Friday, May 31, 2013

Get Ready to Open Heartland's PACKAGE PLAYS June 6

Heartland Theatre Company's annual 10-Minute Play Festival is always popular, probably because eight short plays are pretty easy to take in. After all, if you don't like the one you're watching, you only have to wait ten minutes for another one!

This year's theme was packages, parcels and presents, which means there are lots of things to open in the plays chosen. And lots of surprises for the audience. Off the top of my head, I can tell you the containers on stage include a bowling bag, at least four briefcases, a delivery container from a famous New York emporium, one huge Fed Ex box, a hatbox, a jewelry box, a small parcel stuck inside a newspaper, a shoebox and a shopping bag. Now you can try to mix and match with these shows:

STANDING ROOM ONLY by C. J. Ehrlich, Chappaqua NY
After a tough day, Charlene is determined not to give up her extra seat on the ferry. Until she meets a stranger who bears a strange resemblance to Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi.

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?

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

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.

THE CHEESECAKE PLAY by John Frusciante, Astoria NY
Jeff and Andrea fume when the people upstairs are noisy and thoughtless and downright annoying. But revenge can be sweet when their cheesecake wends its way to your door.

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.

LAST CALL by James McLindon, Northampton MA
Melissa has brought a bowling bag to the bar her dad loved best. Why a bowling bag? She’s dying to tell someone that story.

AND TWICE ON SUNDAY by Brad Sytsma, Kentwood MI
If you wear a trench coat to the park and you sit next to somebody carrying a lethal-looking briefcase, you have to expect there to be… Misunderstandings.

For information on show dates and times, click here, and for reservation info, click here. Opening night is June 6, followed by Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances through the end of June. Note that there is no performance on Father's Day, June 16, but there is a talkback with the 10-minute play committee judges after the matinee on June 23.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Finding FAMILY TREE for Your Guest/McKean/Brit Fix

I'm always involved with Heartland Theatre Company's 10-minute play festival -- I sort of chair the committee and shepherd the judging process -- and this year more than usual because I'm (ahem) acting again. I can't quite believe it myself, but there you have it. If all goes well (and probably even if it doesn't) I will appear in two of the eight winning "Package Plays" that open on June 6.

Because the theme for this year's festival involves packages, parcels and presents, and because I traditionally tote up a list of what was written about, or for this year, what was inside all the packages conjured up by playwrights, I have been dealing with a whole lot of boxes, bags, bundles and whatever else somebody wrote about under that Package umbrella.

So imagine my surprise when I fell over a new HBO series, a series with my name written all over it, whose first episode is called "The Box."

The series itself is Family Tree and it started way back on May 12. Somehow I missed the news of its arrival, which is fairly shocking considering it comes from Christopher Guest, one of my favorite filmmakers. Guest created Family Tree with Jim Piddock, an English actor, writer and producer who appeared in Guest's For Your Consideration, the one about a modest movie about Purim that attracts Oscar buzz, A Mighty Wind, about a reunion of leftover folk singers, and Best in Show, the dog show mockumentary.

So Family Tree is about a guy named Tom Chadwick, played by Chris O'Dowd, who is probably best known for Bridesmaids, but was the fairly normal guy in cult sitcom The IT Crowd, as well. The premise of the first episode is that Tom's great-aunt dies, leaving behind... A box! Ta da! Piddock is there, too, as the "Bits and Bobs" man who gives him info on the age and usefulness of some of the objects in the box. His advice -- he says something like "I wouldn't put that in my mouth, Tommy. That's not a musical instrument, it's a Victorian dildo" -- is deadpan, amusing and very familiar in that improvised Guestian style.

The box episode of Family Tree also introduced us to Michael McKean, someone I absolutely love, as Tom's English dad, Nina Conti as his older sister, always seen with a monkey puppet on her hand because of a childhood trauma, and Tom Bennett as his best friend Pete. Ed Begley, Jr., Fred Willard and Don Lake are due to show up later. The second episode of Family Tree ("Treading the Boards") aired  May 19 on HBO, while "The Austerity Games" shows up June 2. You can watch the first two On Demand or with HBO Go right now, which is what I did, or look for them on the HBO schedule.

I love the tone, the idea of a search based on genealogical and identity issues, and the terrific cast. The Internet Movie Database tells us that the June 16 episode is "Coming to America," which I'm going to assume shows Tom Chadwick finding American relatives, the opposite of Christopher Guest finding his English roots (and title).

The tag line on the promo poster at the top tells us that Tom is Finding himself one relative at a time... And isn't that intriguing?

C-U's PENS TO LENS Brings Kids' Ideas to the Big Screen

Earlier this year, the Champaign-Urbana Film Society invited kids from Champaign County in grades K-12 to submit their original screenplays in a competition they called Pens to Lens. Entries were due in February, with nine winners chosen whose stories were turned into actual, real-live short films by area directors and actors. Pens to lens, get it? Outside the nine big winners, other students who sent in screenplays were given the gift of movie poster art created by artists at CUDO, the Champaign-Urbana Design Organization, to reflect the ideas in their scripts.

And all of that art -- movies and posters -- will be on display at C-U's Art Theater tonight at the boffo Pens to Lens Awards Gala, with red carpet arrivals and everything! The winners will walk the red carpet at 6 pm, with showings of the films at 7 and 9:30. Because they are expecting a full house at 7, you are encouraged to try the 9:30 pm show if you can.

The films based on winning screenplays (as listed at the Pens to Lens site) are:

The Devil Uses Purell by Ella G.
Cassie trades the devil her soul for a hamburger but the devil makes a big fuss over it because it's not clean so Sammi and Danielle have to save Cassie from herself.

Dinner Party Antics by Aly.
 Jim and Jenna are waiting outside of Jim's cousin Dave's home and are reminiscing of prior "Dinner Parties."

Even and Odd by Iona H.
Ivy and her dog Idris are invited into a parallel world by her unconscious self to help finish a quest.

Fluffystein by Maya, Madely and Taquia
A little girl's beloved toy bunny goes missing and is used for malicious purposes.

Into The Mine by Blake P. and Logan L.
Two boys are ready to mine, but someone's watching them and they don't know who.

Super Duper Low by Quinn.
Super Quinn teaches Mr. Machine about diabetes during their fight.

Susan and Daisy's Adventure: Episode I by Beatrice, Catherine, David, Dennis, Jonathan, Reuben, & Saewoong
Two poor people need money to get a house so they catch an eel.

Tunnel To Greenland by Ruth C.
 A young girl and boy try to dig a tunnel to Greenland to see snow and ice during the summertime.

Unexpected Trip by Jose, Taeyoon and Dafeny.
The story is about a Mexican family that experiences poverty and immigration problems as they come to the U.S.A.; it is based on a true story and it talks about the lives of illegal immigrants and what they go through.

Because I tend to fall on the theatrical side of things, I've heard about quite a few playwriting competitions for kids, as well as theaters who work with children all year long to put their work on the stage. But making movies -- in our area, at least -- is a great idea, since kids are more likely to be familiar with what a movie looks like and can accomplish. Plus, Pens to Lens offered screenwriting resources geared to specific age groups to help teachers help their students as they worked toward entering the contest. All around, pretty nifty.

You can read more about Pens to Lens at their website, in Melissa Merli's piece for the News-Gazette, or in Mathew Green's article at Smile Politely. They received 120 entries this year in the first ever Pens to Lens competition, but next year, who knows how many budding screenwriters will enter?

Friday, May 24, 2013

New in Town: Mosaic Theatre Company

There's a new theater company in Bloomington-Normal. Or there will be very soon!

Check out this announcement from the brand-new Mosaic Theatre Company Facebook page:
"Ladies and Gentlemen, we are proud to announce Bloomington-Normal's newest theatre: MOSAIC Theatre Company! We are planning on delighting you with great theatre here in central Illinois, starting with our inaugural production, Tragedy: A Tragedy by Will Eno, directed by Kenny Kendall.

"Auditions will be held May 29th and 30th with performances starting July 18th!

"Please support us, and all the theatre in Bloomington-Normal..."

Founder Jennifer Lumsdon, who has in the past directed and acted with local theaters like Prairie Fire and Heartland, has also created a kickstarter page in the hopes of creating some operating capital for the planned Tragedy production. You can visit that page and see what Mosaic has to offer right here

The new company's mission statement says they intend to "provide entertainment to the public in the form of professional quality theatrical productions, selected from the full spectrum of published plays as well as original works; and to provide theatrical education and support to the community through classes and mentoring/tutoring programs."

Note the mention of classes, which appears to also play a big part in the Mosaic plan. No word on where those classes will take place, but the first show will be produced at "cometogetherspace" at Roosevelt and Jefferson Streets in downtown Bloomington.

For more information about Mosaic Theatre Company's inaugural production, auditions and even t-shirts, click here.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Better Get to the SPELLING BEE While You Still Can!

Everybody was in a spelling bee at some time, right? We had to spell in our 5th and 6th grade classes at Woodrow Wilson School in Peoria to try to win a spot in the school-wide Bee and then the big Peoria Journal Star Spelling Bee. My sister got all the way to the big one and spelled on TV! I, sadly, did not. I'm afraid I left the C out of ACQUAINTANCE and got buzzed out back at Woodrow Wilson.

The children in the charming and wonderful The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (seen above as they appear in the Community Players production) would understand exactly the pain of leaving out that C. They are misfits, sort of, from strange William Barfée (yes, that accent is for real), who spells with his foot and suffers terrible allergies, to hapless homeschooler Leaf Coneybear, who has a decided lack of confidence; pretty Olive Ostrovsky, whose mother abandoned her for an ashram; Marcy Park, who is good at everything except acting like a live human being; Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, trying to keep up with her overachiever dads (she has two, hence the compound last name); and last year's champ, Chip Tolentino, who finds himself suddenly smacked around by puberty.

Spelling Bee has a bright, tuneful score written by Michael Finn and a sweet book by Rachel Sheinkin. It doesn't take itself too seriously, although it has its touching moments, mostly in the neighborhood of parent/child interactions (or lack thereof). It also offers audience members a chance to spell, if they're game. I'm sure I've told everyone I know about the time I went to see The Bee in Chicago on my birthday, got chosen as one of four volunteer spellers, and lasted almost to the end, putting my ACQUAINTANCE ignominy to bed once and for all. (I went out on lysergic acid diethylamide, which you will notice is really three words, not one, but, hey, I wanted to be done so I could go back to the audience and watch the show, so I didn't complain. I still have the juice box I got as a parting gift. Just sayin'.)

The main thing to take away here is that The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a perfectly adorable show. And you need to see it. And you have four chances left while it's still playing at Community Players. F-O-U-R.

Director Brett Cottone's cast includes Brian Artman, Kallie Bundy, Aimee Kerber, Megan Masterman, Joe McDonald, Joel Shoemaker, Kelly Slater, Chris Stanford and Austin Travis. They will be appearing (and spelling) tonight, tomorrow and Saturday at 7:30 pm, with a matinee Sunday at 2:30 pm to finish off their run. You can order tickets here or check out Bee info at the Community Players website here.

Can you spell M-U-S-T  S-E-E?

The Elusive "You're a Stranger, Not My [fill in the blank]!" Movie

I seem to have a weakness for a certain kind of mystery plot, one that's a little hard to describe. Let's just start by calling it the "You're a stranger, not my [wife, brother, doctor, friend, uncle]!" plot, even though it's not always about a wife. It could be someone Anne Baxter doesn't recognize who says he's her brother, a doctor who claims James Garner has been in a coma for five years, or someone who tells Louis Jourdan that he isn't at all who he thinks he is. The key here is that the person in the middle is suddenly confronted with a world s/he knows isn't true. And what could be more terrifying than that?

I was reminded of my fascination for this plot when Chase a Crooked Shadow showed up on Turner Classic Movies yesterday. I hadn't seen it before, but it's the first I know of in this specific subgenre. Anne Baxter appears as South African heiress Kimberly Prescott, returning to her lovely villa as she mourns the death of her brother a year before. But then a man who says he is that very brother shows up. And even though she knows it's not him, everybody around her says it is, and he has a passport and other identification to bolster his story and convince the local authorities. Anne Baxter was very good at that sort of conflicted, ambiguous heroine, while Richard Todd did very well as the superior and smug brother-who-wasn't-really. We know from the get-go it's a scam. The mystery is why these people are menacing Kimberly. Or who exactly is menacing whom?

A wonderful example of the "You're a stranger, not my [fill in the blank]!" story is 36 Hours, a 1965 film in which Nazis try to convince American intelligence officer Jefferson Pike (James Garner) that it's 1949, not 1944, and that World War II is over, to try to get him to reveal Allied invasion plans. Eva Marie Saint is the alleged wife, in on the scam but warming up to her handsome faux-husband, while Rod Taylor is the bad guy trying to con his patient into giving away military secrets. 36 Hours is based on a true story, too, and it's quite tense and scary as Garner tries to figure out what's what and get himself out of there before the Nazis find out about Normandy beach, even though we all know how the war (and the D-Day invasion) turned out.

Less spy-riffic and more straight-out mystery, in the tradition of stageplays like Sleuth and Deathtrap, is a 1986 TV movie called Vanishing Act, where Harry Kenyon (played by Mike Farrell of M*A*S*H fame) claims his wife has disappeared. But then someone claiming to be her shows up, in the form of Margot Kidder. Who do we believe? And why would someone be pretending to be Mrs. Kenyon? Local cop Lieutenant Rudamayer (Elliot Gould) will surely get to the bottom of it. Vanishing Act is a lot of fun, based on the play Trap for a Single Man by Robert Thomas, who also wrote the screenplay. There's more humor here than the others, with enough clever twists and turns to keep it entertaining and involving.

But my absolute favorite -- and the only one without a poster as well as the only one not available on DVD -- is Run a Crooked Mile, another TV movie, this time from 1969. A man (played by suave French actor Louis Jourdan) witnesses a murder and then gets clonked on the head. When he wakes up, he is told that a) it is two years later, b) he's been in a coma since he had a polo accident, c) he is a different person than he thinks he is, and d) Mary Tyler Moore is his wife! I have to think the "crooked" in the title is a call-back to Chase a Crooked Shadow, and both films inhabit the same world of posh European society, but that's really where the similarities end. Crooked Mile is much more about unraveling the conspiracy, while Crooked Shadow is all about the cat-and-mouse game. TCM has a listing for Run a Crooked Mile, which gives me hope that they'll dig it out and show it sometime. In the meantime, it's supposedly on Youtube in ten parts, uploaded by some kindly fan who knew how many people were out there clamoring to see it again after all these years. I'm going to go  watch it now...

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

LES GIRLS Is Just Too Too!

When Les Girls, a 1957 movie musical directed by George Cukor, came up on the Turner Classic Movies schedule, I realized I hadn't seen it since... Well, in a very long time. Whether it came up on my local Late, Late Show in 1966 or 1970 really doesn't matter. I did see it when I was young, even if I didn't remember much.What stuck with me was a) Gene Kelly as an entertainer taking his show on tour around Europe, b) Kay Kendall as one of the three women in his act, and c) big technicolor production numbers to show off a tuneful Cole Porter score.

And, yes, that's all still there. What I didn't remember was the Rashomon-style storyline, set into motion by a tell-all memoir written by Kendall's Lady Sybil. After she characterizes the romantic events that transpired during their show biz days in a rather lurid fashion, she ends up in court, sued for libel by Angèle Ducros, the French member of the trio, played by Finnish actress Taina Elg. (I knew Elg from her days as Olympia Buchanan, presumed dead wife of One Life to Live patriarch Asa Buchanan, as well as a stint as Guido's mother in Kopit and Yeston's Nine, which happens to be the first Broadway show I saw, with, yes, Elg in the cast. But I did not remember her from Les Girls at all.)

On the witness stand, Sybil stands pat with her story about an affair between Angèle and Kelly's Barry Nichols that ended badly, while Angèle says Sybil was the one involved with Barry. Oh, and she was a major lush to boot. To try to figure out who's telling the truth, Barry Nichols himself takes the stand, but his story... Doesn't accord with either of theirs. Instead, he matches himself with Joy Henderson, the American member of the female trio, played as a straight arrow/good girl by Mitzi Gaynor.

Each story involves singing and dancing with Gene Kelly front and center (of course) and some romantic hijinks. Even though that includes a suicide attempt, alcoholism and lying, the tone of the movie is silly and bright, befitting the Cole Porter score and such tunes as the cheeky "Ladies in Waiting," bouncy (and kind of crazy) "You're Just Too Too!" and "Why Am I So Gone (About the Gal)?," which attempts to cast Kelly as a motorcycle tough in a leather jacket. Yeah, that doesn't work. At all.

But the movie is a lot of fun, and Kay Kendall, a star who died much too young, is really quite adorable. Gaynor is also fun, even if she is MIA for the first 2/3 of the movie. And I admit it, the storyline hooked me enough to keep going to get to the end and find out "the truth." What is the truth? Les Girls doesn't really answer that question, and it never quite pulls off the mix of dark humor, sly innuendo and fizzy pop it's looking for.

Les Girls was Gene Kelly's last movie for MGM until he did That's Entertainment! in 1974. Kendall did only The Reluctant Debutante with husband Rex Harrison and Once More with Feeling after Les Girls. As a testament to Kelly at MGM and Kendall's career, Les Girls is certainly worth a look.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

2013 Drama Desk Awards (Including Our Very Own Nominees)

How exciting was it when Illinois Wesleyan alum Deanna Jent and Illinois State University's Lori Adams and John Stark took Jent's play Falling to New York after a smash engagement in St. Louis? Adams, who is head of acting in ISU's School of Theatre and Dance, directed Jent's play, with scenic design by Stark, who is head of design and production at ISU. The little play that could and its Minetta Lane production scored Drama Desk nominations for Jent for Outstanding Play as well as actors Daniel Everidge and Julia Murney. And that's about as major as it gets.

Broadway World photo of Jent and Adams on opening night
Photo credit: Walter McBride

Fellow nominees included the likes of Annie Baker, David Byrne, Christopher Durang, Tom Hanks, Nathan Lane, Tracy Letts, Bette Midler, Vanessa Redgrave, Tony Shalhoub and Cicely Tyson.

The Drama Desk Awards are the only major New York awards to nominate and honor Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway shows in the same categories of competition. And that allows all the New York theatrical folk who cross those boundaries to be together for one night of big fun and excitement.

Sunday night, the Drama Desk Awards were handed out at Town Hall in Midtown Manhattan, with Christopher Durang's mixed-up Chekhovian comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike taking honors in the Outstanding Play category and Matilda, a musical version of the Roald Dahl novel with book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, named Outstanding Musical. The Broadway transfer of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf took the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Play, while Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson's Pippin won in the Outstanding Revival of a Musical or Revue category.

Acting honors were spread around, with winners including Virginia Woolf's Tracy Letts, Cicely Tyson for her performance in The Trip to Bountiful, Billy Porter in Kinky Boots and Laura Osnes in Cinderella. In the "featured" categories, Richard Kind (The Big Knife), Judith Light (The Assembled Parties), Bertie Carvel (Matilda) and Andrea Martin (Pippin) took home the trophies.

The Outstanding Director awards both went to women directors, with Pippin's Diane Paulus and Virgina Woolf's Pam MacKinnon honored.

To see the complete list of nominees and winners, click here.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Is Your Favorite Show Coming Back?

As we reach the end of the 2012-13 TV season, the networks have been busy pulling the plug on some shows and offering lifelines to others. If you're confused about what's coming back and what's not, here is a handy list. (And I hope your favorites are all safe in that long "renewed" list.)


1600 Penn (NBC)
30 Rock (NBC)
666 Park Avenue (ABC)
90210 (CW)
Animal Practice (NBC)
Ben and Kate (Fox)
Body of Proof (ABC)
Cult (CW)
Deception (NBC)
Do No Harm (NBC)
Don’t Trust the B in Apt. 23 (ABC)
Emily Owens MD (CW)
Family Tools (ABC)
Fringe (Fox)
Go On (NBC)
Golden Boy (CBS)
Gossip Girl (CW)
Guys with Kids (NBC)
Happy Endings (ABC)
How to Live With Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life) (ABC)
The Job (CBS)
Last Resort (ABC)
Made in Jersey (CBS)
Malibu Country (ABC)
Mob Doctor (Fox)
Mobbed (Fox)
The New Normal (NBC)
The Office (NBC)
Partners (CBS)
Private Practice (ABC)
Ready for Love (NBC)
Red Widow (ABC)
Rock Center with Brian Williams (NBC)
Rules of Engagement (CBS)
Smash (NBC)
Touch (Fox)
Up All Night (NBC)
Vegas (CBS)
Whitney (NBC)
Zero Hour (ABC)


2 Broke Girls (CBS)
The Amazing Race (CBS)
American Dad (Fox)
American Idol (Fox)
America's Next Top Model (CW)
Arrow (CW)
The Bachelor (and the Bachelorette) (ABC)
Beauty and the Beast (CW)
The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
The Biggest Loser (NBC)
Blue Bloods (CBS)
Bob's Burgers (Fox)
Bones (Fox)
The Carrie Diaries (CW)
Castle (ABC)
Chicago Fire (NBC)
Community (NBC)
Criminal Minds (CBS)
Dancing with the Stars (ABC)
Elementary (CBS)
Family Guy (Fox)
The Following (Fox)
Glee (Fox)
The Good Wife (CBS)
Grey's Anatomy (ABC)
Grimm (NBC)
Hart of Dixie (CW)
Hawaii Five-O (CBS)
How I Met Your Mother (CBS)
Last Man Standing (ABC)
Law & Order SVU (NBC)
The Mentalist (CBS)
The Middle (ABC)
Mike & Molly* (CBS)
The Mindy Project (Fox)
Modern Family (ABC)
Nashville (ABC)
NCIS: Los Angeles (CBS)
The Neighbors (ABC)
New Girl (Fox)
Nikita* (CW)
Once Upon a Time (ABC)
Parenthood (NBC)
Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Shark Tank (ABC)
Person of Interest (CBS)
Raising Hope (Fox)
Revenge (ABC)
Revolution (NBC)
Scandal (ABC)
The Simpsons (Fox)
Suburgatory (ABC)
Supernatural (CW)
Survivor (CBS)
Two and a Half Men (CBS)
Undercover Boss (CBS)
The Vampire Diaries (CW)
The Voice (NBC)
The X Factor (Fox)

Note that Fox's "The Cleveland Show" is not listed on their Fall 2013 schedule, but it hasn't been officially canceled, either. Others neither here nor there at the moment: "Betty White's Off Their Rockers," "Celebrity Apprentice," "Hannibal" and "Fashion Star," all on NBC.

*"Mike and Molly" has been renewed but won't be back till mid-season, while "Nikita" has been renewed just to come back with six episodes mid-season and finish off the show's story.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

First Peak at Meryl, Julia, Ewan, Etc. in AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (the Movie)

Tracy Letts' angsty family drama August: Osage County was a barnburner as a play, winning the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as six Joseph Jefferson Awards for the original Chicago production at Steppenwolf and five Tony Awards and a host of other prizes for the subsequent Broadway version. After all the acclaim, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood got ahold of the play and, well, Hollywoodized it.

With director John Wells (The Company Men) at the helm, August: Osage The Movie is gearing up, with a cast that includes Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, the man with the best name in entertainment history -- Benedict Cumberbatch -- and Mr. American Icon himself, Sam Shepard.

The movie isn't slated to be released till November, which is primo Oscar turf, but a trailer is already circulating on the internet. And creating speculation as to how exactly this star-studded movie version will resemble the play everybody loved so much. For one difference in tone, you can compare the movie poster above to the Broadway lobby card at right.

Doug George at the Chicago Tribune is worried that the trailer looks way too sweet and heartwarming to be the caustic August: Osage County that made such a splash, while Deadline calls it "cheery" and Margaret Lyons at Vulture thinks it has a "knowing quirk-factor" that doesn't really fit the play. You can judge for yourself by watching the trailer at any of those links.

If you'd like to keep track of who's been changed to whom from Broadway to Hollywood, here's a handy chart of the roles and who's playing what:

                                                        Broadway                      Movie
VIOLET WESTON              Deanna Dunagan           Meryl Streep
BEVERLY WESTON              Dennis Letts              Sam Shepard
BARBARA FORDHAM         Amy Morton               Julia Roberts
BILL FORDHAM                     Jeff Perry                Ewan McGregor
JEAN FORDHAM               Madeleine Martin         Abigail Breslin
KAREN WESTON             
Mariann Mayberry         Juliette Lewis    
IVY WESTON                       
Sally Murphy          Julianne Nicholson
Brian Kerwin           Dermot Mulroney
CHARLES AIKEN              
Frances Guinan             Chris Cooper
LITTLE CHARLES              
Ian Barford           Benedict Cumberbatch
Rondi Reed              Margo Martindale
Kimberly Guerrero         Misty Upham

Feel free to read the play, create your own fantasy cast, and be all primed to compare/contrast by November.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT: Bananas and Trailers and Episodes, Too

There's always money in the banana stand! Everybody who's seen Arrested Development, once a small pocket of television excellence in the Fox lineup, canceled (while fans sent thousands of rubber bananas to Fox execs to try to save it) in 2006 and then revived for fifteen new episodes on Netflix, knows the axiom about the banana stand. Right?

After a long wait, fans are eagerly anticipating those fifteen episodes, scheduled to begin begin May 26. There's even a trailer for the new Netflix season floating around the net, which you can watch here in high def on Youtube. Exciting, yes?

In the meantime, the Bluth family banana stand has shown up in Manhattan and it's actually selling frozen bananas all week. Yesterday, the Arrested Development twitter account (@arresteddev) tweeted, "Today on , have your banana and eat it too at the banana stand diagonal to Radio City Music Hall 11am-6pm"

The stand shown in the photo above will be traveling to different locations around Manhattan (Columbus Circle today, the 14th), so if you're in New York City, keep an eye on that twitter feed to see where you, too, can score a Bluth frozen banana. You can also see more pictures and get more info at HuffPo, who covered the banana stand up close and personal.

No, there is no indication that Jason Bateman or any other actor who plays a Bluth will be actually staffing the banana stand. Although I would pay good money to see Will Arnett in a banana suit, dangling over the stand by way of a crane, if anybody wants to arrange that. He could use some pants, however.

Wherever you are, you need to mark your calendar for Sunday, May 26, when all fifteen new episodes will show up at once on Netflix. It's part of a new strategy to blast you with entertainment and let you choose when to watch. And make no mistake -- I will be watching. Probably all fifteen at once.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Still Time to Enter That New Play from the Heartland

If you are a playwright from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, Ohio or Wisconsin, it's time to put the final touches on your one-act play and get it in under the wire for Heartland Theatre's New Plays from the Heartland competition. The deadline is midnight May 15th, with submissions accepted electronically through the Heartland website.

The theme this year is "The AHA Moment," which means that Heartland's judging panel will be looking for plays that feature a wake-up call, an instant of discovery or a lightbulb flashing in someone's brain. As Heartland describes it: "Bad. Good. Devastating. A single moment of blinding brilliance. The end of a dream. A whole new direction for your life. All you have to do write us a one-act play that involves an AHA! moment, spoken or unspoken, but straight to the heart. What could be more dramatic?"

You can read the contest rules and regulations here. The final judge this year will be Chicago playwright and screenwriter Mary Ruth Clarke. If you'reinterested in more information about Clarke or the New Plays project, click here for all the details.Clarke will not only choose the three winners to be staged at Heartland in July, but also hold a workshop with the winning playwrights July 12 and speak to the public in an open forum at Heartland on July 11, 2013.

Who knows? You may find your friend or neighbor has penned a play and gotten it on stage. That's the joy of a contest specifically for the Midwest. You may just recognize that playwright, like previous winners Terri Ryburn, Bruce Boeck and Jessica Wisniewski, all with local ties.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Happy Mother's Day!

Bringing this one back for Mother's Day!

Lists of movie moms inevitably include Stella Dallas, Mildred Pierce and Psycho's mom. Yeah, I'm not going for any of them. Instead, my idea of a movie mom is more like, well, the list below.

Best Movie Mom, Classic Category
Jane Darwell as Ma Joad
My favorite mom in the classic period of Hollywood movies is Jane Darwell in "The Grapes of Wrath." She's not the lead, but she is everything that represents home, love and stability as her family must take to the road in the wake of foreclosure, hunger, death and separation. Born Patti Woodward to a wealthy Missouri family (her dad was the president of a railroad), Darwell was not the kind of poor Okie she played in "The Grapes of Wrath," but she definitely made an impact. The scene where her son, Tom Joad, played by Henry Fonda, tells her that he will be there, the everyman who stands in "Wherever you can look, wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there," is probably the most famous bit of "Grapes of Wrath," and Darwell is certainly the anchor in that scene. But I defy anyone not to get a little teary when Ma Joad packs up the remnants of her household, holding up a pair of earrings and looking at her reflection in the side of a metal coffee pot. As she remembers who she used to be and all that she's leaving behind, accompanied by the melancholy sound of the song "Red River Valley," Darwell looks at us, straight ahead, with a subtle yet devastating expression on her soft, worn face, and you see the whole plot, the whole punch of the movie right there. Jane Darwell won an Oscar in the Best Supporting Actress category for her performance, and she certainly deserved it.

Best Movie Mom, Funny Category
"North by Northwest" isn't exactly your standard comedy, but Jessie Royce Landis, who wasn't nearly old enough* to play the mother of her on-screen son, Cary Grant, is so fresh and funny playing a sardonic society mother who totally and completely has her playboy son's number, that you'll forget the Hitchcockian suspense and just smile every time she's on screen. Landis had an extensive Broadway career before and after her screen debut in "At Your Service" in 1930. On Broadway, she played Jo in "Little Women" and Hermione in "The Winter's Tale," and on film, she was Grace Kelly's wise and witty mother in "To Catch a Thief" a few years before she played Cary's mum in "North by Northwest." Clearly, she'd have been a better match for Mr. Grant than a mother, but it's all good. Jessie Royce Landis did the knowing eye-roll better than just about anybody.

Mr. Grant and Ms. Landis in "North by Northwest"

Best Movie Mom, Most Like a Real Mom Category
ET with Dee Wallace
I remember a friend opining that Steven Spielberg creates good movie moms. I think that's true, with none more real and warm and just all-around mom-a-riffic than Dee Wallace in "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." Wallace's Mary doesn't do anything special or spectacular; she just goes about her business as a caring, loving single mother to her children, Elliott (Henry Thomas) and Gertie (Drew Barrymore), even when an alien starts living in her son's closet. If I were under ten again, I'd pick this modern, lovely, regular-old mom for my family. Dee Wallace has been in a ton of horror movies, giving them the same grounded, real presence she provides in "E.T." And she showed up last season on "The Office," once again playing a mother. (This time she was Andy Bernard's mom.)

Best Movie Mom,Cartoon Category
Elastigirl and Her Voice, Holly Hunter
Holly Hunter has done at least two memorable film moms, with her barren-but-yearning, babynapping "Ed" in "Raising Arizona" making an impact, along with her sweetly fierce Helen (AKA Elastigirl) in "The Incredibles." Moms with superpowers probably deserve a category of their own, but what makes Helen stand out is how normal she is, even in her spandex suit, and how well she looks out for her kids and her husband, even in the face of assaults from supervillains. Hunter also deserves mention for making Helen feel real and sympathetic simply through the use of her voice.

Best Movie Mom, Musical Category
Meryl Streep in "Mamma Mia"
Meryl Streep has played a lot of moms in her career, and if we'd seen more than just a flashback where she saves her kids and the family cat in "Defending Your Life," I might be inclined to pick that luminous and lovely performance. But, alas, she's more "romantic heroine" and less "mom" in that one. I'm sure she's picked for "Sophie's Choice" a lot, too, but that is such a difficult and terrible movie for any mother that I'm not going there, either. So I'm going with "Mamma Mia," where she plays against type as a goofy, hippyish mother who isn't sure which of her three boyfriends from the past is the father of her daughter. "Mamma Mia" is certainly not the best musical around, but Streep is delightful, dancing around in her overalls, nothing like the Grande Dame of the American Screen, making herself absolutely convincing in an otherwise not-believable-in-the-least movie.

*The oft-repeated story is that Landis was almost a year younger than Grant, which the Internet Broadway Database thinks is the correct information. The Internet Movie Database, however, has Landis born in 1896, making her 7-and-a-bit years older than Grant. Certainly not old enough to be his mother, but at least not younger. Who's right? My husband, who likes genealogical research, has located Jessie Medbury (her birth name) on the 1900 Chicago census as a three-year-old, and then again on the 1910 and 1920 censuses when she was 13 and 23, respectively. So my household is going with 1896 as Jessie Royce Landis's year of birth.

Friday, May 10, 2013

It's Fred Astaire's Birthday!

It's time for my annual Fred Astaire's birthday post! I've been missing from the blog for a few days while I finished up my second semester of graduate school, but I knew I had to get back in time for FRED ASTAIRE'S BIRTHDAY, which should totally be a national holiday. Since I don't have control over national holidays, I will keep the tradition alive by reblogging this piece right here, right now!

May 10th used to be a holiday in my household, as I always tried to celebrate the birthday of my favorite film star, Fred Astaire. I remember taking a cake with 80+ candles on it to my office one May 10th in the 80s, with co-workers fearing we were going to set off the sprinkler system if we actually lit it up to attempt to blow it out.

Now that my beloved Fred has been gone for awhile (he died in 1987, at the age of 88) I no longer send him a birthday card (obviously) or eat cake in his honor, although I still try to celebrate in my own way. This year, that way is to talk about him on my blog, to let everybody who reads this in on the significance of May 10th in our cultural landscape. And also, of course, to let myself wallow in a little Astaire-o-rama just for fun.

Frederick Austerlitz was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 10, 1899, as the world was moving from horse-and-buggy thinking into automated everything. Movies, cars, radio, music coming from your very own Gramophone or Victrola... The world was breaking wide open.

As America entered the 20th Century, Fred Austerlitz and his older sister Adele were taking dance lessons at the behest of their mother, who hoped to create a brother-and-sister act for the vaudeville circuit. By 1905, they had moved to New York and adopted the name Astaire as part of Ann Austerlitz's plan to achieve stardom for her children.

Everybody thought Adele was the one with the talent, while Fred was clever and creative, picking up dance styles easily as well as noodling on the piano and other instruments. Their brother-and-sister act did very well pretty much from the start, landing a spot on the Orpheum circuit, and eventually getting themselves into a Broadway show, a Sigmund Romberg revue called "Over the Top," in 1917.

From there, they got larger spots in bigger shows, and were quite the splash in a show called "Stop Flirting!" in London in 1922. The show didn't do much in New York under the name "For Goodness Sake," but additional Gershwin songs were added for London, boosting the Astaires' role. Suddenly they were the toast of London, and "Stop Flirting!" ran for an amazing 418 performances.

After that, "Lady Be Good," with hits like "Fascinating Rhythm" in the score, was created just to showcase Fred and Adele in New York. It was the biggest hit yet for George and Ira Gershwin, as well as the perfect mix of song, dance and romantic comedy to highlight the charms of the Astaires. And if I ever run into anybody who has perfected time travel, I plan to request December 1, 1924, so I can walk into the Liberty Theatre on Broadway and see Fred and Adele open in "Lady Be Good."

Fred found movie stardom on his own, after Adele had decided to drop out of the act to marry Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish, the son of the Duke of Devonshire, in 1932. At first, Fred continued on stage by himself, with Cole Porter's "Gay Divorce" and the hit song "Night and Day" paving the way for his solo career. Then Fred made his way to Hollywood, like so many stage stars before him, to see what he could do on the big screen.

Supposedly, some bigwig or other watched his screen test and concluded, "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little." That's the story, anyway. At any rate, Fred got a walk-on in an otherwise dreadful Joan Crawford pic called "Dancing Lady" in 1933, and from there, danced into history at RKO Studios when he was paired with Ginger Rogers for a fizzy, fun picture about airplanes and romance in Brazil called "Flying Down to Rio."

Although neither Astaire nor Rogers was keen on being part of a team, their success in the filmed version of "Gay Divorce," now called "The Gay Divorcee," as well as "Top Hat," "Shall We Dance" and "Swing Time," pretty much assured their names would be linked forever. They were huge for RKO, they were huge for Hollywood, and they were huge for the development of musicals on film.

Astaire was more than just a gifted dancer and charming performer. He sweated every detail of every dance, rehearsing and re-rehearsing until every step, every turn was sheer perfection. There are all kinds of famous stories about chicken feathers and beaded sleeves and bloody shoes getting in their way when they danced, but on screen, Astaire and Rogers look like La Belle, La Perfectly Swell Romance.

For me, Fred Astaire represents the best of what Hollywood can do (or could do, back in those early days of movie technology). Astaire-Rogers Land is a world where everybody can sing and dance (and does, whenever they feel like it), with beautiful music accompanying them as they and their fabulous costumes waft in and out of swanky (and enormous) black-and-white rooms decorated in wonderful Art Deco style. Fantasy, sure. But what a fantasy.

With or without Ginger, Fred is my idea of swoony, swell romance. He projects a certain gentility and sweetness along with all that easy elegance; his on-screen persona suits the tinkly tunes as well as the funny novelty numbers and the dramatic, romantic ballads, like “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “One for My Baby,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and my absolute favorite song of all time, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”

Nobody did it better. Ever. Yes, with Ginger, but also with Rita Hayworth and Leslie Caron and Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire made you believe that people can fall in love when they’re dancing. Isn't that a lovely thing to believe in, just for an hour or two?

As it happens, I discovered last year that my husband’s grandfather, Carl Frick of St. Charles, Illinois, was born on the exact same day as Fred Astaire. As far as I know, Carl Frick wasn’t a dancer and he never considered leaving St. Charles for fame and fortune on the vaudeville circuit. Two men, born the same day in different Midwestern towns. One stayed in the Midwest and raised a dancing daughter, who had a decidedly non-dancing son (my husband). The other went east with his sister, developed a whole new style of dancing on film, and became an enduring screen legend as well as an example and inspiration to pretty much every dancer who came after him. Whether that was fate, destiny, or just the roll of the die, I'm glad Carl Frick stayed in St. Charles to raise his daughter June, and I'm glad Fred Austerlitz became Fred Astaire.

As Fred says in “The Gay Divorcee,” “Chance is the fool’s name for fate.” Or “Fate is a foolish thing to take chances with.” Or something.

If you're looking to start your own Fred Astaire film collection, I highly recommend the Astaire & Rogers Ultimate Collectors Edition, released in 2006. It has all ten Astaire/Rogers pics on DVD, plus extras like trailers and ads, vintage shorts and cartoons, and behind-the-scenes "featurettes." It's a lovely set, and perfect for the completist.

Friday, May 3, 2013

May Days 2013

I apologize for being late with my May preview. If it means you missed one of your last four chances to see Middletown at Heartland Theatre or you're getting notice really late about Illinois State University's Spring Dance Concert or Actors Showcase, well, then I am really going to have to apologize more profusely.

But, yes, whether I am prepared or not, May is upon us, borrowing April's showers, but still calling itself May.

ISU's 2013 Actors' Showcase and Design Exhibition happened officially last Monday night in Chicago, but there is a redux for local folks today at noon. I hope I get this post up in time! Break legs, ISU seniors, whether I'm in time or not.

ISU is also sneaking its Spring Dance Concert in under the semester's wire. The concert opened last night, with performances again tonight and tomorrow. You have a choice of 7:30 shows Friday and Saturday, as well as a matinee on Saturday. This performance is being held during National Dance Week, and includes a special piece choreographed by guest artist Melinda Myers. For more information, click here. You may also contact the College of Fine Arts Box Office in the Center for the Performing Arts from 11 am to 5 pm today at 309-438-2535 or purchase tickets directly through Ticketmaster.

And as I said, Heartland Theatre's very well-received production of Will Eno's Middletown is in its last weekend of performances. In the play, John (Rhys Lovell) and Mary (Karen Hazen) meet on an in-between day in their in-between town, moving in and amongst fellow townspeople (and a couple of tourists) as Eno ponders the meaning of life. What does it mean to be in the middle? Lovely play, lovely performances. Get there early and grab a seat at one, two or three of these last performances.

Also this weekend, Eureka College hosts the Olio Cemetery Walk in conjunction with the Woodford County Historical Society, with student actors performing as the former citizens of Eureka. That's Sunday May 5 at the Olio Township Cemetery.

One of my favorite musicals, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, takes the stage at Community Players with a special Pay What You Can preview on May 9 and performances continuing through the 26th. Brett Cottone directs this good-natured look at a children's spelling contest, complete with an ex-champ who now moderates the Bee (played by Aimee Kerber), a vice principal and returning Bee judge who'd been a judge before but was banished for bad behavior (Joe McDonald), a "comfort counselor" doing community service (Chris Stanford) and six elementary school contestants, each excited to be in the Bee, but each with his or her own brand of vulnerability. For Community Players, your spellers will be played by Brian Artman, Kallie Bundy, Megan Masterman, Joel Shoemaker, Kelly Slater and Austin Travis. I make no secret of the fact that sweet Leaf Coneybear, the one who inexplicably keeps getting asked to spell rodent names, is my favorite. Go, Leaf! Win that bee!

Urbana's Station Theatre has two weekend left for Next to Normal, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about mental illness that was also nominated for eleven Tony Awards. Station Artistic Director Rick Orr takes the reins on Next to Normal, with a cast that includes Jodi Prosser, Allison Morse, Andy Hudson, Chris Johnson, Dylan Connelley and Steve Conaton. You have until May 11 to catch this groundbreaking show. All shows are at 8 pm. You may call 217-384-4000 for reservations.

The Shakespearean Globetrotters
Athough last night was originally scheduled to be "Time to Make the Shakespeare," one of this season's new projects from the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, it was pushed back to next Thursday because of weather issues. So you can still catch "a Shakespearean play created entirely before your eyes by The Shakespearean Globetrotters" on the patio at Destihl on May 9 at 8 pm. Call 309-862-2337 to reserve a table for this outdoor event.

Prairie Fire Theatre is currently touring schools with its children's opera The Sky Is Falling -- And I'm Not Even Kidding! Prairie Fire promises dates and times for the general public coming soon, so watch their website for more info. In the meantime, you can enjoy this picture of the colorful cast. Is that Chicken Little I spy? Look out for Foxy Loxy!

The cast of The Sky Is Falling
Illinois Wesleyan University offers the play The Breach, a devastating and personal piece about the effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, as its May term project. For IWU, The Breach, which was written by Joe Sutton, Catherine Filloux and Tarrell McCraney, is directed by Raven Stubbs, with performances scheduled for May 23 to 25 at 8 pm.