Tuesday, April 30, 2013

It's Tony Nomination Time!

Sutton Foster and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, two Broadway stars who've made it big on the small screen as well, announced this year's Tony Award nominations today. If you missed the announcement, you can see it here. If you want a handy reference list, you can check out the interactive guide the Tony folks have created here. Or you can peruse this list of the nominations (in the order they were announced):

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play
Tom Hanks, Lucky Guy
Nathan Lane, The Nance
Tracy Letts, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
David Hyde Pierce, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Tom Sturridge, Orphans

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play
Laurie Metcalf, The Other Place
Amy Morton, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Kristine Nielsen, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Holland Taylor, Ann
Cicely Tyson, The Trip to Bountiful

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical
Bertie Carvel, Matilda The Musical
Santino Fontana, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella
Rob McClure, Chaplin
Billy Porter, Kinky Boots
Stark Sands, Kinky Boots

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical
Stephanie J. Block, The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Carolee Carmello, Scandalous
Valisia LeKae, Motown The Musical
Patina Miller, Pippin
Laura Osnes, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella

Best Revival of a Play
Golden Boy by Clifford Odets
Orphans by Lyle Kessler
The Trip to Bountiful by Horton Foote
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

Best Revival of a Musical
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella

Best Play
The Assembled Parties by Richard Greenberg
Lucky Guy by Nora Ephron
The Testament of Mary by Colm Toíbín
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang

Best Musical
Bring It On: The Musical
A Christmas Story, The Musical
Kinky Boots
Matilda The Musical

Best Book of a Musical
Douglas Carter Beane, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella
Harvey Fierstein, Kinky Boots
Dennis Kelly, Matilda The Musical
Joseph Robinette, A Christmas Story, The Musical

Best Original Score
Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, Hands on a Hardbody
Cyndi Lauper, Kinky Boots
Tim Minchin, Matilda the Musical
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, A Christmas Story, The Musical

Best Choreography
Andy Blankenbuehler, Bring It On: The Musical
Peter Darling, Matilda The Musical
Jerry Mitchell, Kinky Boots
Chet Walker, Pippin

Best Orchestrations
Chris Nightingale, Matilda The Musical
Stephen Oremus, Kinky Boots
Ethan Popp and Bryan Crook, Motown The Musical
Danny Troob, Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella

Best Scenic Design of a Play
John Lee Beatty, The Nance
Santo Loquasto, The Assembled Parties
David Rockwell, Lucky Guy
Michael Yeargan, Golden Boy

Best Scenic Design of a Musical
Rob Howell, Matilda The Musical
Anna Louizos, The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Scott Pask, Pippin
David Rockwell, Kinky Boots

Best Costume Design of a Play
Soutra Gilmour, Cyrano de Bergerac
Ann Roth, The Nance
Albert Wolsky, The Heiress
Catherine Zuber, Golden Boy

Best Costume Design of a Musical
Gregg Barnes, Kinky Boots
Rob Howell, Matilda The Musical
Dominique Lemieux, Pippin
William Ivey Long, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella

Best Sound Design of a Play
John Gromada, The Trip to Bountiful
Mel Mercier, The Testament of Mary
Leon Rothenberg, The Nance
Peter John Still and Marc Salzberg, Golden Boy

Best Sound Design of a Musical
Jonathan Deans and Garth Helm, Pippin
Peter Hylenski, Motown The Musical
John Shivers, Kinky Boots
Nevin Steinberg, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella

Best Lighting Design of a Play
Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, Lucky Guy
Donald Holder, Golden Boy
Jennifer Tipton, The Testament of Mary
Japhy Weideman, The Nance

Best Lighting Design of a Musical
Kenneth Posner, Kinky Boots
Kenneth Posner, Pippin
Kenneth Posner, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella
Hugh Vanstone, Matilda The Musical

Best Direction of a Play
Pam MacKinnon, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Nicholas Martin, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Bartlett Sher, Golden Boy
George C. Wolfe, Lucky Guy

Best Direction of a Musical
Scott Ellis, The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Jerry Mitchell, Kinky Boots
Diane Paulus, Pippin
Matthew Warchus, Matilda The Musical

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play
Danny Burstein, Golden Boy
Richard Kind, The Big Knife
Billy Magnussen, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Tony Shalhoub, Golden Boy
Courtney B. Vance, Lucky Guy

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play
Carrie Coon, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Shalita Grant, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Judith Ivey, The Heiress
Judith Light, The Assembled Parties
Condola Rashad, The Trip to Bountiful

Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical
Charl Brown, Motown The Musical
Keith Carradine, Hands on a Hardbody
Will Chase, The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Gabriel Ebert, Matilda The Musical
Terrence Mann, Pippin

Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical
Annaleigh Ashford, Kinky Boots
Victoria Clark, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella
Andrea Martin, Pippin
Keala Settle, Hands on a Hardbody
Lauren Ward, Matilda The Musical

The Tony Awards celebration will be televised live in a three-hour broadcast on CBS on June 9, 2013. For the whole scoop on Tony night, click here.

Monday, April 29, 2013

ALL MY KIDS and ONE LIFE TO LIVE Are Resurrected

Pardon me while I try to tamp down my excitement.

I watched ABC daytime dramas from approximately 1971 till All My Children and One Life to Live got canceled in 2011 and 2012, respectively. General Hospital, my one-time favorite, was the only one of ABC's soaps not to get the ax, but by that point, it was a dreary mess of mobsters and misogyny, and I had no desire to stick with daytime TV just for that.

So I gave it up cold turkey. Then there was talk that production company Prospect Park would bring All My Kids and One Life back from the dead, with all-new episodes broadcast only on the internet. I had a healthy dose of skepticism it would ever happen, but guess what? It did, it has, and both soaps showed off their first new episodes today exclusively on Hulu.

SQUEEEEEEEEEEEE! It's really, really nice to have them back.

The shows are now broadcast in 30-minute episodes, like soaps of yore, instead of the hour-long shows you'll remember from the pre-2011 bloodbath. Some of your favorite actors and characters are back, from Viki, Clint, Bo, Nora, Blair, Todd (albeit briefly), Natalie, Cutter, Tea, Dorian and David on One Life, to Angie, Jesse, Adam, Brooke, a different David (the evil doctor instead of the Boy with the Chipmunk Tattoo), Opal, Dixie, Bianca, Zach, and relative newcomers, sister and brother Cara and Griffin, on AMC.

Missing is, of course, Erica Kane, as played by Susan Lucci, along with Tad the Cad, played by Michael E. Knight, and (at least so far) Erica's daughter Kendall, last played by Alicia Minshew.

From One Life, the missing list includes Michael Easton's John McBain and Kristen Alderson's Starr Manning, both of whom had moved on over to General Hospital's Port Charles in the wake of the cancellation. There's been talk both will be back at some point, just like Starr's daddy Todd, played by Roger Howarth, who'd also shipped out to GH only to be pulled back.

Personally, I already like the new One Life eons better than General Hospital, but I also like Todd Manning, a guy who totally puts the anti in antihero, so I hope he sticks around. Seriously. How much better is it to come back and mix it up with Blair one more time instead of getting stuck in the cesspool named Carly over on GH?

In any event, no matter who's staying and who's going and who's never coming back, the new shows look spiffy, with very nice production values, scripts that are working for me so far, cheekier dialogue than you can get away with on network TV in the afternoon (including swear words), more daring situations (AJ all grown up and playing guitar nude? Destiny transformed into a much taller, much skinner girl in a tube top, with legs for days?), actors I'm happy to see, some interesting newbies, and some fun surprises. What happened after we last saw JR in that closet in Pine Valley? What are they all avoiding talking about? What in the world is Kelly and/or Kitty (Francesca James) doing back in town, only now called Evelyn? How are they going to explain Destiny and Matthew being so much older when Dani and Jack aren't? What happened to bust up Natalie and John? And what about that last-second reveal, you know, the guy in the hoodie whose name I don't want to give away in case you haven't seen it yet?

I admit it. I'm hooked. Thanks, Prospect Park! Thanks, Hulu! It's awfully nice to have my soaps back.

Young at Heartland Playwrights in Print!

It's only fitting that the Young at Heartland senior acting troupe should celebrate their tenth anniversary by branching out into yet another venture. Not content to sit on their acting and touring laurels, the Young group began writing their own scripts a year or two again. It's always tough to find material suited to short pieces for actors over 55, so members decided to create their own. And now they're publishing some of those pieces to provide material for other senior acting groups, too!

Young at Heartland Program Director Ann White has announced that 16 plays by YAH members will be published by ArtAge under the title Seniors Still Acting Up, which ArtAge is billing as a "vibrant collection of [Young at Heartland's] short plays and monologues." The playwrights and plays included in the collection are:

Bruce Boeck
Two of a Kind

Elsie Cadieux
Doctor's Office, Storm, First Time

Judy Franciosi
Good Grief, A Promise Kept, For Better or Worse...But Not for Lunch

Janet Grupp
The Car and the Garage Door, Fire

Holly Klass
Lend Me Your Ear...Puhleese, What Emergency, Lemme See

Jane Plum

Joy Schuler

Carol Scott
Ladies Who Lunch

Lynda Straw
Afternoon Antiquing

You can see the back cover below, including ordering information. The volume will be priced at $24.95 and available from ArtAge at PO Box 19955, Portland OR 97280 or calling 503-246-3000 or 800-858-4998.

Friday, April 26, 2013

IWU Workshops a Brand-New Musical Saturday at 8

This Saturday, April 27, the Music Theatre Workshop Class at Illinois Wesleyan University will perform the Midwest premiere workshop presentation of All the Kids Are Doing It, a topical new musical with book and lyrics by Kate Thomas and music by Joey Contreras. Not only does this workshop give you the chance to see a brand-new, still-in-development musical, but it's free!

Thomas and Contreras will also offer a discussion of the show on Sunday, April 28, at 11 am in the E. Melba Johnson Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre at Illinois Wesleyan.

All the Kids Are Doing It was previously workshopped at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City in March of this year in conjunction with the NYU Steinhardt songwriting program. Broadway World describes the piece as "a contemporary pop-rock musical that explores the reality of young adults today who exploit themselves and others in order to achieve personal gain."

Thomas and Contreras have written a piece that explores college, the internet, artistic freedom, celebrity, privacy and a struggle to find a voice in an increasingly complicated world. In other words, All the Kids Are Doing It is of the moment and perfect for today's college kids.

Kate Thomas
Kate Thomas is a New York City based writer and actress. She received her BA in Theatre from Sarah Lawrence College, and her MFA in Musical Theatre Writing from Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. Her musical theatre work includes, ALL THE KIDS ARE DOING IT (book & lyrics), The Champagne Fountain (book & lyrics), and Flung (book & lyrics). She has also appeared in numerous NYC productions, some of which include, Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, Spring's Awakening, and Spike Heels. Kate is the recipient of the Paulette Goddard Scholarship and is now a proud member of the Dramatist's Guild.

Joey Contreras at the piano
Joey Contreras is a musical theatre songwriter in the New York scene. His original compositions and arrangements have been featured in NYC venues including Joe's Pub, Lincoln Center, Le Poisson Rouge, Laurie Beechman Theater, The Duplex and multiple Broadway in South Africa galas at the Manhattan Center. Internationally, performances of his music have stretched as far as Australia, Germany, South Korea and the UK. He remains at work on his song cycle, This Thing Called Love, originally produced by Philly Music Theatre Works, and has two other musicals currently in development. Recipient of the 2010 ASCAP Foundation Max Dreyfus Scholarship Award, Joey holds a BFA in musical theatre from University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA and is in NYU’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program. His first album, Love Me, Love Me Not: The Music of Joey Contreras features performances by exciting Broadway talent and is available on iTunes and CDbaby.com.

A Musical
Book and Lyrics by Kate Thomas
Music by Joey Contreras

Cast: Annie Simpson, Amy Stockhaus, Patsita Jiratipayabood, Will Henke, Zach Mahler, Ben Mulgrew, T. Isaac Sherman, Joey Chu, Marek Zurowski, Adam Walleser, Josh Levinson, Emilie Hanlet, Kate Rozycki,Lizzie Raniville, Jenna Haimes, Kayla White and Brittany Ambler.

Musical Direction by Saundra DeAthos-Meers

Choreography by Jean MacFarland Kerr

Directed by Scott Susong

Saturday, April 27, 2013
8 pm
E. Melba Johnson Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

MIDDLETOWN Burns Bright at Heartland

In a piece on Will Eno's Middletown earlier this year, Boston Globe critic Christopher Wallenberg called the play "a meditation on birth and death and the lives burning bright in between."

Note "the lives burning bright in between." The characters living in Middletown tell us about birth and death all through this quirky, engaging play, as they muse on why they're here, what their places are in this world, and what their legacies might be. It's easy to fall under the spell of Eno's heady writing in all its poetic beauty. But don't miss the fact that he is also etching vivid portraits of a town's worth of people -- the librarian, the mechanic, the cop, the handyman, the newcomer, even the astronaut who once called Middletown home -- in heartbreaking, wonderful detail. These people are as quizzical, as amusing, as real as your neighbors, and yet not like your neighbors at all.

It's to the credit of director John Kirk's current production for Heartland Theatre that each of those portraits comes across loud and clear. His actors, most of whom play multiple roles, have worked hard to come up with individuals who are different from each other, a little odd, a little awkward, and quite fascinating.

Rhys Lovell and Karen Hazen are out front among the cast, both turning in terrific, layered performances. Lovell is always good, but his John Dodge, a man in between jobs, in between hobbies, living very much in the in between, is something very special. Dodge may be a bit of a mess -- well-meaning, but a mess -- but Lovell's performance is anything but. He's fantastic.

And Hazen is just as subtle, just as amazing, opposite him as Mary Swanson, the newbie in town, the one who serves as our eyes on Middletown. Hazen's portrayal of Mary makes the character funny, sweet, and relatable, as Mary's yearning for something more, something more than a husband who is so often on the road, becomes clear.

Kathleen Kirk's librarian and Dean Brown's "public speaker," who introduces the idiosyncratic tone of the piece, add quirky warmth to the tableau, while George Freeman's scary cop and Richard Jensen's scary (in a different way) ne'er-do-well mechanic bring harder edges into Middletown. Others in the cast who shine are Aric Diamani and Devon Lovell as doctors, John Poling as an astronaut high above the town, Lynna Briggs as a strange spectator, and Ann White and Megan Huff, who pair up as guide/tourist and hospital attendants.

Your guidebook to Middletown is written right into the script. Pay attention to how many times the "great and unexamined middle," as Eno puts it, comes up. The middle, the intermission, the time between birth and death, waiting periods and in-between times... Or, you know, life.

Eno has a unique voice in contemporary theater, just as Heartland Theatre has a unique place in our local theater scene. And what a good match they are.

By Will Eno

Heartland Theatre Company

Director: John W. Kirk
Assistant Director/Stage Manager: Jess Friedli
Scenic Designer: Kenneth P. Johnson
Lighting Designer: Anita McDaniel
Costume Designer: Jeanine Fry
Properties: Cyndee Brown
Sound Engineer: Aaron Paolucci

Cast: Lynna Briggs, Dean Brown, Aric Diamani, George Freeman, Karen Hazen, Megan Huff, Richard Jensen, Kathleen Kirk, Devon Lovell, Rhys Lovell, John D. Poling, Ann Bastian White

Running time: 2:30, including one 15-minute intermission

Remaining Performances: April 25-27 and May 2-4 at 7:30 pm and April 28 and May 5 at 2 pm.

For show times, click here. For reservation information, click here.

Puppet Building Excitement This Weekend with the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

What with improv shows, Edward III, Fanny Kemble and Adopt-a-Bard-Buddy, there are lots of new things happening at this year's Illinois Shakespeare Festival. One of the coolest may be the entry of puppets into the Festival landscape, when they are used to tell the story of Philip Dawkins' Failure: A Love Story, which will fill the one non-Shakespeare slot on this year's roster.

And it's not just that puppets will be on stage during Failure. You can help build them, too! Festival organizers are holding a two-day workshop with Luke Verkamp, Puppet Designer for Quest Theatre Ensemble, this weekend. One of Quest Theatre's puppet designs is shown at left, from their production of The People's Passion Play.

If you choose to join them on April 27 and 28, you can participate in the construction of "large puppets" that will be used to stage Failure: A Love Story this summer. In other words, you can "join in the excitement of making art that will be seen on-stage later this summer."

Details are sketchy on the Festival homepage, but you are invited to call the box office at 866-IL-SHAKE for details.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

AUDITIONS! Heartland Theatre Needs You for a Package, Parcel or Present Play

 Heartland Theatre Company has announced the winners in its annual 10-minute play competition, with the eight winning plays -- each involving a package, parcel or present of some sort -- to be performed in June. Heartland will hold auditions for these 10-minute plays on Tuesday, April 23, and Wednesday, April 24, from 6:30 to 9 pm at the theater. If you choose to audition, you will be asked to read from the script. No monologues necessary.

Here is the list of winners and casting requirements:

AND TWICE ON SUNDAY by Brad Sytsma, Kentwood MI
If you wear a trench coat to the park and sit on a popular park bench to await a package drop, you have to be able to tell a chipmunk from a rhinoceros. Or there will be… Misunderstandings.
1 Woman* any age. 3-4 Men* -- 20s-40s

THE CHEESECAKE PLAY by John Frusciante, Astoria NY
Jeff and Andrea are less than thrilled that the people upstairs are noisy and thoughtless and downright annoying. But revenge is sweet when the neighbors’ cheesecake delivery goes astray.
1 Woman, 20s-30s. 2 Men, 20s-30s.

DEAR SUSAN, LOVE HAROLD by James Walczy, Hilton Head Island SC
It’s understandable that a man would be upset when he discovers a box of intimate love letters written to his wife long ago. Who was this Harold, anyway?
1 Woman, 60s. 1 Man, 60s

DO NOT OPEN by Candace Perry, Wellfleet MA
A big old package lands in the middle of three sisters enjoying a weekend away at a secluded beach. Uh oh. It’s from Mom, who never could resist inserting herself into their lives.
3 Women, mid-30s to early 40s.

LAST CALL by James McLindon, Northampton MA
Melissa has carried a bowling bag to the bar her dad loved best. Why a bowling bag? She’s dying to tell someone that story…
1 Woman, 20s-30s. 2 Men, 1 20s-30s and 1 30s-40s.

A MILLION TIMES OVER by Molly Campbell, Chicago IL
A handsome man keeps bringing pretty little packages to Marie as she rests in a hospital. They look like empty boxes. Except they’re not empty at all in Marie’s memory.
2 Women, 1 70s and 1 30s. 1 Man, 20s.

MINCED SPIES by Doc Watson, Bath, Somerset UK
Spies, pies, newspapers, teapots, aardvarks, and, of course, a mysterious parcel… Things can get tricky when you’re testing spies. And pies.
1 Woman* any age. 2 Men* any age.

STANDING ROOM ONLY by C. J. Ehrlich, Chappaqua NY
Charlene is so upset about seeing what love could be, she won’t give a stranger a seat on the ferry. Until he pushes his way past her comfort zone.
1 Woman, 50-60s. 2 Men, 1 20s and 1 any age.

*Gender flexible or not specified. 

That creates a total of 24 roles, with approximately 11 female roles and 13 male roles. Note that several roles are either not specified as male or female or flexible. Some age ranges may also be flexible. So if you don't fit perfectly, never dear. Audition anyway!

Performance for these Package Plays will be June 6-9, 13-15, 20-23 and 27-30, and rehearsals can be expected to take up some of your evenings in May. For all the details, come out for the auditions on Tuesday and Wednesday, or before that, email mdobbins@heartlandtheatre.org with questions.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Special Reading of EDWARD III Monday at ISU Center for the Performing Arts

As part of an array of special events coming from the Illinois Shakespeare Festival as they gear up to their summer schedule, you have a chance to see a staged reading by the Shakespeare Project of Chicago at 5 pm on Monday April 22 at the Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts. The Shakespeare Project, including ISU alum Brynne Barnard, will perform the play Edward III,  with ISF Artistic Director Kevin Rich reading the title role of King Edward.

Tickets are $10 for the show itself, or $25 if you also want to attend the reception afterwards. They are available at the Center for the Performing Arts box office.

So who was Edward III and why would Shakespeare (and/or Thomas Kyd) have written a play about him?

Well, he was an English king and the son of Edward II. You may've heard of Edward II, who was fairly notorious for bestowing lavish favors on his intimate friends, like Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser, and then getting ousted and offed by his wife and her pal, Roger Mortimer. Edward II may've been strangled or suffocated, although the rumors were far more scandalous than that. Psst... Death by red-hot poker in an unfortunate place. That's probably not true, but it's made him far more famous all these centuries later than his son, Edward III, who is probably best-known for starting the Hundred Years War. Oh, and being king during the Black Death.

The play Edward III that may or may not have been written by Shakespeare and/or Thomas Kyd is definitely Elizabethan in origin. It involves this Edward, who was on the throne between 1327 and 1377, somewhere in the middle of his reign, when his son, Edward the Black Prince, was old enough to be a fighting man himself.

The Shakespeare Project says of the play: "Through this political history play we see Britain’s justification for the Hundred Years’ War, and follow the autocratic Edward III as he defends England against the Scottish king while moving to claim the French throne. As he seeks to possess and conquer first a woman and then a country, oaths and honor are brought into question on both sides."

Whether Shakespeare wrote any or all of Edward III, it's certainly an intriguing piece. You can judge for yourself on Monday at 5 in the ISU Center for the Performing Arts.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Will Eno's MIDDLETOWN Opens Tomorrow Night at Heartland

There are always a few "it boys" in current American playwriting, and right now, the eccentric and poetic Will Eno definitely hits the list. Eno emerged onto the national theatre scene with Thom Pain (based on nothing), a one-man show that enjoyed a sold-out run at the 2004 International Edinburgh Festival, where it won the First Fringe Award, among others, and then took New York by storm with a year of off-Broadway performances. Thom Paine was also a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The Flu Season received the 2004 Oppenheimer Award for the best debut production in New York by an American playwright, and his newest work, Gnit, an updated and irreverent adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt, was a mainstage selection for the recent Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, in a production directed by Actors Theatre Artistic Director Les Waters.

Yep. It Boy.

It helps that Eno's writing is singular and different, with its own rhythms and warped sense of humor. Middletown, the deceptively sweet play about life in Anytown USA that preceded Gnit, received the Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play in 2010. It has that Eno touch, making it sound and feel distinctly different from Thornton Wilder's Our Town, for example, a play Middletown has been widely compared to. Both plays deal with ordinary people living ordinary lives in an ordinary town, and both touch on life and death. But while Our Town shows us life and death, Middletown is more about the time and space in between, about the middle, about regular old people finding a way to mind that gap.

John Kirk, who is directing Middletown for Heartland Theatre, writes that Eno's characters "are trapped in 'the space between' their birth and their death. The title Middletown...suggests the dilemma of characters who are stuck in the middle of themselves and have not found a way out."

Karen Hazen (left) and Rhys Lovell appear in Heartland's Middletown
The characters in the play range from John Dodge, a handyman type who is between jobs but has lived in Middletown for a while, and Mary Swanson, who just moved there with her husband to start a family, to a cop, a librarian, a mechanic, doctors, and even a couple of tourists who come to see what this town is all about. For Heartland, Rhys Lovell will play John, and Karen Hazen will play Mary, with Lynna Briggs, Dean Brown, Aric Diamani, George Freeman, Megan Huff, Richard Jensen, Kathleen Kirk, Devon Lovell, John Poling and Ann White filling out all the other roles in the everyday tableau that is Middletown.

Performances begin tomorrow night with a special Pay What You Can preview at 7:30 pm, with shows continuing Thursdays through Sundays till May 5. For details on times and dates of performances, click here. To see reservation information, click here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Ayad Akhtar's DISGRACED Wins the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama

This year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama has been awarded to Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced, a play which premiered in Chicago in January, 2012, at the American Theater Company. Director Kimberly Senior then took the production to New York, where it played in the Clair Tow Theater at Lincoln Center from September to December, 2012.

Disgraced concerns Amir Kapoor, a Pakistani-American lawyer who has enjoyed a great deal of success within a prestigious New York firm. He lives on the Upper West Side in a beautiful apartment with a beautiful (white) wife, enjoying all the material accoutrements that accompany his status as a big-shot lawyer. To achieve that success, he's suppressed and hidden the parts of his identity related to Islam. But his wife, who is an artist, has incorporated Muslim motifs into her work. And when she throws a dinner party for a mixed group of guests, all those forces of identity, religion and culture collide.

As you can see from the poster image from Lincoln Center reproduced here, Aasif Mandvi from The Daily Show played Amir in the New York production. To see video clips from that production, click here or here (under the "Works" tab).

Other plays considered for this year's Pulitzer were Gina Gionfriddo's Rapture, Blister, Burn, which the Pulitzer committee calls "a searing comedy that examines the psyches of two women in midlife as they ruefully question the differing choices they have made," and Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles, "a drama that shows acute understanding of human idiosyncrasy as a spiky 91-year-old locks horns with her rudderless 21-year-old grandson who shows up at her Greenwich Village apartment after a disastrous cross-country bike trip."

Monday, April 15, 2013

Eclipse Focuses on Ayckbourn

Chicago's Eclipse Theatre Company focuses on the work of one playwright each season. And this season it's... Alan Ayckbourn!

I love Ayckbourn. He's inventive and smart when it comes to plot and structure as well as physical time and space, and he does all of that with humor and depth and a whole lot of wit. Ayckbourn's plays are performed around here occasionally, if not regularly, and I always make a point to see them.

So will I make it to Eclipse to see their Ayckbourn run? Fingers crossed!

The first show of their Ayckbourn-centric season is Woman in Mind, the darkly comic journey inside the mind of one unhappy British housewife. You may remember Woman in Mind from the Heartland Theatre production a few years ago that featured Lori Adams. At Eclipse, Woman in Mind opened April 11, with ensemble member and Goodman Theatre associate Steve Scott directing and ensemble member Sally Eames as the central Woman into whose mind we leap. Performances continue through May 9 at Chicago's Athenaeum Theatre.

After that, Eclipse will produce a lighter comedy, Bedroom Farce, directed by guest artist Nick Sandys, with performances from July 25 to September 1; and a ghost story called Haunting Julia, directed by Jeff award winner Kevin Hagan, scheduled for October 31 to December 8.

To accompany their three main shows, Eclipse is also promising other readings and events to celebrate and illuminate the life and work of Sir Alan as the season progresses.

As far as I'm concerned, you can't possibly spend too much time on Ayckbourn. Go for it, Eclipse!

High-Flying SLEEP ROCK THY BRAIN Rocked at the Humana Festival

Every year, Actors Theatre of Louisville adds an anthology show to its Humana Festival line-up as a way of showcasing its 22-member Apprentice Company. In the past, we've seen numerous short pieces on a single theme written by a variety of playwrights and performed by those apprentice actors, with themes ranging from the appeal of the open road to Uncle Sam and Las Vegas and America's relationship with food. (Last year's Oh, Gastronomy! had them making brownies during the show and handing them out afterwards, which was a nice touch.)

These short pieces are not really intended for future full-scale productions, mostly because the quality of the pieces varies within the show and because there is no guarantee anybody will want to pick up the whole lot of them, but they do show up in anthologies fairly often. This year's Sleep Rock Thy Brain featured longer pieces -- maybe a half hour each -- giving playwrights Rinne Groth, Lucas Hnath and Anne Washburn the chance to more fully develop their ideas than in Apprentice Showcases of the past. Each play in Sleep Rock explored the notion of sleep and sleeplessness along with aerial acrobatics choreographed by Brian Owens and ZFX Flying Effects.

The idea -- combining sleep with flying -- was conceived by Actors Theatre's Amy Attaway, associate director of the Apprentice/Intern Company, and dramaturg Sarah Lunnie. And even though all three playwrights visited the University of Louisville's sleep center to get ideas about the science of sleep, each playwright interpreted that notion very differently.

When Sleep Rock Thy Brain played as part of the 2013 Humana Festival, it was performed at Louisville's Lincoln Performing Arts School, an elementary school with a huge, open black box space big enough for all the rigging and machinery necessary to fly the apprentices. Future prospects for the show are likely to depend on whether anybody else has that kind of space and access to flying equipment. But if they've put on Peter Pan or gone for flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, a flying angel in Angels in America, or any kind of Cirque du Soleil, harnesses and actors in flight ought to be doable.

The third piece in the Sleep Rock program, Lucas Hnath's nightnight, definitely deserves an afterlife. This look at what happens to a trio of astronauts when one can't sleep was riveting, scary and heavily dramatic, all at once, with Hnath's idiosyncratic dialogue and carefully crafted rhythms revealing a great deal about the relationship between humankind and science and humankind and sleep. Hnath's script integrated the aerial technology, used to show the astronauts in zero gravity, beautifully, while the actors ramped up the emotional tension as they navigated the tricky vocal patterns in the script. Jeff White was especially strong as the astronaut with insomnia, but his colleagues in space, played by Samantha Beach and Ethan Dubin, and at Mission Control, with Laura Engels, Kim Fischer, Chalia La Tour, Liz Ramos, Andy Reinhardt, Ben Vigus and Christa Wroblewski, were also impressive as they kept up the pace of this fractured, intricate, affecting text.

I also enjoyed Rinne Groth's Comfort Inn, about a nice young woman named Sylvie, sweetly played by Madison Welterlen, who works at a somewhat unorthodox sleep clinic run inside a hotel. As Sylvie's evening gets continually crazier, with three oddball patients (Chalia La Tour, Andy Reinhardt and Ben Vigus, all quite good), co-workers and an entire wedding party converging on the clinic, we wonder what's real and what's inside Sylvie's REM cycle. Comfort Inn was fun, if somewhat chaotic and confusing.

Dreamerwake, Anne Washburn's take on the sleep/flying intersection, combined bits of both Comfort Inn and nightnight, as Washburn went behind the scenes of the entire enterprise, placing her action inside the Apprentice Company as they rehearsed. She centered on a guy named Nick (Joseph Metcalfe) as he struggled with recurring nightmares about an aerial mishap involving his friend Lou (Derek Nelson). The use of darkness and shadow and haphazard plotting certainly approximated dreaming, but in the end, Dreamerwake seemed obvious and forced, like a lesser episode of The Twilight Zone where you can see the end coming a mile away.

All in all, Sleep Rock Thy Brain made for a nifty Apprentice Showcase with one standout piece that lingers in my mind. Here's hoping nightnight, at least, finds a life after Louisville.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

MIDSUMMER Makes Storytime Magic Inside ISU's Westhoff Theatre

Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream has been changed up and spun around so many different ways -- trapezes and swings, puppets, steam punk, plantation, zombies, Cajun, theme park, bikers -- you might think there's nothing new that can be done to it. But director Vanessa Stalling's Midsummer takes a different tack, one completely new to me, in her Illinois State University production at Westhoff Theatre.

Stalling's Midsummer begins and ends with a young girl, a beat-up, battered little thing, who runs away from her troubles into a mysterious warehouse of the imagination. I actually guessed "attic" when I saw it, but the program notes are clear -- it's a warehouse. You get the idea fairly quickly that this Midsummer is some parts nightmare and some parts flight of imagination, as well as a coping device for our runaway child. She pulls things down from the cluttered shelves and cubbyholes looming over the playing space, as drawers magically open and close, lights appear and fade, and fantasy figures drop in and out of her dreamscape.

That means we can jump among the three overlapping stories of Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies; the quartet of Athenian lovers; and a group of Mechanicals, working men attempting to put on a play, with carefree abandon, just like they might appear during playtime for a child. And they all seem to play with an odd and slightly warped perspective.

The little girl who provides the framing device, here played with energy and spirit by Cydney Moody, steps into the action herself, taking on the role of Puck when the time comes, giving herself some of the power and control we can guess she didn't possess in real life. That extends to a sort of Superman cape near the end, protecting her, we hope, from whatever drove her here in the first place. It's to the credit of Moody's performance that we do actually worry about our little Puck when all is said and done.

Puck's vision includes fizzy, oddball songs and dances, including one to introduce our Rude Mechanicals after they pop out of the sewer where they work, another cheeky tune about a woodpecker, and an exuberant number I find impossible to describe, with the fairies frolicking in the forest and sweeping around with the lengthy train on Titania's vest, including flapping it like clean sheets on laundry day and bouncing on it like a trampoline.

There are a whole lot of inventive and creative bits of staging like that, especially when the fairies are around. That's aided by Jen Kazmierczak's nifty scenic design with all its attendant doors and hideyholes (and the surprises that keep poking out) and Caisa Sanburg's moody and atmospheric lighting design that extends the fantasy feel. Jamie Jones' costume design combines snazzy modern-dress for the court, an early 60s Dick-and-Jane look for the wayward Athenians, and some Victorian linens for the fairies, giving us the idea that Puck is mixing different sets of dolls and books in her imagination.

This is a reduced version of the play, with, for example, only four Mechanicals instead of the usual six, with Robin Starveling and Tom Snout right out, and some changes to the script to get it to come in, complete with new opening scene, at just about two hours. Stalling also uses the same actors -- Devon Nimerfroh and Abby Vombrack -- to play both Oberon and Titania and the Duke and his bride, Titania, which is not an unusual move. It underlines the tie between the two battling sets of lovers and in this subconscious world, gives Puck a way to work out that battle in Fairyland. Nimerfroh and Vombrack are strong in both pairings, but I especially enjoyed Nimerfroh's warmth as the sentimental-at-heart Oberon and Vombrack's tempestuous yet bright-eyed take on Titania. Her Titania reminded me a bit of Madeline Kahn's Bride of Frankenstein; let it be noted that conjuring up Kahn is a huge compliment to any actress.

Alex Strzelecki makes Bottom the weaver pretty darn cute (even if he is a smudged-up sewer rat) and not such a come-down for Titania, which is a welcome development, while the mismatched lovers are energetic and fun as a unit and Fiona Stephens' engaging Helena stands out among them. I also enjoyed the coterie of fairies, a sunny bunch of free spirits, with Mary DeWitt and Omar Shammaa coming off especially charming.

In the end, Stalling's Midsummer is bright and boisterous, as well as affecting. It's something people do and have always done, telling ourselves stories to take us out of life's dark and scary corners. But I'm still worried about Little Miss Puck. At the end of the play, we can only hope she's okay in the hard, cold world outside her imagination.

by William Shakespeare

The School of Theatre and Dance at Illinois State University
Westhoff Theatre

Director: Vanessa Stalling
Scenic Designer: Jen Kazmierczak
Costume Designer:Jamie Jones
Lighting Designer: Caisa Sanburg
Sound Designer: Shannon O'Neill
Text Coach: Kevin Rich
Prop Master: Matt Black
Stage Manager: Nicole Pressner

Cast: Mary DeWitt, Elizabeth Dillard, Garrett Douglas, Angela Geis, Caitlin Graham, Kate Klemchuk, David Link, Dan Machalinski, Brandon Miller, Cydney Moody, Devon Nimerfroh, Austin Peed, Andrew Piechota, Omar Shammaa, Fiona Stephens, Alex Strzelecki, Abby Vombrack.

Remaining Performances: April 13 and 16-20 at 7:30 pm, April 14 and 20 at 2 pm.

Running time: 2:10, including one 15-minute intermission

For ticket information, click here.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Humana Festival: O GURU GURU GURU Looks to Julia Roberts for Answers

Playwright Mallery Avidon likes to stand at "the intersection of individual and collective experience," she writes in program notes for her new play O Guru Guru Guru or why I don't want to go to yoga class with you, an autobiographical (sort-of) piece that premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville.

First, the individual. Like the heroine of O Guru Guru Guru, Avidon really spend some of her formative years in an ashram and now has a complicated, somewhat troubled relationship with the hierarchy. The issues in the play -- figuring out how to be an adult, finding out who you are, getting past a central unease and unhappiness you can't identify  -- are focused on Avidon's singular childhood.

Adding the collective mass media experience, Avidon was partially inspired to write O Guru Guru Guru by the popularity of the book and movie versions of Eat Pray Love, which creates a sort of capitalist/spiritual/pop culture contradiction she found intriguing, as well as a path to bring an audience into the specifics of her childhood.

That conflation of different ideas is what creates the very specific, very distinct three-scene structure of O Guru Guru Guru (with one Guru for each part of the play). In the beginning, we see Lila, Avidon's stand-in, at a lecture where she attempts to explain the ashram and its personages as well as the title question. Her aversion to going to yoga classes with pals has nothing to do with posture or breathing or stretching or lack of skill or lack of friendship, she tells us. Instead, it's rooted in what it felt like to be a child in the ashram's immersive environment, and the cracks she saw in its foundation. For others, the ashram and its all-important guru provided answers to life's questions. But for Lila, it only created more alienation, more questions, less sense of her place in the world.

Actress Rebecca Hart, who played Lila for Actors Theatre of Louisville, was our only guide to that entire first section. Hart's warmth, humor and engaging performance kept the piece alive as she navigated a slide show with no pictures and a presentation based on notecards and observations.

The tone changes considerably as we segued into the second part of the play, one where the audience is invited to come down to the floor of the playing space, take off their shoes and participate in yoga, as guided by a very serene guide in a beautiful sari, played by Daphne Gaines. The audience is asked to chant, to listen to speeches on the spiritual peace to be found in yoga's methodology, to do a little breathing, and to watch a shadow puppet play about how the god Ganesh came to be. The colorful saris and lovely young guides (Maya Lawson, Kristin Villanueva and Gisela Chipe) made it pretty to look at, if a little odd and unformed.

After that, Avidon pulls back the curtain to reveal that what we've just seen is not what we thought at all, not at an ashram at all, but a scene being shot for the movie Eat Pray Love. And our girl Lila is an extra in the movie because of her yoga skills, even though she really still hasn't found herself. Just when you think our heroine is hopelessly adrift in the modern world, here comes a deus ex machina in the form of... Julia Roberts! Actress Khrystyne Hadje, a beautiful woman who once appeared on TV's Head of the Class, stands in for Roberts, acting as Lila's final guru, a font of wisdom and advice learned in Hollywood instead of yoga class.

If nothing else, O Guru Guru Guru created a lot of discussion amongst audience members. Around me, I heard some say they were only interested in the first section, with Lila's straighforward, uncomplicated lecture, while others were drawn to the third, where Julia Roberts Ties It All Together for You, as a satisfying answer to the questions illuminated in Part I.

As usual, I'm staking out my own turf. For me, the highlight of O Guru Guru Guru was the shadow play in the second piece, which employed some of the magic of theatre -- shadows and light, puppetry, art design -- to tell its story.

What's interesting about these discussions, however, is that almost everyone felt the need to embrace one part and reject the others, as if there were a competition among those discrete Gurus. While Avidon was attempting to set up and pay off one story, she ended up with three competing parts. I also found the ultimate answer -- that Julia Roberts will invite you over to her place for Taco Night -- sweet, but unconvincing. No Guru can ultimately offer peace or answers or a place in the world. Not even Julia Roberts.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Humana Festival: APPROPRIATE is More than Appropriate

I don't know about you, but when I think "plantation," I don't think Arkansas. The Walmart State may just be something I don't think about all that often in general. But Branden Jacob-Jenkins' Appropriate, one of the new plays produced as part of the 2013 Humana Festival, makes its Arkansas plantation -- or the remains and consequences of it -- unforgettable. After seeing this play, it's impossible not to think of Arkansas as a plantation state.

By the way, I'm thinking the title is Appropriate, as in the verb appropri-8, meaning to steal, purloin, take and make your own, not the adjective appropri-it, meaning suitable or acceptable. That's important as the story goes on, as Jacob-Jenkins' haunting family drama dredges up painful memories of the plantation's terrible past, when people were property, something a slaveowner like the one who bought this plantation could appropriate.

In the present, the Appropriate story unfolds around siblings Toni, Bo and Frank Lafayette. They were mostly raised elsewhere, but now they've returned to try to sell the place after their father's death. Was Dad crazy? Alcoholic? A hoarder? Or maybe a racist who kept horrifying memorabilia related to his home's unspeakable past?

As the siblings argue over who owns what and who is responsible for what, they reveal details of their unhappy lives, accompanied by a rising cacophony of cicadas from outside. It's a ghostly, disturbing sound, and you can't help but think it has something to do with all the slaves whose bodies and bones were tossed into the woods behind the house when their "service" to the plantation had ended. Are there unquiet spirits out there haunting this place? Will anybody ever find peace here?

The legacy of slavery, of cruelty and inhumanity and toxic power, hangs heavily over Appropriate. Whether they were raised in the place or not, the Lafayettes are poisoned by its past, and there is no more escape for them than there was for those slaves buried out back.

In the Humana Festival program, Jacobs-Jenkins says that he is "interested in the relationship between collective memory and collective forgetting." As dramaturg Amy Wegener puts it, "[A]bsolution from past wrongdoings doesn't come easily, and moving forward without taking a clear-eyed look backward comes with a price." Even if that look backward brings up memories your family would very much like to forget.

Jacob-Jenkins has created a provocative, disturbing play, one that deals with buried secrets of the family and national variety. For Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival, director Gary Griffin brought out all the mystery and conflict beneath the surface of the play, with excellent performances from Jordan Baker, Larry Bull and Reese Madigan as the Lafayette sister and brothers, Natalie Kuhn and Amy Lynn Stewart as the in-laws, and Gabe Weible, David Rosenblatt and Lilli Stein as the mixed-up kids. Antje Ellerman's decaying mansion house was grand and a mess, all at the same time, while Matt Frey's lights and Bray Poor's sound design contributed very nicely to the Gothic atmosphere.

Appropriate will open the 2013-14 season for Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, again directed by Gary Griffin, and I'm not surprised at the rapid pick-up. There are a lot of issues to dig into in this murky, messy mansion.

Top Steinberg/ATCA Prize Goes to Robert Schenkkan for LBJ Drama

The Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Awards are handed out every year during the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville. This year, the finalists were Johnna Adams for her script Gidion's Knot, a teacher/parent drama about suicide and grief; Ayad Akhtar for his political thriller The Invisible Hand; Luca Hnath for Death Tax, a life, death and taxes struggle that premiered at last year's Humana Festival; Mia McCullough for Impenetrable, about beauty and its impossible standards; Dan O'Neal for The Wind Farmer, a mythic piece about hanging on to old traditions in a changing world; and Robert Schenkkan for All the Way, a new play about President Lyndon Johnson.

A committee within the American Theatre Critics Association reads scripts suggested by its membership, choosing six finalists -- new plays first produced outside New York City -- from among the field submitted. The ATCA reports that this year, they evaluated a record 42 plays for consideration for the Steinberg/ATCA New Play citations, which awards a total of $40,000 to the winning playwrights. That sum represents "the largest national new play award focusing on regional theaters as the crucible for new plays in the United States."

Robert Schenkkan
Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan was the big winner, with a $25,000 check presented along with a plaque, for his LBJ play, All the Way, which was commissioned to be performed last summer as part of the "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle" project at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Schenkkan is no stranger to American history; his Kentucky Cycle won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1991. Characters like Hubert Humphrey, J. Edgar Hoover and Martin Luther King, Jr. populated the landscape of Schenkkan's play, an exploration of how Lyndon Johnson came to power and how this "charismatic, conflicted Texan hurl[ed] himself into Civil Rights legislation, throwing the country into turmoil." The ATCA judges called the play "an engrossing, epic" play and described Schenkkan's version of LBJ as "complex, obscene, brilliant and ruthless." 

Actor Jack Willis as Lyndon Johnson in the OSF production of All the Way
The two $7500 citations went to Adams' Gideon's Knot and Hnath's Death Tax, both gripping dramas about the American way of life and death.

Adams' play premiered at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Gidion's Knot involves a grieving mother who clashes with her dead son's teacher to try to find some explanation for his suicide. Fifth-grader Gidion wrote a horrifying story for school, something powerful and violent and strange, but no more violent, no more strange than the medieval literature his mother studies. Was Gidion too aggressive to stay in school? Or pushed around by other aggressors? Either way, who's to blame?

The issues in Hnath's Death Tax are equally compelling, as we see a withered old woman, a dragon sitting on a pile of money, who tries to bargain with her nurse in an assisted care facility to keep herself alive. Nurse Tina is not on the take to murder her patient, even if she can't convince the old dragon of that. "Without positing easy answers, the play dissects greed, dysfunctional human relationships and the potential implications of a medical paradigm that can keep people alive indefinitely," noted the ATCA. 

Since its inception, the Steinberg New Play Award has singled out and honored playwrights like
Arthur Miller, Marsha Norman, Lynn Nottage, August Wilson and Lanford Wilson. Yussef  El Guindi took the prize last year for his play Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World. For the complete list of winners and runners-up, click here.

For more information on the Steinberg/ATCA Award, contact William F. Hirschman, chair of the ATCA New Play Committee, at muckrayk@aol.com or 954-478-1123; Jay Handelman, ATCA chair, at criticjay@gmail.com,or 941-361-4931; or Christopher Rawson, ATCA communications chair, at cchr@pitt.edu or 412-216-1944.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Humana Festival: Tension and Neurotic Writers Clash in THE DELLING SHORE

Playwrights love to write plays about writers. Writing is a tough world to try to make a living, with most writers spending a whole lot of time scrambling to be successful enough to consider writing a career instead of a sideline,  so it's only natural that playwrights and screenwriters and novelists would all be attracted to the conflicts, dashed hopes and complete injustice of the world of books. Plus, of course, if you write about people who write, you get to use all your best words.

Conflict, dashes hopes, injustice -- along with lots of books and lots of words -- are on display in Sam Marks' The Delling Shore, the first play I saw yesterday at Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays. Marks' central notion is familiar to anyone who's written books over a period of time, where you band together with friends and colleagues at the beginning, everyone supporting each other as you line up at the start. But when the race begins, it often happens that one friend pulls away, lapping everybody else. It may be that this writer is just really superior, really talented. It may be that he or she worked hard to make connections, find a path, blaze ahead. Or it may be that it makes no sense at all, that it was a random and crazy occurrence in a random and crazy career.

The two writers at the center of The Delling Shore grapple with that complex question of success in the writing biz. Grad students together 25 years ago, Frank and Thomas thought they were both good writers. But Thomas has become a superstar, a guy with awards and money and movie rights, while Frank is still struggling, editing a third-rate journal just to scrape by. With a new book in hand and a daughter who is desperate for an internship with Thomas -- she wants to learn from the master, a sentiment not lost on her dad, who realizes he is not that master, not even to his own daughter -- Frank arrives at Thomas's lovely summer home, a place as scenic as it is remote.

There are tensions right from the get-go. Frank (Bruce McKenzie) and his daughter Adrianne (Catherine Combs) are hours late. Thomas (Jim Frangione) and his daughter Ellen (Meredith Forlenza) are peeved at the tardy arrival, unconcerned that their guests are hungry or that they were unable to get through on cell phones to get directions or warn of the delay. Things only get worse from there. Frank's jealousy of his old friend's fame and fortune overshadows everything, but Thomas isn't exactly gracious about their supposed friendship, either. And neither man is on great terms with his own daughter.

I enjoyed the bookishness of The Delling Shore and I suspect other writers will, too. I may've lived in the world of romance writers (who get a pot shot in the script. Of course.) rather than literary writers, but the bruised and inflated egos, desperation for a chance, and complete identification with one's literary product are familiar to me. It's a writer-eat-writer world, no matter where you're at in that world.

And I would love to incorporate the Book Game into an evening's entertainments. As far as I know, that game, much discussed and threatened before they actually get to it, was invented for The Delling Shore. If it is original, it's a good idea, not too difficult, designed to make literary folks feel smart. But it is also in no way a sufficient pay-off for all the ominous discussion that precedes it. Let's just say the build-up feels like we're headed toward "Humiliate the Host" or "Get the Guests" from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and instead it's Fictionary. That's just not good enough to get us to buy into or get behind these characters and their squabbles. Yes, they're familiar as neurotic writers. But there's just not enough at stake here. We know from the start and Thomas's general behavior that he is not going to do anybody any favors, and from the chip on Frank's shoulder that he's not going to emerge a victor. Thomas is such a jerk that it seems much better for Adrienne if she does not get the internship. Only Ellen, the spoiled, pretty daughter with the six-figure income from a job in banking -- the one character outside the writers' circle -- has the energy and spark to seem like a real human being.

I could definitely be into an examination of the power dynamics and destructive nature of The Writing Life. There are also intriguing hints here of the effects of privilege and money on one's talent and character. In the end, however, those hints don't really pay off. Kind of like the Book Game.

by Sam Marks

Humana Festival of New American Plays
Actors Theatre of Louisville

Director: Meredith McDonough
Scenic Designer: Daniel Zimmerman
Costume Designer: Lorraine Venberg
Lighting Desgners: Russell H. Champa and Dani Clifford
Sound Designer: Benjamin Marcum
Media Designer: Philip Allgeier
Stage Manager: Zachary Krohn
Dramaturg: Hannah Rae Montgomery
Casting: Henry Russell

Cast: Catherine Combs, Meredith Forlenza, Jim Frangione, Bruce McKenzie.

Running time: 1:30, played without intermission

Remaining performances: April 6 at 7 pm and April 7 at 2:30 pm.

For information on Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Humana Festival of New American plays, click here.

Thursday, April 4, 2013


Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine has long been cited as a fine example of American expressionism. That means the tone is a bit surreal and strange, with a dark, nightmarish story and characters like Mr. Zero, the antihero hero, who personifies man's inhumanity during the Machine Age more than a real person.

Rice was a major player in American theatre in the early part of the 20th century, even though he wrote only two well-known plays, The Adding Machine and Street Scene, both of which made it to Broadway. Street Scene was made into a 1931 movie starring Sylvia Sidney. The Adding Machine also got a movie, but not till 1969. In that one, Milo O'Shea and Phyllis Diller (!) played Mr. and Mrs. Zero.

The plot is pretty simple, in an expressionistic and surprising sort of way. Mr. Zero is a nothing, a nobody, as you might guess from the name, and he works (and has worked for the last 25 years) as a bookkeeper at the same company. But progress marches on, and the day comes when the boss tells Mr. Zero he's been replaced by an adding machine. His job -- annoying and monotonous as it is -- is the only thing he has, and he strikes out when he's fired, killing his boss. That results in a murder trial and execution, after which Mr. Zero gets sent to the Elysian Fields. Happily ever after in the afterlife? Nope. He's still just a cog in a huge machine, doomed to continue to repeat his mistakes.

Companion pieces for The Adding Machine might be Fritz Lang's Metropolis, an example of German expressionism with a similar critique of industrialization at the expense of the worker, or Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, which gives the Man vs. Machine issue a comic twist and a sweet, appealing hero, or Stairs to the Roof, a Tennessee Williams play inspired by The Adding Machine.

Third-year MFA director Jeremy Garrett has put his stamp on Illinois State University's Adding Machine, with David Fisch as Mr. Zero and Caitlin Boho as his nagging missus. Others in the cast include Storm Angone, Pat Boylan, Trace Gamache, Lizzy Haberstroh, Matt Helms, Dominique Jackson, Drew Mills, Kent Nusbaum, Jenny Oziemkowski, Jason Raymer, Allison Sokolowski, Kelly Steik, Kaitlyn Wehr and Arif Yampolsky. Jake Wasson is the scenic designer, with Olivia Crosby as costume designer and Deborah Smrz as lighting designer.
The play opens tomorrow night in the ISU Center for the Performing Arts, with performances at 7:30 pm through April 13, and one Sunday matinee on April 7 at 2 pm.

Click here or here for ticket information.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Summer On Stage Is Back, Now with Fewer Mutants but More Lockers

Illinois Wesleyan University is offering its second annual Summer on Stage Theatre for Youth program. So if your child wants to keep busy this summer, learn some fun new skills, and even put on a play, you can sign them up right away. Space is limited, the young actors from last summer enjoyed themselves immensely, and spots may be hard to come by. That means you are advised to register now.

The whole idea of Summer on Stage is to "provide a safe, nurturing and professional environment in which students can explore the dramatic arts." All activities take place inside the E. Melba Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre at the south end of the IWU quad.

There are two choices of camps, divided by age. Footlight Camp is intended for kids in the 7-to-11 range (or entering 1st to 6th grade in the fall), and it will involve campers in acting, improvisation, dance, voice, movement, team and confidence-building activities. Instructor Cristen Susong will offer two sessions of Footlight Camp -- one weekday mornings and one weekdays afternoons -- from May 28 to June 7. At the end of the sessions, "campers" will put on a public performance combining the efforts of the morning and afternoon sessions. You can see a picture of last summer's performance below. "This is the perfect camp for your budding actor or actress," Susong notes.

Last summer's Goldie Spock & the Two Klingons
If your child is between the ages of 12 and 16 (or entering grades 7 to 12), they'll want to try Spotlight Camp, a more intensive theatrical training experience. Daily sessions will run from 9 am to 3 pm Monday through Friday between June 10 and 28, with a focus on acting, dance, singing and technical theater classes in the mornings and choreography, blocking, character development and more of a rehearsal experience in the afternoons.

Susong has announced that Spotlight Campers will be working on the play The Locker Next 2 Mine, which has roles for ten boys and ten girls. The Locker Next 2 Mine will be performed on Friday, June 29, with a 4 pm performance for parents and friends to see what their Spotlight kids have accomplished.

To see price and registration details for both Footlight and Spotlight Camp, click here.

New Route Announces Provocative New Season

New Route Theatre has announced a line-up of ambitious and provocative shows for their 2013-14 season. Artistic Director Don Shandrow sent out the list this morning, including work by four Pulitzer Prize winners and one local playwright. Plays range from the well-known, like August Wilson's Fences and Lynn Nottage's Ruined, both Pulitzer Prize winners, to new work like F2M from Patricia Wettig and Hostage, written by Illinois State University Professor Kim Pereira.

Here's what you'll see coming from New Route beginning this May:

Dael Orlandersmith
The Gimmick by Dael Orlandersmith
May 10-19
Directed by Don Shandrow
This moving play, by the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of Yellowman, tells the story of Alexis, an intelligent girl whose life is complicated by her alcoholic mother and impoverished neighborhood. Only a librarian with a love of words can open a window of hope for Alexis, hope for something beyond the world of “gimmicks” that plague her neighborhood.

Patricia Wettig
F2M by Patricia Wettig
June 13-22
Directed by Irene Taylor
Parker, a transgender freshman college student, is confronted by his parents during an unexpected visit. This new play by Patricia Wettig, primarily recognized for her acting roles in "30 Something" and "Brothers and Sisters," is a funny and poignant look at identity, parenting and making choices.

Lynn Nottage
Ruined by Lynn Nottage
August 2-11
Directed by Don Shandrow
This 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning play is a powerful portrayal of the triumph of human spirit in a war-torn country. Guided by music and the rhythm of life in the Congo, Ruined transports us to Mama Nadi’s bar, a small town refuge where intimacy comes at a price. This remarkable story is rich with humor, hope and humanity as it expertly navigates relationships, politics and the resiliency of the female spirit.

Kim Pereira
Hostage by Kim Pereira
September 12-21
Directed by Heidi Harris
An American journalist is captured by an Arab in the Middle East. What starts as a stereotypical situation takes a few unexpected turns as both men are forced to confront some difficult truths about themselves and each other... and the strange roles they will play in each other's lives. A Semi-finalist for the O'Neill Center National Playwrights Conference.

August Wilson
Fences by August Wilson
November 1-10
Directed by Kim Pereira
The 1950s ushered in a new era for blacks in America. The complex rhythms of be-bop and cool jazz reflected a changing country in which African-Americans began to stake a claim. Fences is the story of Troy Maxson, a baseball player trapped between two worlds -- not just between blacks and whites but between his frustration of the past and his suspicion of the future.

Quiara Alegría Hudes
Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue by Quiara Alegría Hudes
February 14-23
This 2007 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Drama tells the interwoven story of four Puerto Rican family members who represent three generations of military service. Elliot, the son, returns home a wounded hero from Iraq, While on leave, Elliot learns the stories of his father and grandfather who served in Korea and Vietnam before him. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called the play "A lush and evocative tone poem about the way the landscape of the soul is transformed by war."

New Route's shows are performed at the YWCA of McLean County, located at 1201 North Hershey Road in Bloomington. Friday and Saturday performances are scheduled for 7:30 pm, with Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm. You may reserve tickets in advance by e-mailing new.route.theatre@gmail.com or by calling 309-827-7330. For more information about New Route and its new season, check out their Facebook page.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Exercise Your Acting Muscles with Rhys Lovell -- Classes Begin Today!

I just found out about this, so I apologize in advance for the news not being as up-to-date as it should be. But here's the scoop: Even though original director and instructor Kymberly Harris has moved part of TheatresCool to Los Angeles, the Bloomington component is still alive, with all kinds of classes currently offered by Rhys Lovell, who has worked extensively in the area as an actor, director and, yes, instructor. Lovell has offered acting classes through Heartland Theatre in the past, plus he taught a variety of courses at Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan Universities. As an actor, he is currently rehearsing for Will Eno's Middletown, which opens April 18.

As you can see from the poster above, Rhys will teach three sections of Acting Technique classes, with sessions planned for children 8-12, teens 13-17 and adults 18 and over. The TheatresCool website gives this explanation and background on the approach to technique:

The basic principles of acting will be explored through reading, discussion, and class exercises. The performance element will focus on development of two contrasting monologues for an audition setting and short scenes from contemporary dramatic literature.

The courses are conceived with the understanding that acting begins with inspiration, with that which is innate, which is unlearned, and is subsequently given shape and made art through the practical application of technique. Both of these elements, the learned and the unlearned, are essential to the actor; to forsake either one in pursuit of the other is to be false to the craft, for neither the person who relies solely on what gifts he may possess, nor the uninspired technician, may call himself an actor.

Registration began back in February and classes are scheduled to start today, but if you're interested, you may want to email theatrescool@gmail.com to see if any spots remain. Classes are eight weeks long and are held on Tuesdays at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts at 600 North East Street in Bloomington.

Monday, April 1, 2013

April Showers Us with Theatre and Dance

It's finally starting to feel like Spring. That means you can go out for an evening's entertainment while it's still light, without having to shovel or scrape your car! So let's celebrate the warmer weather with intriguing theatrical offerings.

Still playing... Illinois State University's production of Constance Congdon's Tales of the Lost Formicans continues through April 6 in the tiny theater space inside Centennial West 207. Click here for ticket information, or click under the title in the previous sentence to see what I thought of the play and ISU's production.

Community Players celebrates its 90th anniversary season with a special show called Broadway in Bloomington that focuses on some of the songs performed at Players throughout the years. The cast of Broadway in Bloomington includes Reena Artman, Cris Embree, Chad Kirvan, John Lieder, Bob McLaughlin, Joe Penrod, Chrissie Strong, Cathy Sutliff, Christie Vellella and Kevin Wickart, with Sherise Kirvan featured as a dancer. Sally Parry directs performances from April 4 to 7.

The University of Illinois Department of Theatre opened Larry Kramer's AIDS drama The Normal Heart in the Studio Theatre at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana last week, with performances scheduled through April 7. Kramer's ACT UP manifesto enjoyed a successful Broadway revival in 2011, earning a trio of Tony Awards and clearly bringing The Normal Heart back to the public consciousness. Henson Keys is directing U of I's production, which features Equity actors Robert G. Anderson, Neal Moeller and Thom Miller in its cast.  

Also continuing is Or, a play by Liz Duffy Adams at the Station Theatre under the direction of Kay Bohannon Holley. This one is a historical (but fictional) romp about Aphra Behn, a spy-turned-playwright during England's Restoration period. King Charles II shows up, as does famed actress Nell Gwynne, as Behn tries desperately to finish a script while distracted by the amorous attentions of both the king and the actress. Lindsey Gates-Markel stars as Aphra Behn in performances running through April 13.

Elmer Rice's The Adding Machine, a classic of American Expressionism about the dire effects of the Machine Age on the human psyche, begins at ISU's Center for the Performing Arts on April 5, with performances through the 13th. David Fisch stars as Mr. Zero, whose job is taken over by a machine (an adding machine, naturally) in director Jeremy Garrett's production for Illinois State University.

The controversial musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, billed as a "comedic Wild West rock musical" takes the stage at Eureka College Theatre from April 9 to 14, in a production directed by Marty Lynch. Note that this show is rated R and that "very little (if any) of the play is based on historical fact -- something which will be discussed in length before and after the show."

Another option for April 9-14 is the Faculty Choreographed Dance Concert at Illinois Wesleyan University, directed by Sheri Marley, part of the IWU dance faculty. The concert is choreographed by Associate Professor Jean MacFarland Kerr, Instructor Sheri Marley, Instructor Dmitri Peskov, and Guest Choreographer/Instructor Jessica Riss-Waltrip.

ISU is also offering A Midsummer Night's Dream this month, with Vanessa Stalling at the helm of this Westhoff Theatre production. Stallings' cast includes Devon Nimerfroh and Abby Vombrack doubling as the fairy king and queen Oberon and Titania and the Duke of Athens and his bride, Hippolyta, with Alex Strzelecki as Bottom, the weaver and would-be actor trying to put on a play. Performances begin April 11 and finish up April 20.

Will Eno's Middletown, a look at life and death, love and connection in a small "Everytown" is the last show of Heartland Theatre's 2012-13 season. Director John Kirk's cast includes Lynna Briggs, Dean Brown, Aric Diamani, George Freeman, Karen Hazen, Megan Huff, Richard Jensen, Kathleen Kirk, Devon Lovell, Rhys Lovell, John Poling and Ann White, all of whom stand in as various denizens of this sweet, scary, familiar and strange little Middletown. It opens April 18 with a special "Pay what you can" preview night, followed by performances through May 5.

The Station Theatre likewise finishes up its season with its second April production, the searing Broadway musical Next to Normal, about a mother sinking under the weight of bipolar disorder. Station Theatre Artistic Director Rick Orr will direct this rock musical, which features music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Next to Normal opens April 25 and closes May 11.