Friday, August 30, 2013

The Rest of the Story (IWU Theatre 2013-14)

We've already discussed the McPherson Theatre selections coming up in the 2013-14 season from Illinois Wesleyan University's School of Theatre Arts. But what about the lab theatre choices? The E. Melba Johnson Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre houses some of IWU's most adventurous shows, plus it sometimes offers students the chance to direct, too.

This season, the School of Theatre Arts is pulling some surprising -- or at least unfamiliar -- shows out of the trunk for the Kirkpatrick space. Prepare to see new and different shows you've never seen before!

Treasure, a play about a political sex scandal in America's Revolutionary War era, will be directed by guest artist Michael Cotey, who also directed The Comedy of Errors for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival over the summer. Playwright Tim Slover won a pair of prizes for Treasure, which looks at Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and his conflicts between fidelity, desire, aspiration and honor. Hamilton's personal indiscretions resulted in blackmail and corruption, as the husband of the woman he was dallying with tried to make a buck off the new Secretary of the Treasury. Speculation, stealing from soldiers, cheating... How can you salvage a marriage or a political future when you're involved in something so sordid? The poster you see here comes from a 2008 University of Utah production of the play. IWU's Treasure will open October 31 and finish up November 2, 2013.

George F. Walker's Problem Child, directed by BFA Acting senior Kate Fitzgerald, is due to take the stage from March 3 to 5, 2014. It's part of Walker's 1997 six-play series set at the seedy Suburban Motel. In this comedy, lowlifes RJ and Denise are living in a nasty motel room while trying to clean up their acts enough to get their kid back. They are awaiting a visit from a social worker they hope will decide they can be parents again, but things have a way of going wrong when you're as desperate as Denise and reality-TV-addicted as RJ and Denise. They also have the small issue of a Drano-drinking maintenance man who just may pass out drunk on their floor. The image shown here came from a University of British Columbia production of two of the Suburban Motel plays. You can read more about Walker and that UBC version of Problem Child here.

You may remember actress Patricia Wettig from her time on TV's thirtysomething or, more recently, Brothers & Sisters, where she played the "other woman" Holly Harper. Aside from acting, Wettig has also dipped into playwriting. In fact, she earned an MFA in playwriting from Smith College before she began her acting career. Her 2010 play F2M examines issues of gender, class, identity and family, as a freshman college student named Lucy begins dating Parker, a transgender F2M (female-to-male) fellow student. Parker is the child of Hollywood celebrities, while Lucy hails from Ohio and her mom is a hairdresser. But both sets of parents are coming to town for Parents Weekend, which means some explaining of who's who and what's what is looming on the horizon. Adam Walleser, a senior in IWU's Music Theatre program, will direct F2M for performances at the EMJK Lab Theatre from May 22 to 2.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Chicago Shakes Announces Who'll Be Playing CYRANO and Mama Rose

Chicago Shakespeare Theater announced its 2013-14 schedule back in March -- from Cyrano de Bergerac to The Merry Wives of Windsor, Gypsy, Road Show and Henry V -- but now we have the all-important news of who'll be wearing Cyrano's nose and who'll be taking Rose's Turn.

Harry Groener
So, first off... Cyrano! Harry Groener, the Broadway star who appeared on television as the evil Mayor on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and on Chicago stages in The March at Steppenwolf and The Madness of George III at Chicago Shakes, will play the role of the smart, romantic hero with the gigantic nose. Groener will be directed by Penny Metropulis, who also took the reins on George III, for which Groener won the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Actor.

The CST press release quotes Artistic Director Barbara Gaines as saying, "We have long wanted to bring this beautiful play to our audiences at Chicago Shakespeare, but we hadn’t found our Cyrano or the director to realize the complexity of this character. That is, until we experienced the chemistry and the artistry of Harry Groener and Penny Metropulos." Gaines continues, "Cyrano is a role of a lifetime and a story that touches every heart. The stars have aligned to reunite this powerhouse team who, when combined with a first rate cast and the award-winning team of designers, will breathe fresh life into this masterwork."

Cyrano de Bergerac is scheduled for Chicago Shakes' Courtyard Theater from September 24 to November 10. You can check out the rest of the cast here -- it includes Wendy Robie, who appeared in our very own Illinois Shakespeare Festival last summer.

Louise Pitre
Gypsy is the first of two Stephen Sondheim-related shows on the schedule, as Sondheim's Road Show, which premiered at the Goodman Theatre back in 2003 as Bounce, follows in the Spring. And Associate Artistic Director Gary Griffin will direct both for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Although we don't have a complete cast for Gypsy yet, the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones has gone on the record to say that Louise Pitre, who originated the role of Donna in Mamma Mia! on Broadway, will play Rose, who may just be the pushiest stage mother of all time.

The Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim score for Gypsy includes barnburners like "Everything's Coming Up Roses" and "Let Me Entertain You," with Styne's music and Sondheim's lyrics fueling Arthur Laurent's unsentimental book about how entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee rose above her mother's ambition for younger sister Dainty June to forge a career of her own. Famous Roses on Broadway have included Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters and Patti Lupone, while Rosalind Russell did the movie and Bette Midler was an excellent TV-movie Rose.

How will Pitre do? We'll have to wait till February 2014 to find out. That's opening night for this Gypsy, scheduled to run through March 23 in the Courtyard Theater.

For information on the whole 13-14 lineup, click here.

Monday, August 26, 2013

IWU Fall Theatre Season Starts with A CLASS ACT in October

IWU's MacPherson Theatre in Fall 2012
Have you been wondering what's playing this year from Illinois Wesleyan's School of Theatre Arts? I'm happy to say I have some of the answers.

A Class Act, a musical inspired by the life and work of composer Edward Kleban, will be first up for IWU's singers, dancers and actors, with Associate Professor Jean MacFarland Kerr directing and choreographing. You can read more about Kleban in the Masterworks Broadway article linked under his name, but he is probably best known as the lyricist of A Chorus Line. After Kleban passed away at the age of 48, his longtime girlfriend Linda Kline, to whom he'd left all the rights to his work, decided to celebrate his story by constructing a semi-biographical show around a trunkload of his music. She collaborated in that effort with Lonny Price, and the result was A Class Act, which was produced off-Broadway in 2000 and on Broadway in 2001. Illinois Wesleyan's production is scheduled for performances in McPherson Theatre from October 8 to 13, linking up with IWU Homecoming events.

Noel Coward's classic comedy Hay Fever, directed by Professor Nancy Loitz, is up next at McPherson Theatre, with performances from November 19 to 24. Coward wrote Hay Fever in 1924, and it is very much in keeping with the droll, whimsical Coward oeuvre of that time, focusing on the eccentric, self-centered, artsy members of the Bliss family as they gather at their country estate for a weekend. Tennis, anyone? Actually, this party is more about charades and other over-the-top dramatic games that leave their guests nonplussed. But the Blisses will have a great time, as they always do. Broadway casts for Hay Fever have included Laura Hope Crews (1925), Constance Collier (1931), Shirley Booth and Sam Waterston (1970), and Rosemary Harris and Campbell Scott (1985).

IWU's first offering in 2014 will be 12 Ophelias (a play with Broken Songs), Caridad Svich's Ophelia-centered take that jumps off from Hamlet. Assistant Professor Dani Snyder-Young will direct 12 Ophelias at McPherson Theatre from February 11 to 16. As Svich bends the story, Ophelia (and a chorus of guides also called Ophelia) rise from the murky water in Hamlet to contend with somewhat recognizable characters called Rude Boy, R and G, H and... Gertrude. This story's Hamlet (Rude Boy) is still best pals with H (Horatio) but Gertrude is now heading up a bordello. Svich's "mirrored world of word-scraps and cold sex" represents a fresh and unexpected way to look at Shakespeare.

And The Drowsy Chaperone, set to be performed from April 8 to 13, is a fresh and unexpected way to look at the Broadway musical. Assistant Professor Tom Quinn will take the reins of this irresistible romp, centered around a man who immerses himself in the cast recording of his favorite old show, something called The Drowsy Chaperone, until the whole thing starts to come alive right there in his tiny apartment. Bob Martin and Don McKellar wrote the Drowsy book, while Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison contributed its fizzy, infectious music and lyrics. Visiting Professor Saundra DeAthos-Meers will act as musical director, while Jessica Waltrip will choreograph the rambunctious dance numbers. The 2006 Broadway version of The Drowsy Chaperone won Tony Awards for its book, score, set and costumes, and for featured actress Beth Leavel. A movie version is reportedly in the works starring Oscar (and Tony and Emmy) winner Geoffrey Rush as the narrator.

In addition to the above slate of shows destined for McPherson Theatre, there will be three shows in the E. Melba Kirkpatrick Laboratory Theatre, with Treasure playing October 31 to November 2 and two additional shows not yet announced, scheduled for March 3 to 5 and May 22 to 24. A play workshop on April 26 and the Music Theatre Scene Study Showcase on April 19, directed by Associate Professor Scott Susong, finish up the semester.

Last year's shows were still up last time I looked, but you can expect all the inside dope on the 2013-14 season to appear on the Illinois Wesleyan Theatre box office page.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Starry Dramatists Guild Panel Chats on Adaptation and Translation

The Dramatists Guild has been having its annual conference in Chicago this week, with all kinds of nifty panels and discussions devoted to the business and creative aspects of playwriting, composing, and creating librettos and lyrics. On Thursday, Douglas Post, the playwright behind Heartland Theatre's next production, Earth and Sky, introduced keynote speaker Martha Lavey, Steppenwolf's Artistic Director, and that was followed by sessions with notable people like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Theresa Rebeck and Jeffrey Sweet.

One of the most interesting panels involved adaptation and/or translation, or working with someone else's material from another medium or language to create something for the stage. The panelists were Carol Hall, composer and lyricist for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and lyricist for A Christmas Memory, a musical adaptation of a Truman Capote story; Winnie Holzman, who adapted Gregory Maguire's novel into the megamusical Wicked; David Ives, the playwright behind All in the Timing as well recent adaptations like The Liar, The School for Lies and Is He Dead? and the book doctor (surgeon?) for 33 different Encores! musicals; and Doug Wright, who wrote the play I Am My Own Wife and the books for musicals as disparate as Grey Gardens, The Little Mermaid and Hands on a Hardbody. That's quite a panel!

Luckily for those of us not in attendance at the Dramatists Guild conference, Broadway World is sharing the wealth by offering video of that panel that anyone can look at. Click here to see and hear the wit and wisdom of Hall, Holzman, Ives and Wright. It's jam-packed with good information (like the fact that it's better to adapt the work of someone who is dead, and maybe easier if you don't like the source material all that much) as well as a glimpse into the personalities of some different people who've all managed to make adaptations work.

And if, like me, you are now bound and determined to get to next year's conference, you can see information on joining the Dramatists Guild here.

Saturday, August 24, 2013


Lori Adams
Fresh off her off-Broadway triumph with Deanna Jent's Falling, director Lori Adams returns to the Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts at the helm of the lovely and lyrical Dancing at Lughnasa. This memory play, written by Brian Friel,  is set in his native Ireland, and its original production took place at the famed Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1990.

Friel is sometimes called the Irish Chekhov, and Dancing at Lughnasa bears that out in some respects. Instead of Chekhov's Three Sisters, Friel focuses on five sisters, the Mundys, who live together in a small cottage outside the fictional town of Ballybeg in County Donegal. We see Kate, Maggie, Agnes, Rose and Christina Mundy from the point of view of Michael, Christina's son, as he shares his memories of his mother and her sisters in August, 1936. Their lives are complicated not just by the murky romantic possibilities of that moment in their lives, but also by their difficult financial situation, and the return of their brother -- much changed and very unwell -- after 25 years of mission work as a priest in Uganda.

Dancing at Lughnasa is poignant, sweet and sad, as we learn about the sisters' dreams and disappointments, and how Friel's stand-in, Michael, was affected by it all. The play has been honored with numerous awards, including the 1991 Olivier Award in London and the 1992 Tony Award for Best Play for its Broadway production. You can see the Broadway poster at right.

The 1998 film version, featuring Meryl Streep as oldest sister Kate, also made an impression, winning an Irish Film and Television Award for Brid Brennan, who played Agnes. Brennan had previously won the Tony for the same role in the Broadway production.

Lori Adams has cast MFA actor Robert Johnson as Michael, our narrator who steps back into his youth, with fellow graduate actors Faith Servant and Natalie Blackman as Agnes and Rose, and Ronald Roman as Gerry, Michael's father and the man who rides back into Christina's life with a flourish. Fiona Stephens and Jaimie Taylor will play Kate and Maggie, the taskmaster and the joker in the family, respectively, while Elsa Torner will take on Christina, Michael's mother.

Performances of Dancing at Lughnasa are scheduled for November 1 to 9 at the ISU Center for the Performing Arts. You can click that link under the title to see the Department of Theatre and Dance's entire 2013-14 slate of productions as well as ticket information.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Everything's Coming Up OZ

Why at this particular moment in time everybody wants to do Wizard of Oz projects (or rip-offs), I have no idea. Whatever the reason, it's happening. Expect to see a lot of green in your future.

Okay, so first there were the L. Frank Baum books, with "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" published in 1900. Numerous stage versions, musical and not, trailed along after, before the boffo 1939 movie with Judy Garland singing about going "Over the Rainbow" and enough repeats on television to secure images of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion in the minds of generations of children. The Wiz, a more urban, contemporary musical version of the story, showed up on Broadway in 1974, followed by a fairly lame movie version of the show starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. After that came a nasty piece of work, a 1985 Disney movie called Return to Oz, and then "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West," a fresh take on the material from the Witch's point of view by author Gregory Maguire, which spawned a Broadway musical of its own, the insanely popular Wicked. "Over the Rainbow" gave way to "Ease on Down the Road" which gave it up for "Defying Gravity" in the 21st century.

But that was only the tip of the Emerald City iceberg. Zooey Deschanel and Alan Cumming headlined a 2007 TV miniseries on the SyFy Channel called Tin Man that turned Dorothy in DG, a small-town waitress, and Oz into a scary place called the O.Z., or Outer Zone. In case you've already forgotten, James Franco tried the Wizard's hat on for size in Oz the Great and Powerful earlier this year.

If you follow ABC's Once Upon a Time closely, you may know that its creators fully expect to bring in a spare Wizard or Wicked Witch at some point, what with showing Flying Monkeys in the storybook that started their show and an emerald land somewhere in the Mad Hatter's hat.

As OUAT showrunners Horowitz and Kitsis debate when to punch their ticket for the Yellow Brick Road, CBS, NBC and SyFy (again!) are launching Oz projects of their own, with various odd riffs on Emerald City and its denizens.

NBC has plans for a drama called Emerald City, which Deadline describes as "a dark reimagining of the classic tale of Oz in the vein of Game Of Thrones, drawing upon stories from Baum’s original 14 books."

There's more specific info out there on SyFy's Warriors of Oz, a post-apocalyptic saga with no Dorothy, but instead a male warrior type person who travels from current Earth to the future, where he has to work with three brawny battlers called Heartless, Brainless and Coward. Gee, I wonder who those guys are supposed to be? Heartless, Brainless and Coward will be helping Our Hero save the world from an evil Wizard. Even the villain isn't allowed to be female in this one. Yikes.

Dorothy, from CBS, at least has the girl back in the center of the action, but it's being described as a medical drama. Carl Beverly and Sarah Timberman, the executive producers of Elementary, the modern New York version of Sherlock Holmes, are behind this odd idea, where Dorothy is apparently going to start work at (or be admitted to) some sort of Green Hospital where she runs into, oh, I don't know, a cardiologist, a brain surgeon, and an Old Lion of a hospital administrator who is terribly afraid of malpractice suits? Or maybe they're all mental patients who think they're in Oz and the Wicked Witch is the Nurse Ratched of the piece? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

But that should certainly represent enough Oz projects for even the most devoted Wizard fan.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Switching on SEND THE LIGHT for ISU

Just about two years ago, I wrote a piece on Send the Light, an original musical from Don Shandrow (book) and Phil Shaw (music and lyrics) that tells the story of how electrical cooperatives brought power to farms and small towns. At that time, Send the Light was produced as a "One Shot Deal" under the auspices of Shandrow's New Route Theatre.

Send the Light started back in 2007, with a production that played at the McLean County Museum of History as well as in front of electric cooperative associations in Illinois and Missouri. Half of the four-person cast from 2007, including local actors Rhys Lovell and Irene Taylor, returned for the 2011 one-night performance.

Now Shandrow and Shaw are bringing a new version of Send the Light -- with a much expanded cast -- to Westhoff Theatre at Illinois State University, for performances from October 17 to 26. ISU faculty members Connie de Veer and Michael Vetere III are co-directing, with a cast that blends community members and students in a (get ready for it) cooperative venture!

Rather than the four-member cast from 07 and 11, this Send the Light will feature somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 actors when all is said and done. From the Illinois State University Department of Theatre, actors Peter Balser, Laura Bouxsein, Molly Briggs, Nicholas Brown, Levi Ellis, Chelsea Gulbransen, Tommy Howie, Jake Kazmierczak, Alyssa Klein, Kate Klemchuk, Janice Kulka, Sage McCracken, Brandon Miller, Drew Mills, Paulina Pahl, Lauren Partch, Andrew Piechota, Andrew Rogalny, Jr., and David Zallis have been cast. They will be working with local actors Clark Abraham, Leola Bellamy, Holly Klass, Wes Melton, Susan Palmer, George Peterson-Karlan and Terri Ryburn, whose names you may recognize from performances with Heartland Theatre and its Young at Heartland troupe as well as Illinois Voices Theatre, New Route Theatre, and other area events.

Send the Light is a community outreach project with Cornbelt Energy. For all the details, click here to see the play's Facebook event page.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Phone Rings, Door Chimes, in Comes Cornstock's COMPANY

Stephen Sondheim's Company was most recently seen in Bloomington-Normal when the New York Philharmonic's semi-staged version of this seminal musical was filmed and released to screens all over the country for our hometown viewing enjoyment. That one was something of an all-star event, with Neil Patrick Harris as Bobby, the bachelor at the center of a circle of married friends who love him dearly but want him to pair up and join their ranks. Bobby ponders that problem over the course of the play, with his 35th birthday looming and everyone he knows pretty much matched up. What does he want?

For that concert version of the show, Bobby's friends were played by familiar people like Stephen Colbert, Martha Plimpton, Jon Cryer and Patti Lupone, and he got Christina Hendricks, Joan from TV's Mad Men, as one of his love interests.

This week Peoria's Cornstock Theatre opens its own Company, complete with phones ringing and doors chiming, as well as "all those good and crazy people," the married (or soon-to-be married) friends who surround Bobby. Nate Downs will direct for Cornstock, with a cast that includes Todd Michael Cook as Bobby and Kate Erin Kennedy, Mariah Thornton and Lindsey Cheney as the three women he considers as partners. His "good and crazy" friends, the ones who demonstrate the difficulties as well as the joys in living the married life, will be played by Lori and George Maxedon as Sarah and Harry, the couple who enjoys fighting together; Lisa Jeans Warner and Dave Schick as seemingly perfect pair Susan and Peter, who may be splitting up; Carolyn Briggs-Gaul and Joel Shoemaker as hip and happening Jenny and David; Liz Jockisch and Chris Adams-Wenger as Amy and Paul, who are supposed to be headed for the altar; and Cheri Beever and Jerry Johnson as older and more cynical Joanne and Larry. Joanne is the one who blasts out "The Ladies Who Lunch," that caustic anthem to women of a certain age and situation, while Amy has "Not Getting Married,"a hilarious and adorable patter song about a bride with very chilly feet.

Other notable songs in Sondheim's score include "You Could Drive a Person Crazy," a bouncy little ditty sung by the three women Bobby has dated, the very New Yorkish "Another Hundred People," and "Being Alive," an epic, pin-you-in-your-seat piece about whether it's better to be alone or in a relationship. As the song tells us, the other person you share your life with may be "Someone to need you too much, someone to know you too well, someone to pull you up short, and put you through hell." Or perhaps all the emotional upheaval associated with having a partner may be just what you need to feel truly alive. That's Bobby's journey during Company, and it's the depth and complexity of the question that makes Company such a strong piece of musical theatre.

Cornstock Theatre's Company runs from August 23 to 31 with performances at 7:30 pm. You can see ticket information here or here or call the box office directly at 309-676-2196.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Who's Got the Bitch of Living in ISU's SPRING AWAKENING

The musical Spring Awakening, the first show on Illinois State University's fall schedule, has been cast. Spring Awakening is a gritty, grim, yet intensely alive sort of musical, with Duncan Sheik's pulsing alt-rock music fueling the teen angst in Steven Sater's book and lyrics. Together, they tell the story of just how dangerous it is to keep kids in the dark about their own bodies and sexual urges. Spring Awakening the musical is based on an 1891 play by German playwright Frank Wedekind, and that play was performed at ISU as part of the 2007-08 season under the title Spring's Awakening.

This time out, director Matthew Scott Campbell will be working with Colin Lawrence and Gloria Petrelli as Melchior and Wendla, the confused pair of teenagers trying to navigate a sexually repressive society, and Carlos Kmet as Moritz, Melchior's best friend, who is withering under the pressures of puberty and adolescence.

Those roles were filled by Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele and John Gallagher, Jr., in the original Broadway production that won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Featured Actor (for Gallagher), Best Book, Best Score, Best Direction, Best Orchestrations, Best Choreography and Best Lighting Design. The show's steam-punk-meets-rock-and-roll spirit made it a sensation, putting Groff, Michele and Gallagher on the road to stardom. You can get a hint of that rebellious look and energy in the photo below from the Broadway production. Duncan Sheik's unrelenting beat and Sater's twisted, profane lyrics, showcased in knickers, skinny ties, strange hairdos and black socks against a bare-bones set, gave Wedekind's old story a real kick.

For ISU, the Spring Awakening cast will include Joey Banks, Christine Duris, Nina Ganet, Josh Gouskos, Bethany Hart, Ali Lockenvitz, Anne Olson, Gabriella Rivera, Mitchell Schaeflein, Nico Tangorra, Colin Trevino-Odell, and Abby Vombrack, in performances September 27 to October 5 in the Illinois State University Center for the Performing Arts.

Click here for ticket information. Tickets for Spring Awakening are already available at Ticketmaster, and you will be able to get info and tickets for all the fall shows through the CPA box office after August 26.

Friday, August 16, 2013

My Favorite Movies, the Anniversary Edition

A Facebook game, wherein one is assigned a specific year and then chooses one's "favorite" -- as opposed to the best or most artistic or most virtuous -- movies from those released that year, has been making the rounds. I was assigned 1979 when the game came to me, and I chose Manhattan and The Return of the Secaucus Seven at the top of my own personal list. Today, in honor of my 33rd wedding anniversary, I decided to pick a Best of 80 list, not because my husband and I necessarily went to the movies a lot when we were planning our wedding, but because, well, the films we saw and the culture that was happening around us helped define who we were. And mulling over a list like this takes you right back to where you were then. It's uncanny.

I don't think I saw all of these in 1980, mind you. Some I picked up later and some didn't resonate till I was a bit older. And, as with my 79 list, I tend not to go for the big blockbusters, the action thrillers, the horror or the gross-out pics. You are free to pick your own lists, but here's mine for 1980, the year we got married.

1. Melvin and Howard (dir: Jonathan Demme). This sweet and funny take on Melvin Dummar, played by Paul LeMat, the real-life nobody who claimed that he'd given a ride to Howard Hughes once and the oddball billionaire left him $156 million dollars in his will, put Jonathan Demme and Mary Steenburgen, who won as Oscar for her role as a flaky stripper, on the map. You don't hear a lot about Melvin and Howard anymore. More's the pity. It's pretty much the perfect movie of its time, when cynicism, sentiment and wry humor were fueling our creative imaginations, before "greed is good" and excess in all things became the national mantra and the bywords of the 80s.

2. The Stunt Man (dir: Richard Rush). The Stunt Man was clearly Richard Rush's major moment in the sun -- he even did a documentary about making The Stunt Man 20 years later -- as well as a tour de force for Peter O'Toole as a Machiavellian, mysteriously sinister director who pulled a conflicted Viet Nam vet, played by Steve Railsback, into a crazy world where the line between movies and reality blurred, overlapped and crisscrossed. There are all kinds of tricks and turns in The Stunt Man, a movie that still fascinates me.

3. Stardust Memories (dir: Woody Allen). This is the one where people (and even aliens from outer space) tell Sandy Bates (the Woody Allen character) they prefer his earlier, funnier movies, as he attends a career retrospective and muses on his life and film choices. Along with the usual bevvy of beauties (Marie-Christine Barrault, Jessica Harper, Charlotte Rampling) provided as romantic options for Allen's character, Stardust Memories offers an introspective, darkly comic tone, Gordon Willis's beautiful and beautifully sharp black-and-white cinematography, and a fabulous soundtrack, including "Easy to Love," "Just One of Those Things," "Moonlight Serenade," and, of course, "Stardust." Say what you will about Woody, but he certainly knows what music to pick to create a mood.

4. Used Cars (dir: Robert Zemeckis). Used Cars is probably one movie too early for Zemeckis fans. He became a big thing with Romancing the Stone in 1984 and Back to the Future in 1985. But Used Cars and its scruffy charm put him on the right road, that's for sure. Kurt Russell was the only star, but both Squiggy (David L. Lander) and Lenny (Michael McKean) are in the background, and the kids who pretty much served as Zemeckis's rep company -- Wendie Jo Sperber and Marc McClure -- are there, too. Used Cars doesn't try to be art. It's just unassuming, clever and fun.

5. Kagemusha (dir: Akira Kurosawa). Kurosawa was 70 when he made Kagemusha, a sort of Prince and the Pauper story that cuts deeply into what it means to be a warrior, a thief, a leader, or an honorable man. The kagemusha, or double of the warlord Shingen, never even gets a name. He looks exactly like Shingen, who is dying, and so he stands in to ward off rivals to Shingen's throne. And it is that impersonation that suddenly makes him worthy of attention, power and loyalty. He changes on the outside to be what he needs to be to hold the mantle of power. But what about on the inside? Kagemusha pairs sweeping, epic battles with very small, intimate scenes inside the castle, displaying all of Kurosawa's power as a filmmaker as it poses its difficult questions of class and birth and belonging.

6. The Blues Brothers (dir: John Landis). For awhile there in the summer of 1980, we were going to see The Blues Brothers every Friday night. I don't honestly remember why. It was just our movie and our Friday night thing to do. I don't think it holds up all that well as a piece of filmmaking, but it so captures where we were in 1980 that I had to include it. Oh, and it was filmed in and around Chicago, including a gas station on Route 59 that I used to drive by all the time. I guess that made it special. We still refer to how much we hate Illinois Nazis, the mission from God, fried chicken and dry white toast, both kinds of music (country and Western) and Orange Whip. All the time. I guess that means The Blues Brothers stuck with us.

7. Popeye (dir: Robert Altman). The source material -- Popeye the Sailor Man, the squinty spinach-eater from cartoons -- paired with Robin Williams and Robert Altman sounds decidedly odd, and this movie was not a hit when it came out. It's not a hit now, either, as far as I know. But its unrelentingly quirky tone, Williams' ability to lose himself in the role of Popeye, the eye-popping production design by Wolf Kroeger, and the three-dimensional portraits of characters like Olive Oyl (Shelley Duvall) and Wimpy (Paul Dooley) make it a really fine piece of work, if you ask me.

8. Atlantic City (dir: Louis Malle). It's weird for a French director to make a film that feels as American as Atlantic City, but there you are. Starring Burt Lancaster, a star from Hollywood's Golden Age, and a luminous Susan Sarandon, just starting to break out, Atlantic City is about age, decay, disappointment and dreams. There are gangsters and casinos here, but it's really the American dream on display. Like the other directors on this list, Malle creates a complete world for his movie. Malle's Atlantic City doesn't necessarily make a pretty world, but a complete one.

9. The Long Good Friday (dir: John Mackenzie). I don't generally go for gangster movies, but The Long Good Friday is more of a character study. The English mobster with a whole lot of trouble on his hands is played by Bob Hoskins, a wonderful actor who always makes his material seem like more than it is, and his mistress is played by Helen Mirren. Bam. Hoskins and Mirren. Nobody better than that. Make no mistake, there is violence, fear and some very bad business threaded throughout The Long Good Friday, things that normally send me the other direction. But not when Bob Hoskins is in the middle of it.

10. The Last Metro (dir: Francois Truffaut). There's so much going on under the surface of The Last Metro that it's hard to describe. The plot is fairly simple: A French theatrical troupe attempts to go on during the Nazi occupation of World War II with their Jewish artistic director hiding in the basement. His wife, who is not Jewish, goes on with the show on the stage above his head, and the events of the play comment on what's happening in their marriage as she and her co-star begin to feel an attraction. Marion, played by the breathtaking Catherine Deneuve, isn't political, she tells us. Neither is her egotistical leading man, played by Gerard Depardieu. But everything is political when you are trying to create theatre in an occupied country, when the Nazis are breathing down your neck and questioning every move you make, on stage and off.

Honorable Mention: American Gigolo, Fame, Somewhere in Time.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What's Up at Peoria Players in 2013-14

Peoria Players, the venerable theatrical institution over on the other side of the Illinois River, continues its tradition of four musicals plus two plays -- one comedy and one drama -- for their 95th season, with old favorites at every turn. Season tickets are available at the Peoria Players box office at Lakeview Park or by calling 309-688-4473.

September will see Les Misérables, directed by Connie Sinn,with performances from the 6th to the 15th, including a Wednesday show on September 11. The cast includes Charlie Brown as Jean Valjean, John Huerta as Inspector Javert, Chloe Morton as Cosette, Lindsey Pugh as Eponine, Ashley Rufus as Fantine, and Brian Witkowski as Marius. Individual tickets for Les Mis will go on sale August 26.

Next up is Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park, that classic comedy of mismatched newlyweds -- he's a straight-arrow lawyer and she's one of the original Manic Pixie Dreamgirls -- trying to make it work in a 6th-floor walkup in Greenwich Village. Director Liz Landes Reed held auditions last weekend, so cast details should be forthcoming. Performances of Barefoot in the Park are scheduled for October 4 to 13.

Meet Me in St. Louis will be Peoria Players' third show of the season and their last show in 2013. This musical, based on the film of the same name, takes place in and around the 1904 World's Fair, as various members of the Smith family deal with a possible move, love with the boy next door, and having themselves a Merry Little Christmas, if the fates allow. Look for Meet Me in St. Louis, directed by Mary Ellen Ulrich, at Peoria Players from November 8 to 17.

Oliver! will open 2014, with Bryan Blanks directing performances scheduled for February 7 to 16. The musical, with music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, is based on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, a novel about an orphan adrift in the underbelly of London in the 1830s. The musical take on young Oliver's tale, featuring songs like "Where is Love?" and "As Long as He Needs Me," opened in London's West End in 1960 before a successful Broadway run from January 1963 to November 1964 and then an Oscar-winning movie adaptation in 1968. Oliver! has never really fallen out of fashion, with an acclaimed London production in 2009 and rumors that Cameron Mackintosh will be reviving it on Broadway sometime soon.

William Gibson's The Miracle Worker, another winner of multiple Tony Awards, is the season's drama entry. For Peoria Players, director Charles Killen takes the reins of this gripping story about young Helen Keller and her relationship with her teacher, Annie Sullivan. Gibson first wrote a teleplay based on Keller's writings about her life, and then adapted that script into a full-length play for the 1959 Broadway production directed by Arthur Penn. That production earned Anne Bancroft a Best Actress Tony and young Patty Duke, who played Helen, a Theatre World Award, while the 1962 movie version scored Oscars for both actresses. Helen Keller, Annie Sullivan and The Miracle Worker will take the stage at Peoria Players from March 14 to 23, 2014.

The only new show in the bunch, Disney's Shrek the Musical, will finish up the season, with performances from May 2 to 11. The original Shrek movie was another Oscar winner (Best Animated Feature) and the subsequent Broadway musical was nominated for a pile of Tony Awards, although it won only one, for Tim Hatley's costume design. I'm betting everybody knows it's a fractured fairytale about a green ogre and his talking donkey pal, who venture away from their friendly neighborhood swamp, whereupon Shrek falls in love with a princess and complicates his life incredibly. Travis Olson and Mary Keltner will direct Shrek the Musical in Peoria.

So that's the tuneful, award-heavy line-up coming from Peoria Players. For season information, including how to order season tickets and when tickets to individual shows will be on sale, click here.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

New Harmony Project Wants Your Script to Soar

When it comes to writers' conferences and residencies, the New Harmony Project is a little different. Founded in 1986 to create an alternative to film, stage and TV scripts that sensationalize or exploit, New Harmony now brings writers together with directors, dramaturgs and actors, looking to develop and support "new works for stage, television and film that sensitively and truthfully explore the positive aspects of life."

That's their mission, and they're doing their best to stick to it. They explain, "Our participants gather each spring to create a nurturing environment for writers -- a setting free of the restrictive pressures of the professional world. In this community, every artist becomes a resource to the process of the writer. Through an intensive series of readings and rehearsals, we afford each writer the rare opportunity of having the freedom to explore ideas without the fear of failure." In fact, they bill themselves as the place "where writers' spirits soar."

The New Harmony Project is accepting submissions right now, with an October 1 deadline for any uplifting, empowering play, musical, screenplay or teleplay that has not yet been produced. Those scripts will be considered for a spot at the Spring 2014 conference in New Harmony, Indiana. And what happens then?

"At the conference, the words on the page are given life through daily script-in-hand rehearsals. Over a 14-day period, up to six works and their writers experience full development with their team of collaborators who provide as much input as necessary for the individual writer's process. The writers are supplied with the valuable opportunity of revising based not only on their own reactions to the rehearsals, but also on the constructive and nurturing feedback from their development teams. At the end of the two weeks, each script shares a final reading in front of a community of participants and supporters. In addition to these full development projects, as many as seven writers-in-residence are invited to work on projects of their own choosing and serve as an available resource to other writers at the conference. These writers are typically individuals whose body of work has garnered praise and recognition."

It's pretty much a dream scenario for any playwright with a work he or she would like to see developed. Past projects include scripts by Rebecca Gilman, Idris Goodwin, Theresa Rebeck, Robert Schenkkan, Ken Weitzman, Constance Congdon, Dan O'Brien, Y York, Jim Leonard, Warren Leight, Daisy Foote, Regina Taylor, Susan Zeder, Carlyle Brown, Tammy Ryan and Jeffrey Sweet, which gives you some idea of the breadth and depth of the New Harmony Project.

The 2013 Company is shown below, in case you'd like to look for a friend or colleague.

And remember, your submission is due October 1 for next year's New Harmony conference.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Barbara Mertz (Also Known as Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels): 1927-2013

Barbara Mertz was one of a kind and, as it happens, one of my favorite authors. And she passed away yesterday at the age of 85. Her website posted this notice today: "Barbara Mertz (aka Elizabeth Peters & Barbara Michaels) died peacefully at home early in the morning of Aug. 8, 2013. She had put up a very tough battle against cancer for over a decade, in a style worthy of Amelia. She preferred not to be fussed over, and so did not make her illness public. She died as she had told everyone she wanted to – unexpectedly, in her sleep. Shortly before her death, she had written a line to be posted on this webpage: "At 85, Elizabeth Peters (aka Barbara Michaels) is enjoying her cats, her garden, lots of chocolate, and not nearly enough gin."

I used to have a habit of running the table with authors I liked. After reading and loving one book, I would go to the library to check out each and every book by that person, frequently driving myself and the librarians crazy trying to track down obscure titles. With Barbara Mertz, the mystery and romantic suspense author who wrote as Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels, I quickly discovered that trying to read all of her books was going to be a tricky proposition. She wrote a lot of them. But the sense of humor, the intelligence and the cynical, snarky use of romance was perfect for my taste, and I persevered in trying to track down every single one.

Over the years, as her books were reprinted with different covers, that meant I might reread something I recognized from years ago and get cranky with myself for not realizing that, no, Devil May Care was not a new book, and yes, I had read it a long time ago and simply forgotten.

On the other hand, her Vicky Bliss books, featuring a fresh and funny art historian who had a thing for a bad boy/thief who popped up every once in awhile, stayed in my mind just fine, and I reread those on purpose because I enjoyed them so much. Borrower of the Night, whose title is taken from Shakespeare's Macbeth, was the first Vicky Bliss book, but it's in the second, Street of the Five Moons, that Vicky meets the divine (and devilish) John Smythe, of whom she decides, "He hath no drowning mark upon him; his complexion is perfect gallows," a quotation from The Tempest. It was that style, with a little Shakespeare or John Donne or even Charlemagne folded into her clever mysteries, that made her so perfect for me.

I discovered Mertz's Jacqueline Kirby series at a time when I was myself writing romance novels, so their send-up of that world was again perfect for me, for who I was and where I was in my life. As Mertz wrote her, Kirby was a librarian with a huge purse full of hairpins and miscellany who decided to try writing romance, which took her to a romance writers' conference and then into attempting to write a sequel for a famous historical novel. Die for Love and Naked Once More were absolutely hilarious as well as biting. And wonderful. The Malice Domestic voters agreed with me on Naked Once More, which won an Agatha Award as the Best Mystery Novel of 1989.

I didn't necessarily read the books in order, but instead whenever I found them at the library or the bookstore, or, after the advent of online booksellers, when browsing online and stumbling over something that looked new. But a third Jacqueline Kirby book, The Murders of Richard III, fell into my hands early on, just after I'd read Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time and I was interested in all things Ricardian. Mertz (writing as Elizabeth Peters for her Vicky Bliss, Jacqueline Kirky and Amelia Peabody books) had a very different tone and a very different take than Tey did, sending up the Richard III Society and its earnest rewriting of Shakespearean history as she sent Kirby to a weekend in the country that turned murderous when someone started offing guests in exactly the way Shakespeare's Richard killed people in the play. Watch out for that vat of malmsey!

It was a delightful book whichever side of the Richard III controversy you come down on, mostly because Jacqueline, like Vicky and Amelia Peabody, the Victorian Egyptologist who became Mertz's most popular sleuth, were such delightful heroines. Mertz herself was born in Canton, Illinois, in 1927. She attended the University of Chicago and studied Egyptology, famously earning a PhD by the time she was 23. The story goes that it was hard for a woman at that time to get any traction as a professional in her field, so she turned to writing, first putting out two non-fiction books about Egypt under her own name, and then working under the Barbara Michaels pseudonym, spinning scary, romantic tales with Gothic overtones and things that went bump in the night. She continued with Barbara Michaels even as the Elizabeth Peters side of things began to take off, with some very good books as late as 1999, with Shattered Silk, another of my favorites, in 1995.

With someone like Barbara Mertz, you hope she has one more Vicky Bliss or Jacqueline Kirby in her, no matter when she did the last one. But her legacy of almost 70 mysteries and suspense novels remains. Anyone want to join me in pulling out Borrower of the Night and racing through the Vicky Bliss books one more time?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Much Different MUCH ADO with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones

Joss Whedon's black-and-white home-grown Much Ado About Nothing has been the story of the summer, exciting Whedon fans and bringing a few new folks to Shakespeare's most romantic comedy. But last December, a very different Much Ado was announced, offering the prospect that Beatrice and Benedick, usually envisioned as a pair of mature lovers, would be very mature indeed. In this production for London's Old Vic, Beatrice and Benedick will be Vanessa Redgrave, 76, and James Earl Jones, 82.

In the Whedon movie, Beatrice in the form of Amy Acker was 40 years younger than Redgrave, while Benedick, played by Alexis Denisof, was a mere 35 years younger than Jones.

The age of this B & B has created some controversy, with The Guardian's Lyn Gardner deciding it was, after all, much ado about nothing, and age simply doesn't matter on stage, while the Evening Standard quoted director Mark Rylance as saying that this take on Beatrice and Benedick was right for the script, which involves "the callousness of youth and the wisdom of age."

Rylance himself has played Benedick -- when he was in his early 30s -- and Doctor Who's David Tennant and Catherine Tate took on the battling lovers in 2011, when both were in their 40s. You can see the Tennant/Tate Much Ado as preserved by Digital Theatre if you want to compare/contrast to Acker and Denisof. Or, of course, you can pop in the DVD from the 1993 movie directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, who played Benedick opposite his then-wife Emma Thompson in a sweeping, lyrical and lovely film set in Tuscany.

If you have a way to get to London between September 7 and November 23, you can try to get a ticket to this new Much Ado at the Old Vic. Based on the poster art shown above, I'm guessing that Rylance's production will set up Beatrice and Benedick's first love affair, the one that didn't end well and contributes to the tension (and the sparks) between them now, as having occurred during World War II. That would also suggest (given Redgrave and Jones' current ages) that when they meet up again, they haven't seen each for quite some time. Maybe 50 years or so. That's a big gap to hold a grudge. And since Jones is American while Redgrave is British, perhaps the back story will be that he was an American GI who simply never returned to his English girlfriend after the war. Of course, shoehorning that interpretation into Shakespeare's existing words which set the action in Messina, Italy, when Benedick (among others) celebrates after a successful battle, might be a bit tough. Surely an 80-year-old Benedick ought to be higher up the ranks by now and not out engaging in combat alongside Spanish princes. Or maybe the poster indicates it is World War II now, when the action commences, and that's an image of Hero and Claudio, the younger lovers in the piece, as they appear right this minute, as opposed to a picture of B & B in the past. It's fun to speculate, but we'll find out for sure what conceit Rylance has constructed when the show opens in September.

Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy
Redgrave and Jones have been paired for this project after performing Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy on Broadway and in London in 2010-11, a production that showed off their chemistry as well as their stage chops. If anyone can make a senior citizen Much Ado work, it's those two.

For this Old Vic production, Beth Cooke will play Hero, the sweet young thing whose honor is besmirched by evil Don John, while Lloyd Everitt will be her Claudio. James Garnon has been cast as Don Pedro, the Spanish prince mentioned above, with Danny Lee Wynter as Don John, his half-brother and the villain in the piece, and Michael Elwyn as Leonato, Hero's dad and the host to the extended party at the center of the action.

American actor Kevin Spacey has been the artistic director of the Old Vic since 2004, and he has announced he will stay in that position until 2015. Speculation continues that he will be succeeded by none other than Kenneth Branagh, the famous film Benedick, who recently played Macbeth at the Manchester International Festival opposite Alex Kingston.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What's Up at the Station in 2013-14

Urbana's Station Theatre has announced the selection of plays which will make up its upcoming 42nd season. As usual, the Celebration Company will mix old and new, musical and straight plays, provocative and experimental and tried and true.

Opening the Station's fall season will be J.T. Rogers' explosive White People, a "candid, brutally honest meditation on race and language in our culture." A play that has been well-produced all over the country, including a 2009 Off-Broadway production, White People features three characters, three decidedly white people, who reveal their feelings about race straight up. It will be directed by Joel Higgins, with performances from October 3 to 19, 2013. You can see J.T. Rogers talk about the play along with a few brief excerpts here.

That will be followed by William Inge's 1950 classic Come Back Little Sheba, directed by Tom Mitchell from the University of Illinois Department of Theatre. Come Back Little Sheba goes inside an unhappy middle-class household that gets even more unhappy when Doc, a chiropractor, and Lola, his blowsy wife, take in a pretty young boarder. Shirley Booth played the role of Lola on Broadway and in the 1952 movie, earning a Tony and an Oscar for her efforts. Her Broadway Doc, Sidney Blackmer, also won a Tony Award, but Burt Lancaster, the film version of Doc, went away empty-handed. The play was revived on Broadway in 2008, with Law & Order's S. Epatha Merkeson as Lola, Kevin Anderson as Doc, and Zoe Kazan as Marie, the young woman who upsets the fragile balance in their lives. At the Station, Come Back Little Sheba will run from November 7 to 23.

The musical Chess, with music by the male half of ABBA, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and lyrics by Tim Rice, is up next, scheduled for performances December 5 to 21. The story goes that Rice wanted to fashion a musical around the Cold War, and he chose the game of chess to frame the action after all the brouhaha surrounding Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky's World Chess Championship in 1972. Chess the musical, complete with hit pop song, "One Night in Bangkok," began as a concept album, followed by a production in London's West End in 1986. To get the show to Broadway, a book by Richard Nelson was added, but the show still didn't take off in New York, with the Imperial Theatre version only running for 68 performances. Still, Chess has kept its fan following over the years, as musical aficionados hope to find a production of this elusive and slippery show somewhere. The Actors Fund put together a special one-night performance in 2003, with an all-star cast that included Josh Groban, Sutton Foster, Norm Lewis, Adam Pascal and Raul Esparza. Mikel Matthews, Jr. will direct for the Station.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's prep-school drama Good Boys and True will open the Station's new year, with performance beginning January 23, 2014, directed by Thomas Schnarre. Good Boys and True premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre as part of its 2007-08 season that examined "what it means to be American." Aguirre-Sacasa's story involves Brandon Hardy, a golden boy at exclusive St. Joseph's prep school, and what happens to threaten his life of privilege when a video that purports to show him doing something very, very bad emerges. You'll get a better picture of  the play from Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey's intriguing notes on the play written during its production there.

Sarah Ruhl's quirky and surreal The Clean House, directed by Katie Baldwin Prosise, takes the stage next. Ruhl has become one of the freshest voices in 21st century American theatre, and The Clean House pretty much defies description. Its characters include Matilde, a young Brazilian woman who has a job as a cleaning lady but really sees herself as a stand-up comedian; Lane, her employer, who has noticed the house isn't very clean and wonders if her housekeeper is depressed; Lane's sister, Virginia, who is a compulsive-obsessive cleaner and tries to make a deal with Matilde to clean Lane's house on the sly; Charles, Lane's husband, who is cheating on her with a much older woman; and Ana, the breast cancer patient/older woman Charles is in love with. Add some apples dropped from one reality into another, the funniest joke in the world, the Jewish concept of "besheret," something like a soul mate, and a trip to Alaska to cut down a yew tree, and you have some concept of The Clean House, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won Ruhl the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize for playwriting. Look for The Clean House on stage at the Station from February 20 to March 8.

The March 27 to April 12 slot is still open, with details to be announced at some future date, but the final show of the 2013-14 season will be Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities, directed by Kat Bohannon Holley, with performances scheduled for April 24 to May 10, 2014. Baitz's play, "a taut, witty drama about an affluent California couple whose daughter has written a memoir that threatens to reveal family secrets about her dead brother," was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and its Broadway production won a Tony Award for Judith Light as Best Actress in a Featured Role. The Broadway cast also included Stockard Channing and Stacy Keach as the Wyeth parents, and Rachel Griffiths as their tell-all daughter.

If you're looking for more information, you can scan the specifics -- and check back to see what fills that March/April slot -- at the Station Theatre website.

Monday, August 5, 2013

WTF No. 2: Stoppard's HAPGOOD Takes No Prisoners

Note the woman wearing the suit in the Williamstown Theatre Festival illustration for Tom Stoppard's Hapgood shown above. She's carrying a briefcase. And the shadowy pair we see on the wall are exchanging a briefcase, as well. Briefcases, shadowy pairs, a working woman in the center of things, trying to stay one step ahead... That's what Stoppard's stylish 1988 play is all about.

Watching the play, you might first conclude it's about spies, or maybe about twins, or maybe even about the uncertainty involved in truly knowing, whether that's applied to people, physics or espionage. There are some trademark clever, dense, bewitching Stoppard speeches about Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and the Seven Bridges of Königsberg given to another character, a scientist/spy named Kerner, but it's still Hapgood, played in Williamstown by the flinty, classy and engaging Kate Burton, who forms the central question in the play. She's a female. She's a mother. Her fellow spies call her Mrs. Hapgood as a courtesy title even though she's not married, her code name is Mother, and there are definitely gender issues involved in how she is regarded by those around her. Like so many women, Hapgood is trying to balance it all, whether "it" means her job, her sex life, or her kid and his soccer practice. She's also in charge of a whole division of intelligence agents, some of whom respect her. Some keep coming on to her, making it clear they still see her as a woman foremost, whether she's the boss or not.

That was the surprise of the Williamstown production, how much it was about her as a her. Yes, Stoppard's delightful dialogue and perfectly crafted speeches do set up paradoxes and puzzles around the notion of twins and the "duality of reality," as dramaturg Christine Scarfuto puts it in her program notes. Yes, Hapgood's duality is mirrored in Kerner's duality (or possibly triality or quadrality or quintality) and in all the twin spies and all the murky masks everybody hides behind all through the play. But it still all comes back to Hapgood herself, as we hang with her through all the puzzles Stoppard sets up and pays off, wondering whether she can keep her job, keep her son, keep her lover, keep her subordinates in order, bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let all the men around her forget they are men.

At Williamstown, director Evan Yionoulis, who is herself a woman, balanced all those thorny issues with a slick, cynical, snazzy production that never let up on pace or theatrics. Everything about this Hapgood flowed beautifully, from the sharply choreographed opening scene involving briefcase drops, swimmers, towels and doors to Kerner's musings on continuous and discontinuous light, and the crosses and doublecrosses in Act II.

Kate Burton is on target throughout, and she is nicely matched by Jake Weber's world-weary Kerner, whose sad eyes and soft Russian accent make him seem the regular Joe he says he is, as well as canny, cagey and very attractive, all at once. It's a laugh line when Kerner promises us he "will be magnificent" at the end of Act I, and yet Weber actually lived up to that billing. The role of Kerner has been played by two of my favorite actors, with Roger Rees originating the part in London and in Los Angeles (the US premiere) and David Strathairn taking it in New York. I wish I'd seen both of them, but for now, filing Jake Weber's Kerner in my memory bank is just fine.

Yionoulis's cast also included Reed Birney, thoughtful and strong as Hapgood's boss, and Euan Morton, quite good as a sneaky little rat terrier who may be more than he appears. The only misstep in the cast was the young man who played Hapgood's son. The script says he's eleven, but an actor who appeared to be over 18, playing down to perhaps 16, took the role in Williamstown. I'm sure there were good reasons why nobody under twelve was available and it certainly isn't mop-top Adam Langdon's fault he got stuck trying to look young, but it significantly changes the tension surrounding the boy if he's not really a boy.

I traveled all the way to the corner of Massachusetts to see this play, one I had long hoped to get to experience. How lovely to get such a terrific production, with the ideas, the wit and the heart fully developed.

By Tom Stoppard

Williamstown Theatre Festival

Director: Evan Yionoulis
Scenic Designers: Christopher Barreca and Christopher Heilman
Costume Designer: Michael Krass
Lighting Designer: Donald Holder
Sound Designer: Alex Neumann
Original Music by Mike Yionoulis

Dialect and Vocal Coach: Deborah Hecht
Production Stage Manager: Liza Vest

Cast: Stephen Amenta, Reed Birney, Kate Burton, Nicholas Carter, David Corenswet, Brady Dowad, Philip Esposito, Adam Langdon, Euan Morton, Christian Schneider, Sathya Sridharan, Jake Weber and Victor Williams.

July 10-21, 2013