "She captures Marilyn!"

And when I say "they told us," I mean exactly that. Every week, the scripts told us that Karen was the biggest thing to hit Broadway since Mary Martin, that she was the pinnacle, the be-all, the end-all, the megawatt star to end all stars. But what did they show us? As personified by McPhee, we saw a Karen who was a whiny, listless little nothing, a pouter, a moper, someone who expected stardom to land in her lap with no work or commitment whatsoever. I don't care how many times you tell me someone is fabulous if I can see with my own eyes she ain't.

That problem was only exacerbated by the competition. When Smash began, there was supposedly a competition for the role of Marilyn between McPhee's Karen, the newcomer, and Megan Hilty's Ivy, a more experienced Broadway performer desperate to break out of the chorus. Hilty, and by extension Ivy, really was as magical as Karen was not. Hilty's Ivy could sing. She could act. She could project Marilynesque qualities. She had "it" written all over her. And the more the powers behind Smash tried to tell us it wasn't so, that up was down, that in was out, that Karen was perfection while Ivy was a loser, the more Smash looked like a bust.

In order to retool Smash for its second season, Saffran (or somebody above or below him on the foodchain) fired a few extraneous men, ditched Julia's scarves of disrepute, and hired more bona fide Broadway folks. That included Jeremy Jordan, fresh off the successful Newsies, and Krysta Rodriguez, who'd created the role of Wednesday Addams in The Addams Family musical, as well as offering short runs to TV star Sean Hayes and another American Idol alum, Oscar and Grammy winner Jennifer Hudson.

You will not be surprised to hear that Jordan, Rodriguez and Hudson were added to prop up Karen as a new love interest, roommate and mentor, respectively. Meanwhile Hayes is playing Ivy's co-star in a musical based on Dangerous Liaisons. He's a TV star who thinks potty jokes are the height of show biz excellence. He's a Stooge, a Jerry Lewis, an Adam Sandler, if any of those guys were stupid enough to bring that shtik to a Broadway musical. Of course Ivy is sharing a show with him.

Karen (who is perfectly perfect in every way, in case you didn't get the message) is playing saviour and goddess to a songwriting duo trying to get their musical off the ground and continuing to blow away all the Broadway powers-that-be, while Ivy is trying to survive a show opposite fart jokes. The handwriting is on the wall: Marilyn will be a mess again, Karen will bail in favor of the real, cool, authentic musical her new boyfriend is writing, and it will come down to Karen vs. Ivy for the Best Actress Tony, just like All About Eve. Hmmm... I wonder who will win the Tony? Maybe Karen? Or Karen. I suppose there's a chance Karen could win. No, definitely Karen.

So, as these new plot developments creaked along, the show continued its campaign to proclaim Karen as the second coming. And the ratings were terrible. There was some noise that NBC didn't care about the sad ratings because they were making money off the music from the show, but seriously... How many people buy music from a show they're not watching?

So when the news came last week that NBC had decided to move the show to Saturday, thereby sounding its death knell for all intents and purposes, no one should've been surprised. Well, maybe about the Saturday part. If Friday has been the Siberia of the TV landscape, the place where unwanted shows go to die, then Saturday has been Antarctica. It's the place of reruns and repurposing, of Cops, Pawn Stars and American Ninjas. I can't remember the last time I looked for original programming during Saturday primetime.

Although the next three episodes will air in the familiar Tuesday night slot, NBC will burn off the rest of its new Smash episodes on Saturdays at 9 Central time starting April 6. Note that Episode 17, which is set at the Tony Awards (told you so about that plot inevitability -- bet on Karen to walk away with the trophy while Ivy drowns in her tears) will be the series finale. It's scheduled for May 25.

Show runner Safran told TVLine he was "saddened" and "surprised" about the move to the basement of NBC's schedule. Let that be a lesson to the arrogant, the muckety mucks, the guys at the top of TV's heap. You can't ignore complaints raining down on your head forever if you want your show to stay alive. And seriously, guys. When a hundred critics tell you that you've made a mistake in casting your lead, CHANGE YOUR MINDS. Do something. Fix it. I fear that Broadway is now as dead as Smash when it comes to material for television shows. And how stupid is that? Broadway shouldn't have to take the rap for the dunderheaded moves behind the scenes of Smash.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Heartland Has its MIDDLETOWN Cast in Place

Will Eno's Middletown is a bittersweet slice-of-life, showcasing the citizens of a small town on ordinary days in their lives. There's birth, death, curiosity, pride of place, casual cruelty, longing for connection and... A good deal of humanity.

Because of the ensemble nature of the show, the size of the cast has varied from production to production. After auditions last week, director John Kirk has announced his cast for the Heartland Theatre production coming in April. For Heartland, the Middletown ensemble will contain twelve players, ranging from IWU student Geena Barry to Heartland past-president Ann B. White, who is also the program director and founder of Young at Heartland, the theater's senior acting troupe.

Barry will play three roles -- Woman, Female Tourist and Music Host -- while White will be take on the roles of Tour Guide, Aunt and Attendant.

The other denizens of Middletown will be played by Lynna Briggs (playing Sweetheart and Ground Control), Dean Brown (Public Speaker, Landscaper and Janitor), Aric Diamani (Male Tourist, Freelancer and Male Doctor), George Freeman (Cop), Karen Hazen (Mrs. Swanson), Richard Jensen (Mechanic), Kathleen Kirk (Librarian), Devon Lovell (Female Doctor and Cop Radio), Rhys Lovell (John Dodge and Science Host) and John Poling (Greg and Man).

It looks like a powerhouse cast for a complex, thoughtful and poetic play by a major new voice in American theater. Will Eno received the Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play in 2010 for Middletown, the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theatre Award, and numerous other awards and citations. His play Thom Pain (based on nothing) was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Performances of Middletown begin April 18 at Heartland Theatre. Follow these links to see showtimes and reservation information.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Start the Countdown! MAD MEN Is Back in 25 Days!

AMC's Mad Men is coming back, baby! They're scheduled for a two-hour season premiere, as you can see from the banner above, and they've released new artwork to tease the new season. The illustrations were done by a British artist named Brian Sanders, who just happened to have done that kind of work back in the period Mad Men is set in, giving it an Ad World of the late 60s verisimilitude.

Here's a different version of that poster art, with a better look at Jon Hamm's two Don Drapers (one the gray-flanneled-suit ad exec with briefcase and the other hanging onto the hang of a woman wearing a filmy dress. I'm not sure what that's meant to connote, except maybe that Don Draper and his new wife, Megan, are turning away from the gray-flannel world he used to inhabit, even as there are still two sides to Don Draper. Whatever the message in the poster, Don is echoing Cary Grant in North by Northwest, especially the scenes at the United Nations, when it seemed New York was looming ominously over our hero.

From other pictures floating out there, we know that Megan is back and looking even more 60s-ish with frosted lipstick and high hair, that ex-wife Betty and her husband Henry are still around, with all three Draper kids in tow, and Roger, Joan, Pete and even Bert Cooper are in the mix at the ad agency. It looks like everybody has gone to a fancy dress party, including Peggy, who left Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and junior staff, with Stan now sporting a beard and Ginsberg in a string tie.

It's tantalizing trying to figure out why we're seeing what we're seeing and how everyone has changed (or not -- Don and Joan, I'm looking at you) since last we saw them.

Ah, Mad Men. How fast can April 7 get here?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Can You Spell A-U-D-I-T-I-O-N?

Community Players and directed Brett Cottone have announced auditions for their upcoming production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the musical comedy about kids trying to spell well enough to win a trophy with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was a huge hit in New York and it's been popping up all over on tour and in regional theaters. It's an adorable show with a little bite, as we see sweet kids and Bee personnel -- all with some eccentricities -- who are maybe a little too wrapped up in winning for all the wrong reasons. Parental interaction (and lack thereof) plays a big part in The Bee's plotlines, as does audience interaction, when lucky volunteer spellers get to share the stage to compete against the cast (in character, of course).

So here's the scoop on Community Players' production and how you can audition to be a part of it, courtesy director Brett Cottone:


William Finn–Composer/Lyricist
Rachael Sheinkin–Book

Auditions: March 17-19, 2013

Preview: May 9, 2013
Performances: May 10-12, 16-19, 23-26, 2013.

Director: Brett Cottone
Producer: Chris Strupek
Music Director: Dennis Gotkowski
Choreographer: Wendy Baugh
Assistant Director: Tony Smith
Lighting: Dan Virtue
Sound: Rich Plotkin
Set Design: Jeremy Stiller
Costumes: Opal Virtue and Sherry Bradshaw
Props: Dorothy Mundy and Carol Plotkin
Stage Manager: Hannah Kerns

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a hilarious tale of six adolescent outsiders vying for the spelling championship of a lifetime. The show's Tony Award winning creative team has created the unlikeliest of hit musicals about the unlikeliest of heroes: a quirky yet charming cast of outsiders for whom a spelling bee is the one place where they can stand out and fit in at the same time.

For Mature Audiences - Casting limited to 18 and older.

Please prepare 16 - 32 bars of music to be played by piano accompaniment. No pre-recorded accompaniment allowed. Please dress appropriately for a dance audition. You will also be asked to read selected passages from the script.

Spelling Bee Character Breakdown

CHIP TOLENTINO - A boy scout and champion of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, he returns to defend his title, but he finds puberty hitting at an inopportune moment. C3 - B4 Tenor

DOUGLAS PANCH - The Vice Principal. After five years' absence from the Bee, Panch returns as judge. There was an "incident" at the Twentieth Annual Bee, but he claims to be in "a better place" now, thanks to a high-fiber diet and Jungian analysis. He is infatuated with Rona Lisa Peretti, but she does not return his affections. (non-singing)

LEAF CONEYBEAR - The second runner-up in his district, Leaf gets into the competition on a lark: the winner and first runner-up had to go to the winner’s Bat Mitzvah. Leaf comes from a large family of former hippies and makes his own clothes. He spells words correctly while in a trance. In his song, "I'm Not That Smart", he sings that his family thinks he is "not that smart," but he insinuates that he is merely easily distracted. Most of the words that he is assigned are South American rodents with amusing names. A2 - G4 Baritone or Tenor

LOGAINNE SCHWARZANDGRUBENIERE (SCHWARTZY) - Logainne is the youngest and most politically-aware speller, often making comments about current political figures, with two overbearing homosexual fathers. She is somewhat of a neat freak, speaks with a lisp, and will be back next year. C4 - D5 Soprano

MARCY PARK - A recent transfer from Virginia, Marcy placed ninth in last year’s nationals. She speaks six languages, is a member of all-American hockey, a championship rugby player, plays Chopin and Mozart on multiple instruments, sleeps only three hours a night, hides in the bathroom cabinet, and is getting very tired of always winning. She is the poster child for the Over-Achieving Asian, and attends a Catholic school called "Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows." She is also not allowed to cry. B3 - E5 Soprano/Mezzo-Soprano

MITCH MAHONEY - The Official Comfort Counselor. An ex-convict, Mitch is performing his community service with the bee, and hands out juice boxes to losing students. E3 - A4 (B4) Tenor

OLIVE OSTROVSKY - A young newcomer to competitive spelling. Her mother is in an ashram in India, and her father is working late, as usual, but he is trying to come sometime during the bee. She made friends with her dictionary at a very young age, helping her to make it to the competition. B3 - F#5 Soprano

RONA LISA PERETTI - The number-one realtor in Putnam County, a former Putnam County Spelling Bee Champion herself, and returning moderator. She is a sweet woman who loves children, but she can be very stern when it comes to dealing with Vice Principal Panch, who has feelings for her that she most likely does not return. Her favorite moment of the Bee is in the minutes before it starts, when all the children are filled with the joy of competition, before they begin to resent each other. Ms. Peretti herself won the Third Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by spelling "syzygy," which she recounts at the very beginning of the opening number. C#4 - Ab5 Soprano

WILLIAM BARFEE - A Putnam County Spelling Bee finalist last year, he was eliminated because of an allergic reaction to peanuts. His famous “Magic Foot” method of spelling has boosted him to spelling glory, even though he only has one working nostril and a touchy personality. He has an often-mispronounced last name: it is Bar-FAY, not BARF-ee ("there's an accent aigu," he explains with some hostility). He develops a crush on Olive. Eb3 - Bb4 Tenor


Please note that Leaf Coneybear is my personal favorite character and I don't like Monsieur Barfee at all. Him and his fancy foot spelling technique! Harumph! But your mileage will certainly vary, and you can pick your own favorite to root for at The Bee when Players puts it on in May. Until then, if you have a hankering to spell (and sing) words like hankering, you'll want to show up to audition for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

For more information, you can visit the Community Players website or email 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Goodman Theatre Announces 2013-14 Slate of Performances

Chicago's Goodman Theatre has announced its 2013-14 "Dream Season," with an emphasis on women directors and playwrights. The Goodman is billing this season as "Eight exquisite productions that offer you a magical, unparalleled theater experience."

Three of the five shows slated for the Albert Theatre space were created by women, from Cheryl L. West's Pullman Porter Blues to Rebecca Gilman's Luna Gale and Mary Zimmerman's The White Snake.

West is a University of Illinois alum whose early work premiered in Champaign-Urbana. Her play Jar the Floor was one of the first things I reviewed for the Champaign News-Gazette back in 1989. It was fabulous. Pullman Porter Blues premiered last year at the Seattle Repertory Theatre, where it was described as a "captivating coming of age story...woven with iconic blues music." Chuck Smith, who is celebrating twenty years of working with the Goodman Theatre, will direct Pullman Porter Blues, which is scheduled to begin September 18, 2013 in the Albert.

Next up is Gilman's Luna Gale, which opens January 18, 2014 and will be directed by Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls. Gilman is probably best known for The Glory of Living, Boy Gets Girl and Spinning Into Butter, all three of which received the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Play. Gilman is a multi-award winning playwright as well as an artistic associate at the Goodman. Her new work, Luna Gale, looks at a social worker who places a baby with the mother of a teen couple with addiction problems and how that decision spirals into terrible choices and possibly terrifying consequences.

Also in the Albert, David Ives' Broadway hit Venus in Fur starts March 8, 2014, in a production directed by Joanie Schultz. Ives plays off Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's "Venus in Furs," an 1870 novella about a man who fantasizes about being the sexual slave of the woman he desires. In Ives' updated version, we see a director confronted with (and fascinated by) a strange young actress who arrives to audition for him. Because it's David Ives, you know it's funny, but Venus in Fur also becomes dark and a little dangerous as the director and actress play cat and mouse with dominance and submission.

Mary Zimmerman's The White Snake, another in a series of Zimmerman's dazzling visual adaptations of classic stories, spins off from a Chinese fable about a snake who takes on human form and falls in love. Our snake heroine wants nothing more than to stay a woman forever, but her true reptile identity is discovered, threatening her happy human life. This "ravishing theatrical spectacle" opens May 3, 2014, with Zimmerman once again at the helm of her unique, amazing work.

Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon, a musical fairytale about a Scottish town that appears for one day and then disappears for a hundred years, will close out the Albert season with performances from June 27 to August 3, 2014. The original 1947 Broadway production starred David Brooks as Tommy, the 20th century hero who stumbles onto Brigadoon, while the movie version in 1954 put Gene Kelly in the role. Brigadoon was revived for a one-night concert version in 2010 starring Jason Danieley, who just appeared at Chicago Shakes as George in Sunday in the Park with George, and Melissa Errico as the lovers separated by the vanishing village. Can we hope to get Danieley back for the Goodman's Brigadoon? I have no idea, but a girl can dream. Rachel Rockwell will direct.

The more intimate Owen Theatre will host Noah Haidle's Smokefall, a poetic exploration of family love and loss directed by Anne Kaufman, set to open October 5; Buzzer, a provocative and funny new piece about race and romance from Tracey Scott Wilson, author of The Good Negro, to be directed by Jessica Thebus in performances beginning February 8, 2014; and Ask Aunt Susan, Seth Bockley's comic take on a man who gets sucked into pretending to be a female self-help guru on the internet. Deception, deception, deception... Ask Aunt Susan is scheduled for May, 2014, with Henry Wishcamper directing.

For information about all of these shows as well as subscriptions and tickets, you can visit the Goodman Theatre site here. It's worth it just for the beautiful images they've chosen to represent this dreamy season!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A New Ten-Minute Play Contest Just for High School Students

Eureka College Theatre and the Peoria Live Theatre League are working together on a new project to find and produce short plays written by high school students. The brand-new contest, called the Illinois High School 10-Minute Play Festival, is looking for new, original, unproduced, unpublished scripts written by students currently enrolled at Illinois high schools.

The reading panel will choose six winning scripts to be produced at Eureka College in November, 2013. Their intention is to choose one script written by a freshman, one by a sophomore, one by a junior and one by a senior, with two "at-large" scripts chosen from any class to round out the production.

They are asking for scripts that last ten minutes, which should be in the range of six to ten actual pages, depending on how the dialogue plays out. They also have a specific style sheet detailing their requirements for what a script should look like.

The deadline for submissions is July 1, 2013, which means students have the rest of the semester and a month or so to fine-tune their scripts, and they will accept either print or email entries.

Click here to see all the details or email Marty Lynch at with questions.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Everybody Ought to Know SWEET LITTLE DEVIL

I've had a copy of the PS Classics studio cast recording of Sweet Little Devil, a long-lost Gershwin musical comedy from 1924, since last summer. I've been listening to it like crazy ever since. It's been the one cd in my car since I first got it, so I listen to it every time I drive anywhere. About once a month, my friend Jon asks if I'm ever going to write about it. And I say, yes, yes, I totally am, but... Not yet.

Why not? I don't know. I've tried to peer into the murky depths of my psyche to figure out why I don't write about this charming little piece of musical theater history. I think the answer is that I love it too much. I haven't wanted to share. As it happens, I have become a little obsessed with it. For me, it's a perfect slice of Broadway in 1924. That's always been my go-to place and date for time travel, but I was expecting to pop in on Fred and Adele Astaire in Lady, Be Good! in December 1924. Now I have to set up my timetable and get there by May to see Sweet Little Devil first.

My obsession may seem strange for a lighter-than-air confection that sounds kind of like Gershwin but also kind of doesn't, that wraps its story around chorus girls with their eye on the main chance and the dopey swains who are smitten with them. But what's great about Sweet Little Devil is that pretty much everybody has a wicked streak. That's where the "devil" in the title comes in. Chorines Joyce and May are trying to take poor Tom and Fred, engineers just back from Peru with a big paycheck from the New York Central Railroad, for every fur coat and diamond ring they can get, and Joyce's manager, Sam, is the one plotting the worst schemes. Even our ingenue, Virginia, who is Joyce's younger cousin, has been less than honest. After all, she sets the plot in motion by intercepting and responding to Joyce's fan mail, including exchanging love letters with Tom in Joyce's name. Is Tom in love with Joyce, the face he saw in the pictures, or Virginia, the would-be romance writer behind the wonderful letters? You probably already know the answer to that, but it doesn't affect the breezy fun in the show, fueled by the infectious melodies of George Gershwin's score and Buddy DeSylva's delightful (and snarky) lyrics.

Early on, there's the saucy duet "You're Mighty Lucky," where Sam and Joyce boast about how fortunate the other should feel to have a guy or gal this cool. "Lots of nifty dames were after me, babe," sings Sam, including Gloria Swanson, Mary Pickford, and both the Gishes, who think he's delicious. Joyce makes "every fellow prove he's more than a star in movies," which is why she danced with the Prince of Wales but rebuffed Charlie Chaplin. On this restored version, real-life spouses Rebecca Luker and Danny Burstein are absolutely adorable singing this "Lucky" tune. It was my favorite at first listen, and it's still taking top honors for me.

I wasn't as crazy about "Virginia," where our heroine continues to push down the temptation to be bad, or "The Jijibo," the obligatory dance craze number given a bouncy ragtime beat. This one is supposed to serve as both a weight-loss and face-plumping charm. Everybody ought to know the Jijibo! Both songs have grown on me, with Sara Jean Ford's lovely voice infusing "Virginia" with appeal, and the blend of voices building "The Jijibo" into something special. I can't help but wonder what this dance would look like, especially if the dancers are referring to a copy of the choreography pasted in their hats, as the lyrics instruct.

Second couple May and Fred, sung here by Sally Wilfert and Jason Graae, lead "The Jijibo" as well as "Under a One-Man Top," for my money the prettiest love song in the score. Still, "Just Supposing," a pretend-we're-in-love ditty sung by Ford and Philip Chaffin, as Tom, who is Mr. Right even if he isn't that bright about women, is pretty darn cute.

Just enough of the show's book (from Frank Mandel and Lawrence Scwab) is included here to make the plotlines clear, and also to give us amusing line readings, especially from Burstein, Chaffin, Luker and Bethe Austin, whose squeaky Betty Boopy makes Joyce's long-suffering maid stand out.

So why was Sweet Little Devil forgotten? Why did George Gershwin's earliest surviving score fall off the map?

Tommy Krasker, the man behind PS Classics, who also produced the album and wrote the liner notes, has some thoughts about that and also how and why he pulled it out of obscurity for this recording. It's a fascinating read about a fascinating footnote in American musical theater. Now all we need is for someone to take this studio cast, the original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations created for the touring version of Sweet Little Devil that Krasker uses to such good advantage here, and put the show on stage. Put this show on stage! Now!

And buy the cd while you're at it. Maybe if it is a runaway hit, somebody will get the idea it needs to be staged.