Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Here's Looking at You, Mike Dobbins

When Mike Dobbins, the managing artistic director of Heartland Theatre Company, passed away on July 10, it was sudden and shocking and unbelievable in a lot of different ways. As I posted on Heartland's Facebook page at the time, "Words cannot convey what Mike has meant to Heartland Theatre for the past 15 years, and his passing leaves a huge hole in our hearts, in our theatre and in our lives." Mike was the heart and soul -- and the face -- of Heartland to so many people, the one who steered the ship and brought it into port safely every time Heartland put on a show. It has been difficult at times to figure out where Heartland Theatre ended and Mike Dobbins began. Or vice versa.

And yet... There are still no words that can really convey the sum and substance of Mike Dobbins. In the wake of his passing, tributes poured in from former students who talked about the kind of mentor, educator and inspiration he had been, from colleagues who noted that Mike was the one who'd welcomed them in and found a spot for them at Heartland Theatre, from Dan Craft at the Bloomington Pantagraph, who described him as someone whose "enthusiasm was always on the surface, ready to infect you," and from actress and friend Kathleen Kirk, who mused on the young Mike, the one we didn't know, in her blog, captured in photographs from his days as a high school teacher in Nebraska.

Each picture painted in tribute gives a slightly different view. In local theatrical circles, we saw him as defined by Heartland, and yet... His family knew very well he had a vibrant life outside Heartland. His son Steve posted his own tribute, about baseball and Pee Wee Reese and keeping score and his Pop's "silent earthquake laugh." A slightly different Mike, and yet the same Mike, too.

When Mike took the stage before almost every performance at Heartland to introduce the show, hand out a free bottle of "Five-Star water, all the way from East Peoria," and hawk the "store-bought cookies" that would be available at intermission, he seemed so open, so warm and easy that audience members really thought they knew him through and through. And yet... Mike's wife Gail, who knew him better than anyone, told me a few days ago that "Mike had a rich, full life, a life outside the theatre." She admitted that it was hard to squeeze that life in around the theatre. "Very hard," Gail said. But he made it work.

Mike the director worked with actors to fill in the edges of their characters and Mike the actor worked with his own roles to find the backstory and the layers. And now that he is gone, we begin to see a more three-dimensional picture of the man we all thought we knew so well. Teacher, actor, director, leader, friend, father, husband... Cubs fan. There's that rich, full life for you.

In honor of Mike Dobbins, I am pulling up an interview I did with him in 2010. Note that Mike is happy to talk about his theatrical career, but he brings it back to his beloved Gail at the end, just so that we all know what was really important to him.

A memorial service and celebration of the life of E. Mike Dobbins will be held on Saturday, August 3 at 4 pm at Calvert-Metzler Memorial Home at 115 East Washington Street in Bloomington. The family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions be made to Heartland Theatre.

And here's that interview. I hope you enjoy spending a few minutes with Mike Dobbins, in his own words.

If you’ve attended a show at Heartland Theatre, it’s very likely you’ve seen Managing Artistic Director Mike Dobbins introducing a show, inviting volunteers, handing out a bottle of water, and in general, acting as the public face of Heartland Theatre Company. But there’s a lot more to what Mike and his wife, Gail, do for Heartland than the general public may be aware of. I had a chance to ask Mike a few questions and get a little more information on who he is and how he came to Heartland, and I thought you might enjoy finding out, too.

How long have you been Artistic Director at Heartland Theatre Company? 

This spring is the beginning of my eleventh year as Heartland’s Artistic Director. My work as managing artistic director did not start until a few years after coming aboard at the theatre.

Has the job changed since you first took it?

Things have transformed to an almost miraculous degree for all of us involved in Heartland during the last decade. Audience development and performance quality have grown steadily over the years, and we think Heartland has evolved into something that our actors, directors and audiences can be proud of. If nothing else, we always want our shows to be thought provoking and well performed.

You are the Managing Artistic Director. Tell us what the “managing” part means.

As the managing artistic director I take the reins in both the operations of Heartland Theatre Company and in artistic decisions that influence the quality of our productions. With consistent quality on stage and increased recognition, we have managed to grow our theatre into its newly reconfigured space, capable of holding an additional 33% of audience, and push our production values up to a level that complements our fine corps of acting and directing talent. Management responsibilities at Heartland include everything from simple maintenance of the space to more complicated issues, like assuring compliance with township codes and our lease.

Given the amount of time you and Gail put in at Heartland, it seems impossible that you have a life outside Heartland Theatre, but I know you actually do a whole lot of other things. Talk about that for a second.

The other things that occupy our lives beyond Heartland Theatre Company include trying to stay in step with family developments in Chicago, Louisville, Kentucky, and Tampa Bay, Florida. We have seven lovely grandchildren between 2 and 19 that keep us running. Gail has her own business, Dobbins’ Strategy, and I work at Project Oz as well as teach a few acting classes for Heartland Community College each semester.

What is your background, academically and theatrically?

I have a BS and MA in Theatre from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and an MFA in Directing from U of I at Champaign-Urbana. I was the NEH Scholar in Shakespeare Studies during the summer of 1978 at Princeton University, which was a paid opportunity to review and critique all of Shakespeare’s writings. I have been teaching theatre for 15 years, including everything from creative dramatics to Shakespeare in Performance. I don’t know how many plays I’ve staged during my career, but I stopped counting after 250.

What was your first interaction with Heartland Theatre?

My first interaction with Heartland Theatre Company was as a guest director. I directed David Mamet’s GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS in 1995. It was an excellent production with an excellent cast.

I know you direct a lot and act occasionally. Do you have a favorite show you’ve directed?

Identifying a favorite is a tough one, kind of like naming your favorite child. Certainly, I have favorites, but they are many, and if I pick one or even a few, then something will be left out. I’d best just say that I’ve been blessed – the ones I have not enjoyed a great deal are few and far between.

Favorite roles you’ve played?

Aston in Pinter’s THE CARETAKER, Clarence Darrow in NEVER THE SINNER, Demetrius in MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, Petruchio in TAMING OF THE SHREW and Sancho in MAN OF LA MANCHA.

What is your proudest moment at Heartland?

Celebrating the opening of our newly configured theatre with many who had been there since the beginning, who were instrumental in seeing the theatre go and grow through time.

What do you like best about working with HTC?

I never let a day pass that I am not thankful that I have the assistance in all things Heartland of my wife, Gail. This theatre is a huge part of our shared lives. She has so many talents and is so capable in both operations and artistic endeavors.

Thanks, Mike.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Krannert Center/Illinois Theatre/Opera and Lots More on Sale August 10

Tickets go on sale August 10 for the 2013-14 slate of events at the University of Illinois Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Whether you're into music, opera, theater, dance or something in between, there are options available for you in Krannert's "captivating, fresh, life-affirming, restorative, unexpected, whimsical, and uplifting" season.

The Illinois Theatre Series begins with 9 Parts of Desire, written and directed by Heather Raffo, which looks at the lives of nine Iraqui and Iraqui-American women during the Persian Gulf Wars, presented October 3 to 13; and moves on to William Shakespeare's The Tempest, the story of magical Prospero and his exile on an island, directed by Robert G. Anderson, with performances October 25 to November 3; and Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris's sort-of-sequel to A Raisin in the Sun, on stage in the Studio Theatre from November 7 to 27, directed by Lisa Gaye Dixon.

In 2014, you can look for a new collaborative work called The Sullivan Project with theatre artists from across the country coming together under the artistic leadership of Daniel Sullivan, the Tony Award winning director, with performances scheduled from February 5 to 9; Theresa Rebeck's O Beautiful, about where American teenagers find themselves right now, including issues like guns, date rape, abortion and bullies, directed by Gina Rattan from April 3 to 13; and finally, a second Shakespeare piece, this time Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Kathleen Conlin for the Colwell Playhouse, with performances beginning April 10 and ending April 19.

The School of Music Opera Program Series has one choice in the fall -- Verdi's Falstaff in November -- and one in the spring, in Orpheus in the Underworld, with music by Jaques Offenbach, in March.

Other highlights of the schedule include An Evening with Audra McDonald on September 21, featuring the Tony, Emmy and Grammy Award winning singer performing songs by Stephen Sondheim, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein and other favorite composers; the Irish Chamber Orchestra, with "living legend" Sir James Galway and Lady Jeanne Galway, on November 7; a theatre piece called Chocolate Woman Dreams the Milky Way, from First Nations playwright and performer Monique Mojica, on November 20 and 21; the Moscow Festival Ballet bringing Giselle, Cinderella and Swan Lake to the Tryon Festival Theatre in January; a semi-staged version of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado on March 14 with conductor Ian Hobson and Sinfonia da Camera; pianist Peter Nero bringing the American Songbook to the Foellinger Great Hall on April 12, and Nathan and Julie Gunn and Friends, with star baritone Nathan Gunn, his wife Julie at the piano, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and violinist Stefan Milenkovich.

But those are just my choices. You can peruse the calendar yourself, choose by category of performances, or look at the different series that make up the season. Lots to see and choose from!

And you can order all the tickets you want on Saturday, August 10, starting at 10 am. The box office number is 217-333-6280 if you prefer to chat with someone about the options.

Backstage Jocelyn O'Roarke Mysteries Now in Ebook Form

Who doesn't love a good theater mystery? Ngaio Marsh used to write them, Josephine Tey had an actor character or two, Daily Telegraph theatre critic Charles Spencer did a few books with (what else) a theatre critic as his sleuth, and there is currently a cottage industry in mysteries set around and about Shakespeare. Occasionally even a community theater mystery will show up on this side of the pond.

The biggest mystery about Jane Dentinger's Jocelyn O'Roarke series has always been why they weren't runaway hits with the reading public. They're smart and funny, with intriguing murder plots to untangle as well as inside info on the life of a New York theater artist. And Josh O'Roarke, actress, director, general theatrical dogsbody, makes a dandy sleuth.

These days, print copies of Dentinger's books are available only used. But there's good news for fas of backstage mysteries. As of today, all six of Dentinger's Jocelyn O'Roarke mysteries are available in ebook form from Open Road Media. You can read about Dentinger herself here, with details about her past as an actress, mystery bookshop manager and editor. And then, of course, read the books.

If it were me, I'd read them in order, from Murder on Cue, where Jocelyn understudies a big star in a new play, only to find herself a suspect when the star turns up dead, to my favorite in the series, Who Dropped Peter Pan? wherein the chubby, middle-aged artistic director who cast himself as Peter Pan at a prominent theater gets unceremoniously dumped into the audience during a preview performance. Oops. Who dropped Peter Pan, indeed.

I love Dentinger's prose style and the way she weaves theatrical fact into her fiction, as well as sends up real actors and directors and writers and critics. It doesn't appear that Dentinger is going to add any more Josh O'Roarke novels to this small collection of six, but I suppose we'll have to make do. For now, the announcement that Murder on Cue, First Hit of the Season, Death Mask, Dead Pan, The Queen Is Dead and Who Dropped Peter Pan? are available as ebooks is very good news.

You can order them directly from Open Road Media at the links in the previous paragraph, or find Kindle editions through Amazon.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC Lights Up Prairie Fire

How long have we gone in Bloomington-Normal without a Sondheim show on one of our stages? Too long.

Prairie Fire Theatre is stepping in to fill that need with a new production of A Little Night Music, the waltzing, romantic and cynical musical adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's enchanting 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night. Prairie Fire's Night Music opens August 2 and runs through August 11.

In both the original Swedish film and the Sondheim/Wheeler stage musical, the story revolves around an actress named Desiree Armfeldt and her romantic life. Desiree is trying to deal with the sudden reappearance of her ex-lover, a lawyer named Fredrik Egerman, who has a much younger wife, virginal Anne, as well fend off her current lover, a military man named Carl-Magnus, who is more than a bit of a hothead. Adding complications to this love triangle -- or square, or possibly hexagon -- are a few extra folks like Fredrik's son and Carl-Magnus's wife.

In A Little Night Music, Desiree Armfeldt gets one of Sondheim's most famous, most beautiful songs -- "Send in the Clowns" -- as this story, of mismatched lovers taking a trip to the country during an endless summer night, unwinds. "Send in the Clowns" may have gotten most of the press, but the rest of Sondheim's score is equally wonderful, regretful, sweet and wry, as Desiree sings about her "Glamorous Life," her mother reminisces about her own "Liaisons," Carl-Magnus's unhappy wife Charlotte duets with Anne on "Every Day a Little Death," the company prepares for "A Weekend in the Country," and Fredrik, Anne and Fredrik's son Henrik lament whether "Now," "Later," or "Soon" is the right time to make a move.

For Prairie Fire Theatre, this "musical tapestry of comedy, affairs of the heart, and bittersweet romance" is directed by Rhys Lovell, with Cristen Susong as the delightful Desiree, Caroline McKinzie as her daughter, and Uretta Lovell as her mother, the wise and wily Madame Armfeldt who is watching out for the evening sky to "smile." Joe Penrod will play lawyer Egerman, Emily Honzel takes the role of his wife Anne, and Sean Leeds rounds out the Egerman family as his gloomy son Henrik. Bob Mangialardi will portray the martinet Count Carl-Magnus, with Lyndsay Byers as his wife Charlotte.

A Little Night Music will be performed at the Illinois Wesleyan University Memorial Center on August 2, 3 and 4 and 9, 10 and 11, with Friday and Saturday shows at 7:30 pm and Sunday matinees at 2:30 pm. You can see the entire cast list here, along with a link to buy tickets. If you prefer to reserve by phone, you can dial 309-824-3047 for reservations.

Marrying Figaro: It's LE NOZZE DI FIGARO from the Midwest Institute of Opera

To celebrate its third season in Bloomington-Normal, the Midwest Institute of Opera is offering a summer treat -- Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro -- in the concert hall at the Center for the Performing Arts on the Illinois State University campus. One cast performed Mozart's opera buffa yesterday afternoon, and a second set of principal performers will take it on tomorrow night at 7:30 pm, with conductor Joshua Greene from the Metropolitan Opera wielding the baton.

Director Beth Greenberg has chosen to set Figaro's comedy of thwarted love, counterplots and seduction in Washington DC during the 1950s, giving it a definite Mad Men style, as you can see from the poster art below.

That may look like Don Draper and his trademark draped arm, but it's really Count Almaviva, the powerful married man who is constantly chasing other women. In Le nozze di Figaro (also known as The Marriage of Figaro, which gives you a hint regarding the plot), the woman the Count has his eye on is his wife's maid, who also happens to be the fiancée of his servant Figaro. As Almaviva chases lovely Susannah, he keeps delaying her wedding to Figaro, while the servants conspire against him to get him back together with his Countess and out of their bedroom.

On Tuesday night, Karina Brazas will sing the role of Susannah, while Kyle Connor takes on Figaro and Joe Arko and Jenny Beauregard play the Count and Countess. The ensemble also includes Tom Bailey, Ellen Chew, Nicole Heinen, Elyssa LeMay, Lisa Neher, Alexandra Platos, Hannah Pristave, John Ramseyer, Stefan Riley and Kyle Schneider.

Le nozze di Figaro will be sung in Italian with English supertitles. Tickets are $10 and may be purchased at the door or at the ISU CPA box office by calling 309-438-2525.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

WTF No. 1: A Sharp New PYGMALION with Robert Sean Leonard

Heather Lind as Eliza Doolittle at the Williamstown Theatre Festival
Ah, masculine privilege. Was it ever more on display than in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, where brilliant, aristocratic Professor Henry Higgins plucks a common girl who sells flowers at Covent Garden from her lowly existence with the intent to turn her into a lady, simply to win a bet? As guttersnipe or society's darling, Eliza Doolittle is still just an artifact, a tool, a toy for Higgins to play with in order to boost his ego and show off his prowess with language. He hasn't a clue that Eliza, or any other female for that matter, has a brain or a backbone of her own. Gender, class, privilege, arrogance... Shaw's play pokes holes in all of it.

That's why My Fair Lady, the Lerner and Loewe musical version of Pygmalion, isn't altogether satisfactory, since it pastes a "happily ever after" ending onto Shaw's story, telling us that it's just fine for Eliza to get stuck bringing Henry Higgins' slippers for the rest of her life. Nicholas Martin's production of Pygmalion, which originated at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre and played at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts last week, offers a different ending, one more in keeping with Shaw's intent. As Higgins sits alone in his home, staring into space, we see a closing tableau wherein he is doomed to a life of loneliness, as Eliza marries another suitor, defiantly charting her own course. It's a very specific ending, one that smacks more of finality than fantasy, of Henry Higgins getting his comeuppance at long last.

Martin's production is elegant and wry, very smartly accomplished throughout, with a Higgins who seems younger and more attractive than most as personified by Robert Sean Leonard. His Higgins is a willful social misfit who doesn't see why he can't be rude and selfish simply because he's so very smart. Even so, it's easy to see why one might wish for this Higgins to actually get the girl, or at least to understand what an ass he's been and change his ways, as Leonard layers enough warmth under the arrogance to keep his Higgins appealing, and he and Heather Lind, a most adorable Eliza, share excellent chemistry throughout.

Lind's Eliza begins the show as more than a ragamuffin. This girl is a screamapillar, a shrieking harpy with a big mess of hair that looks like she's been sleeping under a haystack. Certainly that gives her some room to change under Higgins' and his friend Colonel Pickering's tutelage, and Lind is lovely once her Eliza gets a bath and an upscale wardrobe. The scene where she painstakingly shows off her new look and new accent to Henry's mother and some fancy acquaintances with a tale of how her aunt was "done in" by villains who "pinched" her "new straw hat that should have come to me" is a comic highlight, and her quietly miserable post-ball appearance (where her unhappiness goes completely unnoticed by Higgins and Pickering, who are celebrating her triumph as their own) is more eloquent than all her dialogue.

Paxton Whitehead is such spot-on casting for Pickering there's never a doubt that he won't acquit himself well, while Maureen Anderman makes an excellent Mrs. Higgins, stylish yet compassionate, and Don Lee Sparks' towering Mr. Doolittle, Eliza's dad, is as funny and outrageous as he needs to be. Sparks, along with Whitehead and Leonard, is a holdover from the San Diego cast; he's one who definitely deserves his place.

Scenic designer Alexander Dodge, lighting designer Philip Rosenberg, sound designer Drew Levy and composer Mark Bennett also came with the production from the Old Globe, although costume designers Gabriel Berry and Andrea Hood are Williamstown additions. Dodge's scenery is quite elaborate and handsome, with a leather-and-wood "laboratory" for Professor Higgins that looks like he's quite the collector of esoterica, and a rather overpowering (and quite feminine) drawing room for his mother. The fussy William Morris wallpaper alone must've been a massive undertaking, although it does make it all a bit claustrophobic as the play wears on.

Costumers Berry and Hood create a puzzle of styles, seemingly moving the action through decades of the early 20th century as Eliza's journey takes her from an Edwardian flower girl in a mashed hat to a capable career woman in a sweater and long skirt that wouldn't have looked out of place in the 30s.

This Pygmalion is a pretty satisfying package, all told, with a more interesting Higgins than most, a lovely new Eliza, and the quintessential Pickering. Williamstown sends shows to Broadway and off-Broadway fairly often, although there hasn't been any word that this particular production is going anywhere. I'd like to see it happen.

By George Bernard Shaw

Williamstown Theatre Festival

Director: Nicholas Martin
Scenic Designer: Alexander Dodge
Costume Designers: Gabriel Berry and Andrea Hood
Lighting Designer: Philip Rosenberg
Sound Designer: Drew Levy
Original Music by Mark Bennett
Hair and Wig Design by Cookie Jordan
Dialect and Vocal Coach: Deborah Hecht
Production Stage Manager: Jillian M. Oliver

Cast: Maureen Anderman, Patricia Conolly, Maura Hooper, Robert Sean Leonard, Heather Lind, Dan O'Brien, Caitlin O'Connell, Federico Rodriguez, Alex Siefe, Ariana Seigel, Don Lee Sparks, Paxton Whitehead.

July 17-27, 2013

Friday, July 26, 2013

Joss Whedon's MUCH ADO Arrives in Style at Champaign's Art Theater

With Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly, writer/director/producer Joss Whedon found himself on the receiving end of a major following, with a world of fans attuned to his particular style of storytelling. He parlayed that following into big-screen, big-budget gigs like the comic-book, superhero mega-palooza The Avengers, but even so, left a little time left over to produce a pretty little Much Ado About Nothing in his own back yard.

Let's just say his Much Ado couldn't be less like The Avengers if it tried. Black and white, witty and wise, playful and elegant, this Much Ado shows just what a filmmaker and his friends can do if they chart their own course and play their own games, without a whole lot of Hollywood interference or the pressure of a huge budget. And even though we had to wait a bit longer than most areas of the country to get Much Ado, we've got it now, on the big screen at Champaign's historic Art Theater Co-op. It's scheduled to stick around at least through August 1, which isn't a whole lot of time. But it's enough if you're motivated. And you should be.

Whedon's cast features many of his favorite actors, people who've appeared in previous projects like Buffy and Dollhouse and even The Avengers and Cabin in the Woods, people like Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, the Beatrice and Benedick of this Much Ado, along with Reed Diamond, Nathan Fillion, Clark Gregg, Ashley Johnson, Fran Kranz, Tom Lenk, Sean Maher and Jillian Morgese. They're comfortable with Whedon and with each other, and it shows, as the film unspools with easy charm and a lovely sense of humor.

It may've been shot on a small budget in 12 days spent in Whedon's own house and gardens, but the film looks sensational, especially the big party scene with some aerial work above the pool, a spooky candlelit walk, and the eavesdropping sections when Beatrice and Benedick are tricked by their friends. Acker and Denisof make appealing, attractive romantic foils, and they both do very well with Shakespeare's amusing dialogue, framed against the nooks and crannies of Whedon's home, as designed by his architect-wife Kai Cole.

With the action set as a house party in Southern California, visiting Don Pedro (a wonderful Reed Diamond) becomes a jet-setting bigwig of some unidentified fame, followed by paparazzi, and his evil half-brother Don John (Sean Maher) is a miscreant in handcuffs, allowed freedom (and a girlfriend of sorts, as Conrade is turned into a slinky woman played by Riki Lindhome) for the duration of the visit. There's wine and spirits at every turn, which both shows the lifestyle host Leonato (Clark Gregg) enjoys as well as explains some of the trickier plot turns. Of course everybody believes nonsense -- they're all sloshed!

In this scenario, Dogberry and Verges are the security force keeping an eye on Leonato's estate, tripping over each other and the villains and their nefarious plots almost by accident. With cheap poly suits and sunglasses they don in unison to give them the patina of authority, Castle's Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk, Ronald the intern from Cabin the Woods, make for a sweet, goofy team of enforcers.

I didn't enjoy Fran Kranz's Claudio all that much, but it's always tough to identify with the young swain who gets so bent out of shape about his beloved's perceived lack of virginity. Jillian Morgese is fine as Hero, the girl in question, and Claudio's horror is a little more understandable considering it's not just that he thinks he saw her having sex with somebody else, but he saw it on the night before their wedding and she was wearing her wedding dress when she did the deed. We know it wasn't really her, and all the talk of virginity is still very misplaced, but the timing and the picture he sees are pretty nasty in this staging of the event. Of course, that doesn't explain why he shows up for the wedding and goes for public shaming (in the ugliest possible terms) instead of a simple buh-bye note or something, but... That's the way Shakespeare wrote it and I suppose we're stuck with it.

The strength of this filmed Much Ado lies in its sophisticated romantic style, which seems very now at the same time it brings to life classic characters of Beatrice and Benedick and their complicated relationship. With Acker and Denisof in the roles, it's easy to fall under their spell of lovers "too wise to woo peaceably."

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Heartland Theatre Announces Cast for Douglas Post's EARTH AND SKY

Director Don LaCasse has announced his cast for the next show on Heartland Theatre's schedule, Chicago playwright Douglas Post's neo-noir thriller Earth and Sky. LaCasse's cast includes Karen Hazen, Richard Jensen and Dean Brown, all of whom appeared in Middletown, Heartland's last show of last season, along with Colleen Longo and Harold Chapman, who were in Time Stands Still last winter, as well as Dave Lemmon, Todd Wineburner, Michelle Kaiden and Kevin Paul Wickart.

Post's play involves Sara McKeon, a poet and librarian, who is told that David, the man she loves, is not at all what she believed. Instead, detectives Kersnowski and Weber paint a picture of a career criminal, someone involved in rape and murder. Sara doesn't believe them. How can she? But how can she distrust information that comes straight from the police?

Her journey to uncover the truth takes her into her own past with David as well as the present without him, as she is thrown into an urban landscape populated with liars, thieves and unreliable witnesses. Ultimately, Sara must decide what and who she can trust in a world turned upside-down.

For Heartland, Karen Hazen will play Sara, while Richard Jensen will take the role of David, who once seemed to be the perfect man but now is transformed into something very different. Harold Chapman and Dave Lemmon have been cast as the two policemen who drop the bomb into Sara's life, with Colleen Longo as a librarian colleague of Sara's and Dean Brown, Todd Wineburner, Michelle Kaiden and Kevin Paul Wickart as the shadowy characters Sara questions and encounters in her search for the truth. 

Performances of Earth and Sky begin September 12 and continue through the 29th. For information on the play, click here or here. To see the schedule of performances, click here.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Cast of BOARDWALK EMPIRE Gets Even Better (with Jeffrey Wright!)

If you haven't seen the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, you've been missing out. Who doesn't like the mix of Prohibition-era gangsters, politics, corruption and Atlantic City diversions that fuel the Boardwalk plotlines? The art direction alone is worth the HBO subscription. If that's not enough, there's the late 20s/early 30s fashion, which is stellar, and the show's cast, which is nothing short of amazing, including Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon, Michael Kenneth Williams, Stephen Root, James Cromwell, Dana Ivey, Danny Burstein, Rebecca Luker and Bobby Cannavale in the first three seasons. Since big boss Nucky Thompson's empire extends to entertainment, we've also gotten to see representations of famous performers of the era, with Stephen DeRosa as comedian Eddie Cantor, Erin McGrath as future Broadway star Edith Day, A'lisa Miles as blues singer Mamie Smith, Remy Auberjonois as Hardeen (a magician and escape artist like his older brother Harry Houdini), and Kathy Brier as "Red Hot Mama" Sophie Tucker. All recreated for your viewing (and theater history) pleasure!

Although the show has won twelve Emmy Awards in previous years, it was passed over in some big categories in this year's Emmy nominations. But it did snare nods for director Tim Van Patten and for Cannavale, who played vicious mobster Gyp Rosetti, in the Outstanding Supporting Actor category, along with eight other nominations.

So where else has Boardwalk Empire shown up? Well, when I was in Massachusetts for the Williamstown Theatre Festival last week, I saw a production of Pygmalion with Heather Lind, Boardwalk Empire's Katy, as Eliza Doolittle.

And here in town, actress Nisi Sturgis, who plays Nucky Thompson's sister-in-law June, is appearing in juicy roles (Lady Macbeth, Luciana and Gertrude Fail) in all three shows at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.

Plus, of course, a sneak peek at Boardwalk Empire's upcoming season has been making the rounds, with one of my favorite actors, the fabulous Jeffrey Wright, showing up and looking irresistible. Wright played Belize in the Broadway and HBO versions of Angels in America, for which he won a Tony, a Drama Desk Award, an Emmy and a Golden Globe. He also appeared in Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, Top Dog/Underdog and A Free Man of Color on Broadway and Basquiat, Casino Royale, The Ides of March, Broken City, and the upcoming Hunger Games: Catching Fire on the silver screen.

On the Boardwalk, Wright will be playing a man named Dr. Arnold Narcisse, a powerful crime boss who claims to be a doctor of divinity and has the rackets in Harlem firmly in his grip. Narcisse now challenges Nucky Thompson's reign as Atlantic City kingpin.

Office Space's Ron Livingston will also join the cast this season, playing a Lothario with his eye on a different part of Nucky's empire.

You can see Wright and Livingston in the Season 4 trailer at HBO's site for the show. Watch out for Wright's silky, dangerous take on "What shall we do, Mr. Thompson? What shall we do?" that portends some ominous days ahead in Atlantic City. It doesn't get better than Jeffrey Wright. And even though I am not a big fan of on-screen violence (of which Boardwalk Empire has plenty), I will definitely be tuning in for Mr. Wright and his Dr. Narcisse.

Community Players Announces the Cast of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE

Community Players has announced the cast of their upcoming production of Joseph Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace, to be directed by Tom Smith. The 1939 comedy, involving a pair of sweetly homicidal ladies who poison elderly gentlemen, is scheduled to open September 6, with performances continuing through September 15.

Carol Scott and Tricia Stiller will lead the cast as Abby and Martha Brewster, the charming aunts who have a habit of sending gents off to a big elderberry wine party in the sky. Players' favorite Brian Artman has been cast as their one sane nephew, Mortimer, with Nathan Bottorff as Jonathan, the bad one, and Joel Baldwin as Teddy, the loopy one. Thom Rakestraw takes on the role of Dr. Einstein, Jonathan's nefarious partner in crime (and plastic surgery).

All of those characters come together when drama critic Mortimer returns home to tell his aunts about his fiancee Elaine, the daughter of the clergyman next door, but quickly discovers what his aunts have been up to. He also comes face-to-new-face with his creepy brother Jonathan and third brother Teddy, who thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt and charges up the stairs as if they're San Juan Hill.

For Community Players, Hannah Kerns will play Elaine, with Andy Cary as her proper dad and Spencer Powell, Jeremy Stiller, Alan Wilson and Jim Woodward in the parade of cops who march through the Brewster household.

Watch this space for more information and to purchase tickets when the show gets a little closer.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Winners/Losers/Emmy Nominations

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences isn't exactly known for its taste or insight when it comes to handing out awards. Let's just recap: Four consecutive awards for John Larroquette for playing a one-note role as a creepy lawyer on Night Court, four more for Rhea Perlman as the snotty waitress on Cheers, 142 nominations for Saturday Night Live over the years, including a lot of bad years, The Andy Griffith Show's Don Knotts taking home five Emmys while Andy Griffith wasn't even nominated, and Jon Cryer winning in the Lead Actor in a Comedy category for Two and a Half Men last year. Meanwhile, Steve Carell was shut out for his role on The Office, and Jason Alexander got nominated seven times as George Costanza on Seinfeld and never won.

What that means is that the Emmy Awards are fickle and strange, the Academy loves some shows and some performers far more and far longer than seems reasonable, and it's really hard to predict what new ways they can find to go off track.

This year, when the nominations were announced, you would be justified if you asked where the heck Monica Potter (Parenthood), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Games of Thrones), Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife) and Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) were, not to mention a few missing writing nominations for Mad Men and the omission of a comedy series nod for Parks and Recreation. And why in the word is American Horror Story: Asylum classified as a movie or miniseries?

I like Connie Britton and I love Nashville, but she definitely doesn't belong with the likes of Kerry Washington (Scandal), Robin Wright (House of Cards) and Claire Danes (Homeland), especially when the aforementioned Margulies is nowhere to be found. I like Dan Bucatinsky and I love Scandal, but they nominated Bucatinsky and not Jeff Perry, who is absolutely sensational as scheming Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene? And, seriously, no Nick Offerman? Again?

It's nice to see recognition for the Netflix series House of Cards and a little love for Netflix's Arrested Development, with the Academy apparently deciding that made-for-the-net-and-never-broadcast-on-TV series like those do indeed count as television. Now all we need is for the Daytime Emmys to work the same way and include made-for-the-net-and-then-later-shown-on-TV series like the new versions of All My Children and One Life to Live. I'll believe it when I see it.

Here are some of the major categories and how the nominations play out:

Outstanding Comedy Series
The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
Girls (HBO)
Louie (FX)
Modern Family (ABC)
30 Rock (NBC)
Veep (HBO)

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series
Laura Dern (Enlightened)
Lena Dunham (Girls)
Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie)
Tina Fey (30 Rock)
Amy Poehler (Parks And Recreation)
Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep)

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series
Alec Baldwin (30 Rock)
Jason Bateman (Arrested Development)
Don Cheadle (House of Lies)
Louis C.K. (Louie)
Matt LeBlanc (Episodes)
Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory)

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
Mayim Bialik (The Big Bang Theory)
Julie Bowen (Modern Family)
Anna Chlumsky (Veep)
Jane Krakowski (30 Rock)
Jane Lynch (Glee)
Sofia Vergara (Modern Family)
Merritt Wever (Nurse Jackie)

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series
Ty Burrell (Modern Family)
Adam Driver (Girls)
Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family
Bill Hader (Saturday Night Live)
Tony Hale (Veep)
Ed O'Neill (Modern Family)

Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series 
Girls, "On All Fours," directed by Lena Dunham
Glee, "Diva," directed by Paris Barclay
Louie, "New Year's Eve," directed by Louis C.K.
Modern Family, "Arrested," directed by Gail Mancuso
30 Rock, "Hogcock!," directed by Beth McCarthy-Miller
30 Rock, "Last Lunch," directed by Beth McCarthy-Miller

Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series
Episodes, "Episode 209, written by David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik
Louie, "Daddy's Girlfriend (Part 1),"  story and teleplay by Louis C.K., story by Pamela Adlon
The Office, "Finale," written by Greg Daniels
30 Rock, "Hogcock!," written by Jack Burditt and Robert Carlock
30 Rock, "Last Lunch," written by Tina Fey and Tracey Wigfield


Outstanding Drama Series
Breaking Bad (AMC)
Downton Abbey (PBS)
Game Of Thrones (HBO)
Homeland (Showtime)
House Of Cards (Netflix)
Mad Men (AMC) 

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series
Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey)
Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad)
Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom)
Jon Hamm (Mad Men)
Damian Lewis (Homeland)
Kevin Spacey (House of Cards)

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
Connie Britton (Nashville)
Claire Danes (Homeland)
Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey)
Vera Farmiga (Bates Motel)
Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men)
Kerry Washington (Scandal)
Robin Wright (House of Cards)

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
Jonathan Banks (Breaking Bad)
Bobby Cannavale (Boardwalk Empire)
Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)
Peter Dinklage (Game Of Thrones)
Mandy Patinkin (Homeland)
Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad)

Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Drama Series
Morena Baccarin (Homeland)
Christine Baranski (The Good Wife)
Emilia Clarke (Game Of Thrones)
Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad)
Christina Hendricks (Mad Men)
Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey)

Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series 
Boardwalk Empire, "Margate Sands," directed by Tim Van Patten
Breaking Bad, "Gliding Over All," directed by Michelle MacLaren
Downton Abbey, "Episode 4," directed by Jeremy Webb
Homeland, "Q&A," directed by Linka Glatter
House Of Cards, "Chapter 1," directed by David Fincher

Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series 
Breaking Bad, "Dead Freight," written by George Mastras
Breaking Bad, "Say My Name," written byThomas Schnauz
Downton Abbey, "Episode 4," written by Julian Fellowes
Game Of Thrones, "The Rains Of Castamere," written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Homeland, " Q&A," written by Henry Bromell 


Outstanding Miniseries or Movie
American Horror Story: Asylum (FX)
Behind The Candelabra (HBO)
The Bible (HISTORY)
Phil Spector (HBO)
Political Animals (USA)
Top Of The Lake (Sundance)

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie
Jessica Lange (American Horror Story: Asylum)
Laura Linney (The Big C: Hereafter)
Helen Mirren (Phil Spector)
Elisabeth Moss (Top Of The Lake)
Sigourney Weaver (Political Animals)

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie
Benedict Cumberbatch (Parade's End)
Matt Damon (Behind The Candelabra)
Michael Douglas (Behind The Candelabra)
Toby Jones (The Girl)
Al Pacino (Phil Spector)

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie
Scott Bakula (Behind The Candelabra
James Cromwell (American Horror Story: Asylum)
John Benjamin Hickey (The Big C: Hereafter)
Peter Mullan (Top Of The Lake)
Zachary Quinto (American Horror Story: Asylum)

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie
Ellen Burstyn (Political Animals)
Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story: Asylum)
Charlotte Rampling (Restless)
Imelda Staunton (The Girl)
Alfre Woodard (Steel Magnolias)


Outstanding Reality-Competition Program
The Amazing Race (CBS)
Dancing with the Stars (ABC)
Project Runway (Lifetime)
So You Think You Can Dance (Fox)
Top Chef (Bravo)
The Voice (NBC)


Outstanding Variety Series
The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central)
Jimmy Kimmel Live (ABC)
Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (NBC)
Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO)
Saturday Night Live (NBC)


The Emmy Awards will be handed out on CBS on Sunday, September 22 at 7 pm Central. To see the list of complete nominations, click here. I wouldn't bet against anything from Homeland, Julia Louis-Dreyfus or The Amazing Race

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Upcoming Auditions: ARSENIC AND OLD LACE at Community Players

The Community Players production of Joseph Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace, the madcap classic about two sweet old ladies knocking off lonely old men with poisoned elderberry wine, is looking for a few good men. And women, of course. Somebody has to play murderous Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha! Still, Arsenic and Old Lace features eleven roles for men and only three for women, so wannabe Arsenic and Old Lacers have a better shot if they're male. Auditions will be held at Community Players Theatre on July 22 and 23.

Besides Abby and Martha Brewster, the other roles up for grabs are their nephew Mortimer, a drama critic on the rise who has no idea at the onset about his aunts' homicidal tendencies; Elaine, the girl he loves; Mortimer's brother Teddy, who thinks he is Theodore Roosevelt building the Panama Canal in the basement; Jonathan, another brother, who bears a strong resemblance to Boris Karloff and is generally creepy; Dr. Einstein, Jonathan's henchman and plastic surgeon; Reverend Harper, the man next door who happens to be Elaine's father; friendly neighborhood policemen Brophy, Klein, Rooney and O'Hara; Mr. Gibbs, a potential elderberry wine casualty; and Mr. Witherspoon, the superintendant of Happy Dale Sanitarium.

In the original Broadway production that ran for 1444 performances, Jean Adair and Josephine Hull played the aunts, while Boris Karloff himself played Jonathan. Who better to resemble Boris Karloff than the man himself? A bit of trivia: German director and actor Eric von Stroheim replaced Karloff for several performances in 1942.

The show closed on Broadway in June, 1944, with the movie version hard on its heels. When the film was released in September, audiences saw Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster, alongside Raymond Massey as Jonathan and Peter Lorre as his nefarious pal Dr. Einstein. Adair, Hull and John Alexander, as Teddy, reprised their Broadway roles on film, and Frank Capra directed.

Broadway saw a revival of the show in 1986, with a host of TV favorites filling out the cast. All in the Family's Jean Stapleton played Aunt Abby, while Polly Holliday, Flo from Alice, was Martha, and Barney Miller's Abe Vigoda was Jonathan.

Tom Smith will direct Arsenic and Old Lace for Community Players, assisted by Joe Strupek. They note that auditioners must be at least 18 years old and will be asked to read from the script. They need eleven men to play characters starting at age 20 and three women, one to play Elaine, who should be at least 20, and the others to play the aunts, who should be at least 40. Questions should be directed to Tom Smith at

Performances of the show, the first in Community Players' fall season, will take place from September 5 to 15, 2013.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Upcoming Auditions: EARTH AND SKY at Heartland Theatre

Heartland Theatre has announced it is holding auditions from 7 to 9:30 pm on July 21 and 22 for its September production of Earth and Sky, Douglas Post's "poetic thriller" that asks disturbing questions about how well we know the people we think we love, who we trust, and when it is right and important to keep asking questions.

For Heartland, director Don LaCasse will work with local actress and poet Kathleen Kirk as dramaturg. Kirk appeared in a Chicago production of the play some years ago in the lead role of Sara, a librarian and part-time poet who finds herself disappearing down a rabbit hole of murder, lies and betrayal after the death of her fiance. Sara thought David was the perfect man, but the police are telling her a very different story. Who does she believe? How much can she trust her own instincts when everything she thought she knew has been ripped away?

Other versions of Earth and Sky featured powerhouse actresses like Annette Bening, Kate Burton and Martha Lavey as Sara, so it will be very interesting to see who nabs the role here.

LaCasse will be looking for three women and six men to play the following characters:

SARA McKEON, late 20s
DAVID AMES, early 30s
JOYCE LAZLO, early 20s
BILLY HART, early 30s
MARIE DEFARIA, early 30s

Keep in mind that the ages listed are those specified in Post's script, but the director may choose to be flexible with his cast's actual ages, depending on how they read and interact with each other.

To get an idea of what the play is about, you can visit its page at Dramatists Play Service or see some pages from the script at Google Books.

Performances of the play are scheduled for September 12 to 29, with specific dates and times here.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

FAILURE: A LOVE STORY Is Something Special at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

I can't speak for other theater critics or reviewers, but I can say this about myself: Every time I take my seat before a performance, I hope it will be something special. Isn't that what theatre is all about? Isn't that why we go? I hope this show, this performance, will be special enough to transport me into the world of the play, introduce me to fascinating new characters, take me somewhere I haven't been before, broaden my horizons, spin me around and back again...

And last Sunday night at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival's production of Philip Dawkins' Failure: A Love Story, that's exactly what happened.

This production, directed by Andrew Park, artistic director of Chicago's Quest Theatre Ensemble, is full of puppets, credited to Puppet Designer/Fabricator Luke Verkamp. Because they are front and center in Park's interpretation of the piece, because they feature prominently in the show's advertising, you may think that the magic of Failure: A Love Story comes from the puppets. And that is absolutely not the case.

Amanda Catania appears in Failure: A Love Story
Yes, some of them are very fetching (the dog, the snake, the parrots). Yes, some are kind of creepy (the children, like the one seen in the photo above). But I realized, about halfway through, that I had stopped noticing the puppets. I was smitten with the story, with the characters, with Dawkins' eccentric, touching, incredibly human vision of how we move through life and how we spend our time together before we get to the end. Remember that bit about the end. At least twice, Dawkins' characters remind us, "Just because something ends, that don't mean it wasn't a great success." As theatregoers, we're used to that. You can put a movie back in the DVD player and crank it up again, but theatre... Well, whether it was a great success or not, it's over when it's over, living on only in your memory. And that's very much like the beautiful Fail sisters, whose stories end before they should.

As it happens, the recurring themes in Failure are about endings and about time. The Fail parents, Henry and Marietta, run a clock shop. They sell every kind of clock and tell every kind of time. They also have a strange run-in with Fate in the shape of the Eastland Riverboat Disaster of 1915, falling straight into their own mortal end, and then it's up to their daughters, Gertude, Jenny June and Nelly, and their adopted son, John N., to run the Fail Clock Works as Chicago moves into the 1920s. Especially Gertrude, who is practical and no-nonsense and knows her way around a clock. Jenny June is more interested in swimming across Lake Michigan, while Nelly is simply brimming over with laughter and joy and life, a girl whose first word was "Yes" and her second, "Hooray!" John N. is more of an odd bird. Or fish, since he was pulled from the Chicago River one day by Jenny June. He likes animals, but doesn't do so well with people, and he dreams of being a veterinarian.

And that's the Fail family, completed by a series of pets adopted by John N. and a whole lot of clocks. In the Illinois Shakespeare Festival production, we see the Grandfather Clock, the Cuckoo Clock, the Swiss Clock, and more, all personified by actors wearing clock headgear. We also see John N.'s snake, birds, dog, cat and a passel of rodents, again personified by actors and puppets.

Into that menagerie and Clock Works walks one Mortimer Mortimer, who falls in love with Nelly within a moment or two. But none of the Fail sisters is long for this world, and the play and its narrator tell the tale of how their minutes tick away, filled with songs and dances, jokes and tragedies, love and loss, and poignant reflections on what life amounts to, in the end. "Just because something ends, that don't mean it wasn't a great success."

There are a series of lovely performances at the heart of this version of the play, with all three sisters -- Eva Balistrieri as Nelly, Amanda Catania as Jenny June and Nisi Sturgis as Gertude -- especially vibrant and charming. Jordan Coughtry is handsome, flashy and fizzy as their collective suitor, the swain Mortimer Mortimer, and Cody Proctor builds a compelling, appealing character around sad, sweet John N. They all have to jump into the play's quirky rhythms and make it work, and they do that very, very well.

Thomas Anthony Quinn does fine work from beginning to end as the Chorus, the narrator who lays the whole story out for us and works his way into our hearts, David Hathway is practically a one-man band as the musical personification of the Gramophone, and Andrew Voss does a great job with an emotionally jarring scene about a dog.

I also enjoyed Lauren Lowell's enchanting costumes, Fred M. Duer's up-and-down set design, and Sarah EC Maines' lighting design, especially when we got to the birds.

Honestly, I loved this show. I can't speak for you, but for me, Dawkins' script, the bright, bouncy performances, imaginative staging and sense of whimsy were absolutely perfect.

I will say that the dog scene and the scariness of some of the puppets, as well as the omnipresence of death around every corner, lead me to believe that the Festival is doing the show a disservice by marketing it to children. Just a thought for parents -- no matter how it's marketed, even if it is full of puppets, I really don't think it's a children's show.

By Philip Dawkins

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
The Theatre at Ewing

Director: Andrew Park
Costume Designer: Lauren M. Lowell
Scenic Designer: Fred M. Duer
Lighting Designer: Sarah EC Maines
Sound Designer/Composer: Shannon O'Neill
Puppet Designer/Fabricator: Luke Verkamp
Stage Manager: Adam Fox
Vocal Coach: Krista Scott

Cast: Thomas Anthony Quinn, Eva Balistrieri, Amanda Catania, Nisi Sturgis, David Hathway, Kraig Kelsey, Wendy Robie, Kelsey Bunner, Allison Sokolowski, Joe Faifer, David Fisch, Preston "Wigasi" Brant, Drew Mills, Carlos Kmet, Neal Moeller, Cydney D. Moody, Lindsay Smiling, Michele Stine, Andrew Voss, Martin Hanna, Arif Yampolsky, Fiona Stephens, Cody Proctor, Jordan Coughtry.

Running time: 2:20, including one 15-minute intermission.

Remaining performances: July 17, 19, 21, 25, 27, 28 and 31; August 2, 7 and 10.

For ticket information, click here

Aaron Sorkin's NEWSROOM Is Back for Season 2

After hitting it big on film with screenplays for Moneyball and The Social Network, West Wing writer/producer Aaron Sorkin returned to television last season with a show on HBO called The Newsroom. With all the trademark Sorkin bits and pieces (amazing cast involved in pediconferences, pontification, references to musical comedy, insults directed at bloggers or internet users, smart, snappy, rapid-fire dialogue, brilliant men who know everything, mostly stupid women who make a mess of their lives... The Huffington Post's Maureen Ryan has a whole bingo card full of 'em), The Newsroom took on the world of TV news, including an anchor, producers, reporters, interns and the brass at a mythical network called Atlantis Cable News, or ACN. Its episodes go back in time, to show us how ACN covers stories we already know about, like the night Osama Bin Laden was killed, or the Gulf of Mexico oil spill from British Petroleum.

Jeff Daniels leads the cast as Will McAvoy, ACN anchor and rock star, who screwed up when he refused to say (during a filmed moment) that America is the greatest country in the world or to fall in line with knee-jerk patriotism/jingoistic games. The show got mediocre reviews and mediocre ratings, although it was good enough for HBO to bring back. And back it is.

This season, McAvoy is once again in trouble, but it has to do with a story his crew went after, a story about secret US military actions abroad and something called Operation Genoa. Not Geneva, Genoa. That's important. The season premiere, called "First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Lawyers," taken from a Shakespeare quote I happen to love, opens when new cast member Marcia Gay Harden, who starred opposite Daniels on Broadway in God of Carnage, comes aboard as -- you guessed it -- a lawyer hired to pull ACN's fat out of the fire over the way they handled -- or mishandled -- this incendiary Genoa story. Daniels and Harden are perfect examples of the kind of fabulous actors Sorkin casts, projecting intelligence and tossing around zippy verbiage like nobody's business. Others of note in the cast last season included Sam Waterston, John Gallagher, Jr., Allison Pill and Thomas Sadowski, all of whom have impressive stage resumes, with Jane Fonda as the CEO of the network's parent company and Hope Davis, another God of Carnage veteran, as a tabloid reporter. Aside from Harden, Grace Gummer, who happens to be Meryl Streep's daughter and a fine actress on her own, and another film and stage actor, Hamish Linklater, have been added for Season 2.

So the good news is that ratings are up slightly and reviews are a bit improved, as well, at least according to HuffPo. Other positives: I love Marcia Gay Harden and her character actually has a brain, the Genoa thing is fairly interesting and it doesn't involve McAvoy being too much of a dick, we got to see Jane Fonda and Sam Waterston right off the top, Dev Patel ha a story of his own, and the romantic hijinks weren't too cloying, with Sadowski's Don Keefer and Pill's Maggie Jordan splitting during this episode, while Gallagher's Jim, who is carrying a torch for Maggie, took an assignment out of town following Mitt Romney's presidential campaign so he could get away from the Maggie-and-Don schmoopfest.

On the negative side: The jumps in time were both confusing and dull as presented, interrupting the flow of the story and meaning I zoned out a few times and had to watch the show twice to figure out what was happening, Allison Pill's new hairdo is disturbing and we don't know if Jim even knows Maggie and Don broke up or about the YouTube video that broke them up, and Olivia Munn's supposedly bright Sloan Sabbith is still incredibly annoying, but not as annoying as poor Emily Mortimer's McKenzie McHale, who has been seriously wimpy, clumsy and unappealing since the get-go. It's the whole woman thing. Their characters are paper-thin, with quirks that come off messy and sad instead of adorable, which is what I think Sorkin intended.

Oh well. I like the pace of the dialogue and the skill of the performers enough to keep tuning in, at least for now. Let's hope Marcia Gay Harden's character elevates the whole thing, okay?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Bloody MACBETH Goes Terribly Right at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Has there ever been a time when Shakespeare's Macbeth fell out of fashion? Just within the past few years, the Scottish lord and his murderous ways have been everywhere. A BBC/Great Performances Macbeth with Patrick Stewart in the title role and Kate Fleetwood as his ferocious Lady M was a powerful presence on US televisions in 2010; Sleep No More, an interactive Macbeth experience from England's Punchdrunk company, has had audiences wandering over five floors of what is supposedly an abandoned hotel in New York's Chelsea district since March of 2011; Alan Cumming currently has a one-man Macbeth on Broadway; and Kenneth Branagh just launched his own Macbeth, with Alex Kingston (Doctor Who, ER) as his Lady, at the Manchester International Festival.

In our own area, a "backwards" Macbeth made an impact at U of I in 2010, when director Robert G. Anderson put the audience on the stage and the dark, destructive action of the play on the apron and in the seats of Krannert Center's Colwell Playhouse. In Bloomington, Macbeth was on the schedule back in 1978 when the Illinois Shakespeare Festival first opened its doors, and it's come back to the Festival stage in 1983, 1992 and 2005.

The 2013 incarnation of Macbeth for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival is directed by Robert Quinlan, who returns to Bloomington-Normal, where he received his MFA in directing from Illinois State University. Quinlan's take on Macbeth is highly visual, vivid and dramatic, befitting this bloody tale of ambition gone terribly wrong. With falling banners, a thin crack of light, a twist of a doll's head, or spidery scarlet trails on Lady Macbeth's white gown, Quinlan and his designers ratchet up the theatrical tension.

Neal Moeller (Center) and Nisi Sturgis (R) as Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth
This Macbeth unspools a little slowly at the onset, but by the time darkness has settled over Ewing Manor, the action has kicked into high gear. Neal Moeller and Nisi Sturgis show good chemistry and interplay as Lord and Lady Macbeth, with his descent into paranoia and hers into madness given just the right dramatic punch.

Jordan Coughtry's Banquo, Lindsay Smiling's Macduff and Amanda Catania's Lady Macduff also make a good impression, while the two youngest actors in the cast -- 5th grader Will Lovell as Fleance, Banquo's son, and 4th grader Tré Moore as the elder Macduff child -- offer fine performances and add a great deal to the emotional toll of the play.

Fred M. Duer's simple set transforms a throne to a banquet table before your eyes, helping the haunted dinner scene come alive, while Sarah EC Maines' striking lighting design, Sandy Childers' terrific modern-meets-medieval costumes and Shannon O'Neill's atmospheric sound design combine to excellent effect.

All in all, this is a stylish, smart Macbeth that packs a punch. Especially when it gets dark.

By William Shakespeare

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
The Theatre at Ewing

Director: Robert Quinlan
Costume Designer: Sandy Childers
Scenic Designer: Fred M. Duer
Lighting Designer: Sarah EC Maines
Sound Designer/Composer: Shannon O'Neill
Fight Choreographer: Paul Dennhardt
Stage Manager: Jayson T. Waddell
Vocal Coach: Krista Scott

Cast: Eva Balistrieri, Preston "Wigasi" Brant, Amanda Catania, Jordan Coughtry, Joe Faifer, David Fisch, Martin Hanna, David Hathway, Kraig Kelsey, Carlos Kmet, Will Lovell, Drew Mills, Neal Moeller, Tré Moore, Cody Proctor, Thomas Anthony Quinn, Kevin Rich, Wendy Robie, Lindsay Smiling, Michele Stine, Nisi Sturgis, Andrew Voss and Arif Yampolsky.

Running time: 2:20, including one 15-minute intermission.

Remaining performances: July 12, 16, 20, 23, 26, 28 and 31; August 4, 6 and 8.

For ticket information, click here.

Please note that the performance of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival production of Macbeth which I attended was a preview, which the Festival treats as a final dress rehearsal. Over the years, I have at times written about productions based on dress rehearsals or preview performances if there was some reason I was unable to attend the official opening night. As with any production, my remarks reflect the specific performance I saw, which in this case was a preview.

Monday, July 8, 2013

COMEDY OF ERRORS Is Fast on Its Feet at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Kevin Rich (L) and Jordan Coughtry appear in The Comedy of Errors
The last time we saw Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors on stage at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, one actor played each of the play's two sets of twins. If that sounds confusing, let's just say that Shakespeare wrote the play to include two sets of identical twins who were separated at birth. The twins not only look exactly alike, but bear the same names. And they've never seen each other because during a storm at sea, Dad, one Egeon, split them up, so that one of his twin sons was lashed to Mom and one to him, along with one tiny twin servant child attached to each son. Fast forward to the current day, when we find two masters named Antipholus, one who has been living in Ephesus and one in Syracuse, and two servants named Dromio, with one Dromio in Ephesus, attached to that Antipholus, and the other in Syracuse, attached to that Antipholus. And in those two sets of identical twins lies most of the play's Comedy as everybody mistakes one for the other and comedic hijinks ensue involving gold, dinner, doors, infidelity and knocking about. The Errors, or the mistaken identities, furnish the farce.

Most productions use four actors to fill those roles, employing costumes, wigs, makeup, fake noses, what have you, to make the Antipholi and the Dromii resemble each other. In 2006, when director Chuck Ney helmed Comedy for the ISF, he used a single actor to play both separated-at-birth masters and a single actor to play both separated-at-birth servants. As I said in my review at the time, "The biggest for the actors playing Antipholus and Dromio, who have to race on and off stage and remember to change their headgear and accessories as well as their personae every time they re-enter. The Comedy of Errors is already a fast-paced farce, but singling Antipholus and Dromio turns it into a foot race."

The current Illinois Shakespeare Festival production, under the direction of Michael Cotey, goes for a middle ground. In this production, opening July 12, Cody Proctor and Jordan Coughtry appear as Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, respectively, while Kevin Rich stands alone, playing both Dromios. Yes, that's right. The last time we saw Comedy of Errors here, there were two actors covering the two sets of twins, the norm is four, and this time, there are three, just to mix things up.

Rich, who is also the Artistic Director of the Festival, is skilled and confident switching hats between Dromio 1 and Dromio 2, mining the comedy quite nicely, and actually building the laughs based on the fact that he is just one while his characters are two. Letting us in on the trick and acknowledging the absurdity makes the material even funnier.

Over in Antipholus territory, Coughtry and Proctor navigate their individual twins just fine. The only problem is that the actors don't really look that much alike. Comedy of Errors already requires audience members to not just step over the threshold of disbelief, but take a flying leap, what with all the coincidences at every turn. For the mistaken identity premise to fly, it would be nice if there were headgear or at least hairdos to help out the actors, so that the characters don't seem quite so silly when they mix up who's who.

Based on Fred M. Duer's bright Kismet scenic design and Juja Rivera Ramirez's slinky Thief of Bagdad costumes, this Comedy of Errors seems to be going for an Old Hollywood take on an Arab setting. Douglas Fairbanks comes to mind as a model for Coughtry's Antipholus, while I kept thinking of Miriam Hopkins when I looked at Nisi Sturgis's charming Luciana. Sturgis gives Luciana a more specific personality than the character usually gets, which serves to enliven her part of the plot. I also enjoyed the inclusion of vendors (Kelsey Bunner, Martin Hanna, Michele Stine and Arif Yampolsky, each manning a wagon) set around the edges of the action to provide sound effects and double takes.

Coming in at just two hours, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival Comedy of Errors is fast on its feet and a definite audience-pleaser.

By William Shakespeare

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
The Theatre at Ewing

Director: Michael Cotey
Costume Designer: Juja Rivera Ramirez
Scenic Designer: Fred M. Duer
Lighting Designer: Sarah EC Maines
Sound Designer: Shannon O'Neill
Stage Manager: Sarah G. Chanis
Vocal Coach: Krista Scott

Cast: David Hathway, Carlos Kmet, Kelsey Bunner, Martin Hanna, Michele Stine, Arif Yampolsky, Preston "Wigasi" Brant, Eva Balistrieri, Cydney D. Moody, Amanda Catania, Cody Proctor, Thomas Anthiny Quinn, Kraig Kelsey, David Fisch, Lindsay Smiling, Joe Faifer, Allison Sokolowski, Jordan Coughtry, Kevin Rich, Andrew Voss, Nisi Sturgis and Wendy Robie.

Running time: 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

Remaining performances: July 12, 16, 20, 23, 26, 28 and 31; August 4, 6 and 8.

For ticket information, click here.

Please note that the performance of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival production of The Comedy of Errors which I attended was a preview, which the Festival treats as a final dress rehearsal. Over the years, I have at times written about productions based on dress rehearsals or preview performances if there was some reason I was unable to attend the official opening night. As with any production, my remarks reflect the specific performance I saw, which in this case was a preview.